Celebration Cruise Line making move to Port of Palm Beach

After more than a decade of trying, the Port of Palm Beach finally may have landed a vacation cruise ship.

Celebration Cruise Lines plans to begin service to the Bahamas starting March 1, according to a deal port and company officials unveiled today and described as nearly complete.

Port of Palm Beach will have lured the cruise line and its one ship, the 500-cabin Bahama Celebration, away from Port Everglades, home to the world's largest cruise terminal. The deal with Celebration Cruise Line is expected to generate about $2 million annually for the Port of Palm Beach, Florida's fourth-largest port and one whose fortunes plummeted with the economic downturn.

"We have come to a point where we think we are a good match for each other," said Manny Almira, the port's executive director.

Celebration Cruise Line would be the first multi-day cruise to sail from the Port of Palm Beach since 1996, according to port officials. Cruise-to-nowhere casino ships such as the Palm Beach Princess have been the port's only cruise business since and have been far from reliable. The port's cruise-to-nowhere business suffered from a long-term slide, under pressure from land-based casinos such as the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. The Princess, beset with mechanical and personnel problems, recently stumbled back into bankruptcy court.

Celebration Cruise Lines plans to set sail every other day for Grand Bahamas Island and offer two-, four- and six-night cruise packages in partnership with the Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort starting at $150, $250 and $400 per person for a double-occupancy room, according to Dan Lambert, a principal of cruise line.

Port and company officials say the 680-foot ship must pass a maneuverability test set for Sunday morning at the port before the deal is finalized, though port and company officials say they expect to encounter no problems.

"We're convinced this is the place for us to be," said Lambert. "We're very excited to be here."

The twice-renovated, 27-year-old ship can carry up to 1,300 passengers and features four restaurants, a two-story night club, and a casino, swimming pool and tiki bar, he said. The cruise line purchased the Bahama Celebration in September 2008 and began sailing from Port Everglades last March.

Lambert said the small cruise line found itself eclipsed by larger competitors in Port Everglades, where Royal Caribbean recently debuted its Oasis of the Seas -- the largest cruise ship in the world, with a 5,400-passenger capacity.

"Here, we're going to be the main cruise operation," he said.

A typical two-day cruise would leave Port of Palm Beach at 6 p.m. and dock at Grand Bahama Island the next morning, he said. Passengers would have the day to spend on the island. The ship would depart at 6 p.m. and arrive back in Palm Beach the next day. Four- and six-night packages would include three- and four-night stays at Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort.

Port commissioners cheered the deal, which comes a decade after the Port of Palm Beach broke ground on a passenger cruise terminal that cost more than $26 million but has sat largely unused ever since, as the terminal and port are too small for most modern-day cruise ships.

"We're all willing to do whatever it takes to help it succeed," said port Commissioner Blair Ciklin. "I think this could be a lot better than anyone could imagine."