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Jimmy Buffett-branded cruise ship chooses Tampa for home port

Margaritaville at Sea officials say Tampa, with its highly rated airport restaurants, hotels and more, has the just-right vacation vibe.


The Islander can accommodate up to 2,650 passengers.
The Islander can accommodate up to 2,650 passengers.
Courtesy image
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When the Margaritaville at Sea cruise line was searching for a home base for its new ship Islander, Port Tampa Bay floated to the top.

“I live in Orlando, and I’ve just watched the transformation of Tampa, the Channelside District, everything that they’ve been doing broadly over the last five to 10 years,” says Christopher Ivy, CEO of Margaritaville at Sea. “Where you start and where you finish [a cruise experience] is really important…I believe Tampa is a fantastic destination to start and end a cruise.”

Why? Port Tampa Bay is easy for leisure travelers to navigate, and Tampa International Airport is a short drive from downtown Tampa. And TIA’s not just any old airport: It was recently ranked No. 1 one by Airports Council International’s annual Airport Service Quality Awards among North American airports with 15 to 25 million passengers. It was also named the No. 1 large airport in the J.D. Power North America Airport Satisfaction Study in 2023 and 2022. “It’s a fantastic airport,” says Ivy.

Margaritaville at Sea’s first ship, Paradise, is based out of Palm Beach. But for its larger Islander ship, the cruise line needed a bigger port. Staying in Florida made sense, because the laidback Margaritaville brand — founded by the late Jimmy Buffett and which also includes resorts, restaurants and “55 and better” communities — draws a lot of customers from the Southeast.

The Islander's inaugural was in June.
Courtesy image

The tallest cruise vessel currently departing from Port Tampa Bay, Islander clears the Sunshine Skyway’s 180-foot air clearance sometimes by just eight feet depending on the tide. Its tropics-inspired paint job catches the eye when it’s berthed, getting passengers in a vacation state of mind. Choosing Port Tampa Bay gave Margaritaville at Sea “a unique opportunity to have the newest and the latest hardware coming in and out of Tampa,” says Ivy.

And that’s a plus for the Tampa Bay region as well. “The brand Margaritaville, I believe, matches up really well with this destination,” says Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “We’re expecting great things for them.”

The cruise line should draw thousands of people to Tampa throughout the year. “People are going to be flying in, using the airport, taking taxis,” says Greg Lovelace, vice president of business development for Port Tampa Bay. “Some people will visit restaurants; some people are going to stay in hotels. That kind of ripple effect on the economy is good for the community.”

If it inspires return trips to Tampa, all the better. “It gives us exposure to a lot of people who may be from out of the area,” says Lovelace. “Maybe they get a good flavor of Tampa as they’re getting on the ship. They might say, ‘Wow, this is a great place. I’m going to come back and explore the city.’”

A Jimmy Buffett theme is spread throughout the Islander.
Courtesy image

Islander took its inaugural sail out of Tampa in June, and a company spokesperson says the cruise line “reached our expected capacity for the first few sailings.” Margaritaville at Sea invested more than $150 million to fully reimagine an existing cruise ship that had previously sailed under the Costa brand. The Islander embraces the company’s “it’s five o’clock somewhere vibe” across its 12 passenger decks, with details like a giant flip-flop in the ship’s 14-story atrium; the world’s only three-story LandShark Bar at Sea; and the first-ever cornhole-meets-mini-golf course at sea.

“Margaritaville has become an iconic brand because of Jimmy Buffett, and I think they did a really good job with turning that ship into sort of a Margaritaville state of mind on the water,” says Lovelace. 

Islander can accommodate up to 2,650 passengers in its 1,105 staterooms done up in relaxed beachy style, and the ship has almost 900 crew members on board. Four- and five-night cruises depart Port Tampa Bay and travel to Key West and Mexico, and Margaritaville at Sea plans to offer six- and seven-night itineraries traveling to Belize, Jamaica and Grand Cayman in 2025. 

Islander includes everything an experienced cruise-goer would expect, but the shorter itineraries offered by both Islander and Paradise (which sails for two- and three-night cruises) also help attract first-timers. “Anecdotally, we do get a lot of ‘new to cruise,’” says Amanda Travaglini, chief marketing officer for Margaritaville at Sea. “What it’s afforded us is the opportunity to put people’s toe in the water for cruising.”

Islander’s longer cruises will help the company build relationships with travel agents, who earn commissions based on booking costs. “We’re really passionate around building the relationship with the trade,” says Ivy. “I think it does give an opportunity. The product is unique; the brand is unique…Having this vessel, I think we have a real ability to create those relationships and keep them in place.”

The Islanders has 1,105 staterooms
Courtesy image

Further expansion of the Margaritaville at Sea cruise line is a definite possibility down the road. “This is the first step in that expansion,” says Ivy. “What that expansion looks like and what form it ultimately takes, we’re open.

“Could we do another reimagination that looks like this? Sure,” he continues. “Could we do something broader or bigger or smaller? Potentially. But the thing we’re really focused on is putting the team in place, taking a process that we’ve learned and refined through the development, building and launching of this vessel, and using that to continue to grow.”

 

author

Beth Luberecki

Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, FamilyVacationist.com and SmarterTravel.com. Learn more about her at BethLuberecki.com.

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