A fog of uncertainty has loomed over the Queen Mary for many years.
Amid a string of failed operators, a global pandemic and a yearslong closure, the historic ocean liner’s outlook was bleak. But since reopening in April, the number of people visiting and staying aboard has steadily grown, casting some hope through the gloom, according to the people trying to chart a course for its future.
Now, the impending reintroduction of crowd favorites such as the Royal Sunday Brunch in December as well as new paranormal tours and attractions kicking off in October are sure to boost visitor counts, according to the ship’s operator, Evolution Hospitality.
“People are wanting to come onto the ship,” said Steve Caloca, Evolution’s managing director of the ship.
The recovery comes in the wake of the Queen Mary shutting down in March 2020 to adhere to the COVID-19 restrictions. It remained closed even as other businesses were allowed to open when the previous operator, Urban Commons, filed for bankruptcy amid a tangle of unmet expectations and broken promises that left behind significant financial wreckage.
After that, Long Beach took control of the ship for the first time in more than four decades when nobody bid for the contract to operate the Queen Mary, which went to auction as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.
With tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in long-term repairs and maintenance needed aboard the ship, the city weighed options that even included scrapping the iconic ocean liner or transferring it to the Port of Long Beach.
Ultimately, the city committed to reopening the ship itself as a tourist destination, and by April, it did so by welcoming visitors back for a limited number of guided tours.
According to Evolution, which manages the ship’s day-to-day operations for the city, 11,200 people visited the Queen Mary that month and that number steadily rose over the next few months.
In May, 14,500 people visited the ship. June and July saw 19,700 and 31,000 visitors, respectively.
In total, nearly 77,500 people visited the ship within that four-month stretch, compared to just under 65,000 during the same period in 2019, data shows.
“Overall, we are exceeding the 2019 average per month by over 3,000 visitors,” Michael Pierce, director of finance of the ship for Evolution said, noting that April was only a limited opening, which kept numbers down.
August and September data was not available at the time of publication.
It’s unclear if the ship is mostly drawing tourists or locals. Evolution does not currently track where visitors are coming from or whether they’re U.S citizens or international travelers, Caloca said, but there are plans to begin. Anecdotally, he did say many visitors are international.
The number of people spending the night on the ship has also steadily increased since the Queen Mary’s hotel reopened in May, according to Evolution. In May, 1,424 room nights were sold, the company said. That figure increased to 2,830 in June and grew further to 3,835 in July—selling an average of nearly 124 rooms per night.
There are 347 staterooms aboard the Queen Mary but only 200 are currently available for stays, according to Evolution. The rooms that are available have all received new bedding, bed skirts, drapes and bath amenities.
The current number of hotel stays pales in comparison to when the ship was operating at full capacity. In 2019, the Queen Mary averaged 7,607 room bookings per month. But management is optimistic.
“Things are picking up,” Caloca said. “October and November should be very good months for us.”
Hotel room data was not available for August or September, but Caloca said they are now selling closer to 4,400 rooms per month.
“The city has very few assets that have as much economic impact as the Queen,” said Johnny Vallejo, deputy director of the city’s Economic Development Department. The goal is not only to make visitors happy but also to make locals proud of the ship, he added.
To continue growing visitorship, the city and Evolution are slowly introducing, or reintroducing, restaurants and bars, events and attractions—many of which revolve around the ship’s reputation as a hotspot for paranormal activity. The Observation Bar has been serving up cocktails for months, and various ghost-hunting and other tours have been running since the reopening, including Haunted Encounters, the Paranormal Ship Walk and Steam and Steel.
Friday, Oct. 13, marked the launch of the ship’s latest paranormal offering: The Grey Ghost Project—a three-hour investigation that uses “a combination of scientific methods to gather data and documentation for evidence of the supernatural,” according to the website.
The $125 experience (limited to people aged 13 and up) is not intended to be a theatrical or haunt experience, but “a continuous scientific exploration and investigation of the paranormal,” according to the site. Visitors are invited to participate in the investigation, which includes areas of the ship that are typically closed to everyday guests and tours.
There is no guarantee that paranormal activity will be captured, recorded or experienced because “the ghosts aren’t on the payroll,” according to the project.
Each session is documented by video and audio recorders, with digital access provided after completion.
Another new paranormal experience is coming to the ship on Oct. 17, with 57 Ghosts, an intimate and immersive theatrical séance “that will bring you face to face with the spirited passed of this historic and haunting ship.” The show is replacing another theatrical seance experience, Illusions of the Passed, which was led by master magician and apparitionist Aiden Sinclair, who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent” and “Penn & Teller: Fool Us.”
Sinclair is staying on to host the revamped séance experience.
On the food front, the ship’s wildly popular Royal Sunday Brunch is set to return to the Grand Salon Dec. 3, under returning Executive Chef Todd Henderson. Sir Winston’s, the famous five-star, fine-dining experience near the aft of the ship, meanwhile, is slated to reopen in early 2024.
“As we roll out these restaurant menus, we’re taking the opportunity to elevate them as much as possible,” Vallejo said. “We want to get it right. We want it to be a food destination, and not just someplace where you’re on the ship and want to grab a bite to eat.”
“Expectations are high,” Vallejo added.
Henderson was executive chef aboard the Queen for eight years from 2011 through 2019. Since beginning his career as an executive chef in 1992, Henderson has worked for numerous hotel and resort brands, including Radisson, Marriott, La Quinta Resort & Club in Palm Springs and more.
Evolution and the city are also doing other, smaller things to attract visitors and keep them on the ship. Commodore Everette Hoard’s office has been moved to the main lobby area of the Promenade Deck, where he can be seen in his officer whites through the glass walls by guests, who are encouraged to engage with him directly.
Operators will also turn an old storage area next to the Observation Bar into a “game room,” which will include multiple TVs for guests to watch sports, Caloca said.
“We took the TVs out of Observation Bar a while ago to keep the look,” Caloca said, noting that guests would previously have to leave the ship to catch a game. The game room is now open and also features foosball and shuffleboard.
With some 80,000 square feet of meeting space, Caloca said his team is working to bring more meetings and conferences on board, which would be another revenue generator.
The Queen Mary’s financial situation is still hazy, the city did not make records available prior to publication, but Vallejo said the city is “happy” with how it will close out the fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.
A $12 million investment in the ship from the Port of Long Beach ended up being “very important to us ending the year in a pretty good position fund-wise,” Vallejo said.
The port agreed to invest the money as part of a land swap that gave it access to some nearby property but ultimately left the ship in the city’s control instead of transferring it to the port, as some council members had proposed.
Now, the city says it’s working through a list of needed capital improvements on the ship that will draw in more visitors.
Major projects include refurbishing the sundeck—which in the past has been a popular event destination, especially for weddings—and reopening the first-class pool area to guests. But it won’t be open for swimming, as it does not meet current state safety regulations. But eventually, visitors will be able to view its art deco pool room, which is also a rumored hotspot for paranormal activity.
The city’s 2024 budget also calls for a five-year redevelopment plan around the ship, including the potential addition of a waterfront amphitheater.
Previous development efforts around the ship have stalled. Even if this one succeeds, the ship will remain the city’s top priority in the area, according to Vallejo.
“There’s an overall strategy right now to understand,” he said. “How to create experiences on the ship that will keep people here for longer and have an excuse to return.”