Cruise lines' vigorous sales work promoting short cruises, especially to younger people, backfired last spring and summer. An overpopulation of students on several cruises created conditions that one passenger, himself a parent of teen-agers, described as Fort Lauderdale at sea.
A passenger on another vessel, also a parent and therefore not out of touch, compared life on deck to life on the grounds of the Woodstock music festival.
Those considering short cruises at school vacation times should investigate with care lest they fall into the sort of situation described by Robert Fortini, a public schoolteacher of English and history in Chicago.
He wrote to Carnival Cruise Lines about his family's summer cruise on the Tropicale, from Los Angeles:
"No one informed us that hundreds of unchaperoned recent high school graduates would be on the cruise. The majority of them were drunk before the ship left the dock; they continued that way for seven days."
Vincent Shumm, a wall-covering executive on Long Island, wrote to Costa Cruise Lines about his family's spring cruise on the Costa Riviera from Fort Lauderdale:
"It appeared as if every student on board had spent the night on deck. Radios blasting .
. If it got too noisy in the corridor all you had to do was dial a three-digit number and the people in black suits with walkie-talkies would show up and move the chorus line. .
People in the cruise business said that unruly groups of teen-agers were a new development, and that while they had heard several complaints about certain trips last spring and summer, this was the first year for these complaints.
Carnival and Costa said they had taken precautions to avoid the problem in the future.
But passengers planning a trip in the spring break or in early summer, or possibly even the winter holidays, should ask the line or the travel agent if any limits are set on groups of youths and what chaperone requirements are enforced.
The drinking age aboard seems generally to be 18 but the question of enforcement is crucial.
What both lines said happened on the cruises in question was that too many students got aboard.
The Shumm and Fortini families, both of whom are experienced in cruises, had unhappy trips because of a change in cruise patterns and the intense selling that has followed a big jump in the number of cruise berths.
Teen-agers now consider a cruise as an option for a spring break from school or a graduation trip. This would have been unthinkable several years ago, because a cruise would take too long and cost too much.
Now, cruises of three and four days are sold, and to accommodate teen-agers, lines offer what they call a quad cabin, where four people of the same sex buy four berths in one cabin for a lower rate per berth than would otherwise be available.
The complaints led to rule modifications by these two lines.
Dickinson, whose Carnival Lines has the most berths among the cruise lines serving the U.S. market, said that even before last summer his line limited the number of berths it sold to groups of young people; the Tropicale, for example, had a limit of 200.
Also, $50 per-student damage deposits had been required, tips had to be paid in advance, and one chaperone, who travels free, is still required for each 20 young people.
Costa, according to Ms. Gibbs, also had a requirement for chaperones, one for each 15 in a group. Shumm said there were indeed chaperones, mostly teachers, he thought, with the students on the cruise, which left from Fort Lauderdale.
He said that students had come from high schools in Michigan and North Carolina and that the chaperones, in their 20s and 30s, had been "partying like the rest."
Ms. Gibbs said Costa also revised its rules "shortly after the return of the Costa Riviera" last spring. The maximum number of young people in a group on a Costa cruise is now set at 125, and a chaperone is required for each 25 young people. The chaperone must be over 25 years of age. She said Costa instituted a $50 damage deposit for each student in a group.
Asked how Costa would track groups who were booked aboard by agents who did not acknowledge that the clients were youth groups, Ms. Gibbs said that Costa knew which agents did a strong student business, and also knew towns and cities that were likely to produce such bookings.
"We have other sailings and other vessels," she said, "and if we reach a quota, we can accommodate them on another ship." Costa has six vessels that will hold a total of 4,372 passengers if all cabins are used as doubles.
Dickinson said that his line learned a lesson:
"We want to make cruising accessible to all walks of life," he said. "We work hard not to be elitist. But when I spoke to 1,420 travel agents in California and they said we had some bad cruises, I admonished them on how it came to happen. The last thing we want is Fort Lauderdale at sea."