50 million visitors later: She’s still the Queen of the Seas

Published on: September 25, 2013

The Queen Mary has been permanently docked in Long Beach, CA since its arrival in 1967. Photos Jeanne O'Connor

The Queen Mary has been permanently docked in Long Beach, CA since its arrival in 1967. Photos Jeanne O'Connor

By WARREN RESEN – Member of NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association)  |
Long Beach, CA

With much fanfare, the Queen Mary arrived in Long Beach Harbor in December 1967 to begin its well-deserved retirement after 30 years as the premiere luxury liner sailing the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The conversion to change Queen Mary from an ocean-going luxury liner to a floating hotel, tourist attraction and venue for special events began almost immediately upon its arrival. The retired “Queen of the Seas” opened to the public at her now permanent home in 1971 and more than 50 million visitors have since walked its decks.

In case you were wondering, the R.M.S in the title means “Royal Mail Ship.”

The Queen Mary represents another age when the only way to cross the “pond” was by ship and the most luxurious ship was the Queen Mary. She was the fastest on the transatlantic route and the epitome of elegance. As a member of Historic Hotels of America, the Queen Mary’s management has pledged to preserve the authenticity of this treasure.

A brief timeline:

The birth of the Queen Mary was a long and laborious process. Plans to build her were drawn in 1926. Construction began in 1930 but was suspended in 1931 because of the Great Depression. Eventually work resumed and the ship was made ready for launching in 1934 even before the engines, superstructure and interiors were added.

England’s King George V made the opening speech and his wife, Queen Mary, announced that the ship would henceforth be called…guess what? Her Majesty Queen Mary then launched her namesake by breaking the traditional bottle of wine against the ship’s prow. Interestingly, the ship’s namesake never took passage on the Queen Mary during its time at sea.

Today’s mega cruise ships, mostly traveling in circles, with a complement of up to 5,000 guests and a myriad of onboard entertainment resemble nothing less than floating theme parks. Current sea-going passengers would understandably view the Queen Mary and its accommodations as quaint, lacking the glitz they have come to expect. But the venerable Queen Mary had something missing in our modern society — ELEGANCE. First Class was just what the words meant…FIRST CLASS. This aura permeated throughout the ship no matter what class you traveled.

When she entered service, the Queen Mary was the most luxurious cruise liner in the world. With its Art Deco designs, paintings and sculpture, the entire ship was a floating art gallery. She was also known as the “Ship of Beautiful Woods.”

Throughout the ship, 56 different varieties of wood veneers were used for decoration and design. Many of the woods are rare and probably have never been seen by most people. Some woods are so rare they will probably never be used again in public displays of creativity.

The Queen Mary’s maiden voyage took place in May 1936, traveling from Southampton, England to New York City. She quickly became the most popular liner plying the North Atlantic, but it was to be a relatively brief run until after WWII ended.

England declared war on Germany in May 1939. The Queen Mary was detained in New York and in March 1940 was drafted into service as a troop and cargo ship sailing the globe, delivering soldiers and much-needed war supplies to far-flung ports of call. She would remain in this service for six years.

The Queen Mary was designed to carry 2,030 paying passengers. During the war years the number of passengers (military personnel) per trip was increased to 15,740. On one crossing the number of troops transported rose to 16,683, a record that has never been surpassed. The total recorded number of troops carried during her “military” service is reported as 810,000. Another item to be added to her history is that she was never attacked by the enemy.

With the end of WWII, the Queen Mary was refurbished to her peacetime splendor and resumed passenger service in mid 1947. During her peacetime service she carried 2 million passengers.

Today, reasonably priced “hotel” rooms on the ship, once considered first-class accommodations, are available to guests. These accommodations make most of the current crop of motel/hotel rooms appear to be oversized closets.

Judged by any standards, when the Queen Mary reigned, she was the epitome of luxurious ocean travel. The ship’s personnel were available 24/7 and strove to satisfy passenger’s needs no matter how trivial. Many regular First Class passengers would check first to see if their favorite steward would be on-board during their crossing before booking.
Classes of passage:

It is interesting to point out the differences in passenger classes. The common perception is that First Class, Cabin Class and Tourist Class meant Top, Middle and Bottom locations on the ship. Actually “class” locations were determined by the smoothness of the ride at sea.

First Class was in the middle of the ship (top to bottom) because it offered the smoothest sailing. Cabin Class was in the stern (rear) and Tourist Class was toward the bow often giving these passengers a roller coaster ride through the frequently turbulent waters of the North Atlantic.

First-class accommodations had amenities not available to most Americans at the time: cold air (from sea water), heated air from the boiler room and en-suite bathrooms that might look a bit dated today but at that time were the height of luxury. Bathtub faucets even delivered hot and cold fresh or salt water.

Personal service was one of the elements that made Queen Mary the premiere luxury ocean liner of her day. Passengers in the First Class staterooms could even request that the color scheme and furniture in their suite be changed for the passage.

First class suites normally consisted of 5 rooms. The smallest suite had 3 rooms and the largest offered an amazing 10 rooms (a combination of bedrooms, sitting rooms, bathrooms, dining rooms, and rooms for maids and/or valets). The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, when traveling the Queen Mary, usually brought 80 pieces of luggage to their suite and had another 75 stored in the cargo hold.

But with the coming of fast, reliable, affordable air travel, the Queen was no longer profitable to operate. Speed was sacrificed for comfort and elegance. In May 1967 the Cunard Line announced the Queen Mary would be retired and sold and the City of Long Beach, Calif. submitted the high bid of $3,450,000.

The Cunard Line agreement with the City of Long Beach required that once docked in her final resting place, she would never sail again. All of the boilers were removed from the ship. The huge space created was turned into an Exhibit Hall for trade shows, conventions, bridal shows and proms, all events which today help pay some of the bills. Without this agreement, the mighty Queen Mary would probably have been turned into scrap years ago.

Visiting the Queen Mary is a trip through time. It is strongly recommended that visitors take one of the many available guided tours for a proper understanding of the ship’s operation, history and art. Every part of the ship has a remarkable story to tell.

The uniformed ship’s officers leading the tours will point out many locations which might be familiar to movie goers and TV fans. These locations were the exact spots at which a mind-boggling number of movies and TV shows were filmed on the Queen Mary. Tour participants will visit the Art Deco Bar on the forward observation deck, the ship’s wheelhouse, Princess Di’s exhibit, the Queen Mary Exhibit Hall and many more points of interest throughout the ship.

We were honored to have Commodore Everette Hoard as our guide. He has been with the ship for 33 years and knows every nook and cranny on the Queen Mary and is an unending source of information about her history.

There are a variety of eateries and restaurants on board, from the elegant Sir Winston’s (Churchill) to the Promenade Restaurant and even a sandwich shop. On Sunday there is the ever-popular, magnificent Sunday Brunch in the ship’s Grand Salon. 

It can be relatively quiet on the decks of the Queen Mary during the week. But on weekends the Queen can rock with entertainment and special events and as previously mentioned, the fabulous Sunday Brunch.

I know people who have never been aboard a ship of any size. Just boarding a ship tied to the dock makes them queasy. Here is an opportunity for them to experience a shipboard experience without worrying about motion sickness. Tied to the dock and surrounded by a breakwater, there is no motion at all. The Queen Mary is the only remaining transatlantic ocean liner from the “Glory Days “of the golden age of ocean liners still afloat.

Personal observations: The Queen Mary is at rest in her last and permanent home. For those of us who have lived her history and are familiar with her accomplishments, visiting the Queen Mary for the first time is like going on a pilgrimage. My wife and I were born the same year the Queen Mary had its maiden voyage. It was an honor for us to at last have the privilege of walking her decks.

At 77 years the old girl is starting to show her age. The city of Long Beach owns the Queen Mary and it is obvious from a visual inspection that the ship needs some restoration. The Queen Mary is the city’s major tourist draw and the city should do everything within its power to ensure that the dowager queen of the seas puts her best face forward for her visitors.

My suggestion for you is to visit and savor the experience. When she is gone, there will never be another ship like her. As the Brits say, “Long Live the Queen.”