Backed by one of the world’s largest container shipping companies, MSC Crociere, MSC Cruises USA has emerged as a strong competitor in the European-style premium-class cruise market. The company launched a $3bn expansion programme in 2003 with the introduction of the MSC Lirica.

The line also added the MSC Armonia (built in 2001) to its fleet in spring 2004 and the new MSC Opera was launched in June 2004. The line purchased the MSC Sinfonia (built in 2002) in July 2004 (the ship begins cruising in March 2005) and has two Panamax ships on order for delivery in 2006 and 2007.

Entering the headquarters of MSC Cruises USA in Fort Lauderdale, there is an air of excitement and a flurry of activity. And rightly so, for the company is expanding at a rapid pace and its newest vessel, MSC Opera is about to make her US debut. Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA, outlines the line’s rapid expansion.

“We’ve had ships coming here for about six years, but only briefly for a few months – and only maybe one ship. Now, we’re going to expand that with new ships, bringing two in 2004/05, leaving one year-round for 2006 and two year-round for the following year. That is the strategic plan – to grow in North America by having MSC Cruises’ ships very visible here.

“We’ve more than doubled our size in one year. We went from three ships to seven almost overnight. That kind of growth for a company this size should signal that we are serious about this “

“We’ve more than doubled our size in one year. We went from three ships to seven almost overnight. That kind of growth for a company this size should signal that we are serious about this – it is not a hobby.”

This rapid growth includes two newbuilds, which were constructed in Chantiers de l’Atlantique of St Nazaire, France. MSC Opera is the second newbuild in the line’s fleet, joining its sister ship, MSC Lirica, which will return to the Caribbean in January 2005 for its second season. They are part of the line’s $3bn expansion plan introduced in 2003.

In the past year, the cruise line also purchased two other ships. In mid-2004, it purchased two 58,700-tonne ships from Festival Cruises: the European Vision and European Stars, renamed MSC Armonia and MSC Sinfonia.


Both the 58,600-tonne, 1756-guest MSC Opera (christened in December 2004) and her sister vessel, the MSC Lirica, were designed to offer a premium cruise experience. Like their godmother, the legendary Sophia Loren, they are uniquely Italian, elegant and classic yet contemporary at the same time.

These gleaming marble-filled ships underline the quality of the MSC Cruises product, with light woods that combine with an airy spaciousness to create a contemporary style. This includes understated elegance, an open, spacious feeling heightened by glass walls, several relaxing lounges, nooks and crannies where guests can lose themselves and relax, and the style one expects from the Mediterranean – the classic Italian ambience of warmth and hospitality.

Pierfrancesco Vago, chief executive of the company’s parent firm, MSC Crociere of Naples, explains the design of both ships: “The goal was to present the taste and artistic tradition that reflects the Italian style that makes MSC Cruises unique. Both ships have an emphasis on elegance in terms of spaciousness, shapes and lines – so much so that the Berlitz Guide has assigned to these two ships the highest rankings among the ships operating in the Mediterranean.”

These are quality products, from teak to Italian marble. “On board our ships, you will never find any plastic or kitsch style,” says Vago. “MSC ships are equipped with precious material and precious fabrics.”

Both ships are also equipped with the latest technology, he explains: “Inmarsat, like the Vusat system, is useful for broadband communication. It has the capability to connect passengers to the internet directly from their cabins, as well as allowing them to receive newspaper bulletins.”


Whilst originally conceived as sister ships, the MSC Lirica and MSC Opera are not identical twins, as the latter features some significant modifications to the original design. However, the most significant difference is in the number of cabins with balconies. “This is in direct response to the increasing demand from passengers who appreciate the balcony for enjoying the open sea air, even in the intimacy of their own cabin,” says Vago.

Other elements peculiar to MSC Opera include the redesign of two cabin decks, adding 88 new passenger cabins, and the addition of a new bar and layout in the Cotton Club lounge. The Le Vele cafeteria was significantly enlarged and the shops and internet cafe were rearranged. A Western feel was even added to the children’s room. The length of the ship was extended to 251m to accommodate new cabins.

The 12-deck MSC Opera has 878 cabins, 172 with balconies, which stretch the length of the vessel on decks eight, nine and ten, as well as half of deck seven. There are also 28 suites, all of which are balconied, on deck 12. In addition, both ships have five cabins for passengers with special needs.

However, there is no grand atrium. Instead, there is a welcoming, spacious main foyer on deck five, which is well lit and features light wood. As this area is smaller than on typical contemporary ships, it offers a comfortable and intimate ambiance. The gleaming floor is in cream and camel-coloured marble, as well as shades of rich brown.

The ships are easy to manoeuvre around, with a vertical circulation. There are four main staircase and lift towers. Each one has two lifts (centre and aft) and three lifts located forward. The towers go to all passenger decks, plus the pool, for easy on-board navigation. In addition, the technical AZIPOD propulsion system was installed to increase comfort levels while reducing noise levels.

As part of Vago’s branding plan, head architect Giuseppe De Jorio redesigned the logo. Initially, while flying over the ships in Fort Lauderdale, he realised that the funnels were not recognisable as MSC – there was nothing really distinctive about them.

According to Vago: “The goal was to ensure more direct brand recognition and brand awareness in the marketplace. The new logo more accurately represents the complexity and the continually evolving reality that is MSC, and we feel that it is now more easily identifiable. Additionally, the two individual symbols that make up the new logo – the windrose and the bull’s eye – are both powerful symbols of marine tradition which the company holds very dear.”


Two Panamax vessels are on order for delivery in 2006 and 2007 and other additions to the fleet are under consideration. Both of the ships will have a bigger number of staterooms with balconies to satisfy the requests of passengers who, besides the intimacy of their cabin, also want the comfort of the balcony.

As Panamax vessels, the ships are larger than MSC Opera and MSC Lirica; they will have a total of 1275 staterooms and the capacity for approximately 3000 passengers and 1000 crew members and over 90,000 tonnes. MSC Musica will be delivered in June 2006, followed by her sister ship, MSC Orchestra, in spring 2007. They will both be built at Chantiers de l’Atlantique in France.

These new ships will be 294m long and just over 32m wide, and will comply with the Panamax standard. They are intended for cruises in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas. The ships’ design will allow passengers unrivalled sea views.

About 80% of the cabins will have windows overlooking the sea, and three quarters of these outside view cabins will also have balconies. Vago explains: “MSC Cruises is working hard to satisfy the demand for more and more balconies on board. On our ships, cabins with balconies represent 75% of the total cabin numbers.”

Public rooms will include a 713-seat theatre, internet cafe with ten terminals, virtual reality centre, mini club for children, two main restaurants, coffee bar, pizzeria, grill and buffet area, shopping gallery, casino, seven bars and lounges, and a disco. There will also be several junior suites and a huge spa.

Vago explains: “We plan to use them in both the Mediterranean and Caribbean cruise markets. Their larger Panamax size and speed capabilities make them highly competitive in today’s cruise market.

“The design of the new ships, including the MSC Musica, will offer various galleys. This innovative ship can offer two speciality restaurants and also two speciality galleys. There is one cafeteria area and one cafeteria galley. There will also be a sushi bar, a wine-tasting bar and, in addition, a multi-themed bar.”

“Of course,” Vago adds, “the stabilisers are an example of some of the most innovative technology on board to make the voyage smoother and smoother. Internet facilities will be available in the cabins too.”


Vago talks of the coupling of beauty and high-tech in the new ships: “The design of the areas on board our ships is attentively followed by the owner, Rafaela Aponte. She has her own personal signature style, thanks to her extensive experience in the design field, but combines this with an absolute respect for the client’s wishes and expectations.

“Both ships will be characterised by cutting-edge technology and innovative design. For example, new technology used in civil architecture, but never before adopted in the cruise industry, is used in the continuous, uninterrupted glass partitions placed in the discotheque, cafeteria, health centre, open restaurant and pool area.”

This ‘float glass system’ can be found on the sun deck, where the two large 13m pools are located. In between are two raised jacuzzis. At the side are the floor-to-ceiling windows. This new system involves an innovative new technology developed by Chantiers de l’Atlantique.

“Both ships will be characterised by cutting-edge technology and innovative design.”

Although it had previously been used on land, this was the first time it had been used at sea. It offers an uninterrupted glass wall, with joints of only 10mm. Each glass panel is individually hung by Pilkington bolts and is not affected by the vibrations produced by the hull. In addition, the ships also have Mermaid azimuth propellers, so there is a low noise and vibration level in the cabins, even when the thrusters are in use.

The head architect, Giuseppe De Jorio, worked on both MSC Lirica and MSC Opera, along with Rafaela Aponte. “We believe in our suppliers, and they will also assist us on both the MSC Musica and MSC Orchestra,” says Vago. “We worked very closely with De Jorio Design International and Giuseppe De Jorio. He is a Neapolitan by birth who has made Genoa his adopted home, and he was instrumental in achieving our vision of creating the ultimate in terms of design, comfort and equipment. Rafaela Aponte was closely involved in the development of the design, colours and materials.”

And how do the two ships compare with one another? “The two ships are very similar in size, although there are some significant differences in terms of colour schemes,” observes Vago. “MSC Lirica reflects the 1970s style, whereas MSC Opera reflects the Art Deco style. The interior design of MSC Opera reflects MSC Cruises’ style: elegant, sober and plenty of open space.”

“The space allocation on board MSC Opera, which emphasises extensive variety of public spaces, is in response to the expectations of our clientele. Both ships employ natural lighting and emphasise a harmonisation of colours and materials.”