The opening skit of this week's Saturday Night Live took on the Carnival Triumph's ill-fated cruise, giving new meaning to "toilet humor" as Jason Sudeikis and Cecily Strong played shipboard entertainers trying to pacify an audience of restless, unshowered passengers.
And as the crippled ship remains docked and under federal investigation in Mobile, Ala., travel agents and investors are bracing for fallout that could rival the bad publicity after last January's Concordia disaster, in which a Carnival-owned ship ran aground and capsized in Italy, killing 32.
"It's still too early to tell" whether would-be cruisers will be turned off by the aftermath of an engine room fire on the Triumph, which had left the ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico since Sunday, said Steve Loucks, spokesman for Travel Leaders Group, a network of independently owned and operated travel agencies in the U.S.
Loucks said his company hasn't fielded any cruise cancellations over the past week and says cruise bookings so far this year are up nearly 10% over last year, when the Concordia accident "certainly had an impact."
Since that disaster, "our agents have been fielding questions about what safety procedures the cruise lines have in place," Loucks said. "After the Concordia, new safety measures were implemented, and we believe something similar will happen after the (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation. But the big difference here is that there was no loss of life."
Six NTSB investigators were in Mobile to look into the cause of the fire, which happened some 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency was working with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bahamas Maritime Authority, which is taking the lead in the investigation because the Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel and was in international waters at the time of the incident.
As for prices, "when rates in the Caribbean are already under $100 per person per night, it's hard to see prices going much lower," Loucks added.
Michael Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruise Week, said Carnival canceled a one-day sale this week and will be hit harder than other cruise lines by the Triumph story, in part because because its Carnival brand draws a high percentage of first-time cruisers.
Carnival also owns Costa Cruises, the company that operated the Concordia, as well as Princess Cruises, Holland America, Cunard and P&O. A third Carnival ship, the Splendor, lost power at sea in 2010 and was towed back to port under similar conditions to those on the Triumph.
Matthew Jacob, a cruise industry analyst with ITG Investment Research, noted that Carnival stock "took a fairly sizable hit" following the Concordia disaster, dropping from $34.28 the day before the accident to under $30. The stock price bounced back, but declining net yield, or revenue paid per passenger, led to discounts of 10% or more the following summer, Jacob added.
The cruise industry "had to play catch-up, but heading into 2013, the outlook was pretty positive. Demand was healthy, and net yields were rebounding," he said.
Carnival shares fell 47 cents Friday to $36.88, or nearly 1.3%. For the week, shares are off nearly 6%. On Thursday, investment bank Goldman Sachs, citing Carnival's guidance about the fallout from Triumph, lowered its 2013 outlook for the company, saying it would be hurt by lost income and bad public relations.
The Triumph accident, like the Concordia, coincides with "wave season," a two- to three-month period when agents push summer cruises with advertising and special promotions and offer last-minute discounts geared to sun-starved Northerners.
"Cruise prices are extremely dynamic, so if bookings slow, they'll respond," said Jacob. "Social media could play a much bigger role this time, but the bottom line is that the protocols Carnival had in place seemed to work. It's a different story than (the Concordia disaster) last year, when the issue was negligence."
The cruise industry has grown exponentially in recent decades. In 1980 there were 1 million passengers worldwide. This year, projections put the number at 20 million. Last week's Triumph troubles raise questions about whether the industry has grown too big and too fast to be truly safe.
Cruise industry expert Andrew O. Coggins, Jr., doesn't think so. One reason: Cruise ships are governed by International Maritime Organization regulations and not by the laws of the country in which they're registered.
"(The industry) is strictly regulated. Ships are foreign-flagged because of labor and cost issues. But the safety certification comes from independent classification societies and that's what enables ships to get insurance," explained Coggins, a professor of management at Pace University's Lubin School of Business in New York.
A number of high-profile ferry disasters brought even stricter regulations in the 1990s, such as the requirement that all ships install sprinkler systems -- with no grandfather clause for older vessels - if they were to remain in service. In 2010, the International Maritime Organization adopted rules that require any large cruise ship built after July 1 of that year to have a separate, redundant system able to maintain the ship's propulsion, steering and so forth in case one engine is disabled by fire. The rules also mandate that ships be capable of maintaining basic services such as sanitation, water, food and lights in such circumstances.
The Triumph was built in 1999 and isn't covered by the rules, as is the case for most ships among major cruise lines. Experts say the Triumph might have been able to limp into port more quickly if it had the newer systems, but retrofitting is costly and time-consuming.
But other safety issues relate to the ever-growing size of new ships. When the 102,000-ton Carnival Triumph sailed into service, it was among the first ships too large to transit the Panama Canal. Now, ships are plying the oceans that are more than twice that size. Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which can carry 6,296 passengers, weighs in at 225,282 tons, for instance.
Driscoll said the biggest ships afloat also command the highest prices because of strong consumer demand. But "there's always a question of how much bigger can they get?" said Coggins, and whether colossal size and safety are compatible when it comes to matters of crowd control in the event of a disaster.
As for the passengers of the Triumph, "They were lucky because the (sprinkler) system worked. It put out the fire. Engine room fires, especially those severe enough to require evacuating the engine room, usually result in loss of the ship. Had the system not worked the 4,000-plus people onboard would have been forced into lifeboats in less than optimal sea conditions."
"This horrible situation involving the Carnival Triumph is just the latest example in a long string of serious and troubling incidents involving cruise ships," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who led a committee hearing on cruise safety last year.
Last year, after the Concordia ran aground, Rockefeller held a Commerce Committee hearing to examine deficiencies in the cruise line industry's compliance with federal safety, security, and environmental standards and review industry regulations.
"As I remarked then, they seem to have two lives: One is at port, where the Coast Guard can monitor their operations; the other is at sea where, it appears once they are beyond three nautical miles from shore, the world is theirs," Rockefeller said in letter he wrote this week to Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., the commandant of the Coast Guard. "The Carnival Triumph incident only serves to further validate this view."
Another worry: "Passengers who disembark from the Carnival Triumph today are highly likely to get sick in the days ahead," said Tony Abate, vice president of operations at AtmosAir Solutions in Fairfield, Ct.
"The biggest concern for these passengers is that they were trapped inside the ship for so long," said Abate. "The inside of a cruise ship is a space that's designed to have an air ventilation system to dilute contaminants, and that was knocked out.
In the past, some cruise ships have become floating incubators of illnesses such as norovirus "even when ventilation systems are functioning properly," says Abate.
Meanwhile, reactions from Triumph passengers on whether they'd hit the high seas again were mixed.
Sharon Ward, of Bay City, Texas, was on her first cruise as part of a 45th high school reunion. She praised the Carnival crew and discounted other passengers' horror stories with "there's a lot of people you just can't satisfy. Life happens."
Will she take another cruise? "Oh, definitely."
But Anna Ward, a Wichita, Kan., homemaker and student, said she "probably won't" board another ship.
"How do I get on a cruise and not think that that is not going to happen," she said. "I'd be on my guard the whole time. "
Now that the ship is safely in port, Carnival can begin working in earnest on damage control.
"This is the second (incident) in two years on Carnival. It isn't something you want to get a reputation for," said crisis management expert Ernest DelBuono, referring to the 2010 power loss on the Carnival Splendor. That cruise was nicknamed "Voyage of the Spammed" after its stranded passengers were reduced to eating Spam dropped off by a helicopter.
Levick, who works for a Washington, D.C., communications firm, said the cruise line needs to thoroughly evaluate operational systems on all its ships and provide fair compensation for passengers whose vacations were ruined.
"They need to be reassuring everyone that 'We're going to fix this,' and if it does happen again, 'Here's what we're going to do,'" he said.
Potential cruisers made skittish by this week's relentless coverage of the Triumph's woes may give greater scrutiny to individual lines before booking, DelBuono said. But overall, he doesn't think the incident will have a long-lasting effect on the cruise industry.
"Americans have short memories. Time heals," he said.
Contributing: Gene Sloan, Gary Strauss and Associated Press