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APRIL FOOL: Siesta Key identified as first Florida Gulf Coast cruise stop

A cruise line plans to reopen Midnight Pass to bring thousands of passengers twice each week.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. April 1, 2024
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The decadeslong effort to reopen Midnight Pass may finally be resolved thanks to a cruise line’s decision to make Sarasota in general, and Siesta Key in particular, a twice-weekly port of call. 

Long-term plans are to put the barrier islands of Sarasota County on the nautical map.

A reconstituted Commodore Cruise Lines is in negotiations with state and local agencies for permitting to dredge a channel through Midnight Pass, not to provide cruise ship passage, but rather to enable tenders to shuttle passengers to and from ships moored offshore. 

Those tenders, which will transport thousands of passengers over the course of each stop, would enter Little Sarasota Bay and traverse northward, dropping them off at a new terminal at Nora Patterson Park.

From there, they may board any number of shuttles for shore excursions or simply travel to Siesta Village, enjoy the beach or head into downtown Sarasota or St. Armands for the day.

“We don’t need to dredge Midnight Pass deep enough for a cruise ship, just for the dozens of trips tenders will make back and forth throughout the day,” said Commodore Cruise Lines President and CEO Merrill Stubing. “Besides, we could never get a ship through the draw bridges. Today’s cruise ships aren’t like the Love Boat.”

To accommodate the arriving passengers, a welcome center is planned at the park, including a souvenir shop and a bar. A rental car facility will be built at the former Southgate Mall as part of the redevelopment of that property. Passengers renting cars will be shuttled back and forth over the scenic north bridge at Siesta Drive. 

“We’re looking to design a tiki-hut style bar where passengers can stay and drink all day at the new terminal,” said Commodore Cruise Lines’ Food and Beverage Director Isaac Washington. “The park is ideally situated as a natural extension of the cruise ship and its bar service. It will be outta sight, all right!”

Commodore plans to initially make Siesta Key a once-weekly stop for two ships sailing seven-day itineraries originating at Port of Miami. The company was attracted to Siesta Key because of the small-town seaside charm of Siesta Village, its world-renowned beaches and convenient access to Sarasota. 

“We look forward to a win-win relationship between Siesta Key and our thousands of passengers and crew during our twice-weekly stops,” said Commodore Vice President of Hospitality and Entertainment Julie McCoy. “One thing we love about adding Siesta Key to our ports of call is how else can you visit Gilligan’s Island without embarking on an ill-fated three-hour tour?”

Other cruise companies are watching. Siesta Key will be the only Florida Gulf Coast port of call for a cruise ship, but more may be on the way. If successful, Commodore plans to purchase and expand the park to make room for multiple ships that may be anchored off Siesta Key on any given day. 

“We don’t want to be accused of privatizing a public park, so instead we’ll just take it private,” Stubing said.

Siesta Key may not be the only Sarasota County destination for cruise stops. Absent docking in port, they require shore access from the ship via tenders, and another such facility could be on the way. 

“We hear there is a plan to build some day docks on City Island that will accommodate a water taxi service,” said cruise industry analyst Gopher Smith. “That will be a great opportunity to accommodate thousands of passengers with direct access to all of the dining, shopping and recreation options St. Armands Key and Longboat Key have to offer.”


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