Admit it. Cruise lines such as Carnival (NYSE:CCL), Carnival PLC (NYSE:CUK), and archfoe Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL) make easy targets for snide jokesters. There's the whole Love Boat vibe, not to mention the occasional well-publicized outbreak of debilitating gastrointestinal mystery bugs.

But there's nothing to snicker at in Carnival's first-quarter financials. It's building on a solid past year, despite the abovementioned unpleasantness. Of course, Carnival didn't exist in the same capacity for the first quarter of 2003, before its April marriage to P&O Princess. But it released pro forma numbers in order for investors to compare this year's combined results with last year's separate filings.

Net revenue yields were mostly flat, though the overall number got a 4% bounce from currency fluctuations. Carnival managed to reduce its cruise operating costs, however, and this helped the company beat earnings estimates by three cents to post $0.25 per share. It looks for further growth this year, targeting a 10% increase in net revenue yields and earnings around $2.10 per share. It is rolling out four recently completed boats, including the largest passenger ship ever constructed, the Queen Mary 2, to help soak up the expected demand for capacity.

Investors ought to hope that Carnival rolls out a little free cash flow one of these days. The past few years of negative FCF have left the firm with $7 billion in long-term debt and $1 billion in cash. As feisty Fool Bill Mann points out today, all the other news is fluff, and in the end cash is what really matters. It's good to see the cruise line keeping its head above water, but Carnival needs to make like a seasick passenger and churn up the green.

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Fool contributor Seth Jayson has been talked by his mother-in-law into a family cruise next winter. Yeah, that should go well. He owns no stake in any companies mentioned above. View his Fool profile here.