I normally arrive a day early for cruise departures, but have made an exception for a cruise out of the Port of Miami. I came three days early this time in order to photograph some representative heavyweights of cruising, megaships of MSC, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival that are currently in port. All are overwhelmingly huge and seeing most of the attractions onboard would require at least a four-day cruise on each. I only have a few hours on each while they are in port in order to form my impressions, to do some quick comparisons of features, and to get my photos.
Cruise ships are no longer the staid vessels with the same standard activities and venues industry wide. Over the past decade a transformation has taken place. They have been converted from floating hotels — usually with a pool and shuffleboard — into dynamic floating cities competing to provide innovations that either provide something for everyone or attract, or solidify their hold on, a particular customer niche. Water slides and flying bicycles for families, rock climbing walls and surf riding for young adults, and hit Broadway musicals and five-star restaurants for the sophisticated traveler are just a few examples. On the environmental front, there appears to be a trend developing to build new ships that run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), an environmentally friendly fuel that produces nearly zero emissions.
The megaships are the biggest in the world in terms of passenger capacity– up to 6,780 at double occupancy — and up to twenty decks. Symphony of the Seas is now the largest of the Oasis-class ships from Royal Caribbean. The first of the class, the decade-old Oasis of the Seas is currently receiving a $165 million upgrade, to be completed in November, to catch up with developments on the other three members of the class. An additional Oasis-class ship is reportedly on order with another in the planning stage.
Cruise writers and bloggers have invented a few interesting analogies to describe the megaship. The first analogy applied to the largest fleet of megas, the Oasis-class ships of the Royal Caribbean Line is that their split “open-atrium” central promenade designs make them resemble balcony-laden floating condominiums. Their structure is made possible by their hulls extraordinary width of 215 feet, double most other cruise ships, that permits more space for amenities and roomier staterooms. With shopping, restaurant, and plant-filled outdoor areas running down the middle of the ship – dubbed Central Park on Oasis-class ships — and verandas on all decks, a “megamall on waves” is another analogy that seems somewhat applicable.
Features of the current modernization includes a reimagined, Caribbean-inspired pool deck that will feature a Splashaway Bay kids aquapark and The Lime & Coconut signature two-story plus sun roof bar; famed Quantum Class staple, Music Hall; the Perfect Storm trio of waterslides, and the Ultimate Abyss – the tallest slide at sea. Debuting alongside this lineup is the cruise line’s ?rst barbecue concept, Portside BBQ.
Royal Caribbean’s renovation of Victory-class ships started with Navigator of the Seas that has received an eye-popping $115 million of new, next-level features. As examples, consider The Blaster, the longest aqua coaster at sea; Riptide, the industry’s only head-first mat racer waterslide; a reimagined poolscape reflecting Caribbean vibes; and To Dry For, a first-ever standalone blow-dry bar at sea.
Other cruise lines are hustling to keep up or forge ahead. In a rather off-the-wall and above-the-water design innovation, Celebrity’s Edge-class ships, Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex, sport the innovative, if a bit gimmicky, Magic Carpet, a cantilevered deck on the starboard side of ship that transforms into a restaurant. The tennis court size Magic Carpet literally flies, of sorts, by being lifted from water level to the top decks of the ship. It’s most practical use would seem to be getting passengers on and off tenders.
A less touted innovation on the Edge-class ships is the Rooftop Garden. If you’ve walked on the upper deck of any ship with glare from the midday sun reflecting off every flat surface, then you’ll appreciate the improvement live plants can make to soften the environment.
MSC’s 5,714 capacity Meraviglia megaship, and larger still 6,300 passenger Meraviglia Plus ships, Grandiosa and Virtuosa include an extended 364 feet-long indoor central Mediterranean-style promenade housing a range of restaurants, bars and shops that are covered by a “digital sky” LED screen showing events and vistas overhead. In addition, MSC’s new flagship MSC Bellissima boasts retail space of 8,072 square feet under 262 feet of LED dome to offer an expanding list of luxury brands to its guests.
Meraviglia’s popular outdoor water park and double-deck indoor amusement park concepts are also carried over to the Plus ships. Most lines with megaships now compete with water parks filled with slides, cannons, and assorted means of creating splash zones. Carnival Vista introduced its Kaleid-o-slide features 455 feet of twists, turns, and visual effects. Soon thereafter Royal Caribbean debuted two thrilling water slides on the Navigator of the Seas, the Riptide that plunges riders head first, and the Blaster, that uses jets to thrust guests on a two-person raft up and down an 800-foot course.
Not to be outdone in the resorts-at-sea competition, Norwegian Bliss also has some awesome water slides and go-karts where drivers can reach speeds up to 30 mph while navigating a two-level racecourse. Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway have the Free Fall with a trap door that opens suddenly for a five-story drop.
Other cruise lines, such as Holland America are also following the open concept trend of more spacious atriums. The deck plan for their Nieuw Statendam features a dramatic three-deck-high atrium in the center of the ship capped by a ceiling skylight that serves as a backdrop for subtly changing high-definition projections both day and night. Constellations of the night sky are one of the dramatic projections meant to awe guests.
Royal Caribbean, Disney, and MSC have adopted wristband technology that enables passengers to reserve restaurants and spa treatments, make payments, and use geo-locate technology that can track their children on the ship. On Princess MedallionClass ships passengers will be equipped with a quarter-sized device called an OceanMedallion” that will electronically open doors and serve as a personal concierge of sorts while onboard.
Carnival’s 5,200-passenger megaship Mardi Gras has three decks of fun with the largest water park on a Carnival ship. Dubbed the Ultimate Playground, the ultimate attraction is the first-ever roller coaster at sea, “BOLT: Ultimate Sea Coaster.” Carnival has also introduced 4-D movies on their Breeze, Horizon and Vista ships. Dubbed the Thrill Theater, the theater’s fourth dimension is a sensory experience provided by elements such as fans, mist spray, and vibrating seats. As for those flying bicycles, Carnival’s Vista, Horizon and Panorama are the ships now featuring that unique sensory experience.
All the whiz-bang gadgetry being offered on megaships is certainly impressive. There is a feeling created of being happily immersed in theme parks with adventure-after-adventure lurking around ever corner of the ship. It all seems somewhat ostentatious, yet fascinating. With all of this on board, some critics have even wondered why anyone would ever get off the ship at port stops.
Story and photos courtesy of Dennis Cox.