A sea of changes await cruise passengers this year

Quantum of the Seas

Royal Caribbean worked with O3B, a company that brings Wi-Fi to developing countries, to launch fast, cheap Internet access on Quantum of the Seas. (Jonathan Atkin / PR Newswire)

By Dave Jones

Cruises Royal Caribbean International Mamma Mia! (musical) Dining and Drinking Lifestyle and Leisure Blue Man Group

Those are just some of the improvements you’ll find at sea in 2015. Along with getting bigger, ships are getting better, ushering in a new era of cruise ship as resort.

The insistence on formal attire and assigned seatings for dining has faded on some cruise lines. Today, you’re more likely to pack khakis than a tux or a ball gown, and meals are often on your schedule, not the ship’s.

The biggest change for the plugged-in passenger (and who isn’t connected these days?) is improved Internet access. At sea, access has been slow, expensive and not always reliable. Its sluggishness has kept travelers from uploading pictures efficiently (ouch, if you’re joined at the hip with, say, Instagram) and streaming videos.

Royal Caribbean worked with O3B, a company that brings Wi-Fi to developing countries, to launch faster, cheaper Internet access on Quantum of the Seas when it debuted in November, and the cruise line is rolling it out to Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas. The line also worked with Harris CapRock in 2013 to improve the digital speed on the rest of the fleet as well as its Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises brands.

In the spring, Viking Cruises launches the Viking Star with complimentary Wi-Fi. Although a few lines have offered free Wi-Fi as a bonus for frequent cruisers or a benefit in certain suites, this oceangoing line will offer it to everyone. (Maybe hotels will take notice?) These developments should have a ripple effect throughout the industry.

As for a different kind of consumption, cruise lines are increasingly letting passengers enjoy outdoor dining. Most ships have long offered casual dining by the pool but, come night time, most options have been indoors, a missed opportunity for those who want to enjoy balmy evenings in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean.

In the last couple of years, Crystal Cruises has added outdoor dining venues to ships that were in dry dock, and Norwegian Cruise Line is offering open-air tables as part of the Ocean Blue restaurant. Viking also is creating open-air options.

Entertainment is changing too. On some ships, the curtain is coming down on variety shows. Stage shows on large cruise ships are more often defined by partnerships with land-based production companies. Norwegian, for instance, is working with Blue Man Group and Burn the Floor (ballroom dancing with a Broadway flair). Norwegian also has partnered with the Grammy Awards and offers performances by Grammy winners and nominees on some journeys.

You’ll find abbreviated versions of Broadway musicals too: Norwegian offers “Legally Blonde” on Norwegian Getaway and “Rock of Ages” on Norwegian Breakaway; the line plans to launch “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” in October on Norwegian Epic. Royal Caribbean stages “Chicago” on Allure of the Seas, “Cats” on Oasis of the Seas and “Mamma Mia!” on Quantum of the Seas; it will launch “We Will Rock You” on Anthem of the Seas in April.

As perhaps the ultimate in improvements, you now have a greater number of cabin choices. In days past, you could specify inside, outside, balcony or a suite. Nowadays, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Cunard offer special “studio” cabins for single travelers who previously would have been assessed a single supplement for a solo spot.

If you’re in a lower-category cabin where space can be snug, some cruise lines are using technology to create a more open feeling. Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have LED screens designed to look like windows that show a view from the bridge so you can see what’s going on outside.


Cruise Tip of the Week

Check on newest amenities before you book

If you’ve fallen in love with a cruise line’s newest features — say, the skydiving simulator or robot bartenders on Royal Caribbean or the Guy Fieri-branded burger bar on Carnival — be sure to confirm before you book that your ship has the latest and greatest. Sometimes — but not always — lines retroactively add the most popular new features to older vessels. Check before you pay your deposit.

Happy Sailing!

All the sea’s a stage

By Tom Stieghorst
When Micky Arison began working on cruise ships in the 1970s, name-brand entertainment was scarce.

“We had a limbo dancer, a hostess and a singer,” the Carnival Corp. chairman recalled in a recent promotional video.

A Holland America Line show produced by RWS Associates.Four decades later, the limbo dancer has been replaced by far more recognizable talent. Olivia Newton-John, Chicago and LeAnn Rimes are among the names appearing on Carnival Cruise Lines ships this summer.

Each week, dozens of musicians, dancers, magicians, comics and other professional entertainers sail on each of Carnival Cruise Lines’ 24 ships. The biggest cruise lines operate facilities on land to train performers for shows at sea.

Even some luxury lines are employing cutting-edge video technology and aerialists of the type used in Las Vegas shows, striving to make their vessels as alluring as possible.

“Things have changed quite a bit,” Arison said.

Cruise entertainment is being reshaped by a combination of technology, changing consumer tastes, competition, growing ship size and a revolution in the way dining works on ships. (To see more examples of what cruise lines are doing in the entertainment department, click here or on any of the photos for a slideshow of images.)

Those improvements have enabled cruise lines to experiment with moving some entertainment from the cost side of their ledgers to the revenue side, with several on the cusp of charging guests for what was once free.

“For the first time, we’re seeing entertainment as driving revenue to the vessels,” said Nick Weir, vice president of entertainment for Royal Caribbean International.

Carnival started charging between $20 to $40 this year for seats at its Carnival Live concerts, and Weir hinted that Royal is exploring ways to follow suit on its ships.

Entertainment has changed in part because of the more flexible dining that has evolved on cruise ships over the past 10 years. Andy Stuart, executive vice president of global sales at Norwegian Cruise Line, said a passenger’s choice of shows used to be defined by early or late seating.

“It was dinner and a show,” Stuart said, when evening meals were limited to the main dining room.

But Norwegian had to rethink entertainment after it ditched the two-shift dining format in favor of its Freestyle Dining.

Now one of the hottest tickets on Norwegian’s newer ships is a theater that combines dinner and a show. The Illusionarium on the Norwegian Getaway and Cirque Dreams on the Norwegian Breakaway provide hour-long specialty shows with dinner for $29.99.

Blue Man Group in performance on the Norwegian Epic.Burn the Floor, a 45-minute pop ballroom dance show, is also staged in the middle of one of Norwegian’s main dining rooms.

In the main theater, Norwegian offers a licensed version of Broadway’s “Legally Blonde,” among other shows. It also pioneered the at-sea presentation of Blue Man Group, a Las Vegas mainstay.

“Everyone loves Blue Man Group,” said Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan. “But it is a little bit different than the traditional cruises with the old-fashioned Broadway shows, where everybody’s running around dancing and singing like they’ve been doing for 40 years on these ships.”

Other lines have also retired the flesh-and-feathers shows of yesteryear.

Out with the old

At Holland America Line, one of the big entertainment hits has been Dancing With the Stars at Sea, a program of dance lessons and theme cruises modeled on an audience-driven TV show.

Shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “American Idol” are changing audience expectations, said Lisa Lehr, executive director of entertainment development at New York-based RWS Associates, which produced six shows last year for Holland America.

“Your large-ensemble, everybody sings/ dances sort of showgirl-esque entertainment has seen its day,” Lehr said. “We’re definitely moving away from that.”

In addition to shows that make audiences the judges, cruise lines are breaking down the walls between entertainers and the audience.

80s Pop To The Max in the main theater on the Carnival Freedom.In a new main theater musical on Carnival, “88 Keys: The Rock N’ Roll Piano Show,” the piano-bar performer on the ship does a 30-minute warm-up, bringing his fans to the show.

Before another show, “Heart of Soul,” the cruise director has winners of a romantic-dedications contest read their entries. Prizes are awarded and flowers are given ahead of the show.

Performers gradually take the stage at the start of the show from seats in the audience.

Carnival is one of many cruise lines to deploy new technologies in entertainment. One game changer has been the adoption of video walls; the large, mobile scenery panels, which use LED screens, have made stage backgrounds far more interesting and versatile.

“That opens a world of storytelling,” Lehr said. “We’re able to create the Princess Forest. We’re able to take you to the Queen of Hearts tea party, and the Mad Hatter tea party, without having to bring on large set pieces that there’s nowhere to store on a cruise ship.”

On the Carnival Freedom, a performance of “Heart of Soul” starts with an LED-panel depiction of a wooden dock building itself, plank by plank, into a lake. Later in the show, the screens depict fireflies in a forest. Changing skylines seamlessly turn the Golden Gate Bridge into the Brooklyn Bridge. Vegetation grows, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk style, and the stars, moon and mountains form the backdrop for a rendition of “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).”

LED panels debuted on cruise ships several years ago and are now found on most major cruise lines, as well as in Las Vegas and on touring Broadway shows and at big rock concerts.

And now 3-D

The next big thing in scenery on ships will be the 3-D projection system developed for Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas.

A rendering of the Two70 aft lounge on the Quantum of the Seas.Weir said the Vistarama system of 18 projectors offers a higher-definition image than LED panels. The projectors will throw scenes on the three-story, 270-degree wrap-around windows in the ship’s aft lounge as a background for performances in the evening.

On the Quantum’s main stage, guests will hear a performance on a theater-sized harp and a wall of drums, as well as see a woman whose costume can be played like a violin.

At 167,800 gross tons, the Quantum is typical of a new generation of ships that can accommodate two or more dynamic performance venues. Bigger ships also mean more crew quarters, so performers don’t have to staff the ship’s library or kids club in their off hours.

“There was a time when every berth had to work an enormous amount for it to be valid,” Weir said. “That’s not the case when you’ve got a city the size of Oasis of the Seas.”

Better performers are one result, he said.

With 104 shows being presented on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises in any given week, the need to recruit and retain performers has increased. Royal has outgrown its training space in Hollywood, Fla., and is building a $20 million rehearsal theater at Florida International University.

The 130,000-square-foot theater is about half built, Weir said, adding that it’s expected to open in January. Norwegian Cruise Line opened a 46,000-square-foot studio in Tampa in January. Carnival trains performers in Miami; Princess Cruises rehearses in Los Angeles.

RWS is also hoping to attract more cruise ship work by building a 31,000-square-foot space in Long Island City in New York City. It wants to capitalize on its background and experience producing corporate events, theme park shows and mall entertainment as well as its connections to talent.

Performers in training at Norwegian Creative Studios in Tampa.“The beauty of us being in New York City is we’re really on the pulse of what’s new and exciting happening in entertainment today,” Lehr said. “We’re really able to hand-pick those creative minds and creative talents to bring cutting-edge and innovative programming.”

Although main-stage musicals have always been the foundation of cruise entertainment, today’s bigger ships allow for a greater number of small acts in more parts of the ship.

Royal Caribbean, for example, has retooled the atriums on some of its ships as evening performance spaces for aerialists.

At Carnival, the trend is shorter shows with smaller casts, complemented by more musical groups in the atrium, casino, bars and lounges, as well as comedy at the line’s Punchliner Club.

Jim Berra, chief marketing officer at Carnival, said guests expressed frustration when they couldn’t see both the main stage show and a Punchliner show in one evening.

“They don’t want to have to trade off,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is distribute more entertainment throughout the ship.”

Skip Lyons, cruise director on the Carnival Freedom, said that when he started working on Carnival ships 18 years ago, there was a 10-piece pit band for production shows.

Today only three ships retain the 10-piece band. The other 21 use recorded music in the main theater.

A Carnival Live performance by REO Speedwagon.“The band might not be in the show, but while the show is on, we can be entertaining guests elsewhere on the ship because the band is now playing around the ship,” Lyons said.

In the 1990s, he recalled, Carnival ships had two production shows during a seven-week cruise that employed a cast of 16 made up of two singers, two acrobatic adage performers and 12 dancers.

Today, on most ships, Carnival does four shows a week with a cast of eight — four dancers who also sing and four singers who also dance, Lyons said. Show lengths are typically 35 to 40 minutes, down from an hour or more in the past.

Earlier this year, Carnival upgraded its house band as part of the new Carnival Live program, which brings well-known acts onboard for in-port shows in Nassau, Cancun and California’s Catalina Island.

The shows are typically staged on weekdays when celebrity performers such as Jennifer Hudson or Trace Adkins are often idle.

Carnival’s Berra said the concept has been a success, with many shows sold out.

“It’s a great opportunity for [the cruise lines] to increase their earnings,” he said.

The initial series of 49 concerts concludes Dec. 15 in Nassau with a show by rock band REO Speedwagon. Berra said details of a second season will be announced this fall.

Thinking bigger in smaller venues

Smaller ships pose a challenge because they don’t have as many venues for entertainment. But ships on the larger end of the luxury scale are mounting shows that mimic their bigger brethren.

Crystal Serenity is home to iLuminate.At Crystal Cruises, the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity is home to iLuminate, in which performers are costumed in wired suits that show only the outlines of lights in a darkened theater.

The concept, pioneered on the TV show “America’s Got Talent,” creates some startling effects, such as a robot that appears to juggle several of its own heads. On Broadway, tickets start at $68.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises recently retooled the two-story theater on the Seven Seas Mariner to accommodate LED-panel walls and more aerial performers in a new, Cirque du Soleil-style production.

“In the finale of our shows we may have six of our 12 performers flying in the air at once,” said Michael Day, vice president of entertainment at Regent and sister line Oceania Cruises. “That’s something you don’t see on many ships, even ships much, much larger than our ships.”

Regent uses Jean Ann Ryan Productions for its shows, a veteran company that created cruise versions of Broadway shows when Norwegian first introduced that kind of entertainment in the 1980s.

While charging for marquee talent like performers in Carnival Live might be the wave of the future, for now it is an unusual revenue model. Most cruise entertainment remains free ­– and a bargain, cruise executives say.

Sheehan pointed to Blue Man Group as an example.

“When you think about it, it’s an $80 or $90 show in Vegas, and people can watch it for free as part of their cruise fare,” he said.

Another example is the upcoming production of the musical “Mamma Mia” on Quantum; it will be the first full-length Broadway musical staged at sea, complete with an intermission.

Weir tells a story of seeing a three-generation family group of 15 in the front row of a production of “Saturday Night Fever” on the Liberty of the Seas. “I remember thinking, ’15 people at a Broadway show — that’s a $3,000 night out, and yet at Royal it’s on the house.'”

Whether free or paid, top entertainment helps keep cruises competitive with mass-market destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando. But Weir said the goal going forward is to set trends, not merely match them.

“We’re on the map now,” he said. “We’re like an entertainment leader. No single entertainment operation under one roof is doing what we’re doing: ice shows, aqua shows, Broadway shows, and now we’re going to be doing multimedia shows. And we do it all in-house.”

The bottom line, Weir said, is that “we’ve become valid, and we’ve become huge.”

The 20 Best ‘Free’ Things to Do on a Cruise 

Cruise travelers who feel like they get onboard and immediately start emptying their pockets of nickels and dimes are not alone. Today’s mainstream mega-ships offer an ever-increasing number of eating, drinking and entertainment options that levy fees atop the base fare. Long gone are the days when a perilous bar bill was the only onboard financial concern. Surcharges and add-ons are here to stay.

But there are plenty of noteworthy experiences still included in the ticket price, including Vegas-style shows, thin crust pizza and simple pleasures like free toothpaste or shaving cream. Sure, (optional) surcharges are the new at-sea reality, but it’s still more than possible to find $0.00 on your final bill. Check out our list of the best “free” cruise offerings, and share your own favorites in the comments below.

  • Wondering what’s not included in the fare? See our story on hidden fees — and how to fight back.

1. Blue Man Group. Norwegian Epic is one of only a handful of venues in the world where you can watch the confused blue mutes of the Blue Man Group perform their out-of-this-world percussion-and-paint mime melee — and it’s surcharge free. So put on your poncho, and get ready to get splattered.

2. Cruising’s Best Pizza. Long prized by Cruise Critic readers for its best-at-sea slices, Carnival gave its cooked-to-order pizza a makeover on Carnival Breeze in 2012. And it got better. We’re not talking wood-fired-from-Naples good, but the palate-pleasing pies exhibit an impressive balance of (thin) crust, sauce and cheese — and they come fresh from the convection oven fee-free. It’s rolled out that pizza on numerous ships across the line.

3. Sunset Over the Ocean. It’s one of the most beautiful sights in nature, and it doesn’t cost a 15-cent piece extra. Grab a loved one’s hand (or your favorite cocktail), walk over to the ship’s railing, and take a deep breath. You’ve seen it before, sure, but watching the sunset over the ocean never fails to give you that, “I’m on vacation, and life is good” moment. Enjoy.

4. Ham & Cheese Croissant-wiches. When is a sandwich more than just sliced bread and filling? When it’s Royal Caribbean’s addictive ham and cheese mini-croissant, a flaky, cheese-y, three-bite morsel topped with lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. The fee-free mini-wich has long been a staple in Royal Caribbean’s signature 24-hour Cafe Promenade. One word of warning: Post-cruise ‘wich withdrawal can be severe.

5. Big-Screen Wii Battles. If you’ve been honing your video-gaming skills, but never had an audience who could appreciate your expertise, you’re in luck. The entire Norwegian Cruise Line fleet is outfitted with Nintendo’s interactive gaming system, Wii. “Boxing,” “bowling” and other tournaments are offered on most sailings. We recommend you show off properly on the two-story screen in the atrium.

6. All-You-Can Eat Indian. To us, the lack of line for Carnival’s fee-free Tandoor dining option is hard to fathom. The aromatic grab-and-go counter, typically open for lunch, serves up Indian comfort food made by the line’s Indian cooks. Dig into grilled meats and fish, curries, daals and basmati rice alongside essential accouterments like mint chutney, raita and achar (pickle).

7. Dancing Lessons. Country line-dancing, waltz and tango, the electric slide — cruise ships are great places to try out a variety of dance genres without enrolling in Arthur Murray classes (which would levy a fee besides). It’s okay to have two left feet — until you try out your new steps during pre-dinner live music. The couples there have been burning up dance floors for decades. And on P&O Cruises there’s also the opportunity to learn some moves from the professional dancers of Strictly Come Dancing onboard selected sailings.

8. Milk and Cookies. You’re lounging poolside in the afternoon, and all of a sudden you get a craving for something sweet — but you’re perfectly comfortable and don’t want to move. What do you do? If you’re onboard a Princess cruise, you relax while the waitstaff bring over fresh, soft-baked cookies and ice-cold milk. And then you silently wish that you could afford to employ someone to do the same for you at home.

9. Free Cabin Toiletries. We can’t figure out why, but finding Carnival’s famous complimentary in-cabin toiletry baskets always inspires a stupid grin. Inclusions rotate, but on our last Carnival cruise, we sucked on cherry Ludens, and kept hair frizz-free with Pantene conditioner and teeth from turning brown with Arm & Hammer whitening toothpaste. It’s the little things.

10. Surfing at Sea. At-sea surf simulators first debuted onFreedom of the Seas, offering passengers a chance to surf and boogie-board, minus the ocean. It’s now on a number of ships throughout the Royal Caribbean fleet. Although it’s free to participate, you’ll have to sign a waiver, hold on to your bikini top and embrace the possibility of public humiliation by way of wipeout. Not the daredevil type? It’s also free to grab a seat on the nearby bleachers and enjoy the spills.

11. AquaSpa Cafe. With its AquaSpa Cafe concept, Celebrity Cruises is out to prove that healthy cruising is not an oxymoron. The bathrobed, post-gym or -spa treatment crowd flock to the fee-free venue, which proffers salads, sushi and other light-fare foods alongside a few a la carte items (grilled pork, poached salmon). The standard location, Celebrity’s lovely adults-only, glass-covered Solarium, provides just the right backdrop for the guilt-free offerings.

12. Poolside Milkshakes. Most ships do free soft-serve ice cream, but Oceania Cruises steps it up a notch with three flavors of milkshakes (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry) made to order by the pool deck. The ambience is way nicer than a diner, but the treat is just as tasty.

13. Outdoor Movies. The flicks may not be first-run, but admission is free, and you can bring in treats from your cabin or the buffet without having to smuggle them under your jacket. Lido Deck movie screens are even more romantic than the real deal, with prime viewing from the pool by day and on snuggly loungers covered with warm blankets (and popcorn!) at night.

14. Climbing the Mast. Tall ship line Star Clippers lets you embrace your inner pirate by allowing passengers to climb one of the masts up to a crow’s nest lookout. As you sway gently, high above the ocean, you’ll get one-of-a-kind views — if your eyes aren’t shut tight in acrophobic terror. (Don’t worry though: the line doesn’t let anyone climb without a harness.)

15. People-watching. There is no better free entertainment than positioning a chair in a high-traffic zone on the pool deck, promenade or atrium and watching the antics of your shipmates. From fashion snafus to bizarre behavior and juicy conversations overheard, what you witness on a cruise ship can rival the best reality TV.

16. Time to Make Eat the Donuts. Sick of paying extra for sweets at the “specialty cafe”? Step out onto Oasis of the Seas‘ Coney Island-style Boardwalk, and grab a surcharge-free donut at the onboard, er, donut shop. With a rotating lineup of flavors from glazed to key lime, you’re sure to find something you’ll like. (Coffee and other items are also available there, but you’ll pay up to $4 for them.)

17. Broadway Onboard. In the mood to see a Broadway show without paying Broadway ticket prices? You’re in luck. Check out “Hairspray” on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, “Chicago” on Allure of the Seas, “Saturday Night Fever” on Liberty of the Seas, “Rock of Ages” on Norwegian Breakaway or “Legally Blonde: the Musical” on Norwegian Getaway. You can also catch West End and TV stars such as illusionist Derren Brown and classical singing star Russell Watson. And the best thing about this entertainment? — it’s all gratis.

18. Bathrobes for All. Carnival takes a proletariat approach to cabins — there are no 1,000-square-foot suites with baby grand pianos on the Fun Ships. And everyone, from the inside cabin occupier to the passenger in the modest-sized suite, gets a bathrobe. Who is to decree that only cruisers with money should be able to spend their post-shower moments in comfort? Not Carnival. (Note: Holland America also provides robes to all.)

19. Coronary Burgers. If you’re craving a complimentary heart attack on a bun, give one (or several) of Guy Fieri’s burgers a try at Guy’s Burger Joint. This fee-free venue will be added to the pool decks of 14 Carnival ships through 2015, offering burgers on buttered buns with a choice of toppings like blue cheese crumbles, onion rings and chipotle mayonnaise.

20. Mini-Golf. For anyone who wants to avoid crowds and catch some sun without lazing by the pool, top-deck mini-golf is a great option — and it’s free. Offered on some Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Disney, Princess and MSC ships, to name a few, the courses generally aren’t a full 18 holes, but they can still be challenging, as your putting will be affected by the ship’s movement. For an even more competitive twist, join a mini-golf competition, usually offered once per sailing.

–by the Cruise Critic Staff