Travel

2014’s fleet is evidence of how cruises and ships have changed

Carnival says it will continue to focus on its Serenity adults-only retreats — like this one on Carnival Sunshine — as it caters to what guests say they want out of a vacation.
Carnival says it will continue to focus on its Serenity adults-only retreats — like this one on Carnival Sunshine — as it caters to what guests say they want out of a vacation. Carnival Cruise Lines

In eight days, the Regal Princess will arrive in Fort Lauderdale for its christening. The newest in South Florida’s fleet of cruise ships, the Regal Princess came out of the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy in June and has been cruising in Europe.

Regal Princess will sail Caribbean cruises out of Fort Lauderdale until mid-April, then head to Europe. Holding the Nov. 5 ceremony at Port Everglades — the christening will include the cast of The Love Boat as the ship’s godparents — will signal that finally, it is home.

The Regal Princess will be one of only two new ships to home port in South Florida this year — the Norwegian Getaway arrived at PortMiami in February. It is the second ship in its class. The first, Royal Princess, entered service in June 2013 and alternates seasonally between Caribbean cruises from Port Everglades and European cruises. It doesn’t bristle with top-deck water slides or extreme playground equipment, so it will not make as much of a splash as Quantum of the Seas, the new Royal Caribbean ship arriving in New Jersey the following week with robot bartenders, bumper cars and simulated skydiving.

The Regal Princess is a ship of its era, though, with current design hallmarks: balconies on all outside cabins; an elegant three-deck atrium that functions as a dining and entertainment center; a larger spa with a hydrotherapy pool; more restaurant choices, private cabanas and an expanded adults-only area on the sun deck; more space for kids divided into clubs for four age groups, and SeaWalk, a glass-floor walkway that extends 28 feet beyond the edge of the top deck with a dizzying view of the ocean 128 feet below.

But most of all, it’s big. Along with last year’s Royal Princess, the Regal Princess is a 3,569-passenger, 142,229-ton ship, the line’s biggest.

Across the fleet, ships are bigger. Much bigger. In 2000, the largest ship to debut for a major U.S. cruise line was Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas — 137,308 tons, 3,114 passengers. The biggest ships on the water now are Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas — 225,282 tons, 5,400 passengers.

In the midsize range, Holland America is building its biggest ship yet, ms Koningsdam, 2,650 guests and 99,000 tons, to launch in February 2016, compared to Nieuw Amsterdam, which debuted five years ago at 86,273 tons and 2,106 guests.

In the first five years of the millennium, 2000 through 2004, the average number of staterooms per new ship was 987. For the last five years, 2010 through the end of this year, the average number of staterooms per new ship was 1,407. That’s 43 percent more staterooms per ship.

Even the small luxury ships are getting bigger. Coming into the 21st century, the Yachts of Seabourn had three 208-passenger vessels. From 2009 to 2011, it built three 458-passenger ships. Last year Seabourn sold its smaller ships and contracted to build a 604-passenger vessel, scheduled to enter service in mid-2016. In recognition of its larger ships, the line dropped “Yachts” from its name.

“When you think about how ships have changed in the last 15 years, certainly they’re bigger. That’s an obvious difference,” said Rick Meadows, president of Seabourn and executive vice president of its sister company, Holland America Line. “But what’s wonderful is the space has provided a platform for considerable innovation … for choices … for the guest to really receive an experience that is differentiated and just that much more personalized.”

Cruise line executives often talk about how today’s amenities give passengers choices that make cruising a more customized experience. The increase in size was key. The additional space made room not only for more staterooms but also for bigger spas and fitness centers, more performance spaces, larger and more diverse children’s play areas, more restaurants, adult-only areas, elaborate water parks, and recreational facilities that include zip lines, surf pools, ropes courses, parks, boardwalks, skating rinks, rock-climbing walls, and more.

Those amenities, in turn, changed the cruise experience. Ships now offer so much to do that many passengers go on a cruise for what’s on the ship rather than where the ship is going. Some don’t even get off the ship when it’s in port.

On big ships, a week may not be long enough to sample all the entertainment choices, which, depending on the ship, may include multiple theatrical productions, musical performances, jazz clubs, comedy clubs, magicians and illusionists, character breakfasts and parades, and aquatic shows.

“All of the entertainment, all of the options to entertain yourself and have fun, that resonates around the families, with babies and kids and teenagers,” said Kevin Sheehan, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, whose three newest ships are among the world’s 10 biggest cruise ships. “They’ve got Broadway shows and ropes courses and plenty of things to keep busy.”

Norwegian’s two newest ships have the Waterfront, an oceanfront promenade lined with open-air bars and restaurants. “When you go out there on a nice evening, it is packed,” Sheehan said. “This is what you have the ability to do when the ship is a little bit bigger.”

But Sheehan said he doesn’t want to build anything bigger, and others said the size of cruise ships may have topped out with Oasis and Allure.

“I think we’ve reached maximum size,” said Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships) guides. I don’t think you’ll find cruise lines wanting to build ships larger than Oasis.”

“It was a leap of faith to build a ship that big,” said Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Royal Caribbean’s executive vice president for operations. “We always thought we would build only two.” Quantum of the Seas, in fact, is smaller, at 168,666 tons and 4,180 passengers. But the Oasis-class ships “were so successful that we are building two more,” she said, scheduled to debut in 2016 and 2018.

DINING

Perhaps no aspect of cruising has changed as much as the dining experience. In 2000 almost all meals were served in the main dining room — with assigned seating, rigid serving times and dressy clothes for dinner — and the lido deck buffets. Alternative restaurants were just beginning to take hold.

Norwegian led the way in changing those traditions with its freestyle dining, and today its newest ships don’t even have main dining rooms. Instead, guests choose when and where they want to eat, from a variety of restaurants, some included in the basic cruise fare, some charging additional fees.

Similarly, Royal Caribbean’s next ship, Quantum of the Seas, will replace its main dining room with four smaller restaurants that will give guests more choices of cuisines, environments and levels of formality without any additional cost. At the Grande, for example, which will serve classics like beef Wellington and sole almondine, every night is formal night.

Cruise ships already offer a wide array of choices, even in the main dining room, where many ships change the menus daily. “And still people say there is not enough variety,” Lutoff-Perlo said. “When you dig a little deeper, you find it’s not about the menu. It’s about the environment. No matter what you put on the menu … you could do a theme menu in the dining room, you could do an Asian night, for example, but if you’re still sitting in the same room, it feels like nothing has changed.”

Douglas Ward predicts that eventually, most new-builds won’t have a main dining room.

Guests “are looking for a choice of experiences. They want to be in control of their culinary experience and they really want to have choices,” Meadows said, adding that Holland America’s next ship will have the standard Pinnacle and Tamarind restaurants and Dive-In burgers as well as some new choices that the company is not ready to announce. “It’s a combination of managing your innovative dining venue (and) having standard venues that the guests know and expect,” he said.

STATEROOMS

As the demographics of the passengers have changed, so have the accommodations. More ships have staterooms designed specifically for families and have added connected cabins for extended families traveling together.

Some, notably Norwegian, have smaller rooms for solo travelers. “That’s an underserved market that really does deserve attention,” Sheehan said. His line put 128 cabins for singles, plus a lounge exclusively for them, on the Norwegian Epic and 59 on its Breakaway and Getaway. Other lines, including Cunard, have added cabins for singles, but in much smaller numbers.

MSC and Norwegian, both among lower-priced lines, have enclaves for guests who want a more upscale experience, with exclusive pools, restaurants and other amenities.

“It’s like anywhere else — you pay for exclusivity,” Ward said. In these enclaves, “they get a separate restaurant, probably get priority in spa reservations, alternate dining reservations. You might even get one or two alternative restaurants included at no extra charge.”

Staterooms with balconies or verandahs have become hugely popular, a trend that started in the 20th century and has continued to grow. On U.S. ships built from 2000 through 2004, 54 percent of cabins had balconies; on ships built in the last five years, that percentage has grown to 65 percent.

Cruise lines report that one of the biggest trends in cruising has been an increase in children traveling as well as more multi-generational travel — parents, children, grandparents, maybe aunts, uncles and cousins.

Many ships have beefed up their children’s play areas on newer ships, expanding their size and programs and dividing the larger space among age groups instead of the old one-size-fits-all facilities.

At the same time, lines from Carnival to Disney have added space to get away from the kids with adult-only pools, deck space and restaurants.

An earlier version of this article omitted the fact that the Royal Princess sails European cruises part of the year. Also, Royal Caribbean has updated the tonnage figure for Quantum of the Seas.

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