Cruise lines have not come close to enticing all the potential cruisers in North America to try at least one vacation at sea, or so they say.
But cruising may already have exhausted the pool of people who want to sit for a long, three-course dinner in a big dining room every night for a week. That would explain the trend away from huge dining areas and toward the growing numbers of alternative eating choices at sea, including such casual evening fare as pizzas, tapas and pub grub.
Desperate to lure more first-timers to their vessels, especially in the Caribbean, mainstream cruise lines are redesigning dining, They are adding innovative activities and entertainment experiences for their new ships and on older vessels, working to provide the kinds of choices that North Americans prefer when they vacation on land.
With each new class of ship, the larger mainstream cruise lines — Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean — draw closer to that image of a land resort that floats. They are offering water parks, ropes courses, Broadway plays, edgy shows, and other high-quality entertainment. These additions replace somewhat tired production numbers that used to send passengers back to their cabins early, curtailing the ships’ opportunities for lucrative late-night beverage-selling.
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Royal Caribbean, which scored a huge financial success on Oasis and Allure of the Seas, sailing the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale, is also the next mainstream cruise line to hit the market with a new class of big ships.
Royal Caribbean’s 4,180-passenger Quantum of the Seas will debut in New York in November, with robots, bumper cars, a skydiving experience, and, most important, 18 restaurants — some included in the cruise rate, some fee-based — but no main dining room.
Replacing a big dining room, where the menu changes each night for 2,000-plus passengers, Quantum will have five smaller, multi-course restaurants. As with the typical main dining rooms on most other ships, the cost for meals will be included in the cruise rate. Four of the restaurant, each seating about 430 will be available to all passengers. The fifth, Coastal Kitchen, with a capacity of 128, will be open exclusively to people in the ship’s suites and their guests.
Each of these five dining rooms on Quantum will have its own menu and style. American Icon Grill will serve regional favorites, comfort-style. Chic will serve contemporary cuisine in a room that Royal Caribbean describes as glamorous and sophisticated. Silk will have a Pan-Asian menu. The Grande, which will feature classic dishes for dinner, including lobster, will have a stricter dress code; each night will be formal night. Coastal Kitchen will serve California-style cuisine.
There will be no set dining times and no assigned seats — a big change in cruise traditions. Passengers could book the same restaurant each night, but they will have an incentive to try different dining rooms, as the menu in each of the five will remain the same throughout the cruise (or, for the unadventurous, you could choose in any of the five an alternative menu with steak, chicken, salmon, or pasta).
Quantum’s plan — Royal Caribbean is calling it Dynamic Dining — seems to be a natural progression from the eat-anytime Freestyle concept that has been evolving since it was introduced a decade ago by Norwegian Cruise Line. Since then, flexible eating schedules and additional choices have been adopted, in one form or another, by most other cruise lines. As a result, each year fewer and fewer passengers request dinner at a regularly scheduled early or late seating in a main dining room.
More important to new cruisers is the list of specialty restaurant choices — i.e. for an extra fee — which grows with each new ship class. Quantum of the Seas, for instance, is touting Jamie’s Italian by British chef Jamie Oliver; Michael’s Genuine Pub from Miami chef Michael Schwartz; and Devinly Decadence, with food under 500 calories as designed by Devin Alexander, from the television show, The Biggest Loser.
Specialty restaurants carry cover charges, which also seem to rise with each new ship class. On Quantum of the Seas, the top restaurant charge listed by Royal Caribbean is at its Wonderland restaurant, where chefs will display their inventive talents at $45 per person.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com