You can ride 30 mph race cars on a new cruise ship
Seventeen stories up from the ocean, riders slip on their black balaclavas, strap into black-and-red electric go-karts adorned with racing stripes and secure their black helmets before zooming up onto the longest race track at sea.
The ride can last eight laps — if you're fast enough — with cars speeding up to 30 mph with the aid of a "boost" button on the steering wheel. Cars zip around eight hairpin turns and across two decks. And drivers will inadvertently smash into each other or skid on the hot rubber track.
It's exhilarating and intense — and that's exactly what Norwegian Cruise Line was going for when it put the track on its latest ship: Norwegian Bliss.
"It's not just different for the sake of being different, it’s an activity that people are going to love, they are going to have fun and that is also going to be unexpected on a ship," said Andy Stuart, president and CEO of Miami-based NCL. "You do an image of a race track on top of the ship and everybody stops and they raise an eyebrow."
The race track isn't new to cruises or Norwegian; the feature debuted on the line's ship in China, Norwegian Joy, last year. But it is new to North American cruisers and about 40 percent larger than its predecessor.
With Bliss, Norwegian wants to one-up itself in almost every area, including luxury, activities, dining and entertainment.
This week, media, politicians and travel agents got a preview of the 4,004-passenger vessel, which is on its way to its first homeport in Seattle for summer sailings to Alaska. The ship will return to Miami in the winter for seven-day trips to the eastern Caribbean.
"I would rate this ship in my top five ever," said travel agent Don Rennard, who owns a Clearwater-based franchise of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.
Rennard, who has been on more than 20 cruises, said Bliss will likely appeal to several kinds of travelers. Kids and millennials will like the adventurous features, parents will like the entertainment and dining options and grandparents will enjoy the all-glass, 180-degree view observation lounge or NCL's signature, the Haven, he said.
The Haven, Norwegian's ship-within-a-ship concept, got a boost on Bliss. The luxury area with private pool deck, restaurant and concierge was expanded to include 50 suites inside the complex and another 30 outside. Suites range in size from 324 to 1,458 square feet.
Norwegian has also added 74 connecting mini-suite staterooms for large family parties. Oceanview and balcony rooms can also be connected for larger groups. For solo travelers, 82 studios, each about 99 square feet, are available on Bliss. These, too, can connect for friends traveling together.
"Norwegian speaks to a wide market," said travel agent Robin Matthews, owner of a Boca Raton-based Dream Vacations franchise. "I like the design [of this ship]. NCL has always led the industry in innovation."
For the adventurous
But innovation comes with a premium.
Bliss' highlight feature, the Race Track, costs $7 per person per ride.
Also a premium and another Norwegian first in the U.S. is an open-air laser tag course on the 20th deck of the ship, which is themed to look like an abandoned space station. Players divide into a blue team and a red team and have to try to zap each other with large black laser guns that include features like rapid fire and shields. The high-energy game lasts about 10 minutes from start to finish and costs $5 per day session.
Around the corner from the laser tag is Ocean Loops, a free-fall water slide that shoots riders out the side of the ship and up over two loops. The water slide's walls are clear in some portions, allowing the crowd below to see as riders slide up over the loops.
But beware, petite riders: On the media cruise, multiple adult female riders did not get enough momentum to go over the first loop, causing them to slide backwards. Norwegian has built in a trap door area to the slide in the event someone doesn't make it along the first loop, which allows them to come out of the tube. Stuart, the line's president and CEO, said the ship is working to adjust the water pressure on the slide. And crew have another suggestion too: Make sure to cross your feet.
Other recreational features include a inner tube slide with an option for tandem sliding, though the weight limit is 200 pounds for both riders combined; a Kids Aqua Park; a video arcade; a teen lounge; a playroom for babies and toddlers; a fully-equipped fitness center and the Mandara Spa, which features 24 treatment rooms, a salon, barber shop and thermal suite. If the thermal suite is too hot, guests can try the Snow Room, where the temperature is a chilly 21 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and where snow flurries fall throughout the day.
Norwegian's new Texas smokehouse, Q, is the latest in the cruise line's specialty dining offerings. The authentic barbecue experience was developed under the careful watch of Norwegian's head of vessel operations, Robin Lindsey, Stuart said.
"It's taken us years. We've talked about barbecue for a long time and until we could do it right we didn’t want to do it," Stuart said.
Lindsey, a proud Texan, tasted everything and added his aunt's generations-old banana pudding recipe, which is served to guests in a mason jar, to the menu. Still, there have been some snags. The meats are smoked off the ship, for example, Stuart said.
"It's been such a pain to develop, honestly, because it's really difficult," he said. "You can't smoke on the ship. So we had to work with the purveyor of meats that we work with to do part of the process off the ship and part on the ship."
The menu at Q includes starters like deviled eggs and loaded fries, and — for those who dare — a Pitmaster Platter that includes a quarter pound each of brisket, pork spare ribs, jalapeño and cheese sausage, and smoked chicken, plus five sides.
The ship's other specialty dining restaurants include Cagney’s Steakhouse, French restaurant Le Bistro, Brazilian Churrascaria Moderno, Italian at La Cucina, Japanese Hibachi-style dining at Teppanyaki, small-plate fusion dishes at Food Republic and Mexican fare at Los Lobos.
For dessert, a Bliss-first is Coco's, an a-la-carte chocolate venue that features massive milkshakes, gelatos, sundaes and other concoctions. Other lines, including Geneva-based MSC, have also added sweet offerings on their ships. On MSC Meraviglia, chocolatier and pastry chef Jean-Philippe Maury heads the open kitchen at Jean Philippe Chocolat + Cafe.
The headline show on Bliss is the standing ovation-inducing "Jersey Boys." The 2006 Tony Award-winning Broadway production, based on the story of the Four Seasons, follows four young men from Newark as they reach success. The show features strong musical performances of the group's famous songs.
Norwegian has also developed its own original musical, "¡HAVANA!," produced by Tony Award–winning director and choreographer Warren Carlyle. Cuban-American design duo, Ruben and Isabel Toledo, developed the colorful costume and set design, and Cuban-American singer Albita, a Grammy-award winner, wrote the songs for the musical.
The production is set at the fictional Palace of Lights nightclub in Havana, where family tensions run high.
Entertainment is also available at the ship's numerous bars, including the Beatles-inspired Cavern Club; Social Comedy & Night Club; and District Brew House, which features beers from local breweries MIA, Wynwood Brewing and Funky Buddha.
For Norwegian, offering a wide range of entertainment options that are comparable with what travelers will find on land was a natural progression to its 'freestyle cruising,' concept. This year, more than 27 million people are expected to take a cruise, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
"People are more demanding and they're more demanding because access to high quality experiences is closer to everyone than it's ever been," Stuart said. "That put's the pressure on us."