"Mamma Mia!." "Rock of Ages." The Second City comedy shows. Dinner theater with high-tech twists. These diverse entertainment options used to be hallmarks of land vacations -- until enterprising cruise lines brought them to the high seas.
While some cruise lines stick to the old entertainment standards, such as musical revues and poolside bands, others have taken entertainment to another level by offering unique and creative shows and spaces. They provide multiple entertainment options for every kind of cruise traveler, whether that's rock concerts, aerial shows, big-name lecturers, Minnie Mouse meet 'n' greets or Julliard performances.
Who are these trendsetters? They run the gamut from lines with mega-ships (especially the newer additions to Norwegian and Royal Caribbean's fleets) that can fit multiple performance venues onboard to more upscale lines like Cunard that aim for high-end enrichment and sophisticated evening pastimes. And while we tip our hat to a few small-ship lines, in general, extra onboard space paves the way for entertainment innovation.
Our top lines for onboard entertainment combine longstanding entertainment favorites with some impressive trendsetting. For more on the trends themselves, see our story, 9 Trends in Cruise Ship Evening Entertainment.
Carnival Cruise Line
Best Ships: Fleetwide, with Carnival Breeze, Carnival Freedom and Carnival Vista leading the way
Why: Carnival's "Fun Ships" are your best bet if you're looking for a variety of live music performances, elaborate and splashy production shows, and top-rated comedy acts. The line is constantly tweaking or adding to its entertainment options, and its ongoing fleetwide "Fun Ship 2.0" initiative has brought enhanced comedy shows, live concerts and superior DJs onboard.
Production Shows: Carnival has long used the latest technology to pull off lavish shows onboard, but its music-driven Playlist Productions, found aboard Carnival Freedom, Carnival Breeze and more than half of the line's 24-ship fleet, takes Carnival's entertainment offerings to the next level. Using LED screens on stage and assorted special effects, four different hourlong stage shows are performed aboard each Playlist Productions-equipped ship, with a dozen stage shows total offered fleetwide, including "Getaway Island," with wow-factor 3D effects; "80s to the Max," channeling the era of questionable style and big hair; "Motor City," paying tribute to Motown and R&B; and "88 Keys: The Rock and Roll Piano Show," showcasing the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John and Billy Joel, along with other rock-inspired piano tunes. Carnival Vista will also host brand-new Playlist shows, though details have yet to be released.
Dinner and a Show: Carnival is well known for its singing and dancing waiters in the main dining rooms. They perform everything from old standards to Bollywood hits while parading by the dining tables and grooving on top of serving stations. Mealtime serenades are taken to even greater heights at Cucina del Capitano, an Italian eatery found on select ships, where dining room staff sing alongside a giant Chianti bottle on wheels.
Live Music: Daytime chillin' includes solo guitarists in the RedFrog Pubs on several ships and on lido decks throughout the fleet. (You'll feel like you're at a beachside watering hole.). At night, passengers can groove to themed bands ('80s, Woodstock, etc.) at the RedFrog Pub or elsewhere on the ship. If cover bands won't cut it, consider booking one of the line's 2014-debuted Carnival Live Concert Series cruises (spanning numerous itineraries and ships), which host ticketed shipboard concerts while vessels are docked in port (in Cozumel, Mexico; Nassau, Bahamas; and St. Thomas, USVI). They feature acts like Boston, Lionel Richie and Heart. While not technically live music, it's also worth noting that in partnership with DJ Irie (the official DJ of the Miami Heat), all Carnival DJs graduate from a first-of-its-kind DJ Academy at Sea, dubbed Spin'iversity, so you can be sure the nightclubs and deck parties are pumpin'.
Comedy: At night, check out the Punchliner Comedy Club fleetwide, putting on early-evening family-friendly shows and later adults-only comedy sets. George Lopez is Carnival's "curator of comedy" and helps hand-select comedic onboard talent, with acts that have included Happy Cole, Nery Saenz and Billy D. Washington.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Why: Starting with the introduction of Norwegian Epic in 2010, Norwegian Cruise Line has shown an increased interest in entertainment, bringing on familiar names like Second City and Broadway shows "Rock of Ages" and "Legally Blonde." It has also introduced innovative concepts like the "Cirque Dreams and Dinner" show and the Illusionarium.
Production Shows: Passengers can rock out to tunes from their favorite '80s hair bands during Broadway's "Rock of Ages," playing on Norwegian Breakaway, or catch the comedic tale of a sorority girl with spunk via "Legally Blonde," on Norwegian Getaway. New for fall 2015, Norwegian Epic will put on Broadway show "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," following the laugh-filled adventure of three divas who set out in search of love and friendship. Norwegian Getaway, Breakaway and Epic also feature the sizzling Latin and ballroom dance team behind Burn the Floor.
Norwegian Escape presents two headlining, Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals, including Harlem's Cotton Club-inspired "After Midnight "and "Million Dollar Quartet," featuring the music of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.
Dinner and a Show: "Cirque Dreams & Dinner" onboard Norwegian Epic and "Cirque Dreams & Dinner Jungle Fantasy" aboard Norwegian Breakaway are performed in the Spiegel Tent, the only "big top" at sea. The interactive entertainment-and-dining experience intersperses dinner courses with music, aerial performances and acrobatic feats. On Norwegian Getaway, the Illusionarium brings together dining, magic and illusion, featuring a series of magicians who perform special effects under a planetarium-style video projection dome. On Norwegian Escape, look for an exclusive supper club concept, "For the Record," combining motion picture soundtracks from John Hughes' 1980s teen films ("Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," etc.) with a post-modern cabaret.
Live Music: In the intimate Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club on Norwegian Breakaway, passengers enjoy soul and blues from the work of B.B. King, Otis Redding and others -- along with original music by the renowned house band, Slam Allen. Norwegian Getaway has the GRAMMY Experience, with live jazz and R&B performances by past GRAMMY Award winners and nominees. Or catch rock 'n' roll dueling piano show Howl at the Moon aboard Norwegian Getaway, Breakaway, Epic and Escape. The Jimmy Buffett-themed 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar offers live nightly tropics-inspired music aboard Norwegian Star and Norwegian Escape. Epic currently has Legends in Concert, with performances and impersonations from Lady Gaga, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and other celebrity lookalikes. New for fall 2015, Epic gets The Cavern Club, based on the Liverpool venue where the Beatles performed. It will present live British pop music, including -- naturally -- hits from the Fab Four.
Comedy: Famed Chicago-based improv comedy troupe The Second City puts on sets on several ships, including Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Gem, with early-evening family shows and late-night sets for the 21-and-older crowd.
Disney Cruise Line
Why: Disney Cruise Line knows how to entertain kids of all ages. After all, it benefits from the collected wisdom of the entire Disney corporation. From big production shows to Disney character interactions with starstruck kids at breakfast and tea time, the line does its utmost to keep everyone happy on vacation.
Production Shows: Disney film favorites are brought to life on shipboard stages with kid-friendly 45- to 60-minute Broadway-style performances that include highlights like Disney's Aladdin -- A Musical Spectacular (on Disney Fantasy) and Toy Story -- The Musical (on Disney Wonder). New for fall 2015 is Rapunzel-inspired Tangled: The Musical (Disney Magic). Other notable productions include Villains Tonight (Disney Magic, Disney Dream), a cheeky revue-style show featuring "the best of the worst Disney villains"; and Disney's Believe (Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy), with more than 20 Disney characters coming together for a moving father-and-daughter adventure musical. Disney Dreams -- An Enchanted Classic (Disney Magic, Disney Wonder), which tells the tale of a young girl who realizes the power of her dreams (with a little help from Disney characters, naturally), has been revamped to include a segment featuring the gang from Frozen (Anna, Elsa and Olaf). Finally, don't miss The Golden Mickeys (Disney Wonder, Disney Dream), an awards ceremony-style musical in which Disney characters walk the red carpet and compete for their prizes.
More informal but no less fun: On one night each cruise, Disney launches an all-out deck party (either themed on pirates or the film "Frozen"), complete with an interactive musical show, dance parties and at-sea fireworks.
Dinner and a Show: Kids can start the day off right with character breakfasts -- or, later, afternoon teas -- where they can share a laugh with Goofy or a hug with Snow White. The Royal Court Tea on Disney Fantasy is especially notable, complete with visits from Disney princesses, storytelling, singing and dancing. Come dinnertime, the fleetwide Animator's Palate dinner show combines Pacific Rim cuisine with a high-tech space where animated Disney character sketches seemingly come to life.
Live Music: Adult cruisers will enjoy adult-focused entertainment in the nightlife districts aboard all four ships. The best bet for live music is the Cadillac Lounge piano bar on Disney Wonder, touting a classic Cadillac them and live pianists tickling the ivories.
Royal Caribbean International
Why: Royal Caribbean has long been at the forefront of innovative onboard entertainment, introducing unique offerings never before seen at sea on its new ships over the years. It's the first (and only) line to offer ice skating shows in an onboard rink and water-based acrobatic shows in a pool-based stage area. Plus, it's brought Broadway to the high seas with shows like "Mamma Mia!," "CATS" and "We Will Rock You."
Production Shows: Catch lighthearted ABBA-scored musical "Mamma Mia!" (on Quantum of the Seas and Allure of the Seas -- one of the best shows we've seen at sea); Broadway classic "CATS" (Oasis of the Seas); the music-of-Queen-inspired "We Will Rock You" (Anthem of the Seas); or "Saturday Night Fever" (Liberty of the Seas). The shows continue to receive rave reviews, and booking seats in advance of a sailing is highly recommended.
Royal Caribbean's ice shows have been fan favorites since they debuted on Voyager-class vessels in 1999. (They've since expanded to Voyager- and Oasis-class ships.) Watching professional figure skaters complete double axels and tricky spins while the ship rocks and rolls never gets old. The line keeps the shows fresh with updated offerings like Freedom-Ice.com onFreedom of the Seas, a 60-minute show featuring a dozen pro skaters.
Oasis and Allure, meanwhile, feature the AquaTheater, where divers and acrobats dazzle in the deepest pool at sea, complete with 30-foot-high diving platforms.
On Quantum-class ships, the expansive Two70 entertainment venue -- a multimedia theater that combines virtual concerts, robotics, aerial shows and video projection -- provides technology-enhanced spectacles like "Spectra's Cabaret" (Anthem of the Seas) and "Starwater" (Quantum of the Seas).
Royal Caribbean has also expanded vertically with the transformation of the popular Centrum areas aboard Vision-class ships into chic bars and performance spaces, which feature dazzling acrobatic displays that take place in the air above the audience.
Dinner and a Show: Catch the interactive Mystery Dinner Theater, where passengers play detective and the joke-cracking cast mixes in with diners at Portofino or Giovanni's Table, gourmet Italian specialty restaurants aboard 11 Royal Caribbean ships. (Shows are only available on sailings of seven nights or longer; advance booking is recommended.)
Live Music: Quantum-class ships tout rock 'n' roll temple Music Hall, where cruisers can rock out to cover bands of The Beatles, Bon Jovi and more, and dance to music spun by late-night DJs. Royal Caribbean entertainment also thrives in even smaller venues, including Oasis-class options like Jazz on 4 or the bustling Central Park areas that often feature small acts, including strolling musicians, duos and trios. You might even stumble upon the "stowaway pianist" on Anthem of the Seas, who sporadically appears around the ship with his piano, surprising passengers with impromptu sing-alongs.
Comedy: Sail aboard Oasis or Allure for the Comedy LIVE venue, hosting two headliner comedians with sets inspired by NYC's stand-up clubs.
Best Ships: All three ships but particularly Queen Mary 2
Why: Cunard takes a more upper-crust approach to entertainment and succeeds with some unique offerings. Think longstanding partnerships with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and the Juilliard Jazz School. It doesn't hurt that the line's three ships are natural fits for extensive entertainment offerings, including the largest ballroom at sea (Queen Mary 2), the only planetarium at sea (Queen Mary 2) and the only private viewing boxes in a main theater venue (Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth).
Production Shows: Special relationships with a variety of well-known dramatic organizations bring big-time performances to Cunard passengers. For example, London's acclaimed RADA sends graduates and staff aboard Queen Mary 2's transatlantic crossings to put on a variety of performances, including hourlong renditions of Shakespearean works like "A Merchant of Venice," "Richard III" and "Romeo and Juliet." The group also offers more intimate options like "A Late Night Ghost Story" in the planetarium; "A Bedtime Story" (think armchairs, small groups and nightcaps); and "Jazz Poetry" with the resident Mark Hodgson Trio.
At night, live large in a private theater box as you watch shows like "Dance Passion" and "Celtic Heartbeat" aboard Queen Victoria, and "Jazz, Blues & Rock 'n' Roll" on Queen Elizabeth, performed by Cunard's in-house singers and dancers.
Also noteworthy is Queen Mary 2's planetarium, the setting for several space shows produced in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, narrated by the likes of Tom Hanks and Robert Redford.
Live Music: Queen Mary 2's transatlantic crossings set the stage for some high-profile concerts at sea. In partnership with the Juilliard Jazz School, several crossings highlight performances from the prestigious school's students and faculty. For even more jazz, check out Cunard's partnership with Blue Note Records, featuring special Blue Note Jazz at Sea Crossings, with performances from the likes of Natalie Cole, Derrick Hodge and Robert Glasper. Look, too, for one or two sailings a year that highlight stirring concerts from the National Symphony Orchestra. The line occasionally hosts other big-name musical acts, too, with Crosby, Stills & Nash on the roster for 2015. (James Taylor performed onboard in 2014.)
Comedy: Cunard also brings special guest comedy acts to its sailings, though there's no dedicated comedy lounge onboard. (Comedians perform in the main theater.)
Two to Watch:
Smaller ships might not offer the same over-the-top spectacles or sheer number of entertainment options as their bigger brethren, but Silversea warrants mention for its considerable efforts. The line completely revamped its onboard entertainment offerings in 2014 to incorporate a program of new musical experiences across its five-ship fleet (not including its three expedition vessels). Seven new stage shows, complete with colorful costumes and special effects, include a trio of highlights that are performed on all five ships: "Musical Maestro," a tribute to operatic arias and classic music, exclusively recorded for Silversea by London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; "Mind the Gap," highlighting music from British Invasion acts like The Beatles and Rolling Stones; and "Don't Stop the Music," pulled straight from the '70s disco era. When the talented singers aren't on stage in the main Show Lounge, passengers can expect to hear them performing in more intimate venues across the ships as they put on duets, cabaret-style shows and more.
In recent years, luxe line Crystal has majorly upped the ante with onboard entertainment offerings aboard its two ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. Look for "Magic Castle at Sea," developed in partnership with Hollywood's famed private magician's club, Magic Castle. Intimate magic shows, performed for audiences of just 25 people, showcase sleight-of-hand tricks and other seemingly impossible feats. Or take in a showing of "iLuminate," first made famous by TV show "America's Got Talent." Performers, covered in LED light effects, dance in a darkened theater. Most recently, the line debuted musical "My Life: The Music of Billy Joel" on Crystal Serenity, along with two new productions aboard Crystal Symphony, including "Rocket Man: A Tribute to Elton John" and high-energy, genre-spanning dance production "5-6-7-8."
--By Lynn Seldon and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic contributors; updated by Elissa Garay, Cruise Critic contributor