Blue Man Group. "Chicago." George Lopez-inspired comedy shows. Dixie jazz. Dinner theater. These diverse entertainment options used to be hallmarks of land vacations -- until some enterprising cruise lines brought them to the high seas.
While some cruise lines stick to the old entertainment standards, such as musical revues and bingo games, others have taken entertainment to another level by offering unique and creative shows, spaces and activities. They provide multiple entertainment options for every kind of cruise traveler, whether that's karaoke, big-name lecturers, Minnie Mouse meet-n-greets or Julliard performances.
Who are these trendsetters? They run the gamut from lines with mega-ships (like Norwegian Epic, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas) that can fit multiple performance venues onboard to more upscale lines like Cunard and Silversea 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.
Best Ships: Fleetwide, with Carnival Magic and Carnival Liberty leading the way
Why:Carnival's "Fun Ships" are your best bet if you're looking for silly pool games, a variety of live music performances, packed bars, and elaborate and splashy production shows. The line is constantly tweaking or adding to its entertainment options; for example, the Fun Ship 2.0 initiative, introduced on Carnival Liberty and rolling out nearly fleetwide, is bringing enhanced comedy shows, new watering holes and superior D.J.'s onboard.
Big & Little: Carnival has long been using the latest technology to pull off lavish shows onboard, but Carnival Magic's "Destination: Unknown" is the line's largest production show ever. Along with magician Jason Byrne (a Las Vegas headliner) or an equally skilled stand-in, a full cast of singers and dancers takes part in an appropriately magical and mystical circus that's full of special effects, lighting, illusions ... and a helicopter. Carnival cruisers should also be on the lookout for smaller-scale performances by the Fun Force dance crew. They're often found breaking out some serious dance moves in the atrium or by the pool, as well as in the new "Dancin' in the Street" show.
Day & Night: Daytime chillin' includes solo guitarists in the RedFrog Pub on Carnival Magic and RedFrog Rum Bar and Blue Iguana Tequila Bar on Carnival Liberty -- you'll feel like you're at a beachside watering hole. Versions of these concepts are being added to most ships as part of the Fun Ship 2.0 program. At night, check out the Punchliner Comedy Clubs fleetwide. George Lopez is now Carnival's "curator of comedy" and helps hand-select comedic talent onboard.
Old Faves Meet New & Nifty: 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 all new and some older ships, where dining room staff sing alongside a giant Chianti bottle on wheels. Other entertaining enhancements include the addition of "Hasbro, The Game Show," a series of larger-than-life adaptations of Hasbro's iconic games for family fun, and Playlist Productions, musical revues that combine animated backdrops on high-tech LED screens with live-action music and dance.
Norwegian Cruise Lines
Best Ships: Fleetwide but especially Norwegian Epic
Why:Norwegian Cruise Line always put a lot of effort into entertainment, building ships with multiple bars and lounges (including the Bar Central complex on its Jewel-class ships) and creating entertainment spaces, such as bowling alleys and rock-climbing areas. With the introduction of Norwegian Epic, the line has shown an even greater interest in entertainment, bringing on familiar names such as Blue Man Group and Second City and introducing innovative concepts like the Cirque Dreams and Dinner Show.
Big & Little: It doesn't get much bigger than the Blue Man Group, with its well-known shows in cities around the world. The zany multimedia performances on Norwegian Epic take place in the ship's main theater, which is twice as large as BMG's home theater in New York City. In the intimate Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club on Norwegian Epic, passengers enjoy soul and blues from the work of BB King, Otis Redding and others -- along with original music by the renowned house band, Slam Allen.
Day & Night: During the day, passengers can relax and unwind in the adults-only beach club, Spice H20, onboard Norwegian Epic. The lavish area boasts a big-screen television, pool and bar. At night, Cirque Dreams & Dinner onboard Norwegian Epic is performed in the Spiegel Tent, the only "big top" at sea. The interactive entertainment and dining experience juggles dinner courses with music, aerial performances and acrobatic feats. The two-hour show is unlike anything at sea.
Old Faves Meet New & Nifty: Norwegian's signature White Hot Party is available fleetwide and is a heaven-themed event, where cruisers come dressed in white, head-to-toe. The party's Angel Dancers keep the crowd moving late into the night in varied venues, including lounges and the pool deck. Exclusively onboard Norwegian Epic, passengers can chill out in the only true ice bar at sea -- the SVEDKA Ice Bar -- where the bar and seats are carved from ice and visitors are given warm jackets to wear inside. The $20 cover gets you two signature cocktails, served in real ice glasses.
Disney Cruise Line
Best Ships: Fleetwide
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 adults-only nightclubs and one-on-one interactions between starstruck kids, as well as Disney's signature characters, the line does its utmost to keep everyone happy on vacation.
Big & Little: Big cruisers will enjoy adult-focused entertainment in the nightlife districts aboard all four ships, complete with Champagne, piano, sports and other bars and nightclubs. Even going kids-free at the Quiet Cove Pool or for dinner or brunch at adults-only Palo is entertainment enough for many parents. For young cruisers, it's hard to beat full fairytale treatments and makeovers for princesses-to-be at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, ice cream pedicures and heavenly massages at the teens-only Chill Spa, multiple pools (including a water coaster ride on Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy) or activities in the ships' enormous kids areas, themed around Disney movies and characters.
Day & Night: Kids can start the day right with character breakfasts -- or, later, afternoon teas -- where they can share a laugh with Goofy or a hug with Snow White. During the day, the D Lounge on Disney Fantasy is the "hub" for family fun and games, including "Pirate's Life for Me" (lots of pirate props). On one night each cruise, Disney launches an all-out pirate-themed deck party, complete with an interactive musical show, dance parties and at-sea fireworks.
Old Faves Meet New & Nifty: Classic Disney movies are still shown in cabins and on the poolside jumbo screens. Some film favorites are even brought to life on Disney's shipboard stages with performances that include "Disney's Aladdin -- A Musical Spectacular" and "Toy Story -- The Musical." Disney has also gone high-tech with lots of new and nifty interactive games and entertaining animation fleetwide. For example, MagicPlay Floors on Dream and Fantasy look like huge disco dance floors, but they're actually touch-activated video consoles, where kids can play interactive games. "Enchanted" artwork on the ships' walls morphs from still cells to moving animations when passengers walk by, and families can participate in shipwide mystery-solving games, finding clues in the animations.
Best Ships: Fleetwide
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 "Chicago: The Musical" and "Hairspray".
Big & Little: Big Broadway shows in the main theater make Royal Caribbean stand out from its rivals. "Chicago" (Allure of the Seas), "Hairspray" (Oasis of the Seas) and "Saturday Night Fever" (Liberty of the Seas) continue to receive rave reviews -- booking seats in advance of a sailing is highly recommended. But Royal Caribbean entertainment also thrives in smaller venues, including Oasis-class options like Jazz on 4 and the Comedy Club. The bustling Central Park areas on Oasis-class ships often feature small acts, including strolling musicians, duets and trios.
Day & Night: During the day, 3D movies are shown in the Main Theater -- including first-run DreamWorks Animation films. Nighttime options with Royal Caribbean also recently expanded vertically with the transformation of the popular Centrum areas aboard Vision-class ships into chic bars and performance spaces that feature dazzling acrobatic displays that take place in the air above the audience. In addition, the bustling "promenade" areas on many classes of ships remain entertaining places to be at night.
Old Faves Meet New & Nifty: Royal Caribbean's ice shows have been fan favorites since they debuted on Voyager-class vessels in 1999. 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 by changing them up -- the latest addition is "How to Train Your Dragon" on Allure of the Seas, an on-ice rendition of the DreamWorks Animation movie of the same name. Royal Caribbean's newest performance venues are the AquaTheaters on Oasis and Allure -- where divers and acrobats dazzle in deep swimming pools.
Best Ships: All three Queens
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 School; themed dress-up balls; and an award-winning enrichment program. It doesn't hurt that the line's three ships are a natural 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 theatre venue (Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth).
Big & Little: 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 onboard for a variety of performances like "The Canterbury Tales" on QM2 and "Twelfth Night" on Queen Elizabeth. The group also offers more intimate options like "The Pilgrim's Journey" (costumed characters from "The Canterbury Tales" roam the ship and stop for short scenes and improv); “A Bedtime Story" (think armchairs, small groups and nightcaps); and "Jazz Poetry" with the Mark Hodgson Trio.
Day & Night: Cunard's daytime options can be extensive, especially on long or transoceanic cruises with lots of sea days. The signature Insights program is a series of lectures, Q&A's, debates, social gatherings and workshops that connect passengers with notable personalities, such as E.L. Doctorow, John Guare, and cruise travel experts John Maxtone-Graham and Bill "Mr. Ocean Liner" Miller. One particular favorite of the Insights program is the Cunard Special Relationship series, which focuses on the exceptionally close political, diplomatic, cultural and historical ties between the United States and the United Kingdom (with past speakers including White House correspondents and professors from both sides of the "Pond"). At night, live large in a private theater box as you watch shows like "Dance Passion" (a dance show) and "Celtic Heartbeat" (a song-and-dance show that mixes traditional Irish music with contemporary songs) aboard Queen Victoria, and "Jazz, Blues & Rock n Roll" on Queen Elizabeth.
Old Faves Meet New & Nifty: Old meets new when Cunard pays homage to the classic era of ocean crossings with its commitment to formal evenings and its "Royal Night Theme Balls," offering plenty of ballroom dancing and passenger socializing over cocktails. The Black and White Ball on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria and the Cunard Ball on Queen Elizabeth, as well as classic masquerade balls, have become traditions on the line. Yet Cunard is experimenting with more modern takes on its themed balls, including the fun pirate-themed Buccaneer Ball on all three ships and the Hollywood-like Starlight Ball on Queen Elizabeth.
Best Ships: Fleetwide
Why: Smaller ships may not offer the over-the-top spectacles or sheer number of entertainment options as their bigger brethren, but Silversea makes the list for making the most of the space it has. The small-ship luxury line has moved away from traditional production shows, which fell short in the ships' smaller theaters, in favor of a new concert-style concept that takes advantage of more intimate spaces. Classically trained vocalists and musicians perform a lively celebration of music -- from Motown and opera to pop and rock -- proving that quality acts can impress as much as lots of bells and whistles.
Big & Little: As the largest entertainment spaces, the onboard Show Lounges now feature new productions of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" (a musical journey through Motown); "High C's" (classics with a twist); and "Fabbalicious" (the infectious music of ABBA). These new options are concert-style shows that emphasize vocal talent. The intimate Panorama Lounge also offers headlining shows, but in a club-like setting. The small-scale performances showcase the songbooks of different composers and musicals -- like Lennon and McCartney, Billy Joel, "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables".
Day & Night: Both entertaining and enlightening, Silversea's daytime Silver Perspectives enrichment program features lectures by noted writers, experts, historians and political analysts. They are followed by lively Q&A sessions. At night, Stars Supper Club, featured exclusively on Silver Spirit, turns dinner into a show, with live jazz or a cabaret singer accompanying a tasting menu with international flair. It's offered in a stunning Art Deco cabaret-like setting that's reminiscent of the original Rainbow Room in Manhattan.
Old Faves Meet New & Nifty: Silversea has always offered popular evening deck parties, with free-flowing drinks and plenty of opportunities for passengers to hit the dance floor. Party themes have focused on dance styles, such as disco and Latin rhythms like samba. More recently, Silversea has put a new twist on these fun-filled evenings, emphasizing singing and costumes (from the performers, not the passengers). In "Decades," Madonna meets Lady Gaga in a tongue-in-cheek look at pop music through the decades. Famous stars, new and old, come to life as the performers pull costumes from a trunk and belt out their greatest hits. The drinks still flow, and passengers are always encouraged to get on their feet and dance.
One to Watch
Great American Steamboat Company
For entertainment of a very different sort, the lineup on Great American Steamboat Company's American Queen looks enticing. An old-school paddlewheeler is not going to have huge performance spaces with high-tech features, but for some classic, low-tech options, the line may be an unexpected winner.
Select theme cruises during the ship's inaugural season will feature big names from previous decades. Guest performers will include the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Harry James Orchestra, The Platters, B.J. Thomas, The New Orleans Jazz All-Stars, Bill Haley's Comets and The Lovin' Spoonful. Of course, dancing to live music in varied settings is also expected to be popular.
In addition, as a tribute to the 100-plus-year legacy of the fabled Delta Queen Steamboat Company, American Queen will have a beloved Delta Queen veteran serve as the line's inaugural "Riverlorian." Mary Charlton, who once served as Riverlorian on three Delta Queen ships, will be onboard to share stories of the river. Along with giving lectures and more informal talks, the Riverlorian roams the ship, sharing spontaneous conversations out on the deck or over a cup of coffee or evening cocktail.
--by Lynn Seldon and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic contributors