Cruise activities typically garner one of three responses:
1. "Isn't that actually a Coast Guard requirement?"
2. "That was fun! Don't they have this on [insert competitor cruise line here]?"
3. "GENIUS! I've never seen anything like this on a cruise ship before." (Or, as expressed in a gloating photo-text to friends back home, "OMG, WOW!!!!!")
In the double-barreled challenge of attracting new passengers while keeping veteran cruisers surprised and hooked, cruise lines frequently roll out industry-first cruise ship activities. Designers and visionaries seemingly plumb the depths of their fantasies to create onboard attractions that are guaranteed to amaze and amuse. The trend started with rock climbing walls, waterslides and ice skating rinks and quickly escalated to skydiving simulators, levitating cocktail bars and the latest in high-tech entertainment, especially on the newest cruise ships. With fun cruise activities like these, you may never want to leave the ship.
If you think sea days are all about dozing by the pool in a daiquiri-induced stupor, let us show you the flip side of cruise life with 16 onboard experiences that will make you exclaim, "Wow!"
Cruises are no longer sedate affairs, as these active and adrenaline-pumping attractions can attest.
1. Spread your wings.
Royal Caribbean's innovative Quantum of the Seas rolled out a bevy of gee-whiz, industry-first amenities. (Its sister ship, Anthem of the Seas, debuting in April 2015, will follow suit with many of the same features). These include RipCord by iFLY, the first-ever skydiving simulator at sea. Onboard thrill-seekers attend an informational session to learn the rules of play before gearing up in a flight suit, goggles and protective headgear. Then it's time to dive on into (literally) the 23-foot-high, glass-enclosed vertical window tunnel for an exhilarating, gravity-defying taste of simulated skydiving. You'll be safe in the hands of a seasoned pro the whole time, so relax and enjoy the minute-long floating sensation -- and perhaps even a look around at the surrounding ocean views. As a bonus, the instructor will usually put on a show, after everybody's had a go, of sensational flips and other flying tricks in the air machine.
2. Hang 10.
The surf's always up on Royal Caribbean's Quantum-, Oasis- and Freedom-class ships. Surfers can do their best Gidget or Laird Hamilton impressions on the FlowRider, a surf simulator that generates waves on top of a cushioned platform. Catch your waves belly-down (a la bodyboarding) or standing up (classic North Shore style). Though the tide is faux, the pain and humiliation can be real: one slip on the board, and you may hurtle back up the wave and promptly wipe out. Added pressure: Patrons of the Wipe Out Bar are watching, so be sure to flash a smile as you topple over.
3. Wet and wild?
You might emit a loud quack (or shriek) while whizzing down the AquaDuck, a wily water coaster that twists, turns and torques for 765 feet over and around the pool decks of Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. The tube provides giddy views of the bodies of water both onboard and off the ship; one elbow of the coaster actually protrudes 12 feet off the ship and 150 feet above the ocean. Not to be outdone, the AquaDunk waterslide debuted on the revamped Disney Magic in 2013, offering a three-story-high thrill ride, which includes a plummet through a trap door into a translucent tube that shoots out 20 feet over the ship's side. Other notable newcomers include Norwegian Cruise Line's Free Fall (on Norwegian Getaway and Breakaway) with twin "free fall" slides that drop guests at heart-racing speeds of up to 26 mph; MSC Cruises' Vertigo (on MSC Preziosa) waterslide, offering 390 feet of colorful twists and turns (including a spin over the edge of the ship) from 18 decks high; and the Speedway Splash aboard Carnival Sunshine, with 235-foot-long dual chutes for racing riders who speed to the finish line amid special lighting effects.
4. Fly through the air.
Walking is so, well, pedestrian on Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships -- why not fly? Passengers aboard Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas can strap on a harness and zoom through the air on an intra-ship zip line. The Peter Pan-esque activity, set on the Sports Deck, is not for the acrophobic: the wire is suspended nine decks up and follows a diagonal course 82 feet across the atrium. One reminder: You'll have to wear secured footwear; otherwise, a fellow cruiser strolling through the Boardwalk neighborhood below may end up with a flip-flop in her ice cream cone.
5. Drag-racing at sea.
If your kid wants to take a spin before dinner, tell him to go have fun -- and not to worry if he crashes the car while driving 200 miles per hour. MSC Cruises' Fantasia-class ships (MSC Fantasia, Preziosa, Divina and Splendida) give speed demons, with or without driver's licenses, permission to feed their need for speed in a Formula 1 simulator. Passengers climb into the driver's seat of a model car that bumps, bounces and whines like the real thing. The racetrack is a blur of asphalt and drama projected on a screen viewed through the vehicle's "windshield." With Costa Cruises' Grand Prix simulators (available on the Costa Diadema, Fascinosa, Favolosa, Pacifica, Serena, Deliziosa and Luminosa), located on the ships' top deck, guest "drivers" can simulate the sensation of zipping around a real racecourse from a single-seat Grand Prix-style car, tricked out with plenty of gadgets, sounds and movements for the ride. Gentlecruisers, start your engines...
While many lines still rock the Vegas-style shows abounding with feathers and glitter and keep a busy schedule of sea-day fun (pool games, trivia contests, etc.), several cruise lines have elevated onboard performances and activities to the next level.
By day, the AquaTheater, found on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, could be just another onboard pool -- until you notice that it's almost 21 feet long and 18 feet deep and passengers are taking scuba lessons in its depths. But, the venue really shines when the natural light goes down and the moon comes up. Then, the pool area transforms into a 700-seat AquaBroadway, a dazzle of droplets on Deck 4. The shows held in and around the pool include a choreographed musical, starring fountains; gymnasts, divers and aerialists as bendy as Gumby; and a trapeze act that creates the illusion of AquaSpiderman climbing up a curtain of water.
7. Entertainment in the next dimension.
It's impressive that cruise ships would bother with showing 3D movies onboard; it's crazy that they'd go so far as to design 4D theaters. The 4D cinematic immersion, found on Costa Cruises (including aboard Deliziosa, Diadema, Fascinosa, Favolosa, Serena and Luminosa), MSC Cruises (on Fantasia, Preziosa, Divina, Magnifica, and Splendida) and Carnival Cruises (aboard the Carnival Breeze) is accomplished through such real-life sensory shocks as pumped-in smells, squirts of liquids, quivering seats and visuals that invade your personal space. Thankfully, the seats come with belts, so you won't become part of the onscreen action.
8. Where art comes to life.
Imagine this: floors and walls that come alive, like the animated brooms in the movie "Fantasia." Now go see it for real on Disney Dream and Fantasy. On the Magic PlayFloor, children stomp around on a virtual game board that's livelier than shag carpeting. The Enchanted Art also inspires jumping, but more as an involuntary response to artworks that talk and move without warning. For example, Minnie Mouse, posing as Mona Lisa, blinks her long lashes as birds fly by in the background; and Mickey Mouse, as Steamboat Willie, takes shape on Walt Disney's blank sketchpad. Once the show's over, the images return to their dormant selves, until the next unsuspecting passenger happens by.
9. Food as art?
During Norwegian Epic's Cirque Dreams & Dinner, cruisers get a play with their food. The 265-seat theater-in-the-round pairs mealtime with a kinetic, slightly twisted show that features singing, hula-hooping, outrageous costumes and accents, acrobatics, aerialists -- and an acceptable excuse to ignore your table companions. The entertainers perform their circus-style antics as waiters exhibit their own agile skills, serving dinner amid the creative chaos. Dessert is truly the last act. Norwegian Breakaway followed up with its own Cirque Dreams & Dinner: Jungle Fantasy show, which features much of the same fanfare as the original, minus the dialogue and singing. Norwegian Cruise Line's latest take on dinner theater, Illusionarium, debuted on Norwegian Getaway, with a dinner-meets-magic show that unfolds in a custom-designed circular and domed venue. The show comes complete with props, special effects and a slate of magicians performing myriad acts, all while you make your own dinner disappear.
Innovative Spaces and Places
Atrium, buffet, pool deck ... park? Planetarium? With innovative engineering and new technology, public spaces have grown a lot more interesting.
10. The grass is always greener.
It's hard to find large swatches of green space in an ocean of infinite blue. However, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. rolls out nature's carpet with its rendition of Central Park on Royal Caribbean International's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, and with the Lawn Club on Celebrity Cruises. The Oasis-class homage to Frederick Law Olmsted's urban playground features rambling pathways, restful benches and abundant flora, including shade trees and flower beds. The floating parkland is absent NYC-style pretzel carts and kitschy souvenir merchants, but it does offer tasteful restaurants, bars and shops redolent of Fifth Avenue. Celebrity's Solstice-class ships feature a half-acre of live green grass on their topmost decks, ideal fields for bocce or croquet. In addition, passengers can order baskets and have picnics, or simply feel the tickle between their toes. Celebrity Reflection and Silhouette also offer open-air grilling at the adjacent Lawn Club Grill, along with "The Alcoves," a private cabanas-style lawn-side retreat.
11. Seeing stars.
Cunard's Queen Mary 2 can bring the stars out, even on a cloudy night -- by encouraging guests to come indoors. In the planetarium (the only one at sea), which is housed in the Illuminations theater, stargazers sit beneath a giant dome that sparkles with celestial glitter and orbs. On a seven-day sojourn, astro-geeks can explore galaxies far, far away with three different shows. Bonus: Members of the Royal Astronomical Society are available on select voyages, so you can ask the experts for assistance in locating the North Star, in case you feel lost at sea.
12. Head for new heights.
Another innovation from Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas (to be repeated on Anthem of the Seas), the North Star observation pod whisks passengers away from deck for a 15-minute ride boasting bird's-eye panoramas. The glass-enclosed capsule (which was modeled on the London Eye), with room for 14, is attached to a mechanical arm that gently extends to more than 300 feet above sea level, and even out over the ship's side, for unparalleled 360-degree views over port, ship, and sea.
Once it's anchors aweigh, it's bottoms up for many cruisers looking to unwind. From robot bartenders to ice bars, these innovative watering holes are worth raising a glass to.
13. Robot bartenders.
Human bartenders are so last millennium. One of the biggest novelties aboard Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas is its one-of-a-kind Bionic Bar, featuring a dynamic duo of show-stealing robot bartenders that dole out drinks to fascinated guests. In a futuristic "mixology meets technology" setting, guests order cocktails from a tablet device to put the robo-bartenders (really mechanical arms) to work. (Sorry folks, no humanoid-looking robots, programmed to listen to your woes, just yet.) The pair busily prepares mixed drinks while mixing, shaking and stirring, with a system loosely based on the same assembly-line technology employed to manufacture cars. While the technology was still a bit glitchy last time we were onboard (it's a cruise ship, not a spaceship, after all), the cocktails, happily, weren't half bad.
14. Oh, the weather inside is frightful.
The weather outside may be balmy, but the temperature inside Norwegian Breakaway, Getaway or Epic's Svedka/Inniskillin ice bar is Arctic, set to a nippy 17 degrees. The bars are made entirely of ice (including furnishings and sculptures, which are themed to reflect New York City on Breakaway and Miami on Getaway) and are illuminated by colored bulbs that glow like the northern lights. To keep hands from freezing to the carved-from-ice glasses and derrieres from sticking to the ice-cube seats, the bars provide a rack of hooded coats and gloves. However, some passengers prefer to drink polar bear-style, dressed only in shorts and T-shirts -- appropriate attire for pretty much everywhere on the ship but there.
15. Ups and downs.
No, that isn't the tequila kicking in: the bar really is moving. The Rising Tide bar, on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, travels like a roofless elevator between the Royal Promenade and Central Park neighborhoods on Decks 5 and 8, respectively. A roundtrip takes a half-hour, with 20 minutes in motion and 10 reserved for embarkation and debarkation. Board on the lower level, and as you rise, the liquid in your glass will fall.
16. Really local beer.
What's brewing on AIDA Cruises? Several varieties of German-style beer crafted in the microbreweries onboard AIDAblu, AIDAsol, AIDAmar and AIDAstella. The German cruise line's braumeisters can produce up to 265 gallons of beer per day in the copper tanks that gleam like golden ale. (One unexpected local ingredient: seawater, minus the salt.) Plus, guests can sign up for special brewing workshops to receive their own "brewing diploma" onboard. Passengers can drink cold ones, including brews exclusive to the ships (gloating rights for beer aficionados), in a beer hall or garden -- just like in Deutschland, which sits somewhere out there, over the horizon.
--By Andrea Sachs, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Elissa Garay, Cruise Critic contributor