Cruise ship amenities 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 features. Designers and visionaries seemingly plumb the depths of their fantasies to create onboard attractions that are guaranteed to amaze and amuse passengers. The trend started with rock-climbing walls, waterslides and ice-skating rinks and quickly escalated to surf simulators, levitating cocktail bars and the latest in high-tech entertainment. With amenities 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 15 onboard experiences that will make you exclaim, "Wow!"
Be a Sport
Cruises are no longer sedate affairs, as these active and adrenaline-pumping attractions can attest.
1.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.
2.Hang ten. The surf's always up on Royal Caribbean's Freedom- and Oasis-class ships. Surfers can do their best Gidget or Laird Hamilton impression 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 slam into the backboard. 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 squawk) while whizzing down the Aquaduck, a wily watercoaster 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. Thrill-seekers plunge down a steep drop and body-bump along rapids before coasting to a splashy finish in a lazy river.
4.Spare me a strike.NCL bowled over fans when it introduced a four-lane bowling alley on Norwegian Pearl. Now also found on Norwegian Gem and Epic, the lanes feature gumball-colored equipment and disco lights that help divert attention away from your gutter ball or bowling shoe-clad feet. (Copycats MSC Magnifica and Splendida offer their own 10-pin bowling alleys, no homely footwear required.) You gotta wonder how all those balls affect the ballast.
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 Fantasia and Splendida give speed demons, with or without driver's licenses, permission to go for broke in a Formula 1 simulator. The video game crashes through the virtual wall: 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." Gentlecruisers, start your engines …
While many lines still rock the Vegas-style shows abounding with feathers and glitter, several cruise lines have elevated onboard performances and activities to the next level.
6.Waterworks. 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 cinematic immersion, found on Costa Deliziosa and MSC Fantasia and Splendida, is accomplished through such real-life sensory shocks as atomized 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.The circus is in town. When the kids start to clown around, don't send them to their cabin -- shoo them off to circus school. Run by a professional U.K. team, the workshops on P&O's Ventura teach budding performers the fine and funny arts of the Big Top: juggling, stilt- and tightrope-walking, trapeze-swinging, bungee-trampolining and more. Set on the 19th deck, the classes really are high-flying. Nets, harnesses and helping hands keep the students on the safe side of the ship's guardrail, especially when wavelets test equilibriums. By the end of the cruise, graduates can add Cirque Ventura to their resumes, giving them a leg up if they ever do decide to run off and join the circus.
Atrium, buffet, pool deck ... park? Planetarium? With innovative engineering and new technology, public spaces have grown a lot more interesting.
9.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 Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, and with the Lawn Club on Celebrity. The Oasis-class homage to Frederick Law Olmsted's urban playground features rambling pathways, restful benches and abundant flora, including shade trees and flowerbeds. The floating parkland is absent 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.
10.Where art comes to life. Imagine this: floors and walls that come alive, like the animated brooms in "Fantasia." Now go see it for real on Disney Dream and Fantasy. On the Magic Play Floor, 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.
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, 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.
What could be jaw-dropping about onboard bars and restaurants? The setting, more than the victuals, wows in these innovative hotspots.
12.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. Note: If you suddenly feel like you're spinning, that's the liquor talking.
13.Oh, the weather inside is frightful. The weather outside may be tropical, but the temperature inside Norwegian Epic's Svedka ice bar is Arctic, set to a nippy 17 degrees. One of only 14 frozen watering holes in the world, the bar is made entirely of ice (including furnishings and sculptures) and is illuminated by colored bulbs that glow like the Northern lights. To keep hands from freezing to the glass and derrieres from sticking to the ice-cube seats, Epic provides a rack of fur-hooded coats and gloves. However, some passengers prefer to drink polar bear-style, dressed only in shorts and T-shirts -- appropriate attire for everywhere on the ship but there.
14.Food as art? During Norwegian Epic's Cirque Dreams and 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.
15.Really local beer. What's brewing on AIDA Cruises? Several varieties of German-style beer crafted in the microbreweries onboard AIDABlu and AIDASol. The German cruise line's brewmeisters can produce up to 130 gallons of beer per day in the copper tanks that gleam like golden ale. One local ingredient: seawater, minus the salt. Passengers can drink their 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.