(3:50 p.m. EDT) -- Say goodbye to the traditional cruise ship Internet Cafe. When Carnival Dream debuts in September, 36 "FunHub" stations -- combination ship information/social networking/Web surfing kiosks spread around the ship -- will replace the Web Cafe, that oft forgotten venue squeezed between the cigar bar and the art auction storage area.
The 36 stations will be spread out over Decks 3, 4 and 5 -- Carnival Dream's main public areas -- and will provide free access to Dream's ship-specific information portal and social network (the same features will also be accessible from personal laptops passengers bring onboard). Twelve FunHubs will be located in Dream's Ocean Plaza, the indoor/outdoor dining and entertainment venue that's expected to be one of the most popular places onboard (others located in the gift shop, by the photo gallery, etc.). Some will be kiosk-style, for use while standing, while others will be workstations with chairs.
Note: While the ship-specific portal is free to use, surfing the Web is not. At each station, the option to browse the Internet will still be available -- but for a fee.
So what's the deal?
Ship Info Goes Digital. Each station will feature an interactive online version of Carnival Capers, the briefing delivered daily to all passengers, with activity lists, sample menus, 3D ship maps and information on shore excursions. Digitizing daily programming isn't entirely new. Other lines, such as Costa Cruises, have a similar offering. Costa Pacifica and Costa Luminosa have "totems" set up to let passengers register credit cards, make spa and specialty dining reservations, access general cruise information, book excursions and reserve times at the Grand Prix race car simulator (where available) and golf simulator. Costa plans to add totems fleetwide.
Ship as Floating City, Social Network. Where Carnival is trying something new is with the social networking element, the so-called Funnel@Sea program, free to use. Here, passengers can create a personal profile and use the application to meet and interact with others onboard, send and receive private messages, create groups based on interests (gambling, foodies) and invite friends to attend shows or participate in shipboard events. Of course, you're limited to interacting with folks on your cruise, but Carnival thinks groups especially may see value in the new setup. "Say you're traveling with 20 people," suggests Carnival representative Vance Gulliksen. "You can leave a message for those folks saying the ping pong tourney will begin at 4 p.m. It's an end to phone calls, to slipping notes under doors."
Safety is also a consideration. When you sign up, the system will pull info from your booking number and folio, and age-specific restrictions will automatically be put in place. For example, a child in Circle C, Carnival's kids' club for 12-to-14 year-olds, will only be able to send messages, look at profiles or organize groups with kids in the same age group, or family and friends in his or her travel party. No 13-year-old will be able to join the casino group and sign up for a poker tournament.
The new program is being tested out on Carnival Dream, debuting on September 21. If successful, it could be added to other ships in the fleet.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor