"Mamma Mia!" "Rock of Ages." The Second City comedy shows. Authentic Memphis blues performed live. 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 cruise ship entertainment to another level by offering unique and creative shows and performance 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 mega-ships (especially the newer additions to Norwegian and Royal Caribbean's fleets) that can fit multiple performance venues onboard to upscale vessels (like those of Crystal and Cunard) that aim for high-end enrichment and sophisticated evening pastimes. And while we tip our hat to a few lines with mid-size ships that have surprisingly robust entertainment lineups, in general, extra onboard space paves the way for entertainment innovation.
Our top cruise lines for onboard entertainment combine longstanding favorites with some impressive trendsetting. For more on the trends themselves, see our story, Trends in Cruise Ship Evening Entertainment.
Carnival Cruise Line
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.
Cruise Shows: Carnival has long used the latest technology to pull off lavish shows, but its music-driven Playlist Productions, found aboard more than half of the line's 24-ship fleet, takes Carnival's cruise ship entertainment offerings to the next level. Using LED screens onstage and assorted special effects, four different 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 Pop 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 is hosting brand-new Playlist shows including Latin dance show "Amor Cubano"; "America Rocks!" featuring the likes of Springsteen and Styx; and "Flick: The Power of Motion Pictures," a show that features tunes from classics like "Dirty Dancing" and "Footloose."
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: Carnival's piano bars are a popular musical attraction available fleetwide (especially for those who enjoy sing-alongs), and many ships feature live musical performances in casino bars and in the atrium, too. If casual performances won't cut it, consider booking one of the line's Carnival Live cruises (spanning numerous itineraries and ships), which host ticketed shipboard concerts and comedy shows while vessels are docked in port (in Cozumel, Nassau, Grand Cayman and Montego Bay). They feature acts like Tim McGraw and Jay Leno. 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.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Why: Starting with the introduction of Norwegian Epic in 2010, Norwegian Cruise Line has shown an increased interest in cruise ship entertainment, bringing on familiar names like Second City and Broadway shows "Rock of Ages" and "Million Dollar Quartet." It has also introduced innovative concepts like the "Cirque Dreams" dinner show.
Cruise 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 Tony Award-winning "Million Dollar Quartet" on Norwegian Escape and Getaway. Norwegian Epic hosts Broadway show "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," which follows the laugh-filled adventure of three divas who set out in search of love and friendship. And Norwegian Getaway, Breakaway and Epic feature a sizzling Latin and ballroom dance team in "Burn the Floor."
Norwegian Escape presents two headlining, Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals, including Harlem's Cotton Club-inspired "After Midnight "and the aforementioned "Million Dollar Quartet," featuring the music of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.
Dinner and a Show: "Cirque Dreams" onboard Norwegian Epic and Breakaway is 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. 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 nightly tropics-inspired live 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. In fall 2015, Epic welcomed 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, Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Gem, with early-evening family shows and late-night sets for the 21-and-older crowd. Plus, the line has partnered with Levity Entertainment to bring big-name comedians to Headliners Comedy Club on Norwegian Getway.
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.
Cruise 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), "Toy Story -- The Musical" (on Disney Wonder) and Rapunzel-inspired "Tangled: The Musical" (on Disney Magic). Other notable productions include "Villains Tonight" (on 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, "Star Wars" 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 Royal 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 replica of a classic Cadillac and live pianists tickling the ivories. And the adults-only Evolution on Disney Dream hosts karaoke, dancing and cabaret at night.
Royal Caribbean International
Why: Royal Caribbean has long been at the forefront of innovative cruise ship 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 "CATS" and "We Will Rock You."
Cruise Shows: Catch Broadway classic "CATS" (Oasis of the Seas); the music-of-Queen-inspired "We Will Rock You" (Anthem of the Seas); "Grease" (Harmony 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-, Freedom- 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 the time-traveling "1887" and free-form "iSkate," found on Harmony of the Seas.
Oasis, Allure and Harmony, meanwhile, feature the AquaTheater, where divers and acrobats dazzle in the deepest pool at sea, complete with 30-foot-high diving platforms.
On Anthem of the Seas, 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).
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 onboard select ships. (Shows are only available on sailings of seven nights or longer and blackout dates apply; advance booking is recommended.)
Live Music: Anthem of the Seas touts 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: Allure of the Seas' Comedy LIVE venue hosts two headliner comedians with sets inspired by NYC's stand-up clubs. And head to Harmony's Attic on Deck 4 to catch late-night comedy shows for adults.
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).
Cruise 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 Herbie Hancock, Gregory Porter and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Look for one or two sailings a year that highlight stirring concerts from the National Symphony Orchestra, as well.
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.)
Why: The luxury line offers first-string entertainment onboard its two mid-size ships, with a nice array of shows and concerts ranging from the traditional to the trendy. A sailing's roster might include classic Broadway-style shows, cutting-edge performances by a group that appeared on "America's Got Talent" or a clever stand-up comedian. Crystal's got plenty to keep cruisers occupied -- even during the line's many multi-month sailings.
Cruise Shows: Broadway-style productions performed by Crystal's talented onboard ensemble of singers and dancers -- and accompanied by a live orchestra -- take place in the Galaxy Lounge on both ships. ILuminate, a pantomime group that appeared on "America's Got Talent," performs shows such as "The Tourist" and "Imagine," spectacles of music and neon lights dancing in the dark. Cruises might also feature dance performances as well as musical-style shows labeled "nostalgic productions" such as "Route 66" or "The Speakeasy."
Live Music: Concerts on Crystal include shows such as "Rocket Man: A Tribute to Elton John" and "My Life: The Music of Billy Joel." Sailings always have musicians onboard, from classical violinists to a cappella performers. Dance floors are regularly attended by live bands, too, and live classical music accompanies daily teatime.
Comedy: Many Crystal sailings feature a headliner comedian, ventriloquist or humorist. Guest performers might be Chicago comedian Mike Segal or ventriloquist Gary Hunter.
Best Ships: Koningsdam
Why: Koningsdam upped its entertainment game with a trio of impressive partnerships that bring world-class entertainment to its Music Walk complex on every night of every sailing. A combination of American blues, genre-spanning chart-toppers and chamber music offers something for almost everyone onboard.
Cruise Shows: Koningsdam is making great use of technology to bring the quality of its theater productions up a notch. The ship's two-story World Stage has a 270-degree LED projection screen that lends energy and light to shows such as "One World" and "Off the Charts."
Live Music: The highlight of the live-music offerings onboard Koningsdam is Music Walk, which features three music shows on three different stages nightly. The shows include classical music via a partnership with Lincoln Center Stage and Memphis-style blues courtesy of a partnership with B.B. King's Blues Club. Plus, passengers can enjoy popular hits played by dueling pianos alongside a DJ, thanks to a partnership with Billboard. The Billboard-curated pop hits are played during an interactive show that features plenty of music-industry fun facts -- think trivia meets tunes.
Comedy: The ship's show lounge regularly features comedians and magicians in its after-dinner shows.