light bulbs - photo courtesy of Chones/Shutterstock

When Quantum of the Seas debuted in November 2014, it was touted as one of the most innovative ships ever. From robot bartenders to onboard bumper cars and a London Eye-esque pod ride on the ship's top deck, Quantum offered cruisers activities never before experienced onboard a cruise ship -- and set the bar for future new-builds industry-wide.

The wow factor on Quantum got Cruise Critic's editors thinking about other cruise industry innovations across the years. The alternative restaurants and private verandahs we take for granted were once novelties for oceangoing vacationers. We couldn't imagine going back to the sailing days before the lines invested in hotel-grade mattresses and bedding, when we couldn't get wet and wild in top-deck water parks and when you had to consult a -- gasp -- map instead of turning to digital signage when you lost your way onboard.

With the exception of fake teak decks (too hot!) and key card-activated light switches (we want to save the environment, but how are we supposed to charge electronics while we're out?), we're fans of cruise ship innovation, eagerly awaiting announcements of novel concepts on new ships or creative enhancements on old ones. But for certain innovations, once experienced, there's no going back. In no particular order, here are our favorites.

 

Virtual Balconies

Quantum of the Seas - Virtual Balconies - photo courtesy of Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

Take an inside cabin and feed it live footage of the view you would be having if you'd booked a balcony cabin. It's a tease -- but oh so brilliant. A virtual balcony is an 80-inch, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, high-definition LED screen, which shows real-time video of the ocean (or other view) outside the ship, beamed from digital cameras mounted on the bridge, stern and sides, relative to the interior cabin's position. It sounds technical, but it's surprisingly realistic. The screen is even framed with real curtains and includes a virtual railing to provide a sense of safety -- just in case you were worried you might walk out through it in the middle of the night.

Royal Caribbean pioneered the concept, though Disney Cruise Line had previously introduced virtual porthole windows, showing live ocean footage combined with Disney animated characters. Royal snuck virtual balconies onto Navigator of the Seas in 2013 to test the innovation before installing them on the fleet's high-tech hero, Quantum of the Seas, in 2014. They were also part of the November 2014 refurbishment of Voyager of the Seas and are coming soon to Anthem of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas and Adventure of the Seas. 

Although you're not able to sit out there and feel and smell the ocean air, I wouldn't be surprised if the next step is adding a small fan and sea salt fragrance spray. Until then, you could always bring your own!

--Louise Goldsbury, Australia Editor

The Waterfront

Norwegian Breakaway Waterfront

If you wanted a lungful of sea air in the past, you went straight to the pool deck, a windy promenade or your balcony to get it. The alfresco activities focused mainly on sunbathing and sports -- which is why, when Norwegian Cruise Line debuted its Waterfront on Norwegian Breakaway in April 2013, it left many (myself included) wondering, "Why didn't they think of this before?" The concept -- bars and restaurants with outdoor seating along a quarter-mile oceanfront promenade -- seems like a no-brainer when you have such spectacular views and Caribbean warm weather to boot. You can sip a mojito in the lounge just outside the Sugarcane Mojito Bar and enjoy a Brazilian meal at Moderno while watching the sunset and catching some sea breezes. Even celebrity food icons have taken advantage of the space. Ocean Blue on the Waterfront serves a limited but tasty menu of Geoffrey Zakarian's culinary creations, including the popular lobster roll (only available at this outdoor window), and "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro sells goodies from Carlo's Bakery, along with frozen treats, at Waterfront outpost Dolce Gelato. Need some fresh air during a performance at Fat Cats or The Grammy Experience? You can still hear the live music from its outdoor seating area. I'm thrilled that the concept will continue to thrive on future Norwegian ships; the line recently announced that Escape will feature an alfresco Margaritaville dining venue, a 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar and an outdoor music venue.

--Brittany Chrusciel, Editorial Assistant

 

Adults-Only Sun Decks

Princess Cruises' Sanctuary

When Princess Cruises introduced The Sanctuary in 2006 on Crown Princess, the industry took note. An adults-only sunbathing area was quite an attractive feature to have onboard, as families were cruising and small children were overrunning the main pool areas. Since then, the concept has morphed into similar spaces on other cruise lines. Carnival's Serenity deck is available fleetwide, while Norwegian's Posh, Vibe and Spice H20 and P&O Cruises' The Retreat can be found on select ships. In addition to being kid-free, these spaces tend to be equipped with inviting extras, such as plush loungers, Evian misters and menus of refreshing smoothies and iced fruit skewers. On certain lines, these pampering pads will cost you, but if you plan to stay for most of the day, it's worth it.

--Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

 

Top-Deck Grass

Celebrity Cruises' Lawn Club

When Celebrity Cruises introduced Solstice in 2008, the cruising world got its first glimpse of a true lawn on the top deck. Dubbed The Lawn Club, this half-acre of cushy real grass is ideal for passengers looking to lounge, picnic, play bocce or practice putting. It's also a great spot for sailaway, where you can sip Champagne and feel the soft grass between your toes. Subsequent ships in Celebrity's Solstice Class -- Equinox, Eclipse, Silhouette and Reflection -- also include The Lawn Club, though it's carved up some on Silhouette and Reflection (the last two in the class) to accommodate private cabanas. No matter the ship, though, the space is serene and offers a unique way to pass time on a sea day. The engineering feat itself -- getting that much lawn and an irrigation system onboard a ship -- is impressive. The innovation sets the class apart; I'm just waiting for other lines to follow suit.

--Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

 

Norwegian's Freestyle Concept

Norwegian's Le Bistro Restaurant -- photo courtesy of member Spaniel_Lover

If mimicry is the highest form of praise, then it seems Norwegian Cruise Line hit it out of the park with Freestyle Cruising. When it was introduced in 2000, the program took a sledgehammer to the concept of traditional cruise ship dining, which requires passengers to choose from an early or late seating for sit-down dinners with the same tablemates each night. Instead, Freestyle allows passengers to select the time and restaurant of their choice and even frees them of prescribed dress codes (within reason, of course), making formal night optional and blue jeans acceptable. At the time of Freestyle's introduction, hardcore traditionalists said it would never catch on. But catch on it did, and by 2001, Princess Cruises had jumped on the flexible dining bandwagon, debuting Anytime Dining, an opt-in system for passengers who wanted to choose their dinner times. In 2007, Holland American introduced a similar program called As You Wish Dining, and in 2009, both Royal Caribbean and Carnival launched flex dining programs with My Time Dining and Your Time Dining, respectively. Most recently, Royal Caribbean decided to ditch traditional dining altogether on its newest ships (Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas) in favor of Dynamic Dining, an entirely Freestyle-esque system.

--Dori Saltzman, News Editor

 

Expanded Youth Programming

Seuss at Sea - photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line

I was 17 when I went on my first cruise, and the kids club offerings for teens were pathetic. I was lumped in the same age group as the oh-so-young 13 and 14 year olds, the activities were fairly lame (scavenger hunts and the like), and the physical club space did not invite hanging out -- certainly not after hours. But thanks to Disney -- the cruise line that put huge kids spaces on its first ships ,-- and lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian that followed suit, kids clubs and onboard activities have been majorly upgraded since the 1990s. Teens have hip lounges with "mocktail" bars, dance floors, gaming stations and comfy hangout areas; kids can enjoy innovative activities, from science experiments to baking projects and late-night parties, often linked with favorite brands like Dreamworks, Nickelodeon, Dr. Seuss and, of course, Mickey Mouse and friends. Even babies and toddlers now have nursery spaces with soft play areas, age-appropriate toys and nonstop Sesame Street and Thomas the Tank Engine reruns. Add in outdoor play spaces and splash zones, and I really wish I could be a kid on a cruise all over again.

--Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

 

Two70 and Technology-Based Entertainment

Starwater performed at Two70 - photo by Dori Saltzman

In this era of enhanced cruise ship entertainment, with Broadway shows and name-brand acts appearing on ships everywhere, the latest innovation from Royal Caribbean on Quantum of the Seas still sets the entertainment bar at a new height. Two things stand out in Two70, a high-ceilinged lounge/show room at the back of the ship. The first is Vistarama, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that transforms into a vast ambient surface more than 100 feet wide and 20 feet tall, where movies are projected in ultra-HD. Vistarama's resolution is nearly twice that of any IMAX cinema and can't be seen anywhere else in the world. The second is the six robotic screens or "roboscreens," which are fixed to robotic "arms" that -- according to the tech wizards behind this -- are programmed with as many movements as a human arm, calibrated to within a thousandth of a millimeter so they all can move in sync or independently of one another. While they move, they project fantastical images onto their ultra-HD screens. All of this technology combines with singing, dancing and aerial acrobatics to create "Starwater," a mind-blowing evening show.

--Adam Coulter, U.K. Editor

 

Ropes Courses

Carnival Ropes Course - photo courtesy of member Spaniel_Lover

Sure, ropes courses have existed on land for years, but there's something a bit more terrifying about the balancing act when you're 150 feet above sea level, teetering with the movement of the ship, wind whipping around you and water below. Since Carnival first introduced the concept on Carnival Magic in 2011, these adrenaline junkie jungle gyms have popped up on the top decks of three other ships -- Carnival Breeze in 2012 and Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway in 2013 and 2014, respectively. A three-story course was also just announced for Norwegian's 2015 new-build, Norwegian Escape. Devils who dare to try their luck -- while securely harnessed, of course -- will experience crazy climbing nets, wobbly footholds, monkey bar-type hand grips and even planks you can walk that jut out over the side of the ship. (Don't forget to smile to have your photo taken while you're out there.)

--Ashley Kosciolek, Ports and Copy Editor

 

Convertible Spaces on European River Cruise Ships

AMAWaterways Open Air Balcony

River cruise ship designers are limited in Europe by the height of bridges and the width of locks on the rivers. In the past, the size restrictions meant riverboats were fairly barebones compared to oceangoing ships. With the recent renaissance in river cruising, it's been exciting to see lines getting creative about fitting modern amenities into the space allotted. Viking started things off by making balconies standard on its ships, and then Avalon came up with the idea of using the square footage devoted to a balcony inside the cabin, and making the entire exterior wall a sliding window that opens to let the outside in. Uniworld Boutique River Cruises' ships all feature similar "open air" balconies that, at the touch of a button, raise the glass to create an enclosed conservatory area inside the cabin. In addition, Uniworld has created top-deck all-weather lounges and dining venues (with air-conditioning and heating), with ceilings and windows the captain can collapse when the ship needs to sail under a low bridge. Emerald Waterways, the newest European river cruise line, has taken the convertible idea one step further by designing a pool deck space that converts to a movie theater in the evenings.

--Jamey Bergman, U.K. Production Editor

 

Chef's Tables

Top Chef at Sea - photo by Chris Gray Faust

When I'm on land, my husband and I splurge occasionally at hot new restaurants (the Eater Heat Map is our Bible), ordering a tasting menu, often with wine pairings, to see what culinary heights the chef can reach. So why shouldn't we experience something similar at sea? Luckily, almost every line now offers a Chef's Table where, for a fee (usually $100 or so), you can bond with a small group of fellow foodies over galley tours and multiple courses of mouth-watering dishes. (The usually generous pours of wine that accompany each course help speed along the friendship.) The dinners often include detailed notes about the items served, as well as a souvenir. (On my Top Chef cruise, we each received a branded apron.) Salut!

--Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor

 

Exclusive-Access Suite Areas

Norwegian's Haven

As I've matured, I find that I have a general preference for boutique hotels over sprawling resorts. But there's a tradeoff. If boutique hotels have more intimate ambience and more personal service, they don't offer restaurant variety, massive spa and fitness facilities, or other distractions I enjoy. When cruising, there's no such tug-of-war because lines like Cunard, MSC, Norwegian and, soon, Celebrity, offer what's dubbed a "ship within a ship" experience. Tucked away in various parts of megaships, a smaller, more peaceful enclave will offer suite-level cabins and exclusive spaces, such as a private bar and restaurant, sun deck or small gym. But here's the thing: If you're craving restaurant variety, you can head elsewhere on the ship for sushi or an Italian wine bar with tapas or an elegant, celebrity chef-inspired meal. Want to gamble? A full-size casino awaits. You can take advantage of Broadway-style entertainment, Cirque du Soleil-esque acrobatic shows, college-level enrichment programs, resort-sized spas and, yes, the all-important camp-style kids facilities. And when the action gets a little rowdy or the chaos too intense, you can head back to your own boutique hotel at sea. Now there's no downside.

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