Cruise lines are impressively creative when it comes to brainstorming new attractions to add to their floating resorts and using technology and design to improve your cruise vacation. We take for granted the cruise ship innovations of yesterday, but there was a time when specialty restaurants, poolside movie screens and abundant balcony cabins were the latest craze. These days, the sky's the limit when it comes to the crazy ideas cruise line designers manage to work into each new ship that debuts.
You might not be aware of all the amazing things you can now find on cruise ships. In no particular order, here are some of our favorite jaw-dropping cruise ship innovations.
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1. Virtual Views
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, as found on Royal Caribbean, 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.
Royal Caribbean pioneered the concept, though Disney Cruise Line had previously introduced virtual porthole windows, showing live ocean footage combined with Disney animated characters. Norwegian is getting into the virtual view game with Norwegian Bliss, which will offer solo cabins that are interior rooms with window-sized, virtual ocean views.
2. Technology-Based Entertainment
Broadway shows and name-brand acts on cruise ships are taking onboard entertainment to new heights, but what blows us away is the way in which cruise lines are using technology to enhance entertainment options. Royal Caribbean's Quantum-class ships feature the performance space Two70, which uses Vistarama, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that transforms from huge panoramic windows into a vast surface where movies are projected in ultra-HD with a resolution nearly twice that of any IMAX cinema. It also employs six robotic screens, fixed to robotic "arms," that can move in sync or independently of one another while projecting fantastical images onto their ultra-HD screens. The tech partners with live performers to create a show you won't forget.
Perhaps not as much as a marvel, but Carnival's Playlist Productions employ LED screens and special effects to enhance onboard production shows on all but two of Carnival's ships. Even luxury line Regent's Seven Seas Explorer is using digital backdrops in lieu of elaborate sets to do more in a limited cruise ship theater.
3. Tricked-Out Top Decks
Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival are leading the charge to change top-deck pool decks into world-class amusement parks, and we're still shaking our heads over some of the attractions they've managed to cram onto a cruise ship. The innovations started with rock climbing walls, mini-golf, water slides and water parks, real-grass parks, FlowRider surf simulators, adults-only sun decks and pool-deck movie screens. Now they're experimenting with skydiving simulators, elaborate ropes courses, London Eye-esque pod rides, go-kart tracks, a cycling ride on an elevated track, multi-deck slide rides and laser tag. Instead of being slow days, sea days are now a race to sample all the amusements available on the ship's upper levels.
4. Norwegian's Freestyle Concept
Norwegian's Freestyle concept isn't new, but it was a game-changer when it was introduced in 2000. The program took a sledgehammer to the concept of traditional cruise ship dining, which required passengers to choose from an early or late seating for sit-down dinners with the same tablemates in the same restaurant each night. Instead, Freestyle let passengers select their dining time and restaurant of their choice and even freed them from prescribed dress codes, making formal night optional and blue jeans acceptable. It clearly hit a chord with cruisers because today even the most traditional of luxury cruise lines are ditching assigned for open seating and opting for elegant casual dinner attire over strict, multi-tiered dress codes. Modern-day ships offer a plethora of dining venues, from quick and casual to date-night fancy and ethnic specialties from around the world.
5. Breweries and Craft Beer Halls
Gone are the days when the most creative cruise lines got with beer was selling you five in a bucket for a reduced price. Today several lines have acknowledged the microbrew trend with onboard breweries and bars specializing in craft beers. Carnival debuted its own private-label draft beer back in 2011 and now serves craft beer and microbrews fleetwide. With Vista and Horizon, it brews the beer right onboard at the RedFrog Pub and Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse and Brewhouse. Norwegian's District Brewhouse on Escape and Bliss offers 24 rotating beers on tap plus more craft ales in bottles -- including a couple of ales exclusive to the cruise line. Some Celebrity ships have the Gastrobar for craft beer, while sister line Royal Caribbean has British-style pubs on a handful of ships.
6. Show Kitchens
Fire is much feared on cruise ships, so you'd think they wouldn't want passengers to get anywhere near cooking implements. Plus, isn't the point of cruising that someone else preps the food all week? But lines like Holland America, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas are embracing cooking classes with state-of-the-art show kitchens with stations for passengers to try their hand at cooking, and cruisers are loving it. Oceania and Regent share a chef who creates intriguing classes for wannabe food wizards, while Holland America partners with America's Test Kitchen to offer cooking demos live and on video, taste tests and workshops. The onboard centers for culinary arts feature cameras and TVs to focus on the teacher's techniques, and high-tech accessories like induction cooktops (i.e., no flames to worry about).
7. Exclusive-Access Suite Areas
Small-ship atmosphere and service with big-ship attractions? Genius. Cruise lines like Cunard, MSC and Norwegian have found ways to create enclaves for high-paying suite residents on their mega-ships to offer a more upscale home base. Those booked in these exclusive areas get access to private pools, sun decks, restaurants, lounges and even gyms. They don't have to fight the crowds if they don't want to, but they also can easily exit the area to sample the many restaurants, shows, happening nightlife and top-deck amusements they wouldn't have if they booked on an upscale small ship. While Royal Caribbean and Celebrity haven't grouped suites together in a gated community of sorts, they offer a similar experience with suite-only restaurants and bars, and an array of perks to make a mainstream cruise feel more like a luxury one.
8. Expanded Youth Programming
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, Dr. Seuss, Star Wars, Marvel 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 water parks, shipwide activities and entertainment for the whole family and an array of food options for picky littles or ravenous teens, and a cruise can be a perfect family vacation.
9. The 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 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. Not only has Norwegian since put the Waterfront on each new ship, but MSC has taken to the idea. MSC Seaside offers a seafront promenade on Deck 8, offering places to eat, drink, shop and even sunbathe. It even offers infinity bridges on either side with glass panels that let you gaze down at the ocean beneath your feet.
10. Smart Technology
Cruise ship innovations don't only center on fun; cruise lines are using the latest technological advances to make your cruise experience easier. Several lines offer interactive screens in public areas for passengers to look up menus and activity schedules, get directions and even see which restaurants don’t currently have a wait for a table. Royal Caribbean, MSC and Disney offer RFID bracelets passengers can use like cruise cards to open doors, make purchases and check kids in and out of kids clubs. Royal Caribbean is experimenting with smart check-in to make the embarkation process faster than ever. And the Carnival Corporation has introduced the revolutionary Ocean Medallion concept, rolling out on Princess Cruises first, which uses wearable discs to not only function as room keys and charge cards, but to offer easy embarkation, luggage tracking, pre-cruise profiles, personal activity suggestions and concierge services.