Cruising, like every aspect within travel, has gone through some enormous changes in a few decades.
It wasn't that long ago when cruising required people to dress up for dinner every night and eat at the same table; enjoy the outdoors merely on the Promenade Deck and endure shockingly bad revue-type shows as entertainment.
Fast forward to today, and cruise ships are almost unrecognizable to their ancestors -- big, bold and brash, carrying as many passengers as a Las Vegas hotel and with as much to do onboard; scores of places to eat and drink; and entertainment literally as good as you'd see on Broadway.
With the knowledge that COVID-19 will transform the industry again, we take a look at the ways that cruising has changed over the years -- for the better.
Yes, it's true. It was not so long ago -- think the late 1990s -- when you could trap shoot (aka clay pigeon shoot) with real guns off the back of the ship. And while some people might bemoan the phasing out of this activity, many others will realize the madness of giving passengers loaded shotguns on a packed cruise, not least the health and environmental issues surrounding the practice.
Although not as insane as skeet shooting, there was a time when golfers could get in some driving practice off the back of the ship. Simply open up a section of railing, strap yourself in and get swinging. Then someone realised that maybe hitting thousands of golf balls into the sea wasn't such a great idea for the environment and the practice moved to nets. Now you can still work on your swing -- virtually.
Eating meals onboard used to be a very straightforward affair. You sat in one venue, the main dining room, at the same table and at the same time. Stuck with boring tablemates? Too bad. Then cruise lines began to realize that passengers wanted more choice and started to introduce "alternative" dining venues where you could eat when you wanted and with whomever you wanted (including just your family or spouse). Now, some ships have dispensed with the MDR entirely.
On most cruise lines, the fabled midnight buffet is mostly a thing of the past. We have mixed emotions here; part of us misses the dressing up, the ice carvings, the intricately carved fruit, the tables groaning with food and the chocolate fountain. On the other hand, cruise ships still have plenty of places to eat, all day long and into the night, and we're glad that there's not as much waste.
There was a time when cruises never passed up an excuse to set fire to something, whether that be a cocktail, a dessert or perhaps lighting the candles at your dinner table. Clearly, however, the idea of naked flames on a ship started to ring a few alarm bells (literally and metaphorically) on the Bridge. Apart from the cruise ship classic dessert baked Alaska, you won't find many candles anymore -- with one notable exception -- Wonderland onboard Symphony of the Seas. Why? Because Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd. chairman and CEO Richard Fain wanted them.
Hand in hand with less fire is the gradual extinguishing of smoking, pretty much everywhere inside (save the casino, on some ships). Gone are the days of an artfully placed ashtray beside your bed or in the bathroom (yes, you could smoke in your cabin). Today, most ships have designated smoking areas on deck and occasionally -- mostly on European ships -- in a tiny, smoke-filled room hidden away on an upper deck.
A couple of exceptions include Queen Mary 2's Cigar Room and Norwegian Cruise Line's Breakaway class of ship, which also has a cigar room.
Back in the day, the nightly show onboard was more likely a revue, incorporating a medley of popular hits from various decades and some energetic dancing. Then Norwegian Cruise Line introduced Blue Man Group on Norwegian Epic, and the entertainment arms race began. Not content with original productions, the lines started to introduce shows direct from Broadway and the West End, such as Chicago, We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages, School of Rock, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Kinky Boots, Mamma Mia, Grease, Jersey Boys and Million Dollar Quartet. As well as these massive stage hits, lines also began to introduce alternative (usually for fee) options, including Norwegian's supper club, The Spiegel Tent and MSC's Cirque du Soleil at Sea.
Cruises had been somewhat dressy affairs until Carnival launched in the 1970s with no dress code at all -- in fact the line had to remind passengers to put on a pair of shoes and a top if they wanted to be served in the buffet. In recent years, Celebrity and Royal, as well as British line P&O Cruises, have relaxed their dress codes and "formal" night has become "elegant" night, which usually means a jacket and collared shirt, a nice dress for the ladies. The difference is, though, this is rarely strictly enforced.
You can still dress up if you want -- Cunard still has two formal nights during a seven-night cruise, and most people will wear a tux and a ballgown. But you no longer have to put on the ritz to have a good time.
Waiting in line for a computer, paying a small fortune for a half-hour session (plus a connection fee) and then losing the connection -- these were the typical online session less a decade ago. And as for cell phone use? Forget it -- unless you had a few hundred dollars spare to spend on shipboard roaming charges.
Lines have invested heavily in their Wi-Fi, and charges have come down significantly (it also helps to pay per cruise, so you don't have to keep remembering to log out). It shows, with the number of people taking selfies, making video calls and having their heads buried in their phones onboard. As with all changes, there are many who bemoan the fact that this is the case -- some would prefer to be cut off as soon as they are out of sight of land.
Believe it or not, once passengers on ocean liners were required to pony up before they could plop down. Now the chairs are free -- but the limitations mean that we now must face "deck chair hogs," those who get up early to score a spot with their stuff (whether they're actually there in person) and hold the chair all day. This is one area where we predict more changes could come, as resort cities like Las Vegas implement ticketing systems to encourage fairness in the post COVID-19 era. We hope lines don't go back to charging for the privilege.
Cruise lines are never ones to sit still, whether it's installing laser tag, go-kart tracks, ice rinks, simulated surfing or bumper cars, and we predict a raft of changes to sweep over the cruise sector in the next few years, largely driven by technology. Whether it's germ-zapping robots, voice-activated artificial intelligence or improvements on already existing facial recognition technology, you read it here first.
Updated June 16, 2020