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Trends in Cruise Ship Entertainment

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Hasbro's "Connect 4" Game on Carnival Breeze (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

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Part of the allure of hitting the high seas these days is the array of cruise ship entertainment options. Gone are the days of stale Broadway-style revues and second-rate lounge singers. These days, your dance card will be filled with all sorts of diversions, both night and day. Let's take a contemporary look at the most innovative entertainment afloat.

Updated January 8, 2020

Drag Queens at Sea

Creative and alternative cruise ship entertainment is trending, starting with drag queens at sea. U River Cruises, the river cruise line devoted to millennials and millennials-at-heart, has planned drag queen-themed cruises, setting sail with celebrity drag queens like Phi Phi O'har, Jiggly Caliente and Darienne Lake. Throughout the voyage, passengers can attend performances, learn how to make themselves up in drag, enjoy a karaoke night and even go ashore with the queens in a ship-sponsored bar crawl.

This trend gained additional momentum when Scarlet Lady, the first ship in Virgin Voyages' fleet, announced that drag queens will take up residence at the ship's Razzle Dazzle restaurant during a fun brunch experience.

If you don't think two cruise lines presenting drag cruises is a trend, think again. There's more: QueensOverboard.com's Queens Overboard Drag Cruise sets sail annually, featuring drag queens like Heklina and Peaches Christ. The event is inclusive and welcomes anyone who wishes to explore the lifestyle.

The Hasbro Game Experience on Carnival Breeze (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

Interactive Entertainment

For many passengers, it's not enough to passively attend a cruise ship show. Celebrity Cruises sensed that and created a way for its passengers to engage and interact with the cruise entertainment experience.

Aboard Celebrity Edge, the line's newest ship, the feat is pulled off most effectively in its Eden venue, a three-deck space with a restaurant, lounge and theater space. Costumed performers, dubbed Edenists, will approach a cruiser to lure him or her into a dance or game, but there's no pressure to take part if a passengers doesn't want to. Aerialists are also part of the evening "performance."

The show is certainly new and different, and people who have a flair for the dramatic are likely to fall in love with the concept. If you go in with an open mind, you will see how Celebrity has elevated its entertainment programming in an unexpected but intriguing way.

But before there was Eden, some cruise ships already had a full complement of audience-participation games and events. What might have started out as just a simple game of trivia has escalated to full-blown game show-style events that are produced as if you're on a TV studio soundstage.

Consider Carnival's Hasbro, the Game Show. The free show, staged in the ship's theater, is offered across most vessels in the Carnival fleet. Families love it since everyone -- young or old -- can get involved.

Contestants are chosen from the audience to play onstage versions of popular Hasbro games, such as Operation, Simon, Connect Four and Yahtzee. But instead of the typical games you play at home, each of these has been updated for the theater with a special twist. Yahtzee, for example, incorporates huge bowling pins, while Connect Four is more like a basketball hoops competition. When Carnival's new Mardi Gras launches in mid-2020, it will offer similar entertainment in the form of a "Family Feud"-style game show, which will take place live on stage.

Aboard Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas, the interactive entertainment of choice is actually an escape room. The experience is called Escape the Rubicon, and it has an outer space theme and spaceship setting.

Like escape rooms on land, a team of people -- in this case four to 12 -- have to solve a series of puzzles in order to "escape" the scenario. If you board the S.P.S. Rubicon steam-powered starship and can't solve the puzzle, the ship will fly too close to the sun and expose everyone to danger. Teamwork is the name of the game, but when a question stumps the group, they can ask for hints and clues. The hourlong adventure carries a per-person charge of $8.99.

Onboard Tattoos

Even if you're dreaming of getting a tattoo, you likely never thought you could get inked on a cruise ship. Guess what? Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady is outfitted with its own tattoo parlor, dubbed the Squid Ink Tattoo Studio.

Virgin designed the facility in concert with World Famous Tattoo Ink, Soho Ink and "Freshly Inked Magazine." The goal is to encourage passengers to "celebrate creative self-expression, tales of adventure and unforgettable life experiences."

Meanwhile, U River Cruises is offering a "Tattoo on U" cruise. The theme cruise includes a welcome party hosted by famous tattoo artists like Steven Tefft (winner of Season 2 on the TV show "Ink Master"), Reese Hilburn of Spike TV's "Tattoo Nightmares Miami," tattoo model Heather Moss and her husband Bobby Moss, and tattoo expert Paul Gambino. Passengers can also participate in a contest to show off their own tattoos, get a tattoo onboard from one of the celebrity artists, partake in a tattoo parlor crawl in port and enjoy onboard seminars.

Time will tell if this trend has legs, but it's clear that body art on cruises -- either getting inked or learning about it -- is a thing right now.

The Stardust Club on Crystal Serenity (Photo: Crystal Cruises)

Supper Clubs

Everyone is so busy these days, it's nearly impossible to set aside time to enjoy dinner and a show at home. Not so when you're at sea. Enter Crystal Cruises' Stardust Supper Club, which made its debut on Crystal Serenity after a drydock at the end of 2018. On the first and final Black Tie Optional evenings on all cruises of eight days or more, passengers can sign up for a four-course dinner in an intimate club setting.

Music is performed by the ship's show band (think favorite tunes from Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack days) and the Ballroom Dance Quartet. Passengers can get up and take a twirl around the dancefloor a few times during the evening experience.

Silversea Cruises offers a similar supper club experience. Aboard Silver Muse and Silver Spirit, Silver Note is an intimate venue that offers a small-plate tapas-style menu as you listen to jazz and blues standards. Banquettes and plenty of tables for two all have good sightlines to the musicians, and there's a small dance floor where passengers can try their own version of a soft shoe.

Broadway Shows

Cruise lines make it their business to stay on the cutting edge of entertainment trends and, to do that, they often partner with those in the know. You don't need to look far to find celebrity experts helping the lines design the next great shows at sea -- many of these partnerships start right on the Great White Way: Broadway.

Take, for example, Princess Cruises' partnership with music industry icon Stephen Schwartz. He's helped to create a number of production shows for its ships. Schwartz is an Oscar-, Grammy- and Tony Award-winning composer. You've heard his work in "Godspell," "Wicked" and "Pippin." The latest collaboration with Princess Cruises is called "The Secret of Silk" and is based on an Asian folktale with contemporary touches.

Aboard Royal Caribbean ships, you can see versions of popular Broadway musicals like "Mamma Mia!" "We Will Rock You," "Cats," "Grease," "Saturday Night Fever" and "Hairspray." Norwegian Cruise Line also brings top-notch shows to its theaters, including "Rock of Ages," Burn the Floor" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Seabourn collaborates with Tim Rice. This British lyricist has won accolades -- three Oscars, three Tonys, three Golden Globes and many Grammys -- for his creative contributions to everything from "Jesus Christ Superstar" to "The Lion King" and "Aladdin." Even if you don't know his name, you've probably heard Tim Rice's work.

That's why Seabourn and Rice partnered with Belinda King Creative Productions to create "An Evening With Tim Rice." The concert, performed in Seabourn's onboard theaters, is paired with video clips of Rice  talking about his most pivotal works, including "Joseph and the Amazing Tehnicolor Dreamcoat," "Evita," "Chess" and more. The show consistently gets rave reviews from passengers.

80s Rock and Glow Party on Carnival Horizon (Photo: Cruise Critic)

'80s-Themed Deck Parties

Cruise ship entertainment offerings just aren't complete without the requisite decades-themed deck party. The 1980s are hot right now, and everyone is reliving the good old days of New Wave music (The Clash's "Rock the Casbah"), rock (Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA") and pop (Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun").

No matter if you've booked a budget cruise or a luxury jaunt, chances are you'll hear some music from the '80s during a theme party. Carnival Cruises even hosts a '80s Rock-N-Glow Party that includes a dance contest and a pop concert staged by the ship's resident rock band. Passengers are encouraged to dress for success in leg warmers and Mr. T-style gold chains. Don't forget to tease your hair! Neon glow sticks are distributed for a fun effect.

If a one-night deck party isn't enough to satisfy your nostalgia for the 1980s, book The '80s Cruise on Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. Voyages include plenty of dancing, concerts on the main stage, karaoke sessions and even '80s-era movie watch parties. These cruises have included acts such as Loverboy, Grandmaster Flash, Bret Michaels, The B-52s, Berlin, Big Country, The Motels, Katrina & The Waves and more.

High-Tech Thrill Games

Many cruise lines have splashed out on awesome high-tech games and experiences. Laser tag is experiencing its own moment at sea, with both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line offering it.

On select Royal Caribbean ships -- Symphony of the Seas, Independence of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas -- teams play Battle for Planet Z. It's a complimentary game of laser tag that pits teams of "aliens" against teams of "robots." Norwegian charges $9.95 for a 10-minute laser tag session or $199 for an unlimited pass for a one-week cruise on Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy. The play area is designed as an abandoned space station.

Incredible racecar and go-kart adventures are available on other cruise ships. Take, for example, the Formula 1 racecar simulators aboard some MSC Cruises ships like Fantasia, Divina, Meraviglia and Seaside. You'll hop into a single-person racecar that has a steering wheel and an array of monitors in front of you. The platform moves and jostles the vehicle as you navigate the virtual racetrack.

If you'd rather experience the wind in your hair, opt instead for the real thing: Norwegian Cruise Line's topside go-karts on Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy. The S-shaped track accommodates up to 10 cars, and you can speed along at your own pace or up to 30 miles per hour.

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