(12:31 p.m. EST) Norwegian Encore, which launched last week and is now sailing a transatlantic voyage on its way to New York City, is the fourth and final of Norwegian Cruise Line's Breakaway-plus class of ships and marks a significant moment in the evolution of the line.

It's the last Norwegian ship to be built at the Meyer-Werft shipyard, the last one under the stewardship of outgoing CEO Andy Stuart and the last of this size (with 4,000 passengers, these are true megaships). The next new ship from Norwegian will be the Leonardo Class, which launches in 2021; the size will be dialed back to  3,000-passengers.
 
The Breakaway Plus-class ships – which also include Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy -- have been the line’s most successful class in all metrics, according to Stuart: "In every sense -- profitability, payback, guest experience, it gets the highest scores. Every metric we measure this class of ship is the winner," he told us onboard the ship's mini-inaugural voyage from Bremerhaven, Germany to Southampton.

These four ships were modelled on the original Norwegian Breakaway, which arrived in 2012. That ship, along with sister Norwegian Getaway, provided the blueprint – and started giving passengers many of the line’s now-signature features that they love.

With Norwegian Encore soon to arrive in the U.S., we take a look at why the Breakaway and Breakaway-plus class of ships proved such a success for Norwegian -- and what comes next for the line.

1. The Boardwalk Was Revolutionary

An Aerial View of the Boardwalk on Norwegian Encore (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

It seems so obvious now, but "getting closer to the sea" was a radical idea back in 2012. Think about it: Apart from pool bars, what other ships had an outside space for bars, restaurants and clubs?

All ships have a promenade deck, for strolling, but none had any features (except perhaps for shuffleboard). They were a quiet, sterile environment, good for staring out to sea or reading a book, but not where you'd go to party.

Breakaway broke the mold, offering an outdoor promenade in which every one of the entertainment venues had an outside area -- perfect for sipping a Caribbean cocktail or whale watching in Alaska (thanks to heaters). Passengers love these areas, particularly when sailing in warm weather.

2. 678 Ocean Place Became a Destination

Another way that the Breakaway-class ships innovated cruise ship design was by putting all the entertainment and dining (except the main theater and the largest main dining room) in one place across three decks.

That meant you could eat, drink, go shopping, watch comedy or duelling pianos, grab a coffee -- and gamble, in a compact area.

This has a number of advantages: It helps enormously with navigation -- how many times have we seen passengers wandering around large ships, looking for venues?  On Breakaway-class ships, you always know the area where your venue will be, even if you don't know the exact location.

And also with passenger flows -- with multiple venues to choose from, you rarely find crowding, with people inside, outside and moving seamlessly from one venue to another.

3. Norwegian Said Goodbye to the MDR

Before Breakaway, passengers were used to one giant, fancy main dining room (MDR), usually with a sweeping staircase and fairly formal service.

What Breakaway did was divide the MDR into several small, intimate venues (the Manhattan Room, Taste and Savor). While these restaurants are still included in the price, they feel like  specialty restaurants, in terms of quality of cuisine, atmosphere and service levels.

This concept proved stealable throughout the industry; Royal Caribbean adopted a similar approach for its Quantum-class ships when those debuted in 2014. It’s been so successful that Royal retrofitted its Oasis-class ships with the concepts and now it seems like multiple main dining rooms have been around forever. But they weren’t. Norwegian Breakaway started the trend.

4. Broadway Shows Replaced Revues

The Kinky Boots Performance on Norwegian Encore (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

We acknowledge that Norwegian wasn’t the only cruise line to pioneer Broadway shows on its ships; Royal Caribbean debuted the concept when it put Hairspray on Oasis of the Seas in 2009. But the Breakaway class heralded a new standard in sheer volume and talent, often using the same cast. Shows onboard Breakaway and Breakaway-plus ships are now straight from Broadway and the West End, brining name recognition with them: Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Quartet, Jersey Boys, After Midnight, Footloose and on latest ship Encore -- Kinky Boots and Choir of Man.

Norwegian bucked the perceived wisdom that passengers would only be able to sit through a 40-minute show, by keeping them largely faithful to the original performance, cutting just 20 minutes or so and skipping an interval.

And it worked. Passengers feel they are getting real value for money (after all, where else could you catch a Broadway show for free?), rather than watching a sub-standard revue show, which you still find on many ships.

5. Frank del Rio's Influence is Everywhere

The former CEO of Prestige Holdings, which included Oceania and Regent Seven Seas, became Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO in 2015. Since then, he has gradually given the ships a more elegant and upmarket feel and it's noticeable; we've seen every aspect of the Norwegian brand improve.

From the décor, the furniture and fittings, the public spaces to the food, there have been gradual, subtle improvements to the point at which you can sometimes forget you are on a mainstream ship at all.

We noticed it recently, on our mini-inaugural on Encore, when we ate in one of the two small main dining rooms, Taste. There we had a delicious pasta with grilled chicken dish that was as good as you'd get in any of the 28 other restaurants onboard. Which is testament to the line: It's all very well offering outstanding for-fee food, but to offer it in the MDRs for free, now that's a real sign of quality. (For more insight, read our First Impressions of Norwegian Encore).

6. The Observation Lounge is Breathtaking

Apart from food, the clearest example of the rise in quality – and a clear mark of Frank Del Rio’s influence -- can be found on Bliss and Encore in the Observation Lounge.

This 20,000-square foot space at the top and the front of the ship is, hands-down, the most elegant and refined public space we have encountered on a mainstream ship. With a look and feel more akin to a keycard access-only lounge for high-paying suite guests, this space not only wows for décor but for the sheer size of it. It's a massive amount of prime real estate to give over for free, and again Norwegian has to be saluted for that.

Primarily built, as its name suggests, for staring at Alaska's stunning vistas (where both these ships will be based), the Observation Lounge is a perfect spot to grab breakfast away from the buffet crowds, to read a book, have a coffee or grab a quiet drink in the evening (there is no dance floor or live music here, just a small bar).

7. Norwegian is Constantly Innovating

The Speedway on Norwegian Encore (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Whether it's new activities such as a top deck ropes course with a "plank" that goes over the side of a ship (Breakaway to the innovations that came with Norweigan Joy – the go kart track, the VR (virtual reality) Pavilion and a Laser Tag arena -- or restaurants – a version of the popular land restaurant Onda by Scarpetta has just launched on Norwegian Encore -- each Breakaway class ship offers something different from the last.

These iterations mean passengers don't feel they are getting a cookie-cutter experience -- they can try different ships in the same class with a feeling of familiarity in terms of basic layout, but also be surprised by the new features, especially on the later, bigger ships.

8. The Casino Takes Center Stage

The placement of the Casino, which for the first time is no longer a room, but a huge area on Deck 7, is the one bum note we'd cite with these ships. Casinos should be neither seen, nor heard (to coin a phrase) unless you are in them. The Breakaway class casinos are both -- you can't avoid them if you are in 678 Ocean Place – and the slots spread out far beyond the main space, along corridors and into public spaces.

Add the fact that the casinos still allow smoking, and that means you have a pervasive smell that reaches up to Deck 8 and down to Deck 6. But if you like casinos, these are some of the biggest at sea with an astonishing 303 slots.

What's next for the line?

The next new ships will be overseen by a new cruise line president, incoming CEO Harry Sommer. At Norwegian Encore’s inaugural, he revealed very little about Leonardo class, only that they have been designed and they will not -- as previously stated -- be running on LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas).

They will be built at Fincantieri shipyard in Italy and they will start sailing in November 2021.

So if the Breakaway class were such a huge success, why not keep building them?

"You can't keep doing the same thing," Stuart said. "We must not do that, we must continue to be innovative.

"Customers are changing and becoming more demanding. Land vacations are not staying still so we have to continue to innovate."

Incoming CEO Harry Sommer added: "We love Breakaway class of ships; they are fantastic and the Leonardo class will be even more fantastic."