As the 2013-14 peak cruise season heats up, several newly built ships will be sailing from South Florida ports, including the 3,600-passenger Royal Princess, which made its U.S. debut at Port Everglades last month.
In 2014, nearly 4 million passengers are expected to travel through the Broward County seaport, now the world's third-busiest cruise port, officials said.
Recently more than 800 cruise baggage handlers underwent customer service training at the port to prepare for the busy season, which runs through April. After that, the pace abates abit as some ships leave for deployments in Europe through the summer.
More cruise ships now are being positioned in South Florida for Caribbean sailings than last season due to continued weakness in Europe, said Stewart Chiron, president and CEO of Miami-based website CruiseGuy.com.
"That means more options and varied itineraries for consumers, and generally prices should be a little less expensive as cruise operators compete to fill their ships," said Chiron, noting an increase in summer Caribbean offerings and year-round based ships at some ports.
Operated by Princess Cruises, Royal Princess now is sailing Sundays from Port Everglades on seven-day Eastern Caribbean voyages through April 20, has several stand-out features including the SeaWalk, an enclosed glass-bottomed walkway where cruisers can go for a stroll 28 feet beyond the ship's edge.
"[The SeaWalk] was pretty cool," said David Brams, co-owner of World Cruises and Travel Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, after experiencing it on an Oct. 27-29 preview cruise.
Brams said he'd expected to see more "wow" features on Royal Princess coming almost five years after Princess' last new-build Ruby Princess. Still it's an excellent product for couples, with many quiet areas for them to be alone, he noted.
Other signature features include an expanded atrium area offering a street-café atmosphere with several restaurants and bars, and the Movies Under the Stars screen, considered the largest of its kind at sea.
"The Piazza was one of the most impressive atrium areas I've ever seen," said Uf Tukel, co-president of iCruise.com in Delray Beach. "I enjoyed all the different dining, beverage and entertainment options."
Royal Princess isn't likely to attract many families with small children since it didn't have the water slides or family activity areas you'd find on many of the resort-style cruise ships today, Tukel said. "Our bookings show that Princess attracts a more experienced traveler, ranging from mid-to-late 40's to definitely older, with the occasional honeymooner."
At Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach, officials are still awaiting the launch of the Island Breeze day casino cruises, which is expected to happen by year-end, a spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, Port Miami Sunday had its busiest cruise ship day of the season so far with nine ships in port. The Miami port kicked off its busy cruise season Oct. 25 with the arrival of the 2,700-passenger Disney Magic, now sailing five-night Western Caribbean and Bahamian itineraries.
"The 2013-2014 cruise season marks the continuation of our largest expansion ever, bringing more new cruise vessels and cruise passengers in a single cruise season than ever before," Port Director Bill Johnson said in a statement.
PortMiami will welcome MSC Cruises' 4,345-guest cruise ship MSC Divina Nov. 19. The ship will depart on a three-day Bahamian cruise Nov. 20 marking Miami as its first North American port departure since its May 2012 launch in Europe.
For nearly a decade, MSC Cruises only offered late fall and winter sailings from North America, and Divina will be its first ship based year-round in this market. Divina's amenities include seven restaurants, 18 bars and lounges, five swimming pools, a bowling alley and casino.
Norwegian Cruise Line's 4,000-passenger Norwegian Getaway is also joining PortMiami's cruise ship lineup this season. Getaway will be christened there Feb. 7 by its "godmothers" — the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders — before departing Feb. 8 on a Caribbean cruise.
Getaway will have a few first-at-sea entertainment experiences such as The Illusionarium, which will transport ship guests to the world of magic through supernatural special effects and illusions. It will also have several South Florida-themed restaurants and lounges, namely The Tropicana Room, Flamingo Bar & Grill and Sugarcane Mojito Bar.
"There is so much to do on [Norwegian] ships regardless of your age group," Tukel said, noting Getaway's multi-generational appeal.