Cruise ships focus on fun

Bedazzled by all the hoopla over the debut of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis, it was easy to miss the recent launch of Carnival Cruise Lines’ newest “Fun Ship,” the Carnival Dream.

Oasis of the Seas: A Jan. 24 article on new features on cruise ships reported that there are 37 bars on the Oasis of the Seas, currently the world’s largest cruise ship. The correct number is 17. —

At 130,000 tons and a mere $740 million, about half the cost of Royal Caribbean’s massive mega-liner, the Dream is almost austere by comparison. But even without all the Oasis’ bells and whistles, the first luxury liner from Carnival without a ship-wide theme in its public rooms doesn’t exactly come off like a tramp steamer.

Geared to the family trade, the world’s largest cruise line hopes to make a few waves of its own with the Dream, offering all kinds of cool distractions to keep the kids engaged and happy. The Waterworks Park, for starters, features a giant, twisting yellow water slide billed as the largest at sea. There’s also a two-level miniature golf course.

Speaking of cool, Norwegian Cruise Line’s soon-to-be launched Epic promises an attraction with adults-only appeal, the Ice Bar -- a watering hole maintained at a constant 17 degrees, where patrons brave the chill wearing a faux fur coat, gloves and hat. Stand by for the first reported case of frostbite ever reported aboard a cruise ship sailing the Caribbean. Set to debut this spring, the Epic also will feature the line’s first water park and the first squash court at sea.

Entertainment headliners aboard the splashy new ship will include the popular music, comedy and multimedia theatrical troupe, the Blue Man Group. Meanwhile, at the 280-seat Comedy Club, the famed Second City improv group will stage productions. If all that doesn’t float your boat, try the only big top at sea, “Cirque Dreams & Dinner,” featuring high-flying acrobats, jugglers and baton twirlers to accompany your evening meal.

When it comes to specialty entertainment on deck or in the works, there’s much more. Disney Cruise Line’s 4,000-passenger Dream (not to be confused with the Carnival Dream) is set to slide down the way in early 2011. This “newbuild,” cruise industry lingo for a new ship, has designs on a four-deck-high AquaDuck, a combination water slide and roller coaster. Starting at the ship’s highest point, passengers seated on inflatable rafts will go whipping through a tube about two football fields long, making a final, throat-clutching loop 13 feet off the ship’s port side.

The transformation of cruise ships into amusement parks hasn’t met with universal approval. “They’re so full of recreational devices -- boxing rinks and wave machines -- they may as well stay in port,” says travel expert and author Arthur Frommer.

Incredible edibles

Food, cruising’s all-inclusive primo onboard attraction and still available in copious amounts, has been cut back in recent years. The old passenger-pleasing standby, the midnight buffet, has been significantly downsized or, in some cases, taken off the table altogether. That’s not to say that cruising’s mainstay, eating, is being neglected. Guests can still stuff themselves 24/7. It just costs a bit more.

Oasis guests willing to pay an additional surcharge can wine and dine at any of 37 bars and seven optional restaurants. The ship also introduced the first cupcake shop at sea, a 1940s-style store with 2010 a la carte prices. Also on the menu -- “pupcakes” for the family mutt.

Holland America Line’s newest addition to its 14-ship fleet, the 86,700-ton Nievw Amsterdam, with an inaugural cruise date of July 4, promises to delight the foodies on its 2,044 guest list with its Culinary Arts Center. Celebrated chefs, conducting hands-on cooking demonstrations and classes, will perform their magic in state-of-the-art showcase kitchens.

Oceania Cruises’ mid-sized newbuild, the 1,258-passenger Marina, heading for sea late this year, expands on the line’s signature claim to having the “finest cuisine at sea.” Epicureans will delight at the Marina’s version of a culinary center, a multimillion-dollar affair where guests can cook for themselves. Guest chefs also will escort cooking class participants on market tours ashore where they’ll help shop for ingredients they can use to prepare and enjoy their own meals.

Shopping from stem to stern

Shopping plays a greater role in selling cruises these days, and cruise lines have gone overboard (pun intended) trying to top one another with their marketing strategies.

Many of today’s luxury liners are aptly described as “floating malls,” with more retail space allocated to shops and exclusive boutiques featuring high-end, one-of-a-kind jewelry collections and designer merchandise from Hermès and Escada. Trinkets and casual wear emblazoned with the cruise line’s logo are de rigueur.

With myriad new ways for passengers to browse ‘n’ buy, budget-conscious cruisers expecting one all-inclusive vacation tab may need a slush fund to cover all the extras. Seductive upgrades and options such as Botox treatments, teeth whitening sessions, personal trainers, pay-as-you-go dining at specialty restaurants and an ever-expanding menu of high-cost shore excursions can tempt guests to indulge “just this once.”

There’s more retail ashore, especially in Caribbean ports of call, mainstays of many megaliners, where discounted and duty-free shopping is formidable competition for shore excursions and the islands’ water sports and enticing beaches.

St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, is a huge shopping plaza with most of the action centered along the harbor in Charlotte Amalie. Shopping on the Dutch side of St. Martin is concentrated along Front Street in Philipsburg, a virtual strip mall. Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands, is also big on duty-free shopping. Among other popular Caribbean island shopping meccas, Aruba, Barbados and Antigua are notable.