12/02/99- Updated 07:53 PM ET


Published Dec.2, 1999

Going to extremes

Activity-packed super-ships dump boredom out at sea

Sea changes:
parrow.gif (64 bytes)Carnival

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Celebrity
parrow.gif (64 bytes)Cunard
parrow.gif (64 bytes)Disney
parrow.gif (64 bytes)Princess

By Gene Sloan, USA TODAY

ABOARD VOYAGER OF THE SEAS- Dennis Lieberman of Marlboro, N.J., has never been rock climbing.

But here he is, wearing a helmet, strapped to a harness, pulling himself up a four-story rock face in one of the most unlikely of places: 14 decks above the sea.

"You would never have found something like this on a ship five years ago," says the 46-year-old pharmacist and longtime cruiser, beaming after rappelling back to the bustling deck of Voyager of the Seas, which launched last week. "This is exhilarating."

Besides the rock-climbing wall, the 142,000-ton vessel - the world's largest - is home to a full-size basketball court, an in-line skating track, nine holes of miniature golf and the first ice rink at sea. And that's in addition to more expected features, such as dozens of bars, three pools, showrooms, a casino and more.

The Voyager that came to Miami
Hellooo Miami! It's hard to miss the Voyager of the Seas when it comes into port. (PRN/ Royal Caribbean)

Call it a sea change. Once known as sedate affairs, cruise ships are morphing into floating fun zones that offer innovative diversions by the boatload.

Tired of shuffleboard? On the 2,002-passenger Norwegian Sky, launched in August, you can shuffle into a cybercafe to surf the Web and sip cappuccino.

Hungry for more? The 1,760-passenger Disney Wonder, also unveiled in August, has rotating dining (every night a different room), as well as an adults-only, upscale Italian eatery.

And if that isn't music to your ears, consider Celebrity Cruises' 1,950-passenger Millennium, whose first cruise is scheduled for June. It will have the first music library, with personal listening stations, as well as the first ocean-view glass elevators and the largest spa at sea.

Voyager even has its own shopping mall, an indoor boulevard four decks high and longer than a football field. Passengers will find Hugo Boss clothes, Donna Karan sunglasses and Gucci watches. Royal Caribbean's 2,350-passenger Monarch of the Seas unveiled the first on-board Sharper Image store in July.

"The lines want to counter the image that they're boring and staid and formal," says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter.

Studies show that 89% of Americans have never cruised. Cruise line executives say one of the biggest things holding people back is the fear of being bored - and confined. So cruise lines are building ships that are so big and have so much to do that no one could be bored - or feel confined - again.

The research is clear, says Jack Williams, president of Royal Caribbean. "People want the freedom to do a lot of things on vacation. They want options."

parrow.gif (64 bytes)Home port:  Miami
parrow.gif (64 bytes)Itinerary: Western Caribbean. Seven nights, departing Sundays, to Labadee, Haiti (Royal Caribbean's private beach); Ocho Rios, Jamaica; and Cozumel, Mexico.
parrow.gif (64 bytes)Prices:Inside cabins start at $1,999 per person, based on double occupancy; outside cabins without balconies, $2,299; outside cabins with balconies, $2,799; inside cabins with windows overlooking the Royal Promenade, $2,499. Suites start at $3,949.
parrow.gif (64 bytes)Information: 800-327-6700 or http://www.royalcaribbean.com/.

It's a notion that took a while to take hold. "Cruising traditionally was very regimented," says Julie Benson of Princess. "You would have dinner at a specific time, go to the show at a specific time. We realized that this is not the way people like to vacation."

Like Royal Caribbean, Princess has made "options" its mantra. Last year, the line launched the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess, until now the world's largest ship. It offers four places to have dinner and three places to see a show, plus a wave of cruising firsts, such as a wedding chapel and virtual-reality games.

Some say it all may be going a bit too far. To make room for all the new offerings, the ships have to be big, and "the bigger ships are less personal," says Lieberman's wife, Michele, a travel agent who sells cruises full time.

She says cruises used to be intimate outings in which clients would make friends at the communal dinner table and get to know crew members by first name. Now the ships are so big that you can go days without seeing a familiar face.

"It's hard to call (Voyager) a cruise ship," says Anne Campbell, editor of the CruiseMates Web site (http://www.cruisemates.com/). "There is no sensation of being at sea."

Campbell, who sailed on a preview cruise for travel agents, says Voyager felt more like a mall than a ship, a "hermetically sealed environment (with) little exposure to the sea and sky." She quips that you need binoculars to see the water from the top decks.

Still, Campbell says the new big ships appeal to first-time cruisers and families with children, groups that crave activity.

If history is any indicator, Voyager, however impersonal, will be a hit.

In the late '80s, many critics thought upstarts Carnival and Royal Caribbean were crazy when they launched a generation of 70,000-ton "mega-ships" filled with entertainment. But vessels such as Royal Caribbean's Sovereign of the Seas, the world's biggest when launched in 1988 but now just half the size of Voyager, were a huge success.

Now most vacationers won't board a ship unless it has cabins with balconies, alternative restaurants and an elaborate health club - all recent innovations.

Driscoll says the newest, biggest ships with the most unusual amenities command a premium price. And they've propelled the unprecedented boom in cruising.

Last year, a record 5.4 million people sailed the seas, nearly four times as many as in 1980, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. The number is expected to grow nearly 8% this year and at least that much in 2000, making cruising the fastest-growing vacation activity.

To meet demand, the major lines are churning out ships at record speed: More than 50 are on order, almost a 50% increase in the North American fleet. And executives say the "more options" refrain will continue to drive the designs.

Not every line is following the trend, however. Cunard, which three weeks ago announced plans for a ship bigger than Voyager, is looking to the past for inspiration, hoping to tap the nostalgia for older vessels that the film Titanic inspired. "I think it's safe to say you won't find an ice-skating rink or rock-climbing wall anywhere on board," Cunard president Larry Pimentel says.

Space restraints may force other lines to hold off on new options. Executives say ships can't grow too much more because the crowds would become unmanageable and passengers would face unacceptable lines. Some wonder whether Voyager is too big. Driscoll says the number of people on board could overwhelm the Caribbean islands the ship visits.

"These aren't huge islands, and we've seen in the past two years with the Carnival Destiny and (its sister) Triumph just what happens when a lot of people arrive at once," he says. "It does erode the land experience."

Thousands of eager vacationers disembarking at once have begun to create chaos in small ports such as Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, where crowds of tourists jam the streets and overload attractions.

And the problems on bigger ships could start before passengers step onto land. Driscoll says one of the lingering questions with Voyager is how quickly passengers will be able to disembark. "It's not fun waiting for 30 or 40 minutes to get off the ship."

Williams says not to worry. Royal Caribbean has made significant changes at its ports, including a massive overhaul of its Miami terminal, to handle the increased volume.

And he doesn't rule out an even bigger ship. "I cannot imagine a reason to build a ship bigger than this," he says. "But five years ago, I couldn't imagine building one this big."