Image: MSC Poesia
MSC Cruises
Set to debut in March, the 89,000-ton, 2,550-passenger MSC Poesia will set sail in Europe. The three-deck theater is dramatic before the curtain ever rises; likewise, the 8,000-square-foot casino is big on glitz. In addition to the spa and gym, active types will enjoy the tennis court, golf simulator and miniature golf course.
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updated 2/29/2008 3:48:46 PM ET 2008-02-29T20:48:46

Because mega cruise ships are homogenous in so many areas—from their multiple mall-like restaurants to the pre-fab cabins, giant playrooms and sprawling spas—cruise lines strive to differentiate themselves in any way they can. But what makes a new cruise ship ink-worthy? It’s not enough to be adrenaline-pumping and ear-splitting; they need a weird factor to turn our heads. These days, many cruise lines aim to make waves—and grab market share—with outlandish gimmicks.

But who says gimmicks can’t be fun?

Celebrity’s upcoming Solstice, for instance, has a patch of grass on an upper deck for picnicking, golf putting and croquet. If that’s too snoresville for you, experts lead glass-blowing demos nearby. Fluted goblets anyone? Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas has a surfing simulator that shoots out 20-mile-an-hour waves. You can also work up a sweat on the ship’s ice skating rink.

Cruises must also compete with land-based spas and resorts. So many are offering services and classes that range from acupuncture and teeth-whitening sessions, to Pilates and wine-tasting seminars. On Holland America’s new Eurodam, the slick demo kitchen could be the setting for a TV cooking show. “Designing new ships is an art form that requires lots of input and forward vision,” says Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises. According to Adam Goldstein, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, it’s the passengers that guide their thinking. And, several thousand experts.

For the Independence of the Seas, for instance, nine different architecture and design firms, more than 100 artists and some 4,000 shipyard workers and subcontractors made the ship a reality. An average cruise vessel takes about 18 to 24 months to build and about as much time to design.

The days of ships looking and acting like ships are long gone. They’re so large, that unless you’re standing at the railing with the wind in your hair, it’s easy to forget you’re at sea.

But bigger isn’t necessarily always better, says Dan Hanraha, president of Celebrity Cruises. “It depends on what each guest is interested in. That’s the beauty of the breadth of cruising options guests have today.”

The difference between big and small ships is night and day. Think the Las Vegas Hilton versus a villa in Tuscany. While the largest are nearly three football fields long, smaller ships are a fraction of that size and offer a much more intimate vibe. No queuing up for free ice cream cones or straining to hear above the din at the pool deck.

Image: Ruby Princess
Princess Cruises
Debuting November 2008, the 113,000 ton, 3,080 passenger, Ruby Princess will set sail to the Caribbean. Ruby touts private cabanas, a giant video screen up on deck that broadcasts movies and concerts all day (and night) long—including on-board marriage proposals. If you're ready to tie the knot, the captain officiates weddings in the ship's chapel.
The 450-passenger suite-only Seabourn Odyssey is an upcoming small ship that’s geared toward a high-end crowd. (It’s scheduled to launch in the summer of 2009.) Fares will include an open bar at any of the four restaurants, plus two pools and seven hot tubs. There’s even a swimming and watersports platform that folds down from the stern when the ship’s at anchor.

Says Seabourn president Pamela Conover, “We made a conscious choice to keep our new ships at a capacity under 500 guests, so we can deliver the style of service that our guests expect.” Over the next few years, other new builds on the drawing table include Celebrity Equinox, Costa’s Luminosa and a pair of new liners for Disney. Expect the biggest splash to be made by Royal Caribbean’s 5,400-passenger Genesis of the Seas, planned to hit the water in late 2009.

“Many clients initially want to sail on the new mega-ships just to experience all the mega bells and whistles,” says travel agent Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel in Los Angeles. But many, he adds, will not return because of the large crowds and frenetic pace. “On the mega-ships carrying 3,000 to 6,000 passengers, it’s like bringing your entire town on vacation with you.”

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