Image: Carnival chair lift
Courtesy of Carnival
At Mahogany Bay Cruise Center, Carnival?s new facility on the Honduran island of Roatan, cruisers can pony up $5 and ride the Magical Flying Beach Chair, which connects the cruise terminal and the beach.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/27/2010 9:25:02 AM ET 2010-04-27T13:25:02

Hey cruisers! Are you ready to undertake the “Final Challenge”? To don a space suit, descend into a 400,000-gallon tank of water and work on a replica of the International Space Station? To push the very bounds of the cruising experience, to boldly go where few have gone before and to fork over 32,995 smackers for the pleasure?

Yeah, me neither. But kudos to the folks at Crystal Cruises (which is offering the Moscow/Star City adventure this summer) for coming up with it. After all, when it comes to shore excursions, how many walking tours and snorkeling trips can you do?

Fortunately, you don’t have to settle as more and more cruise lines are expanding their shore-based offerings. Some are over the top, others are still under construction, but all are designed to provide new experiences and beat the been-there-done-that blues.

Old battle, new front
No doubt the trend is another front in the arms race the cruise lines have always waged over onboard amenities and experiences. Hey, let’s put a glass-blowing studio on our ships, says Celebrity. Oh yeah, counters Cunard, well, we’ve got a planetarium. Big whoop, replies Royal Caribbean, we’ve got a merry-go-round, zip line and enough adrenaline-fueled amenities to host the X Games.

(In July, the Norwegian Epic will set sail with the first Ice Bar at sea; next January, Disney will unveil the AquaDuck, a “water coaster” in which guests will ride rubber rafts through a 765-foot-long acrylic tube. Combine the two — a little ice-cold Stoli for liquid courage, anyone? — and I think they’d actually have something. But I digress ...) Top 10 cruises in 2010

Back on land, the most noticeable enhancements — especially for those who can’t see putting 33 large on their sail and sign cards — are probably the ones the cruise lines are rolling out at their private islands and cruise terminals in the Caribbean. True, none of them are likely to push the boundaries of the cruising experience; on the other hand, they won’t drain your retirement fund, either.

Last September, for example, Royal Caribbean opened an alpine coaster at Labadee, its private island in Haiti. Seated in two-person carts, riders ascend a roller-coaster-like track to a height of 680 feet before swooping back down to the beach through a series of dips and curves at 30 m.p.h. It’s all over in three minutes or so, but at least your wallet will only be $35 lighter.

More bang than you’re bargaining for? Then head to the Mahogany Bay Cruise Center, Carnival’s new facility on the Honduran island of Roatan, and ride the Magical Flying Beach Chair — which, truth be told, is neither all that magical nor capable of flight. It’s a chairlift. Still, the six-minute ride, which connects the cruise terminal and the beach, costs just five bucks for an all-day pass. Add in the shops, themed eateries and aquatic activities, and next thing you know, you’ve got Six Flags Over Roatan.

Of course, when it comes to creating a theme-park-like atmosphere, it’s hard to beat Disney, which will unveil several new attractions at Castaway Cay, its private island in the Bahamas, this summer. Pelican Plunge, a 2,400-square-foot floating platform with two water slides, will likely prove popular, although I’m not so sure about the Spring-a-Leak beach dwelling that features leaky pipes and faulty plumbing. I don’t know about you, but I can get that without leaving home.

Whatever floats your boat
No doubt the cruise lines will continue to unveil new shore-based offerings designed to entice passengers to explore new experiences, range farther afield and, of course, sign on the dotted line. Ever wanted to race an America’s Cup boat? Make your way to St. Maarten on the Festive Caribbean sailing (December 19) of the Queen Mary 2.

Rather drive a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati along the French Riviera? Head to Cannes on the Taste of the Mediterranean cruise (May 25) on Crystal Serenity. (You’re supposed to return the car before the ship sails, but hey, if you can afford the $4,710 excursion, you can probably handle the drop-off charge and meet the boat in Barcelona.) Top 10 short cruise vacations

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Look, too, for more themed excursions that echo ships’ motifs or the interests of their passengers. This summer, cruisers visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, on Disney Magic can forgo the usual tour of the Catherine Palace and attend a Royal Ball hosted by none other than Cinderella, Belle and Snow White.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if other cruises started offering more themed excursions. Participants in the Tea Party at Sea cruise (Eastern Caribbean, September 19–26), for example, could go from Labadee to Port-au-Prince to see what Rush Limbaugh was carrying on about. And some of the “cubs” on the 2nd International Cougar Cruise (Mexican Riviera, May 16–30) might appreciate excursions to various Mexican pharmacies.

Unlike the Final Challenge excursion, you won’t need a note from your doctor.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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