When I started cruising back in the early 1990s, after-dinner cabaret shows and piano players dominated the onboard lounges. Besides trying my luck in the casino, there wasn't much else to do.
But advancing in recent years by leaps and bounds, entertainment at sea now provides vacationers with an astounding variety of options, many of them interactive. Take, for example, my recent weeklong sail from Fort Lauderdale to the Eastern Caribbean on Holland America’s 1,916-passenger Westerdam.
This cruise was one of the line's themed experiences in partnership with hit TV show Dancing With the Stars, in which Holland America hosts an onboard version of the popular dance competition on its 15 ships throughout the year. Each day of the cruise, standing room-only crowds pack into the theater as competing finalists are paired with a celebrity dancer from the TV show or from Holland America’s own troupe. (Russian dancer and Dancing With the Stars heartthrob Artem Chigvintsev was particularly popular on my championship sailing -- the ladies, especially, couldn’t get enough of him.)
It’s more than just a satisfying show of tangos and cha-cha-chas and waltzes, however. These themed cruises offer free dance lessons, performances by the show's celebrity dancers, and passenger dance competitions. Plus, because the audience applause counts for the lion’s share of the finalist scores, everyone can feel like they had a say -- and the celebrities are always around for autographs and selfies.
All the excitement is a far cry from cruise ship entertainment of old. Here, a survey of what other fun you’ll find on board these days:
Like Holland America, other cruise lines have created unique programming, often partnering with pop culture icons and well-known brands to provide exclusive experiences. Carnival Cruise Lines teams up with Hasbro to offer onstage game show competitions, and its Carnival LIVE Concert Series brings big-name rock bands, such as Journey and Styx, aboard ships in certain Caribbean ports of call. On Royal Caribbean International ships, cruisers can indulge in extravagant Broadway at Sea productions like -- “Cats,” “Chicago,” and “Saturday Night Fever” -- and be awed by high-dive shows in its ships' outdoor Aquatheaters.
Luxury line Cunard has the only cruise ship planetarium and 3D theater that wows guests aboard the Queen Mary 2. And on Royal Caribbean International's new Quantum of the Seas, passengers can order up a cocktail at the Bionic Bar, where the bartender is a robot.
State-of-the-art updates are for all ages, and Disney Cruise Line excels in this area with several “magical” experiences. Aboard Disney Fantasy, the Animator’s Palate dining experience is a huge hit. Diners are invited to draw cartoon characters on their placemats -- which are then collected, animated, and mixed into a film with other Disney characters projected around the restaurant. Elsewhere on the ship, a giant touchscreen Magic Play Floor provides interactive games in a kids lounge, while animated portraits spring into life with short skits whenever someone approaches.
For some cruisers entertainment comes in the form of self-expression through physical activity, and the cruise ships are happy to oblige with a wide choice of adventure options. On Royal Caribbean's two largest ships, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, passengers can zipline 82 feet across the ships, nine decks in the air! These mega-ships also have rock climbing walls at 43 feet high, while Flow-Rider surf simulators let guests test their surfing skills.
SportsSquare is another outdoor sports area that impresses cruisers big-time. It's found on Carnival Cruise Lines' two newest ships, Magic and Breeze. It boasts a ropes course, weightlifting area, and a multipurpose court for basketball, volleyball, and soccer.