Best cruise ships for winter 2013

This was the first year in many that no cruise line introduced a brand new ship model.  The reason for this is that so many incredible new ships were produced the preceding four years, from 2008 to 2011, that we are still getting to know them.

The last few years the “early adopters” paid premium prices to cruise on those newest ships.  But now the "new ship premium" has mostly worn off – so everyone can enjoy these new wonders of the sea at more reasonable prices.

Let’s take a closer look at these great new model ships and find the best prices for the cold winter months ahead.

Oasis of the Seas

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and her newer sister ship Allure of the Seas are the most amazing vessels yet. They are the biggest cruise ships in history (Allure is a few molecules larger than Oasis), but size alone is not the main attraction. It's design is another feature to behold.

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Some people liken a cruise ship to a small city -- but these ships feel like a small planet. The center of the ship is an outdoor, open air “Central Park” with live trees and grass, lined with al fresco restaurants and several tiers of staterooms with inward-facing verandas.

Inside, entertainment abounds in a massive, three-deck tall atrium that hosts parades with hundreds of characters, including “Shrek” through a tie-in with DreamWorks. Guests can skate in the ice rink between shows by professionals. The main theater offers the Broadway versions of Hairspray (on Oasis) or Chicago (on Allure), as well as 3-D screenings of new releases from DreamWorks.

The best price I found on Oasis for a March 2, 2013 seven-day sailing is just $899 per person, balcony cabin.

Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy

Disney is an entertainment juggernaut that could have dominated the cruise industry, but opted for quality over quantity. Disney built two smaller ships back in 1999, and added no more until 2011 when it debuted two new and far more elaborate ships.

The attraction is the ingenuity of Disney entertainment. The stage shows are among the best at sea, and the massive Art Deco movie theater is fully 3D and shows nothing but Disney productions night and day.

The ships have a “water raft” ride through a 765-foot tubular river that extends out over the top deck of the ship. The children’s areas are separated by age groups and feature appropriate activities -- real and virtual. You probably won’t see your kids until dinner, and even the meals are productions.

The magic of Disney equally inspires the expansive adult-only areas; separate lounges themed to feature fine wines, ales, champagne, hors d’ oeuvres, martinis, dancing and sports. Two alternative gourmet restaurants have fine food by designed by award-winning chefs, children allowed but not encouraged. This is Disney, after all, so no casino.

All staterooms have extra beds for third, fourth, or sometimes fifth guests. I recommend a longer cruise on these newer ships.

The best price I found is $1,225 per person, balcony, for a seven-day February 2 cruise on Disney Fantasy.

Norwegian Epic

This is a one of a kind ship, and the best for young adults, especially solo cruisers. Although many regular cruisers do not like the stateroom design the ship excels in entertainment options; sophisticated comedy and high-caliber musical performances.

The shows include the infamous Blue Man Group, an eclectic combination of high- and low-tech performance art; Legends in Concert, a tribute show to famous singers; a troupe from The Second City comedy group of Chicago; Fat Cats, a nightclub for live electric blues nightly; Howl at the Moon, a dueling piano sing-along; and Cirque Dreams and Dinner, a one-ring circus and dinner show. Be sure to make reservations for all shows before you sail; venue sizes are small.

The food is decent with the “included in the cruise fare” options -- but much better if you spend a little extra for the specialty restaurants. The very reasonable cruise fares for this ship make it easy to afford the finer dining.

Singles should take a “studio stateroom,” from a complex of specially designed cabins with no singles-supplement charges. The rooms share a common space where you can hang out and meet other solo cruisers. Amazingly, no other cruise ship has this.

The best prices I found for Epic include balcony staterooms for just $699 on cruises in late January.

Norwegian is bringing out a brand-new ship in April 2013 called Norwegian Breakaway. It appears to be a smaller version of Epic, with nicer staterooms but without the Legends at Sea shows. It has a wonderful approach to outside deck space: a “Waterfront” promenade deck where many public rooms will open to the fresh air outside. This ship will sail only out of New York City year-round. The best prices start next fall at $899 for a balcony cabin. This is the only new model ship in the Caribbean this winter.

Carnival Cruises FunShip 2.0

The new ships from Carnival are high value cruises with lively family entertainment and very reasonable prices. Carnival has a new entertainment concept called FunShip 2.0 where shipboard focal points offer access to a variety of venues for eating, drinking and entertainment.

For example, the line's newest ship, Carnival Breeze, still has two dining rooms, but touts Guy’s Burger Joint for all-you-can-eat hamburgers designed by Food Network star Guy Fieri. Nearby are the Blue Iguana Cantina and Tequila Bar and the Red Frog Rum Bar. Additional new and smaller dining options include Fat Jimmy’s BBQ, Seadogs (hot dogs), Bonsai Sushi and Mongolian Wok.

Showroom entertainment now features short 30-minute musical vignettes (the Brits, Latin Nights, Motor City and The Divas) alternating with family games based on the Hasbro television network, featuring stage-adapted versions of “Yahtzee,” “Sorry,” “Operation,” and “Slam Dunk.”

The now fleetwide Punchliner Comedy Club promotes TV personality George Lopez, although you won’t hear or see much of him beyond short recorded snippets before the shows start. The comedians are funny; family-appropriate during the day and adult-oriented late at night.

The ship alternates between six- and eight-day cruises. Cruise for as little as $399 per person, or $599 for a balcony stateroom on a six-day cruise.

FunShip 2.0 program has not yet been rolled out fleetwide. It is only on Carnival Breeze, Conquest, Glory and Liberty. The older Carnival Destiny is also getting a $155-million renovation and will emerge as Carnival Sunshine in April.