Best of Cruise Line Entertainment

There are really two different kinds of cruises:  those you to take to see exciting destinations and those where the ship is the destination.

The “ship as the destination” has, in the last 10 years, gotten decidedly better. And entertainment, especially on the newest cruise ships, has reached a level where some ships are now alternatives to Las Vegas and New York. With attractions like the latest 3-D movies, lavish spectacles in specially built ice skating rinks and aqua theatres, along with hit Broadway shows like "Hairspray," it's easy to see how these are major attractions.

Not all ships qualify, but certainly some of the newer and larger ones fill the bill. Here is the best in cruise ship entertainment today.

Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line was the first to offer entertainment as the primary reason to take a cruise. Of course the line had a leg up on the competition; the exclusive rights to Disney movies, stage shows, characters and songs. Disney ships feature state-of-the-art theaters for live shows and 3-D movies. You can spend your entire cruise ensconced in the best of Disney. You will find Micky, Minnie, Donald and Goofy interacting with guests through shipboard “character experiences” throughout the cruise, but there’s far more.

More On This...

Stage productions also feature the popular Disney characters - such as original show “Villains Tonight” which debuted on the brand new Disney Dream last year. The all-original script includes many famous Disney villains like Captain Hook, Cruella De Vil, Ursula from the "Little Mermaid" and Scar from the "Lion King." The success of the Disney Cruise Line formula showed the other cruise lines something new. While cruise ships always had entertainment, entertainment had never been considered a money maker because they don’t charge for shows. But Disney was able to command much higher cruise fares than other cruise lines, proving that great onboard entertainment can make a difference. Of course, Disney had something other cruise lines did not have – the rights to popular characters and shows.

Royal Caribbean Entertainment 

Last year Royal Caribbean aligned with DreamWorks, a major rival of Disney for animated movies. The line now also has 3-D movie theaters and “character experiences” with popular DreamWorks characters, such as Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Puss ‘n Boots. The line also created new stage shows featuring these characters.

But Royal Caribbean didn’t stop with DreamWorks characters. It was the first cruise line to acquire the rights to the book versions of certain hit Broadway shows like "Hairspray," "Chicago" and "Saturday Night Fever." But this is just the latest entertainment innovation for Royal Caribbean. The line started building ice skating rinks on its ships back in 1999, which most people just considered a new activity for cruisers. But the real payoff was the new “Ice Capades” style shows they created. Today these shows are excellent shipboard entertainment with Olympic-class skaters from around the world.

The newest (largest ship in the world) Oasis-class ships added another proven entertainment genre. “AquaTheater” shows featuring water and aerial-based productions already proven popular in Las Vegas. The Oasis shows require the custom-built AquaTheater venue with 60-foot high dives, trampolines, underwater cameras and trapeze mechanisms. These shows resemble proven Vegas hits like “O” by Cirque D’ Soliel (a play on the French word “eau” for water) and “Le Reve,” a $100-million production at the new Wynn Hotel. The Oasis-class also has a new acrobatic stage show “Come Fly With Me,” using some of the performers from the AquaTheater shows. It features the flying stage-craft now in vogue in Vegas and on Broadway. These shows were created with a producer new to cruise ships, Suzanne Childers, who came with many of the people who worked on “Le Reve” in Las Vegas. Childers is now also working with Silversea Cruises.

Norwegian Cruise Lines

Norwegian aligned itself with Second City Comedy and the Nickelodeon Television a few years ago. When it brought out Norwegian Epic in 2010 it also added a proven New York and Vegas hit show “Blue Man Group.” This was the first cruise ship with a custom built theater for a specific show. The investment in entertainment paid off by making Norwegian Epic a very popular ship. Norwegian Epic also aligned with another successful Las Vegas production company “Legends in Concert” to create “Legends at Sea,” a series of “tribute shows” to popular artists. The ship changes the show every six months but so far the tributes include Cher, Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Madonna and of course, Elvis.

Norwegian didn’t just hire the tribute artists; the productions include the bands, singers and dancers. You don’t just get an “impersonator,” you get a nearly perfect recreation of each artist’s concert stage show with authentic choreography and music. The ship also features a show from Cirque Productions, a Florida-based company similar to Cirque D’ Soliel featuring acrobats, high wire, comedy and other modern circus themes. The key difference is that cruise lines are now finding proven entertainment from outside the cruise industry and bringing it onboard intact. It has become passé for a cruise line to hire writers, arrangers and choreographers and cast its own shows. “Cruise ship entertainment” has been replaced by real entertainment on cruise ships.

Other Cruise Lines

Cunard Line's three ships offer a very high caliber of more sophisticated entertainment featuring players from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London. The line presents original shows based on popular West End (London) musicals with casts as large as 30 players. The ships’ beautiful theaters include impeccable sight lines and box seats with champagne and sweets available.

Carnival Cruise Line now features a comedy club on each ship with two different comedians doing two shows every night, plus a late-night adults only show. Carnival just hired comedian and talk show host George Lopez to serve as its “Director of Comedy.” Lopez will find the talent and lead the comedic direction for the comedy clubs throughout the fleet.

Luxury cruise line refinement doesn’t always translate to the most impressive entertainment, but as noted, Silversea Cruises just hired Suzanne Childers (who did Royal Caribbean’s acrobatic shows) to remake its onboard revues. Crystal Cruises also has a reputation for surprisingly innovative stage shows for a luxury cruise line. Finally, the Great American Steamboat Company, slated to begin Mississippi River cruises next April, 2012, has already announced an impressive lineup of all-American artists to perform the first season; the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Harry James Orchestra, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Platters, Bill Haley’s Comets and The New Orleans Jazz All-stars, among others.

Paul Motter is the co-founder and editor of cruise travel guide.