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NEW YORK – The 2013 cruise season began with a nightmare: A Carnival ship adrift with no power. But in the last month or so, several cruise companies — including Carnival — have announced major overhauls to old ships and exciting innovations on new ships, from engineering upgrades to theme park-style rides.
And the industry's biggest splash of good news is yet to come: On June 13, the former Kate Middleton, nearing the end of her pregnancy, is scheduled to christen the Royal Princess, a new ship from Princess Cruises debuting in Southampton, England.
"When you start focusing on shiny new ships with funky, fun, new amenities and features, the market comes back," said CruiseCritic.com editor Carolyn Spencer Brown. "There's a lot to talk about that is really interesting and really exciting. I'm glad the conversation is shifting."
"Product improvement and good PR are positive developments that together will likely overcome the challenges that surfaced earlier this year following Carnival Triumph," agreed Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry publication.
Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer of Cruise Planners, which is part of American Express Travel, said prices for Carnival cruises "took a hit" following the engine fire on the Triumph and incidents on other Carnival ships, but that prices for cruises on other lines "held firm." In fact, Cruise Planners reported a 25 percent increase in cruise sales in the first four months of 2013 compared to 2012.
Driscoll said, however, that while repeat cruisers have not been deterred by the bad headlines, cruise-sellers are reporting that "first-time business remains challenged," meaning that it's still hard to get consumers who never cruised before to try it.
Despite that resistance, and despite the latest bad news from Carnival — a couple plunged over a ship railing in Australia last week — there's plenty of excitement over recent ship debuts and other news. For example, Royal Caribbean in April unveiled a list of dazzling first-at-sea attractions on its Quantum of the Seas ship, launching late next year: simulated skydiving, bumper cars and an observation capsule called The North Star, modeled on the London Eye, offering a bird's-eye view 300 feet (91 meters) above the water.
Disney Cruise Line last month announced a makeover for its oldest ship, Disney Magic, with a new children's area themed on Marvel Comics superheroes, a three-story water slide, updated technology and lighting, and rethemed restaurants and entertainment areas.
Carnival, meanwhile, is spending $300 million to add emergency generators, upgrade fire safety and improve engine rooms on all 24 of its ships. Carnival also spent $155 million rehabbing a 1996 ship, Carnival Destiny, which relaunched this month as Carnival Sunshine with a five-slide park; a three-deck-high adults-only retreat with pool and waterfall; specialty restaurants and a ropes course, an attraction that proved popular on two other Carnival ships.
Last week, Norwegian Cruise Line launched Norwegian Breakaway, "the best ship in the company's 47-year history, according to just about every veteran in this industry," said Driscoll. The ship's hull bears a colorful mural designed by pop artist Peter Max. Onboard attractions include a fitness class designed by the Rockettes, an intimate blues club, a ropes course on the top deck, restaurants by Food Network celebrity Geoffrey Zakarian, and baked goods from "Cake Boss" Buddy Vlasto. Its sister ship, Norwegian Getaway, launching in January, will have a Miami-Latin culture theme.
But Driscoll added that "it doesn't stop with Quantum, Disney, Breakaway, Getaway." Next month's launch of Royal Princess with "Kate Middleton as that ship's godmother ensures another batch of positive PR for the business," he said.
Spencer Brown says the launch of the Royal Princess would be a big deal even if the Duchess of Cambridge weren't following in the footsteps of Princess Diana, who christened an earlier Royal Princess ship. The CruiseCritic.com editor said the Princess line is known for introducing great new ideas while maintaining traditions. The company pioneered a concept called "Movies Under the Stars," showing movies on big outdoor screens, in addition to adult-only sundecks, and "now lots of lines have those," Spencer Brown said.
The new Princess ship's features will include an atrium and a top-deck glass-bottomed walkway extending over the ship's edge, but Princess also offers passengers the opportunity to enjoy old-fashioned fun like bingo or to "get dolled up in a tuxedo and evening gown if you want to have a date night."
Garcia said attractions on cruise ships have become as important as where the ship is going. "Ships have become their own destinations now," she said. "You don't want a picture of yourself in a lounge chair reading a book. You want to say you went to the Ice Bar or walked the plank," examples of activities on Norwegian Breakaway. ("Walking the plank" is part of the ropes course, where you walk out on a single beam over the edge of the ship, 130 feet — 40 meters — above the ocean, with your shoulders harnessed to a pulley overhead.)
Carrie Finley Bajak of CruiseBuzz.net agrees that "the buzz really is about the trend towards experiential travel." In addition to over-the-top rides and entertainment, Bajak said some passengers gravitate to lines like Oceania, Celebrity, Crystal, and Holland America, which have "have perfected the art of the culinary cruising. All four lines have created unique onboard programs catering to foodies who like shopping with the chef, attending cooking classes, and an assortment of interactive cooking lessons."
Garcia said it's now common for customers to ask for ships "by name — the Quantum or the Breakaway or the Oasis or the Epic. They say, 'What's the ship that has the rock-climbing, what's the ship that has the bowling alley?' It's not your grandmother's cruise anymore."