Technological advances in the cruise industry are transforming the cruise experience for passengers; Cruise Arabia & Africa takes a look at six ‘smartship’ features introduced in recent years.
Apple revolutionised the mobile phone market in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone and the Executive Chairman of MSC Cruises, Pierfrancesco Vago, has openly said “my dream is to invent the iPhone of the cruise industry”. With the introduction of the Mediterranean-based cruise line’s new Seaside-class cruise ships, they’re planning to do just that. “It’s substantially different to what anyone else has got. [MSC CEO] PierFrancesco [Vago] has talked about creating the iPhone of the cruise industry, this is it,” says MSC’s executive director for UK, Ireland and Australia, Giles Hawke.
Little concrete information about the new Seaside-class MSC cruise ships is known at this stage, however, so Cruise Arabia & Africa has examined some of the ‘smart features’ introduced throughout the global cruise fleet, to see what a new ship would need in terms of facilities and amenities to be considered the iPhone of the cruise industry.
At its core, it comes down to doing things differently, thinking outside the box to provide an experience that is better than that offered by any other cruise line, or cruise ship. This has been done several times in the past, but it’s been some years since a truly extraordinary cruise ship was launched.
SS Great Western was the first passenger ship with an iron hull and screw propellers, SS Columbia was the first to feature electric lights, SS Oceanic was the first to arrange passenger accommodations and public rooms in a way that made real sense at sea, RMS Titanic was the largest and most luxurious for her time, while jumping forward almost a century – Cunard Line’s current flagship Queen Mary 2 is the first hybrid cruise ship ocean liner that manages to retain the best elements of both for summer Atlantic crossings and winter grand voyages around the world.
Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s sister ships, which are the largest passengers ships ever built, are technological wonders, but they’re not for everyone, because of their size. So what elements are needed for a smartship and which cruise lines currently come closest?
Bells and whistles
The modern cruise industry (love it or hate it!) is about bells and whistles. Gone are the days when a cruise ship need only provide polite staff, comfortable cabins, pleasant evening entertainment and good food to be a success. Nowadays, its about being different.
Aboard Quantum of the Seas, for example, there will be a skydive simulator, dodgem cars, a North Star viewing pod and robot bar tenders in ‘Bionic Bar’. Aboard Oasis of the Seas and her sister ship Allure of the Seas, as well as Princess Cruises’ new Regal Princess and Royal Princess flagships, there are water and light shows in the evening.
Aboard Disney Cruise Line guests can watch Disney classics under the stars on huge screens over the pool area (a feature also offered aboard Princess, Carnival and Costa’s Concordia-class fleet).
Aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic there is a Cirque- du-Soleil-style dinner and a show offered in Cirque Dreams. The list is endless, proving that the bells and whistles are a feature of the cruise industry that is here to stay in order to encourage first-time cruisers to take to the seas.
Today’s cruise ships are only getting bigger. According to cruise industry data compiled by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), over the next three years the average passenger capacity of the new cruise ships being built will expand significantly. In 2014, the average passenger capacity of new cruise ships was 1,221, while in 2015 it will be 2,572 and by 2016 it will have increased to 3,319 passengers.
This is for new cruise ships being built, including traditionally small river cruise vessels, while the average passenger capacity for the global cruise fleet is probably much higher. As such, cruise lines need to find new ways to get all these passengers onto and off their ships at each port, in a way that is fast and efficient, but also safe and secure.
Royal Caribbean are leading here, with Quantum of the Seas to feature lineless embarkation with passengers able to print boarding passes at home and submit photo ID. The cruise line is promising sidewalk to stateroom in just ten minutes! Crystal Cruises introduced “fast-track check-in,” using bar-coded tickets and scanners on the Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity in 2012, while Princess Cruises also allow passengers to print luggage tags and boarding passes at home.
Internet speed at sea is notoriously slow, but aboard Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, Royal Caribbean have upgraded wireless facilities substantially, offering internet that is even faster than that found on land thanks to a partnership with o3b Networks, which uses a constellation of eight low mid-earth orbit satellites to provide fast and constant connectivity. This technology is being introduced aboard Quantum of the Seas as well, and Royal Caribbean plan to take it fleet wide in the coming years. Regent Seven Seas has also recently upgraded its on-board internet connectivity, but this upgrade was focused more on accessibility rather than speed.
Here at Cruise Arabia & Africa, we like the old-school feel of a hardcopy daily program in one’s hand. There’s something homely about returning to the cabin after a busy day and finding the various programs and fliers listing the events of tomorrow, but many people find the items of paperwork handed out aboard ship annoying (to say nothing of environmental considerations!). Aboard Quantum of the Seas, therefore, Royal Caribbean are providing RFID wristbands and mobile apps to replace the cabin key card and daily program. Love it or hate it – this is the future of cruising.
Space is a premium aboard even the largest cruise ships, so cruise lines are increasingly seeking new and innovative ways to make each space really count. No one is doing this better than Disney Cruise Line, whose fleet of four cruise ships take the Disney World experience to sea on a grand scale.
During dinner in the Animator’s Palate dining room aboard Disney Wonder and Disney Magic, the walls start out covered in black and white pencil sketches of some of the most iconic Disney characters. As the courses progress, the characters are infused with more and more colour until eventually by the time dinner finishes they actually move – a great treat for the kids!
Throughout the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, there are ‘enchanted’ artworks that come to life when you stand in front of them – an idea that Disney Cruises clearly borrowed from JK Rowlings Harry Potter children’s’ book series. Disney take it a step further, however, as thanks to facial recognition technology, a painting will never show the same person the same sequence twice.
Aboard Quantum of the Seas, passengers can enjoy an unobstructed 270-degree panoramic view of the sea through mammoth, three-story panes of glass in the appropriately-named Two70. Nothing new to see here, you might say? But, at night, the huge panes of glass transform into projection screens showing any number of visual effects, from the New York skyline, to swimming dolphins – six additional ‘roboscreens’ will move around the room and twist into various shapes, creating an infinite visual experience.
To some, it might seem like something out a dystopian post-apocalyptic future, but inside cabins are no longer the claustrophobic boxes they were a few years ago. Several years ago, Disney Cruise Line shook things up by introducing ‘magical portholes’ for inside cabins aboard Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. Essentially, the porthole is an LED screen with a live-beam looking out of the ship. The views are identical to those of outside cabins, but Disney characters, such as the Starfish from Finding Nemo, make an occasional appearance to the delight of children.
Aboard Quantum of the Seas, Royal Caribbean have seen Disney’s virtual portholes and raised the stakes, introducing virtual balconies. Several dozen 80-inch LED screens will create floor-to-ceiling views that are so realistic, you’ll find it hard to believe the illusion. If only they could realistically simulate the noise and feel of fresh sea air as well!