Cruise International Awards judge Sue Bryant discovers the innovations that set cruise lines apart

There’s no limit, it seems, to the imagination of cruise lines when it comes to creative and unusual attractions on board, with every new ship outdoing its predecessor. Take the climbing wall up the funnel; once a trend-setting gimmick but easily eclipsed by Carnival Cruise Line’s high ropes courses, a series of ladders and tightropes strung high above the top deck of Carnival Magic, launched last year, and its new sister, Carnival Breeze.

Then there are the cinemas on board. It’s no longer enough to settle down to an old-fashioned movie; Breeze has a 4D cinema with special effects including rollercoaster rides, moving seats, spraying water and, disconcertingly,  things that prod you in the back and make you jump. Even river cruises lines are getting in on the special effects act; Uniworld’s Antoinette is certainly unique among riverboats in offering a 3D cinema.

Live entertainment, too, just gets better and better, with new variations on the theme of theatrical shows. Take the high diving displays on Royal Caribbean’s two biggest ships, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas; they’re just breathtaking, even more so in the setting of a balmy night in the Caribbean, everybody gathered on the aft deck to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the stunt divers performing their magic under the stars.

Venues for eating and drinking, too, continue to push the boundaries of design. Frosted bars and iced Martini bars have been around for a while but Norwegian Epic is still the only ship at sea to feature a real ice bar – the kind where you don thermals to enter a thrillingly freezing world and drink icy cocktails from frozen glasses. One of the most innovative dining experiences for families has to be the Animator’s Palate, a restaurant introduced by Disney Cruise Line, dedicated to cartoons. Over dinner, you create your own cartoon character and skilled animators actually bring it to life on screens around the room.

Sometimes, it’s the simple things that make the difference. Viking River Cruises launched a new style of riverboat, Viking Longships, this year, with a light-filled conservatory behind the main lounge.  What’s unique about this Aquavit Terrace is that on sunny days, the floor-to-ceiling glass wall opens to create an indoor-outdoor dining area with uninterrupted river views. On cooler days, the glass stays closed but the light still floods in. Genius.

Which line gets your vote for innovation in Cruise International’s 2012 awards? Here’s the lineup:

Carnival Cruise Line – high ropes course and 4D cinema

Disney Cruise Line – interactive portholes and the Animator’s Palate

Norwegian Cruise Line – the Ice Bar on Norwegian Epic

Royal Caribbean – Central Park and the diving shows on the Oasis-class ships

Uniworld – the 3D cinema on Antoinette

Viking River Cruises – the Aquavit Terrace on the new Longships

Click here to cast your votes in the Cruise International Awards 2012