Visit Coney Island, take in a West End Show, enjoy a coffee in Central Park – all without getting off your ship. As ships get bigger and bigger, with more and more on board, we ask – has the ship become the destination?

The Royal Loft stateroom on Oasis of the Seas

Cruising has evolved almost beyond recognition from the days when it was considered a travelling pageant for the idle rich who criss-crossed the world on a whim, writes Gary Buchanan. It is now a worldwide mass-market leisure concept, and the ships themselves are technologically advanced examples of ‘entertainment architecture.’ Exotic ports of call were once the purpose of the journey; now the ship is often the destination in itself.

Today, many cruise ships are driven by the demands of entertainment – where bigger equals better – and the cruise experience for some involves being transported nowhere other than back to where they started. Little wonder that some companies sell their ships as urban experiences, cities on the ocean.

The wow factor

More than any other, two ships have recently sent the cruise industry into a spin. The headlines said it all: ‘Mega-cruising has arrived,’ ‘The incredible hull’ and even ‘The world’s first space ship.’

The owners suite on Norwegian Epic

Always the innovator, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are 1,187 feet (360 m) long; but the most revolutionary aspect of their design is the increased width of the superstructure to 208 feet (65 m). This has not only allowed Royal Caribbean to build the ships taller – 15 passenger decks in total – but, more importantly, to split the superstructure. This has in turn permitted an expanded horizontal atrium as well as two completely new outdoor areas: Central Park and the Boardwalk.

Nothing can prepare you for the ‘wow factor’ of these floating leviathans. With a price tag of £800 million, they offer an experience on an unprecedented scale. The most distinguishing feature is undoubtedly the distinct neighbourhoods; and it’s these themed areas – with their leisure overtones – that define the character of these bustling 225,282-tonne cities at sea.

The Royal Promenade is the central hub of the ships, and is linked to Central Park by the Rising Tide Bar – the first moving bars at sea, which ascend and descend three decks. With 12,175 plants and 56 trees, Central Park offers a respite from the buoyant energy that otherwise characterises the ships. Boasting a Coney Island theme complete with carousel, the Boardwalk leads to the novel (and very successful) AquaTheatre.

The entertainment on these Royal Caribbean ships dispels any preconceptions you may have about subpar shows at sea. Redolent of Las Vegas shows, Oasis of Dreams (on Oasis of the Seas) and Oceanaria (on Allure of the Seas), both held in the purpose-built AquaTheatre pool, call for a cast of 15 synchronised swimmers, acrobats and high-divers and are among the most enthralling diversions on any cruise.

Frozen in Time (on Oasis) and Ice Games (on Allure) are spectacular ice shows held on a vast rink, showcasing the talents of 14 world-class skaters. They are surely some of the best-costumed extravaganzas at sea. Also key to the revolutionary entertainment are the breathtaking acrobatic shows, Come Fly With Me (on Oasis) and Blue Planet (on Allure.

A 90-minute adaptation of the Broadway smash Hairspray receives top billing aboard Oasis of the Seas.

On Allure of the Seas, Chicago is brought to life with the three female leads from the West End production. Aboard each of these behemoths there are no fewer than twenty-four places to eat. The main dining rooms span three decks, offering open-seating breakfast and lunch; for dinner, Decks 3 and 4 are dedicated to

Nothing can prepare you for the ‘wow factor’ of these floating leviathans. With a price tag of £800 million, they are bustling cities at sea

traditional sittings at 6pm and 8.30pm, and Deck 5 is reserved for passengers who’ve opted for ‘My Time Dining,’ Royal Caribbean’s flexible dining programme.

The Windjammer Marketplace, the popular buffet-style venue on Deck 16, is open for breakfast and lunch as well as for casual dining from 6.30pm until 9pm.

This constant pushing of the limits of ‘entertainment architecture’ makes these mega-ships seriously groundbreaking constructions

Top of the range of alternative evening dining options is the voguish 150 Central Park, which showcases set menus devised by American celebrity chefs. Chops Grille erves the most succulent steaks; Giovanni’s Table offers family-style Italian dining; and Izumi features Asian cuisine with an à la carte choice of sushi and sashimi. The Solarium Bistro offers spa-oriented cuisine on Oasis of the Seas; on Allure, this room becomes a Brazilian churrascaria.

There is a bewildering choice of cafés and eateries during the day, as well as countless bars for cocktails in the evening, from the Schooner Bar and Viking Crown Lounge to the Globe and Atlas Pub and Champagne Bar. There’s also a vast array of shops, including GUESS Accessories and A Close Shave barbers.

Needless to say, the Casino Royale is vast, as is the open-deck space, with full-size basketball courts. Mini-golf courses, FlowRiders, rock-climbing walls and a zip-line that’s nine vertiginous decks above the Boardwalk are among the other activities available.

If ever there were ships that were as much the destination as the ports of call, it’s these outstanding 5,408-passenger sister ships of Royal Caribbean.

A truly epic ship

At 153,000 tonnes and carrying 4,200 passengers, Norwegian Epic is second only to the Royal Caribbean duo in the superlative stakes. The ship’s design is situated somewhere between vitality and decadence – a bit camp, a bit kitsch – and a lot of fun.

Fats Cats play on board Norwegian Epic

The largest ship in the NCL fleet, Norwegian Epic takes the company’s concept of ‘Freestyle Dining’ – eating wherever and whenever you like – to another level

There is no main dining room in the traditional sense; in this city at sea, passengers dine out just as they would at home. With a massive choice of 21 restaurants and casual eateries, it’s impossible to get round all of them on a seven-night cruise.

The largest two restaurants are the Manhattan Room – in the style of a 1930s supper club – and the retro-chic Taste. NCL’s signature steakhouse Cagney’s competes with Brazilian-inspired Moderno Churrascaria; another popular and elegant favourite is Le Bistro, serving classic French cuisine.

Cruisers looking for Asian cuisine will find themselves seriously spoilt for choice. With an impressive line-up of knife-wielding chefs, Teppanyaki is the largest eaterie of its kind at sea; the more intimate Wasabi has a sushi and sake bar; while Shanghai’s is an à la carte noodle bar and restaurant serving stir-fries, dim sum and exotic curries.

High up on Deck 14, La Cucina features Tuscan cuisine as well as stonebaked pizzas; one deck above is the expansive Garden Café with several food stations preparing dishes to order. Guests occupying suites and courtyard villas can dine in the private aerie that is the Epic Club and Courtyard Grill.

There’s no risk of entertainment ennui, either, given the amount of headline entertainment on board Norwegian Epic. The Spiegel Tent is a two-deckhigh circular space staging nightly Berlin-style Cirque Dreams & Dinner performances by clowns, acrobats, contortionists, singers and tightrope walkers – many of whom also serve the three-course meal.

Possibly the most original show at sea, the 75-minute performance by the Blue Man Group combines surreal comedy sketches and frenetic percussive activity with oodles of coloured dye and marshmallows. Meanwhile, Las Vegas-based company Legends in Concert stages popular tribute acts featuring Madonna, Elvis and Tina Turner impersonators.

CHILDREN ON BOARD – The Kids Are Alright!

In addition to the extensive Youth Zone and Pool and Sports Zone (with five pools), Royal Caribbean has partnered with DreamWorks Animation and introduced a ‘Move It! Move it!’ street party cavalcade with costume characters, including Shrek and Kung Fu Panda.

Characters from Madagascar also appear in How to Train Your Dragon On Ice, while Let Me Entertain You includes Alex, Gloria, and Mort from Madagascar in a kids’ fantasy show on water. There are also character breakfasts for the kids and a selection of DreamWorks movies shown in 3D.

On Norwegian Epic, in partnership with Nickelodeon, cartoon loving kids can have fun at the interactive Slime Time Live, or breakfast with SpongeBob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer.

There’s also an Aqua Park with three waterslides, a rock-climbing wall and a movie screen.

Read our First Time Cruise Guide here