With each new cruise ship that floats away from the shipyard, the mainstream cruising experience becomes more and more like a land-based resort. Alongside amenities such as multiple restaurants and huge spas, theme-park-style waterslides are the latest must-have cruise feature. With catchy amusement-park names like Super Bowl and Twister, elaborate multi-deck slides are becoming standard aboard ships carrying more than 2,000 passengers.
The days of basic rectangular pools and standard hot tubs are long gone. In 2006, Royal Caribbean's 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas debuted with the industry's first water park as well as the first surfing simulator, called the FlowRider. Two years later, the gigantic Oasis of the Seas rolled out a water park and not one but two FlowRiders. Carnival got in on the craze in 2009, building four waterslides on the new Carnival Dream; a 303-foot slide is currently the longest in the biz. This year the Norwegian Epic ups the ante with a slide that has a big bowl feature that users spin around in, while the Disney Dream will trump them all when she debuts in early 2011 with a totally theme-park-like water flume ride that shoots guests over the side of the ship high above the sea.
"Driven by land-based water parks and their unique ride experiences, there is definitely a trend to go larger, faster, more exciting, and more experiential," says Andrew Mowatt, vice president of resorts for the British Columbia-based WhiteWater West Industries, which manufactures and designs most of the cruise industry's waterslides.
Going forward, the sky is literally the limit. Mowatt describes a hypothetical ride he has seriously discussed with cruise ship execs that has a clear-through slide that drops 10 stories in a 15-second free fall while zipping through the ship's main atrium. So much for bingo and napkin folding -- welcome to the new age of cruising.
Here are the industry's most fun and thrilling water features and slides at sea.
Twister & Drain Pipe
Carnival's newest ship, the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, has the cruise line's most impressive water features. Called "WaterWorks," passengers can zip down a pair of twin 80-foot-long racing slides or down a 104-foot-long enclosed spiral slide called the DrainPipe. The biggest thrill is the Twister, a 303-foot-long, four-deck-high enclosed corkscrew that's currently the longest water slide at sea (until the Disney Dream debuts in 2011, that is). Tamer water pursuits include squirting fountains, splash zones, and dump buckets.
The Carnival Splendor and six of Carnival's eight Fantasy-class ships have all been retrofitted with WaterWorks features. Elation and Paradise each have two-deck-high Twister slides and are slated to get WaterWorks installed within the next few years. The rest of the Carnival fleet all have three-deck-high Twister slides next to the main Lido deck pools or aft of the funnel, ranging in length from 72 feet on the Spirit class to 214 feet on the Conquest-class ships.
Currently being built in a shipyard in Germany for next year's debut, the 2,500-passenger Disney Dream will unveil a massive 765-foot-long, four-deck-high flume ride called the AquaDuck. Of any onboard water feature to date, the AquaDuck resembles a theme-park ride the most. Passengers will board a two-person inflatable raft and be propelled by high-powered water jets on a high-speed ride around the perimeter of the ship's top deck. Part coaster and part slide, the ride takes guests 13 feet out over the ocean inside a transparent acrylic flume --150 feet above the sea. Just like a theme-park ride, a conveyor system lifts rafts up from Deck 12 to the ride launch on Deck 16. Special lighting effects inside the enclosed funnel keep things exciting (the slide will be open at night as well). One bit of the ride zooms past windows in the "tween" kids' club, while at the end, guests glide swiftly through a 335-foot-long stretch of river rapids before a final splashdown.
Epic Plunge & Super Bowl
Just months away from her summer debut, NCL's newest build, the 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic will boast the 240-foot-long Epic Plunge bowl slide as well as a slide called the Super Bowl. The latter is a four-deck-high slide that starts with a ride down a covered tunnel in an inner tube before riders land up in the "Super Bowl" to do some spins. There are also waterslides aboard NCL's four Jewel-class ships: the Norwegian Jewel, Jade, Pearl and Gem.
Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas & Oasis of the Seas
H2O Zone and FlowRiders
Instead of major waterslides, the most notable water features aboard the Freedom ships and the Oasis of the Seas are the H2O Zone water parks and Wave-Loch's FlowRider surf simulators, which provides a realistic surfing experience via thousands of gallons of water per minute creating a wavelike flow on which boarders can ride (at least in theory). The H2O Zone also features colorful fiberglass figures that are rigged with various water sprayers and other effects.
Though not as over-the-top as the theme-park slides on the above ships, Costa does offer fun slides aboard seven of its ships, including Costa Fortuna, Costa Magica, Costa Concordia, Costa Serena, Costa Pacifica, Costa Mediterranea and Costa Atlantica. The open serpentine-style slides are about 200 feet long and run from a height of about 25 feet, which is still tall enough to make you scream.