Cruise Ships on Steroids

When Manuel Frazao climbed aboard his most recent cruise, the first thing he did was take off his shoes. But the New Britain, Conn., retiree wasn?t prepping for the pool or testing a new seasickness remedy. He just wanted to feel the grass between his toes.

Frazao?s feet were planted in the “Lawn Club,” a half-acre of living grass growing atop the Celebrity Solstice ? which, with its $700 million price tag, is one of the most expensive and biggest cruise ships on record. Complete with its own irrigation system and full-time groundskeeper, this perfectly manicured carpet is being touted as a prime spot for passengers to spend an afternoon picnicking, playing croquet or just lying around, watching the waves ? that is, when it?s not being mowed.

Looks like somebody forgot to tell the cruise companies about the recession. While the rest of the travel industry struggles to keep its head above water, the cruise lines keep cramming those big boats with so many over-the-top extras, it?s a wonder they stay afloat. Sayonara, shuffleboard ? the latest onboard diversions include Scandinavian-style ice bars and zip lines, while foodies can pick from 24 dining options on a single ship. Not enough wow factor? How about the world?s first “moving bar at sea,” which pogos back and forth between three decks like a booze-slinging elevator.

And to hold all these frills, the ships themselves are bigger than ever; Royal Caribbean leads the size wars with a trio of 3,600-passenger ships but will top itself this year with Oasis of the Seas, a 5,400-passenger behemoth just launched on its maiden voyage.

A travel slump might seem like a strange time to supersize. After all, Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines which together command 75 percent of the market, foresee per-cabin revenue drops of 14 percent for 2009. To fill cabins, the industry has cut fares by about 20 percent this year. But companies ordered these colossal ships several years ago, when the $25 billion vacation-at-sea business was still one of the fastest-growing stars in the travel universe. Cruise lines assumed they?d be profit machines ? providing economies of scale while accommodating thousands more free-spending cruisers.

Now it?s far from clear how well the new giants will fare with consumers. Their efforts to one-up each other with splashy features, for example, have hit some choppy waters. (One ship tried towing a blimp behind it ? and lost the blimp at sea.) Those lawns and water parks can mean less space for traditional amenities. And passengers wonder just how often they?ll be pulling out their wallets as cruise lines significantly expand onboard charges (typically about a quarter of their total revenue) to boost their bottom line.

Indeed, the new boats are packed with pay-to-play options like specialty restaurants, adult-only pools and even once-gratis items like late-night room service. “They?re creating more opportunities for you to spend money,” says Ross Klein, author of “Paradise Lost at Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations.”

As the number of annual cruisers has more than tripled over the past two decades, ships have grown almost as dramatically. In 2004, Cunard Cruise Line launched the then-biggest-ever Queen Mary 2 (capacity: 2,600), whose many luxuries include a Canyon Ranch spa. That ship surrendered her top-dog tiara two years later to Royal Caribbean?s three 3,600-passenger Freedom-class vessels. At over 160,000 gross tons, each boasts more than triple the mass of the Titanic and includes entertainment like ice rinks, wave simulators for surfing and boxing rings.

But the biggest and most outrageous is still to come. Royal Caribbean?s $1.2 billion Oasis of the Seas is a leviathan, boasting 220,000 gross tons, 2,700 staterooms, 16 decks, 19 bars and 23 restaurants. A virtual floating city, the ship includes? seven “neighborhoods,” among them Central Park, which has a living garden with a horticulturist teaching gardening techniques; the largest-ever on-ship pool (at 18 feet deep, perfect for diving exhibitions); and a Coney Island-style boardwalk complete with a carousel.

The logistics behind some of these new features would baffle NASA. Passengers playing bocce on the grass of the Celebrity Solstice?s Lawn Club might be surprised to learn that, according to project manager David Callahan, creating their patch of green required two architecture firms and a team of irrigation specialists and soil scientists.

The grass had to be able to tolerate extremes of temperature, salt and wind, while the area underneath had to be sturdy enough to support the soil but not so heavy as to upset the ship?s balance. Once installed, new challenges emerged, including brown spots and scruffy patches; heavy foot traffic was so hard on one lawn section, says Callahan, they had to cover it with a platform.

Of course, with the more than $4 billion cruise companies have sunk into these projects, passengers may find themselves dinged with charges at every turn. Nearly half of Oasis? 23 restaurants require an additional fee, with the cover charge at 150 Central Park, the ship?s signature eatery, hitting an industry high of $35 per person. The ship will also have the line?s first nursery for pre-toddlers, charging $8 an hour per child so that parents can take part in activities like a $250 in-pool scuba course.

While entertainment charges have traditionally been taboo, Norwegian Cruise Line will require a $15 fee for its Cirque du Soleil-style dinner show on the Epic, a ship launching next year. NCL is also considering selling a “Velvet Rope” package, which would offer VIP treatment at onboard nightclubs.

“This is how a hotel on top of the water is operated,” says an NCL spokesperson, pointing out that many restaurants and activities are still free. “Go to the W and you don?t get any of that.”

Not that cruise charges are new; there will just be many more of them. And as Bill Belt recently discovered, they add up quickly. At first, the Dallas-based labor consultant and his wife, Lois, thought they?d scored a deal on their Holland America Lines cruise to South America ? about $2,000 each before a cabin upgrade. But then came the onboard extras.

They racked up a $300 Internet charge, $20 a bag for laundry, $100 worth of photos, a few meals in the specialty restaurants at $50 a pop ? not to mention salon visits, drinks and gratuities. In all, the Belts? tab climbed to about $5,000. “When you get that final bill,” says Belt, “you say to yourself, ?What in heaven was I thinking??”

Adding new features can also have unintended consequences. On the Celebrity Solstice, for instance, accommodating the lawn meant less space for deck chairs ? already a common cruise complaint. So on the line?s newest ship, not only will there be an additional 100 lounges; “pool butlers” will troll for chair hogs and help track down open seats.

Other passengers, like Rosalie Beasley of Leonardtown, Md., fear that bigger ships will just mean more shortages of amenities. On a recent NCL cruise, Beasley found that the specialty restaurants were always booked, leaving her stranded without a reservation.

For the moment, plummeting revenue seems to have curtailed major new ship orders. And most cruise companies are focusing on stabilizing fares and making their current fleet more user-friendly. Royal Caribbean, for one, says it?s adding more online booking options for Oasis, so passengers can reserve show tickets and make spa and dining reservations earlier.

Other lines are running voucher promotions to ease the pain of onboard fees. But some travelers, like Mary Scrivanich, a pet sitter from Flanders, N.J., have found their own way around the added costs. On the 16 cruises she?s taken, she hasn?t once set foot in an entrance-fee restaurant. “If it?s not in my budget,” says Scrivanich, “I just don?t do it.”

2009 Copyright The New York Times Syndicate