Beyond pools and waterslides: The 9 craziest attractions you’ll find on a cruise ship

Sep 12, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

There was a time when the biggest attraction on a cruise ship was a pool. Not even a pool with a waterslide. Just a pool. There also were shuffleboard courts. Really. That’s not a cliche.

But as cruising regulars know, those days are long gone.

Over the past couple of decades, there’s been an arms race of sorts among big-ship lines to come up with ever more over-the-top attractions for cruise ships — both for their outdoor lounge decks and interior public areas.

For more cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s new cruise newsletter.

Even if you’ve never been on a cruise, you’re probably familiar with some of them. They’re often at the core of cruise line marketing campaigns. We’re talking about things like giant rock-climbing walls and surfing simulators and go-kart tracks. There also are zip lines (relatively short ones) now on some cruise ships as well as laser tag arenas and bumper car pavilions. Some vessels even have ice-skating rinks, and a few are about to get roller coasters. Yes, roller coasters!

In part, the trend is driven by the growth of family cruising, which has taken off in the 22 years since Disney placed its flag in the cruise world with the launch of Disney Cruise Line. Families love ships packed with all sorts of gee-whiz diversions.

Two surfing simulators are among the attractions atop Royal Caribbean
Two surfing simulators and a nine-deck-high slide are among the attractions atop Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).

It’s also part of the megaresort trend that has swept the cruise world just as much as it has rolled through land-based destinations such as Orlando and Las Vegas. Holidaymakers love big, bustling megaresorts loaded with restaurants, bars, showrooms and all sorts of attractions, whether they are on land or sea.

To keep such holidaymakers happy, at least some cruise lines have added ever bigger, more amenity-filled vessels that boast ever more over-the-top attractions.

Not every cruise line has gone the big-attraction route. Princess Cruises, for instance, has eschewed the trend, sticking to a more classic style of big-ship cruising where top-deck diversions revolve around the quiet pool and lounge areas. Small-ship lines and luxury lines generally don’t add big attractions to their vessels, either.

But big attractions are the new normal for a core group of the world’s biggest cruise lines. Among brands marketing to North Americans, there are four in particular that are at the forefront of the trend: Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line.

Related: The 6 best cruise ship waterslides and watery fun zones

The first three of those lines dominate the world of big, bustling megaresorts at sea, with vessels that are as much as twice the size of the biggest cruise ships that existed 25 years ago. Carnival hasn’t gone quite as big with its ships, but it still packs them with a lot of fun-focused activities.

Here, we offer a look at nine of the most unusual attractions that you now can find on a cruise vessel — and where to find them.

Go-kart tracks

Ships that have them: Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Bliss

The top deck of Norwegian Encore includes a sprawling go-kart track and a outdoor laser tag area. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line).
The top deck of Norwegian Encore includes a sprawling go-kart track and a outdoor laser tag area. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line).

We aren’t kidding about this one. There really are go-kart tracks on cruise ships — and we’re not talking scaled-down miniature tracks. Since 2017, Norwegian has topped its three newest vessels with full-blown go-kart race courses that are almost as big and thrilling as the ones you find on land. The biggest of the three, on Norwegian Encore, spreads over a significant portion of two decks and is more than 1,100 feet long. It includes four sections that extend about 13 feet over the sides of the vessel.

All three of the tracks are designed for serious go-karters. The cars — all electric powered — can hit speeds of up to 32 miles per hour, making for an exhilarating experience (trust us; we’ve tried the cars on all three ships). On Norwegian Encore, there’s the added thrill that your friends and family can shoot your car with “laser guns” to give you a power boost.

Cost: $15 per ride, for an eight-lap race that typically lasts about six to eight minutes. Weeklong, all-you-can-ride passes are $199 per person.

Roller coasters

Ships that have them: Mardi Gras (coming in 2021); Celebration (coming in 2022); Global Dream (unveiling date to be determined)

Carnival Cruise Line will debut the first roller coaster at sea in 2021 on its new ship Mardi Gras. (Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

This one comes with an asterisk, as no roller coasters have debuted on a cruise ship quite yet. But they’re coming soon, and when they arrive, they’re going to be the most over-the-top attractions ever seen at sea. At least three vessels now under construction will have roller coasters on their top decks: Carnival’s Mardi Gras and Celebration, and Dream Cruises’ Global Dream.

Scheduled to debut in February, Mardi Gras will get the bragging rights as the first ship in the world with one of the attractions. At 800 feet in length, the BOLT: Ultimate Sea Coaster, as Carnival is calling it, won’t be the biggest roller coaster ever. Or the fastest. It’ll have motorcycle-like cars-for-two that only reach speeds around 40 miles per hour as they whiz around the ship’s funnel. But, hey, it’s a roller coaster. On a cruise ship. More than 180 feet above the sea.

Cost: Prices for the roller coasters have yet to be set.

Bumper cars

Ships that have them: Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Spectrum of the Seas

Bumper cars in The SeaPlex on Royal Caribbean
Bumper cars in The SeaPlex on Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Quite a few cruise ships have basketball courts on their top decks. But Royal Caribbean took the idea to a new level in 2014 with an indoor arena on its then-new Quantum of the Seas that could serve as not just a basketball court but also a pavilion for bumper cars, roller skating and even a circus school.

Dubbed the SeaPlex and now on four Royal Caribbean ships, the two-deck-high entertainment zone also has nooks for video games, Ping-Pong and foosball. But it’s the bumper cars that are surely its biggest attraction. Brought out at various times during the day, the 16 cars are designed for families with seating for two (parents are encouraged to ride along with their little ones). They zip around at 5 miles per hour and are tons of fun.

Cost: No charge, except on China sailings.

Ice-skating rinks

Ships that have them: All of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager, Freedom and Oasis-class vessels

Passengers can ice skate on Royal Caribbean
Passengers can ice skate on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas, which has its own ice-skating rink. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

There’s something fabulously incongruous about being able to ice skate while you’re in the middle of the ocean. But that’s exactly what you can do on 12 vessels operated by Royal Caribbean. The line began adding ice-skating rinks to its ships in 1999 with the debut of Voyager of the Seas, and they’re now on every one of its Oasis, Freedom and Voyager-class vessels.

The ice-skating rinks can be found in the interiors of the ships surrounded by stadium seating for up to 775 people, and they’re home to ice-skating shows that are among the most dazzling entertainment offerings at sea. But they also are used for free-time skating for passengers. Take note that the rinks feature real ice, not some sort of faux flooring. They even have Zamboni machines to keep them groomed. And, yes, Royal Caribbean even provides the skates.

Cost: No charge

Water coasters

Ships that have them: Navigator of the Seas; Disney Dream; Disney Fantasy

Disney Fantasy waterslide
The AquaDuck on Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Fantasy. (Photo courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)

Credit Disney for unveiling the first “water coaster” at sea — a water coaster being a variation of a waterslide that uses water jets to propel you up, down and around. Disney’s two newest ships — Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy — feature the 765-foot-long AquaDuck, a two-person water coaster that is designed for families (read: it’s not too scary). It starts at the rear funnel of each ship and encircles the pool areas.

A bit more high-speed but still family-friendly is the 800-foot-long Blaster on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas — the longest waterslide at sea. Added to the ship in 2019, it’s also a two-person ride that weaves its way like a crafty serpent around and above the ship’s existing basketball court, rock-climbing wall and FlowRider surf simulator. It also twirls around a second new waterslide in the same back-of-the-ship area.

Cost: No extra charge

Laser tag arenas

Ships that have them: Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Bliss, Symphony of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas

(Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)
Don’t shoot! Laser tag on Norwegian Encore. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

The shoot-em-up fun of laser tag has arrived on the high seas in just the last few years, with laser tag arenas popping up on half a dozen Royal Caribbean and Norwegian ships.

Norwegian has taken the biggest leap into laser tag arenas at sea, with dedicated areas for the game on each of its last three vessels. Its recently unveiled Norwegian Encore has the largest and most elaborate laser tag area at sea yet. It’s themed after the lost city of Atlantis and features an undulating serpent and crumbling walls as obstacles.

Related: What we loved (and didn’t) about the new Norwegian Encore 

At Royal Caribbean, laser tag is an add-on attraction held within the Studio B ice-skating rink complexes found on several ships. Crew on the vessels set up a temporary, pop-up laser tag course called The Battle for Planet Z on top of the ice-skating rink at select times during voyages.

Cost: Royal Caribbean’s laser tag attraction is included in the fare. On Norwegian ships, you’ll pay $10 to join a five-minute laser shoot-out. Norwegian also offers a $199 per week pass.

Skydiving simulators

Ships that have them: Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Spectrum of the Seas

A skydiving simulator atop Royal Caribbean
A skydiving simulator atop Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Unlike most of Royal Caribbean’s big ships, the line’s four Quantum-class vessels don’t have ice-skating rinks. But they make up for it in the gee-whiz-attraction department with the only skydiving simulators at sea. The RipCord by iFly attractions are soaring vertical wind machines at the back of the ships that give you the sense of skydiving during 60-second “flights.”

To ride, you’ll don full skydiving gear, including a jumpsuit, helmet and safety glasses (all provided by Royal Caribbean) and accompany a trained iFly instructor into the vortex. It may look scary. But rest assured, children as young as 3-years-old can — and have — done it.

Cost: No extra charge for one ride per cruise

Observation capsules

Ships that have them: Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Spectrum of the Seas

The North Star attraction on Royal Caribbean
The North Star attraction on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

These truly may be the oddest attractions ever conceived for a cruise ship. Called North Star and found on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum-class ships, they are glass-enclosed observation capsules that soar hundreds of feet above sea level on giant mechanical arms. The idea is that you can ride it high to get the ultimate in middle-of-the-ocean views.

Royal Caribbean offers short trips into the sky to passengers on the Quantum Class ships, with a typical ride lasting 15 to 20 minutes. But people also can book them for special occasions such as a wedding proposal or ceremony. The capsule can hold up to 15 people, including its operator.

Cost: Basic rides generally are included in the fare, with some exceptions. Booking the capsule for a special event comes with an extra charge.

Sky rides

Ships that have them: Carnival Vista, Carnival Horizon, Carnival Panorama

(Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)
The SkyRide on Carnival Panorama. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Another offbeat option for getting high above the waves on a cruise ship is to take a turn on the SkyRide attractions found on three of Carnival’s newest vessels. The suspended-in-the-sky rides are comprised of single-person, pedal-powered vehicles that you take on loops around 800-foot-long tracks found on each of the three ships.

Believe it or not, the little recumbent bicycle-like contraptions can reach speeds of up to 18 miles per hour, though usually, you see people plodding along at far slower speeds. After all, it’s all about the view.

Cost: No charge

Planning a cruise for the coming year? These stories will help:

Featured image courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.