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Food Court Cruising
Is cruising going the way of shopping, or has the latter influenced the way cruising is sold these days?
The introduction over the past dozen years of casual buffet-style cruise lines such as Aida, Island Cruises and Ocean Village raises an interesting question as to what direction our society, or at least a portion of it, is going. So do some recent moves at NCL, which with the sale of its last traditional ships will do away completely with formal sittings (although they do still provide waiter service in most restaurants).
The answer seems to be that the cruising life now reflects life in many of our suburban malls and food courts. For some, this is great, while for others, thankfully, there remain other choices.
But even the great Queen Mary 2's owners gave this trend a nod when they named her casual dining area the King's Court when she was introduced nearly five years ago.
It seems unlikely but it was the Germans who started this trend with their Aida "club ships," the first of which, the 1,186-berth Aida, was introduced in 1996. Aida traces its routes back to the old East German DSR (Deutsche Seereederei), which firm was privatised in 1991, when it was purchased by private German interests.
In 1994, the successors to this once state-owned company placed an order with Kvaerner Masa Yards (now Aker Yards) in Finland, and this ship, the Aida, became the first of her type, one where diners take all their meals buffet style.
In 1999, DSR, by now known as Seetours, was purchased by P&O Princess, who recognized a successful product when they saw one, so much so that they ordered two more "club ships" and would eventually introduce the concept into the UK as Ocean Village.
Today's Aida Cruises is the most successful of the food court cruise lines, and its fleet will soon number seven ships. Like NCL's now well-known Freestyle Cruising, Aida ships feature casual dress (jackets and ties not required) and a number of alternative dining, extra-cost restaurants. Unlike NCL, however, Aida includes free beer on tap and carafes of wine at table in the fare.
Since the acquisition of P&O Princess by Carnival, Aida Cruises now falls under the jurisdiction of Costa Cruises in Genoa.
Four 2,050-berth ships of the Aida Bella class are now in the course of delivery, each featuring alternative steak, French, sushi and pizza dining venues, some with waiter service, as well as the two main restaurants, all open sitting.
Meanwhile, things were happening elsewhere that would change the face of US mainline cruising as well. First, a Malaysian company called Star Cruises took delivery in 1999 of a ship they called the Superstar Leo, the first cruise ship ever to have multiple galleys and restaurants - in her case, seven.
A year later, Star became the new owner of NCL and a year after that NCL introduced the multiple venue dining concept today known as Freestyle Cruising.
This has been repeated in some form by lines such as Princess Cruises, with two of its dining rooms now known as Anytime Dining and even by Holland America, which now offers four sittings instead of the original two.
NCL is the only one of the casual brands however to maintain some semblance of formal dining, with the main formal restaurant aft in each ship banning blue jeans for dinner (they can be worn however in pretty well any of the other restaurants).
On some mini-cruises moreover the entire staff is outfitted in t-shirts, one of which is a black shirt with stylised bow tie and ruffled shirt or blouse. If you don't mind being served by staff wearing t-shirts, fine (this is casual after all), but it does remind one of dining out at a food court in a mall somewhere in mid-America.
Back in Europe,meanwhile, UK tour operator First Choice teamed up with Royal Caribbean to form its own brand for casual cruisers called Island Cruises, offering a very similar product to what Ocean Village intended. Starting in 2002 with the 1,504-berth Island Escape, formerly Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade, it added the 1,506-berth Island Star, formerly Celebrity Cruises' Horizon, in 2006.
Island's main dining rooms are open sitting, but waiter service is also available for those who wish it, unlike some of the other products in this market.
First Choice had previously operated chartered cruise ships, as had other UK tour operators such as Airtours, since departed the scene. Unlike other lines in this sector, however, Island Cruises' ships sail from Brazil by winter in a joint venture with local cruise interests there.
More recently, with First Choice becoming part of Thomson, it will be interesting to see if there is any move towards consolidating them with the more conventional Thomson Cruises. Equally, with Thomson owners TUI of Germany launching a new cruise venture with Royal Caribbean called TUI Cruises, it will be interesting to see if there is any cross-pollination there.
Not to be outdone by a mere tour operator, P&O followed the lead of Aida in introducing casual "dress down" cruising to the 30-5 crowd in the UK.
Ocean Village, "the cruise for those who don't do cruises," celebrates five years this year since its first Ocean Village, P&O's former Arcadia and once the first Star Princess, was introduced to cruising from Majorca in 2003.
Successful in attracting a younger more informal crowd, she features such attractions as mountain bikes and on-board circus-style entertainment. Like the Aida ships, which all feature lipstick lips on their bows, Ocean Village's hull too are painted up in fanciful style and like the other ships in this market dining is buffet style - but if one wants to be served by a waiter one can still pay extra in an a la carte alternative restaurant.
In 2007, the AidaBlu, once the first Crown Princess, was transferred in to become Ocean Village 2 and in addition to Palma by summer and Barbados by winter, the brand now sails from Heraklion in Crete.
How To Spot A Casual Cruise Ship
These casual ships are very easy to spot at sea. They all wear t-shirts. Without exception, they boast rather fanciful hull art, unlike more traditional cruise ships with their trim lines and boot-topping.
The more casual ships after all tend to t-shirts rather than suits - Aida's lipstick and blue eyes are countered by NCL with waves, jewels, gems and pearls, Ocean Village with orange and purple waves and Island with a colourful stylised tree on an island.
As with Aida, the source of this is again German, NCL's newbuildings all having been produced by Meyer Werft in Papenberg.
Altogether, these lines have grown the market. They indeed accommodate a part of the market that more traditional lines had not gone after, but the market is sizeable and their ships consistently fall into the three-star-plus to four-star range. The four lines we have mentioned here together will soon operate two dozen of these more casual ships, which if they were all operated on a 7-day cycle (which most of them are) would offer enough capacity to accommodate close to 2 million casual cruisers a year, a not insignificant number!
(Source: By Mark Tré - Cybercruises.com)