Perhaps the biggest cruise story of the year was the debut of Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas – at 228,081 tons, the biggest cruise ship ever. Eighteen decks high and chock full of eateries, bars and entertainment zones, Symphony is a floating mega-resort on a scale only matched by its three slightly smaller sisters. Sailing to the Caribbean year-round out of Miami, it can hold up to 6,680 passengers.
Symphony's debut in 2018 brought the cruise world its first two-deck-high family suite, complete with a slide between floors, and such innovations as an ice skating show featuring dozens of choreographed, light-emitting drones. The ship also houses Royal Caribbean's first seafood restaurant. Still, in terms of head-turning new features, Symphony hardly compares to the new vessel unveiled in 2018 by Royal Caribbean sister company Celebrity Cruises: the 2,918-passenger Celebrity Edge.
Christened in December by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Malala Yousafzai, the first Nobel laureate to name a cruise ship, Edge is the prototype for a groundbreaking new series of vessels designed to be oriented to the ocean in a way that is unusual for big ships. Among innovations, it boasts outward-facing cabins fronted with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass – a new concept for ocean cruising. It also features a first-of-its-kind, 90-ton platform the size of a tennis court cantilevered over its side that moves up and down to serve as a lounge, restaurant and tender boat-boarding station.
Other notable new ships in 2018 included Norwegian Bliss – the biggest vessel ever for Norwegian Cruise Line. Measuring 168,028 tons, it features such over-the-top amusements as a two-deck-high racing course where passengers compete against each other in electric go-carts — a first for a vessel based in North America.
Cruise giant Carnival also unveiled one of its biggest ships ever in 2018, the 133,500-ton Carnival Horizon. A sister to the two-year-old Carnival Vista, it offers many of the same features including an 800-foot-long sky ride around its top deck and an IMAX theater. New on the ship is a Guy Fieri-themed smokehouse and brewpub – the latest concept to come from a partnership between Carnival and the celebrity chef.
Other lines with major new vessels in 2018 included Holland America, Seabourn Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Viking Cruises. Perhaps the most notable of the lot was Holland America's Nieuw Statendam, a sister to the line's two-year-old Koningsdam that features some new public spaces and its own style created by well-known hospitality designer Adam Tihany and architect Bjorn Storbraaten.
The new vessel from Viking Cruises, Viking Orion, is the fifth new ocean ship the company has unveiled since it began offering ocean voyages in 2015. Few lines in history have expanded so rapidly. The vessel, notably, features a planetarium, something that exists on only one other passenger ship, Cunard's Queen Mary 2.
In addition to adding new ships, cruise lines in 2018 were busy upgrading older vessels. Royal Caribbean spent $120 million for a massive makeover of its 15-year-old Mariner of the Seas, adding new deck-top water slides, a FlowRider surfing pool, a virtual reality bungee trampoline experience and other fun-focused attractions.
Luxury line Crystal Cruises also subjected a 15-year-old ship, Crystal Serenity, to a massive overhaul, and Carnival, Norwegian and Princess each upgraded one or more ships.
Still, it is luxury line Silversea that gets the award for the biggest transformation of an older ship. The line spent millions of dollars to not only completely revamp its 9-year-old Silver Spirit but to expand its size. In a relatively rare procedure that took nearly two months to complete, the company had the ship cut in half at a dry dock in Italy to make way for a massive new middle section that allowed for a bigger pool area, new restaurants, a revamped spa and additional cabins.
It wasn't just ships getting upgrades in 2018. Royal Caribbean began an unprecedented, $200 million makeover of its private island in the Bahamas, CocoCay. Renamed Perfect Day at CocoCay, it is getting a new water park with 13 water slides, the Caribbean's largest wave pool, a helium balloon ride that takes cruisers 450 feet into the air and several other over-the-top features.
On the itinerary front, Carnival made news in 2018 with the announcement it would launch the first cruises from New York to Cuba. The destination continues to be a hot one for cruisers in the wake of looser restrictions on ship visits. Carnival also added more sailings to the island nation from Tampa and Miami. Also expanding offerings to Cuba was Norwegian Cruise Line.
In other itinerary news, Viking unveiled plans for an around-the-world sailing lasting 245 days – a new record for a continuous world voyage – while Silversea announced the first around-the-world cruise to visit all seven continents. Also revealing plans for an unusual world cruise was Cunard, which said it planned a 113-night voyage from New York to Australia and back. Seabourn got back in the world cruise game by announcing plans for its first world cruise in six years – a 146-day trip to 36 countries.
New itineraries also were a focus at Azamara Club Cruises, which announced it would offer its first sailing to Hawaii and French Polynesia. Azamara also revealed plans for its first South Africa voyages. In doing so, it was joining a growing number of brands touting extended sailings along the South Africa coast. They include Crystal, which in 2018 offered its first world cruise out of South Africa.
The year also brought more signs the little-traveled Arctic sea route across the top of Russia known as the Northeast Passage soon could be seeing more passenger vessels. German luxury line Hapag-Lloyd Cruises sent one of its expedition ships across the entirety of the icy, 4,000-mile-long waterway in August – a journey that only has been attempted by a non-Russian passenger vessel three times before. The voyage came as three more expedition cruise operators – Lindblad, Ponant and Silversea – said they would offer Northeast Passage trips over the next few years.
Other major itinerary news included Royal Caribbean's announcement that its giant Oasis of the Seas would move to the New York area in 2020, becoming the largest cruise ship ever to sail out of the Northeast.
The growth of luxury cruising was a big story of 2018. The parent company of Royal Caribbean jumped into the niche with its takeover of Silversea, promising to invest heavily in the brand. The deal gives Royal Caribbean an entree into both high-end luxury cruising and expedition-style cruising — a type of cruising that involves small, often rugged ships with landing craft that can be used to visit remote and hard-to-access places. Silversea is a leader in both areas.
The deal came as Silversea began a notable expansion into super-high-end, super-off-the-beaten-path land tours costing as much as $78,000 per person. The initial batch of Couture Collection itineraries included seven-day adventures to some of the most remote parts of Mongolia and rare journeys to the South Pole.
Also jumping into the luxury space in 2018 was fast-growing MSC Cruises. The Europe-based company revealed plans to add a new "ultra-luxury" division that it said would launch in 2023 and have four ships by 2026.
Cruise lines in 2018 also continued to wow fans with announcements for new over-the-top attractions and first-ever features. Carnival in December said a giant new vessel scheduled to debut in 2020 would have its very own roller coaster that zooms around its funnel (yes, they claimed this would work). Start-up line Virgin Voyages promised the first tattoo parlor at sea, which it said would be aboard its first ship arriving in 2020.
Carnival also made news by announcing a partnership with basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal to bring one of his new Big Chicken eateries to a Carnival ship.
In the news of the bizarre, Norway-based expedition cruise specialist Hurtigruten announced it soon would power some of its ships with dead fish. And, no, it wasn't joking. The company is investing in ship engines that can run on liquified biogas (LBG), a fossil-free, renewable fuel produced from dead fish and other organic waste.
But perhaps the most off-beat cruise story of the year was the tale of the man who plunged off one cruise ship only to be rescued by a second cruise ship that passed by a day later.
The year saw lines continue to order ships at a rapid pace. Princess in July said it had contracted for two giant new vessels that would measure 175,000 tons – more than 20 percent bigger than its biggest ships to date. Norwegian Cruise Line also ordered two giant new ships, and MSC Cruises announced plans for one more biggie.
Still, it may be fast-growing Viking that revealed the most ambitious growth plans in 2018. In a presentation in March, Viking chairman Torstein Hagen said the company would add at least 24 more river cruise ships and 11 more ocean ships over the coming years. The year also saw Viking order two expedition-style ships.
The company that operates the iconic American Queen paddlewheeler on the Mississippi River also said it soon would be expanding with a new vessel.
Also planning an expansion is small-ship line Windstar. But the expansion won't involve adding new ships. Taking a page from Silversea's playbook, Windstar announced it soon would cut a ship in half to make it bigger and increase capacity. Actually, not just one ship but three. The line's $250 million Star Plus initiative, as it's being called, will bring new suites, restaurants, pool decks, retail spaces and expansive spa areas to the three motor ships that make up half the Windstar fleet.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Giant ships, new destinations: The biggest cruise stories of 2018