The ‘Spaghetti Ship’ is taking cruising to outrageous new heights


Are cruise ship designers OK? Maybe it’s all that sea air, or a touch too much sun, but the world of “floating resorts” is getting weirder by the minute. 

Over the years we’ve witnessed on-board ice rinks, waterparks, robot bartenders and “magic carpet” restaurants: now, enter the Aqua Slidecoaster, a hybrid rollercoaster-waterslide – the world’s first, apparently – which will grace Norwegian Cruise Line’s next ship, the company announced on Friday November 3.

Reaching higher than the average house, Norwegian Aqua’s three-storey super-slide will propel passengers around the ship’s funnel, transforming its top deck into a multicoloured Medusa of plastic toboggans. Rather than relying on gravity (so old hat), a “magnetic lift” will turbocharge your journey through its intertwined tubes, with transparent and open-air sections for additional thrills.  

Norwegian’s new vision is set to launch in 2025

Norwegian’s new vision is set to launch in 2025

Credit: Norwegian Cruise Lines

And that’s not all: Aqua’s perks also include The Drop, a ten-storey “free-fall slide”, and the Oceanwalk “glass bridge”, the press release promises. Its Glow Court, a “digital sports complex”, will metamorphose into a dance club at night, while the accommodation ranges from humble cabins to three-bedroom duplexes with a 24-hour butler service. 

It makes hotels sound so anodyne, so boringly grown-up. When will Hilton introduce a bungee playpark? Why can’t the Ritz-Carlton have a supersonic log flume? Norwegian’s vision, set to launch in 2025 and pitched squarely at the families market, will also be its biggest offering: 10 per cent larger than its predecessors, able to host “3,571 guests at double occupancy” – making it the cruise line’s heftiest vessel yet. 

Royal Caribbean’s record-breaking Icon of the Seas will feature 20 decks, seven swimming pools, a zipline, mini golf, and 40 ways to 'drink, dine and be entertained'

Royal Caribbean’s record-breaking Icon of the Seas will feature 20 decks…

Credit: Royal Caribbean

Icon of the Seas will feature 20 decks, seven swimming pools, a zipline and mini golf

… plus seven swimming pools, a zipline and mini golf and more

Credit: Royal Caribbean

And yet, it looks positively titchy compared with Icon of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, which will carry up to 10,000 guests and crew on its maiden voyage in January. Royal Caribbean’s record-breaker will feature 20 decks, seven swimming pools, a zipline, mini golf, and 40 ways to “drink, dine and be entertained” – from swim-up bars to karaoke and nightclubs. 

These mega-ships are here to stay, says Gemma Outram, Cruise Business Development Manager at holiday agency Not Just Travel. “Modern technology is allowing cruise lines to be more innovative and extreme in their thinking. We now see drone shows onboard and incredible LED screens forming part of the entertainment, go-karts at sea and more – I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.”

Fittingly for its Greek mythology-esque “hair-do”, Aqua’s hull will sport a mural that “evokes modern mythology, through colorful [sic] mashups of abstract and figurative representations of sea and sky, ruled by ancient goddesses”. Quite. The design, by street artist Allison Hueman, is unapologetically trippy, covering almost every layer of the ship’s exterior in vibrant swirls. Hueman has worked with the likes of Nike, L’Oreal and Google, so this is a strong statement for Norwegian in more ways than one – and the cherry on top of its “theme-park-on-sea” vibe.

Norwegian was first established in 1966, and has a fleet of 14 ships including Norwegian Prima and Norwegian Viva which launched in 2022 and 2023 respectively. The new design “represents the future of our Brand as the first ship in the Prima Plus Class,” said David J. Herrera, president of Norwegian (NCL), at the ship’s announcement. 

“[It is] our commitment to pushing the boundaries in guest-first experiences that will make new waves at sea. [Aqua] will feature new, elevated and exhilarating offerings that once again showcase NCL as the innovator in the industry and as a key contributor to a new era of cruising.”

NCL’s promotional video, released on Friday, features glossy renders of a couple canoodling in a deck-edge infinity pool, families strolling a glass-bottomed walkway, and holidaymakers dancing in a neon-lit nightclub. The message is clear: Aqua will be 156,300 gross-tons of pure holiday heaven.

Norweigan's Aqua will head to Great Stirrup Cay

Norweigan’s Aqua will head to Great Stirrup Cay

Credit: Shutterstock

It is easy to scoff, but cruise is serious business – and luring new customers with bigger, bolder ventures is all part of the game. According to Cruise Lines International Association (Clia), the sector contributed $63.4 billion (£51.4 billion) globally in 2020, even amid the pandemic. In 2019, that figure was 59 per cent higher, $155 billion (£125 billion) – with ships carrying 29.7 million passengers worldwide. 

And we still can’t get enough, says Sam Ballard, MD of cruise specialist Club Voyages. “I don’t think that this era is likely to end: you can see it with lines retiring smaller ships and introducing larger ones each year. Luxury lines will keep becoming more luxurious, the expedition lines will continue to offer new experiences, and the resort style lines will continue to get bigger.”

two people in canoe

Adventures await: Bookings are now open for Aqua

Credit: Norwegian Cruise Lines

Aqua is already open for bookings: in 2025 it will make its maiden voyage from Florida’s Port Canaveral to the Dominican Republic, British Virgin Islands, the US Virgin Islands and Great Stirrup Cay, the cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas. But as the design wars wage on, do passengers really care about a ship’s itinerary, or are its facilities the only thing that matters now? 

“It depends on the market,” says Ballard diplomatically. “Guests on Norwegian Aqua are unlikely to be too swayed by specific calls on its itinerary because they’re chosen that ship for its onboard offering. But a guest on a six-star luxury ship such as a Star Clipper, or an expedition vessel, is far more likely to base their decision on itinerary because they’re seeking a particular destination experience.”

For super-cruisers, gone are the days when a few nice swimming pools and balcony suites would suffice – though of course, smaller outfits still run a fine line in these “humbler” offerings. But it pays to think big: two days before it announced Aqua, NCL’s parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) reported a “record” total revenue for the three months to September 30, totalling $2.5 billion (£2 billion) – an increase of 33 per cent against the same period in 2019. 

“Looking ahead, […] we are focused on sustaining this momentum as we close out 2023,” said NCLH president and chief executive Harry Sommer. That rollercoaster-waterslide might look like a bit of fun, but it’s no whimsy. It could be a very shrewd move.

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