Cruising’s appeal continues to grow

Many of today’s cruise ships, like Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas, have evolved from featuring a pool, lounge chairs and a bar to include a wave machine, above, virtual reality trampolines and racing water slides.

The allure of sailing in the middle of the ocean is growing for people who never set sail on a cruise before. Loretta Anderson, a travel specialist at Workman Travel and Tour, noticed this for herself. She said she attracted a number of first-time cruisers to a Royal Caribbean cruise featuring performances from local entertainers Blue Stone Circle. “Some people that have never cruised are booking these trips because of the band,” Anderson said. Such efforts provide evidence to support studies that highlight growing interest in cruise travel, which is also helped by the evolution of cruise lines’ amenities on ships and private islands. AAA, the Auto Club Group, issued a survey last week that found about 77 million Americans plan to travel internationally in the next 18 months. Two popular Caribbean port stops — Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic — ranked in the group’s list of the top 10 most popular international destinations.

About 16% of Americans plan to take a cruise within the next year, according to a September report from YouGov, an international data and analysis group. The same report found 6% of them will cruise for the first time next year.

The new reports build upon a forecast from the cruise industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association that predicted more than 30 million people would cruise in 2019, marking a new high.

“Florida’s partners in the cruise industries look to Florida to remain responsive to the growth of tourism and international commerce,” said Jessie Werner, of the Florida Ports Council. “The state is home to the three busiest cruise ports in the world, home ports some of the cruise industry’s newest and largest vessels, and sees more than 16 million cruise passengers per year.”

Local entertainers set sail

Cruising remains a fast-growing segment of tourism, one that’s overwhelmingly popular among Villagers.

But its share of global travel is relatively small.

Cruise travel represents just 2% of the global travel industry, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, a cruise industry trade group.

Growing that share even further depends on selling cruise travel to people who have never cruised before, Anderson said.

Reaching this demographic is something Anderson said she’s doing with an upcoming cruise to the Caribbean that will mark a first for Workman — a cruise featuring performances from a Villages entertainer.

The Orlando-based Blue Stone Circle, a band that has made a name for itself by performing at the city’s theme parks, will perform three times during a seven-night Western Caribbean cruise in early March 2020.

Area travel agencies experienced big business booking Villages entertainers for cruises in the past, notably Rocky and the Rollers, Johnny Wild & the Delights and Scooter the DJ.

Blue Stone Circle’s cruise performances next year would be a first for the band, though all but one member of its current lineup performed on cruise ships before.

Since July, Anderson has set up a table near the stage whenever Blue Stone Circle performed on one of the squares to offer fliers and brochures on the band’s cruise.

During a recent performance at Lake Sumter Landing, Anderson shared information with people on the square just steps away from a small group of dancing fans.

Almost everyone who will attend the cruise is a Villager or relative of a Villager, Anderson said.

It speaks to the idea of designing the right trip for the right person, said Ryan Wootten, an adjunct professor of tourism at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

“It is also something where it grows by word of mouth,” he said. “So a couple books, tells their friends, they book and it expands out, and before you know it, you have a large group of people that all have an affinity for cruising together and expanding their horizons.”

And Villagers will follow their favorite local entertainers no matter where they go, Anderson said.

One couple following Blue Stone Circle for the March cruise hasn’t sailed much since moving 10 years ago to The Villages, only cruising to see their favorite bands from the squares.

Rick and Linda Hearn said they’ve done cruises with Rocky and the Rollers and Johnny Wild & the Delights.

What the Village of Fernandina couple likes about cruising with their favorite bands is the more personal approach to the experience.

“We follow them all the time,” Linda said. “They come down, talk with us. We know the people in the group.”

The Hearns know how high quality the experience is because the musicians draw curiosity from cruisers outside of their private party.

“People who don’t belong to the party want to know more about them,” Rick said. “They don’t hear this kind of music anywhere else on the ship.”

Ships and islands entertain

Enhancing cruise experiences doesn’t stop with local entertainers.

Cruise lines keep thinking big in how to make their visitors have fun both on and off the ship during their vacations.

For instance, Carnival Cruise Line’s upcoming Mardi Gras ship will feature the first roller coaster at sea. It’s expected to begin sailing in 2020 from Port Canaveral.

Many of today’s cruise ships evolved from an infancy when most ships’ pool decks only featured a pool, lounge chairs and a bar, said Wootten, of Rosen College.

That landscape now includes bumper cars, virtual reality trampolines, racing water slides, go-kart tracks and bowling alleys onboard, he said.

“It is all about what the next big thing is, and everyone is itching to find out,” he said.

Cruise lines’ private islands are experiencing similar evolutions.

This year Royal Caribbean debuted a remodeled and rebranded version of its CocoCay private island, now known as Perfect Day at CocoCay.

With the rebranding came a series of new attractions that included a water park featuring North America’s tallest water slide, an aqua park with a series of fountains and pools and a hot air balloon that floats up to 450 feet above the island.

Coco Beach Club, which will feature overwater cabanas and a beachfront infinity pool, is scheduled to debut in December.

Wootten recently returned from a Royal Caribbean cruise that included a stop at Perfect Day at CocoCay. He said he thinks the experience lives up to the island’s new name.

Part of that is because the cruise line can control the guest experience, thereby making it an extension of the ship, he said.

“They can determine the quality of the product offered to the guest 100%,” Wootten said. “Each cruise line can tailor its private island offerings to its clientele in a way that they cannot do with open ports of call.”

Royal Caribbean described Perfect Day at CocoCay as the first in a series of Perfect Day-branded private islands, suggesting more to come in the future.

Last week, the cruise line announced a new private island, Perfect Day at Lelepa, which will debut in 2022 in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. But it’s not likely to be a port of call on any cruises departing Florida ports because of its location more than 8,000 miles from the state.

At least two other cruise lines didn’t hesitate to stop at one private island.

During the D23 Expo, a Disney fan convention in Anaheim, California, Disney Cruise Line staff announced they’re working on developing a new island in the Bahamas called Lighthouse Point.

The new island would be Disney’s second private island, following Castaway Cay. Disney expects to begin sailings in 2022 or 2023, timing with the arrival of its next class of ships.

Carnival Cruise Line last month announced it would spend more than $100 million to develop a new private island in Grand Bahama primarily for Carnival passengers.

It already operates two private islands, but both serve passengers on its other cruise brands: Half Moon Cay for Holland America Line and Princess Cays for Princess Cruises.

An opening date for the new private island remains unknown, but Carnival expects development will begin in mid-2020.

While Disney and Carnival’s new private islands are a few years away from their debuts, cruisers don’t have to wait too long for the arrival of the next private island. MSC Cruises will begin sailing to its new private island, Ocean Cay, next month.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or