Cruise On first ship in five years, Princess Cruises builds on trends By Tom Stieghorst / March 29, 2013 Share 1 -- MONFALCONE, Italy — The $760 million Royal Princess, nearing completion here, is a pivotal vessel for Princess Cruises that will give it an entrant into the megaship class of vessels now being delivered to the industry.Five years in the making, the Royal Princess will be 25% larger than the last ship Princess launched, the Ruby Princess in 2008. Since then, ships like the Norwegian Epic and Allure of the Seas have raised expectations for what passengers can find on the most modern ships in the cruise fleet.Like those ships, Royal Princess will have space for more features, bigger venues and greater variety in onboard experience.Some of the features are Princess versions of ideas that have been seen elsewhere. The “over the edge of the ship” concept, embodied in the Allure’s cantilevered hot tubs, shows up on the Royal Princess as a transparent SeaWalk over the ocean. Its newly expanded buffet area keeps pace with a similarly innovative example on the Solstice-class ships of Celebrity Cruises.Other features let Princess leap ahead of the pack. These include a huge, dedicated pastry kitchen for the buffet restaurant.“This is not a gimmick,” said Jonathan Wilson, vice president for hotel operations at Princess. “It’s not just one of a kind to Princess, it’s one of a kind anywhere [at sea],” he said. Princess executives led an at-sea tour of the partly outfitted ship this week, detailing many of the new features passengers can expect onboard and outlining some of the strategies behind them. Even from a distance, Royal Princess will have an unusual profile, shaped by the SeaWalk, a promenade that extends 28 feet over the side of the ship and offers a “Fear Factor”-style view through a see-through glass floor to the ocean 16 decks below.On the tour, Stuart Hawkins, Princess’ vice president of newbuild, said shipbuilder Fincantieri engineered the first-of-a-kind platform with remarkable fidelity to a rendering the cruise line presented.“We were surprised that they could make it as free-standing as they did,” he said.The Royal Princess’ top decks feature several other innovations, although none had been completed in time for the tour. A dancing-waters fountain with nearly 100 fountain jets is the centerpiece of the pool deck. It will be illuminated at night and will be a lounge-chair area during the day. Hawkins said sensors will monitor wind speed and conditions to determine how high the water jets will shoot, so that excess spray doesn’t carry beyond the fountain area. Looming over the pool area is an enormous steel frame for the Movies Under the Stars outdoor video screen, which at 35 feet by 21 feet will be 30% bigger than the screens on previous Princess ships.Adjacent to the pool deck will be the buffet dining room, Horizon Court, which will seat nearly 1,500. That is substantially larger than on other Princess vessels, and officials said they think it will solve the chronic crowding that plagues such restaurants.“Buffets on cruise ships tend to be an Achilles’ heel because of the heavy traffic,” said Rai Caluori, Princess’ executive vice president of fleet operations and head of the newbuild team.In another innovation, Princess has eliminated beverage stations in Horizon Court and will hire additional wait staff to serve drinks.Adjacent to Horizon Court will be the 1,200-square-foot pastry kitchen, the Horizon Bistro, which will offer a more casual atmosphere. “Action stations” in Horizon Court, including hibachi grills, rotisseries and a sandwich bar, cut down on the cafeteria-like queues found in older ships. “We wanted to avoid a canteen-style, cafeteria-style ambience and make it more of a premium experience,” Wilson said.In the evening, Horizon Court will transform into one of two alternate dining venues: Crab Shack or Fondues. A sports well has been created above Horizon Bistro, with a basketball court, batting cages and an indoor laser shooting range. The gym has been doubled in size and moved from Deck 5, adjacent to the spa, to Deck 17 to provide light and ocean views. That also puts it over a public area instead of over cabins, so it can open earlier in the morning, Caluori said.The expanded spa will have 18 treatment rooms. One eye-popping option will be a pair of Lotus Spa cabana rentals in the adults-only Sanctuary area on Deck 17, which will offer up to four people a daylong session of treatments and pampering for $3,000 per group.The Sanctuary will have a total of six cabanas, the first time they have been offered on a Princess ship.The corridors of the Royal Princess will be decorated with cruise photos taken by past passengers. A contest solicited 57,000 photos from which Caluori and his team picked 1,000 of the best submissions to be displayed with a plaque noting the photographer’s name, plus when and where the photo was taken.“We hope all of the winners will book a cruise to take a photograph of their photograph,” Caluori joked.Of the 1,780 cabins on the Royal Princess, 81% will have balconies. Nearly half of those will be suites, mini-suites or deluxe cabins with room for a sofa in addition to the balcony.Three main dining areasThe ship will continue the Princess tradition of having three main dining venues, with lots of nooks and banquettes. “We’ve never wanted to be the cruise line with one massive, open, noisy dining room,” Wilson said.But the feature room, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired restaurant called Concerto, will sport a different look from the other two, and will include an enhanced version of the chef’s table concept.The circular Chef’s Table Lumiere, private dining area, positioned in the middle of the ship’s traditional dining room, will be encircled by a fiber optic-illuminated curtain.The 12-seat dining area will feature a table with a 6-foot Murano glass sculpture rising through it. When diners arrive, the floor-to-ceiling curtain will move on an automatic track, closing around them and illuminating vertically at the same time, Caluori said.There are less showy chef’s tables in the ship’s other two main dining rooms. On previous Princess ships, they were only available on some nights of a cruise, but on the Royal Princess they will be used every night, Caluori said.The current cover charge for the chef’s table is $90 per person, which includes wine and other features. “We may leave it, we may move it up a bit,” Caluori said of the price. “We haven’t decided.”Several dining areas have been moved adjacent to complementary bar areas. The steakhouse, called Crown Grill, will be next to the Wheelhouse Bar, a lounge designed to male tastes. Sabatini’s, an Italian specialty restaurant, will be situated adjacent to Vines, a wine bar that will include what Princess claims will be the largest selection of super-Tuscan wines at sea. They will be displayed in a wine tower decorated with vertical strands of crystal. There will also be tastings of so-called super-Tuscan wines — a high-powered version of Italy’s friendly Chiantis — with more than 20 choices available.“Wine is a focus, but it’s not superficial,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of thought that’s gone into it.”The midship area where passengers board will be called the Piazza, a three-story space that will be filled with eating, shopping and entertainment options. A new gelato shop, free fresh pizza and the Bellini Bar, named for a peach-flavored Italian cocktail, will be some of the attractions.The goal, Caluori said, is to provide enough to keep a passenger in that part of the ship for a whole evening.If not, the ship features a main theater seating 1,000 and a second lounge/stage area with room for 320.Princess Live will be another option. Set up like a TV production studio, the 200-seat space will offer live entertainment between 8 a.m. and midnight. The entertainment will require little or no staging or setup time, so that there will be no more than 15 minutes between shows.“We don’t want to have people waiting to see something set up,” said Caluori, who noted that the acts might include a quiz show, a guest lecturer, an interview with the captain or a solo entertainer of some sort.The shows will also be part of the programming for a new, in-cabin TV service that will offer on-demand access to hundreds of movies. Viewers will be able to pause the movie so they can, for example, go to eat and resume watching after dinner, Caluori said.Princess has been looking for awhile to upgrade its scheduled movie system to make it more appealing. Caluori said focus groups revealed that the average time passengers viewed a scheduled movie on existing ships is 11 minutes. Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.