When Micky Arison began working on cruise ships in the 1970s, name-brand entertainment was scarce.
"We had a limbo dancer, a hostess and a singer," the Carnival Corp. chairman recalled in a recent promotional video.
Four decades later, the limbo dancer has been replaced by far more recognizable talent. Olivia Newton-John, Chicago and LeAnn Rimes are among the names appearing on Carnival Cruise Lines ships this summer.
Each week, dozens of musicians, dancers, magicians, comics and other professional entertainers sail on each of Carnival Cruise Lines' 24 ships. The biggest cruise lines operate facilities on land to train performers for shows at sea.
Even some luxury lines are employing cutting-edge video technology and aerialists of the type used in Las Vegas shows, striving to make their vessels as alluring as possible.
"Things have changed quite a bit," Arison said.
Cruise entertainment is being reshaped by a combination of technology, changing consumer tastes, competition, growing ship size and a revolution in the way dining works on ships. (To see more examples of what cruise lines are doing in the entertainment department, click here or on any of the photos for a slideshow of images.)
Those improvements have enabled cruise lines to experiment with moving some entertainment from the cost side of their ledgers to the revenue side, with several on the cusp of charging guests for what was once free.
"For the first time, we're seeing entertainment as driving revenue to the vessels," said Nick Weir, vice president of entertainment for Royal Caribbean International.
Carnival started charging between $20 to $40 this year for seats at its Carnival Live concerts, and Weir hinted that Royal is exploring ways to follow suit on its ships.
Entertainment has changed in part because of the more flexible dining that has evolved on cruise ships over the past 10 years. Andy Stuart, executive vice president of global sales at Norwegian Cruise Line, said a passenger's choice of shows used to be defined by early or late seating.
"It was dinner and a show," Stuart said, when evening meals were limited to the main dining room.
But Norwegian had to rethink entertainment after it ditched the two-shift dining format in favor of its Freestyle Dining.
Now one of the hottest tickets on Norwegian's newer ships is a theater that combines dinner and a show. The Illusionarium on the Norwegian Getaway and Cirque Dreams on the Norwegian Breakaway provide hour-long specialty shows with dinner for $29.99.
Burn the Floor, a 45-minute pop ballroom dance show, is also staged in the middle of one of Norwegian's main dining rooms.
In the main theater, Norwegian offers a licensed version of Broadway's "Legally Blonde," among other shows. It also pioneered the at-sea presentation of Blue Man Group, a Las Vegas mainstay.
"Everyone loves Blue Man Group," said Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan. "But it is a little bit different than the traditional cruises with the old-fashioned Broadway shows, where everybody's running around dancing and singing like they've been doing for 40 years on these ships."
Other lines have also retired the flesh-and-feathers shows of yesteryear.
Out with the old
At Holland America Line, one of the big entertainment hits has been Dancing With the Stars at Sea, a program of dance lessons and theme cruises modeled on an audience-driven TV show.
Shows like "Dancing With the Stars" and "American Idol" are changing audience expectations, said Lisa Lehr, executive director of entertainment development at New York-based RWS Associates, which produced six shows last year for Holland America.
"Your large-ensemble, everybody sings/ dances sort of showgirl-esque entertainment has seen its day," Lehr said. "We're definitely moving away from that."
In addition to shows that make audiences the judges, cruise lines are breaking down the walls between entertainers and the audience.
In a new main theater musical on Carnival, "88 Keys: The Rock N' Roll Piano Show," the piano-bar performer on the ship does a 30-minute warm-up, bringing his fans to the show.
Before another show, "Heart of Soul," the cruise director has winners of a romantic-dedications contest read their entries. Prizes are awarded and flowers are given ahead of the show.
Performers gradually take the stage at the start of the show from seats in the audience.
Carnival is one of many cruise lines to deploy new technologies in entertainment. One game changer has been the adoption of video walls; the large, mobile scenery panels, which use LED screens, have made stage backgrounds far more interesting and versatile.
"That opens a world of storytelling," Lehr said. "We're able to create the Princess Forest. We're able to take you to the Queen of Hearts tea party, and the Mad Hatter tea party, without having to bring on large set pieces that there's nowhere to store on a cruise ship."
On the Carnival Freedom, a performance of "Heart of Soul" starts with an LED-panel depiction of a wooden dock building itself, plank by plank, into a lake. Later in the show, the screens depict fireflies in a forest. Changing skylines seamlessly turn the Golden Gate Bridge into the Brooklyn Bridge. Vegetation grows, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk style, and the stars, moon and mountains form the backdrop for a rendition of "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)."
LED panels debuted on cruise ships several years ago and are now found on most major cruise lines, as well as in Las Vegas and on touring Broadway shows and at big rock concerts.
And now 3-D
The next big thing in scenery on ships will be the 3-D projection system developed for Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas.
Weir said the Vistarama system of 18 projectors offers a higher-definition image than LED panels. The projectors will throw scenes on the three-story, 270-degree wrap-around windows in the ship's aft lounge as a background for performances in the evening.
On the Quantum's main stage, guests will hear a performance on a theater-sized harp and a wall of drums, as well as see a woman whose costume can be played like a violin.
At 167,800 gross tons, the Quantum is typical of a new generation of ships that can accommodate two or more dynamic performance venues. Bigger ships also mean more crew quarters, so performers don't have to staff the ship's library or kids club in their off hours.
"There was a time when every berth had to work an enormous amount for it to be valid," Weir said. "That's not the case when you've got a city the size of Oasis of the Seas."
Better performers are one result, he said.
With 104 shows being presented on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises in any given week, the need to recruit and retain performers has increased. Royal has outgrown its training space in Hollywood, Fla., and is building a $20 million rehearsal theater at Florida International University.
The 130,000-square-foot theater is about half built, Weir said, adding that it's expected to open in January. Norwegian Cruise Line opened a 46,000-square-foot studio in Tampa in January. Carnival trains performers in Miami; Princess Cruises rehearses in Los Angeles.
RWS is also hoping to attract more cruise ship work by building a 31,000-square-foot space in Long Island City in New York City. It wants to capitalize on its background and experience producing corporate events, theme park shows and mall entertainment as well as its connections to talent.
"The beauty of us being in New York City is we're really on the pulse of what's new and exciting happening in entertainment today," Lehr said. "We're really able to hand-pick those creative minds and creative talents to bring cutting-edge and innovative programming."
Although main-stage musicals have always been the foundation of cruise entertainment, today's bigger ships allow for a greater number of small acts in more parts of the ship.
Royal Caribbean, for example, has retooled the atriums on some of its ships as evening performance spaces for aerialists.
At Carnival, the trend is shorter shows with smaller casts, complemented by more musical groups in the atrium, casino, bars and lounges, as well as comedy at the line's Punchliner Club.
Jim Berra, chief marketing officer at Carnival, said guests expressed frustration when they couldn't see both the main stage show and a Punchliner show in one evening.
"They don't want to have to trade off," he said. "So what we're trying to do is distribute more entertainment throughout the ship."
Skip Lyons, cruise director on the Carnival Freedom, said that when he started working on Carnival ships 18 years ago, there was a 10-piece pit band for production shows.
Today only three ships retain the 10-piece band. The other 21 use recorded music in the main theater.
"The band might not be in the show, but while the show is on, we can be entertaining guests elsewhere on the ship because the band is now playing around the ship," Lyons said.
In the 1990s, he recalled, Carnival ships had two production shows during a seven-week cruise that employed a cast of 16 made up of two singers, two acrobatic adage performers and 12 dancers.
Today, on most ships, Carnival does four shows a week with a cast of eight -- four dancers who also sing and four singers who also dance, Lyons said. Show lengths are typically 35 to 40 minutes, down from an hour or more in the past.
Earlier this year, Carnival upgraded its house band as part of the new Carnival Live program, which brings well-known acts onboard for in-port shows in Nassau, Cancun and California's Catalina Island.
The shows are typically staged on weekdays when celebrity performers such as Jennifer Hudson or Trace Adkins are often idle.
Carnival's Berra said the concept has been a success, with many shows sold out.
"It's a great opportunity for [the cruise lines] to increase their earnings," he said.
The initial series of 49 concerts concludes Dec. 15 in Nassau with a show by rock band REO Speedwagon. Berra said details of a second season will be announced this fall.
Thinking bigger in smaller venues
Smaller ships pose a challenge because they don't have as many venues for entertainment. But ships on the larger end of the luxury scale are mounting shows that mimic their bigger brethren.
At Crystal Cruises, the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity is home to iLuminate, in which performers are costumed in wired suits that show only the outlines of lights in a darkened theater.
The concept, pioneered on the TV show "America's Got Talent," creates some startling effects, such as a robot that appears to juggle several of its own heads. On Broadway, tickets start at $68.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises recently retooled the two-story theater on the Seven Seas Mariner to accommodate LED-panel walls and more aerial performers in a new, Cirque du Soleil-style production.
"In the finale of our shows we may have six of our 12 performers flying in the air at once," said Michael Day, vice president of entertainment at Regent and sister line Oceania Cruises. "That's something you don't see on many ships, even ships much, much larger than our ships."
Regent uses Jean Ann Ryan Productions for its shows, a veteran company that created cruise versions of Broadway shows when Norwegian first introduced that kind of entertainment in the 1980s.
While charging for marquee talent like performers in Carnival Live might be the wave of the future, for now it is an unusual revenue model. Most cruise entertainment remains free -- and a bargain, cruise executives say.
Sheehan pointed to Blue Man Group as an example.
"When you think about it, it's an $80 or $90 show in Vegas, and people can watch it for free as part of their cruise fare," he said.
Another example is the upcoming production of the musical "Mamma Mia" on Quantum; it will be the first full-length Broadway musical staged at sea, complete with an intermission.
Weir tells a story of seeing a three-generation family group of 15 in the front row of a production of "Saturday Night Fever" on the Liberty of the Seas. "I remember thinking, '15 people at a Broadway show -- that's a $3,000 night out, and yet at Royal it's on the house.'"
Whether free or paid, top entertainment helps keep cruises competitive with mass-market destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando. But Weir said the goal going forward is to set trends, not merely match them.
"We're on the map now," he said. "We're like an entertainment leader. No single entertainment operation under one roof is doing what we're doing: ice shows, aqua shows, Broadway shows, and now we're going to be doing multimedia shows. And we do it all in-house."
The bottom line, Weir said, is that "we've become valid, and we've become huge."
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.