Chapel goes the way of cigar lounges and discos

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The Observatorium escape room has taken the place of the chapel on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas.
The Observatorium escape room has taken the place of the chapel on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Finding the chapel on Royal Caribbean International's Independence of the Seas was never easy. The small space was tucked away on Deck 15, above the Viking Crown Lounge, up a flight of stairs that looked like it led to nowhere.

Now, after a recent $110 million drydock, anyone looking for the Skylight Chapel will find that it no longer exists. In its place is a setting for Royal's newest escape room game, the Observatorium.

Five years ago, cruise ship escape rooms did not exist. Today, they're one of the hottest fads in the contemporary segment. In addition to Royal, Norwegian Cruise Line has installed escape rooms on its newest ships, and Princess Cruises offers them across its entire 17-vessel fleet.

The swap is emblematic of how, over time, some spaces on cruise ships outlive their usefulness or appeal, and other ideas fill them as cruise strategists seek to squeeze the most from their vessels.

"The escape room is phenomenal," Royal CEO Michael Bayley said in remarks at a news conference to reintroduce the Independence. "It is stunning. We're very pleased with that."

The chapel, on the other hand, wasn't much used, Bayley said.

Outdated venues die a slow death at sea. There are still chapels on other Royal ships and other cruise lines. Typically, they survive until a ship is ready for a major drydock, which happens every five years.

Ideas that were in vogue 10 years ago when the Independence of the Seas was launched now seem stale.

Another such victim of shifting client interests is the cigar lounge. Arguably, the epicurean cigar trend was on the downswing even as the Connoisseur Club made its debut on the Independence in 2008. Today, although premium cigars still sell, the cigar lounge concept isn't so compelling as attitudes about smoking continue to evolve.

Other cruise lines that have removed cigar lounges said their high style had been dulled by passengers who used them instead of other smoking-allowed venues as a place to smoke cigarettes.

During the Independence drydock, the cigar space outside the Star Lounge on Deck 5 was made over into a library.

Passengers also won't be able to dance the night away in the Raven disco anymore. That two-level club was removed, with the upper story converted to Izumi Hibachi & Sushi and the lower to additional cabins.

Once the hot new thing, bristling with high tech lighting and state of the art sound systems, discos at sea are increasingly being phased out because they are largely unused at most times of the day.

The Independence of the Seas still offers dancing in spaces such as the Star Lounge, the Boleros bar and even at parties on the Royal Promenade and on the pool deck.

Royal also chose to build four cabins in the space on Deck 7 formerly occupied by the library. Once a staple of life at sea, dedicated libraries and cinemas have been affected by mobile technology that enables passengers to bring their own movies, books and music aboard.

Cinemas, of which there are a few left on older ships, have been affected by advances in video technology that enable passengers to order movies on demand, playable on their stateroom TVs.

The escape room idea, like many cruise innovations, became a phenomenon on land and spread to ships beginning with Royal's Escape the Rubicon game on the Harmony of the Seas. By one tally, there were more than 8,000 escape rooms worldwide by 2017.

Something of a cross between a haunted house and a scavenger hunt, an escape room provides a puzzle to be solved by teams confined in the room within a limited time, typically an hour.

The games have various themes. In Escape the Rubicon, a steam-powered space ship has just taken off when something goes horribly wrong and space voyagers must find their way out of the doomed craft before it self-destructs.

Norwegian Cruise Line has Escape the Big Top, a circus-themed game on five newer ships with dinner theater spaces, such as the Spiegel Tent on the Norwegian Breakaway. Among the games on Princess ships is the Magician's Escape Room, where a cursed vase has gone missing along with the ship's star magician.

Princess uses several escape venues on its ships, among them the Hearts and Minds chapel on vessels like the Ruby Princess. Brea Burkholz, a Princess spokeswoman, said the games were specifically built and written to work in various ship lounges.

Former users of the chapel on the Independence will be offered substitutes for religious services and other activities. Several travel agents said they doubted it would be missed very much.

Michael Stewart, business development director for Inspiration Cruises in Fresno, Calif., which takes faith-based groups on cruises, said his groups, ranging from 100 guests to full-ship charters, are too large to use the 40-seat chapel, anyway.

Nor are the chapels used much for weddings. Rich Stieff, a Cruise Planners franchisee in Fort Lauderdale, said Norwegian has been phasing out chapels on its ships for years, and "I think it's actually a smart thing they've done. I've done dozens of weddings, and not one of my brides wanted to be married in the chapel onboard."

More often, said Juliet Gazsi, lead consultant at CruiseShip-Wedding of Vancouver, brides want a shoreside ceremony on a beach, where they can be photographed against an ocean backdrop.

"They wish to go on the cruise, but a lot of them prefer feet in sand on the wedding day, so it makes [the chapel] redundant," Gazsi said.

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