LED projection technology has made huge leaps in recent years, and nowhere has it been employed to better effect than on cruise ships.
It is at the heart of 360: An Extraordinary Experience, an attraction being rolled out by Princess Cruises. Guests partake in a seven-course meal while being immersed in the sights, sounds and people of the places where the ingredients of each course are harvested.
It is the brainchild of Disney Imagineering veteran and Princess Cruises president John Padgett, who described the experience as a mix of "master storytelling, world-class cuisine, visual entertainment and groundbreaking technology."
The logo for the 360 Restaurant. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
The experience was conceived before the pandemic, with the restaurant space built into the fifth and sixth Royal-class ships. It only recently started being activated, available on the Discovery Princess since November and on the Enchanted Princess since early March. It is currently only available to suite guests.
I was able to experience it myself on the Enchanted Princess while the ship was in port in Fort Lauderdale.
The evening starts in the Piazza with a cocktail elegantly inscribed with the 360 logo in foam on top. Diners are led to the 360 Restaurant, secluded behind Sabatini's Trattoria, by a host who acts as master of ceremonies and heads a service team of eight to 10 people.
A clever sleight of hand follows as the host reaches into a photo projected on the wall and pulls out a leather-bound travel diary. That sets the scene: a traveler (played by actress Brooke Shields) journaling her food adventure while on a cruise.
The initial 360 program explores seven destinations in the Mediterranean, from Santorini in the Greek Isles to the Champagne cellars of Reims in France.
While in Greece, diners are able to bring their fists down on blue-and-white plates projected on the table in front of them, "smashing" the plates to splinters in the Greek tradition. Such interactive trickery is on display with each course. An appetizer of grilled octopus and feta cheese kicks off the dinner.
Guests can smash a virtual plate during the Greek portion of their meal. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Soon, the scenery shifts to Italy. Encircled by stunning projected images of the Amalfi Coast, diners can almost feel the mist and smell the salty breezes. With each new course (a pasta al limone in Amalfi), projections on the table surface and presentation plates change.
The 360 experience is particularly good at bringing the people of a region alive -- their faces, voices, clothing and mannerisms bring authenticity and connection. Emphasis is placed on the people who provide the products served, exploring how long their families have been in the business and the painstaking work that goes into it. They're shown performing their crafts, hanging out in their village or estate or interacting with others who do what they do.
Recipes are another standby. Ingredients are artfully projected for most courses, delighting armchair chefs in the group.
A lavender honey dessert that is enhanced by virtual bees and honey swirls is part of Princess Cruises' 360: An Extraordinary Experience. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Novelty and history get fused in a red wine that has been "aged" underwater for six months in the Mediterranean Sea, echoing the clay amphora wine vessels discovered by divers on shipwrecks from ancient times.
At a stop in Provence, guests eat a dessert topped with a honeycomb and fashioned with lavender honey while endless rows of lavender plants wave on the walls and a subtle lavender scent pervades the room. Bees move across a honeycomb projected onto the table, and with a stirring motion, guests can conjure a pool of projected honey on their plates.
After an hour and a half, the traveler brings the narrative to a close, the lights come up, the service staff takes a bow and guests return to their normal cruise experience.