By BETH J. HARPAZ
NEW YORK (AP) - Snow rooms, better Wi-Fi and a continued emphasis on specialty food and drink are some of the trends for cruising in the next year or two.
Here are some details.
THE WOW FACTOR
The industry that put skating rinks and waterslides on ships keeps "coming up with funky, cool things - that wow factor," said Fran Golden, who writes for Porthole.com and USA Today's Experience Cruise site.
Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas debuts in April with the same innovations that made a splash at last year's launch of its sister ship, Quantum of the Seas: robot bartenders, simulated skydiving, bumper cars and an observation capsule rising high above the sea.
Norwegian Escape arrives in Miami in November with a snow room offering freezing temperatures for post-sauna invigoration. The ship's showcase food and drink includes a Margaritaville, Mondavi-brand wine bar, craft beer from Miami's Wynwood Brewing and restaurants offering tapas and Latin seafood from celebrity chef Jose Garces.
Viking, the company known for river cruises, is introducing an oceangoing vessel, Viking Star. With a capacity of 928, it's small compared with megaships carrying 4,000, but Viking says it will be destination-oriented, with more time in port around the Mediterranean, Western Europe and Nordic region. All-inclusive prices will cover shore excursions, Wi-Fi, self-service laundry, wine, beer and specialty restaurants.
Looking ahead to 2016, Carnival will launch its first new ship in four years, Carnival Vista, with the first IMAX theater at sea and two new thrill attractions: a 455-foot-long (139 meters) multicolored tube slide called a Kaleid-o-Slide and SkyRide, a cycling ride suspended from a track. A Family Harbor area offers more family accommodation options and a lounge hangout with large-screen TVs, games and concierge desk.
Regent Seven Seas' new Explorer ship, also debuting in 2016, will have one of the largest and priciest suites ever offered at sea. The $5,000-a-night, per person, Regent Suite will be 3,875 square feet, with grand piano and private spa.
ITINERARIES AND EVENTS
Disney Cruise Line brings "Frozen" to sea next summer with themed deck parties, character meet-and-greets, menus and performances on select sailings. Disney Magic itineraries include the Norwegian fjords that inspired the hit movie.
Cunard marks 175 years since its first ship Britannia crossed from England to North America. Cunard's Queen Mary 2 departs Liverpool on the same route July 4, the date Britannia departed in 1840. All 2015 Cunard sailings will host anniversary events like themed balls. In May, all three Cunard ships - Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria - will rendezvous for celebrations in Southampton and Liverpool.
An emerging trend identified by CruiseCritic.com editor Carolyn Spencer Brown is expedition cruising or soft-adventure cruising to places like the Amazon. Land-based tour companies like Lindblad have long offered voyages to exotic destinations like Antarctica and the Galapagos, but now luxury cruise companies like Silversea and Seabourn are getting into the business.
"That means the comfort level and sophistication level is going to rise, with more food options, cabins with balconies and suite accommodations," said Spencer Brown, who recently cruised the Peruvian Amazon. "You won't have to give up the comforts of home to do these trips."
Cruise Market Watch says per-person, per-day expenditures on 2015 cruises will average $222, including ticket price and onboard spending. That's a 3.5 percent increase over 2014.
But there are still bargains. CruiseCompete.com has a webpage devoted to cruises under $300, including three-night trips on Golden Princess and Carnival Imagination starting in California with stops in Mexico.
Bob Levinstein, CEO of CruiseCompete.com, advises "the absolute best deals are going to be last-minute." That doesn't mean the week before the cruise, but six or seven weeks out, after final payments are due for advance bookings. Last-minute deals work best for folks with flexible schedules who can drive to ports so they don't need plane tickets, Levinstein said.
Bargain cruises are especially prevalent in the Caribbean and Mexico due to an oversupply in the region, especially among "older and less attractive ships," according to Rich Skinner, co-owner of Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, a Vacations.com brand. But Skinner also sees "significant increases to both Europe and Alaska prices." And some cruises now have "value-added" prices where you pay more but get more included, like alcohol, gratuities or Wi-Fi.
FOOD AND FITNESS
Many cruise lines have partnered with famous chefs to appeal "to a foodie audience," said Golden, of Porthole.com. Often the name-brand venues onboard are specialty restaurants, so you pay extra, but still less than what it costs to eat at the chef's land-based restaurant. (An exception, Golden notes: Guy Fieri's burgers are free on Carnival ships.)
Cruises are also offering more intense fitness options, said Levinstein, like Norwegian Fight Klub, a cardio boxing program. People who are into fitness are wary of cruising "because you eat all the time on a ship," Levinstein said. Cruise lines can overcome those concerns with innovative ways to spend time at sea getting in shape instead of putting on weight.
Wi-Fi on cruises has been expensive and slow, but "there's definitely a big push to improve," Levinstein said, especially on Royal Caribbean and Carnival. Carnival is piloting a social media package, with access to sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for $5 daily or $25 per voyage. You pay more for email, Web-surfing or Skype.