Cruise ships are basically self-contained floating cities: massive marvels of engineering that float along with everything needed to feed, entertain, and (of course) transport thousands of sun-seeking vacationers, and nearly as many crew members.
When it comes to cruises, everything feels larger than life—even their renovations. Case in point: Royal Caribbean International just spent $115 million and several months upgrading the , a 17-year-old mega ship that recently went through the ultimate home renovation project. That's assuming your home is a 14-story beast of a boat with a population of several thousand fun-seekers, and your budget is in the 10 figures.
The ship’s “amplification” (as Royal Caribbean calls it) began in late 2018 and was completed over the course of a few months, ending this past January. The refreshed ship’s maiden voyage left its home port of Miami on March 1.
And the Navigator isn’t alone: The company is spending more than $1 billion upgrading its fleet as part of the company’s , aimed at bringing new amenities, technology, and technology-driven amenities to its ships. Of note: Each ship’s refresh is somewhat bespoke, with different features popping up on different vessels.
Here’s a closer look at what $115 million gets you in upgrading a cruise ship.
A cruise ship’s water slide isn’t merely a ride—it’s also the ship’s star on the Christmas tree. It’s icing on the cake. It’s the first iconic shape you see of the ship as it crests the horizon, and the first stop for many adrenaline-hungry cruisers.
“In less than four years, we've gone gangbusters on water slides at sea, going on 17 in operation,” says Laura Hodges Bethge, vice president of product development at Royal Caribbean International.
For the Navigator of the Seas refresh, Royal Caribbean installed two new water rides, each with their own superlative.
There’s an aqua coaster called , whose 810-foot-long track claims the crown for “longest waterslide at sea,” and , which Royal Caribbean touts as the cruise world’s “first headfirst mat racing slide.”
And lest you think these are mere copies of the sorts of slides you might find at any old water park, both rides feature white-knuckle moments that bring riders over the edge of the ship, creating the illusion of flight (and the very real effect of fear) in a way that would be impossible at a typical water park.
Needless to say, building a massive waterslide or aqua coaster on top of a 238-foot-high cruise ship presents a set of unique challenges—as does pumping enough H20 to keep an unyielding parade of riders riding. Without access to a municipal water supply, the ship needs to travel with all the necessary water on board.
“Installing The Blaster and Riptide was one of the largest and most complex elements of this major project,” Bethge says. “We essentially went in and changed the aft portions of decks 10 through 13 of the ship. Our engineers assessed many factors, including the structural support needed to offer a safe, but thrilling experience, how the waterslides may impact the ship’s stability while at sea, and the footprint required above deck and behind the scenes.”
And then there was the challenge of getting all that gear into place—no easy feat when you consider that the ship is as tall as a decent-sized skyscraper.
“Cranes were involved in lifting sections of the slides to the top deck of the ship,” Bethge says. “The slide tower itself—where the slides begin—was actually constructed in Finland and shipped to the Bahamas.”
Of course, the work required to get the slides pumping goes beyond what’s visible to guests. To keep the water flowing through the slides, the Navigator’s refresh saw two dedicated pump rooms that were installed near the top of the ship.
For The Blaster—the longer and more water-intense of the rides—engineers carved out a 3,500-square-foot room that features nine individual pumps and a 10-meter-long water tank.
Considering the need to conserve resources like water while at sea, the system acts as a closed loop, pumping water into the slide at nine separate points (creating a non-stop sense of acceleration as riders whip around turns and hover over the sea), before cycling it through a self-contained filtration and chlorination system—and back up through the slide.
“Given its weight, we even had to put the nine-pump water tank on wheels to roll it into place,” Bethge says.
For the smaller Riptide, which is less an “aquacoaster” and more a traditional waterslide, a separate 215-square-foot pump room was installed to keep things moving.
Pulling off a triple axel is challenging enough, but with the temper of Old Man Sea beneath you, the feat quickly enters the realm of superhuman.
Of course, this is all a way of saying that there’s something bonkers about the idea of putting on a choreographed ice-skating show on a moving ship.
“We had to wrap our heads around the concept itself–an ice-skating rink at sea–to figure out just how to construct one with real ice on a moving vessel like a cruise ship,” says Nick Weir, senior vice president of entertainment at Royal Caribbean International.
The solution: A unique ice arena that is designed to subtlety move in unison with the sea below, creating a sense of stability for the high-flying performers above.
“Our teams came up with the design of a malleable underlay, allowing us to run cooling tubes below the structure,” Weir says. “This allows the rink to flex in sympathy with the ship’s natural movement.”
Perhaps the most startling feature of the on-ship ice show is an armada of 48 light-up drones that dance above the ice like well-trained fireflies. At some points in the show, the drones even interact with human skaters.
However, getting drones to follow a choreographed routine while on a moving ship—a feature that first appeared on Royal Caribbean’s ship—required clever workarounds.
“Drones normally operate with GPS, and a moving vessel made of pure steel makes precise and accurate flight patterns very complex,” Weir says. “Then the need to add perfectly synchronized choreography brings things to a whole new level of challenging.”
The solution? “We created our own interior positioning system—or IPS—and essentially tricked the drones into thinking it’s the GPS they are programmed to follow.”
When you’re dealing with a hulking cruise ship, even seemingly simple upgrades become complex feats of engineering, requiring clever thinking and engineering.
Case in point: The Navigator’s upgrade involved the installation of 20 poolside casitas (or cabanas).
“They may look like easy installations, but they presented some of the most challenging variables,” Bethe says. “For example, they needed to be light to minimize the added weight to the ship, yet sturdy and secure enough to withstand the wind while at sea. We found aluminum was the perfect solution. And in order to get the casitas in position at the top of the ship, they were assembled on land, lifted by crane one by one, and then secured by hand when placed onto steel rods we built into the ship.”