We got a sneak peek at Norwegian's brand new cruise ship
Yet another massive cruise vessel debuted this week in Florida, this time from Norwegian Cruise Line.
At 169,116 tons, Norwegian Encore isn’t quite as super-sized as Royal Caribbean’s eye-popping, 228,081-ton Symphony of the Seas, which has room for more than 6,500 people. But it’s right up there among the biggest of the big of the new crop of giant floating mega-resorts. It ranks among the 10 biggest passenger ships ever built (and it’s the biggest ever for Norwegian, a company that has embraced the bigger-is-better worldview with gusto in recent years).
Just how big is it? As I saw over the weekend during a short “preview sailing” in advance of its inaugural voyage out of Miami, this is a ship so enormous that it has room for a go-kart track and a laser tag arena on its top deck, with plenty of room to spare for pools, water slides and a kiddie splash zone. It’s also home to nearly 30 eateries, lounges and bars; Broadway shows; a sprawling spa; a casino that fills half a deck; and more than 2,000 rooms.
In short, this is another one of those ships that's built to rival the giant resort hotels you see in places like Las Vegas or Orlando. Think: Atlantis in the Bahamas, if Atlantis could float.
It’s obviously not for people who like intimacy in a vacation. If you’re that kind of traveler, you probably should stop reading right here. But if you’re a fan of big, bustling resorts with every sort of amusement known to humans, and you’re open to the idea of cruising, this just might be a new contender for your vacation dollar (or your points and miles).
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It has a familiar look
For Norwegian regulars, Norwegian Encore will look familiar. It has roughly the same footprint as the line’s last three vessels: Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Escape. All four of the ships are part of the same Breakaway-Plus series that began rolling out in 2015.
Still, Norwegian Encore, which holds 3,998 passengers at double occupancy, has a few new twists.
The ship is slightly bigger than the earlier Breakaway-Plus ships due to a small addition at its back to make room for the largest laser tag arena at sea (yes, laser tag at sea is now a thing).
Just about every new ship from Norwegian in recent years has been at least a tad bigger than the one before it. But that streak, notably, is about to come to an end. Norwegian has no new vessels on order in the size range of Norwegian Encore. Instead, the 17-ship line is about to go smaller with its new vessels. Norwegian has ordered six new ships for delivery between 2022 and 2027 that will measure 140,000 tons: about 17% smaller than Norwegian Encore.
In that context, Norwegian Encore is sort of a last hurrah for the line in the Big Ship Wars — at least for now.
There's great onboard entertainment
Cruising regulars know that Norwegian ships offer some of the best entertainment at sea, and Norwegian Encore is no exception.
Like earlier Norwegian vessels, it’s jam-packed with lively music venues including a reprise of the Cavern Club that first appeared on Norwegian Epic in 2015 and the Q Texas Smokehouse that debuted in 2018 on Norwegian Bliss. The former is a reproduction of the British club that gave rise to the Beatles, complete with a Beatles cover band that plays all the band’s greatest hits. The latter is a music-and-food concept that pairs live country music with barbecue.
There’s also live Latin music nightly at the mojito-focused Sugarcane bar as well as a sing-along piano player at The District Brew House, a craft beer venue with nearly two dozen brews on tap.
But the big entertainment story of Norwegian Encore is the headline show in its 965-seat theater: The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Kinky Boots” (which just closed in New York City this year after a six-year run). At 90 minutes, the on-board version is a tad shorter than the original but still has the same basic drag queen-spiced storyline and Cyndi Lauper-written tunes. And the good news is, you don’t have to drop hundreds of dollars to see it. Admission is included in your basic cruise fare.
Norwegian Encore’s theater also is home to a second major musical, "The Choir of Man." A spirited, feel-good show that has been traveling the U.S. to rave reviews (and comes to Norwegian Encore after a run on Norwegian Escape), it’s set in an Irish pub and features an all-male cast, lots of a cappella singing, audience participation and free beers being passed out from a real tap on stage.
I am no big devotee of cruise ship shows. When I’m roped into attending one, I generally last just three or four numbers before sneaking out the back. But both the above offerings are serious productions with a level of energy, engagement and, in the case of “The Choir of Man,” unabashed fun that had me sticking around to the very end. And if you’re the kind of person who usually likes going to a big musical production on a cruise ship, you’ll surely love them.
There are over-the-top new features
Apparently, go-karts as a cruise ship attraction are here to stay. Both of Norwegian’s last two ships, Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Bliss, boasted improbably large go-kart tracks on their top decks, and Norwegian Encore has one, too. But in Norwegian Encore’s case, it’s even bigger.
Nearly 1,150 feet long and sprawling over two decks, the so-called Norwegian Encore Speedway includes four sections that extend up to 13 feet over the sides of the vessel. The extensions make room for a wider track than you’ll find on the earlier vessels, which allows for notably easier passing.
The racecourse also features a new, middle-of-the-track observation area where your family and friends can cheer you on to victory — and even shoot you with "lasers" that’ll give you a boost of power. We didn't make up the rules.
Note that this is some serious go-karting. The cars that Norwegian uses can hit speeds up to 32 miles per hour, as I experienced firsthand during a three-lap test run over the weekend. With my foot jamming the green “gas” pedal to the floor, I shot around the track like Simon Pagenaud zipping to the win at this year’s Indianapolis 500. Or so I thought. It turns out I was nearly last in my heat.
Go-karts aren’t the only over-the-top attraction on the top deck of Norwegian Encore. As noted above, it’s also home to the largest laser tag arena ever put on a ship. Themed after the lost city of Atlantis, the venue is at the very back of the ship just behind the go-kart track.
In the name of research, I grabbed one of the ridiculously large laser guns at the attraction and went to battle, only to be “killed” almost instantly. The good news is they give you more than one life.
Just be warned that neither the go-kart experience nor laser tagging are inexpensive. You’ll pay $15 per person for an eight-lap romp on the go-karts. Joining a five-minute laser shoot-out costs $10 per person. In both cases, you can buy a week-long pass for $199. The latter option may sound steep, but if you have teens or tweens, it may just be the best $199 you spend on your cruise.
A massive gaming zone
Speaking of attractions that appeal to teens and tweens, Norwegian Encore also offers a larger version of the Galaxy Pavilion gaming and virtual reality zone that first debuted two years ago on Norwegian Joy.
There’s really nothing quite like Galaxy Pavilion in the cruise world. The venue has an amazing array of super-high-tech virtual reality experiences, including incredibly realistic race car simulators (there are eight in a row along one wall!), hang-gliding simulators, virtual mazes and a virtual reality Jurassic Park jeep ride (watch out for dinosaurs!).
Norwegian went back to the drawing boards to design Norwegian Encore’s Galaxy Pavilion, which fills a space that's an adults-only outdoor lounge area on most recent Norwegian vessels (yep, Spice H20 is gone on this ship). About 60% of the Galaxy Pavilion attractions are new (and even cooler) than what’s found on Norwegian Joy.
Among the additions is a 45-minute Escape Room experience laced with special effects. Themed around a Spanish galleon, it’s designed to be played by up to six people at a time.
As with the go-karts and laser tag, you can buy a week-long pass to Galaxy Pavilion for $199 per person. There also are hour-long passes available for $29 per person, or you can sample a single ride for $8 (except for the Escape Room, which is priced separately at $15 per person). For the ultimate in fun zone access, Norwegian also is selling a $399 pass that will get you unlimited rides at the Galaxy Pavilion plus unlimited entry to the go-kart track and laser tag area for an entire week.
Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises
A disappointing new restaurant
For the most part, Norwegian Encore’s lineup of dining and drinking outlets is the same as on its last few Breakaway-Plus ships. You’ll find all the signature Norwegian venues, including a Cagney’s steakhouse, French eatery Le Bistro and Teppanyaki.
The one major addition is Onda by Scarpetta, a higher-end Italian restaurant from the creators of New York’s Scarpetta (which now has outposts in multiple cities including Miami and Philadelphia). It replaces the Italian restaurant La Cucina found on earlier Norwegian ships.
Onda by Scarpetta already has gotten quite a bit of buzz at online cruise sites, and I was looking forward to loving it. But I am sorry to say, I came away from an initial visit disappointed. My main gripe is not so much with the food, which was well done, but with the ambiance of the venue. Streamlined and modern, it’s filled with hard surfaces that clearly were not designed with acoustics in mind. It was loud, so much so I almost had to shout to be heard by the person next to me. The venue also was super dark. Like, so dark I had to use the flashlight on my iPhone to read the menu.
To be fair, the night I experienced Onda by Scarpetta wasn’t a typical evening for the restaurant. It was jam-packed with groups of Norwegian Cruise Line executives, board members and other VIPs sitting at large tables that had been created by pushing together smaller tables. That surely added to the noise level. And given the restaurant has just opened, they’re likely still playing with the light settings.
Still, until the sound and lighting issues are fixed, I would give Onda by Scarpetta a pass.
Not to pile on too much, but one more reason to gripe about Onda by Scarpetta is its sky-high pricing. The menu is set up for three courses plus dessert, and if you order every course, plus one of the side dishes (which are extra) you easily can run up a bill over $80 per person before drinks. That’s quite a big move up the pricing spectrum from Norwegian’s La Cucina venues, which have traditionally been far less expensive.
Onda by Scarpetta isn’t the only restaurant on Norwegian Encore with some eyebrow raising prices. Seafood-centric Ocean Blue has a new menu with similar pricing. A surf-and-turf dish on the new Ocean Blue menu that combines an 8-ounce filet mignon with a lobster tail costs $49!
Norwegian executives point out that, as part of the line’s ongoing “Free at Sea” promotion, some passengers will get a dining package that includes free access to Onda by Scarpetta and other extra-charge dining venues as a perk. Others will buy such a dining package. Either way, they won’t be paying the high a la carte prices found on the menus. Still, for those who do pay the a la carte prices, there could be some sticker shock.
Note that, as is always the case on Norwegian ship, there are several included-in-the-fare restaurants on Norwegian Encore available at no extra charge.
There's less deck-top space for sunning
There’s some bad news for sun worshippers hiding in plain sight on Norwegian Encore’s deck plans — at least for those who are on a budget. As compared to earlier Breakaway-Plus vessels, there are fewer sunning areas on Norwegian Encore that are open to everyone at no extra charge.
As noted above, an adults-only outdoor lounge area found at the back of other Breakaway-Plus ships (Spice H20) was wiped away to make room for Norwegian Encore’s Galaxy Pavilion (and laser tag arena, which is just above the Galaxy Pavilion). But that’s not the only big change up top. Additional open-to-everyone lounge space toward the front of the ship has been taken away to make room for a bigger version of Vibe Beach Club: the exclusive, extra-charge sunning area found on several recent Norwegian ships.
Located just behind another exclusive area devoted to passengers staying in top Haven suites, the Vibe Beach Club area now spans both sides of the ship (instead of just one side on earlier vessels) and extends upward to a partial deck above. The lovely hideaway, which has a full-service bar, cabanas and two hot tubs, now can hold up to 270 people — far more than on the earlier ships.
Norwegian executives say the Vibe Beach Club expansion was a response to customer demand. They say the venue often sells out quickly on other ships despite a hefty cost. On Norwegian Encore, it’s priced at $99 per person for a day pass (or $278 for two if you want a cabana).
An ever-shrinking plastics footprint
Norwegian regulars will notice that plastic water bottles are nowhere to be found on Norwegian Encore. They’ve been replaced by new, Norwegian-branded blue water cartons made mostly of paper in a partnership with Just Water.
Norwegian Encore is the first ship with the new water containers, which will roll out fleetwide by Jan. 1. The line says the change will eliminate the use of 6 million plastic bottles per year.
Norwegian has been a leader in the cruise industry in moving away from single-use plastics. In 2018, the line was among the first to eliminate plastic straws across its fleet and private island destinations, and it also has eliminated single-use plastic toiletries. Instead of small plastic bottles of shampoo and soaps, cabin bathrooms now are equipped with large refillable dispensers.
For mega-ship lovers, Norwegian Encore pretty much has it all. There's tons of great entertainment; plenty of venues for eating and drinking; and all sorts of deck-top diversions. Throw in the ship’s low starting prices (see below), and it’s an even more compelling package.
The “extra-charge creep” that we’ve been seeing on the top deck of Norwegian’s ships in recent years is a little concerning, as are the higher a la carte prices spreading across the line’s onboard restaurants. But, then again, you get what pay for, as the saying goes. If you’re on a tight budget, there are plenty of included-in-the-fare choices for dining and entertainment. If money is no object, you can follow a different “journey” through the ship, as Norwegian executives like to say, to a far more high-end vacation.
Related: How to plan a cruise with points and miles
Want to learn more about Norwegian? Make sure to subscribe to TPG's flagship podcast, Talking Points, for an exclusive interview with the CEO and president of Norwegian Cruise Line, Andy Stuart. The episode releases on Wednesday, Dec. 4.
What it costs
Norwegian Encore will spend the coming winter sailing to the Eastern Caribbean out of Miami before repositioning to New York for the summer of 2020. All the voyages out of Miami will be seven nights in length and feature stops at San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas; and Tortola. The ship’s New York schedule will include trips of varying lengths to Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Canadian Maritimes.
This week, Eastern Caribbean sailings were available from $349 per person, not including taxes and fees of $153.77. That works out to just $72 per night per person with taxes and fees for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals. Seven-night trips out of New York were starting at $749 per person, not including taxes and fees of $195.49.
But these fares are for the least-expensive, windowless “interior” cabins. There are all sorts of cabin categories on Norwegian ships, including bigger balcony cabins and suites, at a wide range of price points. In addition, pricing for cruises fluctuates week-by-week depending on demand, just as it does with flights. The rates above were for sailings during off-season weeks. You’ll pay far more for more popular times of the year, such as around Christmas.
The fares also don’t include extra charges you ring up on board. As noted above, while meals at several onboard restaurants are included in the fare, some of the higher-end venues on Norwegian Encore come with considerable extra charges (unless your booking comes with a specialty dining package). Just like at most land resorts, you’ll also pay extra for drinks. Most bottled beers at Norwegian Encore bars run from $6 to $7, while wine starts at $8 per glass ($26 for the least expensive bottle).
One other thing for which you’ll need to budget is the automatic service charge that Norwegian adds to bills, which runs $15 per person, per day for most cabins. Suite passengers pay more.
(Editor’s note: TPG always tries to pay full price for travel its staff takes and usually doesn’t inform companies in advance of our plans to review. But there are times when — especially with cruise lines — we need to work with travel providers to gain early access to products before they go into regular service. To attend this three-night “preview” sailing of Norwegian Encore, which was operated on a non-revenue basis for Norwegian employees, travel agents, media and others who needed to see the ship for business reasons, TPG paid a negotiated $297 rate to be on board. This is roughly in line with the starting rates of the ship on a per person, per day basis. TPG also paid all costs to get to and from the vessel.)