Spring 2018 will see three mega-cruise ships launching in short succession: Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas, followed by Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Horizon and ending with Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Bliss. All have multiple restaurants, intriguing outdoor activities and a range of entertainment options, but each has its own flair. Cruise Critic gathered everything we know about the three ships to compare them, so you know which one most appeals to you.
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Symphony of the Seas, Norwegian Bliss and Carnival Horizon are mega-cruise ships, so if you're looking for a cozy, intimate vacation you won't find it here. Symphony will be the largest ship in the world (by gross tonnage) when it launches in spring 2018. Measuring nearly 230,000 gross registered tons (GRT) and holding 5,535 people at double capacity, it will dwarf both Norwegian Bliss (167,800 GRT and 4,004 passengers) and Carnival Horizon (133,500 GRT and 3,960 passengers).
Despite its much larger size, Symphony of the Seas has only one more spot to grab food than both Norwegian Bliss and Carnival Horizon (18 versus 17 on both other ships). Cuisine styles you'll find across the ships include Italian, Asian, Mexican and fresh seafood, and dining venues range from date-night fancy to casual to grab-and-go.
For cruisers who don't like shelling out for extra-fee specialty restaurants, Carnival Horizon might be the best choice as it has the most complimentary venues, at least for lunch. Of its nine free restaurants, only three of them are open for dinner. Norwegian Bliss and Symphony of the Seas have five and four free options for dinner, respectively.
Each of the ships will feature many of their respective line's signature restaurants, while also debuting new eateries.
On Carnival Horizon and Norwegian Bliss, new barbecue joints will be featured, both serving up hearty brisket, ribs and other smoked meats, along with savory side dishes. If you need live country music with your barbecue, Norwegian Bliss' Texas Smokehouse, Q, will feature a house band playing pop-country hits every night.
For those looking for some pub grub, Symphony of the Seas will debut the Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade in the ships' Boardwalk neighborhood. Here cruisers can chow down on wings and fries while taking in a sports game on the big-screen TVs or in between sessions of arcade games, including Skee-Ball and long shot basketball.
All three ships have plenty of outside fun for cruisers to enjoy, but here Symphony of the Seas really does shine, with many more activities than either Norwegian Bliss or Carnival Horizon.
As if three water slides, two FlowRider surf simulators, a zipline, mini-golf course, rock wall and the Ultimate Abyss thrill slide that drops riders 10 decks isn't enough, Symphony also has three pools, an outdoor Boardwalk with working carousel and a kids' splash water park.
Norwegian Bliss, on the other hand, has a two-deck electric go-kart racetrack (designed to be used even in inclement weather), an outdoor laser tag arena, three pools and the Aqua Park with two water slides and a kids' splash zone.
Carnival Horizon also has a water park and three pools, though one is reserved during the day for cruisers staying in the Havana section of cabins. Like Symphony, Horizon has a mini-golf course. But, what Horizon has that the others don't is the SkyCourse ropes course and SkyRide, which suspends riders on recumbent bikes while they pedal their way around the midair course.
When it comes to bars and lounges, all have many of the same standards (pool and atrium bars, casual pub) but each new ship has a few standouts.
Beer drinkers will want to check out either Norwegian Bliss for its District Brew House or Carnival Horizon for Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse & Brewhouse, which will actually brew up a small selection of craft choices onboard.
Those who prefer a glass of wine will want to look at Symphony of the Seas, with its Royal Caribbean signature venue Vintages, or Norwegian Bliss, which features The Cellars Wine Bar, a product of the line's relationship with the Mondavi wine family.
Symphony of the Seas also has two of the most gimmicky of all the bars: Rising Tide Bar, which is an elevator-style space that rises and falls between three decks while cruisers sip on standard wines, beers and cocktails; and the Bionic Bar, where robotic arms mix cocktails to music.
Symphony of the Seas, Norwegian Bliss and Carnival Horizon all offer standard cabins in inside, outside and balcony categories, but each also offers a few unique accommodations.
Suite cruisers will be most interested in Symphony and Bliss. On the former, there are 13 suite choices including four- and two-bedroom options. The ship also has one, new Ultimate Family Suite, a loft-style suite that features a slide that takes kids (of all ages) from the top level to the bottom and a LEGO wall for family playtime. Cruisers staying in suites on Symphony of the Seas will get a slew of perks, including several all-inclusive packages (dining, drinks, Wi-Fi) as well as access to a suites-only lounge and sun deck.
Norwegian Bliss has the cruise line's ship-within-a-ship suites enclave, The Haven, which has its own restaurant, swimming pool and lounge. Cruisers staying in The Haven also get a slew of perks including several all-inclusive packages.
Families with kids should check out Carnival Horizon, which features Family Harbor, a keycard-accessible area specifically designed for families. Family Harbor has rooms that can hold anywhere from two to five people (depending on configuration), as well as a family-only lounge for playing and a casual buffet breakfast.
From a geeky tech perspective, we can't not mention the "virtual view" cabins on both Symphony and Bliss. Both have rooms with virtual views piped in from cameras located outside the ship: on Symphony the views are floor to ceiling and on Bliss, picture window-sized.
Entertainment & Activities
From big stage song-and-dance shows (on all three) and Broadway musicals ("Hairspray" on Symphony and "Jersey Boys" on Bliss) to live music venues, comedy clubs and large casinos, these big ships are packed with entertainment.
Like going to the movies? Carnival Horizon has one of the only two IMAX movie theaters at sea.
Need something for the entire family to do together? Symphony of the Seas features an ice-skating rink, indoor laser tag arena and the Puzzle Break escape room experience.
And, while all feature live music in several spots every night, only Norwegian Bliss has The Beatles-inspired The Cavern Club with attendant Beatles-tribute band.
All three ships are good choices for families, with plenty to do to keep kids, tweens and teens occupied; all three also have robust kids' and teen's clubs. But, they do differ in a few significant ways.
Only Symphony of the Seas has a nursery where parents can drop off their babies (6 to 36 months) with child care professionals and then go enjoy the day on their own.
Symphony of the Seas is also the only ship that provides in-cabin babysitting (though on a limited basis); group babysitting is also offered on Symphony and is the only type of babysitting you'll find on Norwegian Bliss and Carnival Horizon. On all three an extra fee applies.
For cruisers familiar with Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships, it's important to note that unlike its sister ships, Symphony of the Seas will not feature Royal Caribbean's partnership with DreamWorks.
Itineraries and Pricing
A quick snapshot of the itineraries that the three new ships will be offering reveal the following highlights: Symphony of the Seas is the only one offering a full season in Europe; Norwegian Bliss, which will offer Alaska sailings in 2018 and 2019, will sail from three different homeports between April 2018 and March 2020 (Seattle, Miami and New York City); and Carnival Horizon will offer a full summer of sailings from New York City from May 2018 to September 2018.
As for pricing, Carnival Horizon offers the lowest entry pricing by far. (Entry level pricing refers to the lowest prices you can get on a cruise in an inside cabin.) The most expensive pricing you'll find are for the suites on Symphony of the Seas. Norwegian's Bliss' average pricing is, generally speaking, somewhere in between the two.