Do cruise ship refurbishments actually help?

cruise ship refurbishment change review ratings
Royal Caribbean has been methodically updating many of their ships with new dining venues, bars, and activities. - Photo by Royal Caribbean International

Ship refurbishments are a huge deal in the cruise industry. Right now, virtually every major line has a massive renovation program underway, from Carnival’s “Fun Ship 2.0” renovations to Royal Caribbean’s “Royal Amplified” program. But do these highly publicized updates actually translate into a better onboard experience, and by extension, higher review scores?

What Happens in a Refurbishment?

While we use the phrase “refurbishment” any time a ship goes into dry dock, the process can vary dramatically from ship to ship. Ships typically undergo routing maintenance and receive technical upgrades, and, every 5-10 years, receive updated upholstery, carpeting, and linens in the cabins. Of course, the changes that usually make headlines are the addition of new restaurants and bars, along with updated entertainment venues or completely new or revamped onboard activities.


How We Approached The Question

Since there are so many factors involved in a refurbishment (the extent of the renovations, the new venues added, how long it had been since the ship launched or last went into dry dock, etc.) we decided to look at a handful of individual ships rather than just taking the average before and after scores from every refurbishment we could find. In order to ensure we had enough review data, we selected popular, mainstream ships that had been refurbished between last year and when we launched in 2012.

We examined the following ships: Carnival Breeze, Carnival Dream, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Sun, Independence of the Seas, and Liberty of the Seas.


Carnival Breeze and Carnival Dream

guy's barbecue carnival cruise lunch food dining
Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que - Photo by Carnival Cruise Line

Refurbishments Made: When Breeze and Dream entered drydock, the biggest additions were in the Food & Dining category. Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que and the Alchemy Bar were added to both ships, while Dream also received Guy’s Burger Joint, Bonsai Sushi, BlueIguana Cantina, and Pizzeria del Capitano. Both ships also received new carpets and decor. 

What We Expected to Happen: This was a “food-focused” refurbishment with some cosmetic updates, so if things went well we should see increases in the Food & Dining and Ship Quality categories, but not much movement in the rest.

Carnival Breeze (Launched in June 2012, last refurbished in April 2017)
Category & Average Scores For One Year Before and After Refurbishment

Cabin / Stateroom ....  4.59 to 4.60 (+.01)
Children's Programs..  4.00 to 4.25 (+.25)
Entertainment............  4.03 to 4.22 (+.19)
Food & Dining...........  4.10 to 4.32 (+.22)
Onboard Activities.....  4.21 to 4.17 (-.04)
Service & Staff..........  4.55 to 4.58 (+.03)
Ship Quality...............  4.58 to 4.45 (-.13)

Carnival Dream (Launched in September 2009, last refurbished in April 2017)
Category & Average Scores For One Year Before and After Refurbishment

Cabin / Stateroom ....  4.40 to 4.38 (-.02)
Children's Programs..  3.95 to 4.13 (+.18)
Entertainment............  4.13 to 4.18 (+.05)
Food & Dining...........  4.08 to 4.26 (+.24)
Onboard Activities.....  4.10 to 4.04 (-.06)
Service & Staff..........  4.43 to 4.49 (+.06)
Ship Quality...............  4.29 to 4.38 (+.09)

What Actually Happened: Just as we predicted, the Food & Dining scores saw huge improvements in the year after the refurbishments. Curiously, we also noticed a huge increase in the quality of Children’s Programs on both ships, despite no major listed changes to their kid's clubs. And while the Ship Quality score went up slightly on Dream, it actually decreased on Breeze.

Takeaway: The solid improvements in Food & Dining show that the Fun Ship 2.0 additions were a great success for Carnival. And even though Ship Quality on Breeze went down, its starting score of 4.58 was already far above average, and its new score of 4.45 is still extremely respectable.


Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Sun

norwegian sun spinnaker observation lounge refurbishment
Spinnaker Lounge - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line

Refurbishments Made: The refurbishments to Sun and Jade were extensive. Cabins received new carpeting, furniture, flat-screen TVs, and headboards with USB outlets. The Splash Academy kid’s area was updated, Bliss Ultra Lounge was added to both ships, and Spinnaker Lounge was added to Sun and updated on Jade. Sun also received Los Lobos Cantina, along with updates in Cagney’s, La Cucina, Le Bistro, and The Sports Bar, as well as the Mandara Spa and new flooring on the lido deck. 

On Jade, The Haven courtyard was completely refurbished and received new haven cabanas, a newly refinished pool, and other furnishings, while the atrium received a new chandelier, new color scheme, and other finishes. O’Sheehan’s, the Pit Stop 1950’s diner, and the Sugarcane Mojito Bar were added, and Moderno, Cagney’s, Teppanyaki, La Cucina, Jasmine Garden, and the Garden Cafe (buffet) received various redesigns and enhancements.

What We Expected to Happen: Considering how many resources went into these huge updates, there should be sizable increases in the Cabin, Food & Dining, and Ship Quality categories. 

Norwegian Jade (Launched in May 2006, last refurbished in February 2017)
Average Scores For One Year Before and After Refurbishment

Cabin / Stateroom ....  4.40 to 4.23 (-.17)
Children's Programs..  3.64 to 3.53 (-.11)
Entertainment............  4.18 to 4.13 (-.05)
Food & Dining...........  4.22 to 4.04 (-.18)
Onboard Activities.....  3.71 to 3.46 (-.25)
Service & Staff..........  4.39 to 4.35 (-.04)
Ship Quality...............  4.29 to 4.30 (+.01)

Norwegian Sun (Launched in September 2000, last refurbished in May 2018)
Average Scores For One Year Before and After Refurbishment

Cabin / Stateroom ....  4.06 to 4.24 (+.18)
Children's Programs..  3.50 to 3.83 (+.33)
Entertainment............  3.96 to 3.76 (-.20)
Food & Dining...........  3.90 to 4.03 (+.13)
Onboard Activities.....  3.62 to 3.79 (+.17)
Service & Staff..........  4.27 to 4.38 (+.11)
Ship Quality...............  3.83 to 4.22 (+.39)

What Actually Happened: Talk about a mixed bag! One the one hand, the Norwegian Sun refurbishments were a smashing success. Every score except entertainment showed noticeable improvements, and Ship Quality rocketed up from a meager 3.83 to a solid 4.22. Meanwhile Jade, which received even more enhancements than Norwegian Sun, actually lost ground in every category except Ship Quality which was basically unchanged.

Takeaway: While this might look like a disaster for Norwegian Jade, it’s important to keep in mind Jade’s scores pre-refurbishment were significantly higher than Sun. Older by six years, Norwegian Sun was overdue for a refurbishment, and obviously benefited more from the updates. At the end of the day, the two ships are roughly equal now in terms of overall quality. Still, it’s tough not to feel somewhat disappointed by Jade’s performance considering the sheer amount of updates it received.


Independence of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas

splashaway bay water park kids royal caribbean
Splashaway Bay - Photo by Royal Caribbean International

Refurbishments: Both ships received the new panoramic oceanview staterooms and cosmetic updates. Onboard activities received a sizable boost as well in the form of Splashaway Bay, a larger and more interactive waterpark for kids featuring new waterslides, water cannons, fountains, pools, and a drench bucket.

On Independence of the Seas, the Royal Theater was revamped, and the new restaurants Izumi and Fish & Ships were added. Other new venues included the Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade and the Sugar Beach Candy Shop. Liberty of the Seas received the Mexican restaurant Sabor, the R Bar, and Italian venue Giovanni’s table.

What We Expected to Happen: The categories of Onboard Activities and Food & Dining should see significant improvements. 

Independence of the Seas (Launched in May 2008, last refurbished in May 2018)
Average Scores For One Year Before and After Refurbishment

Cabin / Stateroom ....  4.17 to 4.58 (+.41)
Children's Programs..  3.91 to 4.29 (+.38)
Entertainment............  4.29 to 4.51 (+.22)
Food & Dining...........  3.67 to 4.33 (+.66)
Onboard Activities.....  3.85 to 4.44 (+.59)
Service & Staff..........  4.28 to 4.81 (+.53)
Ship Quality...............  4.20 to 4.86 (+.66)

Liberty of the Seas (Launched in May 2007, last refurbished in February 2016)
Average Scores For One Year Before and After Refurbishment

Cabin / Stateroom ....  4.66 to 4.58 (-.08)
Children's Programs..  3.98 to 4.04 (+.06)
Entertainment............  4.33 to 4.43 (+.10)
Food & Dining...........  4.09 to 4.25 (+.16)
Onboard Activities.....  4.16 to 4.26 (+.10)
Service & Staff..........  4.58 to 4.68 (+.10)
Ship Quality...............  4.64 to 4.74 (+.10)

What Actually Happened: If you want a poster girl for successful ship refurbishments, look no further than Independence of the Seas. Scores increased dramatically in almost every category, with the Ship Quality, Food & Dining, and Onboard Activities recording the highest increases of any ship we looked at. Liberty of the Seas saw respectable improvements as well, and while they weren’t as eye-opening as the gains made by Independence, we can chalk that one up to its pre-refurbishment scores being considerably higher.

Takeaways: These scores show that a well-done refurbishment can take ships that are good (Liberty) or just alright (Independence) and make them great.


So, how much do refurbishments actually help?

- A well-executed refurbishment can certainly help an aging ship, but it’s not a magic cure-all. The extensive refurbishments to Norwegian Jade did little to move scores across the board, and most categories actually saw a drop in performance. Reviews after the refurbishment referenced large crowds, poor service and the fact that construction was still ongoing.

- Refurbishments are incredibly valuable in a ship that is starting to become dated. Norwegian Sun is going on twenty-years-old, but its most recent refurbishment has breathed new life into the ship providing a brand experience that is more in line with what you experience on the newer ships in the fleet.

- The better a ship is performing, the less improvement you’ll see in the ratings. Liberty of the Seas was already a top-rated ship before it entered the dry dock, and though it showed improvements, the gains weren’t as dramatic as the somewhat underperforming Independence of the Seas.

Join the discussion

Have you ever taken a cruise on the same ship both before and after a large renovation? What were your impressions?

1 Comment

Posted by MisterBill99

Maybe the real takeaway is that some of the ratings are bogus. Why should cabin ratings on Liberty and Independence be so different pre-change when thy are effectively the same ship? Similarly, for food, why should they have been so different? Maybe there was a problem with the chef on board one of the ships, or they were sailing different itineraries with people who were pickier.

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