The Evolution of Cruise Dining | Travel Research Online


The Evolution of Cruise Dining

Susan SchafferCruise ship dining has slowly evolved over the last two decades from the time when dining was a formal affair every night, with an upscale menu to match. Changes in dining have come about gradually, moving to more casual dining attire, more streamlined menus (some would argue less exciting), moving to less traditional dining with freestyle – any time – my time dining, specialty restaurants with surcharges, Chef’s tables and now the new dynamic dining on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas.

Is this an attempt to attract millennial cruisers? Is it a revenue stream to make up for lower cruise fares and increased onboard spending?

The first change in cruise ship dining might be traced back to when Disney entered the industry, launching the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder in the late 1990s. From day one they approached dining differently. Maintaining some traditional dining aspects, like assigned tables and assigned dining times, Disney introduced the twist of rotating through three different restaurants with a different menu each night. Other than their adult only option, they have resisted the urge to add optional dining venues with a surcharge attached.

In 2000, Norwegian Cruise Line broke from the pack and introduced Freestyle Dining, extending the concept fleet-wide in 2001. Since then, other cruise lines have followed suit, offering their own version of flexible dining, giving passengers more control over when they ate (no assigned dining times) and with whom they ate (no table assignments).

The next innovation to be expanded by many cruise lines has been the idea of specialty restaurants, and the introduction of surcharges. Many have complained that this was a move to increase onboard spending by moving the higher-ticket menu items, like Filet Mignon and lobster tails, out of the main dining room and into a venue where the cruise lines could add a surcharge. And to support that argument, some cruise lines now offer those items on their main dining room menu for a charge.

At this point, many in the travel industry probably thought cruise line dining couldn’t change any more than it already has. We have traditional dining, flexible dining, and specialty restaurants with and without surcharges. What could possibly still be out there to try? That’s where Royal Caribbean comes in with their new Dynamic Dining concept being introduced on Quantum of the Seas this November, and soon to be expanded to other ships in the fleet. In essence, Dynamic Dining completely removes traditional dining from the cruise equation. The large main dining room will be a thing of the past on Quantum of the Seas. Instead, they will offer several smaller dining venues that passengers can choose from for their dining pleasure. Of course, some of those venue options will involve a surcharge while others will not. We have yet to see how this will work out in the long run, but I suspect it won’t go away. There were some bumps and bruises when flexible dining was introduced across various cruise lines, but it has become a standard option. At this point, Royal Caribbean says that their move to completely remove traditional dining from their ships is a direct response to passenger feedback. As more millennials experience cruising, the cruise lines need to stay ahead of the game and anticipate what will draw in new cruisers as well as entice passenger to keep coming back to them. They are betting that more flexibility and increased choices are the answers.

What’s next? That is left to be seen. But just as cruise lines held back to see how Freestyle Dining worked for Norwegian Cruise Line before implementing their own variations, they will be watching Royal Caribbean to see how successful Dynamic Dining works for them. If Royal Caribbean can successfully work through any kinks in the system and show a high level of passenger satisfaction with Dynamic Dining, it will not only spread fleet wide, but expect to see other cruise lines to look for ways to implement their own versions of Dynamic Dining in the years to come.


Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel ( located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations ( she focuses on travel for 18 to 23 year olds. Susan can be reached by email at or by phone at (888) 221-1209.

  2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Cruise Dining

  1. dlloyd says:

    Sorry but how is this any different from what Norwegian has been doing since 2001? As a former NCL employee it’s amazing that this is somehow being presented as something new and innovative … none of the new Norwegian ships have the massive main dining rooms, and instead have “several smaller dining venues”. It’s nice that RCI is finally catching up, but it is 14 years later!

  2. NCL definitely was the first to role out flexible dining in 2001 and has continued to be on the forefront of freestyle cruising in general, but even their latest ships still refer to having three “main dining rooms.” Royal Caribbean is moving away from main dining rooms altogether with the introduction of five major dining venues to replace them (not to mention smaller complimentary options and several for-a-charge options). Overall, all of the cruise lines are contributing to the evolution of onboard dining, and I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it yet. 😉

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