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June 25, 2022

What Cruise Ships Can Teach You About Entertainment Design

What Cruise Ships Can Teach You About Entertainment Design

They say that the best thing about cruising is seeing new places, but it turns out there's more than just scenery on a ship. In this video, Scott explores how the new ‘Carnival Mardi Gras’ ship has been designed with entertainment in mind using space...

They say that the best thing about cruising is seeing new places, but it turns out there's more than just scenery on a ship. In this video, Scott explores how the new ‘Carnival Mardi Gras’ ship has been designed with entertainment in mind using space and activities. We'll look at why their design is so successful and see if we can apply those principles to our own work. This episode is courtesy of A Scott in the Dark Episode 68 Lessons from a Cruise Ship.


Hey everyone, and welcome back to the dark. Scott Swenson here, and here is another A Scott in the Dark. This one is a bit weird, I will say that right up front, and it just shows that inspiration can come from many different places and it can show up in many different ways. This particular episode is inspired by my recent vacation. I just recent took a seven-day cruise on the Carnival Mardi Gras, which is a very large, very new ship, and I was really inspired by the way that the ship had been designed, and a lot of the stuff that I experienced while I was on my vacation. So, I wanted to do a show about it and kind of explain some of the takeaways that I got from the onboard experience on the ship and how that can apply to, not only to haunt owners and haunt designers, but also to people who are creating seasonal entertainment or just entertainment in general.

You know, I realize that the longer I do this show, the more I start to talk about things that aren't, necessarily, haunt specific, but are haunt parallel. I'm never, obviously, going to abandon the haunt industry, but I just want you guys to know that even if you're not haunters and you're listening to the show, and we do have quite a few actually, but if you're not haunters and you're listening to the show, there's always something that you're going to be able to pick up. So many people now, who are haunters, are also doing other forms of entertainment, like myself. I do a lot of stuff that's not spooky, scary, and quite a bit that is non-haunt-related really at all.

So, anyway, that's what this show is all about, and it's based on or reinforces an idea that I have talked about on both this podcast and Green Tagged Theme Park in 30 with Philip, and that is that guests are looking more and more for things to do rather than things to watch, rather than things to look at. This was just reinforced over and over again on this cruise ship experience. 

So, let's just kind of dive in and I'll tell you a little bit about the ship, because the design of the ship itself was a really great example of do versus show, it really required guest involvement, it required passenger involvement in order to get the most out of the cruise experience.

So, Carnival Mardi Gras is the newest and largest of the Mardi Gras ships, or of the Carnival ships rather. It's named after the very first carnival ship and it was released to celebrate the 50 years of the Carnival Cruise Line. What they've done, and what I think is really, really smart, is they have designed a very large ship that handles a very large passenger component. I mean, there are over 2000 cabins on the ship and it's huge. What they've tried to do is they've tried to design it in such a way so they take these large groups of people and they break them up and put them into smaller chunks or smaller hidden spaces that you kind of have to work to find. 

So, let me give you an example. Like I said, there's a very practical side to it, it divides and conquers the crowd. So, if you find these cool little, small spaces you feel as though, A you've accomplished something, and B it separates you from the masses slightly. Even if the small space is crowded, you're not looking out at thousands of people, you're looking at a 100, 150 people max. So, it kind of divides and conquers, it gives you the opportunity to have a sense of accomplishment. 

One of the things that we talk about, or I've talked about in the past, when it comes to making things interactive, is giving guests an opportunity to discover things. I've told this story, I think, a couple times on here, that I learned when I was working at Busch Gardens about animals. You know, if you change the topography of an animal exhibit, you're basically creating enrichment for the animals so they're not looking at all of the same 4 walls or the same four corners of their habitat all the time. If you make it so they can't find everything just from standing in one location, it gives them the opportunity to explore more, and the same I think is true with humans, and I think that's how this ship was sort of designed, the approach for this ship was created; so that people actually had to seek and find the cool stuff.

So, on the ship, what they've basically done is they've created these neighborhoods, or areas, or themed areas; I mean those of you in the theme park industry, sound familiar? They've created these themed areas, and then each one of the themed areas kind of breaks down into smaller and smaller subcomponents of the overarching theme. Let me give you some examples. They have a whole section that is, because, of course, the ship is called the Mardi Gras, that is based on New Orleans and the Big Easy. In that area, there's a grab-and-go restaurant that's an Emeril’s Bistro that is an up charge, but still, it provides you with everything from beignets to crawfish, so you know at very, very New Orleans based.

There's also, for haunters, it's a really cool bar called the Fortunetellers Bar, and one whole wall is covered in these big gold-framed mirrors, and it looks a little bit like a bordello. For those of you who don't know what the word bordello means, look it up.

So, it creates kind of a theme within a theme, if that makes any sense. There's also The Brass Magnolia, which is this big sort of brass bar with Magnolia cover paintings on the walls, I guess. Then, at night, of course, the entertainment that plays here is sort of the jazz trios, jazz combos, just to create that sort of vibe in that area.

Another area is called Summer Landing, which is really kind of cool, it's at the back end of the ship. This is a much more rustic, comfortable space. They have one corner that is like a sports bar, and then they have a barbecue restaurant back there. Guy Fieri's, it's called Pig and Anchor, which is on all the Carnival ships. They put that back there, they put another, we'll call it a beer bar for lack of a better description, back there. Then there's a stage back there and the band that plays back there does classic rock, some sort of garage band stuff. So, very, very sort of, I guess comfort Americana is the way I'd kind of look at it. I hesitate to use the term redneck because that sounds like I'm being negative, but I'm not. It's very much a comfortable hang-out, have a beer at a wooden picnic table kind of vibe, and very different from the posh New Orleans look.

Another example is they have what is called the Piazza, which is it's where you can get your 24-hour pizza on the ship, it's where you can get paninis, it's also where the Italian restaurant is. 

That's another thing they did. They have not only the main dining room, but they have these separate themed dining experiences as well. So, once again, requiring the guests to participate and seek and find. I realize this is the lowest end, sort of the lowest hanging fruit, of immersive or interactive experiences. But, also, recognize it's a cruise ship. So, the folks there aren't necessarily coming in to do a full escape room for their seven-day vacation, they want to make sure that things are relatively easy. But, if they have a sense of accomplishment because they're like, you know, "I tried the Italian restaurant, or I tried the Mexican Chinese fusion restaurant," they feel as though they've accomplished something, and they actually had some mastery and control in their own guest experience. So, I thought that was kind of cool. 

Now, what's really, really neat for me is, in the center of the ship they have an area that has a large stage on it, and if you've ever been on a cruise, usually the center of the ship is this grand atrium that's multiple decks high and has glass elevators, it's pretty common to do it that way. They kind of turned out on its ear this time, and they put a big stage here, and then there are three decks of windows that look out into the ocean during the day. But there's also a series of 18 gigantic video monitors on vertical columns that can slide into place, and then that's used as the backdrop for another performance space that you can view from three different decks; decks 6, 7, and 8. 

They do a lot of aerial stuff in here, they do everything from guest artist shows to they had a show in there called Voodoo Moon, which of course haunters are going to love. Some of you who listen told me to see the show, and I did, and it's visually amazing. The video effects are great, but there's a lot of flying in it and it's all about good spirits versus bad spirits, and of course, takes place in New Orleans. It's fun. It's also where they play bingo, it's a great multi-use space. 

By incorporating those video monitors, those movable video monitors, which go down into the deck below and up into the deck above when they're not being used, and then they come out and turn and go into place. It's a very smart multi-use space. It provides them with a lot of versatility and a lot of options as to how to use this, generally, wasted space on a ship. So, it gives them a lot of opportunities, and it can transform. The neat thing is, when it transforms, you never quite know what you're going to get when you walk by Grand Central, which is what it's called. So, it gives guests the opportunity to head over there, probably more often than they normally would, just to sort of find out, "oh, what is this thing? Or what is that thing that's going on here?" Then, if there's nothing else going on, the video monitors just fly away and fold and disappear, and you're looking out into the ocean. In my opinion, it's a perfect example of a well-thought-out multi-use space.

So, not only is the design interactive they also have a lot of inner interactive activities, things that you're doing versus watching. Probably the most obvious, if you know anything about cruise lines or if you happen to be a coaster geek like I am, the Mardi Gras is the first cruise ship to actually have a roller coaster on it. It's a small coaster, I admit, it's more kind of like a Go-Kart meets motorcycle on a roller coaster track. Again, it's a rollercoaster, but you're also at sea, so you can't rely on gravity to push you forward, so you basically control your speed through the whole thing. It's very interactive, I mean even within the fact that you're riding a roller coaster on a cruise ship, the way you interact with it is each car seats two people, and the person in front has a throttle in one hand that that makes you speed up. You control your speed through the whole thing, so again, not using gravity. So, you control your speed through the whole thing, and the throttle on the right hand is the speed and then there's a button on the left hand which gives you a 15-second

burst of speed, again, making it so that you have more control over your guest experience, and you can make it different each time you ride it. So, that's one of the unique, unique, interactive experiences that they have on this particular ship.

Other things that they've done is, they've put in a full ropes course that goes up over the deck. There's your standard basketball, miniature golf, water play area, but the one thing that I thought was interesting as far as immersive and interactive goes, is the pools are very small, but there's lots of them and they're at different places in the ship. So, you can do a day at the midship pool, and you have your sort of standard pool experience on a cruise ship. Then you go to the aft and then they have two different decks, two different pools, and the whole backs of them are plexi, so you can sit in the pool and look out and see the ocean or look out and see the port. Again, different experiences that you have to kind of seek out on your own. Once you find them, of course, you have that sense of, "oh, look what I found that nobody else has ever found," out of thousands of people that are on this ship. 

Even the shows, even the shows themselves had some interactive qualities. I think the best example was a show that I called I saw called M Theory, which was in essence a magic show in front of a giant video monitor, and the magician would interact with the video and produce things, look like he's plucking things out of the video content and holding him in his hand. But the thing that made it so incredibly interactive is through the course of this 40-minute show there had to be 120 volunteers from the audience. 100 of them were given, as they walked in, three or four playing cards, I can't remember how many, and they basically did a card trick in their own hands that happened the same for all 100 of them. So, they had the opportunity to actually not just watch a card trick, but actually participate in it. I thought that was really clever and a great way to, again, get guests to do things versus just watching things.

Before I forget, the other thing they did in shows a lot was, break the 4th wall. So, it wasn't just, "I'm going to watch these performers up on stage, and they're going to sing and dance, and then I'm going to feel good and I'm going to go home." Like I mentioned they did a lot of aerial work in the Grand Central shows. There was no true proscenium, no separation from the performers and the audience, and that was clearly very, very important.

So, you're probably thinking, "gosh, Scott, did you just want to talk about your vacation on this show, or is there a point to all this stuff that you're talking about?" There is a point, and there are takeaways, and yes, maybe I did just want to relive a little bit of my vacation. But here are the thoughts and takeaways that I think were demonstrated to me, and certainly inspired me to talk about them on this show. Here's the things that you can do as seasonal entertainment providers. 

First off, think about multi-use space. You've heard me talk a lot about the Grand Central, which is the main atrium that they could use for multiple things, think about that in your own haunt, your own theme park, or your own FEC, or whatever it is that you run. Think about that, are there spaces that are used so little that they're not... I can remember when, in theme park, and it's happened not only in the theme parks that I used to work in regularly, but also the ones that I work for as a consultant now, where they will have certain spaces that they have to hold, they can't do anything in them because they just might book a large party or a large function. Then what ends up happening is that go unused significantly more times than they are actually used, because they're afraid that they won't be able to do a large party if it comes up. 

So, my suggestion is, reevaluate your spaces. One of the things I love to do as a consultant is to do a site survey with my clients and say, "what do you use this for? What is this space used for? Could we transform this space to do this?" Because quite often you look at the spaces in the way that you've always used them, you don't look at what you could do, you look at what you have done. That's one of the advantages of actually bringing in somebody like me, who's an outside consultant who can look at something and go, "have you ever thought of doing it this way?" Sometimes the answer is, "yes and it failed miserably." But still, you quite often need to shake that up. So, I challenge you to look at your spaces and figure out, are there spaces that are only used less than 25% of the time, and is there something you could do to that space to change it to actually make it more of a multi-use space?

For example, if you own a haunt and you have a great big ballroom scene that is only used in December, or I'm sorry in October, could be used in December if you are creepy, like so many of you are who watch and listen. But is it only used during the Halloween season, is there a way that you could add a few changes, tweaks, modifications to that room so that that large volume then becomes a rentable banquet space? Perhaps even with the creepy theme, I mean, let's face it, people like creepy stuff all year round. So, is there a way that you could make that a workable banquet space?

Can you put, in one of the actor hallways or one of the actor back areas, can you put a small prep kitchen, so you could then use that space to generate revenue throughout the entire year?

Another thing that a lot of haunts are doing, and this is nothing new, but they're designing rooms so that they can be cordoned off and create escape rooms in them so that they can run escape rooms when they're not running the haunt themselves. 

Challenge yourself, challenge yourself and your team, to figure out how to find multi-use spaces. Because, sometimes the investment to tweak an existing space to make it more multi-functional or multi-use is significantly cheaper than building a new space or trying to find a new space. So, that's the first thing I want to suggest, look at your haunt, look at your space and figure out, "what else can we do here?"

I just recently did a design for a theme park, and before I did the design for the haunt, I wanted to walk the space, and it was cobbled together from like three or four different other spaces, and they said, "OK, we got a kind of big hole in this wall, and we're going to cut a hole here." We were actually able to use all of the existing spaces as design elements. So, you know, the space is really, really important, look at it in different ways.

If you going to build a hunt in a restaurant, then find a way to utilize the stuff that you have, and then find a way to utilize it in three other ways. Create multi-use spaces. OK, I've beaten that horse to death, let's move on.

I think what I'm seeing more and more, and what I'm really glad I'm seeing more and more, because I've kind of started designing this way anyway, is to create small, discoverable spaces as opposed to giant open spaces. Now, the challenge with small, discoverable spaces is people would think, "Oh my gosh, it's going to just really impact my guest flow," but it doesn't really. I'm not saying cut out your linear pathways, what I'm saying is, divide them up more so that you can give new levels to theming. So, that you can make it so that people feel like they are more alone, or that they have discovered.

The space on their own. I mean one of the things that we did with the Vault of Souls this past year was to create little, tiny elements within the space itself.

One of the things that is a challenge with this is, I think people have the fear that not every guest will see everything. I'm of the belief that that's OK. If you're really clever in the way that you design something, every guest will see everything, but they feel as though they had to work to do it, and therefore there's a greater sense of accomplishment.

I also think that you can reinforce this idea by creating layers of experience. So, make guests work to find the cool stuff you. You can create your whole haunt that has your walk-through theme, you’ve probably already got it done, you're ready to go. Then, what you can do is to make it even more immersive or more interactive, incorporate Easter Eggs. This is something that gamers, online, electronic gamers, have done forever to make the games more repeatable, is to have hidden little gems and hidden little things that if you do one quirky, weird thing it reveals itself. Disney has done this throughout their parks for years, they will hide Hidden Mickeys, you know the outline of Mickey's head. 

You can do this in your own haunts as well. If you've listened to the show for a while, or watched the show for a while, you know that I put rabbits in pretty much everything I can design. Sometimes they get cut, but in my designs, there's always a rabbit of some sort, sometimes it's in a different language, and sometimes it's just a picture of a rabbit, and sometimes it's the name of a store or restaurant that happens to be in the haunt or whatever, but I try to put rabbits in there.  So, those are my Easter eggs, or my hidden Mickeys.

Then you can take it even one step further like we also did with the Vault of Souls this past year, and how we're going to do it again this year, I believe is to create actual scavenger hunts. In order for guests to feel as though they've accomplished something, you have them find a series of things. They did this on the ship as well, they actually did a camera phone scavenger hunt. They had a list of 15 or 20 things that they had to find and take pictures of, and then come back and the first person back got a ship on a stick; and if you've ever been on a Carnival Cruise, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's basically a plastic trophy of a Carnival ship, plus they got bragging rights. But what it did was, it forced people to discover new and different places all around the ship, and sort of divide and conquer, even the crowds that were playing those scavenger hunts.

So those are kind of the inspirations that I got from the ship, and I wanted to kind of reinforce them with you guys so that you don't have to create something that feels generic. You can create those unique little experiences that people have to work to find, and that, just by design, makes things more immersive, more interactive, and more special for guests.

We in the haunt industry, I've said it for years, we are the gateway drug to immersive entertainment. When people realize that they can participate in an experience, as opposed to just watch it, it becomes far richer. I think we are finally getting to the point now where, at least a certain generation, is really embracing that. So, you can use technology to do it, you can make it super low tech, that's up to you, that's up to your budget, that's up to your personal preference, and really, up to the target audience that you're going after, that will really determine what it is. But the theory doesn't change, it's that guests want to do things they want to discover things, and just looking at a giant massive ship design was enough inspiration for me to do this particular show.

Speaking of shows, I do have a new show that's not haunt-related, but I do have a new show coming up at the Tampa Fringe, it's the last weekend of July, the first weekend of August, and it's another perfect example of how I'm trying to take live theater and give the guest control over it. The show is called 1-5-1 and the concept is one performer, me, will improvise 5 characters based on audience prompts, and then I'll try to weave these five characters together into one storyline. So, when guests come in, before the show even starts, there are five laundry baskets. There will be 5 laundry baskets across the front of the stage and a big box of costumes and props. The guests will place these costumes and props into these five laundry baskets and that will be the wardrobe for the five characters that I will improvise during the course of the show. The next thing I'll do is come out and talk to the audience for a while so that I can make certain that the storyline that I'm telling is directly connected with that specific audience. So, not only have they physically decided what I will be wearing and utilizing for each of the five characters, but I'll also talk to them and get their own personal input about, has anything important happened to you in the last three days? Are you here with friends or are you with family?  So that I can be able to weave and incorporate those things into the show itself.

Then if that's not enough for an improv challenge, I'm also going to have one to three wrapped boxes that will have props in, that I won't know what to them, and I'll give them to the guests, and they can at any point in time during the show, a member of the audience can come up and hand me this box and I will have to incorporate that prop into that section, into the story as well. So, it's a new way of looking at improvisation, it’s a new way of looking at theater, and it will create those moments that will only happen once. They'll only happen when that one audience is there, because all of the cogs have aligned in a certain way to create a show that will happen in that moment and then be gone.

So, that's my attempt to figure out how to take live theater and make it even more interactive and give guests more control over it. If you're interested in seeing 1-5-1 You can go to, and tickets go on sale on June 20th. Like I said, the show runs at different times on the last weekend of July and the first weekend of August. So, if you're in the Tampa Bay area or you want to come to the Tampa Bay area, and check out Tampa International Fringe, the show is called 1-5-1, and it's a solo improv show so it should be fun.

All right, so I've rambled on about a whole bunch of stuff that's really not haunt-related, but all of these ideas can be applied. So, please look past the surface, find ways to create new and different immersive and interactive experiences for your guests, and I guess the final takeaway that I want you all to listen to is, no matter where you are, no matter what you're doing, let it inspire you. Let it seep into your brain so you can go, "oh, I bet I could apply that in a haunted attraction." Not just when you see bones, not just when you see skulls, not just when you see blood, but when you see how a ship is designed, or when you see a piece of theater, or when you see a movie that may not be haunt-related at all, break it down into its components and let those inspire you, because that's what will lead us to bigger, better and more exciting haunted attractions.

So, that is this episode of A Scott in the Dark, and this is Scott Swenson, saying, until next time, rest in peace.



Scott SwensonProfile Photo

Scott Swenson

Owner/Creative Director

For over 30 years, Scott Swenson has been a storyteller, bringing stories to life as a writer, director, producer and performer. His work in theme park, consumer events, live theatre and television has given him a broad spectrum of experiences. In 2014, after 21 years with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Scott formed Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC. Since then he has been providing impactful experiences for clients around the world. Whether he is installing shows on cruise ships or creating seasonal festivals for theme parks, writing educational presentations for zoos and museums or directing successful fund raisers, Scott is always finding new ways to tell stories that engage and entertain.