Today's mega cruise ships are engineering marvels. Onboard these floating cities, you can find anything from go-kart tracks to roller coasters, sky diving simulators, water parks, ropes courses, and more.
On average, building a cruise ship takes two to three years, from the time the keel is laid to when the ship is launched. This does not include the time it took to design the ship.
So, how exactly are cruise ships built?
Read more: New cruise ships on order
You can almost think of it as piecing together LEGOS
(Silver Ray under construction at Meyer Werft)
Rather than construct the ship on the hull, segments of the ship's superstructure are built elsewhere and then placed on top of the hull.
The hull must be watertight before this is possible, though, which is why the entirety of the hull is constructed on land, rather than in a dock.
Before any of the actual construction can begin, the cruise line has to place an order for the ship
When a cruise line places an order for a brand-new cruise ship, it can be done years before the steel is even cut.
In February 2016, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line ordered four new ships from Fincantieri. While none had names at the time, they were set to be delivered between the years 2022 and 2025, with the last launching almost a full decade after the order was placed.
Few details were revealed about this class of ship when announced. In fact, the ships were ordered under the code name Project Leonardo.
The keel of the first ship, Norwegian Prima, wasn't laid down until December 2019, and she did not set sail until August 2022.
(Steel-cutting ceremony for Celebrity Ascent in France on November 17, 2021)
The cruise line will have a ceremony when the first piece of steel is cut for the ship, followed by another ceremony when the keel is laid, as that's the first formal step of a cruise ship's construction; the first piece of steel can be cut years before the actual manufacturing process begins.
The steel for the second Icon Class ship for Royal Caribbean, for instance, was cut in February 2023. She isn't expected to enter service until later in 2025, and her keel-laying ceremony has yet to be announced as of November 2023.
(Keel-laying ceremony for Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas in April 2022)
A ship's keel is the structural beam that runs in the middle of the ship from bow to stern. When the keel is laid, it marks the official beginning of the ship's construction.
Typically, coins are placed beneath the keel as a symbol of good fortune to be collected when the ship is floated out.
Fun fact: When Icon of the Seas was floated out, the coins were nowhere to be discovered! They were found by divers cleaning the ship's hull in preparation for the second round of sea trials, revealing that the coins were never actually lost. Instead, they had been stuck to the bottom of the ship.
(Disney Wish's float out in February 2022)
When the ship is floated out, it has the recognizable shape of a cruise ship; however, the interior is typically bare other than some structural things, such as staircases. This is also the phase in which the ship enters water for the first time.
Usually, this means that the ship's exterior hull is completed. The cruise ship will then sail to another dock to finish interior construction, freeing up the dry dock for another ship to begin construction.
Before the dry dock is flooded, however, the godmother of the ship will smash a bottle of champagne on the bow. Note that this is not the godmother who will christen the ship.
(Carnival Celebration returning from sea trials in September 2022, from John Herald's Facebook page)
When a ship begins sea trials, she may not be fully complete yet; however, she's ready to undergo various tests that cannot be completed while she's docked. They also allow the crew the understand how the ship runs before inviting guests onboard.
Sea trials range in duration. Some ships will only have to undergo a single round, while others will require two separate trials.
Icon of the Seas' first round, for instance, took place in June 2023 and only lasted four days. The ship traveled hundreds of miles and had her main engines, hull, brake systems, steering, noise, and vibration levels tested by 450 specialists who helped run the tests.
She departed for her second round in late October 2023 and spent ten days at sea.
When the sea trials are complete, the ship returns to the shipyard for the final parts of the build to be completed.
(MSC Seascape's handover event at the Monfalcone shipyard on November 21, 2022, from Fincantieri Marine Group's Facebook page)
At this point, the exterior of the ship may look finished; however, there is still more work to be done. Important supplies will not be on the ship, and it is usually the first time that the majority of the crew will be welcomed onboard.
The handover ceremony, however, does mark an important milestone, as this is when the shipyard officially hands ownership of the vessel to the cruise line.
You might think the first official sailing is the ship's maiden voyage. Before that, however, there needs to be a shakedown voyage, so crew members have the opportunity to undergo various different trainings and get acclimated to the ship.
Additionally, media personnel are sometimes invited onboard, including travel agents and journalists, to get a first look at the vessel. Workers from the shipyard might be onboard, too, helping to finish any final touches.
The inaugural voyage is sometimes preceded by a pre-maiden voyage if the ship is completed sooner than expected. Celebrity Cruises, for instance, announced two preview voyages ahead of the maiden sailing for Celebrity Ascent. Both sailings were made available to the public; however, they aren't considered the actual maiden voyage, as there's a media cruise in between.
The inaugural sailing is sometimes combined with the shakedown voyage. There are some instances in which the ship won't even leave the port! It is simply a time for media and other invite-only passengers to get a glimpse of the ship before she officially launches.
(Photo from Quantum of the Seas' christening ceremony with Kristin Chenoweth on November 14, 2014 in Bayonne, New Jersey)
Yes, another ceremony! The christening ceremony is most likely the most famous. It is the last milestone before the ship begins her life with paying passengers onboard.
It's not uncommon for representatives from the cruise industry, line, shipyard, and media to be present.
This ceremony is the one where the famous godmother or godfather formally christens the ship. While the person themselves might not be "famous," they are usually well-known in some capacity. Katy Perry is the godmother of Norwegian Prima; Mariah Carey is the godmother of Disney Dream; and Captain Sandy Yawn and Michelle Dunham are co-godmothers of Celebrity Ascent, just to name a few.
The maiden voyage is when, in theory, everything's ready to go. While there might be some flukes, passengers are able to board a ship and enjoy their paid vacation on a brand-new vessel. Sometimes, the itinerary is quite special, too. It may not be a standard 7-night cruise. Rather, it may traverse the ocean while repositioning to her homeport.
While there may be some flukes as crew members get used to their new positions, it should be pretty close to perfect. Most performers in original products have been rehearsing for months, beginning somewhere off-site before the ship is even finished!
Where are cruise ships built?
(Icon of the Seas under construction at Meyer Turku)
There are four shipyards that are able to build today's massive cruise ships: Meyer Werft, Meyer Turku, Chantiers de l’Antique, and Fincantieri. That doesn't mean the entirety of the ship is constructed at the shipyard, though. Some parts, like cabins, are often built off-site and transported to the shipyard when they are complete.
Meyer Werft is located in Papenburg, Germany and was responsible for building Disney Wish, Odyssey of the Seas, Norwegian Encore, and Celebrity Silhouette.
Meyer Turku in Finland was bought by Meyer Werft in 2014. Since then, they have built some of the world's largest cruise ships, including Icon of the Seas and Costa Smeralda. The first Carnival Excel Class ship, Mardi Gras, was built here, too.
(Celebrity Ascent departing Saint-Nazaire to begin sea trials in September 2023)
Chantiers de l’Antique is a shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, which is located on the west coast of France. They built 16 cruise ships between 2010 and 2022, with some of the most notable being Norwegian's only Epic Class ship, Wonder of the Seas, Celebrity Beyond, and MSC World Europa.
Finally, Fincantieri in Trieste, Italy is responsible for ships like Disney Magic, Disney Cruise Line's first-ever ship; Costa Concordia, which capsized off the coast of Italy in 2012; Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady; and Norwegian's first and second Prima Class ships, Norwegian Prima and Viva.
How much does it cost to build a cruise ship?
(Icon of the Seas under construction at Fincantieri)
Building a cruise ship is a sizable investment, with just about every cruise ship with a capacity of 3,000 passengers costing over $750 million to build.
Even some of the oldest ships at sea cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. All ships within Carnival's Fantasy Class, for instance, were constructed in the 1990s, and each amounted to around $300 million.
It should not be surprising to