Just thinking about a Caribbean cruise evokes thoughts of romantic interludes on starry nights, sunbathing in deck chairs, and visits to paradise island. But the latest-model cruise ships have rewritten the rules, putting so much emphasis on entertainment that it's hard to get outside, much less have a shipboard romance. A case in point is the ms Zuiderdam, the first ship in Holland America Lines' (HAL) new Vista class. This ship set sail last December loaded for bear, in terms of entertainment technology.

With 1,848 passengers to amuse daily, the Zuiderdam has several multipurpose entertainment venues, designed for everything from musicals to video bingo. “Cruise ship guests have come to expect a very high level of production value,” says Ken Albano, entertainment manager for Holland American Lines. “With each new ship, new technologies are introduced and each major line is competing to offer the best shows. During the industry's growth in the last several years, new ship designs have allocated more and more space to entertainment. Fly lofts, once a rarity, are now relatively common.”

Inside the Vista Lounge
The main 760-seat showroom on the Zuiderdam, the Vista Lounge looks more like a Vegas showroom than a traditional theatre in that there are some loose upholstered armchairs in the front center seating area and small cocktail tables for drink service. The color scheme combines red chairs and rows of banquettes with a blue Austrian festoon-style show curtain.

This theatre spans four decks from the orchestra pit to the grid that sits 33' above the stage floor. The pit extends down a full deck with an adjacent storage area for a motorized rolling band cart. The stage has a computer-controlled rigging system by Mechatronics in Finland, with 45 axes of motion and 16 line sets.

But the most exciting thing about this room is what is going on behind the proscenium arch, not in front. There are a total of 108 Vari*Lite® Series 2000 automated luminaires, with 52 VL2000 spots and 56 VL2000 wash units. For Albano, the automated fixtures mean flexibility. “With a different show every night, we need to be prepared for all possibilities. We get that with the Vari*Lite 2000 gear,” he says. “We generally design, program, and run a show all in one day.”

“Holland America ships have used Vari*Lite fixtures before, but this is the first big upgrade to the Series 2000 fixtures,” says Jeff Morrison, a Vari-Lite spokesperson. “Because space is at a premium on the ship, the size and weight of the units made a perfect fit.” George Masek of Vari-Lite served as project manager and was onboard for the installation. Ninety-six of the Vari*Lite fixtures hang in front of the show curtain on a truss that flies in for easy access and maintenance; six can be used in floor positions and six are built into scenic units.

Additional lighting equipment includes ETC Sensor dimmers, ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, most with Wybron Coloram scrollers, Wildfire UV fixtures, and Lycian Superstar 1200 HMI followspots. Control is via Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II and ETC Expression consoles. Ethernet-based DMX modules and a DMX splitter are by Pathway Connectivity.

Show control is via an AMX control system to integrate the audio, lighting, and special effects through an operator-friendly touch screen interface and a Dataton system with SMPTE distribution. Video components include two 12,000-lumen DLP projectors by Digital Projection Inc. and two 4,000-lumen LCD projectors by Barco, allowing for video effects in productions, or movie projections on a large screen that covers the width of the stage.

Mylar confetti in a mix of gold, red, magenta, orange, and silver comes from floor-mounted cannons around the perimeter of the stage in Under the Sun, while in Under the Boardwalk streamers fly from cannons mounted on the balcony rail. The confetti and streamers are from Artistry in Motion in Van Nuys, CA. There are also indoor Pyropak effects from the Alabama-based Luna Tech. “The pyro is kept in a climate-contolled locker with a double-locked steel cabinet,” notes Albano.

The primary entertainment technology consultant for the ship was Nautilus Entertainment Design in La Jolla, CA. One of its major contributions was the fully digital audio system in the Vista Lounge. The centerpiece of this system is a Yamaha PM1D mixing system set up as a 96-channel console with fully redundant DSP engines (mix engine A and mix engine B). The front-of-house mixing position has a Yamaha CS1D control surface.

The system also includes a Peavey Media Matrix 980NT frame to handle reinforcement audio processing, with eight Media Matrix MM8802 outputs to amplifiers or self-powered loudspeakers. The Media Matrix can double as a second controller to the Yamaha mixing system if need be.

A Level Control Systems Matrix3 handles the 16-position surround sound. The loudspeaker system uses a wide variety of boxes by Meyer Sound including CQ-1, CQ-2, UPA-1P, UPM-1P, and PSW-2 units as well as SB150 and SB150P subwoofers. Additional speakers are by EAW, JBL, and Macpherson, with QSC stereo amplifiers. Microphones are by Countryman (small Isomax E6 earset mics with wireless transmitters), Sennheiser, Shure, ElectroVoice, DPA, and Neuman, with Tascam recording and playback units including a studio digital tape recorder, DAT recorder, cassette deck, CD player, and mini-disc player. The four-channel intercom system is by Clear-Com.

“The audio system has full digital processing from the time the raw audio signal enters the PM1D mixing system to the time the processed audio signal is sent out of the Media Matrix to the amplifier,” explains Alan W. Edwards, sound designer and audio consultant for Nautilus Entertainment Design. “There are many advantages of using such a system in this environment. These cruise ships typically handle two to three Broadway and Las Vegas revue shows a week, along with cabaret acts on other nights and events throughout the day. It is truly a multifunction environment. The functions of the PM1D allow the technician to recall all settings of an event without having to spend time repatching and setting up the console for each event.”

The user-friendly system also allows for easy training of new technicians, as the shipboard crew changes frequently. “The PM1D mixing system is no more confusing than putting a PM4000 and a patch bay in front of an audio technician,” notes Edwards. The redundant nature of the system is important out at sea where it is not easy to quickly find a repairman or replacement parts.

The schedule of shows in the Vista Lounge includes the opening night performance, Under the Sun, plus two full-length shows, Under the Boardwalk and Stage and Screen, that features costumes by Bob Mackie. The lighting designer for all three productions is Los Angeles-based Charles “Jocko” Rush, with scenery designed by London-based scenic designer Hugh Durrant. The scenery was constructed in Brooklyn, NY, at Showman Fabricators.

“We use the basic designs as a boilerplate,” explains Warren Katz, account executive at Showman Fabricators, who works closely with the Holland America team to modify the designs to meet the practical demands of a shipboard installation. The sets were shipped to Fincantieri shipyards in Italy, where the Zuiderdam was built, by sea container. “Once the sets got to the ship we had to load them in through the balcony,” notes Katz, who took an entire crew to Italy to work on installing the sets. “The ship is not set up to take big pieces into the theatre, so you have to be very creative.”

One of the bigger set pieces is a large iris used in Under the Sun. Based on a camera iris, this one is made of 1/4" sanded aluminum with banana-shaped leaves attached to a motorized ring that turns in a circular motion to move the leaves. The aluminum leaves were left unpainted, as the movement would have scraped off the paint, but they are framed by brass and gilded laminates. The gold, red, and orange color of the leaves during the show comes from the Vari*Lite automated luminaires built into the iris, and used in conjunction with Rosco haze machines.

Under the Boardwalk called for a Ferris wheel that was made of aluminum with two 5hp motors that allow three axes of movement. “The wheel flies in like a regular Ferris wheel, yet the cars rotate separately due to the tight size constraints,” Katz says, pointing out that the wheel is not a full round, but just about one-third of a wheel. The top is tucked up into the grid to hide the sleight of hand. To add to the sensation of motion, small candelabra-based globe lights radiate out from the central hub of the wheel, stretch around the edge of the wheel, and run in a chase pattern. The lead singer is loaded into one of the cars from the grid and flies in with the wheel.

Another interesting set piece for Under the Boardwalk is a carousel horse remote-controlled by the stage manager via an offstage joystick. The horse is a fiberglass replica of a period carousel figure and was purchased unpainted from a carousel company. The pole was attached to a base with a tank drive system with motorized wheels that can move front, back, right, or left, and spin around on a central axis point. The same lead singer rides the horse.

“It is a shockingly beautiful set piece,” says Katz. The fiberglass form of the horse was reinforced with aluminum for the rigors of shipboard life and the corrosive salt-air environment at sea. The horse was painted a bright pattern of gold, red, green, and white, using auto body paint to resist scratching, as well as clear nonflammable intumescent paint as an overcoat. “We use aluminum instead of steel due to the sea environment, and not too much wood due to fire codes. We even use stainless steel screws,” Katz points out. Fire-rated foams and self-extinguishing paints are also used.

Showman Fabricators also collaborated with Scharff Weisberg of New York City on a custom-designed “photo booth” used in Under the Boardwalk. A cast member steps inside the booth with a member of the audience, using a custom interface with a Sony DFW-X700 digital video camera along with imaging software in a computer to display the photo on large Panasonic projection screens flanking the stage. “Scharff Weisberg came to us to work out the details for the photo booth,” notes Katz. Built with an aluminum frame with a wood covering, the booth was built with special pockets to hold the video equipment, computer, and a strobe light used as the flash.

Another custom-built element provided by Scharff Weisberg is a media arch that drops down from above the proscenium arch and spans the 35' width of the Vista Lounge stage with seven 50" Pioneer PDP-503 CMX plasma displays attached to truss. Each display has its own Adtec Mirage MPEG-2 player to provide special effects that complement the show design. Originally designed as a stand-alone system, the media arch was retooled to be seamlessly integrated into the existing AMX/Dataton control system, using a Crestron PR02 as the interface. Images were converted from Beta SP to high-quality MPEG-2 files for the plasma displays.

“In preparing to do the installation, you have to think of everything. There's no Radio Shack around the corner to get spare parts,” says David Gargenti, project manager for Sharff Weisberg. “Also, as you are working on a moving ship, you have to attach everything. We worked all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.”

Queen for a Day
The secondary performance space aboard the Zuiderdam is the Queen's Lounge, a space just one deck in height and used for everything from live performances to bingo, movies, and the house band, the HAL Cats. In this case, the movie screen is permanently installed and perforated to allow sound to come through from behind. The sets for performances or bingo games are placed in front of the screen.

Adding to the movie-going experience is a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound system used in conjunction with self-powered Meyer Sound loudspeakers (MSL2 units and 650-P subwoofers). The console in this room is a Yamaha DM2000, a multipurpose digital mixing board. “The Queen's Lounge sound booth can be used as a sound editing suite for the main showroom if they need to record singers or do any production work,” says Edwards.

“What's interesting,” he continues, “is the MP3 playback system that allows the DJs in every space to run MP3 computers via a custom DJ interface.” All the mixing is done via the MP3 player in each space, via an external control that looks like a DJ console. The system involved is a PC-DJ Red Version run from a central computer in the control booth of the Queen's Lounge, where a master mix from a song list is compiled daily and sent out to the individual DJs. With up to 20,000 songs in the play list, there is no need for DAT machines, tape decks, CD players, or turntables in the Crow's Nest and Northern Lights, the two nightclubs on the ship.

The lighting system in the Queen's Lounge includes an ETC Insight 3 console and ETC Sensor dimmers, with Pathway Connectivity DMX Repeater and DMX management, and various Andolite cables and connectors. Fixtures include ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, Thomas PAR-38s, Wybron color scrollers, Altman MR-16 striplights, a Lycian 1200 HMI Superstar followspot, and 16 Clay Paky automated Stage Light and Stage Color 300 luminaires.

Disco Mania
Northern Lights is a club with quite contemporary decor, with black-and-white bovine patterns on the banquettes that run around the dance floor. Also encasing the dance floor is a shell of unique color-changing walls. “The architect came up with the concept for the color-changing,” says Michael Lindauer, one of the project managers for Nautilus Entertainment Design. “We did the technical research to decide on the system to use.”

The decision was made to go with LEDs by Lagotronics, a Dutch company. There are 2,100 points of light in the walls, set on 4" centers. “Each point has three LEDs, red, green, and blue, for infinite color-mixing,” says Lindauer, noting that the LEDs “dance” to complicated preprogrammed effects via a custom Lagotronics computer control system.

The nightclub lighting rig includes 24 Martin Professional MiniMAC fixtures run by an Entertainment Technology Horizon Playback unit. These automated fixtures run along a ceiling cove to add to the elegance of the club design. “There is a uniform look to the lighting,” says Lindauer. “The Martin fixtures add color, texture, and movement to the lighting while three Clay Paky Atlas disco scanners add beams of white light from the corners of the dance floor.” These cut through the atmosphere created by Le Maitre diffusion haze machines.

The audio system in Northern Lights includes a Rane modular disco audio mixer with 12 input modules, a Denon CD player, a Pioneer CDJ-500G CD player, 20 JBL ceiling loudspeakers, seven Mackie HR824 loudspeakers, EAW SB120P subwoofers, QSC CX702, CX602V, and CX302V stereo amplifiers, a Shure wireless microphone system, and a Crown digital audio processor.

The ship's technical team is run by production manager Scott “Scooter” Pulman, who has been with HAL for two years, with Nate Bloom as head lighting tech, Justin Rathbun as head audio tech, and Jarrid Sumner as head rigging tech, plus an additional crew of five: stage manager, assistant stage manager, and three technicians. “This ship has just about anything we'd ever need,” says Pulman, who uses the control booth in the Queen's Lounge as his production office. “We're very well taken care of.”

This technology is just the tip of the iceberg of all that's happening shipwide on the Zuiderdam, and what's planned for the ms Oosterdam, the second ship in the Vista class series, set to sail in August. But it's great to leave the technology behind for a few minutes and take a swim (beware, there are even loudspeakers in the pool) or step out onto the deck as the ship sails from one island to another and enjoy the balmy Caribbean evening air. After all, it is a cruise.