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Vintage photos show how drastically cruise ships have changed during the last century

09 Dec 2023
Matt Hochberg

Cruise ship travel has changed significantly over the last century. 

Dining room

Main Dining Room. Royal Caribbean

From the ocean liners that preceded it, to the dawn of the cruise ship, and then onto the mega ship, leisure travel by sea has come a long way.

The cruise industry has made rapid improvements and innovated through each era, with a boom of activity beginning in the 1990s as ships transformed into floating cities.

Here's a look at what cruise ship travel looked like over the decades.

B&N Steamers

Pre-1914 B&N steamers. Norwegian Maritime Museum

By the end of the 19th century, Norway's scenic wonders attracted hundreds of tourists. British and German vessels began calling on the Norwegian coast during the summer.

B&N Line (Bergen Line and Nordenfjeldski Steamship Company) welcomed tourists to Norway and the Mediterranean. They called their vessels, "tourist yachts".

oslofjord ship

Oslofjord, Norwegian America Line's short-lived flagship in 1939 in HavanaBard Kolltveit & John Maxtone-Graham

Ocean liners were the precursor to modern day cruise ships, but they were quite different in their design and approach to sailing.

Ocean liners were built to offer comfortable accommodations across oceans at the highest speed possible. They weren't leisure craft, as they were more suited for getting their passengers across vast distances as fast as possible.

Commodore Cruise Lines Boheme

Commodore Cruise Line Boheme ship in Miami in 1982. Bard Kolltveit & John Maxtone-Graham

The first cruise lines emerged in the 1960s, with Commodore Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line founded in 1966.

Cruise lines in these days primarily relied on ferries or old ocean liners. Commodore took over building a half-complete ferry under construction that had been cancelled.

Commodore Cruise Line became the first company to operate week-long cruises out of Florida year-round.

Arne Wilhelmsen and family. Arne Wilhelmsen

Royal Caribbean was founded in 1968, with Song of Norway as her first ship. She was one of the first large ships to be built specifically for Caribbean cruising instead of a converted ferry or ocean liner.

The Song of Norway originally weighed 18,000 gross tons and had a capacity for only 724 passengers. 

Couple on Song of Norway

Song of Norway's embarkation lobby in 1970Bard Kolltveit & John Maxtone-Graham

Cruising in the 1970s was quite different from cruising today. Song of Norway had its own radio station, guests received a passenger list of everyone onboard, there was a midnight buffet, and skeet shooting was available on sea days.

70s Cruise

Main Dining Room. Royal Caribbean

Cruise ships had evolved to offer more creature comforts than ocean liners ever did. Ships in the '70s were small, and the industry was starting to grow.

Meeting the Captain

Meeting the CaptainRoyal Caribbean

On a cruise ship in the 1970s, you could dance..

Skeet shooting

Man shooting skeetRoyal Caribbean

... shoot skeet off the back of the ship...

70s activities

Marketing photos in brochure. Royal Caribbean

... and  many other activities.

People on a cruise in 1980s

Viking Crown Lounge. Royal Caribbean

In the 1980s, the cruise industry had to deal with the growing pains of a recession and strong competition from many lines.

Nordic Prince aft aerial

Nordic PrinceRoyal Caribbean

Cuise ships in the 1980s were smaller than today. As an example, Nordic Prince was 18,346 GT and 552 feet long, whereas Icon of the Seas is 250,800 GT and 1,198 feet long.

People on a cruise in 1980s

Party crowdRoyal Caribbean

Just like the decade was known for, a cruise in the 1980s was about a way to celebrate and relax.

Beach excursion in the 1980s

Once your ship made it to port, it was time for a shore excursion. There were 7-night cruises from Miami that went to Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico.

Workout class on 1980s cruise

Workout classRoyal Caribbean

The core cruise experience is largely the same then as it is today. The primary difference is what's offered onboard ships now, as well as the immense size difference.

Boat safety drill

The mandatory boat drill is completed. Royal Caribbean

Sovereign of the Seas in Miami passing Song of AmericaRoyal Caribbean

The cruise industry evolved once again in the late 1980s into the 1990s with the introduction of the mega ship.

Windjammer on Sovereign of the Seas

Windjammer on Sovereign of the Seas. Royal Caribbean

Sovereign of the Seas, the world's largest purpose-built cruise ship at the time, was designed as a way to offer certain onboard amenities that Royal Caribbean executives dreamed up.

The launch of Sovereign of the Seas in 1988 introduced the era of the mega ship, and vessels became larger and larger. 


Royal Caribbean promotional video

While the ships got bigger, the core experience remained the same, as guests were told they would be "wined and dined virtually around the clock," with the Main Dining Room featuring a different international flavor each night. 

Legend of the Seas Centrum

Centrum on Legend of the SeasRoyal Caribbean

In the 1990s, ships got bigger and they could experience more than ever thought possible on cruise ships. Rock climbing walls, mini-golf courses, and the first specialty restaurants were added.

Voyager of the Seas pool deck 2002

Pool on ship top deck. m. van hintum

Voyager of the Seas ushered in a new era of cruising with another leap in ship size.

The addition of an indoor promenade was revolutionary with the Voyager Class. There were onboard activities that was previously not available on a cruise ship.  

More importantly, it introduced the concept of guests being able to do physically activities onboard that were never considered previously.

Teens on Oasis of the Seas in 2009

Oasis of the Seas Youth Zone. Royal Caribbean

In the 2000s, cruising had reached new heights of popularity and Royal Caribbean capitalized on that with the biggest ships yet.

Oasis of the Seas became the world's largest cruise ship by a factor previously unseen.

Oasis was more than 40 percent larger than the previous largest ships in the world (Freedom Class), coming in at 225,282-tons and accommodating 5,400 passengers.

Icon of the Seas leaving Turku

Icon of the Seas leaving shipyard in TurkuRoyal Caribbean

Cruise ships have continued their trend to grow and add more for passengers to do.

Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas will set the new bar for biggest cruise ship in the world with 20 decks and a length of 1,198 feet.

Matt started Royal Caribbean Blog in 2010 as a place to share his passion for all things Royal Caribbean with readers. He oversees all the writers at Royal Caribbean Blog, and writes a great deal of content on a daily basis.  He has become one of the foremost expert on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Over the years, he has reached Pinnacle Club status with Royal Caribbean's customer loyalty program.

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