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Looking aft aboard Sun Princess, next to the ship's upper-deck name (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Is Sun Princess the Future of Princess Cruises? 5 Hits – And 3 Misses - From the Newest Love Boat

Looking aft aboard Sun Princess, next to the ship's upper-deck name (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Senior Editor, News and Features
Aaron Saunders

Last updated
Mar 15, 2024

Read time
11 min read

I’ve been sailing with Princess Cruises for nearly 20 years, and I have a confession: When I first embarked the massive 177,882-ton Sun Princess in Barcelona, on the eve of its second voyage, I wasn’t sure I liked it.

Aside from the classic “Sea Witch” logo on the funnel and the blue and white flair on the bow, nothing about the 4,300-passenger Sun Princess reminded me of the line. To step aboard Sun Princess could have been to set foot on an entirely new cruise company. Gone were the warm walnut accents that characterized every Princess ship for the past three decades.

Ditto for the heavy use of brass and marble. Even the line’s trademark white stateroom doors and forest-green carpeting were gone.

But as the voyage wore on, I realized that’s not a bad thing. After all, Princess’ trademark “look” dates to 1984, when the revolutionary Royal Princess set sail. Princess further honed its tone in 1990 and 1991 with the launch of the then-Crown Princess and Regal Princess.

It hasn’t changed much since the former Sun Princess debuted in 1995, even while Grand Princess in 1998 ushered a new structural style of ship that would form the backbone for most Princess vessels for the next two decades.

Maybe it was time for a shakeup. Maybe it was time for a new Sun Princess – and a reimagining of what it means to sail with Princess Cruises.

The Hydrotherapy Pool at The Enclave in the Lotus Spa aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

True, there are hiccups. Many entertainment venues aren’t ready, including the much-promoted shows in the new Arena and The Dome. There are issues with the Park19 activity deck, and the Love by Britto specialty restaurant has an uncertain opening timeline. The Sanctuary, with its exposed design that offers plenty of sun but little shade, doesn’t have the same level of luxury as it did on past vessels.

Those issues will be worked out in time. The bones of the ship are complete. Food is uniformly good. Service is, as always on Princess, friendly and welcoming.

Here are five unexpected features we found we loved– and three things we weren’t fans of -- on Sun Princess.

On This Page

Hit: The Piazza Atrium Aboard Sun Princess is a Happening Place

By day, the Piazza is home to active Zumba classes, dance lessons, and other high-energy events (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

In my photo tour of Sun Princess, I had lamented the loss of the classy, subdued Piazza atrium found on previous Princess ships where violin trios would serenade passengers and fountains bubbled quietly in the corner. And while I still miss the Piazza of the past, it’s clear I’m in the minority.

I’ve watched, over the course of five days, as passengers have packed the Piazza full at all times. From Zumba and stretch classes in the morning to non-stop dancing at night that easily stretches into the wee hours, the Piazza Atrium aboard Sun Princess – much like the entire ship itself – feels more active and energetic than its predecessors. From the 20-somethings travelling with their parents to octogenarians who are young-at-heart, the new amphitheater-style of the Piazza has a broad appeal that took me completely by surprise.

Ocean views are visible from nearly every public room aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Besides the entertainment, The Piazza is the place to be during the daytime thanks to the breathtaking views provided by The Sphere – the three-storey bank of curving walls of glass that line the circumference of the port and starboard sides of the room, bathing it in natural light and showcasing the beauty of being at sea in a way that no past Princess vessel has.

After over a dozen cruises with Princess, I’m happy to see the line grow and change – and be embraced by passengers wholeheartedly. It’s still a little loud for my liking, but I’ve found myself drawn to the spaces on Decks decks 7, 8 and 9 that surround The Piazza amphitheater each evening. Chances are you will be drawn to it, too.

Hit: The New Horizons Main Dining Room Concept is Fantastic

The Americana Diner, located on Deck 8, is a more casual extension of the main dining options aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Princess ships always had multiple main dining venues that were separated spatially. Typically, two would be located amidships off the atrium, stacked one deck apart. The more formal dining room would be situated astern, where fixed early and late sittings were held.

Sun Princess eschews that design for the first time in 30 years, creating a single main dining room across three decks that offers spectacular views from nearly every table.

Overlooking the stern and interconnected by a series of dramatic staircases situated near the front of the dining room, the Horizons Dining Room spans decks 6, 7 and 8 and offers seating, for 1,931 people.

Deck 6 is home to fixed seating, with an early seating at 5 p.m. and a late seating at 7:30 p.m. Deck 7, meanwhile, is open to diners without reservations for early or late seating. Deck 8, finally, introduces a new concept for Princess: a casual “Americana Diner” option that offers up breakfast, lunch and dinner items that are served quicker for those who would rather not indulge in the more formal dining experience but would rather not eat in The Eatery buffet on Deck 9.

The gorgeous Horizons Dining Room features two storeys of glass looking over the ship's stern (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Horizons on Deck 6 is also open for breakfast daily. On port days, the restaurant serves up 30-minute American or full-English breakfasts with coffee, juices and pastries, while sea days see Horizons offer a much-expanded menu of breakfast items delivered in a more relaxed timeframe.

It’s a concept that worked well on our sailing. Fast breakfasts were delivered quickly, while sea day breakfasts represented the more traditional morning dining experience cruisers have come to expect.

All of this is designed to relieve pressure on The Eatery buffet, which holds just 742 passengers – a little over 17 percent of the ship’s total double occupancy.

Hit: Staterooms and Suites Aboard Sun Princess Are a Change For The Better

Suites aboard Sun Princess are spacious and more lavish than past Princess vessels (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Princess has had, more or less, the same basic stateroom design for most of its categories since the 1990s. There were some changes to décor and style aboard the Royal-class ships (more so with the more-recently launched Discovery Princess), but by and large, Princess hadn’t substantially tweaked its accommodations formula since the previous Sun Princess debuted in 1995.

That’s all changed aboard Sun Princess, and while standard cabins are structurally the same as those found aboard Carnival’s Excel-class ships (think Mardi Gras, Carnival Celebration, Carnival Jubilee), the décor and style has been elevated in this iteration aboard Sun Princess.

A Cabana Balcony stateroom aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Princess passengers also have more types of cabins to choose from aboard Sun Princess than on past Princess vessels, including Cabana staterooms with private deck space, cozy Cove Balcony cabins inset into the hull of the ship and more deluxe suite choices than ever.

Cabins aboard Sun Princess also have plenty of little niceties we’ve come to appreciate, like the motion-activated nightlights under each bedside table and in the bathroom that helpfully turn on when they’re needed, and off when you’re trying to sleep. New toiletries by Beekman 1802 feel upscale, and showers are a vast improvement over the ones of old.

Our favorite cabin feature? The rubberized, illuminated closet rods that prevent hangars from clanking back and forth in rough seas – and which helpfully light up when the closet doors are opened.

Hit: Spellbound Delivers on Its Unusual Promise

A "hidden" experience, Spellbound aboard Sun Princess is filled with no end of mystery and whimsy (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Cruise Critic had the chance to be the “guinea pigs” to test out Spellbound aboard Sun Princess, the magically-themed experience developed in conjunction with LA-based Magic Castle – and it lived up to the hype.

Priced at $149 per person, Spellbound will be available for booking as of March 19, 2024 and will debut on April 8 for the first guests to experience – and if our own experience was any indication, it’s an unusual event that is remains wholly unique at sea.

Spellbound aboard Sun Princess includes several distinct spaces - with hidden surprises (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Step into the Victorian-era room for some custom cocktails, presented with considerable flair. Try as many as you’d like: they’re included, after all, in the price of admission. Poke around the four rooms; they hold plenty of secrets and whimsical moments in their own right.

Then, stay for the magic performances, both in the bar and in a separate anteroom.

We don’t want to give too much away – part of the magic of Spellbound is its ability to surprise and delight – but color us impressed with this most unusual, and most enjoyable, seagoing feature.

While you do enter Spellbound through a nondescript black door just off Crooner’s Bar on Deck 8, we wish Princess would have gone full-tilt with the hidden speakeasy concept like MSC Cruises did aboard MSC World Europa, where staff guide you through a hidden entrance into an area tucked heavily inside the crew decks.

Hit: Embarkation and Disembarkation in Port is Substantially Improved

Embarking and disembarking Sun Princess is unusually simple and fast (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Maybe it’s the oversized shell doors that can let three lines of people out of the vessel at a given time, or maybe it’s the huge staging areas that keep two lines of people moving through the security checkpoints with ease, but disembarking Sun Princess during our two ports of call took no time at all.

Even during ship-sponsored shore excursions, tours left from meeting points on-time. If it says 8:30 on your ticket, you’re getting off the vessel at 8:30. It’s the easiest shore excursion experience we’ve had on a large vessel in years.

Miss: The Eatery Buffet

The Eatery buffet spans most of Deck 9, but is overcrowded and chaotic at the best of times (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Although it spans most of Deck 9 amidships all the way to the ship’s stern, The Eatery buffet is still a crowded, chaotic affair at the best of times that showcases the worst aspects of big-ship cruising. It doesn’t work as well as the buffet area aboard the line’s previous Royal-class ships, or even the Grand-class vessels that are approaching, in some cases, 30 years old.

Part of this comes down to the seating choices: there are no bar-style table for one, and tables for two are few and far between. The weather on our cruise was too cold and rainy to use the outdoor seating (something that will seriously impact this class of vessel, should Princess ever choose to send it to, say, Alaska), and that resulted in jam-packed interior spaces at The Eatery every time we went there.

The Eatery has no self-service beverage stations, so makeshift ones have been created (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Perhaps most surprisingly, The Eatery has no self-serve beverage stations –something most passengers only discover after a few laps around the area. It’s an enormous miss that we hope, will be rectified aboard sister-ship Star Princess when it debuts.

On the plus side: The culinary offerings here are substantially improved and varied compared with past Princess ships. We just wish it was easier to get to them.

O'Malley's Pub aboard Sun Princess, seen during non-operational hours (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Let’s be clear: O’Malley’s and Princess Live are two of the premier entertainment spots aboard Sun Princess, outside of The Arena show lounge. Both have great entertainment offerings each evening and serve up some pretty darn good drinks (and food, if you’re in O’Malley’s). But both venues quickly become saturated with people, and stay that way, each evening.

O’Malley’s can accommodate just 86 people – two fewer than specialty dining venues like Alfredo’s and The Catch by Rudi. Princess Live, across the corridor, holds 200 people. Both, however, are a fraction of the ship’s 4,300 double-occupancy capacity, and barely a needle in a haystack if all third and fourth berths are filled, pushing the capacity count for Sun Princess beyond 5,000 people.

Get there early: shows in Princess Live fill up fast. (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Passengers have it better sailing aboard the smaller, 20-year-old Diamond Princess: For example, 298 people could be accommodated in the Explorer’s Lounge (the past basic equivalent of Princess Live). A further 147 could be held in The Wheelhouse Bar, Princess’s past seagoing pub. Plenty on a ship with just 2,600 passengers at double-occupancy.

How competitive is seating in O’Malley’s aboard Sun Princess? On our sea day prior to arrival in Athens, we saw people camping out in the pub a full 90 minutes before the bar even opened, just to secure prime seats.

Inclement weather conditions and lack of alternative entertainment on our sailing might have contributed to this overcrowding, but both venues could have been – and should have been – much larger for a vessel of this size.

Miss: The Strange Placement of Guest Services

Lineups for Guest Services back into the midship elevator banks aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

You can do a lot of things to manage your cruise via the Princess app, which continues to improve and become more functional with each passing revision. Count us as early skeptics-turned-big fans.

But when you do need to visit Guest Services, you’ll enter a world of surprising pain thanks to the frankly bizarre location on Deck 6, in the center of the ship, squished between the Firefly Park kid’s club and the midship elevator banks.

To get to Firefly Park, you first have to squeeze past Guest Services (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

During our sailing, we haven’t seen Guest Services anything other than completely backed up into the midship elevator bank. It crowds that area and prevents passengers from accessing the adjacent staterooms easily. Passengers also have to push their way through the throngs of people to pick up or drop off their kids at Firefly Park or cut through the stateroom corridors adjacent, which also increases foot traffic in passenger areas.

On paper, the placement of Guest Services in this unusual midship space – which would otherwise be cabins or technical voids – makes sense. In practice, it’s something we hope to see change.

…But What About Entertainment Aboard Sun Princess?

Work continues on productions in The Arena aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

During our sailing, which took place over five days on the ship’s second revenue voyage, none of the new entertainment production shows were ready. The Dome, the ship’s much-advertised feature, remained closed for most of the voyage as rehearsals and technical setup took place.

Entertainment aboard Sun Princess is neither a hit nor a miss. Until we actually lay eyes on it, it is one area of the ship we just aren’t able to assess. Expect a further sailing from Cruise Critic staffers to check it out firsthand.

Passengers expecting to sail aboard Sun Princess in the coming weeks should take a flexible approach to the entertainment onboard, which still includes musicians and performers like comedians. There’s certainly no lack of entertainment to enjoy, but the new production shows will have to wait a little while longer.

Sun Princess: The Next Evolution for Princess Cruises

Good Spirits at Sea now has its own unique home aboard Sun Princess (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Sun Princess is the most dramatic change and shift in the Princess Cruises product in decades. It will not appeal to everyone. Its big, bold and brash vibe often had us drawing comparisons to the go-go activity of sister brand Carnival, particularly when it came to trying to find a quiet space onboard.

But there are enough wins aboard Sun Princess that even loyal Captain’s Circle past passengers are likely to find something aboard the line’s largest-ever ship that speaks to them. Maybe it’s the new Spellbound magic experience, or the culinary offerings that feel substantially elevated compared to other vessels.

Stairwell aboard Sun Princess are spacious and crisply decorated (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

True, there are stumbling blocks: some aspects of the ship feel over-engineered, and Princess is still trying to nail down its promised entertainment options and continues to tinker with onboard programming.

There’s no denying, however, that this is the ship that will move Princess Cruises into the future. The cut with the past has been dramatic and, one would assume, potentially problematic. But it’s done.

We found Sun Princess grew on us the longer we were onboard. Its sweeping vistas are like nothing else at sea, and it offers the best implementation of Princess Cruises’ “Medallion Class” technology in the fleet.

Make no mistake: it’s very different from anything that’s come before it. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Publish date March 14, 2024
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