All Aboard - Accessible design on cruise ships - Cruise Ship Hospitality

All Aboard – Accessible design on cruise ships

P&O Aurora
P&O Aurora in Sydney – Aurora has many accessibility features onboard

Accommodating a wide range of needs is a crucial part of good design – and this is no different onboard cruise ships. The cruise world has always prided itself on an accessible industry – with the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) working closely with the International Maritime Organization to develop international standards to aid accommodation of persons with disabilities.

As well as this, cruise holidays are very popular for adults with disabilities – according to the Open Doors Organization, around 12% of adults with disabilities have taken a cruise in the past 5 years. When compared with the general US population, who are cruising at a rate of 10% [CLIA], you can see that those with disabilities are just as likely to choose a cruise holiday.

It’s interesting to note that a large proportion of the growing 65+ population may not identify as having a disability – however, the US Census Bureau tells us that 50% of those 65 and over have a disability, with 37% having a severe disability. With a large chunk of the cruise market aimed at older generations, designers will need to bear the mobility of their target market in mind.

That being said, some cruise lines are more accommodating than others, and all ships are different! In particular, modern cruise ships are generally more accessible than older ships, with rooms in older ships often having to be refitted to meet accessibility standards. Below we take a look at some of the ways in which architects ensure that their cruise ship designs are accessible to all.


When designing for accessibility, architects need to consider multiple factors in their designs. Starting off with bedrooms, but applying to the entire ship, door thresholds need to be low or non-existent. For those with mobility disabilities thresholds can impede access to staterooms. These doorways also need to be wide enough for wheelchair users. Doorways onboard Royal Caribbean’s ships are always at least 32 inches – the average width of a wheelchair can be anywhere from 21-30 inches and above, making the doorways on these ships a suitable width. All rooms on Saga Cruises’ new ship Spirit of Discovery are wheelchair accessible.

Once inside, the room needs to be large enough, with enough floor space, to be manoeuvrable for a wheelchair user. All of the rooms on most of Royal Caribbean’s ships feature a 5-foot turning radius in their staterooms, including bathrooms and sitting areas, enough for any wheelchair user. In case of emergency, Saga cruises include visual alarms in their staterooms for deaf or hard-of-hearing travellers.

As the comfort of knowing the location of your ‘home’ aboard the ship can’t be underestimated, cruise lines also need to create accessible wayfinding. On all of P&O’s cruise ships the cabin numbers are written in Braille, as are the lift buttons. On most modern ships, access to rooms will include automatic doors to ease access – this includes doors into staterooms, as well as doors into bathrooms and onto balconies.


Access to bathrooms is crucial – as much so on the water as it is on land. As such, designers need to bear in mind a number of different aspects. For users of wheelchairs, roll-in showers are a must, as well as the inclusion of a pull-down shower seat. All the adapted cabins on older P&O cruise ships, including Ventura and Aurora, feature pull-down shower seats, as well as grab rails for the showers and toilets. Similarly to bedrooms, bathrooms need to have no thresholds, and be wide enough for a wheelchair user. Once inside bathrooms, several alterations make things easier to use – Royal Caribbean ships include lowered sinks for wheelchair users and those of shorter stature.

Outside of staterooms, bathrooms still need to be easily accessible – you don’t want to have to go back to your room every time! This means that bathrooms around the ship need to follow a similar design to those in staterooms – i.e. low/no thresholds, wider doorways, and grab bars.

Saga Spirit of Discovery
Saga Spirit of Discovery – all rooms onboard are wheelchair accessible


Entertainment is a key part of the cruise experience – and cruise lines put on a huge variety of shows and events that need to be accessible to all. To ensure they are, a few key areas need to be considered. In theatres, assistive listening systems and wheelchair-specific seating areas ensure shows are accessible – such as on P&O cruises. In public spaces, gradual inclines into seating and dining areas are a must – as well as a shallow end in pools, with a lift or chair hoist such as on P&O’s Brittania.

In the casinos on Royal Caribbean ships, lowered playing tables and slot machines are available for wheelchair users. On Saga cruises, braille or large print menus and other reading materials are useful alternatives – Saga also provide braille playing cards!


For those with vision impairment disabilities, navigation around the ship can cause problems. To combat this, designers will consider certain elements of the ship. Most ships, especially those built more recently, feature Braille signs on cabins, lift buttons, and stairway rails – aiding wayfinding for all cruisers. Some cruise lines also provide orientation tours before or near the beginning of the cruise to aid with navigation.

Moving forward…

As more and more cruise ships are built, advancements in the accessibility of these ships will continue to improve. As light continues to be shone on the difficulties of travelling with disabilities, more effort can be made to accommodate the needs of all travellers – from accessing the ships themselves to embarking on tours on dry land.

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