It took five years for friends to persuade Chuck and Debbie Knight to join them on a cruise.
The adventurous St. Pete Beach couple wasn't interested in the structured, regimented atmosphere they had heard about. Dinner at 6 or 8, followed by a show. Lot of crowds. No escape.
And dressing up on vacation? Forget it.
"You dress up at work," said Chuck Knight, 44, an architect. "When you're on vacation you want to get away from everything that's like work."
But they finally relented, shipping out on a nine-night cruise on the Norwegian Pearl in February 2007. The ship offered two main dining rooms, 10 other restaurants, 10 bars and a bowling alley with four lanes. Like most of Norwegian's ships, it was designed for the line's "Freestyle" concept that relies on anytime dining, alternative specialty restaurants and a casual atmosphere.
And that made all the difference.
"You get to do what you want to do, when you want," Debbie Knight, 39, said. "I thought it was going to be a cattle call. It wasn't what we expected at all."
Freestyle, which was designed to attract people not interested in the traditional cruise experience, worked for the Knights, but cruise director Paul Baya admits it isn't for everyone. Baya, who has been with NCL for more than 13 years, remembers when the concept began in 2000. There were some bumps along the way, especially at the start.
For traditionalists who like to dress up for dinner, eat at the same time, with the same people and the same servers, it was a shock.
The setup varies from ship to ship. But on each vessel the main dining rooms offer open seating. There is always a buffet and a place or two to get light snacks. Freestyle adds a variety of alternative restaurants, with specialties that include steak, French, Asian, sushi and teppanyaki. These restaurants have a cover charge, ranging from $10 to $25 per person. Reservations are suggested but not always needed.
Some cruisers balk at the extra fees, but right now, NCL is offering on-board ship credits to lure passengers during the economic downturn. These credits can often be used in the dining rooms.
Freestyle dining touts resort casual dress at dinner, but it doesn't eliminate formal nights. NCL calls it optional dress-up night, when the ship's photographers will take formal portraits of any and all guests.
Mary Dziak, 58, of New Mexico, has taken eight cruises, six with NCL. She likes the crowd that the new concept attracts. "It's more vibrant, more upbeat, more fun."
Freestyle negates one problem often encountered on a traditional cruise — you won't be stuck eating each night with people you can't stand.
"We get to choose our dining partners instead of them choosing our partners," she said.
As the approach has attracted fans, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and Holland America have started offering some form of open dining on at least some of their ships.
The Knights' third cruise was with Princess. The ship had one dining room using the traditional approach and one for anytime diners. There were also two specialty restaurants.
Though Debbie Knight said they had a great cruise, she still favors NCL's concept.
"You were really more free.''
Kyle Kreiger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8565.