Inside the World Cup's floating hotel — a luxury fan zone that never sleeps

Father and son travel from Dubai and board the unique resort

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Giant slides, whirlpools, bumper cars, non-stop entertainment and food — this is how thousands of football fans in Qatar are spending their time between the matches.

During this World Cup — the first to invite fans to sleep on a cruise ship — a Dubai father and son had an exciting time on board a fan zone that never sleeps.

Saptarshi Bandopadhyay and his son Siddharth spent five days aboard the MSC World Europa, one of three cruise liners that are accommodating 10,000 fans from around the world.

Booking a small cabin on the 22-deck floating hotel made perfect sense to the marketing manager, who was looking to keep his young son fully occupied before kick-off.

You had more time to speak to other fans about their country, football culture, favourite player, what they think went right or wrong
Saptarshi Bandopadhyay, World Cup guest on MSC World Europa

“It’s a different party altogether on the cruise liner,” Mr Bandopadhyay told The National.

“The tempo changes at night and everyone congregates on the 18th floor where there are large pools, whirlpools and a huge screen to watch games you don’t have tickets for.

“When searching for accommodation, the choice was a stand-alone hotel, the fan village or container camps.

“Since I was taking my son, the idea was to find a place we could relax and he could have fun the entire day with 1,001 activities and we could easily get to the games and back."

Docked at Doha’s Grand Terminal, the liner is a short bus ride away from the eight stadiums being used for the tournament, which are all located within a 50km radius of the city centre.

Theatres, theme shows and nightclubs

The cruise guests were a mixed lot: some were on their own, others shared rooms with friends and there were also groups of families who travelled with younger fans.

The fans spend the day soaking up the sun on the deck at one of six swimming pools, working out at the gym or checking in for a spa treatment before the games.

Returning from the stadiums in the evening, guests watch themed shows, dine at one of the 13 restaurants, or head to nightclubs or the theatre.

Flags of Denmark, Wales, Iran and Croatia were among the multitude of team colours hung outside cabins.

Mr Bandopadhyay often caught the day’s final game on the big screen on deck alongside hundreds of others.

“The atmosphere changes at night when you see the Brazilians and Argentinians come in,” said the Indian citizen, who supports both teams in that order.

“The South Americans brought in a jovial, song-and-dance energy that lifted the entire mood.”

Spiral slide a crowd favourite

Siddharth was devastated when his favourite team Argentina were defeated by Saudi Arabia in an upset that had the tournament reeling.

The nine-year-old kept busy with a never-ending stream of activities, playing football with new friends and slipping down giant water slides with virtual reality headsets that transport guests to snowy wonderlands or an African safari.

Of all the activities on board the mammoth passenger cruise ship, there is a clear favourite — climbing into the mouth of a giant snake.

The spiral 11-deck Venom slide — the longest dry slide at sea — that descends from the 20th to the eighth floor was a winner among younger guests.

“The cruise ship was crazy. It was basically a fun hotel but you were docked on the quay,” he said.

“I would stay on a cruise ship again. I made new friends from Tokyo and played football with them.

“The spiral Venom drop and the VR sets in the water slides were the most cool.”

A true football fan, the real thrill came from watching the games.

Of the four matches he attended, his top choice was Spain’s decisive victory over Costa Rica.

“I know some kids don’t like to watch the whole match because they think it’s too long,” he said.

“But it was very exciting. I was really, really upset that Argentina lost.

“I really liked how many goals Spain got. The 7-0 score was unbelievable.”

He has gathered scarves and team flags from Spain, Denmark and Tunisia to bring back to Dubai as part of the World Cup memorabilia he will always treasure.

Floating city that never sleeps

With an outdoor 90-metre promenade and an indoor walking area, MSC World Europa aims to replicate the offerings of a small city, with conference centres, video game arcades, a theatre, spas, a salon, boutiques and shops.

Prices for a cabin start at $350 per night.

Mr Bandopadhyay selected the full board package for four nights. He and his son stayed in a small room with no view, as he knew they would be mostly outdoors.

The price moves to upwards of $2,600 per night for luxury suites with living areas, a terrace with an outdoor whirlpool and expansive glass doors that open to panoramic views.

The football enthusiast will return to Qatar later in the tournament with a friend and stay in a hotel for two quarter-final games.

He has been to World Cups in Russia (2018) and Brazil (2014), where he said the atmosphere was markedly different.

“If it was Russia or Brazil, I would definitely not have taken a cruise because then you want to be in the heart of the football,” he said.

“There it was natural and free-flowing. People would be playing football in the streets. In St Petersburg, you would see two Argentina fans versus hundreds of fans from Brazil shouting songs at each other.

“That is something you cannot replicate in Qatar — the true spirit of football fans and their passion.

“But they did a decent job of getting people together in fan zones with DJs, people, singing and dancing.”

What was unusual about the cruise experience was the time spent with other fans.

“In the previous two World Cups, you got to chat to other fans but it’s a very transitory phase in a bar or restaurant,” Mr Bandopadhyay said.

“The cruise ship was a different take on the fan interaction.

“You had more time to speak to other fans about their country, football culture, favourite player, what they think went right or wrong.

“And that was the unique and interesting twist to staying on a ship.”

After the World Cup, the MSC World Europa will make the UAE its home port and sail the Arabian Gulf for the winter season.

Updated: November 28, 2022, 12:25 PM