TRAVEL: There’s so much to do, passengers might not want to ever go homeABOARD OASIS OF THE SEAS — Sure, it’s bigger: Nearly four football fields long, with space for 6,300 passengers and volume that’s 40 percent larger than any other cruise ship at sea. But is Royal Caribbean’s new $1.4 billion Oasis of the Seas actually better than other large cruise liners? Based on an early preview cruise for media and travel agents, the answer may well be yes.
By: Jane Wooldridge, McClatchy Newspapers
ABOARD OASIS OF THE SEAS — Sure, it’s bigger: Nearly four football fields long, with space for 6,300 passengers and volume that’s 40 percent larger than any other cruise ship at sea.
But is Royal Caribbean’s new $1.4 billion Oasis of the Seas actually better than other large cruise liners?
Based on an early preview cruise for media and travel agents, the answer may well be yes.
From the moment passengers stepped on board, the word was “Wow.”
“I think it’s amazing,” said Kendra Childers, a Michigan travel agent. “I love it.
“It’s got so many options,” she said, as she waited in line to ride the zipline strung nine stories above the ship’s aft section — the first zipline at sea.
The 82-foot-long zipline doesn’t compete with those strung across the jungles of Costa Rica and Jamaica, and alone it probably won’t be enough to get passengers on board. But when you add the outdoor Central Park with a live tropical garden featuring 12,000 vines, bananas, bromeliads and bamboo; balcony cabins overlooking the park or a lively outdoor “boardwalk;” an intimate Art Deco-styled restaurant featuring tasting menus designed by one of America’s hottest young chefs and a levitating bar, it’s clear that Oasis of the Seas is far more than a supersized version of Royal Caribbean’s other ships.
“It was positioned to be the most innovative ship,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of the popular Web site CruiseCritic.com, “and it delivered on it. It exceeded my expectations, and I saw it twice when it was being built.”
Royal Caribbean’s goal, said company chairman Richard Fain, was a ship that’s one-third familiar, one-third evolutionary and one-third revolutionary. It hits the mark.
Familiar to past cruisers are the clubby, nautical-themed Schooner Bar; the floor-to-ceiling views from the shiptop Viking Crown lounge; a card room and library and soothing decor featuring sophisticated artwork. Past Royal Caribbean guests will also recognize mini-golf and rock-climbing walls — two — and Flowrider surfing machines — again two — and the Studio B ice-skating rink/ice show theater.
Among the evolutionary are the wider Main Street-style Promenade — updated with skylights; stage shows — the Tony-award winning Hairspray is on the docket; a triple-deck 40s-era dance lounge for Dancing with the Stars wannabes; an expanded youth area with the line’s first nursery and a youth theater; an “anytime” dining option in the three-level, 3,056-seat main dining room, Opus; family cabins with two bunks in an alcove off the main bedroom; a 28,500-square-foot two-level spa and fitness area with the first seagoing spa for kids and teens; new entertainment venues including a jazz club and comedy club; and nearly two dozen eateries.
Revolutionary is where it really gets interesting.
The outdoor AquaTheater — not yet working when we were aboard — acts as stage for high-dive aquatic and water ballet shows and can be used for scuba lessons. The Rising Tide levitates oh-so-slowly between the sixth deck Promenade and the eighth deck Central Park, doubling as bar and transportation. The Central Park urban garden offers a restful hangout that belies the complex logistics of irrigation, drainage, sun angles and wind buffeting. Balcony cabins are available overlooking it and the other outdoor “neighborhood” — Boardwalk. The design is a seagoing first, giving guests outside-cabin options beyond traditional ocean view cabins (although some passengers didn’t consider that a plus).
Those “neighborhoods” — seven in total — got lots of pre-sailing media buzz, but the idea seemed confusing. Would they be open to all guests? Could you move easily between them?
Yes, and yes. Once you see them for yourself, these distinctive zones make sense. The Boardwalk, for instance, has a decidedly retro ambience, with a working carousel and breezy Seafood Shack restaurant. The leafy Central Park — with upscale restaurants, benches and the first Coach shop at sea — has a surprisingly urban attitude.
And they help you navigate the ship. “The flow ... makes it feel like a small ship experience,” said Jeff Huber, a travel agent from Sacramento, Calif.
But will it feel that way when the ship is full?
That wasn’t clear on this first sailing, with only 3,200 passengers on board.
Will the two banks of slow-moving elevators be enough when Oasis is fully booked with more than 6,000 guests? Will the casual Windjammer Marketplace — a buffet with multiple food stations — be mobbed during breakfast and lunch? Will the ship’s desk staff be overwhelmed by guests with questions (as it was when we sailed, when some technological features weren’t yet operational)? Can such huge numbers of cruisers easily get off and on the ship in ports?
To minimize hassles, Royal Caribbean is leaning on technology and that multitude of options for dining and activities.
For instance, guests can book specialty restaurants, shows and excursions online before leaving home or via their in-cabin TVs onboard. Dynamic touch screens located near elevators on every deck provide interactive maps and live updates on restaurant capacity.
In its home port of Port Everglades, Fla., Royal Caribbean uses a new terminal with 90 check-in stations — more than double the number at most terminals. And it will only visit ports where the ship can tie up directly to a landside dock rather than use tender boats to move passengers to shore.
Some of those solutions come at a price.
Oasis is too big for most Caribbean ports, forcing it to stick with much-sailed territory for now. This winter, it will call at St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau. Beginning in May 2010, it will also offer Western Caribbean itineraries at Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico and Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private beach on Haiti. In December 2010, the newly developed port of Falmouth, Jamaica, will replace the Costa Maya stop.
Reservations are advised for shows — including the watery AquaTheater productions, an ice-skating spectacle, musical and stage shows and comedy acts — which takes some of the spontaneity out of the typical cruise experience. But reservations and the shows themselves are free, and walk-ups are welcome if space is available. “We don’t sell out in advance,” said Adam Goldstein, Royal Caribbean’s president. “This isn’t a concert.”
Dining in the three-level Opus main dining room, Windjammer Marketplace, Sorrento’s Pizzeria and several casual grab-and-go eateries is included in the cruise fare. Ten other restaurants — including Johnny Rockets, the Seafood Shack, Izumi Asian and the upscale Chops and 150 Central Park — charge an additional fee, ranging from $3.95 at Johnny Rocket’s to $35 at 150 Central Park. Some eateries — among them Izumi, the ice cream parlor and the cupcake shop — offer a la carte prices.
Those extras come on top of published cruise fares starting at about $1,050 per person, double occupancy, for a seven-night sailing — though currently, Royal Caribbean is offering winter sailings from $729.
Royal Caribbean executives say they’ve tried to ensure that even guests who don’t want to pay for extras have a quality experience. All shows and most sports activities — including the zipline, Flowrider, rock-climbing wall and mini-golf — are included in the cruise fare. And for most extra-charge experience there’s a free alternative, such as soft-serve ice cream in the Windjammer Market (not as yummy as that offered at the for-a-fee Ice Cream Parlor) and dining room burgers (vs. those priced at $3.95 at Johnny Rocket’s).
“This is the most we’ve ever offered in a ticket price,” said Goldstein. “And we’ve never offered so many additional opportunities for a charge. But if they didn’t exist for a charge, they wouldn’t exist.”
Some other ship features drew criticism, as well.
Views from cabins overlooking Central Park vary widely depending on the location. In-cabin plugs are inconveniently located beneath the vanity — impossible to use without getting on your knees. Some standard cabin arrangements place the bed so close to the closet that guests had trouble accessing it. Some experienced cruisers complained that balcony cabins overlooking Central Park and the Boardwalk just didn’t feel like they were, well, at sea.
And there’s no question that as you move from one end of the ship to the other, you’ll need comfortable shoes — and maybe an Advil for aching joints.
So is Oasis too big? Says Brown of Cruise Critic, “We won’t know until it shakes out on real cruises. But they’re doing what they can to alleviate problems; they certainly put a lot of thought into it.”
For some cruisers that might not be enough. “I think it’s beautiful,” said one executive from an out-of-state port, “but I wouldn’t want to be on it with 5,000 people.”
Still, for fans of large-ship cruises and resorts, Oasis is a vacation breakthrough.
Said Al Dobles, a travel agent with Cruise Planners in Pembroke Pines, Fla., “The ship really is the destination.”