The year 2016 brought us a host of new cruise ships. We pit Harmony of the Seas and Carnival Vista, the two hottest new mega-ships of 2016, against each other in a head-to-head battle. Which mega-ship will take the title belt?
- Both ships feature first at sea attractions
- Harmony of the Seas boasts more variety in terms of dining and entertainment options
- Carnival Vista offers a better price point with more inclusions in the base fare
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Chris Gray Faust: Welcome to the Cruise Critic podcast. I'm your host, Chris Gray Faust. Thanks for joining us as we talk all things cruise.
Today, we have a special treat. It's really a battle that we're coming into. It's the first ever battle that we've done here on the Cruise Critic podcast, so I'm really excited about how this is going to turn out. We're going to be looking at 2016's hottest new mega‑ships, Carnival Vista and Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas, and we're going to have people battle it out to see which one is this year's best.
Without further ado, I'm going to get into the contenders. They're sitting here, and they've got a lot to say. Weighing in at 3,936 passengers, Carnival Vista is the largest ship from popular favorite, Carnival Cruise Lines. Coming to the United States in November and sailing from Miami, the ship takes the Carnival Fun Ship concept to the limit with a ton of new features and cool types of cabins. We're going to hear all about them from Senior Editor, Dori Saltzman.
Dori Saltzman: Let's get this started.
Chris: In this corner -- you have to insert your own drum roll...
Chris: ...the current largest ship in the world with a whopping 5,497 passengers, we have Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas.
On the surface, this ship looks a lot like sister ships, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas. Only with fabulous water slides, and even more of the Royal Caribbean signature gizmos, but is it the best? We'll let Senior Executive Editor Colleen McDaniel, make the argument.
Colleen McDaniel: Yeah, bring it on.
Chris: It's the first round, and for this one we are going to be doing dining and drinks. Both ships got a lot going on. Why don't you start us out, Colleen?
Colleen: I am super excited to talk about dining and drinks on Harmony of the Seas because I think this ship does it very well. To paraphrase the late, great Muhammad Ali, "I am the biggest." That is absolutely the case with Harmony of the Seas. It is the world's biggest ship, bow to stern it is bigger than the Eiffel Tower if you stood it on end, almost 1,200 feet. It weighs more than 17,000 elephants. We have a lot of...
Chris: That's a true heavyweight there.
Colleen: We have a lot of area to cover here. What sets Harmony of the Seas apart is definitely the variety. It's got eight specialty restaurants that offer more than 200 different dishes. You seriously have not lived until you have had tuna tartare served tableside at 150 Central Park, which is one of the specialty restaurants there from Chef Michael Schwartz. It's incredible.
There are also over 120 specialty cocktails onboard, so you can get what you want or you can stick with a little safer choices. More than 2,100 pounds of lobster tails served during a weeklong cruise. You can get your lobster, and Harmony of the Seas. That variety is really exceptional.
They've got Asian offerings. They've got sushi. They've got steaks, good old steaks. They've got a little bit of something for everybody, and it's tough to beat. On top of that, they've got over 40 brands of beer onboard, which if you're a beer drinker like me, that makes you pretty happy, and 340 brands of wine.
There's also the robot bartenders, and these are really the talking point for anybody who's spent any time on Harmony of the Seas. It's cool to watch, they've two robotic arms that basically you can make a computerized order, and will fix up a drink any way you want it to. It's a bit like watching a ballet.
In fact, they actually pattern the movement of the arms after the New York Theatre Ballet, which makes it a pretty cool thing to watch. You can have a waitress actually bring over your drink order, or you can stand there and let the bartender serve you, that robot bartender.
Dori: It all sounds a bit fancy‑schmancy if you ask me.
Colleen: Oh, please.
Dori: Just because it's bigger doesn't always mean it's better, and Carnival Vista actually has 14 dining spots, not including the two bars that also include food, and 13 drinking establishments. I can't tell you how many lobster tails are served, and I certainly can't talk about something like tuna tartare.
One of the great things about Vista is that it's actually for the regular Joe. It's not for the fancy person who likes to go to the culinary places in New York City, although they have a couple places like that. But it really is for your average Joe, you have things like Guy's Burger, delicious burgers. If you like a good burger, that's the place to go.
One of the standout circuits, Cucina del Capitano, which is a pasta place, one of the great things about it is in the evening it's a specialty restaurant, costs a little bit extra. Lunchtime, it's completely free, pasta bar, make your own pasta. Perfect. Same thing with JiJi Asian Kitchen, nighttime it's an extra cost restaurant.
Afternoon, it's a noodle bar -- free and delicious. We also have, you mentioned beers, I don't know how many beers are on Vista. Probably isn't as much as on Harmony, which is fair but we have a brewery. We actually brew our own beers, including an IPA, which is very popular.
It is the place to be. They have pub snacks and fresh brewed beer. There's just nothing like it. You can keep your fancy schmancy, and I'm going to stick with the plain and simple.
Colleen: Wow. Man, Guy's Burgers? Think about the calories. In fact, if you want something healthy onboard Carnival Vista, where do you go?
Dori: I don't know. You can go someplace, you can go to the buffet and have a salad. But who wants to go on a cruise and have something healthy? Isn't that the point of vacation, is to indulge?
Colleen: Maybe, but you've got some health food options on Harmony of the Seas, including the Spa Cafe.
Dori: I'll give that to you. I just know that if I'm going on a cruise, I'm not going to the Spa Cafe. I'm having my dessert, and my pasta, and my burger, and I'm happy. Plus, I think that we have a little bit more that's included in the fare.
You guys have that variety, I'll give it to you, but it comes at a higher cost than Carnival Vista. So if you want to go on a cruise ship that has more food included, Carnival Vista's the ship for you.
Chris: It sounds like we've got two great ships here that are very different in how they approach things, so we'll wrap up this round. I don't see a clear winner yet, but on to round two.
Chris: We are back for round two. Now, both Carnival Vista and Harmony of the Seas put up a good fight, that first round. They both have a couple bruises on them, but I am confident they are back and ready to battle it out for now in round two. First up with cabins, we're going to hear Dori talk about Carnival Vista.
Dori: Thanks, Chris. I want to talk about the cabins, because they are amazing. There's a lot of variety, but there are two standouts that I really want to talk about in particular: the Havana Cabins and the Family Harbor.
Starting with the Family Harbor, there is an entire section of Deck 2 called the Family Harbor. It is a key card-only access space, and it is only for families staying in Family Harbor, and only families can stay in Family Harbor.
There's a variety of cabins from insides, outsides and balconies as well as suites, and there is a lounge where families can hang out together, play games, watch movies.
What's really cool about the lounge is that they have a buffet, so that families don't have to go up to the buffet upstairs for breakfast, which is great for families. Maybe you can go in your pajamas. You don't have to get your kids dressed, you can just go across the hall into the buffet. Also great for other passengers who don't have to worry about unruly kids running around the buffet for breakfast.
The suites are amazing, they can fit up to five as can most of the other cabins fit up to four or five as well, with pull‑down beds, and some Pullman beds, and couches that open into beds. But the suites have two separate rooms. They are divided by a curtain so that parents can get some privacy, and they have a very cute blue, red and white Dr. Seuss‑themed colored decor. They're very cute, and they're really perfect for families.
The second cabins I want to mention are the Havana Cabins. These are also a dedicated space on the ship, mostly on Deck 5. They have a Cuban decor with very pretty colors, and a very airy feel. There are two kinds, both of them have patios. Rather than balconies, they have a patio that goes out onto the promenade.
They're fenced in, so that nobody can come into your space. The regular‑sized, or standard‑sized Havana Cabins have loungers on the patio, while the suites have a swing chair, which is pretty cool. One of the great things about the Havana Cabanas is they have access to the Havana pool privately during the day.
So until five o'clock, the Havana pool, which is an aft pool, can only be used by people in the Havana Cabin, which is just a really cool thing. It's part of what makes the Havana Cabins my favorite cabins on this ship. They're also right by the Havana bar, so that in the evening you can just go right over to the bar, which is a really cool spot with great Latin music.
They have some pub food there, Spanish-inspired pub food. You just would not believe these cabins, they are amazing. They're game changers, they're new to the industry and they're really what make Carnival Vista stand apart from all other ships, including Harmony.
Colleen: You talk about the families, and I have to say that Family Harbor sure sounds nice. But let me tell you what Harmony of the Seas has is this presidential family suite. This is an epic family cabin, it is almost 1,200 square feet. It's four bedrooms, four baths and it includes two master bedrooms.
What that means is two families can travel together, and stay in the same cabin, and still have mom and dad each getting their own master bedroom.
It has an enormous deck with a huge table that actually can accommodate 14 people, which is the maximum number who can stay there. Minimum number is actually eight, so there has to be at least eight people to stay in the cabin and there's just nothing like it at sea. It's really an impressive space.
The other thing Harmony of the Seas does very well is it has some cabins for singles. This is a marked demand on the seas, so the single cruisers can stay in single cabins without paying the single supplement, which is that fee that you might have to pay if you're traveling by yourself but you're staying in a cabin that usually is booked double occupancy.
They're smaller. They're tight, they're compact. I admit it, but you know what? How much time do you really spend in your cabins anyway? If you're really feeling up to it, you actually can put two people in those single cabins, but they are sold as singles.
The one thing I think is super cool about Harmony of the Seas is that they have what they call Royal Genies. Anybody staying in those upper level suite cabins has access to this Royal Genie. It's an interesting concept. Basically, you have a personal concierge who's going to anticipate your needs.
Before you even sail, you actually fill out paperwork about things that you like, your favorite book. If you could have dinner with any four people alive or dead, who would they be? What your favorite foods are, that kind of things.
They get a sense of who you are as a person. During your cruise, they're going to take those answers and anticipate. Maybe you mention a favorite book, it might show up in your cabin. Favorite meal, might show up there. It's going to come at various times. You might be sitting at dinner and your Royal Genie pops over and whispers in your ear to come with me.
They spring some surprise on you. This is totally unprecedented on the seas, and it's that really intuitive service that makes it really special.
Dori: I can't say that I really want my cabin attendant/genie to come up and whisper in my ear.
Dori: I've got to admit that sounds a little creepy, I got to tell you.
Colleen: Come on.
Dori: You had me till that point...
Colleen: He's whispering in your ear, "Hey come with me, I'm giving you a Champagne and caviar dinner."
Dori: Maybe. You had me till that point. The book, yes. Whisper in my ear, no.
Colleen: Where's your sense of adventure?
Dori: Maybe if my last name were Kardashian that would be a good thing...
Dori: ...but my last name's not Kardashian. That family suite? I mean, wow! The word presidential. That's, whoa! I don't have that kind of money. Why is it that on Royal Caribbean if I want to have that really nice suite, or that nice experience with the bigger sized rooms, why'd I have to spend so much more money?
In Carnival Vista, we don't have to spend quite as much. In fact, I will give it to you that the Harmony suites are way bigger than Vista suites, but our inside cabins and our outside cabins, which are the more affordable cabins, they're bigger than Harmony's cabins. Balcony cabins? Same size.
Colleen: [sighs] What about the singles? Carnival Vista completely overlooked the single traveler and I think that is a spot that there needs to be some attention paid. If I'm single and I'm traveling on Carnival Vista, I'm going to end up paying that double occupancy rate and that is not a bargain for me. If you're comparing apples to apples, come on, let's be honest. You're going to pay a little bit more.
Dori: Sure, that's true. If you're a single you will, but if you're going with your best friend or your spouse, no you won't.
Chris: Royal Genie is now telling me that this is the end of this round.
Chris: We are now into the third and final round, and honestly for most people, this is really the most important. These are mega-ships that we're talking about, basically floating resorts on the water with everything you could do. Now, we're going to have Colleen and Dori battle it out over things to do onboard. Why don't you start us off Colleen, with Harmony of the Seas?
Colleen: I don't even know where to start with this one, because honestly, there's just so much to do onboard Harmony of the Seas. It's what really makes it a fun ship to sail on. I guess I'll start with the biggest, sort of the splashiest of the things and that is The Ultimate Abyss.
This is a 10‑story slide that basically drops you from one of the top decks all the way down to one of the promenades in about 13 seconds. It's a dry slide, no water necessary, so you don't have to change, but it is a thrill. As a matter of fact, it was created by a guy who's called the Professor of Thrill. How cool is that for a title? I kind of want that job.
Colleen: It is spectacular. On your way down, you'll see a light show with a bunch of LED lights, you'll hear noises and it's also...
Dori: Not screaming?
Colleen: Well, you might hear yourself screaming. [laughs] It's a fast fall and it's a whole lot of fun. It also does have three more traditional water slides on that top deck so you can get wet. You can go down and get all splashy. Then it brings onboard a lot of the other activities that Royal Caribbean's really famous for.
There's the FlowRider, which is a surf simulator and they actually have two of them because the ship is so big. If you don't want to participate, you can always park yourself at the Wipe Out Bar, which is another great place to sit, and honestly, watch people wipe out on the FlowRider. It's a lot of fun to both try and watch as well.
It also has rock climbing walls. It has two rock climbing walls, including a little climbers rock climbing...it's not really a wall, it's more of a space for the little ones to climb and participate in a safer environment.
It also has a escape room, which is this phenomenon on land now where you try to escape from a room in sort of a puzzle format. Royal Caribbean has this on one other ship, but they're really committed to it here on Harmony of the Seas. So you walk in and you are on a spaceship and it feels like you're on a spaceship. Not that I've ever been on a spaceship.
Colleen: This is the way I...
Dori: If you were on one, it would feel exactly like that.
Colleen: It would feel just like this. Your spaceship fails and your job is to figure out how to get it going again and it is a blast. It's 60 minutes, you have to solve that puzzle. Some 40 percent of people actually do solve the puzzle and there's so much to do.
Then there's the entertainment, I can't not mention "Grease." This is the Broadway musical version of Grease. What they've done is they've integrated some of the movie, so if you love Olivia Newton and John Travolta it'll feel familiar to you. But if you're a real theater purist you'll also recognize it, it's exceptional. It is really, truly entertaining. They even bring out Greased Lightning.
Dori: That doesn't sound bad. That doesn't sound bad at all, a little surprised that you decided to call it a fun ship. That's a Carnival thing, and Carnival Vista is definitely a Fun Ship. We don't have a dry slide, which sounds like it would give you quite a rash actually.
Colleen: Rash, you sit down on a mat and you really don't...
Dori: Oh, OK. I personally don't want to have my stomach in my throat when I'm on a ship, but Carnival Vista has some cool stuff. Our sort of thrill ride on the Carnival Vista is the SkyRide, which is a mid‑air recumbent bike racetrack.
Dori: Yeah, you're tired. Too much to do on Harmony there, yeah. Anyway, let's go back to Vista. We have the SkyRide, which is this really awesome...It's hard to explain, but picture two recumbent bikes suspended in mid‑air. You get on your bike, and you pedal your way around it, and they've got some dips and stuff, so you go a little down.
Not 10 stories, a little down. You go around and you get to race the person next to you. If you're at all competitive with your spouse, as I happen to know my Harmony competitor is.
Dori: It's a lot of fun. Speaking of having fun, how could you go wrong with an actual IMAX theater onboard a ship? Carnival Vista has an IMAX theater showing current showings. When I was onboard, they were showing "Batman vs. Superman," and they showed another movie that I can't remember, but it was a current movie. Oh, it was "The Jungle Book," thank you.
It has something for families. It has something for the older people. Then they have a water park with two slides, one is called the Kaleidoscope. Similar, it sounds like the best parts of funky kaleidoscopic colors and noises. They have another twister water slide, and then they have a whole kids section with one of those big dumping buckets. So if you like to get wet, that is the place to stand.
Then they have an indoor clubhouse, which is really great because if there is any inclement weather, bad weather, the indoor sports area has mini-bowling, it has Ping-Pong. It has sports video games, it has arcade basketball.
Then there is an outdoor sports area that has outdoor pool, mini‑golf. There's even an open‑air Twister court, which is a lot of fun. Who hasn't played Twister since they were probably kids, suddenly doing it as an adult is a whole another experience. Yeah, we don't have a 10‑story slide, but there is a lot of fun to be had onboard.
Colleen: The bike thing sounds like way too much work.
Dori: I suppose yeah, you have to do a little pedaling. If that bothers you then you can just sit in the spa or your cabin, but I like to have fun on mine. I've got to say, I think that on Harmony, it sounds like your shows are too long. I don't want to go to a full Broadway production, because I want to do multiple things.
I've only got seven days onboard. I want to do a show. Vista shows are only half an hour, and lots of fun. I want to be able to go to the thrill theater. I want to be able to do Carnival's line dances on the top deck. I want to be able to do the water slide, and I want to do it all in one day. Royal Caribbean, you can't do that.
Colleen: You'll be singing along. You go to "Grease," you know you'll be bumping along in your seats, singing along to all the songs you know and love.
Dori: You're probably right. I probably would, but I would be regretting the fact that I didn't go to the comedy show, or I didn't do something else. If I want to sing along to Grease, I'll put on my CD while I go and do other stuff on Vista.
Chris: [laughs] It sounds like there's a lot to do on both of them. In fact, I want to go on vacation right now, because it sounds like it's so much fun. That wraps up round three.
Chris: This has been quite a battle. We have heard a lot today about Carnival Vista and Harmony of the Seas, and I've got to say, they both sound super cool. To call it a battle is not exactly true, because as we say here at "Cruise Critic," it's not really about, is one ship better or not overall? It's about what ship is best for you.
With that in mind, I'm going to ask our contenders here if they would sail on their competitor. Colleen, what do you think about Carnival Vista after hearing all of these pros from Dori?
Colleen: The truth is, Carnival Vista sounds like a fantastic ship. There is a lot to do onboard. They've got a lot of dining options. I'll tell you, just listening to Dori talk about the cabins, and the variety, and some of the new features, it sounds like a really great product, and I would absolutely be happy sailing Carnival Vista.
Dori: You can't see me right now, but I am shining my knuckles, by the way.
Colleen: Oh, please.
Dori: Honestly as well, I would sail Harmony of the Seas in a second. The escape room sounds like so much fun. If I could have a royal genie, I don't know if I'd want him whispering in my ear...
Chris: I think we could all use a royal genie in our lives.
Dori: Exactly. Harmony sounds like a great ship, and if I had the opportunity, I would sail on her in a second.
Chris: All right. So now we're going to put the call out to the listeners. Which of these ships sounds right for you? Go over to CruiseCritic.com and vote for either Harmony of the Seas or Carnival Vista. That concludes this edition of the Cruise Critic podcast. Join us next time by subscribing or visiting CruiseCritic.com. Until next time, happy cruising.
Music by Tilman Sillescu, BMI of Universal Soundrangers Music, BMI; Sound effects from gollamar, Benboncan and ingsey101 of freesound.org