We recently returned from the July 3 sailing of Oasis of the Seas - a 7-night eastern Caribbean itinerary round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale, with port stops in Nassau, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten. Make no mistake; the port stops mean little on this cruise: it is all about the ship - and with very good reason.
My wife and I have been cruising since the mid-1990s and this was our 18th sailing on Royal Caribbean alone; and we've sailed on every class of RCI ship as far back as Sovereign of the Seas (at the time it was launched it was the largest cruise ship in the world). Each succeeding generation of RCI ships has presented newer, more modern amenities and the newest innovations in cruising. But until Oasis, these changes were evolutionary and developmental. Very little in our experience of sailing on all previous generations of RCI ships prepared us for our experience on Oasis. It is an amazing, unique way to cruise that, for better or worse (mostly better), alters one's perspective on cruising.
The uniqueness of this cruise experience left a very significant - and somewhat surprising - impression with me, and it all begins with the groundbreaking layout of this ship. As most people know by now, the major new design feature of this ship is that it is open in the middle, with a high percentage of staterooms overlooking the inside of the ship both port and starboard. Most of these staterooms have balconies that overlook two "neighborhoods" - Central Park, located on Deck 8 between the forward and aft Centrum elevator lobbies; and the Boardwalk, located on Deck 6 between the aft Centrum elevator lobby and the stern of the ship. In each case the staterooms extend from the deck above the neighborhoods all the way up through Deck 14 (just below the pool deck).
Central Park offers a peaceful respite of tree and bush lined paths with plenty of benches to relax and take in the atmosphere (and, of course, in the summer, the brutal heat and humidity). The neighborhood has most of the upscale restaurants, a Coach boutique, an art gallery, a photo gallery, and a wince bar/tapas restaurant. There's also a very popular lunchtime Park Cafe serving made to order salads, sandwiches, and paninis. As for the Boardwalk, this neighborhood is a stark contrast to Central Park. A mini-replica of Coney Island's boardwalk, there are ice cream, candy, and donut shops, beach-like shops, games (i.e., Zoltar, the fortune teller from the movie "Big), a working carousel (no charge), and two restaurants charging nominal fees - Seafood Shack and Johnny Rockets. There are rock-climbing walls located on both the starboard and port sides of the stern of the ship. But the singularly unique attraction here is the Aquatheater, located directly on the stern - with stadium seating on beach chairs and benches. This amazing amphitheater presented two water shows as well as other performances (see the entertainment section, below) and several fountain shows set to music.
Directly below Central Park is the now familiar Royal Promenade, a mall-like expanse located on Deck 5 between the forward and aft Centrum elevator lobbies, except on Oasis the promenade is twice as wide as on the Voyager and Freedom class ships. There are two large skylights up to Central Park, so that the promenade has lots of natural light during the day. Also, Oasis features the first-ever movable bar at sea (The Rising Tide Bar), which travels like a slow elevator between the promenade and Central Park (you can enter at either location, and it takes a half-hour to make a complete trip to your starting point).
The ultimate effect of these stunning public areas - along with the soon to be discussed neighborhood known as Entertainment Place, located on Deck 4 - is to focus much of the attention of passengers inward rather than outward toward the sea - something that has defined the personality of most of the previous Royal Caribbean ships. You can literally spend the better part of your cruise week on Oasis having a blast engaged in activities day and night without ever setting eyes on the sea. In fact, you would have to spend time topside at the pools or in the Windjammer Marketplace or Viking Crown Lounge, or have a seat near a window in the main dining room - or an outside facing stateroom - to know you were actually on a cruise ship rather than in some eclectic land resort hotel.
Don't get me wrong. We had a wonderful time and were often awestruck by the level of technology, entertainment, and activities options available to virtually all age levels and interests. But as a cruise enthusiast - and part-time cruise travel agent - I am not certain that a week on Oasis would represent an ideal cruise experience for many cruisers. It is certainly something worth doing once, even for more traditional cruisers. But the sheer size and number of people on board (6,200 passengers and 2,300 staff/crew) may not make possible the most suitable cruise experience for everyone.
Much has been written in great detail about this seafaring wonder, and I've already mentioned some of the features of the ship, so here's just a bit more. Oasis is only about 200 feet longer and one deck higher than the next largest ship - RCI's Freedom class ships. But it is nearly twice as wide as any other cruise ship - and herein presents the greatest difference. It is almost the length of a football field across the middle of the ship, and there are limited places to cross between port and starboard, especially topside. Everything that makes Oasis strikingly beautiful on the inside, from the Central Park and Boardwalk outdoor areas to the extra wide Royal Promenade, to the Deck 4 Entertainment Place, causes this ship to look sort of clunky, squared off, and behemoth-like (well - it is a behemoth, really) on the outside. I am used to RCI ships that are sleek, with smooth flowing lines and lots of glass facing outside to the sea; even the very large Freedom class ships are essentially like this. And so Oasis is not nearly as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside. Entertainment:
Now we come to what I believe is the most special feature of the Oasis cruise experience: the live entertainment. In the aggregate, nothing currently at sea can come close to the range of entertainment options or the level of technology involved in some of these options found on Oasis. Let's begin with the slightly abridged version of the Broadway production of Hairspray. In every respect, this production rivals national road company versions of the show, featuring an outstanding cast. The 3-tier, 1500-seat Opal Theater is the largest and most technologically sophisticated theater afloat. There are 5 performances during the first 3 days of the cruise to ensure that everyone has a chance to see this wonderful production. RCI has a 5-year contract to do Hairspray on Oasis, so there's plenty of time to take the cruise and see this show (although cast members, including the leads, are on 6-month contracts, just like the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers found on this and other RCI ships). By the way, on Oasis there are 6 singers and 12 dancers, compared with 4 singers and 8 dancers on the rest of the fleet. These performers also do the RCI production show, Come Fly with Me" which also features a new, major signature feature of the Opal Theater - flying acrobats and comics. [FYI - when sister ship Allure of the Seas launches next fall, she will feature the Broadway show, Chicago.]
Even more unique than the Opal Theater is the Aquatheater. Located at the very stern of the ship and reachable mainly through the Boardwalk neighborhood on Deck 6 aft, this open air amphitheater is the home of the amazing production, "Oasis of Dreams," a combination of high diving, water acrobatics (including an automated trampoline built into the stage), flying acrobats hoisted high above the stage/pool, and synchronized swimming in a pool that features both multiple and ever-changing levels of water depth along with dozens of fountains in and around the pool. What makes this venue all the more impressive is the surrounding atmosphere, with stores, restaurants, and a carousel on the Boardwalk, two rock-climbing walls on either side of the ship, and balcony staterooms 7 decks high from the aft elevator to the stern . During our cruise, the Oasis entertainment staff presented a new water and aerial show with a comic twist, called "Splish Splash."
Is this enough to leave you breathless? There's more - much more! All of Deck 4 between the aft and forward elevator lobbies has been dubbed "Entertainment Place." The newest addition to the RCI fleet includes a relatively cozy Comedy Club, the venue for an uproarious one-hour stand-up comedy show called "Comedy Live," featuring two comics with very different styles. The venue was packed for 3 shows virtually every night. This was some of the best stand-up comedy I've seen at sea, and really beats many of the headliner comics appearing on other ships. In addition, the venue was used for interactive live improvisational shows and even improvisational workshops conducted by members of the cast (some of whom also appeared in Hairspray).
The other major performance venue at Entertainment Place is Studio B, site of the ice show, "Frozen in Time," held twice nightly during the second half of the cruise. Like similar venues on the Voyager and Freedom class ships, Studio B is also used for public ice skating sessions on sea days and was the site of the late night adult game, "The Quest." The ice show was based on Hans Christian Anderson stories, and it began badly, with one performer nearly taking a spill on a simple waltz jump; but the show ended up with some outstanding skating.
The remaining venues in Entertainment Place include a disco room called "Blaze," a cozy room for live jazz called "Jazz on 4," and the standard casino.
Other live entertainment on Oasis includes as wide an array as found on any RCI cruise ship, beginning with the ubiquitous calypso band situated on the pool deck -- strategically and somewhat dramatically -- on a bridge bisecting the pools area and spanning Central Park 6 decks below. Because of the ship's design, passengers with balcony staterooms overlooking Central Park can enjoy the afternoon reggae music. Other live music venues included the Schooner Bar where, as on most RCI ships, a pianist plays and encourages sing-alongs every night; a singer/guitarist who performed most nights in the Globe and Atlas Pub - except when the venue hosted a bagpiper; and a string trio that performed on a platform above the Royal Promenade around the dinner hour.
The Royal Promenade is also the site of two parades, including appearances from the RCI singers and dancers as well as the cruise staff; the Captain's welcome reception; and a wild '70s disco party held one night during the middle of the cruise that is not to be missed, starring Cruise Director Richard Spacey and the cruise staff, as well as the singers and dancers. A really cool feature of these Royal Promenade extravaganzas is the way the decorative giant globe above the Globe and Atlas Pub opens in half and a rather long catwalk spanning about half the width of the promenade unfurls to allow performers to be seen by the multitudes below.
A few final comments about the live entertainment on Oasis: with 6200 passengers, if you want to see all the shows - and most are truly unique to the cruise industry - it is essential to reserve the performances as early in advance of your sailing as possible. In all, this includes 6 different shows, including the headliner act and RCI's production, "Come Fly With Me." On my sailing every show was virtually full - even those held in the Opal Theater. People without reservations line up and have to wait until 10 minutes before show time - and there are rarely good seats available by then. Even with reservations, if you want a good seat, be sure to arrive 20-30 minutes prior to show time. You cannot have one person reserve multiple seats, as is common practice on most RCI ships.
Royal Caribbean likes to tout that there are 24 dining options on Oasis, which means if you sampled them all it would take virtually the entire cruise for each of these meals. Let's face it, most folks still like to eat dinner in the dining room at least several times during the week (why else pay those weekly gratuities?), and not everyone will want to sample each dining option, or pay service charges ranging from about $5 to $75 per person when they can eat at no extra charge. But part of the total cruise experience on this unique ship is sampling the variety of dining options you wouldn't find on another ship - even a RCI ship. Therefore, we went to Giovanni's Table for one dinner instead of the dining room. This Italian restaurant is somewhat more informal than Portofino's, which is available on the other newer RCI ships. The service charge is only $15 and the food and service is truly outstanding. We also heard good things about 150 Central Park ($35 service fee without wine included). The familiar Chops Grille ($25 service charge) is also located in Central Park, and although it is one of my favorites, we passed on eating dinner there on this ship. We also considered and then passed up an opportunity to have dinner at the Solarium Bistro ($20 service charge). After having lunch there early in the cruise we found the food not to our liking and the atmosphere a little too humid for a comfortable and relaxing dinner. We had not heard good things about the Seafood Shack and also passed on a meal at Johnny Rockets, both of which charge relatively small service fees. We also passed on Izumi, as we do not like sushi.
What does this tell you? That the dining options you select are usually based on personal taste, relative cost, and one's overall philosophy about dining on cruise ships. There is certainly something to be said for having so many dining options - and that includes "My Time Dining" in which RCI has finally joined most other cruise lines and now provides the dining room experience for passengers who do not want to dine at the same time and table each night. Be forewarned, however, that if you want "My Time Dining" you need to request it early, especially on Oasis, as it is very popular - and you will have to prepay your gratuities in advance of the sailing (at the time of your final payment). The same is true for "FamilyTime Dining" where the pace of the meal is accelerated for families who do not want the more leisurely paced dining room experience. By the way - as if the dining options on Oasis are not sufficient - Allure of the Seas will have a Mexican dining option.
Past reviews have noted that the Windjammer Marketplace was too small - and therefore overcrowded. On Oasis, especially at breakfast and lunchtime. we did not find that to be the case at all. We ate breakfast there every morning but one, and never had trouble finding a table. The same is true for lunch, although we opted to eat lunch a couple of times in the Park Cafe, once at the Solarium Bistro, and once at Sorrento's. But this was for variety and not due to crowds at Windjammer. We found the best location for seating in the Windjammer was in the large aft section of the restaurant, with great views of the Flowrider, basketball court, miniature golf, and zip line activities. In general, we found the busiest places to find free meals were the Park Cafe at lunch and the Promenade Cafe almost anytime. You can check out how busy the dining options are - as well as instant information on activity schedules and finding your way around the ship - through a wonderful interactive board at each elevator lobby. Here you'll find the status of the seating availability in each restaurant indicated by a colored gauge from green to yellow to red.
Finally, although I don't think all the specialty dining slots were booked up in advance of the sailing, it is best to pre-reserve (and also pre-pay) for specialty dining in advance of the cruise. You can cancel and get a refund up to 24 hours before the reservation time, the same as with pre-purchased shore excursions.
No cruise line does activities like Royal Caribbean. This is the "Get Out There" and "Nation of Why Not" company. The RCI fleet has increasingly been designed to expand the number and variety of activities. RCI has ships with ice and in-line skating rinks; fitness centers with boxing rings; solarium pools: an ever growing array of programs and venues for children from 3-17; a surfing experience on the newest ships; and, of course, the now universal rock-climbing wall.
Oasis adds to this already impressive list of unique shipboard activities in two ways: first, RCI added a few new wrinkles; second, Oasis is built to provide additional specialized venues for many new and also time-honored activities. The single most unique activity added on Oasis is a zip line that runs across the sports zone aft of the Windjammer Marketplace. Here you can - for no extra fee - glide over the Boardwalk neighborhood 10 decks below. It is a short ride, lasting less than 10 seconds and covering a distance of only 82 feet. But it is fun, and really only possible to do on a ship designed like Oasis. Another free activity unique to this class of ship is the Carousel, located on the Boardwalk. RCI placed several models of a carousel horse in various stages of development at the entrance to the Boardwalk, leading up to the carousel; I thought this was very cool. The ride itself is just okay as far as carousels go (no brass ring), but riding one on a ship makes it really special.
There is a cupcake shop on the Royal Promenade that not only sells rather heavily iced and delicious cupcakes, but also conducts cupcake-making classes for a fee on sea days. Also on the Royal Promenade is a dedicated venue for Karaoke (On Air) which doubles as a sports bar during the day, from which the semi-finals of the World Cup soccer were broadcast before huge crowds. Topside, there are more pools than on any other ship, each designed for different purposes - divided port and starboard by the open expanse in-between. This ship probably also sets a record for the most hot tubs: there are 8 scattered about both sides of the outside pool deck; two more inside the Solarium (along with one rather small wading-type pool with water sprays in the center); and there are two very large hot tubs located just outside and aft of the Solarium. Like the Freedom class ships, these hot tubs are cantilevered over the side of the ship, but unlike the Freedom class ships, the bottoms are painted solid white so you can't see the ocean below. I cannot understand why RCI did not continue this very unique design feature from the Freedom class ships on Oasis.
All of these added activities and specialized venues create a bit of a problem in some cases with overcrowding. Some karaoke nights it was impossible to get close to On Air; and the Comedy Club had people standing literally on top of those who arrived early enough to find seats. On the older RCI ships, such activities are held in large, all-purpose lounges. But Oasis carries at least twice as many passengers as most of the RCI fleet, and so the smaller, but more specialized, venues on the ship means getting very cozy with your fellow passengers or passing up certain activities.
Let me add one other comment about the scheduling of activities that is, I think, a direct consequence of the number of passengers on Oasis. There are no special culminating activities on the final night - no closing show featuring the singers and dancers and specialty acts seen on board during the week; no "cruise in review" video shown in the theater and sold to passengers; no farewell remarks by the Cruise Director on the final night (in fact, the CD basically said his farewells to everyone at the previous night's performance of "Come Fly With Me" - that is. on Thursday night for a cruise ending on Saturday). The last night on this cruise was for shopping, purchasing photos, and sitting in bars listening, or dancing, to singers, musicians, or the DJ. The beautiful 1500-seat Opal Theater was dark. Since the "cruise in review" video has been a big seller for RCI in the past, one wonders why they passed up the opportunity for a potential windfall with 6200 passengers on board. The only explanation I could think of is that even if there were 2 closing shows, only about half the passengers could see it. But I don't know that everyone would want to see the closing show, and those that do could have filled up the theater one last night a couple of times, and so I think a lot of RCI loyal customers who enjoy a farewell show on the last night were left disappointed.
Staff and Crew
In my view, Royal Caribbean has always been a staff-friendly cruise line. On a ship with 6200 passengers and 2300 staff and crew, one would expect the sheer numbers to cause a higher than average level of impersonality and aloofness on the part of many staff members. But we found that on Oasis, nothing could be further from the truth. Members of the service staff, from our room steward and her assistant, to our dining room waiter and his assistant, to the bar service throughout the ship, to the myriads of workers you pass every day in the corridors, stairwells, or on deck - everyone was extraordinarily friendly, helpful, and accommodating. I've found this to be the case on most of my RCI cruises, but I think the staff on Oasis makes that extra effort to personalize what could easily have become an impersonal cruise experience.
One advantage of having a staff and crew of 2300 is that talent and entertainment can come from many (and sometimes surprising) sources. An example occurred in our dining room, where the waiter for the table next to ours (and our section of the dining room was in a starboard forward wing where you couldn't see the main part of the 3-story dining room where the Maitre D' speaks) had learned, word for word, the speeches by the Maitre D' before and after the staff's singing of "O sole Mio" and the closing night song. He grabbed a peppermill and did a phenomenal, lip-synched spoof of the Maitre D'-- drawing cheers from everyone within eyesight. We really had fun with him, and it contributed immensely to the overall cruise experience.
Let me now say a word about our Cruise Director (CD), Richard Spacey. Much has been written on the Cruise Critic Boards about specific CDs, their overall impact on the cruise experience, and even comparing contrasting styles of CDs. In my experience, I've observed 3 styles of CD: one, who tends to be laid back and friendly, who may not necessarily exhibit a ton of talent on stage, but who loves to be out and about the ship day and night mingling and chatting with the passengers. For long-time RCI customers, Jeff Martin is a good example of this type, although I have sailed with many others. A second type tends to be very businesslike and organized. He or she plays the role of consummate "director" by ensuring that the staff does their job well; but they may come across publicly as reserved, or even standoffish. I've seen Ken Rush - who currently alternates with Richard Spacey as CD on Oasis, and who for many years has been the company's designated CD for taking out new ships - described in this way on this website. I have sailed with Ken 4 times and have found him to be friendly, engaging, and helpful - as well as a very organized, professional director; but I can understand how some people could see him as portraying the negative image.
The third type of CD is more rare - the CD who is talented and entertaining, and who is always "on," especially at the major events and when there are crowds. Richard Spacey epitomizes this type of CD. I've sailed with him twice, and he just keeps getting better and more entertaining all the time. On a large ship such as Oasis, (or the Freedom class ships), CDs like Richard not only thrive but enthrall the passengers and entertain them beyond all expectations. My wife and I have been on nearly 30 cruises (18 with RCI) and we've never laughed so much as during Richard's performance as host of the Love and Marriage game - a staple on every RCI cruise. He turned what should have been a fun 45 minutes into a side-splitting, uproarious 90-minute hoot. And he was equally fantastic at countless other activities. If possible, every RCI cruiser should try to catch his act!
Having said that, I don't think that the CD makes or breaks the cruise. But he or she has an enormous responsibility for the schedule of activities and quality of entertainment on the ship, and therefore a really good CD - regardless of their personal style - can thoroughly ensure that everyone will have a good time and go away with happy memories of their cruise.
A Few Random Comments:
Despite the number of passengers, this was by far the best embarkation and debarkation experience I've had on any of our many cruises. We went from the taxi to being on board the ship in about 10 minutes, and that includes an airport-like security check at the cruise terminal. It took less than 20 minutes from the time we stepped off the ship at the end of the cruise until we stepped out of the taxi at Ft. Lauderdale airport - and that included finding our luggage in the terminal and hauling it through customs and to the taxis.
Most of our recent cruises on RCI had very limited place where smoking was permitted. Not so, unfortunately, on Oasis. Many of the lounges, including two of the most popular ones (Schooner Bar and Boleros) allowed smoking, and during the evenings, in particular, the smell of smoke was evident all over these lounges, even though the smoking areas were limited. In this day and age, I think allowing so many areas for smoking on a family-oriented ship such as Oasis is a step backward for RCI.
And in a different section of the complaint department, many passengers were subjected to unwanted and annoying entertainment while riding the elevators, which tended to be frequented by young teens blasting rock music as the elevators moved from floor to floor along their 16-deck course - and RCI staff appeared to be oblivious to this misbehavior. On the other hand, fears of long waits for crowded elevators proved to be mostly unfounded. With 24 elevators divided into 4 banks of 6 (port and starboard; forward and aft), we found there was little waiting time for the elevators, given the massive number of passengers and staff on board.
On Oasis the Fitness Center and Spa are located far forward on Decks 5 and 6, and this is a significant departure from the topside locations of this venue on the rest of the RCI fleet. Although the spa facilities are quite extensive, the thermal suite is located in the bowels of the facility and I really missed the ocean views from this room found on the Radiance class ships. Because of its forward and lower location, the fitness Center had only a few portholes both port and starboard. This created an almost claustrophobic sensation and, again, I really missed the panoramic ocean or port views from the treadmills that are available in the topside fitness centers on every other RCI ship.
Finally, as people interested in art, we have always been impressed with the investment RCI makes in placing original art around and about the ship - often in unexpected locations and with a whimsical touch. The art on Oasis outdoes anything seen before on a cruise ship. RCI spent about $10 million decorating the ship with original art, and the art specialists on board conducted tours during sea days. One other interesting development in the art area: the long-time vendor for RCI (Park West Galleries) has been replaced on Oasis by Art Actually. This gallery is still growing, but it presented a significantly different stable of artists than Park West. We understand that this gallery will replace Park West throughout the fleet. The specialists and auctioneer were quite good, although I thought during our sailing the gallery did not achieve an impressive amount of sales from the auctions; however, they sold quite a bit of art in their gallery in Central Park during the evenings.
Our cruise aboard Oasis was like no other I've experienced, and from the many reviews on this website, I am not alone in that conclusion. As mentioned at the outset, it is not at all about the ports; many people, like us, have been there before. It is almost entirely about the ship and the myriad of activities available on board. And don't begin to think you can do it all in one week, because for even the most active cruisers, that is truly impossible. For most cruisers, sailing on Oasis or its soon to be launched sister, Allure of the Seas is a must. For me, it's probably a one-time thing, because as much as I loved the experience, I prefer the RCI ships that make you aware that the sea is close at hand. I love the ships where there is glass with sea views almost everywhere (i.e., the Radiance class ships) and where the vast majority of staterooms face outward. RCI is still the best when it comes to live entertainment and onboard activities on any of their ships, but especially on Oasis. For one week, we were treated to an amazing, unique, and thoroughly wonderful cruise experience on Oasis of the Seas.