What follows is my review of our family’s week onboard the Oasis of the Seas from January 15-22, 2011. In the months leading up to our cruise, this board was an invaluable resource that I used to effectively plan and achieve the best value for our time and money. Any time I had a question, a quick search produced the information I needed. My hope is that this review will, in some small way, add to the body of knowledge this site provides to its members and visitors.
Background: My wife and I are in our late 30s with two daughters, 11 and 9. I was fortunate enough to have cruised quite a bit as a child and a teenager and wanted to share the experience with my children, so we tried the Liberty of the Seas in 2009. We had such a great experience that we decided to give it another go on the Oasis of the Seas this year. I think the question on all of our minds was whether the size of the Oasis vs. the Liberty would add or detract from the overall cruise experience. My thoughts on that and more follow.
Embarkation: Since weather can be iffy this time of year in the mid-Atlantic, we chose to fly in the day before and stay at the Embassy Suites on 17th Street (given the traffic at FLL on Saturdays, this proved to be a good choice). We were at the port by about 10:30 and were greeted with no crowds, so we left our bags with a porter, went though security in two minutes, got registered in about 5 minutes, had our pictures taken, and before 11:00 were were resting comfortably in the suites area of the terminal. It was announced that the Oasis had sustained damage to the aft gangway that morning, so they were down to only one point of entry, but after waiting only about 30 minutes before we were called, we walked right on with no drama. It was probably the most painless boarding experience I’ve ever had in my life, which was welcome after the nightmare cattle herd we went though getting on the Liberty in Miami. I give RCI Fort Lauderdale an A.
Ship: I had the pleasure of cruising on the SS Norway when it was the biggest ship in the world, the Sovereign of the Seas when it took the title, and the Liberty of the Seas when it held the distinction, so I was very interested to see how the Oasis class would continue to push the envelope. The short answer is that the vessel is an absolute engineering marvel. It is like nothing I have ever witnessed before. The Promenade feels like a real-sized shopping mall, the Boardwalk feels like an authentic boardwalk, and Central Park is like restaurant row in New York without the threat of being mugged (unless you consider the cover charges robbery). After seven days, I still found myself taking longer-than-necessary routes to my destinations just so I could walk though these amazing spaces. Generally speaking, I felt like the Oasis designers and engineers did an impressive job of building on the innovations of the Voyager and Freedom class ships while still managing to make it reasonably easy to get around on such a large vessel with so many different spaces. That having been said, the split superstructure that allows for Central Park and Boardwalk forces some awkward compromises elsewhere, most notably on the pool deck where a lot of space is sacrificed resulting in smaller pools and fewer lounge chairs, and on the rock walls, which are not part of the sports deck and seemed to go underutilized (wall 2 was never opened on my cruise). On balance, I’d say the compromises are worth it, and that the design works, so RCI gets a well-deserved A.
Staterooms: Our group of 12 people were all located on Deck 14 in a variety of different stateroom types. Among us, we had an Owner’s Suite (14640), a Grand Suite (14660), a Junior Suite (14626), and three D2 outside staterooms with balconies. My wife and I were in 14178 that adjoined with our daughters in 14180. We had a similar setup on the Liberty, and though they were similar, the Liberty’s cabins were larger and better arranged. We did have our cabin steward open the partition between the two adjoining balconies, which gave us a very nice-sized outdoor space. Interestingly enough, with the exception of the Junior Suite, all the cabins were judged to be smaller than equivalent types on the Liberty, though the differences weren’t problematic. Nearly everyone in our group complained about noise from the pool deck above, but we didn’t notice anything in our two rooms (perhaps because we were farther forward and out of the path of traffic). The Owner’s Suite was very nice with a large living room, a separate bedroom area and a very large triple-width balcony. It was a great place for the group to congregate before dinner and had a big flat screen TV that was nice for NFL playoffs and the Golden Globes. We were all very impressed with the Junior Suite, which was quite large and had an impressive walk-in closet. It’s a pity that the JS isn’t afforded the same perks as other suites because it has such a great space-to-price ratio. B
Food/Dining: This is probably the toughest category to rate because the results varied widely by location and meal:
Main Dining Room: We got off to a bit of a rocky start in the MDR at dinner since our table for 12 was incorrectly set up as two tables for 6, but this was corrected by the second night. The food the in the MDR was reasonably good, though not always hot, a phenomenon we attributed to preparing dishes simultaneously for 3,000 people. We were very pleased to find that the tiny lobster tails found on the Liberty were replaced by full-sized Maine lobster tails on the Oasis, and we nearly exhausted the ocean’s supply between the 12 of us. Overall, the choices were varied and the service was quite good, so we gave the MDR dinner experience a B+.
We did venture to the MDR for breakfast one day, and the results were not as good. In addition to the traditional menu choices, the MDR also offers an “express breakfast” in the center, which is essentially just a scaled-down version of what you would find in the Windjammer. In my opinion, this is one of the poorest decisions RCI could have made. Having two different types of diners intermingled leaves the service staff confused about who needs what and when: if you’re ordering from the menu, you’re easily confused with someone getting their own food from the buffet and can be left alone for long stretches, and if you’re getting the buffet, you’re left alone, but unlike the Windjammer, you can’t get your own beverages or things like bread and butter, so you’re at the mercy of the service staff who are not likely to attend to you if they think you’re serving yourself at the buffet. The net result is that the more traditional, slower-paced breakfast option preferred my many is cheapened by the presence of a buffet that is not as good as the already-offered buffet found in the Windjammer. My recommendation to RCI: Let buffets be buffets and served breakfasts be served breakfasts. The mixture of the two earns a D.
Specialty Restaurants: Four of us took the night off from the MDR and went to Chops, which proved to be a highlight. The appetizers were all great, the filets were top-notch, the mud pie was amazing, and the atmosphere in Central Park makes the Chops on the Liberty feel like an afterthought. Two others in our group tried Giovanni’s Table and actually rated it higher than Chops, which was unexpected. Many have complained about the upcharges, but I think they are reasonable given the quality of the experience. Chops gets an A.
Windjammer: Some in our group really liked the Windjammer, but I found the food to be average, the choices generally the same from day-to-day, and the crowds too heavy to tolerate. After a couple of rounds of having full plates and nowhere to sit, we went with the strategy of finding a table, then sending everyone up to the buffet except one who held the table. It works, but it’s not enjoyable. An interesting observation my wife made: In an attempt to please the international palette of the passengers, mainstream American fare no longer dominants the Windjammer menu, and at some meals, has been almost entirely squeezed out of the picture. That’s not a criticism, and it wasn’t a problem for us, but it’s an interesting insight into the changing preferences of modern cruisers. At the end of the day, most of us agreed that the Windjammer on the Liberty offered better quality food and had a superior overall design. I honestly don’t understand how some people spend their entire cruise vacation eating in the Windjammer, but to each their own. I give it a C.
Solarium Bistro: We tried the Solarium Bistro for lunch a couple of times, and my wife really liked the choices there (salads, wraps, hummus, fish, rice, etc.), though it was also very crowded and offered limited seating. If you’re more of an herbivore than a carnivore, you’ll like the SB. It’s not my preference, but there were a couple of days where we were eating lunch late and didn’t want to spoil dinner, so the lighter fare worked well. I enjoyed it well enough to give it a B. One criticism I’ll offer related to the design of the SB, and not the food it serves: The Solarium is supposed to function as a tranquil, adult escape from the noisy, action-filled areas on the rest of the ship, and it looks the part. Unfortunately, due to the location of the SB right in the middle of the space, there is a constant restaurant din (cups and plates hitting tables, silverware hitting plates, chitter-chatter and cackling over the meal) that cuts through the solitude and threatens to ruin the environment. If there’s a way for RCI engineers to isolate the noise, I’d recommend that they do so.
Johnny Rockets: We had lunch at Johnny Rockets after returning from Nassau and weren’t overly impressed. It’s essentially the same junk that you can get at your local mall, only with a server who can’t understand you. This is one instance where the cover charge is not only unjustifiable, but it works against them. I would have been happy to walk in a couple of times to get a milkshake, but I was told that I’d have to pay the $4.95 cover charge, than pay the (unpublished) cost of the milkshake, which would leave me with a roughly $10 bill for an ice cream treat. The Liberty had a walk up window for such instances that worked very well, but I never saw a similar arrangement on Oasis. Truthfully, they should make this one complimentary (it already is for breakfast), or simply go with a la carte pricing like the Seafood Shack across the Boardwalk. I’ll be kind and give JR a C-.
Wipeout Café: My kids wanted to take us there for lunch after going with Adventure Ocean the day before, so we humored them. It is clearly kid and teen-oriented fare (burgers, tacos, pizza, pretzel dogs, french fries, and small sandwiches), but it’s not bad for what it is. Despite my expectations, I actually liked the pretzel dogs, and view of the basketball court and zip line from the back seating area was cool. I might need an angioplasty after eating there, but I’ll give it a B for serving its target audience well.
Sorrentos: They keep it simple here, offering three or four types of pizza just about whenever you want it. A couple of people in our group thought the pizza was terrible, but I thought it was just fine, if not spectacular. I give it a B.
Room Service: On our first day in Nassau, we had to be up and out early, so we opted for room service breakfast so we could eat quickly without having to waste time walking to a restaurant. It would have been a great plan if they ever showed up. They didn’t, and repeated attempts to call yielded busy signals. Desperate, we sprinted to the Windjammer, grabbed a few things, and ran to the gangway to make our excursion. Upon our return, we were greeted with an apology note and a plate of cookies. I wasn’t impressed and will give them an F.
Entertainment: This, in my opinion, was one of the Oasis’ strongest areas, offering a wide variety of options in multiple interesting locations. If you can’t find something that appeals to you on this ship, you might just be dead. Before I give my two cents on the shows, a word about reservations: This ship is a real departure from the traditional “finish dinner, go to the show in the big theater” model that has been in place for decades. You have to treat it as if you are in a city and are choosing your entertainment from the large pool of available options. If you are a planner like we are, you’ll do very well by setting up the framework of your schedule in advance and booking your shows online before departure. This makes the cruise itself stress-free since you’ve already done the work beforehand. If however, you are the “wing-it” type (we had a couple in our group), the ship can accommodate you as well, in most cases. Just show up a little early, get in the stand-by line and you’ll likely get in. On to the shows:
Hairspray: I haven’t seen the Broadway version of this show, but others in my group had, and felt it was on par with what they had seen on land. I’ve seen my share of Broadway shows, and I thought this compared well with your typical touring company production. Not everyone was a great singer, but some were. Not everyone was a great dancer, but some were. The staging was excellent, and the chemistry between the actors was very good (especially between Edna and Wilbur Turnblad). It’s a very physical show with lots of singing and dancing numbers, so the performers work very hard without an intermission. We spoke to several after the show (who would have guessed that Tracy, played very effectively by Natalie Woods, was British!) and they were quite tired. They deserve an A.
Oasis of Dreams: This combination of diving, synchronized swimming, trampoline and acrobatics was a highlight of the cruise. Artistic, energetic and highly unique, it is not to be missed. A+
Come Fly With Me: This is a Cirque du Soleil style acrobatic performance in the Opal Theater, and it is spectacular. The sets are creative, the music is great and the featured talents (supported by several cast members from Hairspray) are simply amazing. A
Frozen in Time: If pressed, I would say this was the best show on the ship. The skaters are top-notch talents and the story, woven around the timeless tales of Hans Christian Andersen, is compelling for all ages. Stealing the show, and perhaps the entire week, is sand artist Kseniya Simonova, 2009 winner of Ukraine’s Got Talent. Her interlude depicting the story of Thumbelina is sensational. A+
Splish-Splash Comedy show: A non-reservation, lighter, more comedic diving and acrobatic show in the Aqua Theater. Very funny while still remaining spectacular, it’s like Keystone Cops on Olympic high dives. A hidden gem. A
Headliner: The headliner on this ship was Scott Record, a Vegas-style singer/impersonator who has worked with the likes of Ray Charles and Rodney Dangerfield. He has a very nice voice and a couple of decent segments, but we found most of his bits outdated with a high groan factor. If you’re not into corny, look elsewhere. C
Cruise Director: I love British humor, so Richard Spacey was the perfect CD for my tastes. He is energetic, funny, hard-working and very talented. Probably the best CD I’ve ever had. A+
Activities: Here’s where the size of the Oasis really plays to its advantage. There are so many options, the challenge is getting a taste of everything without running yourself ragged in the process. We very much enjoyed the rock walls (despite the odd location), the zip line, the enclosed ping pong tables, the miniature golf, ice skating, the H2O Zone, the arcade, and the Beach Pool (great concept!). My daughters had a good time in Adventure Ocean, though the schedule was otherwise full enough that they didn’t spend a whole lot of time there. The only downer was BINGO, which proved to be so expensive ($32 for 4 games on a traditional paper card, $55 for 4 games on an electronic device that plays for you) that we had to pass. Clearly, BINGO isn’t the fun family activity it used to be. Overall, we had a great time even though we probably barely scratched the surface. A
Ports: With the Oasis and Allure, it’s pretty clear that the ships are the main attraction and the ports of call are the supporting cast, so with that in mind, we were very happy with the Eastern Caribbean itinerary. The ports do bring up one major shortcoming of the Oasis: debarkation and re-embarkation. It turns out that there’s just no way to get 4,000-5,000 people through a 6 foot hole in a boat very quickly, especially when the window of time in each port is so small. In order to have excursions that are reasonable lengths of time, it’s imperative that the tours start as soon as possible when the ship docks, but that creates a situation where everyone is trying to get off at the same time to meet up with their tour. It’s an absolute madhouse of humanity on the gangway deck and nobody has any information to alleviate the frustration. Re-embarkation is possibly worse, as the excursions try to squeeze as much time as possible out of the day, placing everyone at the gangway at about the same time, but this time everyone has to go through airport-style security (can’t let any booze get though!). Very long lines lasting 30-45 minutes to get back on board were the norm in Nassau and St. Thomas, and ultimately caused us to abandon our plans in St. Maarten.
Nassau: We have always wanted to visit Atlantis, but it has been more expensive than we’ve been willing to part with for a single destination, so we were thrilled at the chance to visit for the day on this cruise. Despite the challenges of the room service no-show and the herd of cattle debarkation, we managed to get with our tour group and get over to Paradise Island by about 9 am. We opted for the Aquaventure excursion, which included access to the water park and aquariums, and after a brief orientation by our tour guide, we were left to do as we pleased. We walked through The Dig (the big aquarium) and the Predator Lagoon until the slides opened at 10 am. The temps were in the low 70s with some cloud cover and a bit of a wind, so it was at about the limit of what a person would willingly tolerate while being wet all day. Still, Atlantis is so spectacular that it’s tough to complain about being a little chilly here and there. We rode all the slides at the Mayan temple, then rode The Current, which might be the coolest lazy river ever, then rode all the slides in the Power Tower before doing a couple more runs at the Mayan Temple. The ship was departing at 2 pm, so we left at close to 1 pm, making the stay a bit shorter than we would have liked given the steep cost (over $500 for the four of us), but since Atlantis was somewhere we have wanted to see for quite some time, we felt like we did everything we wanted to do and that it was ultimately worth it. Those considering this tour should keep in mind that the weather in the Bahamas in January can be questionable and that the stay is short, requiring some haste to make it worthwhile. B+
St. Thomas: After considering a shopping outing in Charlotte Amalie and seeing our daughters’ eyes roll, we opted for a Kayak-Hike-Snorkel excursion departing from Mangrove Lagoon on the southeast part of the island. Once again, it was a nightmare getting off the ship and quite a bit of chaos on the pier, but we eventually made the long drive across town (I was not aware that the Oasis docked on the western side of the harbor rather than the eastern side like every other ship I’ve been on) to the Eco Tours departure site. We were greeted by our two young guides, Sean and Raji, who gave us a quick overview before walking us out to the docks to the kayaks. My wife and I each took a daughter and headed out on the water. What a wonderfully beautiful experience it was to paddle through crystal-clear water under bright blue skies through the mangroves. Sean and Raji were very funny and educational, eventually leading us out to Cas Cay for a brief hike to the point where we watched the water explode out of the geologic blowhole. After that, we snorkeled around the reef for about 45 minutes before re-boarding our kayaks and heading back. It was truly one of the best days I’ve ever had on any island and was a great value at about $250 for the four of us. One caveat: There’s no mention in the tour literature that cash is needed, but they don’t recommend taking your camera on the trip with you because it could easily get wet, so the tour guides take pictures during the tour with a waterproof camera and sell a CD at the end for $40. That would have been nice to know. Still, a great excursion. A
St. Maarten: Our original plan was to take a taxi to Mr. Busby’s on Dawn Beach this day, but after spending quite a lot of money on excursions in Nassau and St. Thomas, and going through the ordeal of getting up and off the ship twice already, we elected to stay onboard and enjoy Oasis with 1/3 the passengers. We’ve been to St. Maarten before, so the bliss of choosing any deck chair we wanted and sitting anywhere we wanted in the Windjammer was well worth it to us. N/A
Debarkation: It’s hard to say how much the still-damaged aft gangway slowed down the debarkation process, but it was just okay, at best. The lines were fairly long, and the staff was clearly ready to move on to the next group. Things got better once we actually got off the ship since we opted to pay for the $20 valet service that sends your baggage directly to the airport. Two people in our group received the incorrect tags and didn’t realize it, so their bags were not sent the airport as expected and will have to be sent to them via UPS ground; an unfortunate way to end the week. C
Overall: Cruising on the Oasis is an amazing experience, as long as you’re ready to accept that moving and organizing 6,000 passengers comes with some physical limitations. By the end of the week, I felt myself a bit “crowd weary”, even while acknowledging that the ship handles the hoards well. While it is wonderful, there is room for improvement on Oasis: I would recommend eliminating “express breakfast” from the dining room, and getting rid of the extra charges for Johnny Rockets, the ice cream parlor, and the Cupcake store (limiting the upcharges to the specialty restaurants in Central Park would go a long way toward mitigating the feeling that you’re getting nickel-and-dimed at every turn). Most importantly, I’d like to see something done to improve the debarkation and re-embarkation process at the ports of call, since pushing people overboard and picking them up in the lifeboats would actually be less of an ordeal than the current process. Still, these are small nits to pick in the grand scheme of things and we are left with the feeling that our week on the Oasis of the Seas was something very special that we won’t soon forget. A-