We sailed Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas May 14-21, 2011, Western Caribbean itinerary from Fort Lauderdale with ports of call in Labadee (Haiti), Falmouth (Jamaica), and Cozumel (Mexico). This was our 12th cruise: 5th on Royal Caribbean and we have also sailed 5 times on Norwegian and once each on Celebrity and Carnival. On this cruise we had my husband and me (53 and 60 respectively), our 3 youngest kids, aged 21 and a pair of 19 year olds, my mother (age 83), and a friend along as her roommate.
We live in South Carolina and will usually opt to drive to embarkation ports in Florida rather than flying. Parking cost us $15/ day for our minivan, which is a bargain compared to 5 airline tickets. We spent the night before our cruise at the Days Inn Bahia Cabana at Fort Lauderdale Beach and I heartily recommend this motel. The rooms are spacious if not glamorous for a family-friendly price, with good air conditioning and free wifi available for Internet access in the rooms. Best of all was the open-air restaurant overlooking the marina with a live band at night. It was also incredibly convenient to scoot over to the port in the morning as we were able to take a short-cut from the 17th street causeway, and never had to get back out to the main roads ... sweet!
THE SHIP: OASIS OF THE SEAS OVERVIEW:
Our entire family found Oasis of the Seas to be a mixed bag, and in the end I would NOT rate this ship as my favorite Royal Caribbean sailing experience. On the one hand, the ship itself is nothing short of amazing, and it was worth it to take a cruise on Oasis ... once ... just to see the ship because there is nothing else like it on the high seas. Both embarkation and disembarkation were a breeze moving thousands of people on and off the ship at a remarkably fast clip. We also found that despite only having forward and aft elevator banks (no centrum), we never waited for elevators and people were easily whisked up and down between decks with no muss or fuss. Many of the public spaces like the inside Promenade mall seemed graciously grand and open, and my husband noted that the spacing of seats in the theater was more generous than on other ships, with more leg room than he usually finds. We also had no trouble whatsoever getting our bearings and finding our way around after a few hours onboard. It may take a little longer for somebody unfamiliar with the Voyager or Freedom class ships; Oasis is much bigger, but once you figure out what is stacked on top of what, for example Central Park is on top of the Promenade, it makes easy sense. Also, as an aside, the week we sailed we had Richard Spacey as our cruise director, and he has to be the most hysterically funny cruise director we have ever encountered; his quirky good humor with goofy body language and always those crazy socks was a joy.
We had Central Park view staterooms which were both comfortable and very spacious, especially with the bay window with a window seat added in. I chose this type of accommodation to get the most of the unique Central Park; we could look out on the park both morning and night which was lovely. We also ate breakfast most days at the Central Park Cafe which was quick and easy so long as you can be happy with an extremely limited menu and paper cups for your coffee. If nothing else, it was better than coping with the Windjammer Cafe which seemed too small (always people wandering around looking for a place to sit - it didn't have the panorama open feel of other Windjammer Cafes) and it seemed poorly organized compared to Windjammer Cafes on Freedom Class and Voyager Class ships.
In addition to the one-of-a-kind Central Park there are other remarkable properties of Oasis of the Seas, and most readers will already know the list, especially the outdoor boardwalk with its magical carousel (although I rarely saw anyone on it) and the incredible Aqua Theater which was well attended for both the water shows and also smaller venue outdoor theater. Beyond that, however, most of the bells and whistles like the interior Promenade with its tasty pizza parlor, cafe, English pub and more, or Studio B offering ice skating for the guests and a fabulous ice show can be found on Freedom class and Voyager class ships too, so for our family at least, these "perks" would not be a draw by themselves to sail Oasis or her sister ship, Allure of the Seas. So beyond what can gleaned from reviewing deck plans, how did the actual experience of sailing Oasis of the Seas compare to sailing other Royal Caribbean ships?
We have always found the staterooms to be comfortable on Royal Caribbean. Our cabins on Oasis of the Seas were larger than industry standards, the beds were comfortable and there were plush bathrobes in the closet - a nice touch. We were able to access the Internet on our laptop from the stateroom which was super convenient for checking in on work back home. One thing I really like about Royal Caribbean (really really really like) is their policy for booking families. Many cruise lines have their computer systems rigged so that it is difficult or even impossible to book a stateroom without having somebody over 21 in each cabin. This places a particular hardship on large families with 2 parents but several children, more than 2 cabins worth of warm bodies. On Royal Caribbean, if Mom and Dad say that the kids are old enough to have their own bedroom, then Royal Caribbean says okay too. Children need to either be next door or across the hall from Mom and Dad, but that is usually easy enough to arrange. So when we sail Royal Caribbean, our two 19 year old daughters can be booked into their own stateroom and it's no hassle. On many other cruise lines we still have to split them up on paper with my husband listed in one cabin and me in the other, then we swap rooms onboard so the girls are together and so are my husband and I ... a senseless charade which is a nuisance ... and it's nice to skip the hassle on Royal Caribbean.
We did not visit any of the specialty restaurants for dinner so I regret I cannot comment on these. We did have lunch at the Seafood Shack one day. It was tasty but I am not sure it was worth paying a surcharge for fish and chips. We'd planned to get a burger at Johnny Rockets at one point but didn't realize we'd have to pay extra for that too, which seemed even less logical given that we could get a burger up by the pool for free (I knew there was a charge for the milkshakes, but didn't realize the hamburgers carried a fee too). We were not impressed with the layout of the Windjammer Cafe on this ship, although my husband sometimes braved the crowds to find some light fare on days when we were out by the pool because the food was nevertheless delicious (especially the curries!). The food in the main dining room at dinner was also very good, and the service was excellent. Our waiter (Fajar) and assistant waiter (Alvin) were entertaining as well as conscientious to do a good job. We also had no trouble picking up a quick lunch on the Promenade at Sorrento's or the Cafe Promenade. In any event, it's impossible to go hungry on a Royal Caribbean cruise! There is always a variety of food available.
ENTERTAINMENT AND ONBOARD ACTIVITIES:
This is where it gets sticky. Was the entertainment good? YES! It was the best we have ever seen on any Royal Caribbean cruise bar none. I still maintain that I have seen some better shows in the past on Norwegian Cruise Line, but this was the best ever on Royal Caribbean. BUT - and this is a really big but - kudos to Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure - the way entertainment is "administered" on Oasis of the Seas is ABSOLUTELY AWFUL. I was so fed up after the first two days I was ready to jump ship, and I love cruising and am pretty good about rolling with the punches. The funny thing about Oasis of the Seas is that it is a gargantuan ship with some very grand public spaces, but most of the ship is filled with itsy little cabaret-sized venues ... dozens of them. Just when you are expecting to enjoy a nice relaxing cruise, where dinner is served and you expect to enjoy some interesting entertainment after ... you discover that it doesn't work that way on this ship. Nope, everything is scheduled and I mean scheduled in advance of you even showing up to board. Everything is by reservation, and because the venues are mostly small and there are thousands of people competing for seats ... well ... it's mayhem. I tried to make some reservations before we left home (although I really didn't want to have to do this - it's a pain to have to schedule your onboard "vacation" hour by hour weeks before you travel) but found the online booking wasn't working. I was told no problem, just take care of it from the convenience of your stateroom after you board.
Okay. We got onboard and my husband pulled up the screen on the television in our stateroom but alas ... the reservation function was not working. We later learned that as far as we could figure it out, we would only have been able to book our stateroom anyway, so would have had to go door to door to book the kids and grandmother's reservations from their television screens - an incredible nuisance. But because the screens were not working the day we boarded, we were instructed to go down to Studio B (where the ice arena is located) to make our reservations. So I trooped down there, and after an hour of waiting in line it was my turn to request reservations. Naturally some of the shows I had penciled in were already closed, so after more time spent working with a staff person rearranging everything, I got as decent a schedule (and it very much IS a schedule) as I could get and he keyed it into the computer. Good to go, right? Not so fast.
That night we showed up early for our first show (Hairspray) only to discover that our reservation was not in the system. In fact, they checked, and only one of the reservations I'd made for the entire week actually had registered in the computer. And I stood in line for an hour and worked with a staffer to piece together a week-long itinerary for THIS? So we waited in the stand-by line and at the last minute were able to get in for some lousy seats way off to one side.
The next morning I marched down to customer relations to try to sort out the "reservations" but of course was told that everything was booked up, which was phenomenally irritating given that we were supposed to be among those who had gone to the trouble to make reservations. To make a long story short, we DID wind up seeing all the shows, but sometimes we had to see what I would expect to be an after dinner show during the afternoon, but then had nothing to do after dinner, and in every case except one we had to stand in the stand-by line to wait to see if somebody with reservations didn't show up so we could get in. Mind you, it wasn't much better for those who did have working reservations because if they didn't get there early, the staff started letting in the stand-bys to replace those who were presumed to be no-shows. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that with rare exception, most of the shows were not even full. My guess is people got so frustrated with the annoying system that they gave up on seeing the shows at all.
Royal Caribbean needs to SERIOUSLY rework the entertainment venues on Oasis of the Seas. A ship this size needs to have AT LEAST 2 large theaters and there need to be shows going in there - 2 or 3 a night - every night of the cruise so that everyone has the option to see a show after dinner - or before if you prefer to catch a late dinner after the show instead. No guest should be expected to stand in line for 45 minutes to an hour every single night - and sometimes twice in a single night - to see if maybe they might be able to enjoy some entertainment that evening - that's nuts and completely unacceptable. They also need to get rid of their crazy reservation system, which apparently doesn't work very well anyway. Instead, have a couple big theaters - at least two - with shows running at different times each night and with first come first served seating. Readily visible electronic boards can tell passengers which shows have seats remaining, and there can be smaller shows (Aqua Show, Ice Show, other performers in clubs) on the boards too so guests can plan their time day by day instead of weeks ahead. If the big theaters ran different shows for a few days on alternating nights, it would be possible to catch each show, but as it was, some nights nothing was going on in the large main theater at all. The whole entertainment scene was very badly managed and it cast a pall on the cruise experience - not just for our family but for lots of others who were complaining too.
Outside of the main theater most of the venues were quite small, I suppose to alleviate the sense of being on a huge ship, but the odd thing is most of them were nearly empty most nights. The comedy club was an exception - always stuffed with long lines of people trying to get in (hint to Royal Caribbean - the comedy show needs to be one of your headliners in the big theater!), and the trivia games were well attended and the occasional karaoke did okay, but more often than not we'd pop into a bar and 8 people would be there, go to another and see 5, and a third pub to find a dozen people. It was very odd really - where WAS everybody? Our kids found the same. Instead of having one main nightclub catering to the young adult all night disco crowd, they were always running back and forth up and down elevators between multiple clubs all on different decks trying to find their friends and make connections. At the end of the day, I suspect fewer clubs a little larger in size would serve everyone better. I felt so sorry for the large number of excellent musicians scattered throughout the ship that were putting on their shows for half a dozen people, who might wander out for no reason other than wondering where their friends were.
Special mention goes to the combo playing in the Viking Crown Lounge, the Standard Time Trio. We found them to be engaged with the audience (which was usually disappointingly small; I suspect many people had no idea that club was even there way up on deck 17). The vocalist, Melanie, would visit the tables on their breaks, and she also took requests from the audience. It was a pleasure having a lounge that was glamorously appointed where you had entertainment but could also carry on a conversation with others at the same time. For Royal Caribbean regulars, the Viking Crown Lounge on Oasis was much smaller than on other RCCL ships - really only a high ceilinged bar overlooking a couple of the pools but no 360 view like on Sovereign class or Vision class, and not even a 180 view like the later generation ships, with another bar and card room located behind. Instead, most of the deck was suites, with the Viking Crown Lounge occupying a sliver overlooking the pools (forget seeing much of the sea - this ship is so huge the water is often way far away and what you see when you get a vista view is the boat and more of the boat).
Another special mention goes to Katia Labozzetta and her superb jazz quartet that played most evenings in Jazz on 4. We thoroughly enjoyed their music and again found them eager to play requests (the "boy" from Ipanema was especially good). But again, very few people were in the audience, and in this case I attribute that to the venue itself. Frankly, Jazz on 4 was an unpleasant space. It was small, decorated as if to serve as Dracula's lair (and this has what to do with jazz one might wonder?), but worst of all, there was a constant flow of staff coming in and cutting in-between the audience and the band on their way to a door on the far side of the room. I have no idea what was behind that door, but bar servers and officers alike were continually trooping in and out (sometimes chatting as they went by), which was distracting. It's a pity that Katia Labozzetta and her jazz quartet were not offered the On-Air Club on the Promenade which as often as not was also mostly empty, and the stage in there wasn't even being used except occasionally for karaoke or music trivia.
PORTS OF CALL:
Our cruise had only 3 ports of call, which suited us fine as we enjoy at sea days.
LABADEE, HAITI: We had been to Labadee less than a year ago on Liberty of the Seas, so we limited our stay onshore to the barbecue lunch which was delicious, and some lollygagging on the beach accompanied by the local rum cocktail beverage, the Labadoozy.
FALMOUTH, JAMAICA: Although I have spent time in Jamaica, this was the first visit for everyone else, and since I knew the port was barely opened - it's still under construction - I booked a shore excursion here. We did the Mountain Rafting which we all thoroughly enjoyed! My one caveat is this: this is a new port and my guess is Royal Caribbean is dealing with a variety of new shore excursion vendors. I lived and worked in Jamaica years ago so I should have been better prepared, but these folks, while warm and friendly, are also very entrepreneurial and for better or worse, when they see cruise ships their assumption is that everyone on board is made of money and it is their sovereign duty to relieve each of you of as much of it as they can.
We were presented with preprinted forms from the Jamaicans informing us what they expected as a customary tip for the rafting - a hefty sum I might add - and at every turn in the excursion we were reminded that if we enjoyed so-and-sos presentation that we should show our appreciation and a basket or bucket was prominently displayed for us to pony up more tips. I reported this to Royal Caribbean and my guess is it will be addressed with the locals, BUT just the same, be smart and take plenty of small bills with you so you can appear to be generous should you be so inclined, but not lose your shirt with only $20 bills in your wallet! And PLEASE remember, the rate of exchange on the US dollar to Jamaican dollar is US$1 = J$84.65 at this writing. They do not NEED a US$20 tip at every turn in addition to what you already paid for the excursion - this coming from somebody who worked down there as an archaeologist and dealt with the locals in their own local economy. Buyer Beware.
Aside from that unpleasant tidbit, I highly recommend this tour! The river rafting was splendid - very scenic and relaxing. The river tour was followed by a presentation on Jamaican liqueurs - with tastings - and a demonstration on making pina coladas from scratch starting with a coconut and pineapple - and we got to sample that too. A tasty barbecue lunch followed (expect to buy your drink however - US$2 each), and then a demonstration on how coconuts can be used, and then a jaunt up to see a "banana plantation" which was actually not really a plantation at all but rather just another demonstration in a slightly different location, this time on all the uses of banana plants, which was fascinating.
COZUMEL. MEXICO: We were just down here over New Year's Eve on another cruise, but honestly, it's hard to not enjoy Cozumel as many times as you return (this was our 4th visit in 6 years). We had planned to hit the beach (any one of many - they are all lovely), but we were already extra crispy after too much sun the day before at sea, so elected to do some shopping in San Miguel instead, especially since our plans to buy souvenirs in Jamaica were squelched by spending all our souvenir cash on tips! We ended the day with cool beverages at Carlos and Charlie's.
Please feel free to contact me directly (JBFLeBlanc@aol.com) if you have any questions about Oasis of the Seas, or about cruising in general.