Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, has been the most anticipated new-build to debut since Cunard's Queen Mary 2. Its innovations -- such as the first-ever Boardwalk and Central Park at sea, which uniquely occupy space that's carved out of the middle of the ship -- are already legendary.
The ship features new-to-Royal Caribbean types of eateries that range from spa cuisine to elaborately staged food and wine pairings. Its entertainment district, a hub for late owls, offers ice skating and disco, comedy and jazz, and a three-tiered theater that features a 90-minute version of "Hairspray," the popular Tony Award-winning Broadway show. Particularly dazzling is the ship's AquaTheater, with its deepest-pool-at-sea, which serves as a platform for performers such as divers and synchronized swimmers.
Innovations on Oasis of the Seas are by no means limited to passenger-friendly advances. Royal Caribbean also has introduced a number of new technical and environmental tools that enable the ship to be more efficient and more eco-responsible.
Beyond the innovations of Oasis of the Seas (and its sister Allure of the Seas, which debuted in December 2010), what kind of cruise does it really offer? Will a ship that accommodates 6,296 passengers (when all berths are filled) feel crowded? How can a vessel that's so big -- and that holds so many people -- offer the kind of attentive service that cruise ships are typically known for? And will the hordes descending from Oasis of the Seas in ports such as Nassau, St. Thomas and St. Maarten overwhelm the islands?
From a recent week-long voyage aboard Oasis of the Seas, a handful of observations:
Sure, the ship is large, but it doesn't feel as massive as you'd expect it to and that's a credit to its design. The neighborhood concept really does work -- Central Park was our favorite, and we found reasons to be there day (Park Cafe for freshly made salads, sandwiches and breakfast fare; fun tours of art and foliage; and lots of comfortable chairs in which to read) and night (noshing at the outdoor tables at Vintages, the wine bar, and at Giovanni's, the ship's Italian restaurant). After dinner, the Entertainment Zone was a magnet. On sunny days, congregating on the pool deck was a natural activity -- but while it was crowded, you could always find a lounge chair.
Still, a voyage that was pretty much at full capacity, you do have to deal with crowds sometimes. One particular hot zone was the Windjammer Marketplace (that buffet space is simply too small for such a large ship -- despite efforts to entice passengers to dine at other restaurants throughout the ship). The Royal Promenade could get ridiculously congested during parades, and you could wait a while for an elevator. But there were plenty of places to get away from fellow passengers -- such as the wrap-around promenade on Deck 5, and the aforementioned Central Park, which was quiet most of the time. There also are a couple of open-to-all balconies overlooking the AquaTheater (one's on Deck 11, starboard); there's another off-beat spot, all the way forward and above the solarium, which most people miss.
One downside of all those people -- and in some cases smallish restaurants and entertainment venues -- is that you really do have to plan ahead and book in advance. We never were able to get into Izumi, but did make reservations ahead of time for the Chef's Table, 150 Central Park, Chops Grille, and Giovanni's Table. Entertainment-wise, "Hairspray" was popular and the comedy club was full, every night. For the latter, we didn't book ahead and we didn't get in.
Service was remarkably good -- and that surprised me. It's important to note that, of course, the crewmembers on our voyage were all part of the transition team (which means they had time to get used to the ship -- and that they were among the more experienced staffers in the fleet). But still, the Royal Caribbean crew was enthusiastic and definitely empowered to take proper care of passengers. Where I noticed problems with service was in venues that were operated by third party companies -- and staffed with their employees, not Royal Caribbean crewmembers. Most notably, service in the shops, particularly the potentially enchanting Willow, was really poor (clearly the staffers there are not happy to be onboard); the spa seemed chaotic and poorly run.
There are no traditional art auctions on Oasis -- a first in contemporary cruising. However, there's a magnificent art gallery onboard, in Central Park, which focuses on artists and pieces that are exhibited on the ship (as well as on other Royal Caribbean vessels). For the first time in years I actually took one of the art tours offered -- and found it fascinating, enabling me to appreciate the art with new eyes. I often walked out of my way to revisit favorite pieces. Beyond the tours, there are a handful of events, such as an artist reception (one artist travels onboard on each voyage) and workshop, and opportunities to buy pieces, ranging from postcards to original works.
The Boardwalk, one of the most hotly anticipated neighborhoods, was a surprisingly empty spot onboard. It's charming -- and a ride on the carousel was a real smile -- but people didn't really hang out there, unless they're passing through on the way to the Aqua Theater. One parent told me that the problem with the Boardwalk area is that there are too many for-fee places -- and that parents don't want to walk that expensive gauntlet, with kids begging for ice cream, a fried food meal at the Seafood Shack (with its $8.95 for adults and $4.95 for kids cover charge) or Johnny Rockets (which also levies a fee). Other costly temptations on the Boardwalk include shops where you can buy a furry pet, trendy children's clothing and accessories, and bags of candy.
In port, Royal Caribbean has built facilities on each dock with numerous screening stations that enable passengers to re-embark much more smoothly than some of the smaller mega-ships we were berthed alongside! Nassau was the only place where I noticed congestion when reboarding; we had a short, half-day call there and everyone waited until the last minute to return to the ship. And walking around in port, especially in St. Maarten and St. Thomas, where we've traveled frequently, we frankly didn't notice any difference in our experience at all, even with so many more passengers coming off this biggest-ever ship.
Ultimately, before I cruised on Oasis, I wondered: Does Oasis of the Seas -- as strong as it may be in its appeal to families, romantics and active cruisers -- succeed as a ship that has something for every kind of passenger?
As important as it is to extol the innovative and frankly just-plain-fun features of Oasis of the Seas, it's also crucial to talk about what it's not. Oasis of the Seas is not a ship where you'll cruise an itinerary of exotic ports (stops such as St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Nassau are, honestly, sidelines to the onboard action). Despite its numerous upscale accouterments, such as two-level Loft Suites and the pricey 150 Central Park Restaurant, with a maximum passenger load of 6,296 at full capacity, this can never be a luxury ship. And when it's full -- it feels full.
And for those travelers for whom a cruise represents a chance to make new friends -- particularly, but not limited to, seniors and solos -- Oasis is simply too vast to inspire connections (though Cruise Critic's Meet & Mingle
parties offer a way before, during and after your cruise to connect with passengers).
With the FlowRiders, H2O Zone, Boardwalk and incredible age-specific children's facilities, Oasis of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's (Central Park is a great place relatively kid-free spot to hang). The majority of passengers hail from North America, though many passengers on our sailing came from the United Kingdom and Europe, as well, keen to experience the world's largest cruise ship.
Seven-night cruises have two formal nights and five casual nights. A decent number of men choose to wear tuxedos for formal dining, though dark suits were more common on our sailing. Women are typically found in cocktail dresses or gowns.
Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.