Royal Caribbean has a reputation for launching bigger and bigger ships with outrageous, attention-getting amenities. However, in a surprise move, the company reintroduced the much smaller Empress of the Seas to the fleet after the vessel spent eight years with Spain-based Pullmantur Cruises. If you've sailed Royal Caribbean before, the experience on Empress is a bit different, with an emphasis on relaxation and enjoying the ocean views instead of wild, new innovations.
Here are 10 things to know when considering a voyage on Empress of the Seas.
1. Empress is smaller than all other Royal Caribbean ships.
Carrying 1,602 passengers (at double occupancy) and clocking in at 48,564 GRT (gross tonnage), Empress is Royal Caribbean's smallest ship. Its size is most notable in the cabins, with interior staterooms ranging from 109 to 131 square feet (much smaller than the average inside cabin, which is closer to 175 square feet), and in the fact that you can get anywhere on the ship in under five minutes. Despite being small, Empress doesn't feel crowded. There are plenty of seating areas sprinkled about with floor-to-ceiling windows, and at times, the wraparound promenade on Deck 6 can be blissfully quiet. Fewer passengers and early boarding times mean that embarking and disembarking is a breeze on Empress.
2. Empress is also more than 25 years old.
Empress of the Seas first launched in 1990 as the Nordic Empress with Gloria Estefan serving as Godmother. After a hiatus from Royal Caribbean while the ship sailed with Pullmantur, Empress was relaunched in May 2016 following a $50 million revitalization. The updates are evident in some areas of the ship like the library, card room, internet cafe and Boleros lounge, while other spaces -- like the outdoor pool and whirlpools -- could still use some attention. The plumbing system is more sensitive than on other vessels we've been on, so cruisers should be mindful of throwing unnecessary products (paper or otherwise) in the toilets.
3. Bottomless mimosas are offered every day at lunch.
A new addition unique to Empress of the Seas (not found on other Royal Caribbean ships) are the free brunch mimosas and Bloody Marys. Both can be ordered at the seaday brunch in the Starlight Dining Room on sea days or in the Windjammer buffet on port days.
4. Empress will be Royal Caribbean's Cuba ship.
Royal Caribbean has plans to offer cruises to Cuba onboard Empress of the Seas, however the company has not yet received permission from Cuban authorities. Itineraries the line plans to offer on Empress include: Havana, Key West and Nassau; Havana and Key West; and Havana and the Bahamas -- some, but not all of which will include an overnight stay in Havana. Until approval is received, the ship will continue to sail four- and five-night Caribbean itineraries to Key West, Grand Cayman, Coco Cay and/or Cozumel through April 2017.
5. There are almost no balcony cabins.
The majority of the cabins onboard Empress of the Seas are interior and ocean-view rooms. What on other ships would be called a standard balcony are sold as junior suites on Empress and the only other cabins with balconies are the six bona fide two-room suites. If you're used to sailing in a balcony cabin, you'll need to be early for an Empress sailing.
6. The Royal Caribbean "Wow" factor is missing.
Due to size limitations, there are some features frequent Royal Caribbean cruisers may have become used to that are notably absent from Empress of the Seas. While the ship has a rock climbing wall, it lacks the additional "wow" features found on others ships like ice skating rinks, water slides, mini-golf, surf simulators and other "amusement park" amenities. There's only one tiny swimming pool (as well as a splash pool for kids), and the spa only offers treatment rooms (no sauna or steam room). Other areas missing are the adults-only Solarium, a teen club, a Diamond Lounge and the Concierge Club (for Crown and Anchor members).
7. But a few Royal Caribbean favorites stand out.
Empress maintains some classic Royal Caribbean experiences, like Quest, a hilarious interactive game for adults that is hosted in the Royal Theatre. Two staple bars and lounges, Schooner Bar, a nautical-themed watering hole, and the Viking Crown Lounge, a traditional lounge with a disco floor for late nights, can both be found on Empress. (Empress is actually one of the few ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet to still have Viking Crown Lounge, an old favorite that has been replaced on many other ships.) The window-lined, Windjammer Cafe serves as the ship's main buffet, and Chops Grille, the popular specialty steakhouse, is also onboard. Royal's super-fast Voom Wi-Fi is available for those who need to stay in touch, and the Adventure Ocean kids club is open for little ones.
8. Dining options are limited but relaxed.
Empress of the Seas has three dining venues: The Windjammer Cafe (included in the fare), Starlight Dining Room (also included) and Chops Grille (extra charge). Starlight's menu changes each day, and the Windjammer has a daily "international cuisine theme" to add more options to the usual buffet items. For those who don't like planning or structured dining times, Empress only offers the flexible "My Time Dining" program, so you can reserve a table whenever you'd like, and can select a different dining time each day. Plus, unlike on other Royal Caribbean ships, there are no formal nights, so you don't have to get dressed up on your vacation if you don't want to.
9. The smaller size leads to more comradery.
We found that the friendly crew on Empress didn't seem as rushed as crew members we've seen on other ships and took the time to chat or remember little details. And, without an overwhelming array of evening entertainment options happening at the same time (as you'd find on larger vessels), passengers gathered in the same hot spots each night -- so it was easy to get to know people.
10. It's affordable.
Although Empress' future itineraries are not yet set, at present, Caribbean cruise fares on Empress of the Seas are some of the lowest in the market. The short itineraries (four and five nights) from Miami make it easy for cruisers to hop aboard and give Royal Caribbean a try without paying the premium price tag found on the company's larger ships.