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Royal Caribbean Cruise Line History: How RCI Began and Where They're Going

Marissa Wright

Last updated
Jan 4, 2024

Read time
8 min read

Royal Caribbean International (originally Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines) began in 1968 as a consortium of three Norwegian ship owners who wanted to get in on the rapidly expanding U.S. cruise market. Today, it is one of the most popular cruise lines in the world-- but how exactly did it get this way, and what's in store for this well-known cruise line?

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line Fleet Today

Since Royal Caribbean's beginning, countless innovations and changes have been made to the now-popular fleet.

Today, the following cruise ships are in the Royal Caribbean cruise line fleet: Adventure of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Brilliance of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Grandeur of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Jewel of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Odyssey of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas, Spectrum of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, Vision of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line: The Beginning

The first cruise ship for the line was Song of Norway, which debuted in 1970, followed by Nordic Prince in 1971 and Sun Viking in 1972. Six years later, Royal Caribbean took the bold step to stretch the Song of Norway by lengthening it 85 feet. Two years later, the line repeated the exercise with Nordic Prince.

Bigger, Better Ships for Royal Caribbean's Cruises

In 1982, Royal Caribbean embraced the large-ship trend that it has stuck with ever since, launching Song of America, which at the time was the third-largest passenger ship at sea. Song of America held a little more than 1,500 people, and at the time was one of the Royal Caribbean’s largest ships.

Branching Out to On-Land Tourism

The line turned from investing in ships for a few years to investing in its land-based offerings. Royal leased a coastal property in Haiti in 1986, which it has been offering to passengers as their private island Labadee ever since.


New Royal Caribbean Ships: an Era for Innovation

Royal Caribbean returned to fleet expansion two years later and made history with its first Sovereign-class ship. Considered the first mega-ship of the modern cruising era, Sovereign of the Seas launched in 1988, and the ship was almost twice the size of Song of America as it was 70,000 tons.

While only mid-sized by today's standards, Sovereign of the Seas was massive in its day and completely dwarfed every competitor of the era. The most sensational feature -- aside from sheer size -- was the introduction of the first modern shipboard atrium that was reminiscent of an opulent hotel, complete with glass elevators and a grand piano.

The ship also introduced the concept of an entire deck devoted completely to cabins with private balconies, as well as Royal Caribbean signatures Viking Crown Lounge and Windjammer Cafe.

In the same year, the line purchased Little Stirrup Cay (an island in the Bahamas) which it turned into its second private destination called CocoCay.

Expansion for Royal Caribbean Cruises

Royal Caribbean also bought Admiral Cruises in 1988, which was a company specializing in short cruises. The line then turned its nearly new Stardancer into Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade in 1990 after a massive six-month-long refit.

Admiral Cruises' other new build launched for Royal Caribbean in 1990 under the name Nordic Empress.

Royal Caribbean then launched the even larger Sovereign-class sister ships, Monarch of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas, in quick succession in 1991 and 1992, respectively.

Around the same time that Royal Caribbean was engaging in this rapid growth, the line went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1993.

Going International with the Royal Caribbean International Fleet

By the early 1990s, Royal Caribbean moved on to another challenge: designing ships for use outside its traditional cruising grounds in the Caribbean. While the company had sent some of its oldest, smallest ships farther afield to cruise destinations like Alaska and Europe cruise ports, Royal Caribbean hadn't built a ship specifically for worldwide cruising.

This changed in 1995 with the introduction of Legend of the Seas, which brought the Royal Caribbean International fleet into a whole new era.

Legend, a Vision-class ship, was by far the most luxurious ship Royal Caribbean had ever built, as it had bigger cabins, more space per passenger and a wider variety of public areas and open decks.

The popular shipboard mini-golf course was introduced, as was Royal Caribbean's now-signature adults-only indoor/outdoor pool area called the Solarium, one of the most impressive shipboard spaces that has been built to date.

Legend was closely followed by its sister Splendour of the Seas (1996), and then by two pairs of slightly larger near-sisters: Grandeur (1996) and Enchantment of the Seas (1997), and Rhapsody (1997) and Vision of the Seas (1998).

Out With the Old, in With the New Royal Caribbean Ships

At the same time, between 1995 and 1999, the company disposed of the four original ships and replaced them with the new Vision-class ships. Royal Caribbean acquired Celebrity Cruises in 1997 and changed the name of the Royal Caribbean fleet to Royal Caribbean International, with the parent company taking on the name Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

Having established itself outside the Caribbean, Royal Caribbean turned back to developing its core market. In the mid-1990s, as the Vision-class ships entered service to rave reviews, the company began planning a new ship that would redefine the cruise industry.

Code-named "Project Eagle," the ship began sailing in 1999 as Voyager of the Seas -- and dwarfed every mega-ship that had come before (though not for long).

With features like an ice rink, rock climbing wall and indoor promenade, Voyager of the Seas was the most innovative ship design in decades, the first ship that genuinely felt more like a resort than a ship.

Four ships would follow -- Explorer of the Seas (2000), Adventure of the Seas (2001), Navigator of the Seas (2002) and Mariner of the Seas (2003) -- and the Voyager class became the defining mega-ship design of the early 21st century.

But the line wasn't finished. The four Radiance-class ships -- Radiance of the Seas (2001), Brilliance of the Seas (2002), Serenade of the Seas (2003) and Jewel of the Seas (2004) -- were built in the early 2000s as a follow-up to the Vision-class vessels of the 1990s.

Similarly designed for worldwide cruising, they are larger with more balconies, dining choices and public areas.

Renovations for the Royal Caribbean International Fleet

After the launch of so many new ships, the company's formerly innovative older ships were beginning to look less appealing.

Between 2004 and 2007, Royal Caribbean spent millions of dollars to refit Monarch of the Seas, Empress of the Seas (formerly Nordic Empress), Sovereign of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas (including a "stretch" of Enchantment) and Majesty of the Seas.

New Amenities for Royal Caribbean International

In 2006, the Freedom-class line debuted Freedom of the Seas, an enlarged and enhanced version of the Voyager-class design that introduced new exciting features like a water park and onboard surfing. The Freedom-class also includes ships Liberty of the Seas (2007) and Independence of the Seas (2008).

Committed to Having the Biggest Ships in the World

In fall 2009, the line launched the biggest cruise ship the world had ever seen and at the time was one of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships: Oasis of the Seas.

The 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger ship was more than 40 percent larger than Freedom of the Seas and introduced a unique system of seven onboard "neighborhoods" along with a split-back design that opened the back of the ship to the open air.

The sister ship Allure of the Seas debuted just one year later. A third, slightly larger Oasis-class ship called Harmony of the Seas debuted in 2016, and a fourth, Symphony of the Seas, launched in 2018. The ships remain the largest in the world to date.

But Royal Caribbean hasn't entirely committed to only having the biggest ships in the world, as the line released several smaller 158,000-ton, 4,100-passenger Quantum-class ships during this time as well. The first was Quantum of the Seas, which launched in fall 2014 for a North American audience but was quickly sent to the burgeoning Asia cruise market.

Sister ship Anthem of the Seas debuted in spring 2015 to cater to North Americans, while Ovation of the Seas launched in spring 2016 and markets to Asians and Australians, though it also sails to Alaska during the summer.

A fourth ship, Spectrum of the Seas, which is technically part of the Quantum Ultra class, launched in 2019; it also sails in Asia, while the fifth (also technically in the Quantum Ultra class) in the series, Odyssey of the Seas, launched in 2021 in North America.

Royal Caribbean’s Newest Ships: What's Coming for Royal

The new Royal Caribbean ships boast enticing upgrades for travelers. A new Oasis-class ship called Utopia of the Seas arrives in the spring of 2024. Oasis-class ships contain unique experiences for passengers, including a surf simulator and the tallest slide at sea.

Yet another new class of ships is on the way from Royal Caribbean. The Icon-class ship is scheduled to launch in 2024, and the new class will be Royal Caribbean’s largest ships.

Cruisers can book their Icon-class cruise today and experience the largest waterpark at sea and more than 40 restaurants. Cruise Royal Caribbean and take your dream vacation on the seas.

Publish date February 21, 2023
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