Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the largest and most innovative cruise ship ever designed, celebrated its floating out ceremony today at STX Europe's Turku, Finland, shipyard.

The ritual milestone experienced by all ships during the building process is a moving moment as it marks the transformation of what nominally is a construction site to a ship that floats.

In this case, ever since its keel was laid on December 11, 2007, the 220,000-ton, 5,400-passsenger Oasis of the Seas has been resting on a series of concrete stanchions in a 50 ft. deep dry dock. At today's ceremony, valves controlling a massive steel door that held the waters of the Baltic Sea at bay were opened, and by early Saturday morning, Oasis of the Seas will float on its own.

Typically it takes about 16 hours for a ship to fully float; because of worries about windy conditions Saturday, a shipyard source told Cruise Critic that the process would be speeded along today. Once Oasis of the Seas is floating freely, it will be towed forward to its new home -- a distance equaling its length, which is 360 meters, plus 400 meters (for a total move of 760 meters -- the equivalent of 2,494 feet). There the ship will be docked and prepared for its outfitting stage.

Once securely tied up at its new dock, Oasis of the Seas will begin the outfitting that will complete the last third of its construction process. RCI executives said the ship was absolutely on target for completion in November 2009 (first voyages are set for December 2009) though a specific date for the handover has not yet been determined.

Easily the most anticipated new build since the debut of Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Oasis of the Seas features such unprecedented-for-cruising features as an outdoor Central Park, complete with live plants, and the Boardwalk, an exterior promenade complete with antique carousel. Other innovations include the AquaTheater, a pool area with amphitheater at the ship's bow that will feature high dive and other aqua-acrobatics. A genuinely impressive 76 percent of accommodations come with private balconies, and the double-decker Loft Suites feature vast two-story glass walls and huge private verandahs.

The Rising Tide Bar is in essence a massive glass-walled elevator that rises from the Royal Promenade to Central Park -- and serves cocktails in the process. New restaurants include the elegant 150 Central Park and Giovanni's Table, which features family-style Italian. Old favorites include Chops Grille, Sorrento's and Johnny Rockets.

Other now-traditional Royal Caribbean features on Oasis of the Seas include an ice skating rink, boxing ring, the ship-oriented Schooner Bar, rock climbing walls, surf park, full basketball/sports court, the Vintages wine bar, numerous pools, a British-style pub, and an elaborate spa and fitness facility.

Oasis of the Seas' float out today was part of a series of activities planned for journalists, cruise line executives and industry representatives who, mirroring Royal Caribbean's increasingly international appeal, hailed from 30 different countries. The diversity of this group, quipped Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain, doesn't nearly match that of its ships' crew, which is made up of men and women from 55 - 60 countries.

The real highlights of the day were a visit to a bicycle factory where a model of Oasis of the Seas' revolutionary Loft Suites is being kept hidden, and a brief tour of the ship, in which progress on other first-ever ship features such as Central Park, the Boardwalk and the AquaTheater were on display (for tidbits and photographs from Cruise Critic's visit, check out our Live from Oasis message board thread, which will be updated throughout the weekend). Harri Kulovaara, the line's executive vice president of maritime, noted earlier in the day that "the ship is so unique and so different it will be hard to find the words to describe it." He was right. The utterly otherworldly ambience of Oasis of the Seas defies immediate description.

Ultimately, Royal Caribbean chief Richard Fain describes this new style of ship, larger than Freedom of the Seas and its classmates Independence of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas, as designed with three criteria in mind: One third of the vessel pays homage to beloved Royal Caribbean trademarks that you'd expect to find on a ship in the fleet. Another third of Oasis' design represents an evolution of existing concepts, like a new twist to the Viking Crown Lounge. And the final third, Fain notes, is revolutionary, featuring absolutely new-to-cruising features like the Loft Suites, Central Park, an onboard zipline, the AquaTheater and the Boardwalk.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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