(6:50 p.m. BST) -- Independence of the Seas has just returned to service after a multi-million refurbishment, showcasing a number of features that will be rolled out on nine other ships in the fleet as part of Royal Caribbean's "Amplified" program.
The new features, which will next be seen on Mariner of the Seas this summer, include a virtual reality trampoline, a Puzzle Break Room and a Laser Tag Arena, as well as new bars and restaurants. The ship also received 107 new cabins.
"Indy" has been based in Southampton for 10 years (barring one summer, in 2015, when Anthem of the Seas replaced it), swiftly becoming one of the UK's favorite ships. Indy was instrumental in teaching UK cruisers they were allowed to have fun at sea, introducing Brits to the delights of rock climbing walls, ice rinks, FlowRiders and waterslides (not to mention street parties and big-budget West End/Broadway-style shows). And the Brits embraced the ship too, even more so when Royal Caribbean put kettles in cabins and Marmite in the Windjammer café.
The only (minor) complaint was the lack of alternative dining options in a ship this size (the 3,600+ passenger Freedom Class vessels were the largest afloat until Oasis of the Seas launched in 2008) -- just three. That's one of the aspects that has been tackled in this refurb.
We got onboard the very first sailing post-refit to find out what's new, what worked -- and what didn't -- on the new-look Independence of the Seas.
This new feature was crowd-sourced, born from a suggestion by the UK travel trade to put trampolines onboard. Royal executives weren't content with merely trampolines and went two stages further, adding a bungee element and virtual reality.
The giant orange ball, right at the top of the ship, was already creating a stir before anyone had even tried it (The captain of one passing ship radioed our captain to ask what on earth it was. It looks like a giant new form of radar).
So what's it like? First the practical stuff: You get onto the trampoline (there are four in the space), and are strapped into a bungee-style harness to give you effortless bounce.Then your instructor runs you through the options. There are three VR experiences to choose from -- a candy crush-style game, a pop video and a battle with aliens (not, as originally trailed, walking on the moon). Each last around 2.5 minutes.
We opted first for the pop video, put on the VR headset and began. The best comparison we'll make is that it's like being in a video game; if you've seen the movie Ready Player One or Tron Legacy, you'll understand. As you bounce, you "move" through this virtual world, which is populated with dancers and singers and music blaring in your headset. It was fun to jump higher, onto podiums and across whirlpools, but there's not much else to do other than marvel at what you're seeing. We were a little underwhelmed but predict that this will be a definite hit and a huge draw for kids.
This room is stunning, beautifully designed with gorgeous attention to detail; it replaces the wedding chapel on Deck 15. A huge telescope dominates the center of the room, with bookshelves, a periodic table of elements, recessed areas and ornate wooden boxes dotted about. The space follows a traditional Puzzle Break/Escape Room concept, in which groups of six unlock a series of cryptic clues, solve puzzles and work out lock combinations within an hour to try and "find" the brilliant professor who created this room. Time constraints prevented us from participating, but it received a big thumbs up from those who did. We do question, however, how many people will be willing to part with $19.99 to participate.
Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade
Playmakers debuted on Symphony of the Seas in April on the Boardwalk and proved a big hit; it's arguably even more so here where it turned a former nighttime venue (OnAir) into a buzzing, all day destination. Of course, it helps if you are into sports (as that is all that is shown on the 35 TV screens all day long), but even if you are not, the bar has a great vibe with a huge circular bar area (compared to the long thin space on Symphony), acres of seating (sofas, banquettes, chairs and bar stools); and of course the aforementioned TVs. Plus a great selection of beers and a la carte comfort food.
Royal's sushi/hibachi restaurant is popular across the fleet, but this is new for Indy, replacing Sabor. Going by the number of hibachi grills -- five -- this is the biggest Izumi of the fleet (though the actual space is smaller than on Oasis class ships). There is also a raised sushi bar, but no separate seating. So how is it? Anyone who's ever had a hibachi experience -- shrimp throwing, rice chopping -- will feel right at home here. If you haven't, then it's worth trying as it's part theater, part dinner. We loved it, and feel it's a fantastic addition to the ship.
Indy's buffet also enjoyed a refresh and what you have is a stylish new entrance, very similar in style and tone to Hooked Seafood on Symphony (think New England-style whites and light blues). There's contemporary seating and a feeling of space and flow that is almost impossible to find in other large ship buffet. The food might not be the best we've ever had, but the design certainly is.
Splashaway Bay/Perfect Storm
Cementing its credentials as the UK's favorite family ship, Indy has two new features designed specifically for the smaller people: Splashaway Bay -- complete with water cannons, little slides and a drench bucket -- replaces H2O Zone. And on the top deck, for older kids (and adults, of course), two dueling water slides which make up The Perfect Storm. Awesome additions. What's not to like?
Fish & Ships
This has been trailed as a "quintessential" British seaside experience, serving up fish n' chips, saveloys and chip butties etc., and hailed as another example of how in tune Royal is to the UK market. What was not mentioned in advance is that there is a charge, which starts at $3 for a chip butty and rises to $9 for a small portion of cod, chips and mushy peas and $10 for haddock. If you're buying for a family of four or more -- plus drinks -- you've now spent more than $50 for a quick bite to eat. Which wouldn't be so bad if it was any good, but it's not. Heavy batter, dry fish and tasteless chips.
Wi-Fi was free on this short sailing, which meant 3,634 passengers were all on it at once. It felt like a throw-back to dial-up 90s internet, with painfully slow speeds and a constantly dropping signal. Royal needs to sort this out urgently.
A lot of thought has gone into Indy's refurbishment, and it really shows. Installing new bars and restaurants, as well as the entertainment facilities on the outer decks, is quite a project, yet all of it fits seamlessly into the ship, almost as if it's always been there. We believe it will continue in its position as one of the UK's favorite ships. Indy has been in the UK for 10 years, and as Michael Bayley, Royal Caribbean International President and CEO, said onboard: "We hope Indy will be here for another 10 years." With these additions, we've no doubt it will.
--By Adam Coulter, Managing Editor, UK