The world's second-largest cruise line, Royal Caribbean International (originally Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines) began in the late 1960s as a consortium of Norwegian ship owners who wanted to get in on the rapidly expanding American market. Ever since its first ship, Song of Norway (no longer in the fleet), debuted in 1970, the company has prided itself on introducing new shipboard innovations. After completing its first three ships (the others were Nordic Prince and Sun Viking) by 1972, Royal Caribbean "stretched" its first two ships and built the much larger Song of America in 1982. These early Royal Caribbean ships became the prototype for virtually all cruise ships since.
But Royal Caribbean's biggest splash came in 1988 with the monumental Sovereign of the Seas, the very first mega-ship of the modern era. While only midsized by today's standards, at over 70,000 tons, 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, complete with glass elevators and a grand piano, reminiscent of an opulent hotel -- but with a view no hotel could match.
Not content to wait for other lines to catch up, the even larger sister ships, Monarch of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas, followed in quick succession, along with the smaller Nordic Empress, the first ship designed for cruises shorter than a week. Royal Caribbean also bought Admiral Cruises, a company specializing in short cruises, and turned its nearly new Stardancer into Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade after a massive refit. (To date, Viking Serenade, which left the fleet in 2002, remains the only ship to fly the Royal Caribbean flag that wasn't built for the company.)
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 destinations like Alaska and Europe -- Royal Caribbean hadn't built a ship specially designed for worldwide cruising. This changed in 1995 with the introduction of Legend of the Seas, a spectacular new ship that brought Royal Caribbean into a whole new era. Smaller than the Sovereign-class ships, Legend was by far the most luxurious ship Royal Caribbean had ever built, with 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, the Solarium, one of the most impressive shipboard spaces that had been built to date. Legend was closely followed by its sister, Splendour of the Seas, and then by two pairs of slightly larger near-sisters: Grandeur and Enchantment of the Seas, and Rhapsody and Vision of the Seas.
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 designed specifically for worldwide itineraries.
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 as much, if not more than Sovereign of the Seas had in the previous decade. Code-named "Project Eagle," the ship began sailing in 1999 as Voyager of the Seas -- and completely blew away every mega-ship that had come before. With features like an ice rink, rock 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, and the Voyager class became the defining mega-ship design of the early 21st century.
Meanwhile, four Radiance-class ships 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, public areas and greater luxury all around.
After the launch of so many new ships, the company's formerly innovative older ships were beginning to look old and tired. 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. Despite the refurbishments, a few ships just didn't cut it. Royal Caribbean transferred two ships to its Spanish subsidiary, Pullmantur, in 2008: Empress of the Seas in March and Sovereign of the Seas in October. Monarch of the Seas was transferred to Pullmantur in 2013. However, Empress of the Seas was transferred back to Royal Caribbean in 2016 after a massive refurbishment.
In recent years, the big news at Royal Caribbean has been ever-larger ships. In 2006, the line debuted Freedom of the Seas, an enlarged, enhanced version of the Voyager-class design that introduced new features like a water park and onboard surfing to the array of Voyager-class amenities. The Freedom class also includes Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas.
In fall 2009, the line launched the 225,282-ton, 5,400-ton Oasis of the Seas. A year later, sister ship Allure of the Seas debuted. A third Oasis-class ship, Harmony of the Seas, debuted in 2016. At over 40 percent larger than Freedom of the Seas, the Oasis-class ships are the biggest cruise ships in the world. The strategy of increasing size with each class ended when the 158,000-ton, 4,100-passenger Quantum of the Seas, the first "Project Sunshine" vessel, launched in fall 2014. Sister ship, Anthem of the Seas debuted in spring 2015, while Ovation of the Seas launched in spring 2016. Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas represent the line's first serious foray into Asia; Quantum of the Seas sails full-time out of Hong Kong, and Ovation is homeporting in China until December 2016 when it heads to Sydney, Australia for a season.