(In mid-2018 Mariner of the Seas will undergo a massive $100 million refurbishment before returning to the U.S. after several years sailing in China. During the refurb the ship will receive a virtual reality trampoline attraction called SkyPad, the Perfect Storm duo of waterslides, a FlowRider surf simulator, laser tag and escape room experiences, a new-to-the-line bar called The Bamboo Room, Jamie's Italian (which replaces Giovanni's Table), Izumi Hibachi & Sushi, and more than 100 additional cabins. The line will be losing the DreamWorks experience.)
Royal Caribbean's 138,279-ton, 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas, launched in 2003, is the fifth and last vessel in the company's game-changing Voyager class. Mariner is largely identical to its siblings -- Voyager of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas, but it was the first of its class to get the Royal Advantage upgrade treatment as part of a $300 million initiative designed to create uniformity across the Royal fleet and add signature elements first introduced on the 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ships. As such, travelers who have sailed on a Voyager-class vessel will experience a number of twists beyond the signature ice rink, rock-wall and Royal Promenade.
Mariner of the Seas' Royal improvements, added in April 2012, include the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery, a dedicated space for the under 3's (boosting the family-friendly appeal for a ship that's already extremely family friendly); the addition of the casual, surcharge-free eatery, Boardwalk Dog House; a new family-style Italian restaurant, Giovanni's Table (which replaced the more elegant Portofino); a giant outdoor movie screen by the pool; shipwide Wi-Fi; flat-panel TV's in every cabin; a new Diamond Club for the line's Diamond loyalty members; and an interactive digital Wayfinder system that lists onboard activities, customized directions, as well as ship factoids.
Still, after cruising on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, we were worried that the Voyager-class ships would be a disappointment. It's true that they were once touted as the most revolutionary vessels afloat, with their novel rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks and Royal Promenades, a shopping mall-esque shopping-and-dining space. But then came the Freedom class, with even larger ships and even more outrageous amenities, such as onboard surfing and family suites that sleep 14. And then came the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ships, which added a foliage-filled Central Park, zip-lining and an outdoor AquaTheater for Cirque-style performances.
Yet we were pleasantly surprised to find that Mariner of the Seas, the last of the Voyager-class ships to make its debut, did not feel like a disappointing second to its newer siblings (and the Oasis-style updates certainly help). The ship -- really only 15 percent smaller than the Freedom-class ships -- can still keep an active cruiser engaged for hours on a sea day. You don't miss onboard surfing or zip-lining when you're busy rollerblading, playing miniature golf, relaxing in the thalassotherapy pool, catching a parade on the Royal Promenade or playing poker in the casino. Kids have an enormous warren of play rooms (including an arcade and exclusive outdoor deck space) and diners have five restaurants, a cafe and a hotdog counter from which to choose.
Ultimately, one of the best things about the ship is that, despite its size, Mariner of the Seas just didn't feel that big. The ship's design makes every effort to create a smaller-ship feel. What was fun about discovering Mariner was that you could pretty much divide the ship into neighborhoods -- the promenade and the sports and recreation area. (Hmm, perhaps this layout was one of the inspirations for Royal Caribbean's newest ships, Oasis of the Seas, which has been designed around a neighborhood premise.) Another reason: Activities, whether during sea days or in the post-dinner evening hours, were so well-scheduled and organized that passengers really were spread out on all parts of the ship. We never felt crowded.