Royal Caribbean might have built the world's largest cruise ship -- once again -- but the size of Symphony of the Seas is only a byproduct of its intention: to build the world's best cruise ship for families. The objective is a bold one, but Symphony hits the mark in every category, which is due to a winning combination of variety and quality. The choice of which room to book, the restaurants to eat in, the activities to take part in or the shows to attend come out to a whopping amount of options for the average, weeklong cruise. Yet even if your family sticks to the basic cabins and included options, the cruising experience is still kept at a high standard, and attentive and friendly service is never the exception.
The reason Symphony of the Seas is its best ship yet, is because Royal Caribbean listened to feedback and kept the passenger experience top of mind when designing it. Complaints that ranged from the omission of a pool in the Solarium on Harmony of the Seas, to difficult-to-reach cabinetry in staterooms or no way to get omelets in the Windjammer Marketplace, have all been resolved on Symphony. Royal Caribbean has even brought back "Hairspray" by popular demand, giving the production a total refresh for a new (or returning) audience.
Symphony comes with all of the perks of big a mega-ship but nearly none of the pitfalls. Like other Oasis-class ships, Symphony of the Seas features the easily navigable neighborhood concept, which includes Central Park, Entertainment Place and the Boardwalk. A brilliant passenger flow, plenty of signage and an intuitive sense of orientation means that despite being massive, it's hard to get lost for long onboard. Other byproducts of size, like pollution or waste, are offset by the line's Save the Waves program and by constant improvements to ship engineering. Symphony, like many of the line's ships, is "zero to landfill" meaning no waste is left behind. A new program has banned plastic straws and Symphony is actually 25 percent more energy-efficient than its fleetmate Allure of the Seas.
Despite having many of the same features as other ships in its class, Royal Caribbean was not afraid to go bigger with Symphony, adding new concepts like "Battle for Planet Z" laser tag; Hooked, a seafood restaurant; Playmakers, a sports bar and arcade; Sugar Beach, an expanded ice cream and sweets shop; and El Loco Fresh, a new Mexican eatery. The strong execution of these fresh ventures, along with their mass appeal, almost guarantees that Royal Caribbean has ensured a new generation of fleetwide favorites. Even better, half of the new venues (laser tag and El Loco Fresh) are included in the cruise fare.
One downside to all the investment and improvement is that the returns have to come from somewhere. In the case of Symphony, the price of nearly every specialty restaurant cover has been raised. Though just a few dollars more per person than on previous ships, it could impact budgeting for families who can't spend hundreds more on dining in addition to what they paid to board the ship.
If as to say, "we got this," Royal Caribbean has traded in a number of partnerships to rely on their own in-house talent on Symphony of the Seas. This includes no more affiliation with Michael Schwartz in 150 Central Park, and also no DreamWorks characters. (The line still offers its DreamWorks partnership on other ships.) Instead, the line has developed its own original parade production for the Royal Promenade, and poured heart and soul into an all-new stage production called "Flight: Dare to Dream." In venues like Studio B and the AquaTheater, Royal Caribbean turned to the performers for help, and as a result, each space has a new show developed and inspired by the talent.
Beyond all of the places to go, Royal Caribbean has ensured there are ample things to see. An art collection with a price tag in the tens of millions infuses the atmosphere onboard with a vibrancy and playfulness that will attract the millennial vacationers they're looking for, but also appeals on a broader level. Not every work or installation is for every person, but the general theme of eccentricity and adventure is hard to ignore. We particularly enjoyed a "hidden" piano staircase, which plays a tune in an homage to the ship's moniker.
Other efforts to attract fun-loving family cruisers include the one-of-a-kind Ultimate Family Suite. While calling it a "gimmick" is too harsh, the over-the-top stateroom is an extremely limited and very high-priced option for families or groups. (Still, that doesn't mean it's not cool.) The word is the line is looking at developing a family-focused cabin category inspired by the Ultimate Family Suite, but priced lower.
While it's been said time and again that Symphony of the Seas is bigger than its fleetmates (by just about 1 percent), it's the focus on improvements rather than size that seems to have driven Royal Caribbean to innovate on its already-winning formula for a family vacation experience.