Originally published Dec. 6, 2009; updated May 2019
Sure, it’s bigger: Nearly four football fields long, with space for 6,300 passengers and volume that’s 40 percent larger than any other cruise ship at sea.
But is Royal Caribbean’s new $1.4 billion Oasis of the Seas actually better than other large cruise liners?
Based on an early preview cruise for media and travel agents, the answer may well be yes.
From the moment passengers stepped on board, the word was “Wow.”
“I think it’s amazing,” said Kendra Childers, a Michigan travel agent. “I love it. “It’s got so many options,” she said, as she waited in line to ride the zipline strung nine stories above the ship’s aft section — the first zipline at sea.
The 82-foot-long zipline doesn’t compete with those strung across the jungles of Costa Rica and Jamaica, and alone it probably won’t be enough to get passengers on board. But when you add the outdoor Central Park with a live tropical garden featuring 12,000 vines, bananas, bromeliads and bamboo; balcony cabins overlooking the park or a lively outdoor “boardwalk;” and a levitating bar, it’s clear that Oasis of the Seas is far more than a supersized version of Royal Caribbean’s other ships.
“It was positioned to be the most innovative ship,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of the popular website CruiseCritic.com, “and it delivered on it. It exceeded my expectations, and I saw it twice when it was being built.”
Royal Caribbean’s goal, said company chairman Richard Fain, was a ship that’s one-third familiar, one-third evolutionary and one-third revolutionary. It hits the mark.
Familiar to past cruisers are the clubby, nautical-themed Schooner Bar; the floor-to-ceiling views from the shiptop Viking Crown lounge; a card room and library and soothing décor featuring sophisticated artwork. Past Royal Caribbean guests will also recognize mini-golf and rock-climbing walls — two — and Flowrider surfing machines — again two — and the Studio B ice-skating rink/ice show theater. (Editor’s note: The Viking Crown lounge was later remodeled into a restaurant and bar for suite guests.)
Among the evolutionary are the wider Main Street-style Promenade — updated with skylights; stage shows — the Tony-award winning “Hairspray” is on the docket (later replaced by “Cats”); a triple-deck dance lounge for “Dancing with the Stars” wannabes; an expanded youth area with the line’s first nursery and a youth theater; an “anytime” dining option in the three-level, 3,056-seat main dining room, Opus; family cabins with two bunks in an alcove off the main bedroom; a 28,500-square-foot, two-level spa and fitness area with the first seagoing spa for kids and teens; new entertainment venues including a jazz club and comedy club; and nearly two dozen eateries.
(Editor’s note: Oasis of the Seas will get a nine-week, $165 million overhaul starting in September 2019. Details at end of story.)
Revolutionary is where it really gets interesting.
The outdoor AquaTheater — not yet working when we were aboard — acts as stage for high-dive aquatic and water ballet shows and can be used for scuba lessons. The Rising Tide levitates oh-so-slowly between the sixth deck Promenade and the eighth deck Central Park, doubling as bar and transportation. The Central Park urban garden offers a restful hangout that belies the complex logistics of irrigation, drainage, sun angles and wind buffeting. Balcony cabins are available overlooking it and the other outdoor “neighborhood” — Boardwalk. The design is a seagoing first, giving guests outside-cabin options beyond traditional ocean view cabins (although some passengers didn’t consider that a plus).
Those “neighborhoods” — seven in total — got lots of pre-sailing media buzz, but the idea seemed confusing. Would they be open to all guests? Could you move easily between them?
Yes, and yes. Once you see them for yourself, these distinctive zones make sense. The Boardwalk, for instance, has a decidedly retro ambience, with a working carousel and breezy Seafood Shack restaurant (later replaced by Sabor Modern Mexican). The leafy Central Park — with upscale restaurants, benches and the first Coach shop at sea — has a surprisingly urban attitude.
And they help you navigate the ship. “The flow ... makes it feel like a small ship experience,” said Jeff Huber, a travel agent from Sacramento, California.
But will it feel that way when the ship is full?
That wasn’t clear on this first sailing, with only 3,200 passengers on board.
Will the two banks of slow-moving elevators be enough when Oasis is fully booked with more than 6,000 guests? Will the casual Windjammer Marketplace — a buffet with multiple food stations — be mobbed during breakfast and lunch? Will the ship’s desk staff be overwhelmed by guests with questions (as it was when we sailed, when some technological features weren’t yet operational)? Can such huge numbers of cruisers easily get off and on the ship in ports?
HIGH TECH FEATURES
To minimize hassles, Royal Caribbean is leaning on technology and that multitude of options for dining and activities.
For instance, guests can book specialty restaurants, shows and excursions online before leaving home or via their in-cabin TVs onboard. Dynamic touch screens located near elevators on every deck provide interactive maps and live updates on restaurant capacity.
In its home port of Port Everglades, Royal Caribbean uses a new terminal with 90 check-in stations — more than double the number at most terminals. And it will only visit ports where the ship can tie up directly to a landside dock rather than use tender boats to move passengers to shore.
Some of those solutions come at a price.
Oasis is too big for most Caribbean ports, forcing it to stick with much-sailed territory for now. This winter, it will call at St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau. Beginning in May 2010, it will also offer Western Caribbean itineraries at Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico and Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private beach on Haiti. In December 2010, the newly developed port of Falmouth, Jamaica, will replace the Costa Maya stop.
Reservations are advised for shows — including the watery AquaTheater productions, an ice-skating spectacle, musical and stage shows and comedy acts — which takes some of the spontaneity out of the typical cruise experience. But reservations and the shows themselves are free, and walk-ups are welcome if space is available. “We don’t sell out in advance,” said Adam Goldstein, Royal Caribbean’s president. “This isn’t a concert.”
Dining in the three-level Opus main dining room, Windjammer Marketplace, Doghouse and several casual grab-and-go eateries is included in the cruise fare. Fourteen other dining venues — including Johnny Rockets, Giovanni’s Table, Izumi Hibachi and the upscale Chops Grille and 150 Central Park — charge an additional fee, ranging from $9.95 at Johnny Rockets to $45 at 150 Central Park. Some eateries — among them Izumi Asian Cuisine and Starbucks— offer a la carte prices.
Royal Caribbean executives say they’ve tried to ensure that even guests who don’t want to pay for extras have a quality experience. All shows and most sports activities — including the zipline, Flowrider, rock-climbing wall and mini-golf — are included in the cruise fare.
“This is the most we’ve ever offered in a ticket price,” said Goldstein. “And we’ve never offered so many additional opportunities for a charge. But if they didn’t exist for a charge, they wouldn’t exist.”
Some other ship features drew criticism, as well.
Views from cabins overlooking Central Park vary widely depending on the location. In-cabin plugs are inconveniently located beneath the vanity — impossible to use without getting on your knees. Some standard cabin arrangements place the bed so close to the closet that guests had trouble accessing it. Some experienced cruisers complained that balcony cabins overlooking Central Park and the Boardwalk just didn’t feel like they were, well, at sea.
And there’s no question that as you move from one end of the ship to the other, you’ll need comfortable shoes — and maybe an Advil for aching joints.
So is Oasis too big? Says Brown of Cruise Critic, “We won’t know until it shakes out on real cruises. But they’re doing what they can to alleviate problems; they certainly put a lot of thought into it.”
For some cruisers that might not be enough. “I think it’s beautiful,” said one executive from an out-of-state port, “but I wouldn’t want to be on it with 5,000 people.”
Still, for fans of large-ship cruises and resorts, Oasis is a vacation breakthrough.
Said Al Dobles, a travel agent with Cruise Planners in Pembroke Pines, “The ship really is the destination.”
Oasis offers a far greater variety of staterooms than most cruise ships, ranging from bi-level lofts to standard cabins overlooking the interior promenade. Winning raves was the AquaTheater Suite, a two-bedroom, two-bath suite with outdoor bar and a wrap-around deck overlooking the Aqua Theater (approaching $20,000 for a week in the Caribbean in prime season).
If you’re considering more affordable digs, here’s what you need to know:
▪ Standard cabins measure 170 square feet. Storage space is adequate, as are bathrooms. Some configurations put the bed up against the closet, making for a tight fit. Electric outlets are inconveniently placed beneath the vanity.
▪ Family cabins offer a pair of bunks in an alcove plus a standard queen or twin beds. But there’s only one standard bathroom — making this a tight fight if you’ve got teens.
▪ Balcony cabins overlooking the Boardwalk and Central Park areas offer natural light and outdoor access — but no sea views. Cabin doors seal tightly; with blackout drapes closed we heard no noise. While all Boardwalk cabins offer similar ambiance, the views from Central Park cabins vary widely depending on location. (From some you mostly look at the artful skylights, others offer verandahs lined with living plants.)
▪ If you take a non-balcony cabin overlooking the Promenade or Central Park, you’ll need to keep your curtains closed; other people can look in.
Oasis features nearly two dozen eateries, from a grand dining room to a donut shop, Sorrento’s Pizza, Johnny Rockets, Solarium Bistro featuring healthy options and the elegant 150 Central Park. For the first time, guests can opt for anytime dining in the main dining room. (Editor’s note: In 2014, the main dining room was converted into three restaurants, all serving the same menu but with different seating options.)
Some premium eateries require an extra fee or have an a la carte menu. These generally are small and offer specialty cuisine. The vast majority of restaurant seats — about 80 percent — are in no-fee restaurants.
SPORTS & ACTIVITIES
Oasis kicks up Royal Caribbean’s “active adventure” theme with the first-at-sea zipline stretching 82 feet above nine stories. It also features basketball/volleyball court, 0.43 mile jogging track, 9-hole minigolf course, two Flowrider surf machines, two rock-climbing walls, zero entry pool, sports pool for laps and team water sports, adults-only two-level Solarium with whirlpools (some cantilevered over the ship’s hull) and a serenity pool, and a 25,800 square-foot, two-level spa and fitness area that includes an Omega Kinesis Wall.
Passengers can book spa appointments, reservations in specialty restaurants and show tickets (free) online before they sail. The price is the same as if you book on board — but you’ll avoid the boarding-day scramble for prime appointments. Some appointments will be held back from the online system so guests can also book spaces once they’re aboard.
Onboard, passengers find interactive touch-screen boards at each elevator bank. These help you navigate the ship, check on the day’s schedule and restaurant hours, and check out capacity in specialty restaurants. (This is monitored in real time by cameras that track crowds.)
Guests who rent shipboard “deck phones” will be able to use VOIP Internet calling; they’ll also be able to track the onboard location of their kids 3-11, who will wear emergency evacuation wristbands.
More than 28,000 square feet are dedicated to the Kids Zone, which includes a nursery for those over six months and is stocked with Fisher Price toys; activity spaces for age groups 3-5, 6-8 and 9-11; a workshop space where families can work together on projects like scrapbooking; video arcade; indoor playground for nurfball and dodge ball; 100-seat theater for children’s productions and teen lounges for ages 12-17. Youth services are offered in a separate space in the main spa.
New is the outdoor AquaTheater for high-dive and water ballet shows, not yet functioning when we sailed. Also new is “Hairspray,” a 90-minute musical stage twist on the John Waters film that featured spectacular performances and had the audience cheering. (In 2019, the production is “Cats.”) Another first: A dedicated comedy club.
Studio B, the ice-skating space, features an ice show; the rink is open for skating at other times.
As on most ships, various types of bands play in lounges throughout the evening and at specific hours on deck.
Oasis also offers Dazzles, a tri-level dance lounge, traditional clubby bars and hip dance clubs.
In September 2019, a decade after it was launched, Oasis will spend nine weeks in dry dock for an overhaul that will add major new features, including some popular attractions that debuted on newer ships. The biggest changes will be on the pool deck, which will get the Perfect Storm trio of waterslides, and the Ultimate Abyss, the tallest slide at sea; Splashaway Bay kids aquapark; and The Lime & Coconut bar.
Other additions: a dedicated karaoke lounge; the Music Hall, with live music; the Bionic Bar, where cocktails are mixed by robots; laser tag; and a space-themed escape room. The ship will also get several new eateries, including the casual Portside BBQ, Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade with bar fare, El Loco Fresh with made-to-order Mexican dishes, and the Sugar Beach candy and ice cream store.
Passengers: 5,400 at double occupancy; 6,296 total capacity
Passenger decks: 16
Passenger staterooms: 2,706
Height from waterline: 213 feet
Length: 1,187 feet
Beam: 208 feet
Draft: 30 feet
Volume: 225,282 gross registered tons
Builder: STX Europe, Finland
Christened: Nov. 30, 2009
Other Oasis-class ships: Allure of the Seas (2010), Harmony of the Seas (2016), Symphony of the Seas (2018). Two more Oasis-class ships are on order.
Itineraries: Oasis of the Seas will sail Mediterranean cruises in the summer of 2019, then go out of service for its nine-week makeover. Starting in November, it will sail Caribbean cruises from PortMiami. In May 2020, the ship will move to Bayonne, New Jersey for Bahamas cruises, then to Fort Lauderdale in November 2020 for the Caribbean season.