Originally published Jan. 15, 2017
From the 16th deck of Royal Caribbean International’s Harmony of the Seas, twin purple slides stem from the mouth of a giant anglerfish, a glass floor reveals the 150-foot-drop — and turquoise ocean — below, and nervous passengers line up with mats that will carry them down 10 stories on a 15-second, adrenaline-pumping voyage.
This is the world’s tallest slide at sea on the world’s largest cruise ship. (Royal Caribbean is a fan of superlatives.)
Ultimate Abyss, as the slide is called, is taller than Mount Rushmore. Its height and novelty make it the key attraction for travelers hungry to try another course of Royal Caribbean International ingenuity. It delivers: On a two-night preview sailing of the ship for media, executives and travel agents, lines to ride Ultimate Abyss hovered between 20 and 30 minutes.
With the slide as its leading example, the ship has been touted as the Royal Caribbean’s most innovative. Other new additions include three water slides and a handful of new shows.
“Bigger, bolder, better” was how cruise director Ken Rush described the 6,780-passenger Harmony during the ship’s November naming ceremony.
“When we invite our guests to come seek the Royal Caribbean, this is really what we’re talking about,” quipped Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International.
The ship was such a departure, in fact, that the line considered making it part of a new class of Royal Caribbean International ships, rather than the newest sister in the Oasis class of ships, which includes the largest ships in the world, said Richard Fain, parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises’ chairman and CEO.
But in reality, Harmony is more a hybrid of past innovations not really meriting its own category.
Where the ship excels is in uniting the favorite features of Royal Caribbean’s two newest classes — the Oasis class and the Quantum class, which racked up accolades for their technical advancements with ships sailing from New Jersey, Australia and China.
Guests who can’t afford to fly across the ocean or even the country to see the features introduced on the Quantum class, such as the line’s robotic bars or its Disney-esque ease programmed wristbands that open doors and pay for drinks, can now experience them closer to home.
The Bionic Bar is undoubtedly a crowd magnet. Large groups were almost always gathered gazing at — and usually videotaping — the two robotic bartenders as they took orders from tablets stationed around the bar and mixed drinks from an expansive collection of upside-down bottles that make up the bar’s ceiling. Guests can track the wait time, their spot in line, their $12 drink’s process and even the most popular drinks by age, on screens on the side of the bar.
The wristbands, called WOWbands, are a welcome addition, particularly when guests have come to expect extreme ease of use. The “where is my room key?” days are (practically) over on Royal. (Except when turning on the lights in your cabin; you still need to plug in your card for that.) They come in four colors — white, black, yellow and blue — for a $5 charge.
Harmony also borrows Wonderland, a quirky dining experience, from its Quantum cousins. Guests paint water on a canvas to reveal their menus, choosing from dishes inspired by the elements — sun, ice, fire, water, earth and dreams — that are cooked in a whimsical style. A chocolate cake, for instance, is revealed after a waiter pours hot chocolate syrup and melts away a spherical chocolate shell around the cake and ice cream. It’s called “The World.”
From the Oasis class, the ship incorporates the popular concept of seven themed neighborhoods. On Harmony, these include a carnival-themed Boardwalk with a carousel and AquaTheater, and a Central Park home to a bevy of specialty restaurants. One “neighborhood” bonus: with so many environments, guests avoid congregating in a single place.
That theory was tested on the preview trip, when the ship was at capacity. It was difficult to imagine that the ship was carrying more than 6,000 passengers — until the hourlong line at customs when the ship disembarked at Port Everglades. (One guest in line was aghast: “I didn’t realize there were so many people on board.”)
“As many people as this ship holds, you don’t feel it,” said Gudrun Vest, an agent with Manitou Springs, Colorado-based Solé Travel, who was on the inaugural sailing with husband Doni. “There’s something for everybody. It’s very multigenerational, you can bring your grandmother, mother, kids, and to me that’s the trend now.”
Harmony features several new productions, including “Columbus, the Musical,” a comedy about Christopher Columbus’ distant cousin Marvin; ice skating show “1887: A Journey in Time,” about time traveling lovers; and the “Fine Line,” an acrobat and diving show at the AquaTheater.
But the star is “Grease,” Royal Caribbean’s Broadway adaptation that marries the Broadway musical with the 1978 movie. A hybrid like the ship it calls home, the show features a talented cast that sings songs from both adaptations, including “You’re the One That I Want” from the movie and “It’s Raining on Prom Night” from the Broadway show.
Mike Gresh, a travel agent with Naperville, Illinois-based Homeport Cruises, said he was impressed with the offerings on Harmony.
“People buy on price, but after a time or two, quality beats quantity. There is a value to quality,” Gresh said.
Overall, the consensus among guests was that Harmony clearly favors her sister ships, but is a slight upgrade over its sisters.
“It’s slightly different. It has the Abyss, the robotic bar. But overall it’s still consistent with the Oasis class,” said Miamian Mildred Martinez, who was on the ship with 14-year-old daughter Alba and sister Gretchen.
But it’s worth the premium, Martinez said.
“If you compare it to land-based vacations, ’cause we go to Disney, you are going to pay more at Disney than you are here,” Martinez said.
Cruise line: Royal Caribbean International
Passengers: 5,494 double occupancy, total 6,780
Passenger decks: 18 decks, 16 guest decks
Class: Third in the Oasis class, the largest ships at sea. Harmony of the Seas, a fourth, slightly larger Oasis-class ship, debuted in 2018.
Length: 1,188 feet
Beam: 215.5 feet
Cruising speed: 22 knots
Launched: May 2016 in Europe
Godmother: Brittany Affolter, Teach for America educator
Itinerary: Harmony of the Seas has moved to Port Canaveral, where is it doing Caribbean/Bahamas cruises at least through April 2021.
Information: royalcaribbean.com; 866-562-7625