Monday, July 14, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Supersized, on the seas

The new Oasis of the Seas is too big for most Caribbean ports; has seven “neighborhoods,” including a “Central Park” urban garden; and offers its 6,300 passengers nearly two dozen restaurants. Is bigger better?

Not thrilled by ocean views? The Oasis offers cabins with balconies overlooking “Central Park.” (Jane Woolridge/Miami Herald)
Not thrilled by ocean views? The Oasis offers cabins with balconies overlooking “Central Park.” (Jane Woolridge/Miami Herald)
Not thrilled by ocean views? The Oasis offers cabins with balconies overlooking “Central Park.” (Jane Woolridge/Miami Herald) Gallery: Supersized, on the seas

ABOARD THE OASIS OF THE SEAS - Sure, it's bigger – nearly four football fields long, with space for 6,300 passengers, and volume that's 40 percent larger than any 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. I love it," said Kendra Childers, a Michigan travel agent, as she waited in line to ride the zipline strung nine stories above the ship's aft section - the first zipline at sea. "It's got so many options."

The 82-foot-long zipline doesn't compare 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"; an intimate Art Deco-style restaurant featuring tasting menus designed by one of America's hottest young chefs; and a levitating bar - it's clear that the Oasis of the Seas is far more than a supersize version of Royal Caribbean's other ships.

"It was positioned to be the most innovative ship, and it delivered on it," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of the popular Web site CruiseCritic.com. "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 was one-third familiar, one-third evolutionary, and one-third revolutionary. It hits the mark.

Familiar to Royal Caribbean cruisers are the clubby, nautical-themed Schooner Bar; the floor-to-ceiling views from the ship-top Viking Crown lounge; a card room and library; and soothing decor featuring sophisticated artwork. Past guests of the line 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.

Among the evolutionary features are the wider Main Street-style Promenade, updated with skylights; stage shows - on the docket is the Tony-award-winning Hairspray; a triple-deck, 1940s-era 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 Opus, the three-level, 3,056-seat main dining room; 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 a comedy club; and nearly two dozen eateries.

Revolutionary is where it really gets interesting.

The outdoor AquaTheater - not yet working when we were aboard - acts as a 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 buffeting winds. Balcony cabins are available overlooking it and another outdoor "neighborhood" - the 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 - generated 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, these distinctive zones make sense. The Boardwalk, for instance, has a retro ambience, with a working carousel and the breezy Seafood Shack restaurant. 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, Calif.

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 the 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 operational)? Can such huge numbers of cruisers easily get off and on the ship in ports?

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. Touch screens 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 and from shore.

Some of those solutions come at a price.

The 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, 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, the newly developed port of Falmouth, Jamaica, will replace the Costa Maya stop.

Reservations are advised for shows, including the AquaTheater productions, an ice-skating spectacle, and musical and stage shows and comedy acts, which takes some of the spontaneity out of the typical cruise experience. But reservations and the shows are free, and walk-ups are welcome when 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, Sorrento's Pizzeria, and casual grab-and-go eateries is included in the cruise fare. Ten other restaurants - including Johnny Rockets, the Seafood Shack, Izumi Asian, and the upscale Chops and 150 Central Park - charge an additional fee, ranging from $3.95 at Johnny Rockets to $35 at 150 Central Park. Some eateries - among them Izumi, the Ice Cream Parlor, and the cupcake shop - offer à-la-carte prices.

Those extras come on top of published cruise fares starting about $1,049 per person, double occupancy, for a seven-night sailing, though Royal Caribbean is offering winter sailings from $729.

Royal Caribbean executives said they've tried to ensure that 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. And for most extra-charge experiences, there's a free alternative, such as soft-serve ice cream in the Windjammer Market (not as yummy as what's offered at the for-a-fee Ice Cream Parlor) and dining room burgers (versus those priced at $3.95 at Johnny Rockets).

"This is the most we've ever offered in a ticket price," Goldstein said. "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."

Other ship features drew criticism.

Views from cabins overlooking Central Park vary widely. Some experienced cruisers complained that balcony cabins overlooking Central Park and the Boardwalk just didn't feel like being at sea.

In-cabin electrical outlets 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.

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 the Oasis too big?

"We won't know until it shakes out on real cruises," CruiseCritic.com's Brown said. "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, the Oasis is a vacation breakthrough.

Said Al Dobles, a travel agent with Cruise Planners in Pembroke Pines, Fla.: "The ship really is the destination."

 


The Oasis - Stem to Stern

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.

Crew: 2,394 from

71 countries.

Itinerary

The Oasis of the Seas sails from Port Everglades on Saturdays for seven-night eastern Caribbean voyages. Through April, the ship will call at St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and Nassau. In May, it begins alternating eastern and western Caribbean itineraries. The new western itinerary has calls in Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico, and Labadee, a private beach in Haiti. In December, a newly developed port at Falmouth, Jamaica, will replace Costa Maya.

Fares

The least-expensive regularly published fares start about $1,049 per person, double occupancy, though Royal Caribbean has them listed

on its Web site (www.royalcaribbean.com) at $729, with balcony cabins starting at $979.

Cabins

Oasis offers a far greater variety of staterooms than most cruise ships, from bilevel 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 wraparound deck overlooking the Aqua- Theater (about $20,000 for a week).

If you're considering more affordable digs:

Standard cabins measure 170 square feet. Storage space and bathrooms are adequate. Some configurations put the bed against the closet, making for a tight fit. Electrical 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 have 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 ambience, the views from Central Park cabins vary widely, depending on location. (From some, you mostly look at the artful skylights; others offer verandas lined with living plants.)

When you take a non-balcony cabin overlooking the Promenade or Central Park, you'll need to keep your curtains closed; people can look in.

Restaurants

The Oasis features nearly two dozen eateries, from a grand dining room to a donut shop; Sorrento's Pizzeria; Johnny Rockets; the breezy Seafood Shack; Solarium Bistro, featuring healthy options; and the elegant 150 Central Park, with tasting menus created by Keriann Von Raesfeld. For the first time, guests can opt for anytime dining in the main dining room.

Some premium eateries require an extra fee, from $3.95 to $35. These generally are small and offer specialty cuisine. About 80 percent of restaurant seats are in no-fee dining spots.

Sports and 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 a basketball/ volleyball court; jogging track; nine-hole mini-golf course; two Flowrider

surf machines; two rock-climbing walls; sports pool for laps and team water sports; zero-entry pool; 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.

Technology

Passengers can book spa appointments, reservations in specialty restaurants, and free show tickets 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.

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 monitor capacity in specialty restaurants (posted in real time by cameras that track crowds).

Guests who rent shipboard "deck phones" can use VoIP Internet calling. You also can track the onboard location of your children, ages 3 to 11, who wear emergency evacuation wristbands.

For children

More than 28,000 square feet are dedicated to the Kids Zone, which includes

a nursery for those over

6 months and is stocked with Fisher Price toys; activity spaces for age groups 3-5, 6-8, and 9-11; a space where families can work on projects, such as scrapbooking; video arcade; indoor playground for Nerf ball games and dodge ball; 100-seat theater for children's productions; and teen lounges for ages 12-17. Youth spa services are offered in a separate space in the main spa.

Entertainment

The outdoor AquaTheater for high-dive and water- ballet shows is new, but it wasn't working when we sailed. Also new is Hairspray, a 90-minute musical that featured spectacular performances and had the audience cheering. Another first: a dedicated comedy club.

Studio B, the ice-skating space, features a new show based on Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. One of the highlights is a sand-painting performance displayed

on a giant screen.

The cruise line's signature parades - found

on Voyager- and Freedom-class ships - are staged in the Promenade. One has a fairy-tale theme; the other centers on the disco era.

As on most ships, bands play in lounges throughout the evening and at specific times on deck.

The Oasis also offers Dazzles, a tri-level dance lounge, and traditional clubby bars and dance clubs.

- Jane Wooldridge

Jane Wooldridge Miami Herald
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