Royal Caribbean International
The Line in a Nutshell
Royal Caribbean has basically been the innovator in the mainstream sector of the cruise business over the past decade, transforming the architectural look and layout of big cruise ships and also rewriting the book on what's possible at sea: rock climbing, ice skating, boxing, surfing on deck, ziplining . . . what's next? The line's fleet includes the 10 biggest cruise ships ever built, and while sheer size alone doesn't justify choosing these ships, the fact that Royal Caribbean puts the extra space to good use does justify it. These big ships really do deliver the goods in terms of variety, comfort, design, and amenities. Sails to: Caribbean, Panama Canal, Alaska, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, Canada/New England (plus Europe, transatlantic, Asia, South America, Australia/New Zealand, Dubai/United Arab Emirates).
Royal Caribbean prides itself on being ultra-innovative and cutting edge, pushing the envelope with each new class of ship it builds. If there's something that's never been done at sea before, Royal Caribbean will figure out how to do it. The newest ships, sisters Oasis and Allure of the Seas, give new meaning to the phrase over the top, carrying a whopping 5,400 passengers apiece and designed with citylike neighborhoods and an incredible new plan that opens up the center of the ship to sunlight and fresh air. The supersize megacruisers were preceded by the three Freedom-class ships, which introduced a surfing simulator, full-size boxing ring, and "sprayground" kids' aqua park to the cruise world. All of these fun, active, and glamorous megaships provide a great experience for a wide range of people, whether your idea of a good time is riding a wave or relaxing in the Solarium pool. There are huge children's centers for the kids and elegant jazz clubs, kick-back sports bars, and flashy entertainment for adults. Decor-wise, these ships are a shade or three toned down from the Carnival brood: Rather than trying to overwhelm the senses, many of their public areas are understated and classy.
You'll find folks from all walks of life on a Royal Caribbean cruise: passengers in their 20s through 60s and older, mostly couples (including a good number of honeymooners), some singles traveling with friends, and also lots and lots of families. Overall, passengers are energetic, social, and looking for a good time, no matter what their age. While the majority of passengers come from somewhere in North America, the line also attracts a lot of foreigners, including many Asians and Latin Americans.
Over the past years, the line has been making a push for younger, hipper, more active passengers via ad campaigns that portray the ships as a combination of hyperactive urban health club, chic restaurant district, and adventure-travel magic potion -- which is a bit of a stretch, though the line's newer ships give that ideal a good shot. RCI's ships are active, yes, but don't expect the Shackleton expedition (or the Four Seasons, for that matter).
RCI's shorter 3- and 4-night cruises tend to attract a more party-oriented crowd, as is the case with most short cruises.
Royal Caribbean International (RCI) was the first company to launch a fleet specializing exclusively in Caribbean ports of call -- hence the company name. In the late 1980s, it expanded its horizons beyond the Caribbean (hence the "International") and now offers cruises in every major cruising region. It's the line that launched the megaship trend (with 1988's 73,192-ton Sovereign of the Seas), as well as the super-megaship trend (with 1999's 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas), the super-duper-megaship trend (with the 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas in 2006), and the double-super-duper-megaship trend (with the 5,400-passenger Oasis and Allure of the Seas, which debuted in 2009 and 2010). Beyond sheer size though, the line's ships have been incredibly innovative, challenging traditional notions of cruise ship activities as well as the basic architectural form that a cruise ship can take. Voyager launched the idea of ice-skating rinks, interior boulevards, and rock-climbing walls in 1999, and barely more than a decade later, these features seem almost standard. Who would have thought? Oasis and Allure doubled the innovation by being the first cruise ships designed with a split superstructure, meaning the top eight decks are split lengthwise by a long canyon, in which sits a huge open-air garden and a boardwalklike entertainment zone. Besides letting light and air into the center of the ships, the effect makes the vessels feel more 3-D overall -- like you're walking around a city rather than just shuffling around on unconnected horizontal decks. Architecture aside, the ships also introduced a number of advances in entertainment, infrastructure (new digital signage, for instance), and activities, at least some of which will soon be rolling out to the line's older vessels.
Overall, the food is hit and miss. One dinner will be very tasty -- like a Thai chicken dish and the Tuscan white-bean soup that our coauthor Heidi enjoyed on a recent cruise -- and another will be disappointing. As aboard big ships at other lines, serving thousands of passengers a day doesn't always translate into a memorable dining experience. As far as dining times, Royal Caribbean has just started offering an alternative to the fixed early- and late-seating dinners in traditional main dining rooms. And just as with all the other mainstream lines, there are also many casual and specialty dining spots.
Traditional -- In keeping with the flexible dining setup at the likes of Princess and NCL, Royal Caribbean's new My Time Dining reservation system means you can eat in the main restaurant whenever it is convenient for you between 6 and 9:30pm if you make a reservation with a maitre d' stationed outside the restaurant several hours a day. Flexible dining is typically allowed on one level of the main restaurants, while diners also have the more traditional two seatings on a different level, with typical entrees such as poached Alaskan salmon, oven-roasted crispy duck served with a rhubarb sauce, sirloin steak marinated with Italian herbs and served over a chunky tomato stew, shrimp scampi, and often an Asian dish. At lunch and dinner, there's always a light and healthy option such as herb-crusted baked cod with steamed red-skinned potatoes and vegetables, or a pasta tossed with smoked turkey, portobello mushrooms, and red-pepper pesto; as well as a vegetarian option such as vegetable strudel served in a puff pastry with black-bean salsa.
Specialty -- Unlike lines such as NCL, Royal Caribbean hasn't generally gone overboard with alternative, extra-cost specialty restaurants, though that paradigm is changing with the new Oasis-class ships. The Voyager-class ships each have one intimate, reservations-only Italian restaurant called Portofino ($20 per person), while the Radiance- and Freedom-class ships and Mariner and Navigator of the Seas have Portofino and the Chops Grill steakhouse ($25 per person). Oasis and Allure each have five specialty restaurants. Specialty restaurants are being installed on the line's older ships as they're renovated.
Casual -- Fleetwide, an open-seating casual dinner is served every night from 6:30 to 9:30pm in the buffet-style Windjammer Café. Meals follow the general theme of dinners in the main restaurants (Italian, Caribbean, and so on), and the room is made a bit more inviting through dimmed lighting and the addition of tablecloths. Long open hours mitigate the crowds on the bigger ships, but on a recent cruise aboard Rhapsody, the place was a madhouse at lunchtime and we literally couldn't find a seat inside or out. You can also eat breakfast and lunch in the Windjammer -- and most passengers do. Different stations have salads, soups, sandwiches, burgers, pasta daily specials, meats, desserts, and so on. The Oasis-class ships (and others, as they're renovated) have additional stations serving different regional cuisine, including Asian, Mediterranean, and Latin.
RCI's Oasis-, Freedom-, and Voyager-class ships and the older Monarch and Majesty also have one of the most distinctive casual-dining spots at sea: an honest-to-God Johnny Rockets diner with red vinyl booths and chrome accents, serving burgers, milkshakes, and other diner staples. There's a nominal $4.95-per-person service charge, and sodas and shakes are a la carte; but that doesn't stop lines from forming here during prime lunch and dinner times. The Oasis-class ships add a slew of other casual eateries as well, including a seafood shack, an indoor/outdoor restaurant in their open-air Central Park neighborhood, a pizzeria, and a health-conscious bistro in the Solarium.
Snacks & Extras -- Oasis-, Freedom-, and Voyager-class ships have an extensive coffee shop on the indoor promenade (serving a variety of pastries, sandwiches, and pizza), plus several self-serve soft ice-cream stations and free nacho-and-hot-dog-type snacks in the sports bars. The line's other ships have similar choices, with decent pizza served in the afternoon and late night for those suffering from post-partying munchies, and ice cream and toppings available throughout the day from a station in the buffet. The ships all have Latté-tudes coffee shops serving gourmet java, cookies, and other baked goods (all priced a la carte). Freedom, Independence, Liberty, Mariner, Monarch, and Navigator also have a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop serving cones and sundaes at extra cost, while Oasis and Allure have a 50's-style ice cream parlor (also extra cost) as part of their Boardwalk neighborhood. There are no midnight buffets in the traditional sense on any of the ships, but something is always open for those with the late-night munchies, from the pizza counter to the buffet and 24-hour room service.
A decent kids' menu features the usual options: burgers, hot dogs, fries, fish sticks, chicken tenders, spaghetti, and pizza, plus lots of desserts.
Room service is available 24 hours a day from a fairly routine, limited menu, though the rub is that now you'll be charged $4.95 per order between midnight and 5am (don't be surprised if this becomes an industry trend).
In general, dining, bar, and cabin service are surprisingly good considering the sheer volume of passengers with which crewmembers must deal. At dinner on a recent cruise, we found that even when staff was rushed, our water glasses were always filled, wine orders were delivered promptly, and our servers always found time for a little friendly chitchat -- though on this same cruise at lunchtime, crewmembers seemed tired, grumpy, and struggling to keep up with demand (which was really high at lunch). Generally, however, the crew is efficient and friendly, from a crewman polishing the brass to the guest service staff, which was superpatient and very helpful on our recent Rhapsody cruise. These folks work long, hard days, though, and on ships this size (and especially on those operating quick-turnaround 3- and 4-night cruises), it's possible to run into some crewmembers who look like they need a vacation.
Guests on Royal Caribbean have the option of tipping traditionally -- giving tips as deserved to crewmembers on a one-to-one basis -- or adding a prepaid gratuity to their onboard accounts ($10 per day is suggested), to be divided among service staff later. Guests enrolled in the line's flexible My Time Dining program are required to prepay their gratuities.
Laundry and dry-cleaning services are available on all the ships, but none have self-service laundromats.
Royal Caribbean's ships have the greatest variety of activities and sports facilities at sea, bar none. Fleetwide, you'll find rock-climbing walls (with multiple climbing tracks and training available), plus lots of typical cruise fare: spa and beauty demonstrations, art auctions, wine tastings, salsa and ballroom dance lessons, bingo, oddball crafts/hospitality classes (such as napkin folding), "horse race" gambling, and outrageous poolside games such as a men's sexy legs contest, designed to draw big laughs. Sports facilities vary by ship: All the Oasis-, Freedom-, and Voyager-class ships have ice-skating rinks, combo basketball/volleyball courts, rock walls, and miniature-golf courses. The Oasis class bumps things up a notch with a zipline that zooms you across the ship's central canyon, an aqua theater (a pool with a movable floor for synchronized swimming and high-dive shows), and two FlowRider surfing simulators (each of the Freedom-class ships also has one of these). If shopping can be considered an activity, Royal Caribbean has an impressive selection of boutiques clustered somewhere near each ship's atrium.
For those whose goal is to not gain 5 pounds at the buffet, gyms are well equipped fleetwide, with specialized fitness classes such as yoga and cardio-kickboxing for $10 per person. Onboard spas offer the usual range of massages, facials, and other beauty treatments like teeth whitening, but here's a piece of advice: If you want a treatment, sign up immediately after boarding, as these are big ships and a lot of people will be competing with you for desirable time slots. If you're flexible, you can often find more openings and special discounts on port days and off times.
Royal Caribbean has always done a good job with its show, music, and guest performers, but over the past couple of years it's upped its game so much that it now ranks among the very best cruise lines for entertainment. Its biggest ships, Oasis and Allure of the Seas, both feature honest-to-god Broadway productions -- Hairspray! on Oasis and Chicago: The Musical on Allure. Real shows, with words and everything! That's rare enough in the cruise biz to be revolutionary, but it seems to be working. Just before this book went to press, Royal Caribbean announced that it would be expanding the idea to Liberty of the Seas in early 2011, though it hadn't yet named the show that will be featured. Liberty and sister-ship Freedom of the Seas will also be presenting a second musical on each sailing, this one a kid-friendly show targeted at families. Royal Caribbean is very good at moving ideas that work fleetwide, so we might see major entertainment advances across its fleet over the next couple of years.
Besides its big theater shows, RCI also offers passenger talent shows, ballroom dancing competitions, karaoke, sock hops, and occasional "name" groups and soloists, such as the Platters, the Drifters, the Coasters, John Davidson, and Marty Allen. The newer the ship, the larger and more sophisticated the stage, sound, and lighting equipment, with some boasting a wall of video monitors to augment live performances.
Aside from its showrooms and huge glitzy casinos, Royal Caribbean is big on signature spaces, with each ship offering the nautical, woodsy Schooner Bar as well as the Viking Crown Lounge, an observation-cum-nightclub set high on a top deck and boasting panoramic views of the sea and ship in all directions. The Latin-themed Bolero's bar (aboard Oasis, Allure, Freedom, Liberty, Independence, Navigator, Mariner, Monarch, and Majesty) serves a mean mojito and has Latin music into the night. Atrium bars also feature live music, often classical trios.
Year-round and fleetwide, Royal Caribbean offers its Adventure Ocean supervised kids' programs for children ages 3 to 17, divided into Aquanauts (ages 3-5), Explorers (6-8), Voyagers (9-11), Navigators (12-14), and older teens (15-17). All youth staffmembers have college degrees in education, recreation, or a related field. Each ship has a large children's playroom and facilities for teens, with complimentary supervised activities on sea and port days. In general, the scope of the kids' facilities on the Oasis-, Freedom-, Voyager-, and Radiance-class ships far exceeds that on the older vessels, with huge playrooms, and a large, sequestered outdoor deck with ship-shaped play equipment.
Kids' activities fleetwide include movies, talent shows, karaoke, pizza and ice-cream parties, bingo, scavenger hunts, game shows, volleyball, face painting, and beach parties. Internet access is available to Adventure Ocean kids at half-price (25¢ versus 50¢ per minute for adults). Several programs also mix learning with play. The Adventure Science program entertains kids with fun yet educational scientific experiments like volcano making and projects that vaguely touch on meteorology and fossils; while Adventure Art, offered in partnership with Crayola, focuses on art projects made with the company's crayons, modeling clay, glitter, glue, markers, and paint. Adventure Theatre exposes kids to theater arts via vocal and physical exercises, and activities that foster creativity. There are also activities geared to the whole family, including mom and dad.
For younger kids (ages 6 months-3 years), RCI has partnered with Fisher-Price on a program of supervised play dates in which babies (6-18 months) and toddlers (19 months-3 years) are invited to daily 45-minute play sessions with their parents in a designated lounge. Offered on all but embarkation day, the interactive dates incorporate music, storytelling, and a variety of Fisher-Price toys to explore physical development, problem-solving skills, cause and effect, and other lessons. In ship cabins, Fisher-Price TV has programming for kids and you can also borrow Fisher-Price toys for kids to play with in your cabin. (By the way, if you don't feel like schlepping your own stuff, you can now preorder organic baby food and Huggies-brand diapers, wipes, and creams for delivery into your cabin when you arrive. Go to Royal Caribbean's Shop Gifts & Gear section at www.royalcaribbean.com.) There's also a morning Stroll & Roll for parents who want to push their infant in a stroller around the ship's jogging track.
For teens, each ship has a teen center, a disco, and a video arcade. The Freedom-class ships, Mariner, Navigator, and Monarch of the Seas, have three teen-only areas, including a dedicated teen Sun Deck. Teen programming hours are daily 9am to 5pm and 7pm to 2am.
Kids' facilities and activities on the Oasis-class ships outshine any others in the fleet, and rank among the best in the cruise biz, with highlights including one of the very few nurseries at sea (accepting kids between 6 months and 3 years), plus nine different play spaces and a huge water park out on deck (also on the Freedom-class ships).
Radiance-class ships and Voyager, Adventure, and Explorer also have a water slide and a kids' pool.
Slumber-party-style group babysitting for children ages 3 and up is available in the kids' playroom nightly between 10pm and 1am. The hourly charge is $6 per child (kids must be at least 3 years old and potty-trained). Private, in-cabin babysitting for kids ages 1 year and up is provided by off-duty crewmembers from 8am to 2am, and must be booked at least 24 hours in advance through the purser's desk; a new Fisher-Price partnership means the babysitter will arrive with Fisher-Price and Mattel toys and games, and play with your child. Upon the parents' return, the sitter gives them a log of what they did together. The cost: $10 per hour for up to two siblings; $15 per hour for a maximum of three. As for the few hours of adult time to enjoy dinner, drinks, entertainment, a workout, and/or spa treatment: priceless.
Alternatively, a revamped Adventure Ocean dinner program is a kind of "get out of parenting free" card for adults, inviting kids to have dinner with youth staff in the Windjammer Café, the Solarium, or Johnny Rockets diner (depending on the ship) from 6 to 7pm, then take part in an activities session until 10pm. This is offered on 3 nights of a 7-night cruise and once or twice on shorter cruises. A complete child's menu is provided. At midday on sea days, the new Lunch and Play program invites kids ages 3 to 11 to eat with counselors between noon and 2pm and enjoy movies, cartoons, and playtime (it's $7.95 per kid). New interactive kids' menus (parents, bring your own crayons, though -- on our last cruises, the dining staff didn't have any) have just been introduced, with more healthy choices. Other new stuff includes a kids' section in the ships' libraries and, for the suites, a Mattel board game menu, including Pictionary, Balderdash, and UNO Flash.
Infants must be at least 6 months old to sail. Note that transatlantic, transpacific, Hawaii, and some South American cruises require infants to be at least 12 months old.