Royal Caribbean's CocoCay: What to Expect, How to Prepare
Cruise ships have competed for years to come up with the wildest new onboard thrills. But with the newly invigorated CocoCay, Royal Caribbean has accelerated the entertainment arms race on dry land. Private islands have become a mainstay among the mega cruise lines—keeping passengers close is a brilliant way to capture an extra day's worth of spending. Now Royal Caribbean has poured some $250 million into its exclusive island northwest of Nassau, Bahamas, and is banging the advertising drum to get vacationers excited about the "Perfect Day at CocoCay." Even the pronunciation got a makeover. The company now says the best practice is to say Cay as "key" because that's how the Bahamians do it (although word of that hasn't yet filtered to the ships' crews, not to mention that the change introduces an imperfection in that perfect day/CocoCay branding rhyme).
We've been to the new CocoCay, and while it's not, as promised, the best of all possible worlds, it's still a lot of fun. Here's what you need to know ahead of time to have the most perfect-as-possible day on CocoCay.
There's a lot going on. Most visitors just want to grab a free lounger on their own patch of the Bahamas' famous sandy beaches and nosh at one of the island's two free buffets. But quietly relaxing with a book might feel unlikely considering all the new temptations that have been installed. Among the new additions: the Up, Up and Away tethered balloon, which floats a passenger platform a few hundred feet in the air. There's a new water park. There are motorized watersports, kayaks, foam floats, and snorkeling excursions. Future plans include overwater bungalows, Zorbing, volleyball, and an oceanfront infinity pool. That's all fantastic, but here's the bad news: Every one of those attractions and activities will cost you extra money.
Once your kids spot the tower at Thrill Waterpark, good luck keeping them satisfied with a beach pail and shovel. Found to the right of the island as you enter from the pier, the park has 13 slides and a 135-foot-tall tower (the tallest in North America; stairs only) crowned by Daredevil's Peak, which is hands-down the most harrowing and intense water slide I've ever been on anywhere. The speeding red spiral is definitely too aggressive for some people, and the line to ride it is daunting, too; I waited for about an hour, and that was when only one ship was docked at the island. There's space at the pier for two vessels, which would potentially make waits untenable, especially if one of them was a 6,000-passenger Oasis-class ship. What's the extra fee for all this watery fun? A hefty $60*, no matter your age. That's more expensive than most slide parks on the mainland. Worth it to ya?
*All prices in this feature were accurate as of May 2019, but they should give you an idea of what you'll be paying if you go.
Thrill Waterpark also has the largest wave pool in the Caribbean, not that there's much competition. The lockers in the water park are free, and lines for the slides tend to ease somewhat by mid-afternoon, so try to delay your adrenaline rush until then. (Ships tend to call at CocoCay from about 8am to 7pm.) Above the slides, 1,600 feet of zip lines cost an extra $90 to try, and like many activities on the island, rides are scheduled at set times and can fill up. If there's anything you have your heart set on doing, make sure to book it at least a day in advance using the Royal Caribbean app or the Shore Excursions desk on your ship.
Parents do not have to shell out for Thrill Waterpark if their kids want to horse around in fresh water. Splashaway Bay, a hyped-up kiddie pool area (five simple slides, two drench buckets), is free to use, and so is Captain Jill's Galleon, a landlocked pirate ship-themed playground with dry slides and 16 water cannons.
The left side of CocoCay, through the gateway marked Chill Island, is laid-back and far from the screams and splashes of the Thrill area. Okay, so it's not really a separate island, but here you'll find long stretches of magnificent oceanfront sand on normally placid waters, another stretch of beach on a protected interior lagoon (Harbor Beach), and some 6,000 lounge chairs. Alcohol and soft drinks are poured (for a charge) at plenty of bars in sporadic beach huts. CocoCay can also cater to nearly every kind of water activity, from Sea-Doos to kayaks ($110 and $43 respectively), but you have to rent equipment at a steep price—snorkeling stuff is $37 per adult/$22 for kids ages 4–12, and even a basic foam raft costs $18 to borrow—so you're strongly advised to bring your own supplies, whether those are snorkels, wetsuits, underwater cameras, or floaty things. Sunscreen, too—you'll pay $20 for a measly 3 ounces if you don't bring your own. Towels can be borrowed for free on the ship.
If you'd rather have a piña colada between your lips than sand between your toes, there's the newly installed, 33,175-square-foot freshwater Oasis pool, where there are 20 seats at a swim-up bar and a thumping, clubby atmosphere.
Food is taken care of. While there are a couple of smaller specialty kiosks and bars selling things like Buffalo wings at an upcharge, in two large pavilions (Chill Grill and Skipper's Grill) you can avail yourself without restraint at an ongoing free buffet where fare tends toward picnicky favorites such as hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, fries, and corn on the cob. This is the Bahamas, though—you'll also find a few giant iguanas sniffing the dropped food, seabirds loudly bickering for leftovers, and more than a few flies that are as attracted to the grub as you are. If, for that reason, you'd rather not have food that's been sitting out on a buffet, hit one of the two Snack Shacks, which are also free but which hand you food as you order it. The burgers there are surprisingly fantastic, and far superior to what's on offer at the buffets (or even on the ships). Keep in mind you can't have dinner on the island—the smorgasbord wraps up in mid-afternoon.
Guests who aren't up for walking from the ship gangway all the way down the $50 million pier can catch one of the continuous open-air shuttles traveling between the ship and the Oasis Lagoon, which is right by the kiosk for the helium balloon ride ($50 for adults, $35 for kids 4–12). Once you're on the island, though, it's up to you to control the final bill by choosing your activities wisely. Royal Caribbean is betting you'll want to splurge. With CocoCay, the company has created a new cash cow that is extraordinary in a few ways, and soon the concept will spread to other regions worldwide where the line runs regular warm-weather itineraries. You'll always pay nothing to sit on the beach—but with all these fantastic toys, will you have the willpower to stay put?