Icon of the Seas Cruise Ship Review: The Pleasures and Pain of Earth's Largest Cruise Ship
Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Icon of the Seas, is a floating list of superlatives: biggest cruise ship ever. Biggest swim-up bar on a cruise ship ever. It is the first ship ever to have a suspended infinity pool, the first ship ever to have six waterslides, and the first ship to have a 16-piece live orchestra, in its production of The Wizard of Oz. That’s the biggest live orchestra at sea ever.
First this, biggest that, the list goes on. With all of the hoopla surrounding this record-breaking sea vessel, there are also critics who recoil at the sight of a mammoth ship like this. Observe deck after bulging deck towering precariously over the ocean, with multicolored neon water slides piled atop it all like innards of an eviscerated sea monster, and imagine the thousands of sunburned passengers crammed on board with screaming kids in tow, fighting with strangers about who is hogging the pool chairs. The bigger the ship, the more people there are on board, and the more claustrophobic it gets out there on the ocean.
In the world of cruise ships, is bigger really better?
According to Royal Caribbean, Icon can sail with 5,610 passengers, but don’t be fooled by that number. It’s based on double occupancy, when each cabin carries only two guests. In reality, parents will share a cabin with their children, and groups of friends share cabins together. Icon of the Seas is actually equipped to hold passengers more in the range of 7,600. When combined with the 2,300 crew members, that adds up to almost 10,000 people onboard.
Icon of the Seas:
Passengers: 5,610 (double occupancy)
Decks: 18 guest decks, 2 crew decks
Inaugural voyage: January 2024
Size: 250,800 gross tons, 1198 feet/ 365 meters long, 213 feet/ 65 meters wide
Speed: 22 knots (41 km/h)
Booking: 866/562-7625; royalcaribbean.com
Bigger does not necessarily mean more luxurious. Despite all of the hoopla, most of Icon really is stylistically just another Royal Caribbean cruise ship.
That’s not a criticism. Royal Caribbean is a solid brand in the cruise industry, with spacious (compared to other lines) cabins, good food, talented performers in the shows, and a slightly conservative vibe that encourages passengers to have fun without getting trashy.
Icon has the same blue-and-green cool-color décor as other Royal Caribbean ships, the same prime rib in the main dining room, the same comedian Simeon Kirkiles stopping by occasionally to deliver the same Donald Trump impersonations and fat jokes that he’s be doing for years. The onboard specialty restaurants such as Izumi (Japanese), Giovanni’s (Italian), and Chops Grille, are familiar names across Royal Caribbean ships. Even the midship atrium, Central Park, is a common feature on many other Royal Caribbean megaships.
So if so much of Icon of the Seas is the same as the rest of Royal Caribbean’s fleet, why choose it?
The Icon experience is very much about the outdoor decks. Its pool area encompasses three decks across the top of the ship. Seven pools, multiple bars and restaurants, and of course those eye-catching water slides, add up to a lot to soak in, literally and figuratively. If the confrontational neon colors don’t induce an anxiety attack, Icon’s pool area is a creation of recreational grandeur.
Icon’s public spaces are divided into “neighborhoods,” and on the pool deck, the Thrill Island neighborhood includes attractions like the FlowRider surfing simulator, the rock climbing wall Adrenaline Peak, and Category 6, Icon’s six slides. Icon cannot claim the longest water slide at sea—that honor is bestowed upon The Blaster, on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas—but after speaking with several of Icon’s onboard water park enthusiasts, who were between the ages of 8 and 10, I learned from their experienced critical analysis that Icon’s slides pack a wallop. The adults accompanying them, who also rode them, agreed.
To combat those annoying chair hogs who toss their belongings onto a prime spot in the morning and claim the space for the entire day, some cruise lines have experimented with requiring guests to reserve chairs.
On Icon, the solution appears to be to set up so many chairs that everyone who wants one should be able to find one. Somewhere. Hopefully.
Icon’s pool deck can hold around 1,000 people (remember the ship's passenger capacity at double occupancy is 5,610), and deck chairs are tucked into spaces everywhere, near pools, in corners, and lined up in row after row.
With all of that energy buzzing around, it is hard to imagine “relaxing” on Icon’s deck, but there are lots of spots to lay out and sip a drink. For many cruise passengers, that's the first priority, and Icon delivers.
As is typical on family-oriented cruise ships, Icon has a kid’s club where parents can drop off their kids for supervised play time, but according to Royal Caribbean’s management, the outdoor amenities on this ship are designed to facilitate families enjoying the ship together. Icon introduces Royal Caribbean’s new youth-oriented concept, Surfside (pictured above), a neighborhood designed to encourage parents to actually play with their kids, with smaller-scale slides, pools, and playground equipment.Since these cruises are vacations for the adults, too, Surfside has a bar, Lemon Post, so parents can enjoy some drinks without having to leave the area. (Try the Escape Raft: Tito’s vodka, coconut water, orgeat, and house-made lemonade.) The super-sized playground is fun, but perhaps the most underrated aspect to Surfside is the selection of food available. Rather than drag everyone off to the dining room or a restaurant for dinner, which forces them to stop back at the cabin to get changed first, Surfside Eatery serves refreshingly simple food like chicken nuggets, burgers, soft-serve ice cream, and of course the ever-important pizza. Surfside Eatery is included in the basic dining options, so eating there is at no extra cost.
There are some adults-only areas of the ship, for whatever it’s worth. Cloud 17, on the 17th deck, and The Cove pool on Deck 15 are restricted to passengers 18 and over, to give grownups some away-time from little bodies running around. This is a nice idea, but Cloud 17 and The Cove are small, with small pools, surrounded by the commotion of Icon’s family-fun extravaganza of the main pool deck.
The other 18-and-over area, The Hideaway, is reasonably separate from the rest of the pool deck. Occupying the rear (aft) of Deck 15, The Hideaway’s main attraction is the infinity pool, cantilevered off of the back of the ship. The vibe is more day club than relaxation zone, with music pumping through the air and chairs packed shoulder-to-shoulder in tight rows (pictured above). Considering the fact that Royal Caribbean is a family-oriented brand, The Hideaway is still fairly sexy.
You know what’s not sexy? Waiting in lines. Packing 7,600 guests onto a ship presents certain logistical challenges, and Royal Caribbean historically suffers criticism for how its enormous Oasis-class ships accommodate, or don’t accommodate, crowds. On a hot summer day, with a packed ship, how long will everyone have to wait to ride those water slides?
Take Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas as an example, since it’s an existing ship that many people already know. Until Icon set sail, Wonder had been the biggest ship on the planet, accommodating around 7,000 passengers. But all 11 of Wonder’s specialty restaurants combined only contain a maximum capacity of 675 seats at a time. This means finding a reservation on Wonder can be tough, or perhaps you'll have to schedule dinner with your kids after their bedtimes. Yes, the main dining room is a solid restaurant, and the Windjammer buffet (which is free for everyone and never requires reservations) is fine, but those specialty restaurants are a major selling point for the Royal Caribbean experience.
On Icon, restaurants like Asian-influenced Izumi (pictured above) and Chops Grille are somewhat larger than on Wonder, but maximum capacity for all of the specialty restaurants on Icon is still minimal, adding up to only 733 seats at a time. If you don’t have a reservation, you can feel free to spend your time waiting standby (on a cruise that cost you thousands of dollars).
Guests on any large cruise ship are advised, upon boarding, to immediately access the ship’s cruise app and make as many reservations as possible, because restaurants, shows, and leisure activities will usually be booked solid by the time the ship leaves the port. On a ship that is literally double the size of other cruises at sea, securing reservations immediately is a must. Icon's size adds a level of advance preparation that guests must be prepared to tackle if they want to experience everything.
Certain improvements have made a big difference in managing crowds. Most notably, Icon’s elevators have a new system: Passengers select their floor destination at a kiosk, which directs them to one of the 8 elevators in the lobby (and there are 2 elevator lobbies). Each journey makes only 2 or 3 of these pre-selected stops. Not only does this system, which has been adapted from skyscraper elevators, manage passenger flow, it also shortens the actual ride—and therefore the wait for everyone. Whoever invented this elevator system deserves the Nobel Prize, because it is a spectacular improvement on the daily existence aboard a ship.
It has been mentioned ad nauseam already, but it needs to be said again: Icon of the Seas is really big. There are 2,805 cabins on this ship—some cruise ships don’t have 2,805 people on board—with a myriad of choices from size, amenities, location, access to shipboard VIP areas, and the big question: Does it have a balcony? And if it does, does the balcony open out to the ocean, or a light well in the interior of the ship, as in this Central Park-view room?
Icon of the Seas, like the ships in Royal Caribbean's gargantuan Oasis Class, has shifted the concept of what a basic cabin looks like. From deck 7 up to the top of the ship, all cabins have at least a window, if not a balcony, facing either the ocean or an open-air atrium. The Central Park and Surfside neighborhoods offer outdoor access for interior-facing rooms that have balconies, but only from around the 12th deck is it really possible to see sky from an interior-facing balcony room without leaning way out. These interior rooms mostly have a view of the occupants across the atrium—and what a direct, jarringly personal view it can be. At least each cabin's thick glass silences most (but not all) of the echoing noise from below.
Budget-friendly cabins fill decks 3 and 4, and as is the case in much of Royal Caribbean’s fleet, Icon’s basic Ocean View cabins are actually quite charming.
Less than 100 square feet smaller than the balcony rooms, these rooms feature large windows that let in lots of light, and there is enough space for 2 people who hopefully enjoy sharing close quarters.
Suites on Icon, as expected, are big, although the extra space seems to be the main advantage. Suites are decorated with the same blue-and-green color palette, and the same light wood furniture, as every other cabin on the ship, without much in terms of extra styling.
Suite guests do have access to the Suite Neighborhood, with a few of their own restricted-access restaurants and social areas, in case a self-imposed VIP caste system at-sea is your thing.
Some suites pump up the whimsy, particularly with details for youngsters. The Family Infinite Ocean View Balcony cabins on Deck 9 offer fun details and lots of space. In a design twist borrowed from Royal Caribbean's corporate sister Celebrity Cruises' Infinite Veranda staterooms, rooms on Icon with the “infinite ocean view” includes extra indoor space that would normally be occupied by the balcony, and the exterior sea-facing wall is flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass. That glass can be lowered, creating a glass-front balcony that opens the room to the outdoors.
Besides looking cool, the design allows travelers with children to choose how wide they open the window, providing a balcony experience while keeping the barrier high enough to thwart little adventure-seekers from climbing when it isn’t safe.
On Icon, the Family Infinite Ocean View Balcony cabins have those fancy windows, plus another feature: a cute sleeping nook at the opposite end of the cabin.
Bright and cozy, with two bunk beds and a reading corner, the nook's only downside is that a mere curtain is all that separates it from the main cabin area. There is no door, so adult privacy is somewhat compromised.
Also, these Family Infinite Ocean View Balcony cabins are tucked back at the rear of the ship, so plan on some lengthy walks to the elevators every time you want to eat at The Windjammer buffet. Fortunately, the Surfside Eatery serves most of the same food, and it is a quicker walk down some steps from this type of cabin.
There are some gorgeous suites all the way up to the 18th deck, but remember that at that height, every time the ship rocks to the side, or back and forth from the waves, higher-deck occupants can feel very much along for the ride.
Icon has an advanced system of stabilizers that smooth out many rough spots, but on our sailing, rough seas knocked the boat around a bit. In the 18th deck's AquaDome (pictured above), which in the later hours is the location of a popular diving show, the pool sloshed out so much water that a performance had to be canceled so crew could fill it back up again. Keep location in mind when choosing a cabin. For the least movement, choose a stateroom that is lower and near the ship's middle section.
With all of that said, there is one more looming detail to consider: price.
While Icon of the Seas is new to the industry and is still novel to customers, it can charge fares that are at least two, if not three, times the price of cruises on many other Royal Caribbean ships. Blame that swim-up bar, those water slides, and the long list of amenities. Those 16 musicians in the Wizard of Oz live orchestra don't come cheap. (By the way, this production isn’t the MGM version of Wizard of Oz, by the way. It was re-written for kids, so don’t expect a Broadway-level production.)
For its first season, Icon of the Seas sails 7-night Eastern or Western Caribbean vacations out of Miami, but so do plenty of other ships that don't cost as much. Cruise aficionados will gladly pay the escalated price. Icon of the Seas is meant for a particular type of experience. Passengers choose it because they want to indulge, and perhaps overindulge, on a boisterous and busy cruise ship holiday. Icon is a cruise ship for people who love being on cruise ships. Its passengers probably aren’t there expressly to explore foreign ports. The ship is the vacation.
Icon truly is a giant floating resort set against a changing Caribbean backdrop, so its stops at Nassau or the private island of Coco Cay are more of a bonus. As the saying goes, it’s not about the destination—it’s about the journey.
We can all go through this public relations hype again later in 2024, when Royal Caribbean launches Utopia Of The Seas. Utopia will hold 58 more passengers than Icon, and it will carry 8 hot tubs. The most hot tubs at sea ever!
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