Monday, February 8, 2010

Royal Caribbean and Carnival Create Destination Ships


Ever since the big cruise lines began offering travelers the chance to sail among the many islands of the Caribbean, the main factor in deciding which ship to take was the ports of call.

The destinations were the attraction. The ship provided a way to do a bit of island hopping with the bonus of being able to eat, drink and relax as you made your way from, say, St. Thomas to St. Maarten without the hassle of going from airport to airport — or even packing and unpacking.

But two new cruise ships have hit Caribbean waters, creating waves and rocking the old decision-making process.

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and, to a lesser extent, Carnival's Dream are by far the largest in each fleet's line. The Oasis holds almost 1,800 more passengers than its biggest predecessor; the Dream's capacity is 600 passengers bigger than Carnival's former biggest.

The two lines took different approaches to the upsizing of their fleet. But the resulting ships share one new phenomenon: Each is a destination unto itself.

For Royal Caribbean, the design and layout of the Oasis is a dramatic change from previous ships — from any line's ships, for that matter. Carnival views the Dream as more of an evolution. The upgrade, while not revolutionary, is significant enough that the ship has a bigger, grander there's-an-awful-lot-to-do-here vibe.

The behemoth cruise ship idea isn't new. But these ships have sailed into new cruising territory. They've outgrown the ship's former role as a floating hotel that allows you to visit different countries without having to pack every day; these ships are more akin to sea-going all-inclusive resorts. There's little reason to leave the ship.

And that changes the equation when it comes to planning a cruise.
The ports of call and the land excursions take a back seat to what's available aboard each ship — especially when traveling with a big group or kids.

To borrow a tropical fruit analogy — planning a Caribbean vacation is now more than just comparing mangos to mangos, but mangos to coconuts. It's not just comparing one cruise ship to another, it's deciding a cruise on the Oasis (or the Dream) versus a trip to Sandals, Club Med or any other all-inclusive — because in many respects, the choice isn't that different.

Cruises and all-inclusives have always had a lot in common: Endless food, kids camps, group activities (if you want) or quiet and relaxing (if you don't); a great choice for families or groups who can't agree on what to do and don't want to deal with the hassle of trying to get tables for eight or 10 or 16.

But there were also major differences – and it wasn't just the obvious water- vs. land-based setting.

All-inclusive was one destination.

Cruising took in multiple destinations.

So how have the Oasis and the Dream changed the equation?

Oasis of the Seas

Shop, eat, play, relax. Stroll though Central Park, see a Broadway show, take a spin on a carousel, play minigolf. Grab a slice, try rock climbing, the zip line or surfing simulators. Getting tired yet? There's still plenty to do.

The Oasis isn't just the biggest cruise ship in the world — it's, as Mark Ratner, a passenger from Minnesota observed, "Vegas on water."

It has changed the concept of a cruise ship as a very comfortable, amenity-filled mode of transportation to an attraction unto itself.

"We have truly created a ship that rivals any land-based destination resort and opened the door for a whole new sector of consumer that might not have otherwise considered a cruise vacation," says Adam Goldstein, Royal Caribbean Cruises International's president and CEO.

And that's fortuitous. Because of its size, the Oasis is restricted in what ports it can stop at, limiting it to much-visited territory such as Cozumel and St. Thomas.

The unique feature of this ship is the themed neighborhoods. The ship is divided into seven distinct neighborhoods: Central Park, Royal Promenade, Boardwalk, Entertainment Place, Pool & Sports Zone, Youth Zone, Vitality at Sea Spa & Fitness.

Each zone offers guests a unique experience, and different vibe. The heart of the ship and main level is the Royal Promenade, which is home to upscale shops and restaurants, highlighted by the Rising Tide Bar, which slowly ascends and descends three levels. The Central Park zone is lush with plants and walkways; the look is true New York. The Boardwalk zone is a family-friendly area that features a hand-carved carousel, rock climbing walls and an Aqua Theater.

Whether you are overlooking Central Park from your guest room or strolling along the Royal Promenade, you can actually forget that you are on a ship. It's like a big hotel wrapped around an upscale mall, but in a good way.

Still, enormity brings drawbacks. It's a long walk from one end to another — which can be tiring, especially for older cruisers. And despite the wide array of shows and venues — including the Aqua Theater productions, ice-skating spectacle, musical and stage shows and comedy acts — you can't rely on the old walk-in-when-you-feel-like-it cruise behavior. Now, if you want a seat, reservations are advised.

But the biggest change is the additional fees for many of the dining options. Eating in the three-level Opus main dining room, Windjammer Marketplace, Sorrento's Pizzeria and several casual grab-and-go eateries is included in the price, but 10 restaurants — including Johnny Rockets, the Seafood Shack, Izumi Asian and the upscale Chops and 150 Central Park — charge an additional fee, ranging from $4.95 at Johnny Rockets to $35 at 150 Central Park.


Think of the Dream as a souped-up, super-sized version of previous Carnival ships.

"The Dream class of ships embodies the evolution of our brand," says Gerry Cahill, Carnival Cruise Lines' president and CEO.

The best new feature on the ship is The Lanai, the half-mile, open-air walkway that encircles the ship on the Promenade deck. Complete with four whirlpools, outdoor café and places to relax and enjoy the view, The Lanai also provides easy access to the Ocean Plaza, the hub of the ship's entertainment.

Carnival Cruises has embraced high tech with the FunHub, an on-board social network that you can access from 12 stand-alone kiosks throughout Ocean Plaza.

If you've cruised on Carnival before, the Dream has a familiar feel, just on a bigger and grander scale. There's just more of everything, from lounges to the two-deck Serenity adults-only area to the very impressive kids programs and activities areas.

That size is also a drawback, especially if your cabin is at either end of the ship. You turn down the stateroom hallways and it seems like they go on forever. You will get your exercise going from your room to onboard activities.

And while the Ocean Plaza is spacious and airy, if you have bad weather at sea, it will get awfully crowded and you'll quickly realize you're sharing your vacation with 3,600 other people.

Is bigger better?

So, when deciding if these big ships are the right choice for your vacation, consider the following:

1. Kid-friendly. Both lines were already geared to family vacations; these ships have upped the ante by virtue of the room and equipment available for kids of all age groups.

2. Do you like crowds? While there's plenty of room to find solitude and quiet on each ship, face it, when you're sharing a confined space there are times you can't avoid crowds.

3. Variety. Each ship offers more to do than other ships. But destination-wise, your choice is limited.

4. Extra fees. This applies primarily to the Oasis. If you want to sample all the ship has to offer — food-wise — it will cost you. Like those nagging baggage fees airlines keep hitting you with, you'll find that the original cost of the cruise is not the final cost, as you'll be paying to eat at any of 10 additional-fee restaurants in addition to all those other not-included costs, like drinks.

5. Mobility. The elderly, those not in great shape and even some little kids may find it daunting navigating the ships. It's hard to overstate how big they are and how much mileage you put on going from one place to another.