Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas Makes a Huge Impression

USA Today

ABOARD THE OASIS OF THE SEAS — It takes exactly 20 minutes after boarding the world's largest cruise ship to hear the dreaded L-word.

"The line starts there," snaps a fellow passenger waiting to book show reservations for the seven-night Caribbean cruise. That it takes that long to encounter a wait is the surprising part. After all, when you're sailing with a crowd of 5,800 passengers and 2,100 crew, you expect, well, crowds.

By now, you'd have to be a cave dweller not to have heard of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which made its debut in December. The subject of breathless, exclamation-point-laden coverage (6.7 million Google results!), the ship is all about excess, from its 6,296-passenger capacity to its $1.4 billion price tag. On this late February sailing, it will pause for a day in St. Thomas and St. Maarten and a half-day in Nassau, Bahamas.

But this cruise isn't about ports. Heck, it isn't even really about the ocean, which seems a mere backdrop to the whiz-bang onboard spectacle — the wave pool, zip line and ice rink; Broadway musical, dive show and ice-skating extravaganza; the 23 eating venues, 17 bars and 37 cabin categories.

As the behemoth takes its place alongside cruises departing from Fort Lauderdale past 2,000- and 3,000-passenger vessels that seem dinky in comparison, its horn emits a guttural mine-is-bigger-than-yours blast. Inside on the Royal Promenade, one of seven onboard "neighborhoods" and a cross between Disney's Main Street USA and a shopping mall food court, waiters hawk $7.20 piƱa coladas in commemorative glasses. Stunned newcomers gaze around the three-story expanse. And "Cruise Director Richard" Spacey, a manic cheerleader whose amplified voice will be ubiquitous this week, booms: "Ladies and gentlemen, you're officially on vacation! Somebody sccrreeaamm!!" Let the cacophony begin.

'Decadent' experience

The people behind the Oasis of the Seas are masters of crowd control. Yes, there are waits — 20 minutes for a table in the main dining room the first night; 17 minutes to reboard in St. Maarten. But, happily, those are exceptions on this sailing.

Among congestion-busting measures: Passengers are encouraged to make pre-cruise reservations, not only for the specialty restaurants but for major performances. Initial boarding is a breeze, thanks to an army of check-in personnel. And in most ports, multiple security portals ease logjams. Besides, in a space this vast, it's not hard to find serene spots.

Still, the unrelenting sensory input creates a frenetic atmosphere. It's virtually impossible to escape the piped-in music. Trivia questions flash on giant screens in the open-air theater. On the Royal Promenade, an electronic ticker tape emits non-stop factoids reminding just how wondrous the Oasis is. It has the deepest (17.9 feet) pool afloat, the first carousel at sea and a 12,000-plant "Central Park." If that's not enough to wow you, a bagpiper inexplicably appears around dinner time each night.

From scuba certification to scrapbooking, there are dozens of daily seminars and activities (though some turn out to be shameless sales pitches). And, as Cruise Director Richard announces on Day 1, "It is possible to eat 36 meals a day!"

"It's decadent, but I love it," says Dorene Benuck of Chicago, who with her husband, Irwin, paid about $1,800 each for a stateroom overlooking the ship's "Boardwalk," meant to evoke the ambience of a seaside resort. That's double or so the cost of sailing on a similar, smaller-ship Royal Caribbean itinerary. Not only is the Oasis commanding premium rates, onboard spending is "handily above other ships," Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain told Wall Street analysts in late January.

Pitch perfected

And no wonder. There's a lot to separate you from your money on this ship. Nine specialty restaurants charge premiums (from $4.95 for burgers at Johnny Rockets to $75 for a seat at the Chef's Table dining room). In-room movies cost $11.99 (more for the adult stuff). And the spa hawks everything from 24-karat gold facials ($325) to Botox injections (from $330).

At the moment, Sarip Hamid is merely seeking free advice on how to flatten his stomach. The chirpy Sea Spa receptionist invites him to join the acupuncture lecture. (It may be free, but a treatment costs $150.)

Hamid, a retiree from Kuala Lumpur, moves on to the fitness center, where a standing-room-only crowd is focused on a piece of Germanic beefcake who promises to cure everything from constipation to aging — without exercise! The personal trainer doubles as a pitchman for a product containing algae and seaweed that supposedly detoxes your body.

The infomercial continues for an agonizing 65 minutes, ending with an invitation for a $35 consultation. Hamid does it, but later, he's disgusted. "He tried to sell me $800 or $900 worth of supplements," he says. "That guy isn't even a doctor."

Of course, Royal Caribbean Cruises offers plenty of free activities. Some, like zip lining, surfing and ice skating, are novelties in the cruise world. A stargazing session from the ship's bow turns out to be a standout event (partly because only two people show up).

Bob Kozell is joining in many of the onboard high jinks, including the Sexiest Legs Contest, from which he has emerged victorious. Departing the stage to make way for the Thriller dance lesson, the seventh-grade teacher from Fort Lauderdale says he didn't come on this cruise to lie in the sun. "I came for fun and foolishness. Today is about foolishness," he says.

Giving in to excess

But not everyone is so easily amused. Donna Carrasquillo of New York complains of the dearth of port calls. "It's confining. When are we getting off already?" she says. "Of course, my son loves it. He's drinking, partying, out picking up girls."

Many, like Scott and Sabrina Blackburn of Denver, are here precisely because size matters. "We didn't come for the ports. We came for the ship," he says.

Indeed, as the week progresses, even passengers who are tepid about cruising find themselves embracing the sometimes peculiar aspects of shipboard life.

By Tuesday, you're ordering two entrees and multiple desserts at dinner. By Wednesday, the karaoke singers in the On Air lounge are sounding like American Idol finalists. By Thursday, you're tuning into a video rerun of Cruise Director Richard emceeing the Love and Marriage Game Show. By Friday, you're stopping by the pizza parlor for a late-night slice — just because you can.

First-time cruisers Bill Lewis and his wife, Lou, of Kerrville, Texas, certainly have no regrets. "It's fabulous — if that's a big enough word for this ship," she says.