ONBOARD THE ALLURE OF THE SEAS -- Royal Caribbean International's Allure of the Seas, christened just yesterday, and the Oasis of the Seas, its one-year-old sister, do have noticeable differences. Nonetheless, a guest who is boarding either of these Oasis-class ships for the first time will be equally impressed, and by the exact same thing.
The most notable features on the Allure that aren't on the Oasis won't be among the first things Allure guests will tell their neighbors about when they return home. The Guess Accessories Store, a Starbucks, Rita's Cantina (a Mexican specialty restaurant), the Hot Dog House, the Samba Grill (a churrascaria) and the Britto art gallery might be remembered, but no more so than other shops and restaurants.
That the Oasis features "Hairspray" as its musical and the Allure has "Chicago" is not a defining difference. Few will see that the outlets in the stateroom have been moved a little higher on the wall. And only a guest who has been on the Oasis repeatedly will notice that Boardwalk Donuts has drifted from port to starboard on the Allure.
But the Allure retains the most striking aspect of the Oasis, one that relies on the ship's totality rather than its pieces. What's still most impressive is that such large ships can have so many intimate spaces. The specialty restaurants are relatively small, and the clubs are not noticeably larger than lounges on ships of any other class.
The Central Park area, with its piped-in bird chirps, is a remarkably calm stretch on both ships. And there are places, little advertised and hard to find, that are calmer yet. In particular, if you happen upon the sun deck on Deck 14, you'll likely have it mostly to yourself. No signage points to it, and it can be entered only by walking down a long hall of staterooms on the port side.
To be sure, like its older sister, there are some features that take full advantage of the ship's size. I'm not sure I've ever seen larger outdoor hot tubs, and in scale and decor, the multilevel main dining room is impressive enough to be called "grand."
(Though they look identical from the outside, the Allure is actually the largest cruise ship in the world -- by two centimeters. The captain wanted bragging rights and modified the plan ever so slightly.)
On most cruise ships, you'll see lots of people using the stairs, perhaps to burn off a few extra calories. But not so much on the Allure, which has an intimidating verticality (especially if you're ending the night at Jazz on Deck 4 and heading to your Sky Loft on Deck 17). As a result, the stairwells are one of those strangely personal spaces. They contain some of the best art on the ship, and can even be places of introspection (albeit as you're catching your breath).
For me, the Allure and the Oasis bring to the fore a fundamental question for the industry: Are the traditional cruise line categories -- contemporary, premium and luxury -- still adequate?
On these ships -- indeed, on many "contemporary" ships -- one can have a luxury experience. You can stay in a $20,000-a-week, two-level loft suite and eat only at the better specialty restaurants, and the experience will surpass the standard accommodations and some of the food on luxury ships.
For years, some lines have been trying to game the system. The president of one premium line told me his product arguably could have been marketed as contemporary, but he decided he'd rather be one of the least expensive premiums than one of the most expensive contemporaries.
I asked Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. CEO Richard Fain where he felt the Oasis-class ships belong.
"For many years I've said that the categories are somewhat meaningless," he replied. "It can often be like comparing a steakhouse to a Japanese restaurant. It's not that one is better than the other; they're different."
Fain pointed out the wide variety of guests he has onboard. "We have people who saved up for 10 years and bought the most economical space in the ship, an inside stateroom. Then there's somebody for whom money is no object, who will rent out a suite that is 2.5 times larger than the average American home. Oasis and Allure are in a category by themselves."
Fain said there was a time when his corporate team really had to struggle with the terminology. "At Azamara, we decided to develop a new category: Deluxe. But Larry [Pimentel, Azamara's president] said this was nonsense. Azamara is a top-level cruise line, and the idea is not to make arbitrary differentiators. I have given up trying to come up with a new terminology."
Cruise lines have been moving toward differentiation for some time now, motivated in large measure by the overnight success of Oceania Cruises, which proudly stood with one foot each in premium and luxury. I can't remember a time when there have been so many exciting ships coming out in a relatively short time as in the past two years, and many appear to have been designed without concern for traditional categories.
If the old definitions no longer work, I suggest we pitch the whole idea of categories overboard rather than try to come up with new descriptors that ultimately limit, rather than enlighten, consumers as they try to understand what they're buying.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.