Recently, I decided it was time to finally see what a big ship cruise is all about.
Before April, I had never been on an ocean-going ship. As tours editor at Travel Weekly, I also cover the river cruise market and have consequently been on numerous river cruises throughout Europe as well as on the Amazon and Nile rivers, but never on anything bigger than a 200-passenger vessel.
So I decided to start big. Really big. The biggest in the world, in fact. Thus, it came to be that the first ocean cruising vessel I ever boarded was Royal Caribbean International's 220,000-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas.
A lot has been made about the similarities and differences between the river cruise and ocean cruise markets. This was an attempt to better understand those comparisons as well as ocean cruising in general, since it's a market that both tour and river cruise operators find themselves up against.
In April, during Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld 2010 trade show and conference in Fort Lauderdale, I had the opportunity to take a two-hour, privately guided tour alongside Travel Weekly's cruise editor, Johanna Jainchill.
The idea was to gauge my reaction as well as for Johanna to respond to the questions and impressions of a first-time ocean cruiser, especially based on my knowledge of the very successful, yet very different river cruise market.
First and foremost, one can't help but be impressed with the sheer size and scale of the Oasis. Upon pulling into the massive parking lot at the ship's home port of Port Everglades, my first reaction was, it's big. I looked at Johanna; she nodded. OK, so I wasn't totally off base: The size is impressive, even for someone familiar with ocean cruising.
From that point on, everything seemed almost comically oversized, especially coming from a river cruising perspective. As we filed past the very efficient lines of passengers boarding at the ship's brand-new terminal, their electronic documents around their necks, I couldn't help giggling to myself about how easy it is to board a river cruise ship (just walk across the plank and you're on), how a tour of a river cruise ship wouldn't last more than 20 to 30 minutes and how in two hours, we definitely felt rushed.
The Oasis of the Seas is a destination, it is a spectacle, it is a vacation unto itself -- but a very specific type of vacation.
It's a floating, mostly inclusive (with plenty of opportunities to spend additional cash), family-friendly resort, with something for a lot of different people: people who enjoy food, active people, people who want to relax, people who want to be entertained.
I also cover theme parks for Travel Weekly, and the Oasis of the Seas reminded me very much of a theme park on the water: a controlled, well-executed vacation environment.
Mostly, I was impressed with how much thought goes into a vessel of that size. When a company like Royal Caribbean International has that much space to work with, the ship itself becomes a representation of what a vacation is, since a vacation is so many different things to so many different people.
One of the areas where that became glaringly apparent was in the teen-only Youth Zone, one of the ship's seven "neighborhoods." It immediately made me think back to traveling with my parents during those tumultuous teen years. Walking past the "teens only" signs into an area complete with video games, a karaoke room, bean bag chairs and a bar that serves "mock-tails," I thought, how smart.
The teen-only area exemplifies the kind of fine tuning of a successful vacation that can be accomplished on a ship of that magnitude, the kind of thought that can go into not just the overall vacation experience but how each member of the family experiences a vacation. And how teens, for example, likely relate better to other teens than to younger kids or their parents.
I was also surprised with the breadth of product onboard, ranging from luxurious, split-level loft suites and the upscale 150 Central Park restaurant to inside-facing cabins and low-key fast-food restaurants.
I thought about which of these passengers would be the ones the river cruise companies should be looking to court. Those with kids, booking the zip line, riding the FlowRider wave simulator and playing the slots at the casino might not be potential river cruisers. Those booking reservations at 150 Central Park, the other fine-dining restaurants and taking all the shore excursions, perhaps more so.
At the end of the tour, I walked off the ship with a feeling of awe for what must go on behind the scenes to ensure that 5,400 passengers all receive their baggage properly; that kids are being adequately taken care of while parents relax; that entertainers are rehearsed and prepped for their nightly shows; that 5,400 meals are supplied and served three times a day, without everyone feeling like they are eating with thousands of other people.
If nothing else, the Oasis of the Seas is a study in the logistics, organization, coordination and execution of providing a vacation experience to 5,400 people at a time. That alone makes it worth the trip.
This report appeared in the June 28 issue of Travel Weekly.