Royal Caribbean's private-island waterpark an extraordinary achievement

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The wave pool at Thrill Waterpark on Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay.
The wave pool at Thrill Waterpark on Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

COCOCAY, Bahamas -- Getting the cruise industry's first full-fledged waterpark open would be an accomplishment in itself. But getting it built on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the ocean, 150 miles from Miami, was a feat of logistical and engineering ambition.

When it started planning the Thrill Waterpark as part of what would eventually be dubbed "Perfect Day at CocoCay," Royal Caribbean International wasn't even sure it could be done, despite the desire of senior executives to upgrade Royal's land experience to match the quality of its ships.

"If you need something -- and you always need something -- there is no Home Depot, there's no way to get anything," said James Boink, associate vice president of private destinations at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Every unanticipated need on CocoCay, he said, meant waiting a couple of days to get parts flown in from the U.S.

But Royal persisted, and four years after initial blueprints were drawn, the $250 million attraction is hosting its first ships.

First Look: Perfect Day at CocoCay

One ship to call regularly will be the Navigator of the Seas, which has assumed the three- and four-day cruise itineraries out of Miami that not long ago were consigned to the smaller, older Majesty of the Seas.

Worth the wait

On a recent weekday morning, guests streamed off the Navigator onto the newly built pier that will make it feasible for two Oasis-class ships to dock at the same time and disgorge more than 10,000 guests onto the 140-acre island.

Only a third of the island is developed, but Royal has packed that part with bars, cabanas, shaded walkways, a lagoon, a sprawling freshwater pool, thousands of loungers, hundreds of colorful canvas umbrellas, three restaurants, five beaches, a three-station zipline, a helium balloon attraction, an oasis worth of foliage and the waterpark.

Many Navigator guests headed straight for the tallest waterslide in the park, Daredevil's Peak, which starts atop the 135-foot tall Daredevil's Tower and winds around in a 20-second descent to the ground.

At midmorning, scoring a ride meant a wait of 40 minutes, but by midafternoon, the wait had shrunk to no more than 15 minutes. Even at 40 minutes, my traveling companion pronounced the slide "worth the wait."

Twelve other waterslides round out the lineup, which include seven that launch from the tower and six that occupy the separate Splash Summit pad. I sampled the Slingshot on Splash Summit, a raft ride that climbs a nearly vertical wall at the end before backsliding into a large run-out pool.

Like many of the other slides, the Slingshot will be coming to countless social media platforms near you.

In between the slide areas, there are some other waterpark favorites such as a wave pool and an adventure pool of aquatic obstacles. (There is no lazy river feature). Just outside the turnstile of the fee-extra Thrill Waterpark are two complimentary venues for younger kids: Splashaway Bay, with fountains, pools and drench buckets; and a large Spanish galleon full of water cannons and slides for pint-sized pirates.

The chill side of the cay

By their nature, the attractions of Chill Island are not going to get the same attention as those at Thrill Waterpark. Still, there are several peaceful beaches, one fanned in an attractive semicircle around an internal lagoon. The number of rentable cabanas on CocoCay has surged from 15 to 49, a number that will grow by 20 when the overwater cabanas of the Coco Beach Club open in December.

In that upscale neighborhood, cabanas will rent for as much as $1,599 a day. Until Coco Beach Club opens with a grill, an infinity pool, a trio of bars and sports courts and facilities, the chill side of CocoCay will be less than complete.

CocoCay demonstrates Royal Caribbean's usual flair for design and refinement, with features that an average guest might not notice but that contribute to an overall sensation of quality. Boink cited the bathroom interiors as an example: "We crafted and scripted every detail."

By adding "Perfect Day" to CocoCay, as Royal Caribbean has called Little Stirrup Cay during its 31-year tenancy, the line has set expectations sky-high. The Perfect Day at CocoCay still has competition in the private island category with more coming, but there's no doubt that its waterpark is in a league of its own.

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