Symphony of the Seas surprises and delights with tech touches

Symphony of the Seas surprises and delights with tech touches
Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

ONBOARD THE SYMPHONY OF THE SEAS -- I didn't expect this ship, the fourth in the Oasis class, to hold many surprises.

Happy to say, I was wrong.

There are some fresh things to see and do on the massive, 228,081-gross-ton ship, the new holder, by about 1,100 gross tons, of the title of world's largest cruise ship.

One of the most charming innovations is also the simplest: The staircase leading up to the Windjammer Cafe sounds musical notes, and the treads briefly light up when you step on the them. The effect calls to mind the scene in the movie "Big" when actor Tom Hanks steps out notes on a giant keyboard laid out on the floor.

Richard Fain, chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., said the Symphony is the first ship to include such a staircase, the result of an effort to build a little more zing into a mundane feature.

Shuffleboard at the Playmakers sports bar and arcade.
Shuffleboard at the Playmakers sports bar and arcade. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

"We decided we needed to do something to essentially energize the stairs," Fain said.

The feature provides a little bit of serendipitous delight, and passengers can't quite trust it is happening the first time they experience it.

"It's kind of unexpected," Fain said. "There's no sign, there's no explanation. It's just fun."

Another delight is a modern art installation dubbed The Big Wonder. The structure is found in the ship's forward Solarium and functions like a giant canopy over one of the bars.

Weighing in at seven tons, The Big Wonder is an aluminum framework in a curving and recurving organic shape, covered with 3,800 triangular pieces made of dichroic acrylic. The material has a subtle, mirror-like finish and an iridescent quality that changes color with the viewing angle.

In addition, The Big Wonder is lit from inside with strings of LEDs that slowly modulate their color at night.

The piece was produced by SoftLab, a New York studio that specializes in such materials.

On the preview cruise, workers were still installing some of the individually numbered triangles into the framework. Once in place, the structure becomes self-reinforcing, like a geodesic dome, Fain said.

It should be noted that The Big Wonder was about the only item I could see on the Symphony that had not yet been completed. Royal Caribbean International president Michael Bayley said the line has become more careful since receiving criticism for bringing the Symphony's predecessor, the Harmony of the Seas, out of the yard with multiple areas incomplete.

Other surprises I encountered on the Symphony were not in the hardware, but in the soft aspects, especially the entertainment.

The Big Wonder art installation also serves as a canopy over a bar in the Solarium.
The Big Wonder art installation also serves as a canopy over a bar in the Solarium. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

The most stunning, I think, is the three-minute introduction to the new ice show, "1977," which will undoubtedly be publicized on social media. It involves the simultaneous flying of 48 tiny drones, each bearing a small light that changes color.

The drones, in seemingly random flight at first, give the appearance of fireflies on a summer night. Eventually, they fly in more ordered formations, bopping and buzzing to the Who's 1967 anthem, "I Can See for Miles."

Nick Weir, vice president of entertainment for Royal Caribbean International, said the drone intro involved the creation of an internal positioning system in the ship's Studio B ice rink, similar to satellite-based GPS.

Signals from the system control the drones and keep them from crashing.

"They're all aware of where each other is, so they get out of each other's way when they get close," Weir said. "It's really clever stuff."

The three-minute intro took about a year to build and perfect, Weir said. He's particularly proud of the finale in which the drones form an arch, under which the hero of "1977" makes his entrance.

The parents' bedroom in the two-level Ultimate Family Suite.
The parents' bedroom in the two-level Ultimate Family Suite. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

As if that weren't enough, Royal has also adapted the projection mapping system from the Two70 lounge on Quantum class ships to work on the floor of the ice show. A system of six overlapping 5K laser projectors display images such as a dream-like flowing river on the 2,400-square-foot Studio B skating rink.

To make the images as distinct as possible, engineers embedded a thin theater projection screen in the ice.

"You put it all together, and you get a great image," said Weir, who used the projection system in Studio B for the first time on the Harmony.

Another feature, not quite new but getting more of a workout on the Symphony, is what Weir calls "4D harnessing" for aerialists in the Symphony's AquaTheater show, "AquaNation." The harness enables the aerialists to move up and down, side to side and forward and back into the audience space. Weir said the system will be adapted for use in the ship's main theater in a future show.

Also bound to have a future on other ships is the Ultimate Family Suite, a two-level, 1,346-square-foot playhouse suite that comes with air hockey, pingpong, an Xbox, an 85-inch HDTV system and, last but not least, a slide that connects the sleeping loft to the lower level.

Outside on the balcony there's a hot tub and a mesh-enclosed climbing apparatus. It's priced at $50,000 a week for a family of four and is sold out for 2018.

"Hairspray," first presented by Royal Caribbean on the Oasis of the Seas, has been revived for the Symphony.
"Hairspray," first presented by Royal Caribbean on the Oasis of the Seas, has been revived for the Symphony. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

New dining spots on the Symphony include the so-spare-it's-barely-there El Loco Fresh, a quick-bite Mexican kitchen with a condiments bar and some tables on the sports deck. For $39, guests can also eat dinner at the blue-and-white Hooked Seafood restaurant on a terrace overlooking the enclosed Solarium Bistro.

For kids (I imagine), there's Sugar Beach, a candy store stocked with a rainbow of flavors and colors. Opposite Sugar Beach in the Boardwalk area is Playmakers, a sports bar and arcade that seems neither fully adult nor fully juvenile, making it feel betwixt and between.

There remain all the staple features from previous Oasis ships: the Rising Tide Bar, the Ultimate Abyss slide, FlowRiders, a zipline and shows, shows, shows. If you can't find something to do for a week on the Symphony of the Seas, it won't be the fault of Royal Caribbean International.


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