On board the new Oasis of the Seas: Is it worth the money?

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So here I am, writing this from off the coast of Florida as part of the first two-day preview cruise of the magnificent Oasis of the Seas. Royal Caribbean has launched the largest cruise ship in the world, a towering dagwood of action-packed decks and over-the top superlatives: longest cruise ship, widest cruise ship, tallest cruise ship, heaviest cruise ship.

And as of today, the coolest cruise ship. Rihanna was on here yesterday, and I'm told Richard Branson has come and gone, too. By now, most of America has seen the particulars of this gargantuan, billion-dollar chunk of devil-be-damned engineering. Here on board, one of the stateroom TV channels plays, on a loop, the segments of yesterday's Good Morning America in which Sam Champion and his crew romped around the Aqua Theatre, the Solarium, the cocktail bar that rises and falls between three decks (pictured above), the huge Central Park and Boardwalk atriums (atria?) that carve an airy middle into the ship.



The ship is, simply put, astounding. I have never seen anything like it in my years of cruising. It took me about six hours to explore fully from Deck 3 (the Studio B ice rink) to Deck 17 (the stunning, and ridiculously expensive, duplex loft suites with two-story sea views). There's nearly no way to take in the enormity of the endeavor. If you could pack a small shopping mall together with a 2,400-room resort and send it off to sea, you might start coming close (one cynic described it as "a hotel on a barge," which omits the considerable frills and dazzle), but you'd still have trouble wrapping your head around it all.

It is so big as to be humbling, and sometimes, that makes it a little frightening. As we left Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, a police boat rushed a smaller craft that was approaching us and warned its captain to back off, as it was entering "restricted waters." Something this big and this audacious would be an obvious target, and local police are clearly taking no chances.

Royal Caribbean, ever adept at cleverly harnessing social media (remember that unfortunate recent case in which it was nabbed giving freebies to people likely to populate user-review boards with praise?), has invited large numbers of journalists, travel agents, and VIPs to take part on two, free, back-to-back, two-night cruises. Attending for WalletPop, I'm on the first one. For this run only, alcohol is free.



There were some early reports this week that the line would be, in effect, bribing the press for good stories by plying them with booze and by giving them stuff that will actually cost passengers on "real" sailings. Although alcohol is free, I can't say I've seen this accusation to be the case, and the crowd is a lot less drunk than it was for a paid sailing on the Carnival Dream a week ago. Not everything is handed out: I've had to pay for things such as a $2.50 coffee on the Royal Promenade or $2.50 for a hyper-sweet cupcake from its on-board cupcake shop. Whenever anything is offered to us, I ask what the price will be for paying customers.

Again and again, the answer I get tells me that many of the things we're getting are included in the fare anyway. That includes midnight pizza at Sorrento's, afternoon burgers at Johnny Rocket's, and twilight doughnuts on the Boardwalk (where there's a working carousel), and even rides on one of the twin FlowRider sheet wave machines, provided you can score a time slot. So although Royal Caribbean is pioneering obnoxious fees such as surcharges for late-night room service and hefty upcharges for the privilege of eating better food than its main dining regularly serves, I can't say it's using the launch of the Oasis to foist a lot of new ones on us.

There are some issues, of course. The first is lines. Royal Caribbean was wise enough to only pack this ship about half-full, which means we're all likely to get into the shows we want to see and we won't write reviews complaining about crowds. When it's full of paying guests, though, you'll have to make many of your reservations online or in a queue, adding another layer of hassle to what's supposed to be your break from it all. I also suspect the main pool area, on Deck 15, will not be able accommodate everyone who wants to swim. On balance, though, this is a pretty dazzling achievement, and diversion is around every corner.

When I see a ship as marvelously bloated as this one, I have to separate my sense of travel snobbery from my admiration for what Royal Caribbean has done here. I can't deny that passengers who immerse themselves in this floating circus might as well not be at sea at all. It's less a ship than a floating resort, and most of the passengers seem to be hanging out below decks than enjoying the sun and the sea.

Today, while I was having lunch in the Windjammer Marketplace buffet on Deck 16, I looked down at the smooth blue water to see dolphins playing alongside the ship. While I was admiring that sight, the couple behind me was engaged in a lively debate about the quality of this buffet compared to those on other ships. They were oblivious to their surroundings. It's typical of the attitude on board the Oasis, which is so loathe to share any glory with the oceans than most of its vantage points over the seas are sheathed in glass.

That's all right. This ship is a product, and whether you're a theatre reviewer or a travel writer, you have to remember the audience for whom you're reviewing the product. This audience is agog. I myself can't help but be impressed. For the next year or so, until its sister ship the Allure of the Seas matches her feats, this will be the ship to book, and rates are likely to be at around $150 a night or more (I wrote about upcoming deals to be had that were even better). I can't say that if I paid that price, high for the industry right now, that I would ever find that I was feeling ripped off.



Now that I've seen this ship, though, I might consider any other vessel that dared to charge me so much would be a rip. In this way alone, the Oasis may have changed the industry: It will be difficult for less exuberant ships to charge the same price, and if they do, they'll have to find some other hook, be it a boast about smaller crowds, better food (Royal Caribbean's food is not widely considered its strong point), Mickey Mouse appearances, or larger cabins. The sheer magnitude of the Oasis, its biggest selling point, will also be the very thing that convinces some customers to choose a sailing with more modesty.

And more importantly, remember that traveling is not always the same thing as vacationing. Not everyone wants to engage with other cultures; for many people, the floating fishtank of a cruise ship is all the exploration they need. The Oasis is a fabulous vacation machine, but it's about the universe it has created for itself, not about its place in the outside world. In that, it's a home run.
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