Six months after her launch, the new mega-ship has exceeded expectations. A six-month review.
Oasis Docked at the New Labadee Pier
Oasis Six-month Update
Now that Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas has been sailing for about six months, it is time for an update. There are three parts to this story: the misconceptions the general public before the ship debuted; the first impressions and growing pains when the ship first started sailing regular cruises; and where we are today, now that the ship has hit its stride.
Before Oasis was launched, there was a great deal of public skepticism about Oasis' ability to handle its average passenger load of 6,000. Oasis contains 5,400 berths, but can accommodate almost 6,400 passengers on any given sailing, since its family cabins are equipped with pull-down and sofa beds.
There were public predictions that the record passenger capacity of the vessel would mean long lines everywhere -- for elevators, buffet food, restaurants, and, of course, embarkation. Predictions that it would take passengers two hours just to check in were common, as were warnings about the likelihood of missing shows and other events due to overcrowding.
December 2009: Oasis arrives
Oasis had her final sea trial and official handover ceremony at a Finland shipyard in early December, but there were none of the usual press previews in Europe for the new ship. The crew was flown to Turku and boarded the vessel just before she set sail across the Atlantic. Royal Caribbean imposed a news blackout on pictures of the ship's interior from the day it took delivery of Oasis. Not a single journalist was on board- even though after years of waiting the ship was finished and ready for her debut.
The crossing took two weeks. We all knew she was coming to America - but no one had any idea what she really looked like with the wraps off.
During the transatlantic crossing there was news about high seas causing damage to the hull, so we wondered if the scheduled inaugural cruise would be delayed, but somehow Royal Caribbean managed to keep its inaugural celebrations intact. I was looking forward to being among the first to see the ship on its first scheduled media cruise, when at the last minute a concert featuring pop singer Rhiannon was scheduled for the night before our cruise.
I was staying at the Hilton Marina hotel in Ft. Lauderdale the night of the concert, and I could see the stern of the ship with its beautiful AquaTheater's dancing fountains and lights from my hotel room balcony. I took a hundred pictures - the first pictures of Oasis lit up with a full contingent of passengers at night. Even from a mile away, the ship was impressive.
When I woke up the next day I was amazed to see the ship was gone from its Port Everglades berth. She had been taken out to sea after I went to bed, and in the morning it was as if I had dreamed the entire previous night. Then I realized she was out to sea so ABC Television's Good Morning America could broadcast from that vantage point.
As we found out later, the reason for the three-week picture blackout - since the day the ship was delivered - was that Royal Caribbean had an agreement with Good Morning America that the TV program would be the first to show pictures of the ship. Although millions of dedicated cruisers were waiting to get a look, the GMA producers didn't seem to get it. They hardly showed any shots of the ship's amazing interiors - which was great for the rest of us, since that allowed us to be the first to bring you pictures of the interior of Oasis.
Later that morning, I entered the brand new Oasis terminal and saw 80 Royal Caribbean guest relations processors ready to check our boarding papers. Within five minutes, I was holding my key card. When the gangway was opened, I walked straight into the Royal Promenade with no waiting, and my first impression of Oasis was simple - I was in awe.
Ahead of me was the grandest interior room I had ever seen on a cruise ship. It was more than 100 yards long, three decks tall and as wide as some entire ships I have sailed on. At each end, open elevator atriums rose 12 stories. For the rest of the day we took pictures, soaking in every detail of the ship. This media preview cruise was only two days long - but we had a chance to see every public room.
To say we were impressed with the ship is an understatement. No one could find a thing to criticize about the design and d�cor. Oasis is an architectural wonder -- especially inside, from the open spaces in the interior of the ship represented by Central Park and the Boardwalk, to the largest ice rink at sea, the Aqua Theater, the Flo-Riders and the zip-line. We immediately knew Royal Caribbean had a hit on its hands.
The First Passenger Cruise
Two weeks later I was back on Oasis with my wife for the first passenger cruise. The two-day media cruise had given us an idea of the décor and restaurant selection, but we did not have a chance to assess how the ship would work with real passengers. We wanted to see the main production show -- Hairspray -- and the AquaTheater presentation. I was also eager to try dining at 150 Central Park, the first specialty restaurant at sea to have an award-winning, full-time executive chef onboard to create the menus and supervise the food preparation.
It would also be the first time the innovative online reservation system would be tested. I had made all my reservations -- restaurant, show times, and a shore excursion -- at the royalcaribbean.com web site on the day the line announced it. I may have been the first person ever to book a reservation for 150 Central Park online. The reservation system allows booked cruisers to plan several parts of their cruise before they set foot on the ship. You can make a table reservation in a specialty restaurant for 8:15 p.m. and still get a seat for the 10 p.m. showing of Hairspray.
As it turned out, the reservation system worked flawlessly. Every reservation we made over the Internet from home was listed on the interactive TV system in our stateroom.
I also wanted to test the main restaurant to see how the staff handled serving 4,500 passengers at the same time. No problems there. I had made a comedy club reservation online, and sure enough the wireless reservation system read my keycard perfectly - it knew I had a seat reserved for that show. I also learned that even though I had made reservations, I probably did not need to. Most people waiting for standby seating managed to get into all the shows I attended.
The only problem I had on my first cruise involved my meal at 150 Central Park. I thought my portions were ridiculously small, with no real main course at all. What's more, four of the 11 items on our menu were not available, an oversight for which we received only a meager apology - and our meal was at 6 p.m. on the third night of the cruise. If I ever eat there again, I expect a complimentary meal.
The other problem lasted beyond our cruise. The ship had significant problems with its AquaTheater shows, mostly because this type of production had never been tried on a cruise ship before. Add to that an extremely short rehearsal schedule in the AquaTheater, and the resulting show did not hit its stride until about the third month the ship was in service. Part of the problem was that the ship was built in Finland in the dead of winter - and there was no way to rehearse an outdoor show in an open air swimming pool. The transatlantic voyage was also too rough for rehearsals.
It appears that Oasis' success thus far has been largely due to early reviews and word-of-mouth. Before the ship appeared, there was a lot of resistance from people saying it was just too big. But as the first reviews came in, reporting that the ship did not suffer from the predicted maladies, the number of bookings increased month after month.
While the ship has 5,400 berths and a total capacity of almost 6,400 passengers, we heard the actual number sailing during the first two months was below 5,000 per cruise -- in some cases as low as 4,600. But the company put a high price on those early cruises, hoping the novelty of the ship would attract the "early adopter� crowd. In normal economic times that idea makes sense, but this time Royal Caribbean's decision to drop the price below $1,000 for inside cabins appeared to be the magic number that made bookings take off.
In April, the ship broke its own capacity record three consecutive weeks in a row, going from 6,000 passengers to as many as 6,200 three weeks later.
In short, Oasis has proven to be successful beyond expectations. She is a "word of mouth" type of ship that must be seen to be appreciated. And that is not because a description of her sounds worse than expected - it is because every description of her sounds too good to be true.
The longer Oasis, sails the more popular the ship becomes. I see Oasis as a one-of-a-kind experience that every cruiser should try at least once. And when it becomes even more affordable, it is one of the few ships I could sail repeatedly and never get tired.
By the way, this may be my last Oasis article for awhile, but please try our CruiseMates message boards to get all of the latest updates about Oasis of the Seas and other topics.