Oasis of the Seas is the newest and biggest cruise ship afloat. But is it fun?

By Brad Cope

The Oasis of the Seas, as you might have heard, holds first place as the largest ocean liner in the world. Twenty stories tall and nearly four football fields long, the Royal Caribbean ship can carry 5,400 passengers and 2,165 crew, a full 25 percent more than the next largest ship. Launched last December, the hefty Oasis can still tool around at a decent clip of 22 knots.

So why does Arthur Frommer, dean of travel guides, consider the ship a monstrosity? Stuffing 6,000 people into a boat is not my idea of progress, but the opposite, he writes in his syndicated column. And why is that? Because its too much fun. The sole explanation for a 6,000-passenger ship, he says, is that it is able to offer more entertainment and thus cater to more of those people who are unable to entertain themselves, those arrested personalities who rely on constant, massive, outside distractions to ward off depression.

I can think of worse threats to human civilization than a ship packed with entertainment; but Frommer does ask a reasonable question: Is bigger always better? An even broader question, which he hints at in his column, is whether travelers should care so much about superlatives in general. Besides being the biggest, the Oasis has notched several cruising firsts: first park at sea, first carousel, first zip line.

And so, being the serious journalist that I am, I decided to test Frommers assertion. Steeling myself for the most entertainment-crammed ship ever, I took a weeklong cruise through the eastern Caribbean to decide for myself whether biggest, first, and most constitute the best. It was a subjective experiment, of course, but I increased the sample size of my survey by bringing my wife and our 8-year-old twins. While I cant speak for myself, their personalities are certainly not arrested. The kids have lived with limited TV, and they prefer dolls and Legos to video games and other massive distractions. Would people like them like it? Would I?

Superlative No. 1

Biggest Cruise Ship

The four of us step onto a dock in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and look up. A second moon looms over us, blinding white in the sun, studded with balconies instead of craters. The Oasis of the Seas seems more planet than ocean liner. The 225,000-ton ship is a world unto itself, with 2,706 staterooms, 24 restaurants, 13 shops, 21 swimming pools and hot tubs, a 2,100-seat theater, a jazz club, a comedy club, an ice skating rink.

On the Oasis, guests board on the Royal Promenade, an upscale strip mall of stores, bars, and restaurants that stretches the length of a football field. My son, Ethan, pronounces the space awesome, and my daughter, Sophie, considers her options at Sorrentos Pizzeria. My wife, Susan, eyes the kiosk for shore excursion reservations.

Though Arthur Frommer frets about stuffing 6,000 people into a boat, the Oasis is certainly no boat, and it doesnt seem overcrowded, even though its operating at nearly full capacity on this trip. Walking along the Promenade, I can see how the ship accommodates thousands without turning into a floating Tokyo. Sorrentos seats 66, Mondos Coffee Bar 56, Caf Promenade 58, the Schooner Bar 107, the On Air Club 113, and Boleros Latin lounge 90. Guests not in the mood for free food or non-free drinks can duck into the Focus Photo Shop, the Focus Photo Gallery, a perfume shop called Solera, a boutique-clothing store called Prince and Greene, the Port Merchants liquor store, and a souvenir shop called the Shop. And thats just the Royal Promenade. The Oasis has six other themed neighborhoods. The passengers are not so much stuffed as tucked away.

Watch out for long lines, one friend had warned me before the cruise. But I didnt see any. Royal Caribbean has cracked the code of scale. Our longest line: when we disembark back in Fort Lauderdale. Twenty minutes, tops.

Score one for the ship and its surprising amount of elbow room.

Superlative No. 2
First Shipboard Neighborhoods

No arrested personalities in sight. Im talking, Frommer writes, about people who get fidgety if they have no nearby television set, who never read a magazine, let alone a book, who have never enjoyed simple conversation or encountering viewpoints or beliefs foreign to theirs. Who want all the world to be like America. But the loungers I see pore over magazines and books ranging from The Da Vinci Code to Eat, Pray, Love. If theyre not reading, theyre talkingto each other, and even to foreigners. Some 25 percent of the passengers on Royal Caribbean cruises come from outside the States. The Oasis resembles a floating United Nations.

If you want the world to be like America, though, youre in the right place. Come aboard through a shopping mall. Walk through Central Park, a half-acre of winding paths flanked by calla lilies and rabbit foot ferns, and shadowed by fern pines and golden bamboo. Stroll the Boardwalk, complete with Johnny Rockets diner, ice cream shop, and carouselConey Island, set afloat.

After much research, Susan, Sophie, Ethan, and I decide that we like these parts of America. If Royal Caribbean had picked other neighborhood themessay, rush hour on I-95 or summertime in Death Valleywe might have felt differently. Instead, Susan develops a taste for the salads and Cuban sandwiches at the Park Caf in Central Park. We spend several lunches sitting outside peering through the leaves to the open sky. Sophie prefers the carousel on the Boardwalk, riding each of the 18 hand-carved figures at least twice. Ethan is always up for a solo mission to the Promenade to score a plate of mudslide cookies for the family.

The neighborhoods do for cruising what Disneyland and World did for the American vacation, says Marc Mancini, author of The CLIA Guide to the Cruise Industry. Rather than relying on assigned seating at dinner to create community, theyre using themed neighborhoods to give us the town we wish we had. I can imagine a cutting Frommer reply: Pretend towns are not the equivalent of meals with strangers. But my assignment is not to find community. Its to find fun. And so I do, bodysurfing on FlowRider simulators in the Pool and Sports Zone, seeing musicals in Entertainment Place, doing science experiments with the kids in the Youth Zone. Throughout, my familys personalities seem to remain unarrested.

Superlative No. 3
First Elevator Bar

For the first few minutes, I dont even realize Im levitating.

Look at that, I say, pointing out the side of the Rising Tide. Were about 15 feet above the Royal Promenade on deck five and inching our way to Central Park on deck eight. The pod-shaped bar makes the round trip on a whimsical schedule. Its like a UFOgliding up and downwith us interplanetary tourists sitting around tables and sipping drinks. The bartender makes a mean gin and tonic. It does wonders for my sense of community.

Superlative No. 4
Longest Jogging Track

Just put a path around one deck and bag another superlative. Still, 2,270 feetalmost half a mileseems much more impressive in person than on paper. Sophie decides to run it alone and doesnt return. It takes 10 minutes for the rest of us, searching for Sophie in a pincer movement from both sides, to find her and regroup.

Our favorite part of the track is the view you get from the Adirondack chairs flanking it. When we cruise out of Nassau, Bahamas, Ethan sits on my lap, no longer an everyday thing for him. A crowd of partiers at Seor Frogs on the shore serenades us as we pull out of the pastel port. In the indigo water below, sand stirred by the Oasis stern engines blossoms turquoise. Ethan leans back into me and says, This is the best part. Whos doing the entertaining, the ship or us? Who cares?

Superlative No. 5
First Zip Line

Standing over a nine-story chasm, I stare at the 82-foot wire and try to remember why I agreed to be trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey for this thing. We havent dropped anyone yet, a staffer says cheerfully. Theres a first time for everything. Off you go, he says, and Im in the abyss. The harness tugs a bit as I begin zipping toward the landing platform a long, long way off. On the deck to my left I spot Ethan taking the last photos of me alive. After 10 seconds, the staffer on the platform makes a gesture that means raise your legs. I do, and nail the landing with a satisfying thump. That was fun, I realize.

Then I spy the climbing walls, a signature Royal Caribbean feature. These twin cliff faces rise 43 feet above the Sports Zone, studded with colorful handholds like a scalable fruitcake. Susan, Sophie, Ethan, and I decide to go for a scramble. Ethan gets about 6 feet off the ground and asks to quit. Susan gives up on a bulge of rock a dozen feet off the ground. I start off strong until I hit
a similar bulge about 10 feet up.

I dont think I can do this, I call out.

Keep climbing, says the staffer, who looks and talks like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I make one final lunge, lose my nerve a moment later, and flop back onto the rock. A few moments later Im on the ground and avoiding eye contact with Schwarzenegger.

Meanwhile, Sophie, on her third try, climbs to the top of the wall and rings the bell. She comes down beaming. We three quitters can only smile back. At sea, even failure seems fun.

Best Cruise Ship?

After experiencing a weeks worth of Oasis superlatives, Im ready to field the big questions. Most of the answers can be summed up in one point: This oversized vessel is as much a resort as an ocean liner. If you want an exotic cruise, you might choose a ship with more unconventional destinations. But if youre interested in a seaside resort, you cant do better than the Oasis, where you get the sea on all sides.

Q: Is bigger always better?

A: No. For instance, I wish the New York strip steak with barnaise sauce that I ordered on the last night had been smaller. The meat was tender and the sauce creamy but too massive to finish.

Q: Is first always best?

A: Maybe not. But the firsts on the Oasisthe neighborhoods, the carousel, the elevator bar, the zip lineare pretty great. Dont do the elevator bar immediately before the zip line, though.

Q: Does the Oasis cater to arrested personalities?

A: Undoubtedly. Its just that I didnt meet any of them. Maybe they were so arrested they never left their staterooms.

Q: Was the Oasis fun for unarrested personalities?

A: For this family, absolutely. You havent done everything fun in the world until youve strolled in a park in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

But, strangely, one of the best experiences had to do with our modest-sized stateroom. Ours came with a queen-size bed and a sofa that folded out to accommodate the twins. At night, beds claimed almost all of the rooms 179 square feet. We had only a few destinationsbeds, bathroom, balconyall linked by a single, narrow, well-trafficked path. It felt like living in a studio apartment with exactly three too many people. We loved the place.

Squeezing by each other on the path, sharing a single bathroom, watching the same TV shows, and bedding down at the same time drew the four of us together, literally. After a few collisions and bathroom double-bookings, we developed elaborate rituals of courtesyyou first, please, thank youthat would have seemed ridiculous back home. Every morning and evening, we worked together to make the room shipshape before the steward showed up. The Oasis has staterooms as big as 843 square feet, and they do look spacious and comfortable on Royal Caribbeans website. But what good is it to gain a suite and lose your loved ones?

Arthur Frommer was right. Big isnt always best. In cabin 10-729, on the worlds largest cruise ship, small was the most beautiful thing of all.

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