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I’m pretty big on the whole “travel” thing. I’m constantly pushing everyone I know to book a trip: even one they’re iffy about. “You have 24 hours to cancel that airline ticket — book now, plan later!” I’ll say.
But I’ve never been pushy about cruising. In fact, I once said the only cruise worth taking was one to Alaska, with the logic being that it would sail to places that were inaccessible by simpler means.
And yet I recently found myself on the world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, which kicked off US consumer sailings from its new (and permanent) home in Miami on Saturday.
It has everything you’d expect to find on a massive cruise ship: fancy pools, free-flowing drinks, Broadway-quality musicals, comedy clubs, more fancy pools, what’s essentially a shopping mall and countless restaurants (well, not countless: 22 restaurants and 42 bars, to be exact). If you’re going to put a skeptic on a cruise ship for the first time, it might as well be the queen of cruise ships, right?
Once confirmed for a two-night preview sailing between Miami and the Bahamas, my mind began to churn. I was anxious. Could I handle the neon lights and throngs of cruisers?
Would I get seasick? Do cruise ships have moving maps like airliners? Because that would be rad. And what if I really, really need to get away from 6,000 people dancing the Macarena? (Speaking of, what’s the farthest I’ve ever swum?)
OK, I wasn’t too worried. I knew a few folks who would be onboard — though, frankly, the chance of finding them was slim — and thanks to a killer Royal Caribbean app, I was able to lay out a schedule of what to see, do and experience ahead of time. As a first-time cruiser, it helped me visualize what was in store.
But even the best-prepared travelers can’t prepare for everything the world’s biggest cruise ship delivers. Or the typical travel pains that can accompany any type of trip.
Lesson 1: The ship leaves at the posted time.
After arriving into nearby Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport (FLL) following a two hour delay, my Lyft estimate put me at Port of Miami’s new Terminal A at 5:06pm. This was a problem. Symphony of the Seas was scheduled to sail away at precisely 5pm.
Being new to cruising but intimately familiar with airlines, I didn’t fret. I can count on one hand how many commercial aircraft depart on or before the time printed on the boarding pass. I didn’t know that’s not how cruises work.
Through a combination of phone calls, tears and divine intervention, I somehow made it onboard. I was later informed that the only reason this ship was allowed to wait was due to the speciality nature of the sailing. This wasn’t a typical passenger cruise, so the rules were slightly flexible.
So whether you’re sailing on Symphony or any cruise ship, be sure to adjust your expectations accordingly and book a flight that will put you at the port well before the sailing starts, even if there are delays. Many cruisers will even fly to the port city the evening before and stay overnight, to be sure they don’t miss their embarkation time.
But once the elevator doors opened on Deck 5, real life ended, and so began 48 hours of sensory assault like I’ve never experienced.
Lesson 2: Reality has no place here.
There are over 2,000 employees on this gargantuan ship tasked with running a floating city. Symphony has a maximum capacity of some 6,870 guests, and nearly 9,000 people total when factoring in crew members. (Perspective check: you would need nearly 30 of Delta’s new A350s to move the same number of people from one Caribbean island to the next.)
At every turn there’s a diversion from reality. There’s an entire deck that looks like a contained Times Square, with a Bionic Bar (two robotic bartenders that make and serve cocktails), pulsating music and lights and even a virtual reality station for those who want to test the digital waters with an HTC Vive headset and really escape the physical world.
When I wasn’t on a top deck, where views of the ocean or the Bahamas were impossible to miss, I constantly forgot I was on a floating vessel. And really, that’s the point.
Because this ship is so huge, combined with its wizard-like stabilization technology, I didn’t feel the ship rock at all until we thrusted away from Nassau (and even that only lasted a few minutes).
Then there’s Deck 8, home to Central Park. This may well be the most impressive part of the ship’s interior. It’s accessible from either end (you’ll frequently hear repeat cruisers using terms like “forward” and “aft”) and it’s exactly like it sounds.
As someone who was legitimately worried about getting cabin fever while onboard, Central Park is a dream. Greenery everywhere, coffee shops, park benches, places to chill and work, restaurants, wine bars and even street signs so you never get lost.
Lesson 3: You don’t need to splurge on a balcony for a good view.
Here’s another cool perk about Central Park: Hundreds of interior staterooms overlook it. I’ve heard that an interior stateroom on most cruise ships is where cruise dreams die. They typically serve only to remind cruisers of the balcony upgrade they passed up. Not here.
The interior stateroom on Symphony is totally a place I’d hang out in for a week. Truth be told, I’d only spend sleeping hours in the room given the mix of activities on board, so those looking to save shouldn’t feel bad about selecting the cheapest stateroom available on the boat.
Lesson 4: Don’t call it a boat.
It’s a ship. (But it’s still kind of a boat, right?)
Lesson 5: It’s big enough to never feel crowded.
As the fourth ship in Royal Caribbean’s Oasis line, Symphony of the Seas boasts some pretty staggering numbers.
The ship has surpassed its sister, Harmony of the Seas, for the crown of world’s largest cruise ship by gross tonnage (228,021 gross tons). It’s nearly 1,200 feet long, comprises 500,000 individual parts, holds 2,759 staterooms (including 188 suites and 28 more balconies than the next largest ship in the fleet), has 5,200 restaurant seats across more than 20 dining venues and employs 1,085 culinary staff of 51 different nationalities.
But here’s the weird (great) part. When I’ve stayed at colossal resorts shoreside, I’ve felt it. You can sort of sense just how many people are surrounding you at once, and I often find that unpleasant. Despite knowing I was not only around thousands of other people, but effectively trapped on a vessel with them, I never felt crowded.
This ship is so comically large that even 8,000 people have room to spread out. If you, like me, have avoided cruising due to a fear of feeling too close to too many partiers with no way out, it seems unlikely to happen on Symphony. But because this was a preview sailing, it may not be fully representative of the vibe after seven full days on board — and though the cruise was running at approximately 80% capacity, it wasn’t a stuffed-to-bursting ship.
Lesson 6: Families will love this ship.
I know that Disney Cruise Lines is a winner with kids, and there will no doubt be families who flock to Disney ships out of habit and positive prior experiences. Kids will find plenty to love, yes, but also hard-to-please teens and tweens, and even millennials like me who, statistically, aren’t a big part of Royal Caribbean’s market.
I’ll soon be a dad. Like, a real one. While the old me may have glossed over the fact that there’s an entire side of the pool deck that’s exclusively for kiddos to use, or the fact that there’s a bona fide science lab for kids of all ages, or that Laser tag is basically the perfect sibling bonding experience, now that stuff matters. A lot.
One of my main gripes with cruising has always been the confinement. But I see now how cruising has the unique ability to offer activities that work for all age groups, all in the same place. And at the end of the day, the entire family can reconvene for dinner to catch up on how epic their respective itineraries were. This isn’t new with Symphony, but the ship seems to have perfected the formula.
While overlooking the splash playground below, I couldn’t help but think, “Imagine the utter joy Baby Murph would have here!”
Then, there’s the biggest room on the entire ship: the Ultimate Family Suite. Room 1733 is so over-the-top that it deserves its own article (which can be read here).
But for now, you should know that this family-focused suite is basically the ship’s hero room. After all, it’s the one with bunk beds, an air hockey table and a playground slide.
The 1,346-square-foot room spans two decks and accommodates up to eight guests across two bedrooms and a living room. The rear balcony overlooks a zip line, mini-golf course and a portion of Central Park. It also has a jacuzzi on it, because … why not?
A week in the Ultimate Family Suite sells for between $20,000 (low season) and $80,000 (Christmas week), a price that does include meals for everyone staying in the room.
It also comes with a “Royal Genie.” This is a specially trained crew member devoted to making guests in the Ultimate Family Suite feel like royalty — or, at least, like they just spent tens of thousands of dollars on a vacation.
Lesson 7: The technology is incredible.
I spent an hour on the bridge, which is basically mission control for the ship where captains, well, drive this thing. And I felt wholly inadequate standing beside Captain Rob.
Captain Rob trained on simulators to learn how to command this beast of a ship, and he explained that it pumps bubbles out beneath it to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. It’s even finished on the underside with a special silicon paint that glides more easily.
He also oversees what has to be one of the world’s largest arrays of windshield wipers, which were hilarious to watch in action. Check out those windshield wipers! (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)
On the customer-facing side, there’s Voom. Royal Caribbean touts this as the fastest internet at sea, and while I do not have direct comparisons, I can say for certain that it’s really fast. It leans on O3b Networks and a number of satellites to bring Wi-Fi to its ships, and speed tests showed nearly 6Mbps down and almost 2Mbps up.
And then there’s Royal Caribbean’s app, which is straightforward, responsive and can be used to explore the ship and plan a trip before boarding.
During a chat with Tim Klauda, vice president of product for digital experience, I learned that the app is a huge focus for Royal Caribbean. On board, it doubles as an augmented reality game system. Cruisers can point their phone’s camera at posters to initiate games within the app (as if there weren’t enough diversions on the ship already). More practically, guest-to-guest messaging is in beta on Allure of the Seas.
And a slew of updates are planned for 2019 and beyond. Things like drag-and-drop itinerary planning and excursion reviews are coming to the app. You’ll also be able to “pin” excursions that you’re interested in and make restaurant reservations before your sailing begins. You’ll also be able to make room requests (more towels, a bucket of ice) via the app.
The app will soon be able to store your travel documents and enable faster check-in, with a goal to usher passengers “from car to bar in 10 minutes.” And though this may sound like the least exciting advancement of all, it has the most potential to improve the experience for cruisers. According to Royal Caribbean’s research, the current boarding process is so stressful, people don’t “get over it” and fully relax until about 36 hours afterward. By expediting check-in, Klauda’s team hopes to reduce the so-called decompression time.
Of course, the line has revenue in mind: if they can make the process less nightmarish, cruisers are likely to hit the casino or bar sooner.
Royal Caribbean is also implementing biometric screening that will make the process of getting on the boat (and getting back to reality) even faster. I was able to test this out when I disembarked, and it was basically like Global Entry for cruising. You just smile at the facial scanner and exit the terminal.
Lesson 8: Even cruise lines have loyalty programs.
While it’s not as straightforward to exchange points and miles for a cruise, we do have a guide with tips and tricks for using points and miles on a cruise vacation (though the redemption rates tend to be far less favorable then when transferring points to an airline or hotel partner), as well as a guide to the best credit cards for booking cruises.
Specific to Royal Caribbean, all new cruisers are automatically enrolled in its Crown and Anchor Society loyalty program. While Pinnacle status (which requires 700 paid nights on a ship!) may be out of reach for most, the lowest status level, Gold, comes with benefits such as discounted room upgrades, priority check-in and reciprocity with MGM Resorts International’s M life Rewards. Cruise loyalty programs, unfortunately, continue to lag behind airline and hotel programs and are not especially lucrative.
Lesson 9: Half of cruisers are repeat visitors.
Walking off the ship, I felt almost melancholy. It’s the same feeling you get when checking in for a flight after a stay in Hawaii (what I would typically consider “my type” of vacation). You’re happy, on some level, to be heading home, but you’re already missing the magic.
To me, that’s the sign of a great time. I would’ve never envisioned myself longing to get back on a cruise ship, but here we are: I’m a cruiser. Symphony really delivered, from outstanding activities to a friendly crew that aims to please. As wild as it may sound, I’d recommend that anyone curious about cruising book themselves onto the world’s largest ship. Go big or go home, right?
Now that Royal Caribbean has repositioned Symphony of the Seas to its forever home in Miami, US-based travelers can more easily experience the massive vessel during its Western and Eastern Caribbean sailings. And, in May 2019, the ship will begin docking at Royal Caribbean’s new private island, called Perfect Day at CocoCay, in the Bahamas.
All images courtesy of the author unless otherwise indicated.
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