6 changes we’ve seen on the first Royal Caribbean cruise in North America in 15 months
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It’s not nearly as different as you might have expected.
That, in a sentence, is my big takeaway after four days on board Adventure of the Seas — the first Royal Caribbean ship to restart operations in North America since the start of the coronavirus pandemic 15 months ago.
Sure, there have been some notable changes to the way Royal Caribbean is operating the vessel.
In a nod to social distancing, many venues have a significant number of seats blocked off. Passengers now need a reservation to go to the gym and are encouraged to make reservations for the buffet, too (something that would’ve been unthinkable before the pandemic).
But, for the most part, the experience on board is pretty normal.
Notably, sun worshippers still are swaying to live reggae music up at the main pool deck, and soaking in the hot tubs and pools — no masks required. Kids are once again careening down the two giant waterslides at the back of the ship and wiping out fabulously on the FlowRider surfing simulator. Evenings still are a bustle of dining and dancing and drinking.
In addition, the ship still is making port stops like it always has, with little in the experience changed.
The bottom line is that, despite some COVID-19 changes, if you liked the Royal Caribbean cruise experience before the cruise industry shut down in early 2020, you’ll probably still like it now.
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A peek at what cruising will be like
Royal Caribbean — the world’s biggest cruise line — is the first of the Big Four cruise brands to restart operations in North America. This first sailing of Adventure of the Seas, which kicked off Saturday in Nassau in the Bahamas, offers a first look at what a voyage on a big, mass-market ship will be like in the coming weeks and months as cruising in North America resumes in earnest.
For the record, not every line plans to operate in exactly the same way as Royal Caribbean upon resuming departures in North America. And Royal Caribbean itself is likely to tweak its formula in the coming weeks and months.
But for a sense of what you might expect on a Royal Caribbean ship (or many other vessels) in the coming weeks and months if you head out on a cruise, these are my first impressions from the week’s voyage.
Masks are not prominent
Good news, mask haters: You probably won’t have to wear one on Adventure of the Seas. Or, at least, most of you won’t.
The only passengers who have to wear masks on board Adventure of the Seas are those who are not vaccinated for COVID-19. On this sailing, that amounts to just a few dozen people.
But a vaccine is required
The percentage of passengers who are vaccinated on this sailing (94%) is super high because Royal Caribbean is requiring all passengers ages 16 and up on sailings out of Nassau to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
The 6% of passengers who are not vaccinated on this sailing are all children not eligible for a vaccine. They do have to wear masks on board, but only in interior areas.
So far, I have seen the few children on board (fewer than 50) complying with the rule.
Starting Aug. 1, the cut-off for mandatory vaccines for Royal Caribbean sailings out of Nassau will drop to 12 and older. This is a requirement that Royal Caribbean is implementing for many but not all sailings around the world as it restarts operations.
Sailings starting up out of the Bahamas; Cyprus; the United Kingdom; and Seattle and Galveston in the U.S. are among those where a vaccine will be required for all passengers eligible for one. Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley said in a Facebook post last week the line also hopes to have a vaccine requirement for initial sailings out of Bayonne, New Jersey, in the New York area.
The muster drill is newly crowd-free
In a big change that is helping with social distancing, Royal Caribbean has implemented its new eMuster system on Adventure of the Seas.
In the works even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the system lets passengers complete most of the mandatory safety drill that is held at the start of every cruise on a mobile device or interactive cabin television instead of in a big, crowded, unwieldy muster station.
Instead of spending 30 minutes or more learning about ship safety with hundreds of fellow passengers in a muster station at the start of the voyage, I watched a safety video on my iPhone while walking around the top deck exploring.
Alas, the technology malfunctioned for me. While I was able to see all of the safety video on my phone, I didn’t get “credit” with the ship for watching it online. Upon heading down to my physical muster station for a final check-in (part of the normal eMuster process), I had to explain to the muster station manager that my iPhone was giving me an error message. He then recorded me as having watched the safety drill manually.
Many venues have reduced seating
To allow for social distancing, a large number of tables in restaurants and seats in entertainment venues are being blocked off. In dining rooms, roughly every other table has a sign on it saying it is “reserved for physical distancing.”
In the main theater, about 75% of the venue’s 1,362 seats are blocked off — every other row plus ever third and fourth seat in the other rows. The casino also has been re-rigged for social distancing with every other slot machine shut down.
The blockages in the main theater make it a little odd for groups of showgoers with more than two people. If you’re in a family of five people, for instance, you’d have to break up into two groups of two and one group of one, with two seats in between each of your subgroups.
To make sure everyone has a chance to see the main shows on the ship, given the seating cutbacks, Royal Caribbean has added extra performances. The main show for the week in the main theater, Invitation to Dance, has been scheduled to play four times over three different days.
Such a system works, but there is something about the shows that is diminished by only having a quarter or less of the normal audience in attendance.
During a performance of an ice skating show in Adventure of the Seas’ Studio B ice theater on Tuesday (yes, Adventure of the Seas is one of those Royal Caribbean ships that has its very own ice skating rink), I found the energy in the room lacking due to the sparse number of people in attendance. In Studio B, even more than 75% of seats are blocked off. The result is an audience that, even when enthusiastic, seems lost in a sea of empty seats.
In other nods to social distancing, only four passengers at a time are allowed to enter elevators, and the lounge chairs on the top deck of the ship have been spaced apart.
You’ll need more reservations
Because capacity has been reduced in so many venues, Royal Caribbean is urging passengers to make reservations for almost all of the ship’s eateries and major shows in advance, and it’s requiring reservations for some onboard activities including access to the gym.
Among the biggest changes is that there’s now a reservation system to access the ship’s casual Windjammer buffet — a place that many cruisers have been accustomed to visiting on a whim at any time. Reservations can be made from a phone with the Royal Caribbean app.
Still, reservations for the Windjammer buffet aren’t mandatory. There now are two lines when entering the buffet: one for passengers with reservations and one for passengers without. If you don’t have a reservation, you still can enter if there’s space available. If not, you’ll have to wait.
Reservations also are a must now for the big shows on board. In theory, seats can be booked in the Royal Caribbean app, although — as with the eMuster system — I had some problems getting the app to work for this function (I’ve been able to book shore excursions fine, but the show booking system resulted in errors for me).
Going old school, I made a quick call to the ship’s box office and was able to get seats for several shows with no problem.
Notably, the reservation system to the gym is on top of the fact that every other machine in the space has been blocked off for social distancing.
The books are gone
Bring something of your own to read. All of the books in the ship’s library have been taken away as a precaution against spreading germs.
The nightlife still is lively
Despite blocks for some seating in bars and nightspots around the ship, Adventure of the Seas is still a lively place in the evenings. A classical guitarist still plays in Boleros on many nights, and there’s regular karaoke in the Imperial Lounge. You’ll find piano music in the Schooner Bar and a DJ spinning tunes late at night in Blue Moon.
One notable change: To encourage social distancing, passengers no longer can stand at bars around the ship. Instead, they must take a seat.
In addition — on this sailing, at least — a lower-than-normal passenger count means that the nightlife isn’t quite as lively as normal.
The ship this week only is sailing with 1,068 passengers, about 28% of the ship’s total capacity.
The restaurants are running (mostly) as usual
There was a lot of buzz on Royal Caribbean fan sites in recent weeks when the line had to close all of the restaurants on one of its ships sailing out of Singapore.
The closures were ordered by the Singapore government after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the city-state (the outbreak took place on land, not on the ship, but the ship had to comply with city-wide regulations that called for the closure of restaurants).
The good news is there is no such restriction on Adventure of the Seas. All of the ship’s main dining venues are open and operating pretty much as normal (with the exception of the table spacing noted above; in addition, the Windjammer buffet has been closed at dinnertime).
One change at ship restaurants that’s similar to what we’ve seen on land is that passengers no longer are given paper menus. Instead, they are directed to scan QR codes placed atop tables to call up a menu on their phones.
You always can can ask for a paper menu if you want one. But the QR code system has been working well so far.
In addition, room service delivery is now contactless. Room service still is available, but you have to retrieve your room service meals from a trolley outside your cabin door. Crew no longer enters passenger rooms to set it up.
The staff is ebullient
Think you’re excited to get back to cruising? Wait until you see the excitement among the crew.
After more than a year out of work, the staff on board Adventure of the Seas was all smiles as passengers streamed on the ship on Saturday for the first time in 15 months. And they’ve been beaming ever since.
The welcomes from crew members have been genuine and at times, overwhelming. Many have told me how hard it was to be out of work for so long and how happy they are to be back.
The ship is squeaky clean
A lot of what Royal Caribbean has done and continues to do to keep COVID-19 off ships is behind the scenes (air handling systems have been tweaked with higher-grade filters, for instance).
But one thing that’s noticeable to passengers walking around the vessel is an even greater emphasis on sanitization and cleaning than there was before (and, contrary to what many non-cruisers think, cruise ships in general always have been very clean).
I’ve noticed crew members vigorously wiping down tables with special sanitizing sprays in the ship’s Windjammer buffet after every use, and they hover around waiting for the next table to clean. They also are pushing passengers at every turn to sanitize their hands at ubiquitous sanitizer stations and wash their hands at washing stations at the entrance to eateries.
This is one ship where I really don’t have any worries about picking up germs.
You’ll definitely notice some changes when you sail on Adventure of the Seas (and presumably other Royal Caribbean ships) in the coming months. But based on my visit to the vessel this week, the changes won’t take away from the basic experience. Much of what Royal Caribbean fans have come to love about being on one of the line’s ships hasn’t changed in the 15 months since Royal Caribbean last offered voyages in North America.
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