Sneak peek: Inside Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever
Editor’s note: TPG’s Gene Sloan accepted a free trip to the shipyard in Finland building Icon of the Seas in order to get an early look at the vessel. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the line.
When it comes to building the most amazing megaresorts at sea, Royal Caribbean these days is basically just competing with itself.
It's a strong statement, for sure. I'm guessing that many Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line fans will quibble with it. But it's what kept swirling through my head Wednesday during a sneak peek at the line's next new ship, Icon of the Seas.
At 250,800 gross tons, the much-awaited, 20-deck-high vessel will be the biggest cruise ship in the world when it debuts in 2024. But it's not just its giant size — about 6% bigger than the next biggest cruise ship — that will set it apart.
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What became clear to me on Wednesday as Tim Klauda, Royal Caribbean's vice president for product development, took me deck-by-deck through the partly-finished vessel at a shipyard in Finland, was that it would also have no rival in the cruise world when it comes to the breadth and depth of its offerings, particularly for families.
From an unprecedently massive water park at its top with six waterslides to the most innovative interior promenade of restaurants, bars and shops ever on a cruise vessel (just wait until you see the soaring glass wall that bathes the space with natural light), there's just never been anything quite like what you're going to see on Icon of the Seas — and I say that as someone who has sailed on nearly every major cruise ship afloat.
In short, Icon of the Seas, the first of an all-new class of vessels for Royal Caribbean, will be, hands down, the ultimate megaresort at sea. And as a result, it'll be the ship that finally tops Royal Caribbean's hugely successful Oasis-class vessels to reign supreme in the world of giant cruise ships.
Related: The 6 classes of Royal Caribbean ships, explained
That's notable, as the Oasis-class ships have dominated the world of megaresorts at sea for nearly 15 years. Other lines have tried to match what the Oasis-class vessels offer with new ships over the years and have fallen short — though a few have come close.
To put it another way, in the great game of cruise ship design one-upmanship that has raged among the biggest cruise lines for decades, it seems that only Royal Caribbean these days can top Royal Caribbean.
It's as if the other major lines right now aren't even on the playing field.
With seven months of construction to go before Icon of the Seas is ready to sail, there is much still unfinished on the vessel.
As is typical at this stage of construction of a new ship, the exterior of Icon of the Seas and the framing for its interior spaces is mostly complete, but lots of finishing work remains. Some spaces remain little more than empty shells.
That said, the epic nature of what is to come was clearly visible as Klauda took me and several other cruise writers around the vessel on Wednesday amid a cacophony of hammering, welding and sanding.
The tour came as the ship was tied up at a wet dock at the Meyer Turku shipyard in Turku, Finland, where the $2 billion-plus ship has been under construction for nearly two years. More than 2,500 shipyard workers were on board working at the time.
Here are some of the most notable elements of Icon of the Seas that I saw during the tour that will put it over the top as the new king of big-ship cruising.
A stunning 'thrill' deck
While still far from done, the top deck of Icon of the Seas already is shaping up as a sight to behold, in large part because it has a water park the likes of which you've never seen on a cruise ship.
We're talking six separate water slides — none of them small.
Only about 20% of the biggest slides were in place as we walked around the area, but the massive towers from which the slides will descend essentially were finished, and the sheer size of the footprint for the park was stunning. There aren't many resorts on land where you will find something like this.
Called Category 6, the water park will include such thrills as an open free-fall slide, the tallest drop slide at sea, family raft slides that accommodate four riders at once and two mat-racing slides.
The water slides basically take up the whole back third of the ship's top deck, along with such additional signature Royal Caribbean amusements as a FlowRider surfing simulator, a miniature golf course called Lost Dunes, a rock climbing wall and a sports court.
In addition, I saw the makings of a ropes course-style attraction based around a giant version of the ship's crown-and-anchor logo (which was in place but wrapped up so it didn't get dinged during the rest of construction).
I also strolled through a large casual dining area not far from the waterslides called Basecamp, where you'll be able to grab your breath after careening down one of the slides with quickie snacks and drinks.
Collectively, the whole area will be known as Thrill Island, and that pretty much sums up what it'll be.
And an impressive 'chill' area, too
Balancing the thrill zone that is Thrill Island, the center part of the ship's top is devoted to chilling in the form of kicking back in lounge chairs, hot tubs and pools.
When it comes to the latter, what struck me most during the tour was the enormous size of the main Royal Bay Pool. It seemed to run half the length of the ship (Royal Caribbean claims this is the largest pool ever built on a cruise ship, and we don't doubt them).
Related: Everything you need to know about booking an Icon of the Seas cruise
The Royal Bay Pool was just one of four pools taking shape in the area, which will be called Chill Island. The others included a pool with a swim-up bar called Swim and Tonic — a first for Royal Caribbean.
In addition to lounge chairs, hot tubs and pools, Chill Island will also feature cabanas available for an extra charge and a multistory Lime and Coconut Bar (a Royal Caribbean signature).
The AquaDome is one of those crazily ambitious attractions that Royal Caribbean does on its ships from time to time that just makes your jaw drop. If you've seen the North Star rides on the line's Quantum-class ships, you know what I'm talking about. But the AquaDome is on an even bigger scale than the North Star rides.
It's basically a giant glass dome — and we mean giant — plopped onto the front of the ship that enshrouds an aqua theater of the sort found at the back of Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships. There are also dining and drinking venues and even some enclosed-within-the-dome cabins.
Before I saw the AquaDome in person, I really didn't get the scale of what it would be. You likely won't, either, until you see it.
It's a glass dome to top all glass domes. We're told it was so big and heavy (363 tons) that there really wasn't any shipyard crane in the world that could lift it into place except the giant crane at the Meyer Turku shipyard, which itself is a marvel.
When you're standing under it, you're looking up four or five stories to its top.
The aqua theater itself will be one of Icon of the Seas' marquee attractions, with shows that combine diving and aerial performers, dancing fountains and other high-tech features.
The space also will attract passengers throughout the day and night with its dining and drinking venues and cozy seating areas. A version of the Hooked Seafood restaurant found on some other Royal Caribbean ships will be among the options.
Even greater family focus
Royal Caribbean already is arguably the ultimate family cruise line. But as I saw this week, Icon of the Seas will take its family focus to even greater heights.
In addition to the water park mentioned above, which will have your teens and tweens squealing with delight, Icon of the Seas is loaded with such family-friendly attractions as Surfside — an entire themed section of the ship (Royal Caribbean calls them neighborhoods) dedicated to young families.
In an open-air space at the back of the vessel that is roughly where the New Jersey shore-themed Boardwalk area is found on the line's Oasis-class ships, Surfside is an all-day play area for families with kids ages 6 and under (though everyone is welcome).
The centerpiece of this zone will be a watery splash park for kids and adults called Splashaway Bay (and an adjacent Baby Bay for junior cruisers), as well as the Water's Edge pool for grownups. All were just starting to come together during my visit.
When it's all finished in a few months, Surfside will be lined with colorful deck chairs so parents can lounge with their feet up or soak in the pool while maintaining sightlines to their playing kids. It'll also have a carousel, just like the Boardwalk areas on Oasis-class ships.
In addition, Surfside will house family-friendly dining venues and bars serving exclusive-to-Surfside "mommy and me" drinks. Kids can order the nonalcoholic versions of their parents' tropical cocktails.
Plus, stairs from the zone will take you and your kids straight to the Adventure Ocean kids club, one deck below (as well as the family-friendly Playmakers Sports Bar and Arcade).
Icon of the Seas will also offer more family-aimed high-occupancy cabins than ever for a Royal Caribbean ship, including some rooms that can accommodate up to eight people.
These cabins will include a new category of Family Infinite Balcony rooms that can sleep up to six people, with an alcove featuring upper and lower beds for kids, a separate sleeping area for grown-ups, a living area and split bathroom (toilet and sink in one room and shower and sink in the other).
The ship will also be home to what may be the most epic family accommodation in the world, on land or sea: A 1,772-square-foot Ultimate Family Townhouse that will be three decks high and sleep up to eight people.
Alas, we didn't get to see the Ultimate Family Townhouse. But among its selling points will be an in-suite slide, movie-viewing room, karaoke machine and a "backyard" with a pingpong table, outdoor seating and a white picket fence leading directly to the Surfside area.
The Royal Promenade
Like Royal Caribbean's Oasis-, Freedom- and Voyager-class ships, Icon of the Seas will have an indoor, mall-like space with eateries, bars and shops called the Royal Promenade running through the middle of its interior. But it'll be a Royal Promenade unlike any you've seen before.
The game-changing innovation here, which is hard to grasp from the deck plans of the vessel that the line has released, is that the space now is connected to the sea in a way it's never been before.
This new connectivity is thanks to a giant, four-deck-high glass wall that lines one side of the Promenade, allowing light to spill into the space.
Related: The ultimate guide to Royal Caribbean | The best Royal Caribbean cruise ships | The 5 best destinations you can visit on a Royal Caribbean ship
The glass wall will surely be one of the ship's great features. I know I'll be standing along it gazing out at the immensity of the ocean often when I'm on board the vessel.
However, it's also a marvel of engineering, as it is located at a structurally critical part of the ship's sidewall that — ever since the Titanic split in half around its middle in 1912 before sinking — most naval architects have been loath to pierce with a giant span of glass.
The naval architects that worked on Icon of the Seas got around the problem of structural integrity through the clever insertion of structural steel in a massive circular art installation/circular stairway called The Pearl that is located just steps away.
To the untrained eye, it's just an unusual focal point for the area that'll offer a show-like experience at times with sound and high-tech moving wall screens. But in reality, it's helping to hold the ship together.
We got a no-photos-allowed sneak peek inside the circular space for a very short snippet of the sound and moving wall experience that passengers can expect. All we can say is — we can't wait to see more.
In addition to The Pearl, the first level of The Royal Promenade will feature Sorrento’s Pizza, Starbucks, the ship's karaoke bar (called Spotlight Karaoke) and its pub (to be called the Point and Feather). One deck up, a second-story to the Royal Promenade will be home to such Royal Caribbean signatures as Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen, the nautical-themed Schooner Bar and Boleros (a bar and lounge for Latin music and dancing). Notably, you'll be able to circle the second story of the Royal Promenade completely, something you can't do on other Royal Caribbean ships. That's another big upgrade.
Surrounding the Royal Promenade are many of Icon of the Seas’ entertainment venues. The ship’s main Royal Theater is forward of the promenade. The ship's ice skating rink, which is newly named Absolute Zero and has a new oval design, is aft. The Music Hall and Casino Royale is one deck below, and an escape room, Diamond Club elite lounge and comedy club are nearby.
Royal Caribbean has dominated the world of massive megaresorts at sea for nearly 15 years, ever since its first Oasis-class vessel debuted.
Roughly 40% bigger than any other ship at sea when they first arrived on the scene, the Oasis-class ships are still the largest and most amenity-filled cruise vessels in the world.
However, they'll soon have a new rival in the form of Icon of the Seas, the first of a new series of even bigger, more amenity-filled Royal Caribbean vessels.
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