Why Royal Caribbean Is Investing Millions in Private Island Experiences
Royal Caribbean has long been known for innovation. It was the first line to blow out the top decks of its vessels with attractions like rock climbing walls, surfing simulators and zip lines. It pioneered the idea of soaring interior promenades full of shops, restaurants and lounges. It built the first ice-skating rinks at sea and the first bars with robot bartenders.
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But until this month’s unveiling of its revamped private island in the Bahamas, now called Perfect Day at CocoCay, it wasn’t known for the same sort of can-you-top-this dazzle at the private destinations where it sends its ships.
Michael Bayley, the brand’s president and CEO, said that disconnect was at the root of the radical transformation that it began mapping out for the island four years ago — as well as ambitious plans it has in the works for more private islands around the globe.
“We began to recognize that all of the energy and design capability and innovation that we put into the process of designing our ships, we needed to apply more rigorously to the destinations that we own, manage or curate,” Bayley told me during an exclusive interview on the line’s Navigator of the Seas.
Speaking as the ship was on its way to the grand opening of Perfect Day, Bayley said the company saw its focus on innovation with its vessels as a key factor in its growth into the world’s largest cruise line, so it only made sense to expand that innovation to destinations its ships visit.
He said he and his team began rethinking everything about what a private island could be, and they set themselves a lofty goal for the makeover of what then was known simply as CocoCay — one that explains its new name.
“We started to concept out what would be a perfect day for our guests,” Bayley explained. “We said, let’s try to build a perfect day.”
What they came up with, at a staggering cost of $250 million, was a far cry from the sleepy beach retreats typical among cruise line private islands. As I wrote about last week in my initial review of Perfect Day, the island now is at once a beach resort, an amusement zone and a luxury hideaway. Most notably, it’s now home to a full-blown waterpark with 13 water slides (more than any other waterpark in the Bahamas or Caribbean); the region’s biggest wave pool; and the region’s largest freshwater pool – the latter so big it can supposedly hold up to 1,750 people at a time.
Other out-sized attractions added during the overhaul include a 1,600-foot-long zip line course (not quite a record for the region, but up there) and Up, Up and Away: a tethered helium balloon ride that takes cruisers 450 feet into the air.
Bayley said a lot of these new things were driven by the line’s customers. Before settling on a plan for the island, the company did extensive interviews with its regulars about what they would consider a perfect day in the Bahamas or Caribbean, he said.
“It’s not really rocket science,” Bayley said of what the brand heard back from the research. “It came down to two elements: thrill and chill.”
Perfect Day’s designers hit the “thrill” part of the equation with the waterpark (which, obviously, they called Thrill Waterpark) as well as the zip line, balloon ride and a smorgasbord of other adventurous activities. For “chill,” they focused on expanded beach areas (including one now called Chill Island) and the massive pool, Oasis Lagoon, which is so big Royal Caribbean is marketing different sides of it to various demographics. One end caters to families with a kid-friendly, beach-style entry area. Another side is adult-focused with a thatched-roof swim-up bar.
The thrill piece of the development, in particular, was a nod to families, a growing focus for Royal Caribbean.
“We got a lot of feedback [from families] that we needed to make sure there was plenty for the kids to do,” Bayley said.
He added that Royal Caribbean — known for the world’s biggest cruise ships — decided early on to go big with, well, everything. Thrill Waterpark is, after all, home to the tallest waterslide in North America. Dubbed Daredevil’s Peak, it plunges 135 feet from top to bottom. That’s a full 10 feet taller than the heart-pumping Ko-okiri Body Plunge at Universal Orlando Resort’s Volcano Bay waterpark.
“Everybody likes to brag,” Bayley noted. The thinking at the line was, “If you’re going to do a [big] water slide, don’t make it an average water slide. Make it the tallest water slide in America.”
A key part of the overhaul, costing millions, was the addition of a pier that will allow ships to dock just steps away from the island’s entryway. Until now, passengers had to transfer to the island from ships on small tender boats, a cumbersome process.
While not as big a “wow” as a record-setting water slide, the pier will go a long way to creating a “perfect day” experience for the customer, Bayley said. Before the pier was built, more than 10% of calls at CocoCay had to be canceled due to winds or waves that made tendering difficult. With the new pier, that percentage will drop to almost zero. It’ll also be a lot easier for passengers to go back and forth between the island and ship during the day.
On the chill side, Bayley said they wanted to make sure there was plenty of room for everyone at the beach and around the pool, with so many lounge chairs that passengers never would have to battle to get one — something that isn’t always the case at cruise line private islands.
He said the amount of the island’s 125 acres dedicated to passenger zones had more than doubled, and it's now designed to accommodate as many as 9,000 passengers in a day without feeling overly crowded — a number it could see this year on days when two ships arrive at once (something that is also new).
In retrospect, they might have overdone it, Bayley admitted, saying that an early test of two ships arriving at once found the island even less crowded than expected.
“We think we under-calculated” the effect of what was built, he said.
Of course, passengers won't love all the changes. Some of the biggest new attractions on the revamped island come with a hefty cost. Admission to the waterpark runsn $44 to $99 per person (a less-pricey, half-day option was quickly discontinued after the park opened). But the zip line costs a sky-high $79 to $139 for a single ride, and the cost of the balloon ride matches its Up, Up and Away name at $39 to $99 per ride for cruisers ages 13 and up ($24 to $64 for children ages 4 to 12).
There also are dozens of new cabanas available for rent at prices as high as $869 per day (with even more upscale ones coming that could cost as much as $1,599).
Bayley is unapologetic about the fees.
“The capital cost of this project is not chump change,” he said in response to questions about the charges. “We have shareholders, and they wouldn’t be happy if we just spent a quarter of a billion dollars, and it was all free.”
Bayley added the company had yet to receive a single comment or complaint about the pricing even as it had pre-sold a significant percentage of tickets available for the zip line and other attractions for upcoming sailings.
He said the line tried to strike a balance between activities on the island that come with an extra charge and those that are included in the base fare for the cruise that gets people there. Three beach zones, the giant new pool and a new kiddie splash park are among areas open to passengers at no extra charge, and there’s no charge to eat at five new restaurants, he said.
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In a positive shift from the past, there’s also no charge for umbrellas at the island.
Royal Caribbean’s customers reflect a wide cross section of America, Bayley explained. Some have the means (and desire) to pay hundreds of dollars for the convenience and privacy of a private cabana. Others don’t. And that’s just fine.
“You can have a perfect day (at the island) and not spend a dime,” Bayley said. “That’s the beauty of Perfect Day.”
Gene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.
Feature photo by of Perfect Day at CocoCay by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.