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Royal Caribbean's 'Oasis of the Seas' is an oceangoing megaresort

FORT LAUDERDALE

Standing at the dock at Port Everglades and looking up, way up, at the world's largest cruise ship, it would be perfectly logical to ask yourself: "Will that thing even float?"

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas doesn't much look like a ship, or at least not like any cruise ship we've ever seen. Its 18 decks contribute to a boxy silhouette and the split superstructure evokes images of an enormous car ferry. (Come to think of it, maybe taking your car onboard will be the next cruise ship innovation.) The Oasis is the tallest, widest, heaviest and, at a cost of $1.5 billion, the most expensive cruise ship ever built.

After a recent weekend preview cruise of the new vessel, I can tell you that the Oasis not only floats, it rocks. And I don't mean in a high-seas-pass-me-the-Dramamime way.

This is a ship intentionally built to dazzle and it accomplishes that mission with cheeky aplomb. Think Atlantic City boardwalk meets Las Vegas glitz and New York sophistication with a touch of California cool. It's an amazing accomplishment, from the first zip line at sea, to a bar that slowly moves up and down three decks, to a bucolic park with more than 12,000 live plants. The AquaTheater in the back of the ship is completely over the top. The sliver of a pool plunges 18 feet to allow high-diving acts. Royal Caribbean hired Olympic divers and synchronized swimmers for the first time.

Oasis' sister ship, the Allure of the Seas, will join the fleet at Port Everglades in December 2010. They will alternate seven-night eastern and western Caribbean itineraries, one leaving Saturdays, the other on Sundays. Some ports have had to expand their facilities to allow the large ships to dock.

For being so huge, the Oasis is surprisingly easy to get around, and within a day of exploration most cruisers will feel right at home. The "neighborhood" concept guides passengers around the ship intuitively. Oasis left Fort Lauderdale on Saturday for its first full eastern Caribbean swing and I'll bet most cruisers will be maneuvering around the behemoth expertly by tonight.

If they do get lost, electronic touch screens near the elevators provide maps and schedules of what's going on in various venues. Think of the touch screens as giant iPhone apps. (Hey, there's another idea. Downloadable ship layout and activity schedule applications for mobile devices. I am on a roll.)

Plenty of options

Let's address what you're thinking at the beginning, though. Is it too big? There will be a lot of people on Oasis, and size does matter to many cruisers. When it's full tilt, the 2,706 staterooms hold about 6,200 passengers. If all staterooms have just double occupancy, that brings the number to 5,400.

That's a lot of people and stuff to load. The terminal at Port Everglades underwent a $75 million facelift, complete with 90-plus check-in stations, to move cruisers from land to sea quickly. Parking appears to be plentiful.

The preview cruise, which included the media, travel agents and friends and family of Royal Caribbean employees, was only about half full, so it was difficult to evaluate the most popular venues. I'll wager a guess about the zip line. Even among the preview group there was grumbling about the 90-minute wait to glide over the carnival-like Boardwalk. The 80-foot high-wire ride lasts less than 30 seconds. Royal Caribbean execs point out, though, that regular cruisers will have six full days, not just one, to sample the ship's amenities.

Restaurants (PDF) — there are 20 of them — may also get crowded and there could be waits for prime poolside deck chairs. However, with four pools and 10 whirlpools, two of them cantilevered out over the ocean, there are plenty of places to get wet. The solarium and spa cuisine bistro on Deck 15 at the front of the ship is the place to get away from it all, and by that I mean your or someone else's enthusiastic kids. Grab a cushy cabana chair for two, an umbrella drink and stare out at the ocean for hours. Or until someone calls for Mom.

To combat waits and disappointments, passengers can book restaurant and show reservations, including a full production of the musical Hairspray, up to three months in advance. The reservation system is another innovation from the cruise line that brought you the first rock climbing wall and surf simulator at sea. (There are two of each on Oasis.)

I predict that the Seafood Shack on Deck 6 near the AquaTheater will be a smash hit and always crowded. It looks like a funky Florida seafood joint and passengers from landlocked states will want a taste of peel-and-eat shrimp. One recommendation: Get a reservation for window seats at Chops Grille on Central Park. You're not likely to find a more romantic venue on any cruise ship.

Like lots of people you might also be wondering, why now? Why debut a ship that will cost cruisers a premium over other ships sailing similar itineraries in the middle of the worst economy in decades?

Truth is, Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain said, the line hadn't planned on trotting out the Oasis in the midst of double-digit unemployment. Plans for the supership were scuttled after 9/11 but put back on the front burner a couple of years later when the economy was strong. The shipyard in Finland was too far along in the building process to halt the project once the economy tanked, so that's why now, Fain said.

The inside is outside

The innovative split superstructure design allows for interesting stateroom choices. Sure, you can get an oceanview balcony, but I like the interior balcony rooms looking out over Central Park's greenery or Boardwalk's swirling colors. Don't worry about the music from the carousel or the silly screams of zip liners. The heavy glass slider locks out nearly all the noise.

Our room on Deck 11 overlooked Johnny Rockets, a photo booth and the carousel (a temporary tattoo parlor and an onboard psychic were two ideas that didn't make the cut). From the balcony we had a great view of the AquaTheater and the ocean beyond, a perfect perch to watch the sunset and a water show. The clear balconies bubble out to allow better visibility. (Staterooms that overlook the park have more standard, straight-across balconies because designers felt cruisers would be looking down at the park and didn't need the extra room for a sideways view.) The interior balcony rooms don't offer the privacy of those on the outside. Keep your robes on or risk providing a show to people on the other side of the ship.

Royal Caribbean has made much of the "neighborhood" concept on Oasis, and after just a short trip, I did divide the ship into different areas in my mind. Oasis' aft is definitely a family and kid zone. I could imagine teenagers never venturing any farther than the Boardwalk on Deck 6 on up to the youth and sports attractions on Deck 15. They could eat at the Windjammer Marketplace buffet or Wipe Out Cafe, chill out in the Living Room and ramp up at the video arcade. Perhaps they would move to midship for the pool. Activities for younger children are also here.

The three-deck formal dining room, the Opus, is also at the back of the ship on the lower decks.

At midship on Deck 8 is lovely Central Park with its winding strolling paths. The park is open to the sky, the wind rustling the flora and creating another pinch-me moment. Are we really on a ship at sea? (The initial idea here was for grass and rolling hills, but the grass struggled and the wind flattened the hills.) Two decks below is the Royal Promenade, the place to shop, see a daily parade and snag a confection from the Cupcake Cupboard. (There's an extra charge for cupcakes but freshly baked doughnuts are included in your package.) A 20,000-square-foot casino and a collection of entertainment venues, including comedy and jazz clubs, are also midship.

The spa, fitness center and solarium are at the front of the ship, making the bow a mostly adult destination.

From the outside looking in, Oasis is sort of an odd duck. But from the inside looking out, it's a marvel. A floating resort that really lets the good times roll.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

. IF YOU GO

Oasis of the Seas

The world's largest cruise ship's home port will be Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. The drive from the Tampa Bay area is about four hours across the state on Interstate 75, connecting with Interstate 595 into Port Everglades. Until April, the Oasis of the Seas will sail a seven-night eastern Caribbean itinerary to St. Thomas, St. Maarten and the Bahamas. In May it will begin trips to Haiti, Jamaica and Cozumel, alternating with the eastern swing.

CABINS: Oasis of the Seas has 2,706 staterooms, ranging from a 149-square-foot interior cabin to the two-story loft suites that can accommodate six. (Be warned: The loft suites overlook the basketball court and sports areas. If you can afford the $12,000 a week maximum fee, you might not want to hear the bop-bop-bop of the ball.) About 1,500 rooms have balconies.

There are oceanview balconies and interior balconies that overlook the Boardwalk and Central Park neighborhoods. Central Park is quieter than the Boardwalk, where you'll hear screams of zip liners and music from the carousel if you have your sliding door open. The closed door will muffle most sounds. Both Central Park and Boardwalk are open to the sky, which provides a lot of light.

Cabin doors open out to the hallway to provide a bit more room inside. The entryways are slightly recessed so that open doors won't hit passengers in the halls. Royal Caribbean has done a nice job providing storage of small things; there are lots of little drawers and cabinets. Suitcase storage may be another story.

PRICES: Expect to pay at least 15 to 20 percent more for a cabin than on other Royal Caribbean ships. Prices vary throughout the year; for the Jan. 16 sailing, interior cabins start at $1,381 (which includes taxes and fees), and balconies start at $1,701. Suites and lofts cost considerably more. You might pay more for balconies overlooking Central Park and the Boardwalk than oceanside balcony rooms depending on the time of year. Some specialty restaurants require a fee, and you'll have to pay for cupcakes and premium ice cream. As always, casino play, the soda program and alcohol are extra.

FOR MORE: Learn more about the ship, rates and itineraries toll-free at 1-866-562-7625 or go to royalcaribbean.com.

ON THE WEB: Go to travel.tampabay.com for a slide show and video on the Oasis of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean's 'Oasis of the Seas' is an oceangoing megaresort 12/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2009 11:58am]

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