PORT CANAVERAL — Everything is a big deal on the biggest cruise ship in the world.
For the first time, Royal Caribbean is using Port Canaveral as its home base for its newest ship, the Wonder of the Seas. That puts the world’s largest cruise ship within a few hours’ driving distance of the Tampa Bay area.
With 18 passenger decks, it stretches nearly 1,200 feet long and has room for nearly 7,000 passengers attended by some 2,200 crew members, the most of any cruise ship. It’s five times larger than the Titanic.
You’ll get your steps in before dinnertime aboard this city on the sea, which could be tough for anyone with a fear of heights with 18 towering decks. There’s a tube slide called the Ultimate Abyss that is the tallest slide at sea and starts from a vertigo-inducing glass platform. It then twists and turns down 10 stories below. There’s even a floating bar called the Rising Tide that drifts up and down between Deck 5 and Deck 8 as patrons sip their drinks while slowly ascending past other passengers.
While on this ship, it can feel like you are sailing at an amusement park. With three Vegas-style shows to choose from, it also has a whole sports deck with pickleball and a basketball court, and an ice rink that when not center stage for an elaborate show is available for cruisers. There’s also a lineup of comedians, several live music options, waterslides, a surfing simulator, a miniature golf course, rock climbing walls and even a zip line. And of course there are numerous pools, sun decks, bars and food. Lots of food.
This is a family-friendly cruise, with huge play areas, splash pads and a teens-only sun deck, and the price is lower than a Disney cruise. A seven-day cruise for two with a waterfront balcony would cost $4,800 on Wonder of the Seas. The same time frame is $6,700 for Disney. They both charge extra for internet service and specialty dining options. Disney’s price includes complimentary sodas, but Disney doesn’t offer an alcohol package or have casinos on its ships.
Longtime travel adviser Jen Filling, who owns About the Memories Travel in Tampa, has been on Royal Caribbean’s other huge “Oasis class” ships that have identical restaurants and “neighborhoods” segmenting the huge ships. She was on the lookout on Wonder for new elements, and liked the new Southern-style Mason Jar restaurant and bar. It costs extra to eat there ($24.99-$39.99), and you’ll find crab beignets, Nashville hot chicken and red velvet pancakes. The bar serves special cocktails with fanciful twists like the Far From Manhattan bourbon-based drink garnished with a slice of candied bacon.
She also liked that the Windjammer, the sprawling buffet restaurant found on other Oasis-class ships, has been retooled to make it easier to peruse what is being offered and to avoid bottlenecks in the crowd by mirroring service on both sides of the room.
Far from being overwhelming, this kind of buzz of activity is what modern cruisers are looking for, even among the retirees, Filling said.
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“I think since COVID, travelers are now on the go,” Filling said. “People rarely just sit back and relax. They want to go and do things. They want a lot of activities to choose from or to go to ports of call where they have choices. They are very adventurous now.”
Even the most adventurous travelers could feel overloaded by the sheer number of choices. Past cruise reviews of Wonder have shown that popular specialty restaurants and shows have the best times snapped up quickly by those using the ship’s app upon boarding. Crowds can also cause bottlenecks around the pool deck or when a show lets out.
The Boardwalk on Deck 6 feels like Coney Island, with a full-sized carousel, a Johnny Rockets with shakes and burgers, a sports bar and a candy store. The AquaTheater is found at the very rear of the Boardwalk, where you can find movie screenings and game shows by day and a stunning aqua acrobatics and high-diving performance at night.
But the cavernous boat does have its quiet corners. The Solarium, an indoor-outdoor retreat just for passengers 16 and older, has whirlpools and lounge areas and can get downright quiet at night. The open-air Central Park area on Deck 8 has real trees and greenery as you walk past a series of shops and markets in what feels like a quiet neighborhood.
The Wonder also makes a stop at CocoCay, the cruise line’s own private island in the Bahamas. It has three beaches, the largest pool in the Bahamas and free outdoor restaurants. For an extra charge ($84 and up) you can check out the island’s water park, which has a wave pool, a dozen slides, a splash pad, zip line and the tallest waterslide in North America.
And it all starts, for the first time, from a berth at Port Canaveral, now the world’s second-busiest cruise port behind Miami, based on passenger counts. Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, was on site last month at the new ship’s official naming ceremony. He noted the importance of putting this new asset closer to Central Florida vacationers.
“This makes it a great regional drive-to market, and we recognize this as a great terminal closer to big population centers,” Bayley said. “More guests can drive to Oasis-class ships than ever before.”