Oasis of the Seas - a Ship of Firsts

| Oct 2, 2009

Royal Caribbean's new "World's Largest Cruise Ship" is filled with cruise industry 'firsts,' but is it a game changer?

I was just contacted by a reporter in Moscow who wanted to talk to me about Oasis of the Seas. Royal Caribbean had flown him to see the ship nearing completion in the Finland shipyard, but since he had no previous cruise ship experience, he was unclear about the significance of this newest mega-ship.

He had been reading my articles online, and he asked me why I had written that Oasis will be a "game changer" for the cruise industry.

"Because Oasis will be the first cruise ship to fully qualify as a destination unto itself, where the ports of call will not even factor into the cruise decision for many people," I told him.

I have to admit his reply shocked me: "If the ports don't matter," he said, "why build it as a ship?" Only a person who has never cruised would ask this question.

I really didn't have a logical answer. So I said, "why not?" -- which also happens to be part of Royal Caribbean's current ad slogan, "The Nation of Why Not?" Royal Caribbean is in the cruise business so they build cruise ships, but the Oasis experience wouldn't have to be on a cruise ship to be good.

But there is more to the answer - that there is no other vacation exactly like a cruise, even if you take away the ports - and Oasis fits that unique paradigm better than any cruise ship ever built.

What other vacation destination is targeted to families and includes accommodations, all meals and nighttime entertainment for all ages?

For a while, Las Vegas tried to be a family destination, but it isn't any more; and neither are all-inclusive resorts with the liquor included. Both appeal to younger adults.

Disneyland and Disney World are family vacation destinations, but they aren't as inclusive as a cruise where meals and entertainment are concerned. The Disney resorts don't offer the same options for child care as a cruise, so that parents can go their own way. There are no casinos, gourmet restaurants or nightclubs.

No other vacation duplicates the cruise ship experience in providing something for everyone, and Royal Caribbean's new Oasis epitomizes that aspect of cruising more than any other ship.

Taking people to faraway places is just icing on the cake. In fact, one of the destinations on all Oasis itineraries is Royal Caribbean's private beach enclave, Labadee on the island of Haiti. It is little more than an extension of the ship experience itself with a world-class zip line and a roller coaster ride along with the usual seaside attractions like parasailing and snorkeling.

Perhaps the only reason Oasis is a cruise ship is because Royal Caribbean is in the cruise business. They sell cruises so they build cruise ships. But the definition of cruises has been changed by Oasis. It is more than a way to get to foreign places; it is a foreign place - literally. It resides in international waters, has its own borders and has fully independent support systems for food, energy, hygiene, security, entertainment and human comfort.

But Is It a Game Changer? I am booked on Oasis' first regular cruise, the four-day sailing to Labadee leaving December 1.

My cruise is still two months away, but I already have reservations for the comedy club, the ice show, the musical Hairspray, and dinner at the ship's upscale restaurant, 150 Central Park. I could have also booked Flo-rider lessons, my shore excursions and spa appointments if I wanted to, but I might as well play some things by ear.

I told myself I was really only making these early activity bookings for insurance. If I don't keep one, I won't be depriving anyone since all the venues will be opened up for general seating after the ticketed folks are seated before the shows begin.

While I was watching Royal Caribbean build the ship, I had no idea the line was also creating the best online pre-cruise planning tools yet. This is the first cruise ship where you can plan your activities every day before you even get onboard. And Wall Street should take note of this little tidbit - all the charges paid for future cruises are accretive to the current quarter.

In the last year I have read many cautionary concerns about the size of Oasis, with predictions that passengers will contend with crowded restaurants, shows and even elevators. The idea is to spread people out, like at an amusement park, and schedule each event to be repeated so people do not need to rush to get anywhere. That is how I envision it working, but even if that concept fails (and it won't), Royal Caribbean already has an outstanding backup system. They left nothing to chance.

The onboard reservation system is extremely diverse. You can pre-book your shows online before the cruise, or you can wait until you board the ship. If a venue is full when you arrive you can make a reservation for later, or you can do it on your stateroom television.

No one really knows yet how well the crowd flow will work on Oasis, but my gut feeling says Oasis will work amazingly well.

One Big Surprise The new ship's 150 Central Park dining venue will be the first restaurant at sea with a "name" chef d' cuisine actually working fulltime on the ship. Keriann Von Raesfeld, named "best young chef in the world" will not only design the menu and create all the recipes; she will supervise the preparation of meals every night.

I made a reservation for 150 Central park online, but I didn't expect the web site to ask for a credit card to hold the table. I was even further surprised when the credit card was charged the $70 I agreed to pay for this reservation even though I have not yet sailed.

This is a first in the cruise industry: Allowing the company to collect onboard revenue before the ship sails. Since credit card companies generally do not like charges that have a high probability of being reversed later, Royal Caribbean must have a high confidence that people will keep these reservations.

Not only does this allow Royal Caribbean to book revenue before the ship sails, but this pre-cruise reservation system is a solid incentive for guests to book their cruises early. Want to get the best show times and dinner reservations? Book your cruise early so you can lock in your choices before your fellow passengers book everything up.

Yes, Oasis is a game changer, even in the midst of the worst economic downturn in generations. What Royal Caribbean has done with Oasis' pre-cruise planning is why the cruise industry continues to thrive and innovate. Other cruise lines are not likely to duplicate Oasis' size anytime in the near future, but they will probably copy its pre-cruise reservation system.

Other Ways Oasis Innovates Besides being the world's largest cruise ship, Oasis has a number of other "firsts."

One of the most appealing is the new loft suite. These posh staterooms are two decks tall, with a king-size bed upstairs and a view over a railing to the lower level. Downstairs is a seating area with a dining area, chairs, couches and a large flat screen TV. Best of all is the wall-to-wall, two-story glass window that makes the outdoors visible from almost anywhere in the suite. The Royal Loft Suites have a similar arrangement but are twice as wide.

The AquaTheater is the largest swimming pool ever built on a cruise ship, and the first ship-based theater with hydraulic elevators, fountains and high dives for a full aquatic show.

The required lifeboat drill will be simplified by not having the life vests in the staterooms. The life boats are roomier and will actually have toilets - another first. If these vessels ever need to be used as tenders, this will be extremely handy.

I haven't seen this in print yet, but I am guessing the Royal Promenade will be the largest single open space ever built on a cruise ship; at three decks tall and more than 100 yards long, the area will have vertical atriums at each end. The ship will have the tallest rock climbing walls at sea and the first carousel and zip line. The medical facilities will have three doctors and five nurses.

Oasis will soon be the ship by which all others are measured, and every cruiser will soon be asking fellow cruisers whether they have sailed on it yet.

And I will be able to say I was one of the first passengers on this ship of firsts. I will also be cruising as a guest of the cruise line on the first preview cruise November 20.

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