"Wait'll you see the ship!" Myra, the Royal Caribbean check-in agent, gushed as I prepared to board the Oasis of the Seas. "We're going to have to pull you off by the teeth on Saturday."
FOR THE RECORD:
Cruise ship features: In Sunday's Travel section, an article about new features on cruise ships reported that there are 37 bars on the Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship. The correct number is 17. —
Maybe. Maybe not. With room for 6,296 passengers, this largest-in-the-world cruise ship seemed a prime candidate for impossibly long waits, endless onboard queues and claustrophobia-inducing crowds. That's what I had expected.
Incorrectly, as it turned out. And, yes, Myra, after four nights onboard, I was hooked.
Our cruise carried 4,800 passengers on its Dec. 1 sailing, its inaugural voyage after seven cruises to nowhere -- and there was no sense of crowding.
The hoopla about the size was impossible to ignore, but the sheer fun of the ship was a happy surprise. You would have to be a hermit to be bored, and although the ship's destinations -- the eastern and western Caribbean -- may not be your dream trips, this is a case where getting there is more than half the fun.
Passenger Eric Hyde, an Angeleno, described it well. "It's kind of like Disneyland, outside of reality," he said. "You're literally spending four nights in an amusement park, then you wake up in the morning and you're already in line again."
Hyde, regional director of admissions at Concord Law School, had just wowed the crowd in the karaoke bar with his big voice. This was his 67th cruise, his 34th on Royal Caribbean, and he was wowed.
"The design and engineering are absolutely magnificent," he said. "Every space, there's something to see, something to marvel at."
If you go
OASIS OF THE SEAS This year, the Oasis of the Seas will make seven-night cruises from its home port of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the eastern Caribbean through Dec. 4 and to the western Caribbean through Dec. 23. Fares start at $729 per person.
ALLURE OF THE SEAS Allure of the Seas, its sister ship, will debut Dec. 12 with a seven-night Caribbean cruise. General bookings for the Allure will open April 13.
TO LEARN MORE Royal Caribbean International, (866) 562-7625, www.royalcaribbean.com.
Lonnie Cunningham, a Los Angeles CPA traveling with his wife, Linda, a travel agent, also was a fan. "An amazing experience," he said. "There's something for everyone. It's a city, right here."
Which city? Try Las Vegas.
There's a casino, of course. And an ice show and skating rink, a water show, surf simulators, rock-climbing walls, 21 pools and Jacuzzis, miniature golf, a zip line, all included in the price of your ticket. (I got in line to zip, then made the mistake of looking down. I couldn't do it.)
On departure day, I arrived by cab at bright, new Terminal 18 in Florida's Port Everglades, and within 25 minutes had my Seapass identification card, had cleared security and was onboard, carrying my bags so I wouldn't have to wait for them.
The cruise departed on an ideal Florida evening. We gathered on deck, waiting for Holland America's Noordam -- poor little thing -- to precede us into the open sea. Noordam's passengers gawked.
A waiter slipped among us with a tray of rum drinks -- "Sippy sippy," he said -- at $8.20 a pop. Like many cruise lines, Royal Caribbean has lots of ways to separate you from your money; still, most of the best things are part of the fare, including the shows.
As we slowly turned and headed out to sea, people waved from the beach and snapped photos. Suddenly, the sun set, and an almost-full moon appeared in a sky streaked with pink.
I headed to my Deck 12 stateroom to unpack. It was an interior cabin, snug (172 square feet) but OK, with a porthole-shaped mirror and a small sitting area. The bathroom was small, with a mini-sink set a bit too low and a round shower with a glass door. The only amenities were shampoo and soap. The pillow-top bed was wonderfully soft, and storage space would be adequate for two people with a reasonable amount of luggage. There were three drawers, a couple of cubbyholes, a decent closet with shelves and lots of wood hangers. Onboard messages could be accessed on the 32-inch flat-screen TV, and there were a safe and mini-fridge. Unlike other cruise lines, this one didn't throw in a robe.
But, then, Oasis of the Seas is unlike most ships. It has a split superstructure, the 10 upper decks divided by a 62-foot-wide atrium open to the sky. The Boardwalk, a sanitized but delightful version of Coney Island, occupies the open space aft. Forward is the Royal Promenade, the heart of the ship with its shops and cafes.
Above the Promenade sits Central Park, with 12,000 tropical trees and plants, winding paths, a sculpture garden and crystal canopies that filter light down to the Promenade.
The park's three signature restaurants -- 150 Central Park, Chops Grille and Giovanni's Table, all surcharge venues -- were sold out before we left the pier, savvy cruisers having booked ahead online. I was among the disappointed passengers turned away at 150 Central Park, which has only 75 seats and one nightly seating ($35). The host apologized: "They should have made the restaurants bigger." Agreed.
But the Oasis is not just about eating, playing bingo or lying by the pool; on a typical seven-day voyage, there are more than 500 activities.
Onboard shows are by reservation only and can be booked ahead online. I'd reserved the Tony Award-winning "Hairspray" (fun), the Comedy Live club (definitely adult and pretty good) and the Aqua Theater show, where the best part was high divers executing heart-stopping plunges.
One activity that's missing, thankfully, is the dreaded safety drill that usually comes at the start of each cruise. We gathered in the Opal Theater to see a safety video, our Seapasses scanned as a way of doing a roll call. Life vests, by the way, are at stations, not taking up valuable stateroom space.
The photo store is another nice innovation. Rather than searching walls of photos, passengers swipe their Seapasses at a computer kiosk and their photos appear on screen. Prints are easily found in folders with labels that match codes on Seapasses.
So many choices, so few days. There are 24 dining venues; 14 do not charge extra. Before dinner the first night, I stopped by the Boleros bar, where a Latin dance band was in full swing. After dinner in the tri-level Opus dining room, I joined the crowd in On Air, where a karaoke singer was belting out "American Pie." By 1 a.m. I was strolling the silent Boardwalk. The hand-carved wooden horses on the carousel were motionless, the Seafood Shack, candy shop, ice-cream parlor and doughnut shop closed, Johnny Rockets closing. But things were humming in some of the clubs, and pizza was still being dished up at Sorrento's on the Promenade.
Not yet totally familiar with the ship, I relied on one of the electronic flat-screen room finders for help. You punch in your room number, and it guides you there. Other monitors around the ship show which restaurants are full and what there is to see and do.
By the end of Day 2, I knew my way around. Walking the length of the ship is not an endurance test. The Oasis is 1,187 feet long, a little more than three football fields. Even so, with 24 passenger elevators, the waits were never long.
Behind-the-scenes technology keeps boardings and disembarkations from becoming stampedes. For optimal crowd flow, the gangway can be shifted from one deck to another, and 10 elevators can be programmed to stop only where they are needed.
The Oasis is designed with seven neighborhoods: Central Park, the Boardwalk, the Royal Promenade, the Pool and Sports Zone, Entertainment Place, the Vitality at Sea Spa & Fitness and the Youth Zone. Looking for late-night Comedy Live, perhaps? It's in Entertainment Place on Deck 4, together with Studio B (the ice rink), the Opal Theater, the Blaze nightclub, Jazz on 4 and the Casino Royale.
After riding a brown horse on the carousel, I sipped a rum drink on the spaceship-like Rising Tide Bar as it climbed three decks.
The Oasis was off Cuba, and our captain, using the public address system, was wishing us a pleasant day "exploring our little ship." I had a buffet lunch in the Windjammer Marketplace before heading to the Globe and Atlas Pub for the trivia contest.
There, I teamed up with Floridians George and Cary Pratt, small-ship lovers who'd booked the Oasis out of curiosity. Their assessment: "Overwhelming, spectacular." She laughed and said, "I have shin splints in my legs. I must have walked five miles today. You don't need to go to the spa."
The Oasis also is family-friendly, with a children's pool, hands-on activities for kids, a mocktail lounge and video arcade for teens and even a staffed nursery for Royal Tots and Royal Toddlers (ages 6 to 36 months).
For the young at heart, there were events such as a belly flop contest and a men's sexy leg contest, in which Kyle Holmberg, 17, of Dana Point bested 11 other contestants of various ages and shapes.
He acknowledged that the deck might have been stacked. "My mom was the middle judge."
'A sports car'
On the last day at sea, I visited on the bridge with Capt. William Wright, who was at the helm for the inaugural cruises. (His day job is senior vice president of marine operations.) The Oasis is so maneuverable, he said, that "pilots in ports are calling her a sports car."
When he backed the ship into the new dock at Labadee, Royal Caribbean's resort on the north coast of Haiti and our sole port on this cruise, he beamed and boasted, "No scratches." (Labadee, by the way, is 85 miles from the capital and did not suffer damage in the recent earthquake.)
"The most amazing ship the world has ever seen," the captain told me. "Despite her size, she doesn't feel big."
Our cruise was silky smooth. He showed me the high-tech control center, which he calls the "Starship Enterprise," and the 24-hour safety command center that fields onboard 911 calls. On our cruise, he noted, most of these had been, "How do I get to the Windjammer [buffet]?"
The Oasis has 2,700 staterooms in 37 categories, including family suites. When my ship comes in, I'm going to book a suite -- not one of the 28 elegant loft suites, not one of the balcony staterooms overlooking Central Park or the Boardwalk -- fun but a bit too public. I'll take one of the six Aqua Theater Suites at the stern, with big balconies overlooking the sea and the aquatic amphitheater (and starting at $8,029 per person for a seven-day cruise).
My four days flew by. Back in Fort Lauderdale, I was ashore in a flash, carting my luggage so I could disembark at will.
And there, directing us to customs, was Myra. "I remember you," she said. "Welcome back to reality."
latimes.com /oasisoftheseas Extend the voyage Go online for more photos of the Oasis of the Seas and to read about how it was designed.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times