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Royal Caribbean International’s Icon of The Seas Finally Wins Over a Mega-Ship Resister

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Okay, Royal Caribbean. You win.

It has been 14 years since I stepped aboard a mega-ship for the first time, on an inaugural sailing of Oasis of the Seas, hailed at the time as the largest cruise ship ever built. While the engineering was beyond impressive, I was overwhelmed, and more than a little dubious.

I felt like I was in a giant shopping mall, and I’ve never been comfortable in such places. I wasn’t sure if I could get out of the tight circular shower stall if I even managed to get in, and I worried about the hygiene of those aboard who were much bigger than my portly self. By the time the short sailing ended, I had decided this type of vacation wasn’t for me.

But just as travel agents shouldn’t sell based on their wallets, travel writers shouldn’t judge based on their tastes. The job is to understand what others love about a travel product and inform travel advisors how well each new ship, resort, or tour gives the people what they want.

In more recent years I’ve traveled on several successively larger Royal Caribbean ships, both in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and followed the evolution of Oasis Class. I have had the privilege of meeting the executive minds behind the product, and they’re some of the smartest people I’ve met in three decades of writing about travel.

Last May, I traveled to Finland to see the first of the new Icon class of Royal Caribbean ships while it was under construction, deepening my understanding and respect for the massively complex process.

Last week I boarded the finished product, the Icon of the Seas, the new title-holder of the largest cruise ship in the world. Along with about 4,000 international travel advisors, I witnessed the naming of the ship by football great Lionel Messi and set off on a three-night shakedown cruise, to be followed by Icon’s first revenue sailing.

Much of the hype about Icon has focused on her size – over 250,000 gross tons, 20 decks, and a maximum capacity of nearly 10,000 passengers and crew – numbers that still leave me gob-smacked.

When I disembarked on Friday, however, my perspective had shifted. Icon’s over-the-top amenities are still eye-popping – more than 40 restaurants, bars and lounges, eight distinct neighborhoods, an amazing waterpark and adventure area, seven pools, a huge variety of high-quality entertainment options, and the list goes on.

But you don’t bring statistics home from a vacation, you bring memories. It’s not the size that counts, it’s the experience. And the designers of Icon can take a deep bow because the experience – indeed, the multiverse of potential experiences – has been honed to something close to perfection. As Royal Caribbean Group CEO Jason Liberty put it: “It takes dreamers, believers, innovators, and the best craftsmen in the world to build a ship like this.”

Jay Schneider is the Chief Product Innovation Officer for Royal Caribbean International. He oversees the product development teams which focus on creating new concepts, venues, and experiences. Schneider says that when Icon planning began more than seven years ago, the goal was not to once again build the world’s largest cruise ship but to deliver the world’s best family vacation.

“We wanted to create the most iconic experiences to live up to that mantra. We wanted to provide options galore and cater to a much wider umbrella of guests. That took us to a much larger ship than planned.”

She’s big, there is no doubt about that. Parked beside the 1997-launched, 2,500-pax Vision of the Seas at Perfect Day at Coco Cay, Icon dwarfs her fleet mate. But on the ship, Icon didn’t feel overwhelming to me, as Oasis once did.

Improvements to passenger flow, the expanded neighborhood concept – with each themed area offering proximity to food and beverage options – and a brilliant new intuitive elevator system, make getting around the ship easy.

I reluctantly returned home with many happy memories of my experiences on the Icon of the Seas, all packed into a three-night voyage. And I sampled just a fraction of what’s available. Here are a few of the Icon class enhancements that stood out for me.

Central Park On Steroids

A park-like setting with trees, plants, flowers, and walkways was revolutionary when it was introduced on the Oasis of the Seas, and Central Park has been a Royal Caribbean staple on successive ships.

As with everything Royal Caribbean, Central Park has evolved with each iteration, and the one on Icon tops all of its predecessors with new amenities like Lou’s Jazz & Blues, the Bubbles champagne and prosecco takeaway window, and the Japanese cuisine restaurant Izumi in the Park – also with a takeaway sushi window. A new and gigantic botanical mural adds elegance to the open space.

As evening falls, with a warm breeze, a cool pre-dinner cocktail, and the sounds of live Spanish guitar, Icon’s Central Park is a very nice place to be.

A Dizzying Choice of Dining & Drinks

Remember when meals on a cruise ship were offered in a main dining room and a buffet? Those days are long gone, but there’s no ship sailing offering more choices than the Icon – and that includes very good food in the main dining room and the sprawling and plentiful Windjammer Buffet.

Fully twenty-two of the 40+ food and drink venues on Icon are new to the brand. There’s a broad offering of included options, plenty of upcharge specialty choices, and a few venues that combine included and extra-charge dishes.

One big hit is the Aqua Dome Market, a food hall that doesn’t take up a lot of space but offers five distinct options, ideal for a quick lunch or snack. Guests can visit GINGR for Asian cuisine, Mac’s for the cheesy deliciousness of macaroni and cheese variations, Feta Mediterranean for gyros, pitas and salads, Toast and Garden for sandwiches and salads, and Crème de la Crepe for sweet and savory crepes.

At the high end, the Empire Supper Club is a glitzy new entry priced at US$200 per person – $130 for those with the Unlimited Dining Package — more than double that of other specialty restaurants. But it’s in another league, with just 38 seats (max. 4 per table) and one seating for two-and-a-half to three hours of Manhattan-style ‘entertainment’ each night.

The affair begins with a flute of Moet and continues with premium cocktails paired with multiple courses including dishes like oysters Rockefeller and Wagyu ribeye topped with fresh shaved truffles.

“Even the music is selected to go with each course,” said TTAND President and Founder Flemming Friisdahl who joined spouse and VP Talent Development Rhonda Friisdahl for dinner at the Empire Supper Club during the previous travel advisor sailing. “I don’t drink wine,” said Flemming. “So, I appreciated the pairings of cocktails, and I like not having to choose what I’m having, and just have interesting, delicious dishes brought to me.”

As Linken D’Souza, RCI’s Global Head & VP of Food & Beverage explained, the cocktail program aboard Icon has been completely reimagined, with assistance from four of the world’s most renowned mixologists. The results are phenomenal – delicious cocktails with innovative flavors and ingredients.

Surfside: Where Families Can Stay All Day

My kids are grown now, but when they were younger, they both flat-out refused to go to any kind of resort or ship kid’s program. That wasn’t a problem – we wanted to spend our limited vacation time with them – but at Surfside, parents of kids six and younger can have the best of both worlds.

There are three water experiences, including a pool for the grownups, and steps away are dining options, a bar, the signature carousel, an arcade, Adventure Ocean, and Social020 for teens. The bar is The Lemon Post, another new RCI concept, which offers cocktails for grown-ups and tasty alcohol-free choices for kids.

With 80% of Icon staterooms accommodating three or more guests – a big increase from around 30% on Oasis-class ships, RCI is set to put its claim to offering the world’s greatest family vacation to the test

“I believe we’ve hit that mark,” says Schneider. “I think we’ve exceeded it. We may even have leaped over it a bit.”

Stay tuned for more coverage of TravelPulse Canada’s Icon journey, including reactions to the ship from some of Canada’s leading travel advisors. (https://www.travelpulse.ca/news/cruise/icon-of-the-seas-finally-wins-over-a-mega-ship-resister)

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