I've returned from a short inaugural cruise on the newest and world's largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas. Fully booked, the ship holds over 6,000 guests!
To be honest, while I love cruising, mega cruise ships are not my cup of tea. I much prefer smaller luxury ships. But missing Royal Caribbean's last three ship inaugurals, I was eager to experience what all the fuss was about.
And rather than approach this from the standpoint of why I don't like huge ships, I chose to think about it differently: what I did like about Symphony of the Seas. And there's quite a bit to tell there.
For me, the most striking was the quality of the entertainment. A lot of cruise ship entertainment falls under "take it or leave it" in terms of quality, creativity, and inspiration. We experienced four different shows on Symphony of the Seas, and each was excellent. Maybe it's because as a kid my mom took me to the Ice Capades shows, or maybe it's because when it comes to the Winter Olympics skating is such a highlight, but the ice show onboard Symphony of the Seas was quite spectacular featuring very talented skaters, numerous cosutume changes, and 36 drones. Then there was "Flight," a moving tribute to flight, from the Wright Brothers to the astronauts, climaxing with a Wright Brothers plane suspended by cables and "flying" above the spectators in the theatre. A dramatic ending to say the least. The Aqua Theatre offers a splendid high-energy Asian-themed water show, complete with divers who jump from 30 feet into what seems to be a somewhat small pool below. Finally, there's a great 90-minute rendition of Hairspray, a musical all the more relevant today perhaps. Without a doubt, the larger ship enables Royal Caribbean to invest in entertainment that surpasses what one usually finds onboard many ocean cruise ships.
After entertainment, probably the next to impress is the choice of activities onboard that amuses and challenges. There are two flow riders on which you can wakeboard or surf. There's a miniature golf course and full court basketball court. There are two water slides and the frightening-looking Ultimate Abyss, a slide that propels one at 30 miles per hour down an enclosed purple tube 10 stories with various turns and loops. There are two rock climbing walls. There's a carousel. There's a zipline. There are 23 pools! And I know I've left off some things. Once again, you can't provide this level of amusement on smaller cruise ships.
Then there's the attractive, creative, fun, and quirky decor. A lot of so-called art on cruise ships is plain boring. Cruise lines that make use of their ships as gallery space include Oceania and Celebrity. Symphony of the Seas is certainly a fun ship to walk around and discover art and sculpture that intrigues, engages, or makes you smile. Not to be left off the list is the robotic bartenders that can mix some 23 cocktails. (A timer indicates how long your wait will be for your cocktail.)
Cuisine is a top priority for today's traveler. While not a luxury cruise product, Royal Caribbean surprises with the variety of dining choices, with a quality that is commendable for the size of this operation. There are a number of specialty restaurants that require an upcharge of as much as $69 per person, but there are 11 that do not. I sampled Royal Caribbean's brand new seafood venue, Hooked, and among our group we enjoyed a variety of dishes. All the seafood was good quality, fresh, and perfectly prepared. The calamari appetizer was perfect, the lobster tasted beautifully (not rubbery or dry as can be the case), and the grilled blackened cod was moist and flaky. I was not a fan of the lobster mac and cheese that came along as side dish, but there were plenty of other options from which to choose. The main dining room is three stories, and the staff were ready to change up orders upon request. While the Starbucks stand in the atrium has a premium charge, free coffee drinks from Seattle's Best are available nearby.
In the Windjammer Cafe, breakfasts offered a large variety, and everything was fresh and tasty. Muffins were moist (not dry), eggs were fluffy and didn't taste like they were made from powder and sitting on a plate for an hour, and there were various choices in bacon and sausages, fruits, yogurt and cereals, and congee and meusli.
Food throughout was tasty and seemed to be made to order, as the cruise line states. Cocktails were also well mixed and not watered down. While I wouldn't rate the food as excellent, I would certainly give it a very good rating.
As to accommodations, there are, of course, many choices onboard this ship. I was not a fan of the interior-facing blacony as there was a constant noise from the atrium below when we preferred out door open. There was also no view of the sea, and you can see into numerous rooms across the atrium, requiring drapes being closed at times and less privacy. I'd much prefer an ocean-facing balcony. There are a number of stateroom categories, including two-story loft suites, some designed expressly for families. In fact, shopping the right stateroom on this ship may require some expertise and insights.
Finally, there's the new Royal Caribbean cruise ship terminal in Miami that can fast track guests from curbside to their stateroom in 15 minutes. Upon disembarkation, customs clearance utilized facial recognition scanners, and it was a breeze.