By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer
Freedom of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, has it all: a surf simulator, a boxing gym, an ice skating rink and a lot of people. What’s next for the industry?
If you’re thinking of learning to hang 10 onboard this monster of the seas, bring plenty of patience but leave your ego at home.
The world’s largest cruise ship sets sail with its first paying guests today , and if a preview sailing over Memorial Day weekend is any indication, the FlowRider will be jam-packed. The 32-foot-wide by 40-foot-long surf simulator produces a pretty wicked wave by pumping 34,000 gallons of water per minute up a thankfully padded incline. The brave can attempt to ride it on a thin surfboard or knee board. Let’s just say, Wipe Out isn’t screaming from the sound system for nothing.
Stud after stud, and an occasional wahine wanna-be, attacked the surf simulator with confidence, the first time anyway. The most successful among them was upright for all of 10 seconds. Those who did the worst against the rush of water, which was just about everyone, lost part of their bathing suits and were sent crashing up the cushioned incline in rather unfortunate positions.
All that after a 20-minute wait. And once you were down, you had to go to the end of the line.
Because Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, which sails the western Caribbean from its home port of Miami, can carry 4,200 cruisers, lines are likely to be long for many activities. The behemoth boasts 15 decks of features to entertain passengers who can box in a 20- by 20-foot ring, watch an ice show, play miniature golf or basketball, climb a rock wall or cavort in the H2O Zone, a colorful kiddie water park that the adults just can’t stay away from.
Don’t worry, though, there is an adult pool, too.
An indoor shopping promenade has the required duty-free perfume and alcohol outlets with the added bonus of a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor plus a wine bar that hosts tastings. I recommend the iced lattes at Cafe Promenade while perusing something to read at the Book Nook. Daily parades march down the 445-foot promenade complete with circus performers, dancers, musicians and, of course, blasts of confetti.
The Royal Promenade is as entertaining as it is strange. Spend any time there and you’ll wonder why only a handful of pop songs play on a continuous loop or if you’re on a ship at all. It feels a bit like a busy airport. For respite, go to your stateroom and gaze at the sea, providing you’ve paid for an ocean view.
(In an interesting design move, 168 staterooms overlook the promenade through bay windows. The view from the room over Ben & Jerry’s is the back ends of two black-and-white cows and is worth free ice cream for the entire cruise.)
Up on Deck 12, near the top of the ship, there’s a video arcade and a teen club called the Living Room. On Decks 3 and 4 is a 1,350-seat theater for live shows (Blood, Sweat and Tears performed on the preview). The karaoke club is on 3, just below the casino, where more than 300 slot machines buzz and bing through the night, teasing you with the promises of riches. There are numerous restaurants and bars, including Latin-themed Bolero’s, which serves mojitos and sizzling style and is as beautiful with its chrome, glass and wood appointments as any four-star hotel on land. All around the ship, the food is delicious and plentiful (go for the piles of stone crab claws in the buffet) and can be worked off in the ShipShape Fitness Center or the goth-themed Crypt disco.
The Freedom Day Spa offers various services for women, men and teens, including teeth whitening ($199).
Freedom of the Seas is one big, beautiful ship and its appeal is already being felt by Royal Caribbean. Most of the better cabins, those with ocean views and balconies, are booked for the next six months. Travel agents aboard the preview sailing, which went to Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas, reported strong bookings for next year, too. Prices run about $850 per person for inside cabins for weeklong cruises to $2,400 for deluxe suites.
The $800-million ship is being launched at a time when the cruise industry could use a little good news. Several deaths, including a honeymooning groom who went missing from a Royal Caribbean Mediterranean cruise last summer and 12 Celebrity Cruises passengers killed in a March bus accident in Chile, along with several incidences of widespread illnesses onboard ships, have dampened bookings and caused some lines to slash prices. Two punishing hurricanes seasons haven’t helped either.
During a talk with the media, Royal Caribbean president Adam Goldstein said that despite some bad press for the industry overall, he has been “delighted with the response of the world to our new ship. It’s a terrific time for our brand.”
Indeed, Freedom has received tremendous exposure, including being the focus of an entire broadcast of the Today show on May 12, coincidentally the day that the remake of The Poseidon Adventure opened. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer presided over the christening of the ship in New York harbor before it sailed to Florida. On the flat-panel TVs in each stateroom, the show is broadcast continuously and offers guests a behind-the-scenes look at the ship that they would not normally have (or would have cost Royal Caribbean big bucks to produce themselves).
Freedom is the first of Royal Caribbean’s fleet to include upgraded bedding. Thanks to the 2-inch-thick microfiber pillow top, 220-thread count cotton bedding and calm seas, I hadn’t slept so luxuriously since a stay at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco last fall. My stateroom, with oceanview balcony, was roomy (the flat-panel TV frees up space) and quite plush, though I can’t report on the minibar contents since it wasn’t yet stocked.
Like Royal Caribbean’s Voyager class series of ships, Freedom has a three-deck high restaurant, though at each level the restaurant has a different name: Leonardo’s, Galileo’s and Issac’s. The Windjammer Cafe is the traditional buffet while Chops Grille and Portofino offer a more intimate dining experience, something you may want when you tire of eating with a few thousand of your newest friends. There’s a Johnny Rockets on Deck 11 near the kids’ features.
Freedom of the Seas will spoil first-time cruisers, who are thankful that the day of the week is spelled out on the floor of the elevators. This is a vacation on which it’s easy to lose track of land and time. Newbies will expect this level of service and amenities from every ship and cruise line. They aren’t likely to get it.
Experienced cruisers will need to decide whether the luxury and sophistication are worth the extra passengers. That may be the only thing not to like about Freedom. Smart cruisers will bring walkie-talkies to keep in contact with their party; cell phones don’t work.
Families on the preview sailing were having a blast, no matter the ages of the kids thanks to age-appropriate activities and child care services, but there was some grumbling from passengers, mostly over 50, about the long haul from forward to aft, nearly four football fields. There were no complaints, though, about soothing aching muscles in the cantilevered whirlpools, suspended 112 feet above the ocean. Adults only, please.
The whirlpools may also become a popular place for apres-surfers to nurse physical and mental bruises. Like I said, check your ego at the port.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 8938586 or firstname.lastname@example.org.