Vegas on the Water
A ship so big it has seven neighborhoods, four pools, an amphitheater and more. Who needs to go ashore?

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 4, 2009

There's a story about a grizzled foreign correspondent in Asia who once was taken to task over a taxi fare on an expense report. He defended it as routine, but the accountants pointed out that he'd been reporting from an aircraft carrier at sea on the day in question. Without missing a beat, the correspondent growled, "Well, do you know how big those things are?"

I couldn't help thinking of that joke while in Finland last week, touring Royal Caribbean International's new Oasis of the Seas, a ship that eclipses the U.S. Navy's Nimitz-class supercarriers and will be the world's largest cruise liner when it makes its much-anticipated maiden voyage in December. As I stood in the bow, it didn't seem completely unreasonable to take a taxi to the stern, almost a quarter-mile away. In fact, the meter in a D.C. cab would charge 25 cents for the distance.

Under construction in the quaint port town of Turku since 2006, the Oasis of the Seas is longer, taller, wider, heavier and more expensive than any other passenger ship ever built. It's five times the size of the Titanic and more than half again as large as the mammoth Queen Mary 2. A piece of it will have to be retracted just so it can squeeze under a bridge and make it out to the Atlantic. On its 18 decks, a crew of 2,165 will tend to as many as 6,296 paying customers, nearly 45 percent more than the largest cruise ships now operating, the Freedom-class vessels launched by Royal Caribbean three years ago.

But the Oasis of the Seas isn't just a jumbo version of its predecessors. More important than its staggering size is what its designers have done with the extra space: filled it with attractions never before seen on a cruise ship, including an open-air park with trees and hanging gardens, a boardwalk-style area with a merry-go-round, a pool that changes into a stage for high-diving shows and a theater that has booked the Broadway musical "Hairspray."

In short, Royal Caribbean has created a Las Vegas resort that floats -- yes, there's a casino, too -- and the closest thing in real life to the Buy n Large luxury spaceships in "WALL-E," where humans spend the centuries getting fat after mass consumerism has left the Earth a polluted mess.

In fact, the ship -- built at a cost of $1.4 billion, most of it borrowed money -- represents a huge gamble that mass consumerism is alive and well, the state of the global economy and environment notwithstanding. Royal Caribbean's chairman, Richard Fain, is betting that the Oasis will defy the recession and expand the industry's market by bringing in what he describes on his blog as the "poor souls" who are the "most die-hard cruise resisters." In fact, he's doubling down: A sister ship of the same size, the Allure of the Seas, is under construction in Turku and scheduled to set sail next year.

Wall Street has been skeptical, and some cruising enthusiasts have voiced concern as well, complaining that the Oasis will be too crowded, that its prices are too high, and that all the onboard amenities will ruin the magic of an intimate journey on the open seas to an exotic destination.

But Paul Motter, editor of the enthusiast Web site Cruisemates, predicted that the Oasis of the Seas, love it or hate it, will do for cruise ships what Disneyland did for amusement parks. "The image of cruising is about to change forever," he said. "I think it's going to be the first ship where people truly book just for the ship and hardly care where it goes."

Viewed up close from the outside, the ship doesn't seem like an industry game-changer. It looks instead as if someone decided to stack an ugly, imposing chunk of the Crystal City Hilton or the Watergate on the keel. But step aboard, and it immediately feels different.

Raimund Gschaider, the Oasis hotel director, took me through the vessel's belly and then up to Deck 5, where arriving guests will get their first glimpse of the inside. The ship was already in the water and had completed its first sea trial, but it was still littered with scaffolding, tools and building materials and buzzing with thousands of workers trying to finish the interior.

Even with the clutter, though, it was clear that coming aboard the Oasis would be less like climbing onto a boat than like walking up the concourse of a fancy sports stadium. Instead of placing a block of cabins in the middle of the ship, the builders have stacked the rooms on either side, a radical innovation that left an airy, glass-enclosed atrium longer than a football field at the core.

Gschaider called it the Royal Promenade and pointed out stores, restaurants and the first cupcake shop at sea. I told him it felt like a nice shopping mall. "It's a shame you've never been on a cruise; then you'd understand how different this is," he replied, noting that only a few ships in the world have a space like this, and that the one on the Oasis is twice as wide as the largest out there now.

It was clear that Gschaider viewed me as a challenge, a member of the Oasis target market, those "poor souls" who have never found the idea of taking a cruise appealing. Determined to impress, he led me up a few decks to the area dubbed Central Park. (There's a small bar and lounge on a platform that moves up and down between the decks, but we took the stairs.) Now we were standing under the sun in what felt like a plaza between two small apartment buildings, actually walls lined with cabin balconies.

Gschaider pointed out art galleries and restaurants, and told me that when the ship arrives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the end of the month, more than 2,000 plants will be installed on the deck. "Imagine sitting here under the sky, amid the bushes and trees, with the light breeze of the Caribbean, enjoying your steak," he said.

But he wasn't done. The Promenade and Central Park are just two of seven "neighborhoods" on the Oasis. Two decks down and toward the stern is the open-air Boardwalk, complete with faux wood tiles, leading to a high-diving pool at the end of the ship. From the amphitheater-style seats, 600 guests can watch acrobatics and synchronized swimming with the ocean as a backdrop.

Nine decks up, atop the roofs of the cabins, is the Sports Zone, which might be described as a more traditional cruise ship's outdoor space if weren't for the size. I counted four swimming pools, two rock-climbing walls, a miniature-golf course, a jogging track, a basketball court, two water rides that simulate surfing, and a zip line you can buckle yourself into and glide along over the Boardwalk far below. Nearby are the luxury lofts, penthouses with a view of the sea that sell for as much as $34,000 per week.

And somehow, below deck, the architects also managed to squeeze in a big children's play area, a sizable gym and spa, and an entertainment section with a theater, ice rink, casino, comedy stage and several nightclubs. I was getting lost -- the ship's 38,000 signs had yet to go up -- and Gschaider was wearing me down. I kept thinking, "This is cheesy, but it might be fun with my 2-year-old."

Carolyn Spencer Brown, the editor of the online site Cruise Critic, thinks the designers managed to make the ship feel both spacious and cozy. "I remember walking around it and forgetting I was on a cruise ship," she said in a phone interview. "The design is interesting because it tries to move people to every corner, with these separate, smaller areas."

Part of the appeal, I realized, lies in the knowledge that you're not just in a resort but also in a marvel of engineering, an enormous, seaworthy craft that can cruise through the ocean at a speed of 22 knots. From the stern, I could see its half-completed sister ship nearby in drydock and look down into its mechanical guts. The ships are too big to be built the traditional way, from the bottom up, a deck at a time. Instead, pieces as large as buildings are finished on shore, then hoisted into place and welded together like so many Lego blocks. The Oasis took 181 blocks, each weighing about 600 tons.

Tor Olsen, one of the ship's captains, could barely contain his excitement as he showed off a high-tech bridge full of keyboards, joysticks and computer screens. (Uh-oh, they're using Microsoft Windows.) Suddenly, I realized that we hadn't talked about the destinations, the stops in St. Thomas, St. Maarten and the Bahamas, where harbors have been modified to accommodate the enormous ship.

"Our hope, of course, is that people don't get off, because this ship itself is the destination," Olsen said. "This is better than a lot of the islands."

But if the port calls don't matter, then why take a cruise at all? Why not just go to a resort in Las Vegas? "This is better than Vegas," Gschaider insisted.

Later, I spoke with Royal Caribbean president Adam Goldstein. "The challenge for our brand and for cruise in general is to fight for market share with land-based vacation options for all the consumer vacation dollars," he told me. He said the Oasis was critical to the strategy, because the vast variety of options it offers will destroy the popular myths that there's nothing to do on a cruise ship, or that cruises are only for older people. Asked about sales so far, he would say only that the company is "pleased" with how they're going.

Royal Caribbean is also hoping that the Oasis will be able to command a big price premium, perhaps double the $499 that other ships charge for a seven-night cruise. But even at a higher price, Goldstein argued, the ship will be a bargain because it offers so much.

The cruise-resister in me still had concerns. How would it feel to be trapped on a boat with so many people? Gschaider said the Oasis is so big that there's more space per passenger than on other ships, and it will feel less crowded.

And what damage would such a big ship do to the environment? Goldstein pointed out that the Oasis is equipped with the most advanced wastewater purification systems and technology, which makes it much more energy efficient. But environmentalists say that it doesn't do enough to reduce air pollution, and that a cruise ship will always burn more fuel than a land resort.

This poor soul was torn, but beginning to wonder if he could put a ticket on an expense report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company