The Next Big Thing

Royal Caribbean does it again with the world's largest cruise ship

By: M.T. Schwartzman

Instead of simply talking about “the next big thing,” Royal Caribbean International decided to build it, and its name is Freedom of the Seas. In creating the gargantuan vessel, Royal Caribbean built upon the very successful design of the ground-breaking Voyager of the Seas, first introduced in 1999.

“We have a footprint that allows us to offer our guests what they’re looking for,” said Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean International. “Voyager of the Seas was the ship that introduced rock-climbing walls and indoor skating rinks to our cruise vocabulary. So many of the features of the original Voyager ships have been carried over, some have been refined and other, new innovations, are making their first appearance.”

At 160,000 gross register tons (GRT), Freedom is about 12 percent larger by interior volume than its predecessors in the Voyager series. The massive vessel stretches 1,112 feet in length, and its beam spans 184 feet from side to side. Freedom of the Seas carries 3,634 people, double, and 4,375 when fully loaded.

On the outside, Freedom looks very much like its slightly “smaller,” older siblings: A mini-city awash in white that towered over the low-slung industrial buildings of Cape Liberty, Royal Caribbean’s private docking facility in Bayonne, N.J. The ship was in port for a week of preview festivities in mid-May, which included naming ceremonies in New York Harbor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty an event that was broadcast live on NBC’s “Today” show.

On the inside, Freedom takes its cue from the Voyager class and adds its own special amenities. The famous “horizontal atrium,” otherwise known as the Royal Promenade, is a four-deck interior expanse stretching a neck-craning 445 feet in length.

The extra length gave Freedom’s designers just what they craved freedom to enhance the unique boulevard with several thematic lounges. The Bull and Bear, modeled after a 17th-century British pub, and Vintages, a Napa Valley wine bar that takes passengers back to the California of the 1930s, were some of my favorites.

The Cafe Promenade blends Seattle’s Best coffee with the Book Nook, a new bookshop offering travel and other titles for sale, many with a cruise-oriented theme. A Clean Shave is another clever new addition to the Royal Promenade. Modeled after a neighborhood barber shop, male guests can drop in for a haircut, shave and perhaps a shoe shine, just in time for formal night. (Only the brave show up in choppy seas, however.)

Ben & Jerry’s, meanwhile, occupies its own separate venue across the Royal Promenade. On Freedom, it’s been recreated as a 1950s-style ice-cream parlor, serving up the good stuff in old-fashioned sugar cones. Meanwhile, Sorrento’s Pizza, an outlet also seen on the rebuilt Monarch of the Seas and Sovereign of the Seas, anchors the forward end of the atrium.

If all that’s not enough, passengers can visit Johnny Rockets, a 1950s-style diner, for burgers, fries and shakes. Royal Caribbean still serves dinner in the main dining room in two traditional seatings (early at 6:15 p.m., and late at 8:30 p.m.), but has bowed to the trend toward multiple eateries 10 in all on Freedom of the Seas. I personally get hungry before dinner and found myself in a blissfully empty Johnny Rockets during first seating. While everyone else was having dinner or getting ready for dinner, I enjoyed a burger and still had two hours to get my appetite back before second sitting.

Fans of Schooner Bar, Royal Caribbean’s signature nautical lounge, will be happy to know that Freedom boasts its own version of the relaxing venue. It’s just one on the list of 16 onboard bars and lounges that also includes the Viking Crown Lounge, another longtime Royal Caribbean hallmark.

In addition to the customary entertainment, Freedom includes a new space, On Air, for karaoke. The room features two semi-private booths with green-screen technology that allows guests to make their own music videos and souvenir DVDs. Bolero’s, the Latin-themed nightclub, was a huge draw on my sailing, as it is on other Royal Caribbean vessels.

Of course, Freedom has generated the biggest buzz with features not found elsewhere in the Royal Caribbean fleet, or any other fleet, for that matter.

The most exciting innovations are in the pool decks and fitness areas. Foremost among them is the FlowRider, the world’s first surfing simulator at sea. Located at the ship’s stern, FlowRider is a 32- by 40-foot wave pool that generates 35,000 gallons of water per minute to create a five-foot ocean-like wave. Flanked by bleachers for viewing and a refreshment stand, the FlowRider could prove to be a stroke of genius if it becomes as popular as the now iconic rock-climbing wall.

The combined pool area aboard Freedom of the Seas is 43 percent larger than aboard the Voyager class and is divided into three distinct areas. A family waterpark, called H2O Zone, is a wonderland of brightly hued sculptures and fountains that spray, sprinkle and spurt water in every direction. A separate, dedicated sports pool is designed for jousting tournaments, water volleyball, synchronized swimming and other events.

When the H2O Zone was first unveiled for the press, it was hard to envision the final result. But seeing it realized on Freedom was truly impressive: It is without a doubt the most colorful and imaginative family pool area at sea.

At the forward end of the pool deck lies the adults-only Solarium, with two oversized whirlpool tubs cantilevered 12 feet out from either side of the ship and suspended 112 feet above the ocean. It’s very dramatic, and this unique vantage point proved popular on my cruise.

Aficionados of the line’s rock-climbing wall are sure to be dazzled by Freedom’s super-sized version of the attraction. At 43 feet tall by 44 feet wide, it has 11 routes to the top, making it the largest in the Royal Caribbean fleet.

In a fitness first, Freedom offers a full-size boxing ring. The ring is in the huge fitness center, set high above the bow with a commanding 180-degree view of the sea. Passengers get lessons here on the art of the sweet science under the supervision of a boxing instructor, and can practice their uppercut and left hook with boxing gloves and shadow moves before they enter the ring.

Accommodations on Freedom blend the old with the new. Altogether there are 20 cabin categories to choose from and a total of 1,817 staterooms. Some of the inside cabins offer a view of the interior promenade, another design first seen on Voyager of the Seas. On a humorous note, one of the interior-view cabins looks out on the rear end of a cow that’s part of the Ben & Jerry’s awning passengers booking this stateroom get free ice cream for the duration of the cruise.

Brand new, however, is the 14-person Presidential Suite the largest stateroom on any Royal Caribbean ship. It features 1,215 square feet of interior space combined with 810 feet of outdoor living area, so clients can bring their whole brood aboard. Altogether, Freedom offers six different categories of family-friendly suites; besides the Presidential Suite, there are 19 family suites in five categories, sleeping six or eight.

Royal Caribbean has also debuted new bedding on Freedom, which will be rolled out across the fleet. Upgrades include new bed frames, mattresses, sheets, pillows and duvets. Every cabin also has a Samsung flat-panel TV, and in a first for Royal Caribbean, Wi-Fi access in every stateroom.

Royal Caribbean’s second Freedom-class ship, Liberty of the Seas, is scheduled to make its debut in May 2007 with cruises to the Eastern and Western Caribbean. A third Freedom-class ship, as yet unnamed, is scheduled to follow in early 2008. Beyond that, the enormous Project Genesis ship is under development at Aker Finnyards in Turku, Finland. When it emerges from the shipyard in fall 2009, it will be the largest cruise ship ever built at 220,000 gross register tons and with the ability to carry 5,400 guests.

What comes after that? Will cruise ships continue to get even bigger?

Royal Caribbean president Adam Goldstein gave this glimpse of the future: “Ships are going to get larger. Historically, they always do. I don’t see a break in that trend.”

AGENT VOICES: Is Bigger Really Better?

“The people that want to get on the ship are families, especially those with younger kids because they like the activities. Not everyone participates in the activities, but they do become a focal point that the whole family can talk about. I think there’s a novelty value for people who like to be able to say that they’ve been on the ship.

“Every ship has its audience, but I don’t think Freedom will have much of a repeat audience. People will try it once, but they will tire of the long lines. Imagine the time it takes for 4,000 people to stop at the hand sanitizer station. That really holds things up. You can only handle that so efficiently.

“Another audience that the ship will definitely play to is the large group reunion and incentive business. They will also get first-time cruisers, maybe. But, I don’t think the sophisticated cruiser will try Freedom of the Seas.

“I definitely don’t believe bigger is better, not for my clientele.”

Myrna Oken, Owner
Traveling Yours, an affiliate of Protravel Inc.
Los Angeles, Calif.

“I sailed on the ship for an overnight out of Miami, and was really impressed with the entertainment areas, such as the H20 Zone. On a seven-day cruise, kids will be out there everyday. I also saw for myself that the FlowRider is a great spectator sport. You can sit and watch other people for hours because there are bleachers set up all around it. It’s pretty entertaining.

“Another thing I loved was the casino it’s huge, and it was packed on our sailing. The restaurants are lovely. I was impressed by the three-level main dining room and the service. I can assure my clients that they can expect some enjoyable dining experiences. There are so many alternative dining venues, which is great for my groups traveling together.

“There are tons of entertainment options too, from big shows to sing-alongs. The only drawback I saw was the congestion outside some of the public areas. When the theater let out, it was challenging trying to get out.”

Alisa Wood, Cruise Consultant
Cruises Etc.
Fort Worth, Texas

“I don’t think we really need a ship the size of Freedom of the Seas. Seems to me you’ll practically need a skateboard just to get around.

“Royal Caribbean is definitely appealing to the mass market, and they’ll probably find enough people to fill the ship. But it isn’t making much of an impact on our business. Our clients prefer to stick to Crystal, Silversea or Regent, which have at most 960 passengers. There’s no way a ship like Freedom of the Seas can take care of people the way the smaller ships can.

“We’ll book Royal Caribbean if someone specifically asks for it, but our clientele isn’t exactly pounding down the door to go on a ship with 4,000 people.”

Shirley Ragusa, President
Cruises Worldwide International
Riverside County, Calif.

Q&A With Lisa Bauer, Senior VP of Sales, Royal Caribbean

Q: What kind of reactions did you get during the preview sailings of Freedom of the Seas? You hosted thousands of agents, on two different continents. That’s quite a bit of exposure to the trades.
A: We decided to have a long inaugural in order to share the ship with the trade and use the preview sailings as a thank you to agents. I think they really appreciated the time aboard and the chance to sail with the executive staff. The entire inaugural program actually turned out better than we ever expected. The ship’s crew absolutely rose to the occasion. We took delivery on April 24, and that very night we hosted an event for 3,000 travel agents. The staff didn’t miss a beat.

Q: Has anything about the ship taken you by surprise?
A: I think we didn’t anticipate the power of the [top deck waterpark] H20 Zone. We talked a lot about the FlowRider and the boxing ring. But based on what we saw during the previews, the H20 Zone is a hit not just for kids. We saw many adults out there really having fun. So, we need to do a better job communicating that in the future. We also got some great feedback about our Adventure Ocean [children’s] programs during the preview sailings. We did an advisory board with kids and teens, asking them for their impressions. It was helpful, and I’m glad we did it.

Q: What do you say to people who see the size of the ship and assume they’ll be bogged down in long lines and congestion at every turn?
A: Well, it’s important to keep in mind that Freedom is 15 percent larger than our five Voyager-class ships. We’re used to carrying 3,600 passengers. It didn’t just happen overnight. We’re building upon the lessons learned from the predecessor ships, and we’re prepared. As the ships get bigger, they get more sophisticated technologically. So we’re able to be more efficient with things like check-in and tendering.

Q: This ship has so many features designed for families, such as the family-friendly stateroom accommodations. What other demographic do you think the ship appeals to?
A: You’re right, Freedom is great for kids, but we also have programs for 18-year-olds and up. They can learn how to dance, ice skate or sing. There’s no question multi-generational travel is very popular right now, and we’re seeing lots of it. But we are also strong with couples who want to be on a ship with lots of options. And meetings and incentives business is another market that is really served well by this ship too.