Company Overview When Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines was founded 1969 by a diverse collection of Norwegian companies, the name and company focus was intended to meld the majestic reputation of the Norwegian royal class with the dawning age of dedicated Caribbean cruising out of Miami. Today, RCI is also a major player in Alaska, Mexico, New England/Canada, Hawaii, and Europe, too, but being merely another cruise line is not what they are most noted for; the mainstay of their reputation is for building ever larger and more innovative vessels that pack in more features per ship than most cruise lines can manage to extend across an entire fleet. They were the first to put rock climbing on a ship, a skating rink, and on their newest ship, Freedom of the Seas, they even have a "Surf-Rider Wave Pool" which generates a constant, surfable wave of water for surfing or bellyboarding.
By 1972, Royal Caribbean was the cruise line Carnival aspired to be; with three regularly scheduled Caribbean cruise ships back when Carnival was still struggling with a single, aging Greek passenger ferry made into a Caribbean cruiser. Royal Caribbean had the lead in passenger volume for many years, and for many people are still the preferred cruise line of the two, but without a doubt, still, a day does not go by when Royal Caribbean does not look at their windows at the Port of Miami and wonder what Carnival is doing. In fact, it is the ongoing rivalry between the two lines that is largely responsible for bringing about the modern age of mass market cruising as we know it today.
So, if the question of which is better is the reason why you are reading this review. Without a doubt, Royal Caribbean is farther along the cruise industry's cutting edge, ever innovating, ever challenging the received wisdom about what a cruise ship can do and be. But, are they better? In some areas yes, but it is hard to compete with Carnival's ability to establish and embellish a simple concept; build fun ships with good food, and make sure the staff understands the concept. Royal Caribbean may have many more things to do onboard, but Carnival may be arguably "more fun" based solely upon their attitude. Where Royal Caribbean may be aptly described as "something for everybody" Carnival embodies the concept of "fun for everyone" with more personalized service, better food, less focus just on sports enthusiasts, and better stage entertainment.
But that is not to say a Royal Caribbean cruise should be missed! If any cruise ships deserves to be sampled at least once, as possibly several times, it is one of the Royal Caribbean mega-ships. These ships define the concept of "the ship as the destination" more than any other cruiser in the world, with an onboard water park, ice skating, rock climbing, surf riding, a variety of pubs, large casinos, and simply the biggest ship imaginable; larger than Carnival's biggest by over 30%. Even if you don't care to get wet, skate or climb rocks, don't dismiss the people-watching wow factor.
One of Royal Caribbean's best tricks has been to repeatedly announce, build and sail the biggest cruise ship in the world. In fact, they relish announcing such a new ship will be built usually the same week as Carnival announces it has just launched its biggest vessel ever. For instance, at almost exactly the same time Carnival floated out the first post 100,000-ton cruise ship ever, Royal Caribbean trounced the publicity by announcing they would build one of nearly 140,000 tons. Thus was born the Voyager class, the first of which their current "Largest cruise ship in the world," Freedom of the Seas, is an offshoot.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, is the company that operates Royal Caribbean ships and is a subsidiary of parent company Royal Caribbean International which also owns Celebrity Cruises (acquired in 1977).
The oldest ship in the fleet is the Empress of the Seas, formerly the Nordic Empress. At a mere 48,000 tons she is a dwarf among the newest superstars of the fleet, but she was one of the first ships the company ever sailed and holds a dear place in its heart. Cabins are a tiny 130 sq ft in keeping with the plan by the original founders to make cabins smaller and public rooms more inviting. However, in 2004 she received a facelift and today she sails an eclectic combination of itineraries from 3-days to Nassau to 7-days cruise from Philadelphia to Bermuda to 11-day deep Caribbean cruises.
RCI launched first the first ship to be called a mega-liner, Sovereign of the Seas, in 1988, and at the time, at 73,000-tons, no one could believe a cruise ship could ever be so big. The ship also had the first atrium at sea, a concept other cruise lines scurried to copy. Two sister ships were quickly built and launched. Today, these smaller vessels mostly sail 3 and 4 day cruises on the East and West Coast.
With the Vision-class ships (Vision and Splendour of the Seas launched in 1995, 1996), Grandeur and Enchantment of the Seas (1996, 1997) and Rhapsody and Legend of the Seas (1997, 1998), Royal Caribbean made their signature Viking Crown Lounges more easily accessible by perching them atop the "Centrum" (the atrium) giving the ships an easily identifiable space age look. These ships also used more glass than had heretofore been thought possible, delighting their passengers with remarkable sea views.
In November 1999, RCI launched the highly anticipated Voyager of the Seas, at 138,000-tonsand 3114 passengers the biggest cruise ship ever, which introduced such further innovations as an ice skating rink, a rock climbing wall, and a rollerblade rink. Such is the Voyager's class's immensity that it actually has its own Zip code -- 33132-2028.
Smaller, but offering enhanced entertainment options similar to the Voyager-class, the Radiance-class vessels that debuted in 2001 sported all glass elevators facing the sea, and were propelled by a new smokeless and vibration-free engine, with Azipod propulsion.
2003, Voyager had four sister ships in service; until the delivery of Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 in December 2003, they were the biggest passenger ships in the world. But now RCI has reclaimed the record with its first Ultra Voyager ship, Freedom of the Seas launched in 2006 and now with a sister ship, Liberty of the Seas, launched in May of 2007. Fully 18 stories high, Freedom and Liberty of the Seas carries 3,430 passengers (double occupancy) and 1,400 crew.
The Royal Caribbean Experience: When a Royal Caribbean executive famously coined the phrase "mass with class" to describe his company's vessels, he wasn't whistling Dixie. Before anything else, you must describe RCI's 21 vessels as beautiful. But be assured that the line has plenty of personality to go with its looks, as witness its marvelous entertainment and remarkable fitness and spa facilities.
With an average passenger age of 42, fully seven years younger than the industry average, Royal Caribbean has managed to attract a lot more than the stereotypical "overfed, newly wed, or almost dead" passenger, by offering a cruise experience that's at once classy and tons of fun - at a very reasonable price. These, make no mistake, are wonderful ships for families with children of all ages, including teens, who have their own private club and disco. Service is friendly and efficient and the food much improved.
Alternative restaurants with menus that don't change over the course of the cruise are available on Freedom-, Voyager-, Radiance- and Vision-class ships, each charging a $20 per-person cover. Make reservations as early as possible in your cruise or you may get locked out.
The cabins on the older vessels (Sovereign/Monarch/Majesty of the Seas, Empress of the Seas) are almost comically cramped; even the newer Vision's staterooms are small compared to those of other lines in the same price range. All staterooms come with a twin-that-can-be-converted-to-queen bed, private bathroom, phone, closed-circuit television, mini bar and hair dryers, and is decorated in bright colors presumably intended to evoke the Caribbean.
Special Features & Programs: RCI owns two private resorts, CocoCay in the Bahamas and Labadee, Haiti, to which it delivers its delighted passengers. Its "ShipShape" fitness program includes full jogging track, workout classes, full gym, spa and solarium. Golf Ahoy! offers scheduled golfing in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, Mexico, and Hawaii. Climbing walls, so popular on the Voyager and Radiance-class ships, have been added to the entire fleet. Hats off to Royal Caribbean, incidentally, for not piling on a lot of equipment "rental" fees on ice skates and roller blades.
That RCI is extraordinarily committed to the comfort and pleasure of its differently abled passengers is clear from its multifaceted Accessible Seas Program, which, for instance, added Braille deck numbers to staircase handrails on all of its ships in 2003.
The Academy at Sea offers passengers a chance to learn about a variety of topics -- Theatre Production; Beauty; Health and Fitness; Hospitality and Beverage; and Photography -- on sea days. The highly informative yet informal classes are taught by onboard staff and are well attended. A nre program, Vitality at Sea, offers special cuisine and various activities throughout the ship, all identified by a green logo.
Fellow Passengers Who doesn't belong on a Royal Caribbean ship? They have something for everyone and it is almost impossible to imagine not having a great time. They are active, sports oriented ships for the most part, not for retirees looking for the library.
Shore Excursions: RCI offers the active cruiser moderately priced excursions with plenty of water sports, golfing, and sightseeing, all of which may be booked online up to ten days before sailing. Newer options include canopy tours and adventure tours like rafting.
Taking The Kids: Royal Caribbean's Adventure Ocean youth program has age-specific facilities and programs supervised by youth counselors for Aqaunauts (age 3-5, must be toilet trained), Explorers (age 6-8), Voyagers (age 9-11), Navigators (age 12-14) and Teens (age 15-17). A new program for infants and toddlers 6 months to 3 years, in partnership with toymaker Fisher-Price, offers children accompanied by an adult 45-minute playgroups involving storytelling, creative arts, music and a variety of Fisher-Price learning toys and games. Adventure Ocean runs year-round in the Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska. Organized activities are offered from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with group babysitting from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. for a fee. Teen centers are now open past 2 a.m.
Private babysitting is offered from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., provided sitters are available, for children from six months old at $8.00 per child per hour, with a minimum of three hours and a $2.00 per hour charge for each additional child.
The Vision, Voyager and Radiance-class ships all have private teen clubs and discos, and supervised teen activities are available on RCI's private islands.
On Voyager and Radiance-class ships, Adventure Ocean Computer Centers have age-appropriate software and staff-guided tutorials.
There' a special menu for children -- Captain Sealy's Kids Galley Menu, to name names. A Fountain Soda Package can be purchased for the cruise. The package includes fountain sodas and juices at all bars, lounges, dining rooms and private destinations. Kids 17 and younger pay $4.00 per person per day plus a 15% gratuity. For teens 17 and older, and adults, the charge is $6.00 per person per day plus the 15 % gratuity.
The Vision, Voyager and Radiance-class ships all have family staterooms.
RCI has a seven-night "Orlando Experience" package, a seven-night program featuring a four-night Sovereign of the Seas cruise from Port Canaveral, accommodations at the Portofino Bay Hotel a two-day pass to Universal Studios, $20 meal voucher at Hard Rock Cafe, one-day admission to the Guinness World Records Experience attraction and a 15% discount on Alamo car rentals.
Past Passenger Program: RCI offers four sailings annually geared specially to members of the Crown & Anchor Society members receive discounts at onboard shops and special discounts on select sailings; four program levels with added amenities; admission to Crown & Anchor clubs in select ports; onboard recognition; and a quarterly newsletter. For more information call 800/526-9723.
Tipping: Royal Caribbean suggests a per person per day gratuity of: $3.50 for the stateroom attendant ($5.75 for those in suites); $3.50 for the waiter; $2.50 for the Assistant Waiter; and .75 for the Head Waiter. These may be paid in cash or charged to your onboard account. For children sailing as third or fourth passenger in the stateroom, tipping is at the parents' discretion.
A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to all beverage tabs. Gratuities for room service, spa, casino and other staff are at your discretion.