Video: Behemoth of the high seas

By Reporter
CNBC
updated 5/12/2006 2:15:00 PM ET 2006-05-12T18:15:00

It’s a titanic addition to the world’s waterways — Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship ever built.

To say the ship is massive is no exaggeration. At 160,000 tons, it weighs more than 80,000 cars. It’s big enough to hold nearly 6,000 people, 237 feet tall and with 15 passenger decks and a length of 1,112 feet, it’s longer than the Eiffel Tower turned on its side.

In fact, Royal Caribbean’s new cruise ship, which arrived this week in New York Harbor from Southampton, U.K., is so immense that even its captain hasn’t finished exploring it.

“I’m still discovering things,” Bill Wright said as he walked around the bridge of Royal Caribbean’s newly built Freedom of the Seas while it was docked in Bayonne.

But analyst Steven Kent of Goldman Sachs says the ship’s size isn’t its biggest draw. “The size is less important than the amenities,” he said. “The amenities are what really draw customers on to the ship.”

And talk about amenities. Some of them have never been seen before on a cruise ship, including a first-ever surf park with real waves, the world’s largest on-board gym, a barber shop, a full-scale theater and a mall-like promenade, with shops, a pizza place and wine bar on the fifth deck that also includes a bridge used for small circus acts.

Also, nearby is a party room called Pharaoh’s Place, which is decorated with Egyptian-looking statues and columns painted in yellows, oranges, blues and greens.

Business is very good at Royal Caribbean says CEO Richard Fain: “I think it’s a testament to things like the new ship, which just offers so much more than anybody ever imagined.”

But is bigger better? It’s a question worth asking, especially at a time when the cruise industry is facing challenges on several fronts. Like the airlines and other transportation-related businesses, high oil prices are weighing on these companies’ earnings. It costs more than $1 million to fill Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas with fuel.

And then there’s safety. Pointing to last month’s fire aboard a much smaller Carnival ship, which that left one passenger dead, some worry that evacuating so many people from this massive ship during an emergency would take too long. And then there’s the time the tabloid newspapers have spent covering a honeymooner who went missing from a Royal Caribbean cruise.

But Royal Caribbean sees the super-sized ship as a way to ride out the rough waters, arguing that adding more passengers and amenities is a perfect way to increase revenue.

“Overall, the fact is our guests are having a good time,” said CEO Fain. Business is up, he adds, noting that the company is filling up extra capacity on board its ships and even raising prices.

Indeed, Royal Caribbean has already announced plans for another behemoth for the high seas: Project Genesis, which is due in 2009 with the price tag over $1.1 billion. And it’s longer than three football fields.

But bigger isn’t always better argues Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of cruisecritic.com, a Web site devoted to cruise travel information. A large ship can be overwhelming and impersonal, she said.

“You’re always thinking about what you should be doing next,” Brown said. “Expect lines. Expect congestion.”

She said on a ship of this scale, passengers may be tempted to skip some of the ports.

“This ship, more than any other ship out there, represents the on-land resort experience. There’s so much to do you really don’t have to get off,” said Brown.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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