By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/9/2010 12:36:49 PM ET 2010-03-09T17:36:49
review

To my left, a carousel swings slowly into motion. To my right, a high diver leaps off an 18-meter platform and into a kidney-shaped pool. And 75 feet overhead, a guy on a zip line announces his passing with an ear-splitting “Wha-a-a-hoooooo!”

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This is a cruise ship?

Yes, actually, it is. It’s Royal Caribbean’s new Oasis of the Seas, the largest passenger ship ever built and, ton for ton, the biggest thing to hit the cruise industry since the Love Boat.

Welcome to the neighborhoods
Based in Fort Lauderdale, Oasis will make her official maiden voyage on Dec. 5, sailing to St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau. However, she’s already generating plenty of buzz courtesy of several two-day preview cruises for travel agents and the media.

The ship is truly a leviathan: 225,000 tons, 16 passenger decks and beds for 6,296 guests and 2,165 crewmembers. That means she’s more than 40 percent larger than the world’s next largest cruise ship, almost 100 feet longer than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and about as tall as a 20-story building.

Funny thing is, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way thanks to two groundbreaking design features. The first is the ship’s split superstructure, which opens up much of Oasis’ interior space to the great outdoors. Ingeniously, it also means the ship features hundreds of interior cabins that come with balconies and ocean breezes.

The second was the decision to cluster similar amenities together in seven so-called “neighborhoods.” The carousel and aquatic theater, for example, are located in the Coney Island-like Boardwalk area, while the 1,380-seat main showroom shares Entertainment Place with a jazz club, nightclub and comedy club down on Deck 4.

The ship, in Royal Caribbean parlance, is a “game changer,” and nowhere is that more apparent than in Central Park, a 350-foot-long open-air atrium filled with more than 12,000 live plants, vines and trees. From the stone walkways that wind through it to the specialty restaurants that line it, you could easily forget that you’re at sea at all.

Which, come to think of it, is Oasis in a (very large) nutshell. The ship is a self-contained resort where the amenities will almost certainly trump the itinerary: A dozen shops, including the first stand-alone Coach store at sea. An ice-skating rink, mini-golf course, two climbing walls and two FlowRider surf machines. A large casino, a huge spa and an entertainment schedule that includes headline acts, aquatic shows and productions of the Broadway hit “Hairspray.”

And when it’s time to eat, there are 24 dining options to choose from, including nine specialty restaurants with cover charges ranging from $3.95 to $35. Alas, the best restaurants weren’t open during preview cruises, but it’s safe to say that going hungry shouldn’t be an issue.

All of which raises a cruising conundrum: If the ship you’re on is its own destination, does it matter where it goes at all?

Managing the flow on a floating mega-resort
Obviously, that’s not an issue on a two-day “cruise to nowhere” where most of the 3,200 passengers spent their time taking pictures, attending seminars and poking their heads into various staterooms. (For the record, there are 37 cabin categories, ranging from a tight, 172-square-foot inside cabin to the Royal Loft Suite, a plush, two-story residence complete with library, grand piano and 2,367 square feet of indoor and outdoor living space.)

The bigger issue, of course, will be how well the ship will handle passenger loads of 5,400 (double occupancy) to 6,300 (all beds filled). With 3,200 on board, getting around was a snap, thanks in large part to the ship’s intuitive layout and touch-screen displays that provided GPS-worthy directions from any Point A to any Point B. Even so, some signature activities, including the zip line and FlowRiders, couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to ride. Slideshow: Oasis of the Seas

To handle the potential crush, Royal Caribbean has implemented an online reservation system in which cruisers will be able to book show tickets, spa services and specialty restaurants up to three months before sailing. Blocks of tickets will also be left unreserved for those who’d rather wait until they sail, although long lines at the ticket counter will likely prove frustrating.

So, too, one suspects, will the lines for amenities and activities where large numbers of passengers will inevitably show up at once. The Opus Dining Room, for example, seats up to 3,000 people in each of two nightly seatings; during our preview cruise, dinner began with a stampede and ended with waiters shouting out the next day’s breakfast options. In between, the assembly-line service was a testament to efficiency over hospitality.

Of course, that can be said of many mass-market cruise ships — and, for that matter, the mega-resorts of Las Vegas and Orlando, which may prove to be the ship’s real competition. In that regard, Oasis truly is a game-changing ship. If you’re game for all that that entails, join the crowd.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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