By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 3/9/2010 12:35:56 PM ET 2010-03-09T17:35:56

With seven themed neighborhoods, from the open air Central Park with live plants and trees to a Boardwalk with a Coney Island feel, including a carousel and a zip-line, Oasis of the Seas is so much more than the world’s largest cruise ship — it’s on another level and has changed the face of cruise travel. But will cruise travelers want to sail with 5,400+ passengers and pay high fares for the experience?

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Oasis split personality
Oasis touts a range of innovative and revolutionary features set to change the face of cruise travel forever. With its split superstructure creating wide open interior spaces, Oasis has captured the imagination of cruisers and non-cruisers alike. “Until you get onboard you don’t realize how it all came together the grandeur of it,” says Royal Caribbean International’s chairman and CEO, Richard Fain.

Fain’s assessment is correct.

The moment I stepped onboard Oasis, I was blown away by the architectural magnificence of the two football fields long Royal Promenade. The décor is original and exquisitely designed with amazing crystal canopies that flood natural light down from the Central Park neighborhood high above. These areas are filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, live trees, and the Rising Tide Bar, which travels vertically between the Royal Promenade and Central Park.

Oasis has four pools: Two are made to feel like a beach, with sloped entries you can walk into just as if you were walking into the ocean. A pool situated at the very back of the ship (the deepest at sea) is by night an outdoor amphitheater, hosting a water ballet and diving shows that feature professional divers who will jump from as high as 72 feet up. During the day guests can swim or take scuba lessons in the pool, or choose to relax on loungers located on the surrounding tiered platforms. If all this isn’t gimmicky enough the ship has a bagpiper, psychic and tattoo parlor, and a horticulturalist. Slideshow: Oasis of the Seas

The Youth Zone features 28,700 square feet just for kids and teens, with Kids Avenue, a central boulevard connecting various themed play areas; a nursery for infants and toddlers; and a theater for children. For kids of all ages there’s ice skating, rock climbing and two FlowRiders to surf on, but it’s the zip-line that’s the coolest thing on any ship anywhere. All these high-octane activities certainly affords parents time to enjoy the adults-only retreat, the gorgeous open-air Solarium. Adults have their own swimming pool and six whirlpools — four of them cantilevered 136 feet above the ocean. Nearby there’s the amazing spa and gym.

There are 25 restaurants and 37 bars with 60 percent of the dining venues being complimentary while the 9 specialty restaurants charge for fare from $4.95 at Johnny Rockets to the $75 for Chef’s Table. Perhaps the most intriguing restaurant is 150 Central Park where for $35 you can dine on a ten-course tasting menu by Chef Keriann Von Raesfeld, a 23-year old “culinary phenom” that the line has hired in the hopes of creating their own celebrity chef. After dinner guests can hit the casino with gaming tables and nearly 500 slot machines, or see a show in the 1,380-seat theater for Broadway-style productions including “Hairspray” or take in an ice show at the Studio B arena.

The best cruise deals around the worldOasis has revolutionized cruise ship accommodations, with 37 different categories and unique offerings such as duplex “loft suites” that have 18-foot windows looking out to the ocean. Other staterooms will have views of the line’s seven “neighborhoods,” such as Central Park, the Boardwalk, home and other venues.

During my two-night media preview cruise I was accommodated in one of the Central Park balcony staterooms. At first, it seemed ideal with views of the treetops and café scene below. However, it quickly became apparent that noise, lack of privacy, and heat during the day made the balcony a bust. Guests assigned to Boardwalk view staterooms had a much worse time with noise from screaming zip-liners above to the boisterous carnival scene below to the loud LCD screens around the aft pool.

Every superlative to describe the ship is on target. Oasis is so huge it doesn’t feel like a cruise ship, it barely seemed to move and it’s possible with all that’s going on onboard to rarely acknowledge the ocean. It’s almost the anti-cruise.

Technology enhancements
It is natural to focus on Oasis’ size. Will it take hours to get on and off? Will it be hard to get into shows, restaurants? Will it fit into ports? With Oasis, size is not the entire story behind the ship. The technology created to move and plan for the masses is nothing short of amazing.

Oasis of the Seas
Oasis of the Seas
Starting with embarkation in Port Everglades with the world’s largest cruise terminal that offers 91 check-in counters with the goal to get passengers from curbside to the vessel in just 15 minutes. Royal Caribbean was careful to choose ports where Oasis could dock directly and not have to tender guests ashore. Current ports include: Nassau, St. Maarten, Labadee, and St. Thomas. Eventually, Falmouth, Jamaica will be added along with Costa Maya, Mexico. Other ports are expected to build facilities to accommodate the Oasis-class ships over time. Of course, getting guests on and off the ship was given careful planning – there will be gangway elevator buttons, escalators that go right into port, and multiple shore side security screening areas.

Then there’s the onboard safety command center with an electronic mustering system that scans a guest’s Sea Pass cards for attendance purposes. Best of all, guests no longer have to lug life vests to the drill as they are stored in the direct proximity of the muster stations. There’s also automatic electronic counting in all the restaurants, which is then relayed to dozens of monitors around the ship letting guests know which venues are available or full.

“Larger doesn’t mean less personalized but the ability to make it more personalized,” adds Fain. Since Oasis is so large with so many options the line’s Web site offers guests who tend to be control freaks the ability to plan out all their cruise activities from ship to shore. The Web site also lets the company know if there’s a huge demand for one activity and allows them to augment in that area.

More impressive is the environmental savings per passenger, Oasis uses 30-40 percent less energy than ships Royal Caribbean built 10 years ago. Green practices such as the use of 14,000 square meters of solar panels atop the Viking Crown Lounge, enough to power the entire promenade area, are commendable.

Big ship, big fare
Royal Caribbean is betting large and hoping that more cruise vacationers open up their wallets and live up to the corporate motto: “Why Not?”. Oasis of the Seas is the most expensive cruise ship ever built, costing some $1.4 billion. It’s no surprise then that fares for the ship have also followed the costly course.

Fares for Oasis’s Dec. 5 sailing range from $1,649 per person based on double occupancy for an inside stateroom to $16,659 for the luxurious 1,524- square-foot Royal Loft Suite. “You have to really want to sail on Oasis and willing to pay the price,” says Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert who is nationally recognized as The Cruise Guy. He notes that Oasis’s inside stateroom fare is double the cost of sailing in similar digs on Celebrity Solstice and Emerald Princess.

Fain defends the higher prices because of all the ship’s unique offerings. “We plowed some of the savings from economies of scale back into the ship that’s how we get the higher prices. We could have taken the savings and built something safer, but that’s not our style.”

Style or not, in an economy with double digit unemployment, and with Royal Caribbean’s competitors offering steep discounts it remains to be seen if Oasis’s higher pricing holds. Chiron believes that will be determined in the coming weeks to see if all the media hoopla surrounding the ship has made an impact. Chiron adds, “Once people are exposed to Oasis, they’ll better understand what this amazing ship has to offer and bookings are expected to pick up without having to lower prices.”

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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