There’s nothing like a sail-away party to give you a good sense of a cruise ship. The rhythmic beat of reggae music. The whirring blenders and rainbow-colored cocktails. The head-scratching sight of a six-foot-tall lemur, seven-foot lion and 30-odd passengers doing the zombie dance from “Thriller.”
The lemur and lion, in this case, turned out to be King Julien and Alex from the “Madagascar” movies, just two of the 20-odd DreamWorks Animation characters that have taken up residence on Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Allure of the Seas. In fact, even though Adam Sandler and Katie Holmes were on board filming a movie during a series of preview cruises in mid-November, it was the furry ones and their friends who stole the show.
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At first glance, Allure is the spitting image of its twin, Oasis of the Seas, which launched last December. With 16 passenger decks, gross tonnages of around 225,000 tons and beds for 5,400 guests based on double occupancy (6,300 with all beds filled), the two share the title of world’s largest cruise ship.
But according to Allure’s captain, Hernan Zini, Allure is actually 50 millimeters (about two inches) longer than Oasis due to incremental differences in hundreds of welds in the hull. Oasis, on the other hand, is 200 tons “heavier” than Allure. (Gross tonnage, the official standard for ship size, is actually a measure of volume, not weight.)
Ultimately, such differences are insignificant, although that hasn’t stopped Zini from engaging in a little intra-fleet teasing. “Let’s look at the facts,” he recently told the Norwegian newspaper VG. “You have two sisters. You know that one is older, shorter and heavier than the other. Which would you choose?”
Although Allure and Oasis share the same basic layout — seven “neighborhoods,” including the plant-filled Central Park and seaside pier-inspired Boardwalk — it doesn’t take a maritime engineer to see the differences. Step into the galleria-like Royal Promenade and one of the first things you see is a testament to the power of branding and promotional partnering: the first Starbucks on a cruise ship. Even with just 2,900 passengers onboard — and free Seattle’s Best Coffee nearby — it often drew a crowd.
Other onboard firsts include a Guess accessories store, a gallery featuring the works of contemporary Pop artist Romero Britto and, in the biggest cross-merchandising effort since a certain mouse went to sea, a partnership with DreamWorks Animation. “We’ve always looked for opportunities for our fans to interact with our characters in other ways,” said DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was also onboard recently. “It’s worked for that other D company.”
On Allure, such interaction will be almost inescapable: A “Madagascar”-themed aquatic show, complete with high divers, synchronized swimmers and penguins. A “How to Train Your Dragon” ice show with Hiccup, Toothless and Olympic-caliber skaters. Photo ops, character breakfasts and two parades per cruise with 90 participants, including Shrek, Po the panda, Gloria the hippo and more than a dozen of their pals.
“It’s really quite brilliant,” said Joanne Howarth, of Suffolk, England, after doing the Electric Slide with Alex, King Julien, her two young children and several other passengers. “These characters are much more relevant to our kids than Snow White.”
Broadway shows and 3-D movies
In fact, remaining relevant appears to drive much of what Royal Caribbean is trying to accomplish with Allure. “They’ve taken a page from the playbook of Las Vegas,” said Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. “No one needs to see another second-rate Broadway revue.”
That, no doubt, explains the onboard productions of “Chicago: The Musical” — the show’s slightly abridged, but features top-notch performers from Broadway and London’s West End — and the regular showings of “Megamind” in the ship’s 3-D theater. It’s hardly surprising that the latter is a DreamWorks film, but it’s telling that the movie is also still playing in theaters.
“One of the challenges we have is changing guests’ expectations about cruising,” said Peter Compton, Royal Caribbean’s vice president of entertainment. “It isn’t all about food, bingo and people too old to get out of their cabins.”
Small problems, big potential
The real test, of course, will come Dec. 5, when Allure embarks on its inaugural voyage. There were definitely glitches during the first preview cruise, including a corrupted computer code that prevented hundreds of passengers from accessing their cabins and waits of up to two hours to get into the Rita’s Cantina restaurant on the Boardwalk. Fortunately, the former was resolved fairly quickly, while the latter may become less of an issue when Rita’s starts assessing a $7.95 surcharge.
Even then, the ship clearly won’t appeal to every type of cruiser. “I have an increasing number of people who don’t want the big ships,” said Jay Caulk, general manager of The Travel Experts in Pompano Beach, Fla. “Standing in lines for buffets, shows, this and that — it’s just too much for some people.”
For others who may want more options than they can possibly experience in a week and who don’t mind sharing their vacation with penguins, Vikings, a big green ogre and 5,400 or more other passengers, Allure will likely prove exceedingly popular. Take it from Billy Flynn, the male lead in “Chicago,” who belts it out several times each cruise: Razzle dazzle ‘em, and they’ll make you a star!
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 .