When Royal Caribbean announced it was building its latest “world’s largest cruise ship” back in 2016, some cynics wondered the need for a vessel so gigantic that it flirts with the mind-blowing 10,000 milestone in total passengers and crew.
Then, when travel-thwarting COVID-19 surfaced during construction of the future record breaker, even more skeptics wondered if people would still want to board a high-capacity megaship, let alone cruise ever again or for the first time.
That’s some serious wonderment, and, to be fair, not entirely without merit. Poetic it is, then, that a ship named Wonder of the Seas should prove all but the most stubborn naysayers wrong. Based on a first-look, first-hand experience during what felt like the onset of the – dare we say? – post-pandemic stage of COVID-19, Royal Caribbean has a prescription for any potential pessimism, mine included.
Having cruised on the Oasis class namesake during its inaugural season in 2009-2010, and not entirely with fond memories due to such issues as the odour of a supposedly state-of-the-art waste processing system and a clunky show reservation system, this usually open-minded travel writer boarded Wonder of the Seas in Florida a tad apprehensive. My trepidation wound up being unwarranted, however, because 13 years and four ships later, Royal Caribbean has made improvements nearly as huge as the Oasis-class ships themselves.
The immense and impressive Wonder of the Seas overtakes its five years-older sister Symphony of the Seas as the current cruising colossus. The newest has 28 more cabins, and being 8,700 gross tons larger and 61 meters longer, can swell to 6,988 guests. Capacity was purposely kept to 60 percent for the maiden voyage, a 7-night roundtrip out of Fort Lauderdale that went to Puerto Rico, Nassau and two of Royal Caribbean’s private destinations. Wonder of the Seas will sail the Caribbean through April before heading to the Mediterranean in May (out of Barcelona and Rome), then in November will resume its original itineraries through at least April 2024.
While Wonder is the bright, shiny new object in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, the cruise line isn’t throwing out the mould just yet. A slightly larger sixth Oasis-class ship is being built in France for an expected fall 2023 delivery, and although Australia isn’t in the plans for the yet-named ship, or any Oasis-class vessel, according to Mark Tamis, senior vice president of hotel operations, citing the Panama or Suez canals’ inability to accommodate vessels that massive.
Among the features new to the Oasis class is an eighth “neighbourhood” dedicated to the sweet suite life. For large families, the pinnacle of the blandly named Suite Neighbourhood is the anything-but-bland Ultimate Family Suite that can sleep 10. The largest such address in the fleet consists of two floors chockablock with far-out stuff. How far out? Two words: LEGO wall.
Another fleet first is the outdoor, aquatic-themed Wonder Playscape on Deck 16. This whimsical space is bent toward younger guests with slides, climbing walls, springy rides, puzzles and an interactive mural of sea creatures that comes to life with light-up effects.
Shows making their world premiere on Wonder of the Seas include “Voices,” an entertaining and effecting 40-minute show featuring strong acapella singing to songs not confined to a particular theme. Really, how many times can we hear single-genre salutes to classic rock, Motown, Latin, divas and disco? “Voices” spans many music styles, from Gregorian chants and barbershop to Barry Manilow and U2, and while it delivers woke messages of “change” – poverty, pollution and inclusion – it’s neither preachy nor alienating.
The ship’s signature AquaTheater is the first home of “inTENse,” an entrancing outdoor show that hints of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” in Las Vegas. A high-octane sample was performed on the maiden voyage, sans 17-meter-high acrobatics due to high winds, but, wow, are passengers going to be impressed when the full all-female production debuts on a yet-announced date in spring.
Also coming soon is a sequel to “The Effectors,” an ambitious production show that Royal Caribbean debuted in fall 2021. “The Effectors II: Crash and Burn” continues the good-versus-evil planet-saving story that finds the dastardly Crash locked up – temporarily, we’ll learn – thanks to the super-heroic work of Pixel, representing the power of video; Reverb (sound); Lume (light); and their leader, Captain Viz (special effects). Nick Weir, Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president of entertainment, gave a date of early summer as to when audiences will first see this spectacle loaded with next-gen lasers, drones and LEDs, plus a new character, Crash’s henchwoman Burn.
Parades are a Royal Caribbean mainstay, and the one rolling through Wonder’s Promenade is “Anchors Aweigh!,” which debuted in 2018 on Symphony of the Seas. It’s not the first ship with this parade, but Wonder can claim the largest cast: 96 to the other ships’ 81.
In terms of fresh food, there’s a new and flavourful concept called The Mason Jar. Offering a tasty trip to America’s South and Southwest on Deck 15, the specialty restaurant serves up a mild or hot fried chicken (good), beef brisket (better) and St. Louis-style pork ribs (best) at dinner with an AU$56 surcharge. An extra AU$34 at brunch comes with such options as fried chicken and waffles, stuffed French toast and smoky deviled eggs. Graced by the dessert gods with a bourbon-chocolate and caramelised pecan filling and perfect buttery crust, the chocolate pecan pie offers sweet tooth’s sublime Southern comfort. The Mason Jar has a honkytonk vibe on the opposite side of the dining room; the downhome bar pours an extensive selection of American whiskeys and a stage fortunate to have the Country Crew Trio as the house band. Singer, guitarist and TikTok star Bryan James, drummer Jeff Hubbard and upright bassist Diego Gutierrez do justice to country classics when not sprinkling some barbeque sauce or cayenne pepper on tunes less familiar in Texas and Louisiana.
The addition of The Vue, a cantilevered poolside watering hole on Deck 15, brings to 43 the number of bars, restaurants and lounges on Wonder. Returning specialty dining options include Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen for the best meatballs on the high seas (AU$17 for lunch, AU$33 for dinner) and the “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”-inspired Wonderland, a magical dinner experience that would make late author Lewis Carroll proud (AU$79). The understatedly elegant Coastal Kitchen serves up a fusion of California- and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine for suite-booked guests and Pinnacle Club members. This subtly marketed gem of a dining option justifies the accommodations upgrade alone. The ship’s grand buffet is not yet self-serve due to COVID-19 restrictions, but passengers who feel inconvenienced can at least be impressed that Wonder’s Windjammer Marketplace is the largest in the fleet.
Highs: The new features to Royal Caribbean and its Oasis class are all winners, and nearly every returning element has been improved.
Lows: The relocation of the giant poolside movie screen and band stage underneath it. Where they’re moved now disturbs the tranquility of beautiful Central Park seven decks below.
Verdict: When it comes to Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, bigger really is better. Elements both new and fine-tuned are bar raising.