Mega-Cruise Ships: Is Bigger Really Better?

by  Suzanne Steinert | Nov 23, 2009
Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas
Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas / Photo courtesy of the cruise line

The past decade has seen successful cruise companies rolling out the big guns at record pace, vying for the title of world’s biggest and baddest boat. Everywhere you look, a ship of skyscraper size is calling to port with brag-worthy amenities that, in the past, could only be found at amusement parks (water rides, JumboTrons, golf courses, planetariums…you name it). This month captures the craze, with industry execs and cruise fans alike going gaga over the debut of the Carnival Dream (3,646 cap.) and 20-story Oasis of the Seas (6,000+ cap.) – both behemoths weighing hundreds of thousands of tons, costing hundreds of millions (in the case of Oasis, billions) of dollars to construct, and featuring such over-the-top entertainment (like Oasis’s on-board zip line) you’d have to be crazy not to notice. Taking part in the 2-day inaugural U.S. sailing of the Carnival Dream (pictured) the other weekend (a tipsy ride off the coast of New York), I got to experience the most “outrageous” cruise company’s newest and largest “fun” ship firsthand.

The ship certainly is dream-worthy, as its name implies: an 18-hole mini-golf course, the longest waterslide at sea (clocking in at 303 feet), and nightly outdoor laser light show set to psychedelic rock tunes are all remarkable, as is the comedy club, variety of themed lounges, and whirlpools suspended over the sides of the deck. I was particularly impressed by the 24,000-square-foot spa (featuring thalassotherapy pool, herbal steam mud lounge, and state-of-the-art workout room). The extensive deck space, while not utilized on my cold-weather trip, should prove a saving grace for crowd control in warmer climes: there’s an adults-only top-of-the-bow area aptly dubbed “Serenity” (free to access and hammock-laden), as well as a 5th floor promenade encircling the boat – perfect for a morning jog or lounging with a colada in hand.

Equally mind-boggling as the ship itself, however, was the surprising lack of organization. When stuffing thousands of people into a single boat (hence the term “cattle-call cruising”), it’s imperative for smooth sailing, let alone safety, that operating procedures run efficiently. Obviously overcrowded (a situation exacerbated by the inclement weather, which confined passengers indoors), the boarding procedure was painful (we’re talking 1-2 hour wait times), safety briefing laughably inept (no indication was given as to where the medical ward might be located), and dinner lines at the main restaurants downright absurd (I bailed both nights for the sushi bar instead). The Lido Deck buffet, while a smorgasbord of made-to-order Indian, Italian, and Asian cuisine, was swamped at both breakfast and lunch (standing 15 minutes in line for a slice of bacon? No thanks). Granted it usually takes a spin around the block before opening hiccups are cured, the Dream already had a number of practice runs in the Mediterranean before arriving in the U.S – so the kinks should be oiled out by now.

Cruising offers a great value for budget-conscious travelers (especially families and groups) as an all-inclusive experience on the cheap. But as the dawning decade of mega-ships draws to a close and the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s fatal sailing draws near, I can’t help but wonder if, as ships continue to grow to the size of floating cities, that quality is being sacrificed in favor of quantity and "wow" factor to a dicey degree. With newbies like the Norwegian Epic (4,200 cap.), Disney Dream (4,000 cap.), and Carnival Magic (3,652 cap.) arriving in 2010/2011, it seems there’s no cap in sight to the buildup.

What do you think? Are you excited to see what’s next, or think all this growth might be getting out of hand?

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