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Cruise Ship Review

Oasis of the Seasfont color=#C81D00 - New!/font - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Like Oasis of the Seas?


Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, has been the most anticipated new-build to debut since Cunard's Queen Mary 2. Its innovations -- such as the first-ever Boardwalk and Central Park at sea, which uniquely occupy space that's carved out of the middle of the ship -- are already legendary.

The ship features new-to-Royal Caribbean types of eateries that range from spa cuisine to elaborately staged food and wine pairings. Its entertainment district, a hub for late owls, offers ice skating and disco, comedy and jazz, and a three-tiered theater that features a 90-minute version of "Hairspray," the popular Tony Award-winning Broadway show. Particularly dazzling is the ship's AquaTheater, with its deepest-pool-at-sea, which serves as a platform for performers such as divers and synchronized swimmers.

Innovations on Oasis of the Seas are by no means limited to passenger-friendly advances. Royal Caribbean also has introduced a number of new technical and environmental tools that enable the ship to be more efficient and more eco-responsible.

Beyond the innovations of Oasis of the Seas (and its sister Allure of the Seas, which will debut in December 2010), what kind of cruise does it really offer? Will a ship that accommodates 6,296 passengers (when all berths are filled) feel crowded? How can a vessel that's so big -- and that holds so many people -- offer the kind of attentive service that cruise ships are typically known for? And will the hordes descending from Oasis of the Seas in ports such as Nassau, St. Thomas and St. Maarten overwhelm the islands?

From a recent week-long voyage aboard Oasis of the Seas, a handful of observations:

Sure, the ship is large, but it doesn't feel as massive as you'd expect it to and that's a credit to its design. The neighborhood concept really does work -- Central Park was our favorite, and we found reasons to be there day (Park Cafe for freshly made salads, sandwiches and breakfast fare; fun tours of art and foliage; and lots of comfortable chairs in which to read) and night (noshing at the outdoor tables at Vintages, the wine bar, and at Giovanni's, the ship's Italian restaurant). After dinner, the Entertainment Zone was a magnet. On sunny days, congregating on the pool deck was a natural activity -- but while it was crowded, you could always find a lounge chair.

Still, a voyage that was pretty much at full capacity, you do have to deal with crowds sometimes. One particular hot zone was the Windjammer Marketplace (that buffet space is simply too small for such a large ship -- despite efforts to entice passengers to dine at other restaurants throughout the ship). The Royal Promenade could get ridiculously congested during parades, and you could wait a while for an elevator. But there were plenty of places to get away from fellow passengers -- such as the wrap-around promenade on Deck 5, and the aforementioned Central Park, which was quiet most of the time. There also are a couple of open-to-all balconies overlooking the AquaTheater (one's on Deck 11, starboard); there's another off-beat spot, all the way forward and above the solarium, which most people miss.

One downside of all those people -- and in some cases smallish restaurants and entertainment venues -- is that you really do have to plan ahead and book in advance. We never were able to get into Izumi, but did make reservations ahead of time for the Chef's Table, 150 Central Park, Chops Grille, and Giovanni's Table. Entertainment-wise, "Hairspray" was popular and the comedy club was full, every night. For the latter, we didn't book ahead and we didn't get in.

Service was remarkably good -- and that surprised me. It's important to note that, of course, the crewmembers on our voyage were all part of the transition team (which means they had time to get used to the ship -- and that they were among the more experienced staffers in the fleet). But still, the Royal Caribbean crew was enthusiastic and definitely empowered to take proper care of passengers. Where I noticed problems with service was in venues that were operated by third party companies -- and staffed with their employees, not Royal Caribbean crewmembers. Most notably, service in the shops, particularly the potentially enchanting Willow, was really poor (clearly the staffers there are not happy to be onboard); the spa seemed chaotic and poorly run.

There are no traditional art auctions on Oasis -- a first in contemporary cruising. However, there's a magnificent art gallery onboard, in Central Park, which focuses on artists and pieces that are exhibited on the ship (as well as on other Royal Caribbean vessels). For the first time in years I actually took one of the art tours offered -- and found it fascinating, enabling me to appreciate the art with new eyes. I often walked out of my way to revisit favorite pieces. Beyond the tours, there are a handful of events, such as an artist reception (one artist travels onboard on each voyage) and workshop, and opportunities to buy pieces, ranging from postcards to original works.

The Boardwalk, one of the most hotly anticipated neighborhoods, was a surprisingly empty spot onboard. It's charming -- and a ride on the carousel was a real smile -- but people didn't really hang out there, unless they're passing through on the way to the Aqua Theater. One parent told me that the problem with the Boardwalk area is that there are too many for-fee places -- and that parents don't want to walk that expensive gauntlet, with kids begging for ice cream, a fried food meal at the Seafood Shack (with its $8.95 for adults and $4.95 for kids cover charge) or Johnny Rockets (which also levies a fee). Other costly temptations on the Boardwalk include shops where you can buy a furry pet, trendy children's clothing and accessories, and bags of candy.

In port, Royal Caribbean has built facilities on each dock with numerous screening stations that enable passengers to re-embark much more smoothly than some of the smaller mega-ships we were berthed alongside! Nassau was the only place where I noticed congestion when reboarding; we had a short, half-day call there and everyone waited until the last minute to return to the ship. And walking around in port, especially in St. Maarten and St. Thomas, where we've traveled frequently, we frankly didn't notice any difference in our experience at all, even with so many more passengers coming off this biggest-ever ship.

Ultimately, before I cruised on Oasis, I wondered: Does Oasis of the Seas -- as strong as it may be in its appeal to families, romantics and active cruisers -- succeed as a ship that has something for every kind of passenger?

As important as it is to extol the innovative and frankly just-plain-fun features of Oasis of the Seas, it's also crucial to talk about what it's not. Oasis of the Seas is not a ship where you'll cruise an itinerary of exotic ports (stops such as St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Nassau are, honestly, sidelines to the onboard action). Despite its numerous upscale accouterments, such as two-level Loft Suites and the pricey 150 Central Park Restaurant, with a maximum passenger load of 6,296 at full capacity, this can never be a luxury ship. And when it's full -- it feels full.

And for those travelers for whom a cruise represents a chance to make new friends -- particularly, but not limited to, seniors and solos -- Oasis is simply too vast to inspire connections (though Cruise Critic's Meet & Mingle parties offer a way before, during and after your cruise to connect with passengers).

Dining

There are so many dining options on Oasis that you could do something different for every meal -- three times a day, for an entire week -- and literally not repeat a venue.

Opus is the ship's traditional, three-deck main dining room, serving open seating breakfast and lunch. At dinner, Decks 3 and 4 are generally dedicated to traditional set-seating dining while Deck 5 is reserved for those who've chosen Royal Caribbean's flexible dining program, My Time Dining. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Breakfast and lunch are served open seating.

The strangest thing about the Windjammer Marketplace, the line's popular buffet-style venue for breakfast, lunch and dinner, is how small it is for such a large ship! Clearly, designers incorporated numerous other casual eateries into the ship's design and hope that passengers will spread out among them (indeed, at breakfast time crewmembers were stationed by elevator banks to suggest other venues to passengers heading to the Windjammer). On our packed-to-capacity cruise, Windjammer was pretty jammed most times.

Some other Royal Caribbean favorites are back as well, including Johnny Rockets. While the standard burgers/fries/shakes fare for lunch and dinner is offered for $4.95 per person, on Oasis, Johnny Rockets is also a complimentary breakfast venue (its menu offers hot egg dishes and an incredibly decadent cheesy-potato combo). Even though the breakfast is free, our server brought us a chit to sign (showing a zero balance but with a space for gratuities) -- a gentle hint, perhaps, that tips were expected.

The 24-hour Cafe Promenade serves up sugary pastries and coffees in the morning -- with small sandwiches available through the rest of the day. Other tried-and-true Royal Caribbean stalwarts include Sorrento's Pizzeria (free slices and antipasti for lunch, dinner and late-night noshing). A new twist at Sorrento's is a create-your-own pizza option; passengers choose from an assemblage of ingredients (meats, cheeses, vegetables) that changes daily.

And Chops Grill, the line's dinner-only steakhouse, is located on Central Park. While it's beautifully designed, and its sleekness wouldn't feel out of place in Manhattan, the meal we had at Chops was disappointing. The menu is more limited than in the past (appetizer options were particularly unappealing and one, the lobster carpaccio, was drowned with so much olive oil that it was inedible). There's a $25 charge to eat here.

There are plenty of new-to-Royal Caribbean choices onboard Oasis of the Seas and we'll break them down by neighborhood:

In the Royal Promenade. The Mondo Coffee Bar offers Starbucks-like fare -- breakfast breads in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon (and pretty good a la carte-priced coffee); the food is complimentary. The Cupcake Cupboard, a totally new concept in cruising, has the most appetizing creative flavors, but never, ever, seemed crowded. The specialty cupcakes ($2.50 each) -- ranging from vanilla and chocolate to crazier flavors like bubblegum and root beer -- are delicious, however.

In Central Park. The tapas at Vintages, the ship's wine bar, are served all day (and into the wee hours) and offer a delicious, lighter fare (though not necessarily low-calorie) option. The tapas, which range from a simple bruschetta to more elaborate concoctions and from savory treats to sweet ones, cost between $2 and $4 apiece. If you're peckish, consider ordering a "tapas sampler" -- these combine various options and are quite cost-effective.

One of the biggest home runs on Oasis of the Seas is the new Italian-influenced Giovanni's Table. Initially described by Royal Caribbean as a more casual take on its much-loved but perhaps too elegant Portofino, I imagined it as an Olive Garden clone and nothing could be further from the truth. It's got a fantastic, friendly, trattoria-style ambience -- and the menu is beautifully conceived. Interestingly, Giovanni's is open for lunch on sea days (and, uniquely in the cruise industry, on embarkation day as well -- so there's a lunch option for passengers who prefer to avoid the usual crowds at the buffet). The service charge is $10 for lunch, $15 for dinner, and one of the best values onboard.

150 Central Park is meant to be the ships showcase restaurant and while it comes off initially as a bit pretentious (a tasting menu consists of seven courses -- gnocchi with chanterelles, cauliflower panna cotta -- plus meal-ending cheese plates), ultimately it is a lovely experience. There's a wine pairing option ($55 and $75) and that worked really well with the courses (plus wines by the glass are shockingly expensive). The service fee, $35, is the highest in the cruise industry -- and yet people were begging for reservations.

The aforementioned Park Cafe, which serves delicious hot Panini sandwiches and bagels for breakfast and custom made salads and sandwiches throughout the day, was justifiably a huge hit.

On the Boardwalk. Across from Johnny Rockets is the Seafood Shack. It's a partially al fresco joint where you'll find coconut shrimp, ribs, chowder and beer. The motif is beach-y: seashells, surfboards and the red metal chairs that resemble the simple plastic seats one associates with seaside eats. There is an $8.95 cover charge for lunch and dinner ($4.45 for kids under 12).

It was rarely crowded (in fact several crewmembers told me that its concept needed some fixing) and the service was atrocious (one waiter ran around trying to serve all the tables while, seriously, a half-dozen other service staffers just chatted with each other and ignored customers).

Also new here is the Boardwalk Donut Shop (no extra charge) and an Ice Cream Parlor (which is not a Ben & Jerry's operation, as is found on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships). A la carte scoops cost from $1.95 (try the fruity, refreshing mango flavor). You can also find fruit, salads and sandwiches at the Boardwalk Bar at lunch and dinner, for free.

In the Pool & Sports Zone. A mini-version of the ship's buffet, offering fast foodstuffs, is located at the Wipe Out Cafe (complimentary all day, from breakfast to pre-dinner). Then there's the Solarium Bistro, reminiscent of the spa eateries onboard Celebrity ships, serving spa breakfast and lunch items. At breakfast there are yogurts, granola, fruit and breakfast meats like the more healthful turkey sausage instead of the pork variety. Lunch features light fare, such as couscous, salads, fruit, yogurt and other healthy, tasty options. At night, the bistro is transformed, via linen tablecloths and soft lighting, to a more upscale but still spa-oriented alternative restaurant; the fee is $20. As a nighttime eatery, Solarium Bistro was the least popular of the ship's for-fee restaurants. The food is fine but the atmosphere is rather sterile. Alas, it's the one restaurant you could get into without a reservation!

One huge success is the Chef's Table. This is a brand-new concept for Royal Caribbean and was offered each night on our cruise. The trick is that only 14 passengers can be accommodated. The dinner starts with cocktails in the library and an introduction to other passengers. Then it's onto the meal in the upper level of the Concierge Lounge, with a fantastic view overlooking the AquaTheater and Boardwalk. There are five courses (this is a regular menu, not a tasting-style affair) and before each is served the chef comes out of the kitchen and explains the preparation.

At our dinner, one couple had liked it so much earlier in the week that they'd returned -- and so would we. You can book it before the cruise by calling Royal Caribbean; we took a chance and reserved our spots online and could have chosen between a couple of nights. Wine pairings (quite generous ones) are included in the $75 fee, as are gratuities. We liked the service so much we added on an extra tip.

Other dining spots onboard include the dinner-only Izumi, which serves sushi and other Asian specialties that are priced a la carte. It was very popular. The Vitality Cafe has low-cal snacks and smoothies in the spa and fitness center.

Still hungry? Room service is available around the clock, free most of the day (though it's considered sporting to tip a buck or two), though a late-night service charge of $3.95 per statement is assessed between midnight and 5 a.m. Egg dishes are available in the morning, along with the usual Continental fare (croissants, coffee, cereal). Throughout the day and into the evening passengers can choose between pizza, hot and cold sandwiches and salads.

Public Rooms

Oasis of the Seas boasts two fascinating public areas that are new to cruise travel.

Central Park, with its 12,175 plants and 56 trees, offers a lovely respite from the buoyant energy that otherwise permeates Oasis of the Seas. The flora and fauna ranges from an herb garden to towering (well, they'll be lofty someday) trees that offer a soft canopy. You may be onboard in an inner-facing space, but Central Park is open to the sky and, interestingly, through use of wind-controlling technology, there's a lovely breeze blowing through the area. Beyond the aforementioned restaurants, there are lots of peaceful nooks for simply curling up with a good book. On the retail therapy side of things, Central Park has the first Coach store at sea (thought sister line Celebrity Cruises does sell Coach products in the gift shops on some of its ships). The shop never seemed busy.

Between the colorful lights, the merry-go-round music and the smell of the freshly minted waffle cones, the Boardwalk absolutely feels like the Jersey Shore or Coney Island. It's charming, for sure: We rode the carousel -- each horse, cheetah, etc. hand-carved out of wood and hand-painted -- until our faces hurt from smiling. The ride is free (no age restriction, though there is a height requirement if you want to ride alone) and lasts two minutes with old-fashioned calliope music creating the soundtrack as you spin.

There are also fun shops here, including a candy store, and an old-timey photo booth where you can print your own color or black and white snapshots in seconds ($5 for 6). One of our favorite Boardwalk diversions is the Pets at Sea shop, Oasis' answer to the "Build a Bear" chain that's popular on land. Pick the "skin" of the pet you want (rabbits, penguins, etc.) and staffers help you stuff it by attaching it to one of two big contraptions that look like oversized gum ball machines -- but instead of gum balls, there's stuffing flying around inside. The stuffing fills and puffs out the pet, along with a fabric heart you've placed inside. All manner of outfits, including a captain's uniform that looks fabulous on a stuffed bear, are for sale. The pet alone is $19.99; outfits are $12.99. If you buy both together, it's $29.99. Your pet leaves the shop in a cardboard box with a precut hole so he or she can poke out a furry head and see the sights.

As we noted before, one oddity about the Boardwalk area is that it doesn't draw the crowds you'd expect. Even on our cruise, in which there were many, many kids onboard, the only time we really saw people congregating here was during an evening, family-themed event. Otherwise, it was a ghost town.

The Royal Promenade feels pleasingly familiar among Oasis' many first-ever spaces. Yes, there's new stuff here, such as Rising Tide Bar, which travels from the Royal Promenade to Central Park. Sure, the Royal Promenade is wider, with nearly twice the girth of the Freedom-class ships. It's also noticeably lighter -- one aspect of the ship's new design is the skylights that let daylight in. The shops offer the usual suspects -- duty free that's actually pricier than that on the islands you'll visit, and Oasis souvenirs -- but there are a couple of new options. Willow, a shop geared to the 30-plus set, has lovely casual clothing (designers ranging from Eileen Fisher to Spirit), jewelry and accessories. There's a minimally stocked camera shop that could benefit from a little bit more merchandise (and perhaps could bulk up on the kind of stuff you really do need to buy on vacation; it was already out of camera memory cards when we paid a visit). Above it is a vast photo gallery.

With all the excitement over the new features, it seems Royal Caribbean forgot to include a decent Internet cafe onboard Oasis of the Seas. The facility -- two inside-cabin-sized windowless cubbies with a half dozen terminals apiece and four terminals that have hastily been set up in the card room -- is the most appalling we've seen on a cruise ship since shipboard Internet access was first introduced. There's no one manning the Internet operation here and on my cruise, half the terminals weren't working for days at a stretch. The printers were also pretty mercurial. You have to call the front desk if you have a problem (and since no phones are available in the facilities themselves, you have to go back to your room). Staffers there were generous about issuing credit but the operation is just atrocious. Best bet: Bring your own laptop if you plan to connect to the Internet for more than the most minimal time. You also have access via your in-cabin television.

Cabins

Royal Caribbean pioneered inside-facing cabins that weren't truly insides with its Voyager-class cabins along the Royal Promenade, with windows overlooking the action. On Oasis, the cruise line pushes the trend further with more cabins that don't exactly face the ocean -- yet still offer a view. Here, you can book cabins with windows or balconies above the Boardwalk or Central Park. Like the Promenade cabins, these are roughly the same size as the standard oceanviews and balconies, which start from 179 square feet and 182 square feet (with a 50-square-foot verandah), respectively. They're not that private, either -- it's easy to spy on the balconies next door and across the way -- the draw is the novelty of being able to look down at the Boardwalk's spinning carousel or live Central Park foliage.

Because they're a curiosity factor, these cabins, at least in Oasis' first year, are often priced as high -- or higher -- than more traditional balcony cabins with an ocean view. After a week in a Central Park-facing stateroom, there was definitely a feeling of being a bird in a cage and we didn't use the verandah much as a result.

Same goes for Boardwalk cabins, though these have a few extra perks. Those that are located further aft do offer sea glimpses and are also terrific spots from which to watch performances at the AquaTheater. Note, though, that this area can get a bit loud and boisterous (with balcony doors fully closed, however, you can hear virtually nothing outside).

There are six quite-prized AquaTheater-facing suites with wraparound balconies that overlook the amphitheater. One plus here is that the curved balconies offer both the aft view -- and a standard (and more peaceful) sea view.

Another new cabin concept is the Loft Suite, available in three styles. Crown Loft Suites measure 545 square feet with a 114-square-foot balcony, and feature a living space downstairs with a pullout sofa and bathroom, and a master bedroom and bathroom upstairs with a shower large enough for two (his-and-hers shower heads), fog-free mirrors and limestone mosaic tile accents. The Sky Loft Suites add some extra space, clocking in at 722 square feet with a 410-square-foot dine-on balcony, and a roomy shower in the downstairs bathroom, too.

Then there's the Royal Loft Suite -- the largest and most opulent suite onboard, which accommodates up to six passengers. The Royal Loft Suite is 1,524 square feet with an 843-square-foot balcony and can connect to an adjoining Crown Loft Suite to accommodate a party of 10. When you enter the cabin on the main level, you'll find a Baby Grand piano, a dining area with a dry bar for entertaining, a bath with a shower, a living room sofa that converts into a double bed and a wraparound balcony with a dining area and private whirlpool. Upstairs, there's a master bedroom and a massive bathroom with a tub, shower, two sinks and a bidet.

Ironically, some of these expensive suites have a less than ideal location. A handful of lofts directly overlook one of the busiest outdoor spots onboard -- the basketball court and FlowRider areas. As such they're not terribly private -- and the omnipresent thump-thump-thump of the rock music playing for FlowRider daredevils at various times throughout the day and evening could be annoying.

Beyond these new designs, cabins are available in varying sizes and styles, from insides to owner's suites. Royal Caribbean's popular Presidential Family Suite is back as well. On Oasis of the Seas, the suite will accommodate 14 passengers with four bedrooms and four baths. Oasis of the Seas' regular Family Suite (there are four of them) features a master bedroom and bath, as well as a guest room with a private bath, and a balcony with space for outdoor dining and lounging for four.

All cabins have flat-screen interactive TV's, which allow you to book shore tours and entertainment as well as to view your onboard bill. Note: You cannot book restaurant reservations through this system. Piped in are a handful of national U.S. networks, depending on the ship's location (such as CNN, TNT and Fox News). Oddly there are no music channels.

Cabins have good under-the-bed storage (important, because the closets in the non-suite categories are not at all huge), and flip-up bedside tables (a cool space-saving feature). Bathrooms, which are a bit on the small side, feature showers enclosed in clear glass with shampoo dispensers and footrests for leg-shaving, a welcome addition taken from sister cruise line, Celebrity Cruises. Other than shampoo, the only toiletry you'll find is a skimpy little bar of soap (so if you need lotion, hair conditioner, etc. bring your own). Electrical outlets -- one 220-volt, two 110-volt -- are inconveniently located underneath the desk. Once we figured out how to use it, we were able to easily schedule wakeup calls on the new, fancy Cisco phone system.

A caveat: Some cabins are configured with the bed(s) close to the closet door, which can make it hard to get to your things, while others, especially in the twin configuration, have the bed(s) right up against the wall, which hinders easy access to the balcony if you have one. Ask your travel agent, or study your deck plans really carefully, if you have a preference.

Entertainment

The Entertainment Zone is home to Studio B ice rink for shows and free skate, the Opus three-deck theater (where performances of "Hairspray" take place), a comedy club (book reservations in advance; it's popular and the space is small so can't accommodate huge crowds) and a jazz bar with superb live music. Blaze, a one-story nightclub, is located down here as well.

On the Boardwalk, all the way aft, you'll find the AquaTheater, where evening shows take place throughout the week. This is a don't-miss event! Reserve a spot, but there are also seats (and standing room) along the back. There are two 18-meter dive boards and 20 performers dedicated to the space: six divers, four synchronized swimmers, six acrobats and four specialty divers. Another fun fact: There are nearly 2,000 nozzles on and above the stage for synchronized water shooting. I seriously had my heart in my throat when the high diver leapt off a platform that seemingly scraped the sky; he sliced into the water with barely a splash (on another night, when winds and sea were a bit feistier, he did not perform and I was frankly glad).

Many of Royal Caribbean's favorite bars and lounges are found in the Royal Promenade. Bolero's jumped to a packed house every night, with terrific live music and lots of dancing. The Schooner Bar's new location, on the upper level of the Royal Promenade, is controversial as its windows have no view, but I loved sitting in chairs that ringed the promenade on formal night, and watching the world go by!

The top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge, which here provides a stunning view forward from its lofty perch on Deck 17, is gorgeous, but is mostly forgotten. It was empty most nights. Also struggling to attract passengers at night was Dazzles, a two-deck nightclub with a great view looking toward the back of the ship and the AquaTheater. It was home to theme nights (like 80's music).

Oasis of the Seas features the largest and most sophisticated casino afloat: Casino Royale. There is a themed walkway entrance, The Museum of Gaming, exploring the history of gambling. Design elements include dramatic sculptures, crystal chandeliers, and hues of amethyst, aquamarine and ruby. As for the meat and potatoes of the casino, you'll find 450 slot machines; extensive table games including Blackjack, roulette, craps, and Caribbean Stud Poker; a bar and lounge area; a sports book; a poker room; and a players' club.

Fitness and Recreation

In the Pool and Sports Zone, Oasis of the Seas' top-ship neighborhood, you'll find a "zero entry" pool that's great for gradually wading into deeper water; a sports pool (think water-jousting and pool volleyball); and the H2O Zone that's just for kids and features several brightly colored water-spraying sculptures.

Oasis of the Seas is the first cruise ship ever to feature its own zip-line, which runs diagonally across the Pool and Sports Deck, above the Boardwalk. For those who dare to try it, the zip-line offers an amazing (and free) aerial view of the carousel and other attractions, so be sure to look down! You'll need to sign a waiver, obtain a wristband and prepare for what could be a long wait. (It will take about 10 minutes just for the staff to harness you properly.) You will also be required to empty your pockets and wear sneakers and a helmet. This is definitely a fun option, especially at night when the Boardwalk's festive lights are aglow. However, it may not offer much of a thrill for passengers who have already tried land-based zip-lining, which usually offers a longer and more picturesque experience.

There are also two FlowRiders, the surf simulators that made their debut with the Freedom class. Both are located on Deck 16 aft, with the Wipeout Bar wedged conveniently between them. One note: If you're intrigued by the FlowRider and have never surfed before, we suggest boogie boarding first. Surfing isn't as easy as it looks, as one of our staffers found out the hard way (see our Oasis of the Seas FlowRider video).

Despite a vast spa facility, the ship's gym, which has been moved from Royal Caribbean's more traditional top-deck, full-windows locale to amidships and is illuminated by stingy portholes, is underwhelming. Parts of the spa itself also suffer, ambience-wise, due to the new location (particularly fluorescent in feeling is its salon, which has no outside view to the sea at all). One nice touch: a stairwell inside the gym leads directly down a deck to the ship's running track.

Our spa experience was particularly ... stressful, which frankly defeats the purpose of going to a spa. Staffers were disorganized (didn't reserve the treatment properly, charged more money than I was quoted, mixed me up with another passenger, then gave me a hard product sell afterward). Ultimately the spa manager did refund the disputed amount but she was snarky and unpleasant. I was so disgusted I decided to skip other treatments I'd planned to book.

Other down-notes on the ship's spa and gym facility include the fact that the gym is a deck above some treatment rooms and noise there can intrude on the supposedly serenity-inspired ambience below. As well, the ship's anchor appears to be located just underneath the relaxation room and the noise is quite audible at times.

Prior to taking the cruise I was quite enamored of the adults-only, glass-roofed Solarium, but after being onboard I was ultimately disappointed. It was always packed -- very difficult to find a chaise -- and the spare furnishings were simply sterile rather than hip. It wasn't as warm and welcoming as it could have been (Princess Cruises definitely does a better job with the concept with its Sanctuary spaces) and perhaps there's some way to moderate the crowds.

Family

Oasis of the Seas is an extremely infant-, child- and teen-friendly ship, offering a large variety of activities and brightly colored spaces for children, from ages 6 months to 17 years. The entire kids' program, officially called the Youth Zone, spans more than 28,700 square feet, and is (surprise) the largest of its kind at sea.

RCI has started new Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs, which provide childcare and activities for children from 6 to 36 months old. All parents have an opportunity to reserve spots for their kids at the beginning of each cruise at a cost of $8 per hour, per child. Remaining hours are then opened up on a first-come, first-served basis.

Children, ages 3 to 5 (Aquanauts), 6 to 8 (Explorers) and 9 to 11 (Voyagers) have their own spaces to run around, take part in arcade games and Nintendo Wii tournaments, conduct science experiments (like volcano-making) and take in a mini-musical or perform in shows of their own as part of the "ImaginOcean!" theater program onboard. Partnerships with Crayola and Fisher-Price mean that the Youth Zone is also outfitted with the latest toys, games and supplies. Daytime activities are free, but late-night activities are also offered for a fee of $5 per child, per hour.

Teens, the hardest demographic to impress, probably won't want to leave their designated areas. The ship was intentionally designed to distance the teen section from the rest of the Youth Zone, and away from the throngs of younger kids, teens can enjoy several lounges, juice bars, Nintendo Wii stations, a music room, the Wipe Out Cafe, themed parties and D.J. lessons.

For families, Oasis of the Seas is so large that walkie-talkie devices -- long a popular way for Cruise Critic members to stay in-touch onboard -- don't always work properly. As a result, Royal Caribbean has introduced its new Royal Connect "Wow Phone" device. These are iPhones that lack outside calling or texting capabilities. For $17.50 per device, per week, you'll have deck plans and the Cruise Compass right at your fingertips, as well as a way for your kids to reach you onboard. They can dial the phone's number from any house phone on the ship. If you give one to your child, he or she can be tracked at all times.

Fellow Passengers

With the FlowRiders, H2O Zone, Boardwalk and incredible age-specific children's facilities, Oasis of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's (Central Park is a great place relatively kid-free spot to hang). The majority of passengers hail from North America, though many passengers on our sailing came from the United Kingdom and Europe, as well, keen to experience the world's largest cruise ship.

Dress Code

Seven-night cruises have two formal nights and five casual nights. A decent number of men choose to wear tuxedos for formal dining, though dark suits were more common on our sailing. Women are typically found in cocktail dresses or gowns.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Envelopes are provided for tipping in cash, but passengers can also prepay their gratuities at the time of booking or have the amounts added to their shipboard (SeaPass) accounts. (If you opt for the flex dining option, you're required to pre-pay gratuities.) A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs; tipping for spa services is at passengers' discretion.

--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, has been the most anticipated new-build to debut since Cunard's Queen Mary 2. Its innovations -- such as the first-ever Boardwalk and Central Park at sea, which uniquely occupy space that's carved out of the middle of the ship -- are already legendary.

The ship features new-to-Royal Caribbean types of eateries that range from spa cuisine to elaborately staged food and wine pairings. Its entertainment district, a hub for late owls, offers ice skating and disco, comedy and jazz, and a three-tiered theater that features a 90-minute version of "Hairspray," the popular Tony Award-winning Broadway show. Particularly dazzling is the ship's AquaTheater, with its deepest-pool-at-sea, which serves as a platform for performers such as divers and synchronized swimmers.

Innovations on Oasis of the Seas are by no means limited to passenger-friendly advances. Royal Caribbean also has introduced a number of new technical and environmental tools that enable the ship to be more efficient and more eco-responsible.

Beyond the innovations of Oasis of the Seas (and its sister Allure of the Seas, which debuted in December 2010), what kind of cruise does it really offer? Will a ship that accommodates 6,296 passengers (when all berths are filled) feel crowded? How can a vessel that's so big -- and that holds so many people -- offer the kind of attentive service that cruise ships are typically known for? And will the hordes descending from Oasis of the Seas in ports such as Nassau, St. Thomas and St. Maarten overwhelm the islands?

From a recent week-long voyage aboard Oasis of the Seas, a handful of observations:

Sure, the ship is large, but it doesn't feel as massive as you'd expect it to and that's a credit to its design. The neighborhood concept really does work -- Central Park was our favorite, and we found reasons to be there day (Park Cafe for freshly made salads, sandwiches and breakfast fare; fun tours of art and foliage; and lots of comfortable chairs in which to read) and night (noshing at the outdoor tables at Vintages, the wine bar, and at Giovanni's, the ship's Italian restaurant). After dinner, the Entertainment Zone was a magnet. On sunny days, congregating on the pool deck was a natural activity -- but while it was crowded, you could always find a lounge chair.

Still, a voyage that was pretty much at full capacity, you do have to deal with crowds sometimes. One particular hot zone was the Windjammer Marketplace (that buffet space is simply too small for such a large ship -- despite efforts to entice passengers to dine at other restaurants throughout the ship). The Royal Promenade could get ridiculously congested during parades, and you could wait a while for an elevator. But there were plenty of places to get away from fellow passengers -- such as the wrap-around promenade on Deck 5, and the aforementioned Central Park, which was quiet most of the time. There also are a couple of open-to-all balconies overlooking the AquaTheater (one's on Deck 11, starboard); there's another off-beat spot, all the way forward and above the solarium, which most people miss.

One downside of all those people -- and in some cases smallish restaurants and entertainment venues -- is that you really do have to plan ahead and book in advance. We never were able to get into Izumi, but did make reservations ahead of time for the Chef's Table, 150 Central Park, Chops Grille, and Giovanni's Table. Entertainment-wise, "Hairspray" was popular and the comedy club was full, every night. For the latter, we didn't book ahead and we didn't get in.

Service was remarkably good -- and that surprised me. It's important to note that, of course, the crewmembers on our voyage were all part of the transition team (which means they had time to get used to the ship -- and that they were among the more experienced staffers in the fleet). But still, the Royal Caribbean crew was enthusiastic and definitely empowered to take proper care of passengers. Where I noticed problems with service was in venues that were operated by third party companies -- and staffed with their employees, not Royal Caribbean crewmembers. Most notably, service in the shops, particularly the potentially enchanting Willow, was really poor (clearly the staffers there are not happy to be onboard); the spa seemed chaotic and poorly run.

There are no traditional art auctions on Oasis -- a first in contemporary cruising. However, there's a magnificent art gallery onboard, in Central Park, which focuses on artists and pieces that are exhibited on the ship (as well as on other Royal Caribbean vessels). For the first time in years I actually took one of the art tours offered -- and found it fascinating, enabling me to appreciate the art with new eyes. I often walked out of my way to revisit favorite pieces. Beyond the tours, there are a handful of events, such as an artist reception (one artist travels onboard on each voyage) and workshop, and opportunities to buy pieces, ranging from postcards to original works.

The Boardwalk, one of the most hotly anticipated neighborhoods, was a surprisingly empty spot onboard. It's charming -- and a ride on the carousel was a real smile -- but people didn't really hang out there, unless they're passing through on the way to the Aqua Theater. One parent told me that the problem with the Boardwalk area is that there are too many for-fee places -- and that parents don't want to walk that expensive gauntlet, with kids begging for ice cream, a fried food meal at the Seafood Shack (with its $8.95 for adults and $4.95 for kids cover charge) or Johnny Rockets (which also levies a fee). Other costly temptations on the Boardwalk include shops where you can buy a furry pet, trendy children's clothing and accessories, and bags of candy.

In port, Royal Caribbean has built facilities on each dock with numerous screening stations that enable passengers to re-embark much more smoothly than some of the smaller mega-ships we were berthed alongside! Nassau was the only place where I noticed congestion when reboarding; we had a short, half-day call there and everyone waited until the last minute to return to the ship. And walking around in port, especially in St. Maarten and St. Thomas, where we've traveled frequently, we frankly didn't notice any difference in our experience at all, even with so many more passengers coming off this biggest-ever ship.

Ultimately, before I cruised on Oasis, I wondered: Does Oasis of the Seas -- as strong as it may be in its appeal to families, romantics and active cruisers -- succeed as a ship that has something for every kind of passenger?

As important as it is to extol the innovative and frankly just-plain-fun features of Oasis of the Seas, it's also crucial to talk about what it's not. Oasis of the Seas is not a ship where you'll cruise an itinerary of exotic ports (stops such as St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Nassau are, honestly, sidelines to the onboard action). Despite its numerous upscale accouterments, such as two-level Loft Suites and the pricey 150 Central Park Restaurant, with a maximum passenger load of 6,296 at full capacity, this can never be a luxury ship. And when it's full -- it feels full.

And for those travelers for whom a cruise represents a chance to make new friends -- particularly, but not limited to, seniors and solos -- Oasis is simply too vast to inspire connections (though Cruise Critic's Meet & Mingle parties offer a way before, during and after your cruise to connect with passengers).

Dining

There are so many dining options on Oasis that you could do something different for every meal -- three times a day, for an entire week -- and literally not repeat a venue.

Opus is the ship's traditional, three-deck main dining room, serving open seating breakfast and lunch. At dinner, Decks 3 and 4 are generally dedicated to traditional set-seating dining while Deck 5 is reserved for those who've chosen Royal Caribbean's flexible dining program, My Time Dining. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Breakfast and lunch are served open seating.

The strangest thing about the Windjammer Marketplace, the line's popular buffet-style venue for breakfast, lunch and dinner, is how small it is for such a large ship! Clearly, designers incorporated numerous other casual eateries into the ship's design and hope that passengers will spread out among them (indeed, at breakfast time crewmembers were stationed by elevator banks to suggest other venues to passengers heading to the Windjammer). On our packed-to-capacity cruise, Windjammer was pretty jammed most times.

Some other Royal Caribbean favorites are back as well, including Johnny Rockets. While the standard burgers/fries/shakes fare for lunch and dinner is offered for $4.95 per person, on Oasis, Johnny Rockets is also a complimentary breakfast venue (its menu offers hot egg dishes and an incredibly decadent cheesy-potato combo). Even though the breakfast is free, our server brought us a chit to sign (showing a zero balance but with a space for gratuities) -- a gentle hint, perhaps, that tips were expected.

The 24-hour Cafe Promenade serves up sugary pastries and coffees in the morning -- with small sandwiches available through the rest of the day. Other tried-and-true Royal Caribbean stalwarts include Sorrento's Pizzeria (free slices and antipasti for lunch, dinner and late-night noshing). A new twist at Sorrento's is a create-your-own pizza option; passengers choose from an assemblage of ingredients (meats, cheeses, vegetables) that changes daily.

And Chops Grill, the line's dinner-only steakhouse, is located on Central Park. While it's beautifully designed, and its sleekness wouldn't feel out of place in Manhattan, the meal we had at Chops was disappointing. The menu is more limited than in the past (appetizer options were particularly unappealing and one, the lobster carpaccio, was drowned with so much olive oil that it was inedible). There's a $30 charge to eat here.

There are plenty of new-to-Royal Caribbean choices onboard Oasis of the Seas and we'll break them down by neighborhood:

In the Royal Promenade. The Mondo Coffee Bar offers Starbucks-like fare -- breakfast breads in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon (and pretty good a la carte-priced coffee); the food is complimentary. The Cupcake Cupboard, a totally new concept in cruising, has the most appetizing creative flavors, but never, ever, seemed crowded. The specialty cupcakes ($2.50 each) -- ranging from vanilla and chocolate to crazier flavors like bubblegum and root beer -- are delicious, however.

In Central Park. The tapas at Vintages, the ship's wine bar, are served all day (and into the wee hours) and offer a delicious, lighter fare (though not necessarily low-calorie) option. The tapas, which range from a simple bruschetta to more elaborate concoctions and from savory treats to sweet ones, cost between $2 and $4 apiece. If you're peckish, consider ordering a "tapas sampler" -- these combine various options and are quite cost-effective.

One of the biggest home runs on Oasis of the Seas is the new Italian-influenced Giovanni's Table. Initially described by Royal Caribbean as a more casual take on its much-loved but perhaps too elegant Portofino, I imagined it as an Olive Garden clone and nothing could be further from the truth. It's got a fantastic, friendly, trattoria-style ambience -- and the menu is beautifully conceived. Interestingly, Giovanni's is open for lunch on sea days (and, uniquely in the cruise industry, on embarkation day as well -- so there's a lunch option for passengers who prefer to avoid the usual crowds at the buffet). The service charge is $15 for lunch, $20 for dinner, and one of the best values onboard.

150 Central Park is meant to be the ships showcase restaurant and while it comes off initially as a bit pretentious (a tasting menu consists of seven courses -- gnocchi with chanterelles, cauliflower panna cotta -- plus meal-ending cheese plates), ultimately it is a lovely experience. There's a wine pairing option ($55 and $75) and that worked really well with the courses (plus wines by the glass are shockingly expensive). The service fee, $40, is one of the highest in the cruise industry -- and yet people were begging for reservations.

The aforementioned Park Cafe, which serves delicious hot Panini sandwiches and bagels for breakfast and custom made salads and sandwiches throughout the day, was justifiably a huge hit.

On the Boardwalk. Across from Johnny Rockets is the Seafood Shack. It's a partially al fresco joint where you'll find coconut shrimp, ribs, chowder and beer. The motif is beach-y: seashells, surfboards and the red metal chairs that resemble the simple plastic seats one associates with seaside eats. Pricing is a la carte.

It was rarely crowded (in fact several crewmembers told me that its concept needed some fixing) and the service was atrocious (one waiter ran around trying to serve all the tables while, seriously, a half-dozen other service staffers just chatted with each other and ignored customers).

Also new here is the Boardwalk Donut Shop (no extra charge) and an Ice Cream Parlor (which is not a Ben & Jerry's operation, as is found on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships). A la carte scoops cost from $1.95 (try the fruity, refreshing mango flavor). You can also find fruit, salads and sandwiches at the Boardwalk Bar at lunch and dinner, for free.

In the Pool & Sports Zone. A mini-version of the ship's buffet, offering fast foodstuffs, is located at the Wipe Out Cafe (complimentary all day, from breakfast to pre-dinner). Then there's the Solarium Bistro, reminiscent of the spa eateries onboard Celebrity ships, serving spa breakfast and lunch items. At breakfast there are yogurts, granola, fruit and breakfast meats like the more healthful turkey sausage instead of the pork variety. Lunch features light fare, such as couscous, salads, fruit, yogurt and other healthy, tasty options. At night, the bistro is transformed, via linen tablecloths and soft lighting, to a more upscale but still spa-oriented alternative restaurant; the fee is $20. As a nighttime eatery, Solarium Bistro was the least popular of the ship's for-fee restaurants. The food is fine but the atmosphere is rather sterile. Alas, it's the one restaurant you could get into without a reservation!

One huge success is the Chef's Table. This is a brand-new concept for Royal Caribbean and was offered each night on our cruise. The trick is that only 14 passengers can be accommodated. The dinner starts with cocktails in the library and an introduction to other passengers. Then it's onto the meal in the upper level of the Concierge Lounge, with a fantastic view overlooking the AquaTheater and Boardwalk. There are five courses (this is a regular menu, not a tasting-style affair) and before each is served the chef comes out of the kitchen and explains the preparation.

At our dinner, one couple had liked it so much earlier in the week that they'd returned -- and so would we. You can book it before the cruise by calling Royal Caribbean; we took a chance and reserved our spots online and could have chosen between a couple of nights. Wine pairings (quite generous ones) are included in the $95 fee, as are gratuities. We liked the service so much we added on an extra tip.

Other dining spots onboard include Izumi, which serves sushi and other Asian specialties that are priced a la carte (on top of a $3 service charge for lunch and $5 for dinner). It was very popular. The Vitality Cafe has low-cal snacks and smoothies in the spa and fitness center.

Still hungry? Room service is available around the clock, free most of the day (though it's considered sporting to tip a buck or two), though a late-night service charge of $3.95 per statement is assessed between midnight and 5 a.m. Egg dishes are available in the morning, along with the usual Continental fare (croissants, coffee, cereal). Throughout the day and into the evening passengers can choose between pizza, hot and cold sandwiches and salads.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, has been the most anticipated new-build to debut since Cunard's Queen Mary 2. Its innovations -- such as the first-ever Boardwalk and Central Park at sea, which uniquely occupy space that's carved out of the middle of the ship -- are already legendary.

The ship features new-to-Royal Caribbean types of eateries that range from spa cuisine to elaborately staged food and wine pairings. Its entertainment district, a hub for late owls, offers ice skating and disco, comedy and jazz, and a three-tiered theater that features a 90-minute version of "Hairspray," the popular Tony Award-winning Broadway show. Particularly dazzling is the ship's AquaTheater, with its deepest-pool-at-sea, which serves as a platform for performers such as divers and synchronized swimmers.

Innovations on Oasis of the Seas are by no means limited to passenger-friendly advances. Royal Caribbean also has introduced a number of new technical and environmental tools that enable the ship to be more efficient and more eco-responsible.

Beyond the innovations of Oasis of the Seas (and its sister Allure of the Seas, which debuted in December 2010), what kind of cruise does it really offer? Will a ship that accommodates 6,296 passengers (when all berths are filled) feel crowded? How can a vessel that's so big -- and that holds so many people -- offer the kind of attentive service that cruise ships are typically known for? And will the hordes descending from Oasis of the Seas in ports such as Nassau, St. Thomas and St. Maarten overwhelm the islands?

From a recent week-long voyage aboard Oasis of the Seas, a handful of observations:

Sure, the ship is large, but it doesn't feel as massive as you'd expect it to and that's a credit to its design. The neighborhood concept really does work -- Central Park was our favorite, and we found reasons to be there day (Park Cafe for freshly made salads, sandwiches and breakfast fare; fun tours of art and foliage; and lots of comfortable chairs in which to read) and night (noshing at the outdoor tables at Vintages, the wine bar, and at Giovanni's, the ship's Italian restaurant). After dinner, the Entertainment Zone was a magnet. On sunny days, congregating on the pool deck was a natural activity -- but while it was crowded, you could always find a lounge chair.

Still, a voyage that was pretty much at full capacity, you do have to deal with crowds sometimes. One particular hot zone was the Windjammer Marketplace (that buffet space is simply too small for such a large ship -- despite efforts to entice passengers to dine at other restaurants throughout the ship). The Royal Promenade could get ridiculously congested during parades, and you could wait a while for an elevator. But there were plenty of places to get away from fellow passengers -- such as the wrap-around promenade on Deck 5, and the aforementioned Central Park, which was quiet most of the time. There also are a couple of open-to-all balconies overlooking the AquaTheater (one's on Deck 11, starboard); there's another off-beat spot, all the way forward and above the solarium, which most people miss.

One downside of all those people -- and in some cases smallish restaurants and entertainment venues -- is that you really do have to plan ahead and book in advance. We never were able to get into Izumi, but did make reservations ahead of time for the Chef's Table, 150 Central Park, Chops Grille, and Giovanni's Table. Entertainment-wise, "Hairspray" was popular and the comedy club was full, every night. For the latter, we didn't book ahead and we didn't get in.

Service was remarkably good -- and that surprised me. It's important to note that, of course, the crewmembers on our voyage were all part of the transition team (which means they had time to get used to the ship -- and that they were among the more experienced staffers in the fleet). But still, the Royal Caribbean crew was enthusiastic and definitely empowered to take proper care of passengers. Where I noticed problems with service was in venues that were operated by third party companies -- and staffed with their employees, not Royal Caribbean crewmembers. Most notably, service in the shops, particularly the potentially enchanting Willow, was really poor (clearly the staffers there are not happy to be onboard); the spa seemed chaotic and poorly run.

There are no traditional art auctions on Oasis -- a first in contemporary cruising. However, there's a magnificent art gallery onboard, in Central Park, which focuses on artists and pieces that are exhibited on the ship (as well as on other Royal Caribbean vessels). For the first time in years I actually took one of the art tours offered -- and found it fascinating, enabling me to appreciate the art with new eyes. I often walked out of my way to revisit favorite pieces. Beyond the tours, there are a handful of events, such as an artist reception (one artist travels onboard on each voyage) and workshop, and opportunities to buy pieces, ranging from postcards to original works.

The Boardwalk, one of the most hotly anticipated neighborhoods, was a surprisingly empty spot onboard. It's charming -- and a ride on the carousel was a real smile -- but people didn't really hang out there, unless they're passing through on the way to the Aqua Theater. One parent told me that the problem with the Boardwalk area is that there are too many for-fee places -- and that parents don't want to walk that expensive gauntlet, with kids begging for ice cream, a fried food meal at the Seafood Shack (with its $8.95 for adults and $4.95 for kids cover charge) or Johnny Rockets (which also levies a fee). Other costly temptations on the Boardwalk include shops where you can buy a furry pet, trendy children's clothing and accessories, and bags of candy.

In port, Royal Caribbean has built facilities on each dock with numerous screening stations that enable passengers to re-embark much more smoothly than some of the smaller mega-ships we were berthed alongside! Nassau was the only place where I noticed congestion when reboarding; we had a short, half-day call there and everyone waited until the last minute to return to the ship. And walking around in port, especially in St. Maarten and St. Thomas, where we've traveled frequently, we frankly didn't notice any difference in our experience at all, even with so many more passengers coming off this biggest-ever ship.

Ultimately, before I cruised on Oasis, I wondered: Does Oasis of the Seas -- as strong as it may be in its appeal to families, romantics and active cruisers -- succeed as a ship that has something for every kind of passenger?

As important as it is to extol the innovative and frankly just-plain-fun features of Oasis of the Seas, it's also crucial to talk about what it's not. Oasis of the Seas is not a ship where you'll cruise an itinerary of exotic ports (stops such as St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Nassau are, honestly, sidelines to the onboard action). Despite its numerous upscale accouterments, such as two-level Loft Suites and the pricey 150 Central Park Restaurant, with a maximum passenger load of 6,296 at full capacity, this can never be a luxury ship. And when it's full -- it feels full.

And for those travelers for whom a cruise represents a chance to make new friends -- particularly, but not limited to, seniors and solos -- Oasis is simply too vast to inspire connections (though Cruise Critic's Meet & Mingle parties offer a way before, during and after your cruise to connect with passengers).

Dining

There are so many dining options on Oasis that you could do something different for every meal -- three times a day, for an entire week -- and literally not repeat a venue.

Opus is the ship's traditional, three-deck main dining room, serving open seating breakfast and lunch. At dinner, Decks 3 and 4 are generally dedicated to traditional set-seating dining while Deck 5 is reserved for those who've chosen Royal Caribbean's flexible dining program, My Time Dining. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Breakfast and lunch are served open seating.

The strangest thing about the Windjammer Marketplace, the line's popular buffet-style venue for breakfast, lunch and dinner, is how small it is for such a large ship! Clearly, designers incorporated numerous other casual eateries into the ship's design and hope that passengers will spread out among them (indeed, at breakfast time crewmembers were stationed by elevator banks to suggest other venues to passengers heading to the Windjammer). On our packed-to-capacity cruise, Windjammer was pretty jammed most times.

Some other Royal Caribbean favorites are back as well, including Johnny Rockets. While the standard burgers/fries/shakes fare for lunch and dinner is offered for $4.95 per person, on Oasis, Johnny Rockets is also a complimentary breakfast venue (its menu offers hot egg dishes and an incredibly decadent cheesy-potato combo). Even though the breakfast is free, our server brought us a chit to sign (showing a zero balance but with a space for gratuities) -- a gentle hint, perhaps, that tips were expected.

The 24-hour Cafe Promenade serves up sugary pastries and coffees in the morning -- with small sandwiches available through the rest of the day. Other tried-and-true Royal Caribbean stalwarts include Sorrento's Pizzeria (free slices and antipasti for lunch, dinner and late-night noshing). A new twist at Sorrento's is a create-your-own pizza option; passengers choose from an assemblage of ingredients (meats, cheeses, vegetables) that changes daily.

And Chops Grill, the line's dinner-only steakhouse, is located on Central Park. While it's beautifully designed, and its sleekness wouldn't feel out of place in Manhattan, the meal we had at Chops was disappointing. The menu is more limited than in the past (appetizer options were particularly unappealing and one, the lobster carpaccio, was drowned with so much olive oil that it was inedible). There's a $30 charge to eat here.

There are plenty of new-to-Royal Caribbean choices onboard Oasis of the Seas and we'll break them down by neighborhood:

In the Royal Promenade. The Mondo Coffee Bar offers Starbucks-like fare -- breakfast breads in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon (and pretty good a la carte-priced coffee); the food is complimentary. An actual Starbucks kiosk sells the ubiquitous company's standard hot drinks at the expected prices, and diehards can even use their Starbucks gold cards. The selection of edibles is, however, abbreviated. You'll find red velvet pie, croissants and other sweets ($1.50 to $2), but not the full menu of savory sandwiches typically available on land. The Cupcake Cupboard, a totally new concept in cruising, has the most appetizing creative flavors, but never, ever, seemed crowded. The specialty cupcakes ($2.50 each) -- ranging from vanilla and chocolate to crazier flavors like bubblegum and root beer -- are delicious, however.

In Central Park. The tapas at Vintages, the ship's wine bar, are served all day (and into the wee hours) and offer a delicious, lighter fare (though not necessarily low-calorie) option. The tapas, which range from a simple bruschetta to more elaborate concoctions and from savory treats to sweet ones, cost between $2 and $4 apiece. If you're peckish, consider ordering a "tapas sampler" -- these combine various options and are quite cost-effective.

One of the biggest home runs on Oasis of the Seas is the new Italian-influenced Giovanni's Table. Initially described by Royal Caribbean as a more casual take on its much-loved but perhaps too elegant Portofino, I imagined it as an Olive Garden clone and nothing could be further from the truth. It's got a fantastic, friendly, trattoria-style ambience -- and the menu is beautifully conceived. Interestingly, Giovanni's is open for lunch on sea days (and, uniquely in the cruise industry, on embarkation day as well -- so there's a lunch option for passengers who prefer to avoid the usual crowds at the buffet). The service charge is $15 for lunch, $20 for dinner, and one of the best values onboard.

150 Central Park is meant to be the ships showcase restaurant and while it comes off initially as a bit pretentious (a tasting menu consists of seven courses -- gnocchi with chanterelles, cauliflower panna cotta -- plus meal-ending cheese plates), ultimately it is a lovely experience. There's a wine pairing option ($55 and $75) and that worked really well with the courses (plus wines by the glass are shockingly expensive). The service fee, $40, is one of the highest in the cruise industry -- and yet people were begging for reservations.

The aforementioned Park Cafe, which serves delicious hot Panini sandwiches and bagels for breakfast and custom made salads and sandwiches throughout the day, was justifiably a huge hit.

On the Boardwalk. Across from Johnny Rockets is the Seafood Shack. It's a partially al fresco joint where you'll find coconut shrimp, ribs, chowder and beer. The motif is beach-y: seashells, surfboards and the red metal chairs that resemble the simple plastic seats one associates with seaside eats. Pricing is a la carte.

It was rarely crowded (in fact several crewmembers told me that its concept needed some fixing) and the service was atrocious (one waiter ran around trying to serve all the tables while, seriously, a half-dozen other service staffers just chatted with each other and ignored customers).

Also new here is the Boardwalk Donut Shop (no extra charge) and an Ice Cream Parlor (which is not a Ben & Jerry's operation, as is found on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships). A la carte scoops cost from $1.95 (try the fruity, refreshing mango flavor). You can also find fruit, salads and sandwiches at the Boardwalk Bar at lunch and dinner, for free.

In the Pool & Sports Zone. A mini-version of the ship's buffet, offering fast foodstuffs, is located at the Wipe Out Cafe (complimentary all day, from breakfast to pre-dinner). Then there's the Solarium Bistro, reminiscent of the spa eateries onboard Celebrity ships, serving spa breakfast and lunch items. At breakfast there are yogurts, granola, fruit and breakfast meats like the more healthful turkey sausage instead of the pork variety. Lunch features light fare, such as couscous, salads, fruit, yogurt and other healthy, tasty options. At night, the bistro is transformed, via linen tablecloths and soft lighting, to a more upscale but still spa-oriented alternative restaurant; the fee is $20. As a nighttime eatery, Solarium Bistro was the least popular of the ship's for-fee restaurants. The food is fine but the atmosphere is rather sterile. Alas, it's the one restaurant you could get into without a reservation!

One huge success is the Chef's Table. This is a brand-new concept for Royal Caribbean and was offered each night on our cruise. The trick is that only 14 passengers can be accommodated. The dinner starts with cocktails in the library and an introduction to other passengers. Then it's onto the meal in the upper level of the Concierge Lounge, with a fantastic view overlooking the AquaTheater and Boardwalk. There are five courses (this is a regular menu, not a tasting-style affair) and before each is served the chef comes out of the kitchen and explains the preparation.

At our dinner, one couple had liked it so much earlier in the week that they'd returned -- and so would we. You can book it before the cruise by calling Royal Caribbean; we took a chance and reserved our spots online and could have chosen between a couple of nights. Wine pairings (quite generous ones) are included in the $95 fee, as are gratuities. We liked the service so much we added on an extra tip.

Other dining spots onboard include Izumi, which serves sushi and other Asian specialties that are priced a la carte (on top of a $3 service charge for lunch and $5 for dinner). It was very popular. The Vitality Cafe has low-cal snacks and smoothies in the spa and fitness center.

Still hungry? Room service is available around the clock, free most of the day (though it's considered sporting to tip a buck or two), though a late-night service charge of $3.95 per statement is assessed between midnight and 5 a.m. Egg dishes are available in the morning, along with the usual Continental fare (croissants, coffee, cereal). Throughout the day and into the evening passengers can choose between pizza, hot and cold sandwiches and salads.

Cabins

Oasis of the Seas Cabin Photos

Royal Caribbean pioneered inside-facing cabins that weren't truly insides with its Voyager-class cabins along the Royal Promenade, with windows overlooking the action. On Oasis, the cruise line pushes the trend further with more cabins that don't exactly face the ocean -- yet still offer a view. Here, you can book cabins with windows or balconies above the Boardwalk or Central Park. Like the Promenade cabins, these are roughly the same size as the standard oceanviews and balconies, which start from 179 square feet and 182 square feet (with a 50-square-foot verandah), respectively. They're not that private, either -- it's easy to spy on the balconies next door and across the way -- the draw is the novelty of being able to look down at the Boardwalk's spinning carousel or live Central Park foliage.

Because they're a curiosity factor, these cabins, at least in Oasis' first year, are often priced as high -- or higher -- than more traditional balcony cabins with an ocean view. After a week in a Central Park-facing stateroom, there was definitely a feeling of being a bird in a cage and we didn't use the verandah much as a result.

Same goes for Boardwalk cabins, though these have a few extra perks. Those that are located further aft do offer sea glimpses and are also terrific spots from which to watch performances at the AquaTheater. Note, though, that this area can get a bit loud and boisterous (with balcony doors fully closed, however, you can hear virtually nothing outside).

There are six quite-prized AquaTheater-facing suites with wraparound balconies that overlook the amphitheater. One plus here is that the curved balconies offer both the aft view -- and a standard (and more peaceful) sea view.

Another new cabin concept is the Loft Suite, available in three styles. Crown Loft Suites measure 545 square feet with a 114-square-foot balcony, and feature a living space downstairs with a pullout sofa and bathroom, and a master bedroom and bathroom upstairs with a shower large enough for two (his-and-hers shower heads), fog-free mirrors and limestone mosaic tile accents. The Sky Loft Suites add some extra space, clocking in at 722 square feet with a 410-square-foot dine-on balcony, and a roomy shower in the downstairs bathroom, too.

Then there's the Royal Loft Suite -- the largest and most opulent suite onboard, which accommodates up to six passengers. The Royal Loft Suite is 1,524 square feet with an 843-square-foot balcony and can connect to an adjoining Crown Loft Suite to accommodate a party of 10. When you enter the cabin on the main level, you'll find a Baby Grand piano, a dining area with a dry bar for entertaining, a bath with a shower, a living room sofa that converts into a double bed and a wraparound balcony with a dining area and private whirlpool. Upstairs, there's a master bedroom and a massive bathroom with a tub, shower, two sinks and a bidet.

Ironically, some of these expensive suites have a less than ideal location. A handful of lofts directly overlook one of the busiest outdoor spots onboard -- the basketball court and FlowRider areas. As such they're not terribly private -- and the omnipresent thump-thump-thump of the rock music playing for FlowRider daredevils at various times throughout the day and evening could be annoying.

Beyond these new designs, cabins are available in varying sizes and styles, from insides to owner's suites. Royal Caribbean's popular Presidential Family Suite is back as well. On Oasis of the Seas, the suite will accommodate 14 passengers with four bedrooms and four baths. Oasis of the Seas' regular Family Suite (there are four of them) features a master bedroom and bath, as well as a guest room with a private bath, and a balcony with space for outdoor dining and lounging for four.

All cabins have flat-screen interactive TV's, which allow you to book shore tours and entertainment as well as to view your onboard bill. Note: You cannot book restaurant reservations through this system. Piped in are a handful of national U.S. networks, depending on the ship's location (such as CNN, TNT and Fox News). Oddly there are no music channels.

Cabins have good under-the-bed storage (important, because the closets in the non-suite categories are not at all huge), and flip-up bedside tables (a cool space-saving feature). Bathrooms, which are a bit on the small side, feature showers enclosed in clear glass with shampoo dispensers and footrests for leg-shaving, a welcome addition taken from sister cruise line, Celebrity Cruises. Other than shampoo, the only toiletry you'll find is a skimpy little bar of soap (so if you need lotion, hair conditioner, etc. bring your own). Electrical outlets -- one 220-volt, two 110-volt -- are inconveniently located underneath the desk. Once we figured out how to use it, we were able to easily schedule wakeup calls on the new, fancy Cisco phone system.

A caveat: Some cabins are configured with the bed(s) close to the closet door, which can make it hard to get to your things, while others, especially in the twin configuration, have the bed(s) right up against the wall, which hinders easy access to the balcony if you have one. Ask your travel agent, or study your deck plans really carefully, if you have a preference.

Entertainment

The Entertainment Zone is home to Studio B ice rink for shows and free skate, the Opus three-deck theater (where performances of "Hairspray" take place), a comedy club (book reservations in advance; it's popular and the space is small so can't accommodate huge crowds) and a jazz bar with superb live music. Blaze, a one-story nightclub, is located down here as well.

Passengers will see evidence of Allure's "Dreamworks Experience" throughout the ship, in the form of 3D movies in the main theater, high-energy character parades in the Royal Promenade and special daytime shows at the AquaTheater.

On the Boardwalk, all the way aft, you'll find said AquaTheater, where evening shows take place throughout the week. This is a don't-miss event! Reserve a spot, but there are also seats (and standing room) along the back. There are two 18-meter dive boards and 20 performers dedicated to the space: six divers, four synchronized swimmers, six acrobats and four specialty divers. Another fun fact: There are nearly 2,000 nozzles on and above the stage for synchronized water shooting. I seriously had my heart in my throat when the high diver leapt off a platform that seemingly scraped the sky; he sliced into the water with barely a splash (on another night, when winds and sea were a bit feistier, he did not perform and I was frankly glad).

Many of Royal Caribbean's favorite bars and lounges are found in the Royal Promenade. Bolero's jumped to a packed house every night, with terrific live music and lots of dancing. The Schooner Bar's new location, on the upper level of the Royal Promenade, is controversial as its windows have no view, but I loved sitting in chairs that ringed the promenade on formal night, and watching the world go by!

The top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge, which here provides a stunning view forward from its lofty perch on Deck 17, is gorgeous, but is mostly forgotten. It was empty most nights. Also struggling to attract passengers at night was Dazzles, a two-deck nightclub with a great view looking toward the back of the ship and the AquaTheater. It was home to theme nights (like 80's music).

Oasis of the Seas features the largest and most sophisticated casino afloat: Casino Royale. There is a themed walkway entrance, The Museum of Gaming, exploring the history of gambling. Design elements include dramatic sculptures, crystal chandeliers, and hues of amethyst, aquamarine and ruby. As for the meat and potatoes of the casino, you'll find 450 slot machines; extensive table games including Blackjack, roulette, craps, and Caribbean Stud Poker; a bar and lounge area; a sports book; a poker room; and a players' club.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Effective March 1, Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

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