The Ultimate Family Adventure:
From Shrek to Adventure Ocean,
Oasis of the Seas Delivers Fantastic Fun
By Lizz Dinnigan
Having the distinction of being the largest cruise ship afloat no doubt lends an air of intrigue and mystique to Royal Caribbean International’s 225,282-ton Oasis of the Seas (and its slightly newer sister, Allure of the Seas).
Having sailed on many vessels over the years,Oasis of the Seas provides refreshing shock value to the cruise industry.
It’s the antithesis of a classic cruise ship and more a fantastic floating family resort that overflows with creative, top-notch entertainment and a slew of activities for all ages and interests.
(At right, our family -- me, my husband Joe and our children Jack, 7, and Casey, 4 -- are shown with Shrek, one of the big draws for a family cruise on four of Royal Caribbean's ships.*)
At first sight, the ship itself is undeniably overwhelming, both physically and visually, but in a great way.
Our family of four sailed on the June 25, 2011, departure with a near record-breaking 6,250 passengers.
That's hard to fathom, when considering that just a decade ago the biggest ships had a maximum capacity of about 2,000 or 2,500 passengers.
It's not until you stand on the pier next to this colossal vessel or view it alongside an older ship docked in the same port that you sense its sheer enormity.
The experience is unlike typical cruising as you don’t actually feel like you’re on a ship. We were so occupied I rarely noticed the ocean around us, and Oasis of the Seas sailed so smoothly that not once did I feel motion.
What makes the ship work is the ratio of passengers to the size and design of the ship. It has a split infrastructure with an open-air center instead of an enclosed atrium.
The layout breaks down portions of the vessel into seven defined “neighborhoods.” This makes each space comfortably smaller and the ship easier to navigate.
Another plus? It’s perfect for those who are apprehensive to cruise since you feel as though you’re at a land resort.
Among the neighborhoods are the colorful, wood-planked Boardwalk area (shown in the photo above*) with the first carousel at sea.
The open-to-the-sky Central Park resembles a trellised, creeping-garden sanctuary with its winding paths and the simulated sound of chirping birds.
Another neighborhood is the Royal Promenade (shown in the photo at left.*) with cafes, lounges, shops, a gorgeous lighted fountain and more.
Editor's Note: We stayed in Central Park shortly after the ship was launched. If you'd like to see photos and read more about this area, check out a previous story on this site.
This neighborhood is also home to the oval-shaped Rising Tide, an open bar that's an elevator lift of sorts.
It slowly ascends two decks while you sip a glass of wine or, in the case of kids, a soda.
Launched in December 2009, the 1,187-foot-long, 17-deck-high Oasis of the Seas can accommodate a maximum 6,318 passengers.
The ship IS the attraction on any itinerary. We cruised out of Port Everglades, FL, on a seven-day western Caribbean sailing. Ports of call included the line’s private island of Labadee, Haiti; Cozumel, Mexico; and Royal Caribbean's new port of Falmouth, Jamaica. Look for my separate story on the Falmouth experience here soon.
One gleaning? Having sailed once on this ship, I would have absolutely loved a nine-day itinerary with calls at three or four ports, enabling us to experience everything the ship had to offer onboard. There was just too much fun to conquer in seven days.
Fortunately, Royal Caribbean does offer back-to-back eastern and western itineraries on this ship, so for guests who have the time, that's one way to see and do it all.
They Thought of Everything
I wondered... Could a cruise line other than Disney think of absolutely everything when it comes to kids?
I learned that answer is "yes."
In addition to what’s offered in the expansive Adventure Ocean supervised children’s program, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas offers so much for the little ones to see and do.
It makes family travel a lot more pleasant -- as the kids are entertained around every corner.
Last summer the brand joined forces with DreamWorks Animation. So families traveling on Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas now may sign up for complimentary character breakfasts
(A fanciful character breakfast menu is shown in the photo at right*).
In addition to meeting movie characters from Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, cruisers may have their photo taken with the lovable favorites.
And, of course, the films are also shown onboard -- not only on the mega outdoor screens at the AquaTheater, but in-cabin on the dedicated free DreamWorks channel.
We booked the DreamWorks Character Meal with Shrek for our family. This breakfast proved a festive way to start the day.
While we and our kids feasted on Shrek-themed breakfast items such as a “Chocolate Love Potion,” (a milkshake) and “Better In Than Out” eggs, the Shrek, Princess Fiona and Puss in Boots characters walked around the Opus Dining Room for photo opportunities.
(Seven-year-old Jack Dinnigan is shown with the Puss in Boots character at the Shrek Breakfast.*)
Two Madagascar Breakfasts also were offered on our cruise. Each of these fun DreamWorks character meals is limited to 200 guests.
Because the character breakfasts are complimentary and wildly popular, advance reservations are an absolute "must." Otherwise, your kids might be disappointed.
Usually, these character breakfasts are set up for 8 a.m. on sea days.
H2O Zone for Kids
Another major attraction for kids -- beyond participation in the Adventure Ocean kids' club -- is the phenomenal aqua park-style H2O Zone pool area. (A portion of this water fun area is shown in the photo above.*)
H2O Zone is one of the ship's four separate swimming areas, each with its own pool.
Given the ages of our children, we spent most of our time here. It's a colorful sprinkler park, anchored by a supersized octopus (shown in photo at left*).
Adjacent is a three-foot-deep rectangular swimming pool and separate twister pool tank, in which the strong jets propel swimmers around in a circle.
Our kids loved the twister pool. (They're shown with their dad in the photo above right.*)
And, frankly, quite a few adults either with or without kids in tow were whirling around this waterway.
Have really young kids? Within the sprinkler section is Baby Splash Zone, a cordoned-off spot for infants, who must wear Swimmie diapers while playing here with mom and dad; it has its own filtration system.
On sea days the H2O Zone was crowded, but not so much that we opted to forego it.
Strolling the Boardwalk
Our family's other favorite area onboard was the Boardwalk, complete with a razzle-dazzle carousel and a small pirate ship into which the kids can venture.
(At right is a photo of the pirate ship's porthole which my kids enjoyed for playing and views to Boardwalk.*)
We also attended two Family Festivals -- Circus and Music -- on the Boardwalk. If you go, what can you expect?
The Adventure Ocean staff set up lots of oversize games and instruments. My kids had a blast doing the beanbag and ring toss, playing the steel drum and rolling the giant dice.
Other diversions included face painting and balloon sculptures. (At left, our kids really loved the free activities available to kids on Boardwalk.*)
Beyond the festivals, families visiting Boardwalk on any day might head to a novelty photo studio complete with costumes.
At Pets at Sea, kids may create -- for an added fee -- their own cuddly stuffed animal.
For snacks or lite fare, a donut shop, ice-cream parlor and an outdoor snack bar with sandwiches and salads are options.
At the far end of the Boardwalk is the AquaTheater, home to the deepest saltwater pool at sea. (See photo at right.*)
My whole family was entertained by the "Oasis of Dreams Aqua Show" and "Splish Splash Comedy Dive Show."
It’s remarkable to watch a high dive/synchronized swimming act like this on its own, let alone at sea.
And, the crowd really laughed and cheered at the guest belly flop contest.
(At left, one brave guest competes in the belly flop contest.*)
Each year of cruising with my kids it’s obvious how the experience changes for them and for us as they get older.
This year for the first time my children were separated by age categories in the free, year-round Adventure Ocean club. I was concerned, but this didn't pose a problem. Each day they were more than eager to run in and participate.
Incidentally, “the programs have not changed a lot [from other Royal Caribbean ships' kids programs] due to the size of the ship," said Shirrelle Pattison, Adventure Ocean manager. "The way we deliver them is the main difference. It's the same activity schedule whether you’re on an eastern or western Caribbean itinerary.”
On our sailing, there were 1,566 kids and teens onboard, including our two boys (shown at right.*)
This total included 54 infants and toddlers under the age of 3, 125 kids ages 3 to 5; 198 children ages 6 to 8; 313 kids 9 to 11; 408 tweens and young teens of 12 to 14; and 468 teenagers ages 15 to 17.
Pattison said that for Oasis of the Seas, that number was typical for sailings over Spring Break, Thanksgiving and the summer family travel season. "We can get up to 1,800 on a sailing," she noted.
Pattison added: “There is no official ratio of staff to kids ages 3 to 11. We bring in more staff if they can’t handle it. There are so many things around the ship to do, so we are never to the point of busy where we stop letting kids in.”
The Adventure Ocean facility is enormous at 28,796 square feet and divided into many rooms. Kids access an Adventure Science Lab, Crayola Art Imagination Studio and the Adventure Ocean Theater.
Each day there is at least one science and art session for each age group. Adventure Science was no doubt the biggest hit with my kids.
My kids loved such hands-on experiments as volcanos, gravity fillers, meterology, fossils, space mud, gummy bears and germ petrie dishes.
(One of the Adventure Ocean activity rooms is shown at left.*)
In the art studio they could make dino prints, starfish, picture frames, fish kites and gladiator shields.
Theater shows included movies, a Fisher Price Little People live show and a black-light puppet show.
The remaining Adventure Ocean space is for dedicated rooms for each age group: Aquanauts (3 to 5), Explorers (6 to 8) and Voyagers (9 to 11).
The Aqua Babies Club nursery is for Royal Babies (6 to 18 months) and Royal Tots (18 to 36 months).
The adjacent, circular Fisher Price "Free Play" room is filled with toys for those under 3.
(The Fisher Price room in which parents and small tots play together is shown at right.*)
Each room is spacious, clean and cheery. The Aquanauts room has a small slide, and all rooms have computers/video game consoles.
To reduce the spread of germs, kids must wash their hands upon entering, a good policy.
It's also good to know that each youth staff member has a four-year university degree in education or recreation, is CPR certified and has passed a criminal background check.
How Do They Occupy the Kids?
What do kids do in Adventure Ocean? Aquanaut activities include such fare as freeze dance, storytime, T-Rex tag, obstacle course and balance beam.
Explorers might have pajama night, play crazy tag, minefield, swamp crossing or log rolling, or enjoy jousting and face painting.
For Voyagers, diversions include a balloon stomp, Egyptian mummy wraps, dodgeball and baton races.
There are many family activities for the 3 to 11 set as well, such as karaoke, Nintendo Wii sessions, disco, scrapbooking and festivals.
Parents are also welcome to attend shows in the Adventure Ocean Theater.
It’s easy to sign up your children for Adventure Ocean. The center holds two open houses on embarkation day. There are no separate meetings to attend.
Simply show up with your SeaPass card and that of your child; the staff will register your child in the computer system, and presto, it's completed.
My advice is to always sign up immediately after you board, so your kids are ready to participate in the program right away on Day 2.
That said, sign-up can also be completed when you drop them off for the first time.
Parents are required to fill out a consent form listing any allergies, medications and special needs, and authorizing emergency medical treatment.
Youth staff does not administer any medications.
Kids are issued a youth evacuation plan wristband denoting their muster station. Youth staff will bring kids to parents at the muster station in the event of an emergency.
Facility hours during our cruise were 9 a.m. to noon; 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. (including dinner at no charge); and a helpful option of 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. so parents may dine alone.
In addition, a “Lunch and Play” supervised period ran from noon to 2 p.m. Parents must sign up in advance for this; lunch is free on port days, and costs $7.95 per child on sea days.
Port day hours in Adventure Ocean also vary slightly to accommodate shore excursion departures.
Getting Kids Acclimated
Sometimes children can have trouble adjusting. “Try a small amount of time in Adventure Ocean with the little ones,” said Pattison. “Do one hour at first, and slowly increase that length of time.
She said the youngest kids are often easiest to adjust as they see the toys and forget why they’re anxious in the first place.
"We want to make new sailors comfortable," stressed Pattison."We can’t offer one-on-one attention, but we do introduce them to new friends. If kids are upset, we can bring siblings in from another room to calm them down. It’s an easy fix.”
Keeping the Peace
Sometimes kids act out repeatedly, and parents planning to put their kids into Adventure Ocean should understand that the line's behavior policy is enforced.
“The staff is trained to tell parents if kids misbehave,” says Pattison. “We get as much information on [the kids] as we can to make sure they have a good time. We ask parents for techniques on handling their kids. It’s not strict like school. We just want to make sure they’re behaving a certain way."
So, Pattison said that children who continually disrupt activities or display inappropriate behavior causing other kids to be unsafe or not have a good time will receive a warning, then a time out, and then, if the behavior continues, the kids will be ejected from program.
It’s easy to stay in touch if there’s a problem. “We automatically issue phones to the parents of 3 and 4 year olds, and kids with disabilities, and they can be provided [to other parents] upon request,” said Pattison.
Essentially, if the staff can't calm kids down, if they have potty accidents, or if they’re really tired and irritated, parents are called.
“The phone only works on the ship," Pattison said. "If the battery runs low [parents may] come to the center to have it replaced." Be advised that if you lose the phone, it will cost you $300.
Nighttime Babysitting Options
Late-night group babysitting for potty-trained kids over 3 is available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in Adventure Ocean. It costs $6 per hour, per child.
One helpful tip? Definitely pick up your kids on time or it will cost you.
Starting at minute 16, guests are charged $1 for each minute they’re late to pick up each child.
Private, in-room babysitting may be booked 24 in advance through the Guest Relations desk.
It costs $19 per hour -- with a two-hour minimum -- for up to three kids.
The in-room babysitting gives your kids a chance to fall asleep "at home" in their cabin (as shown at left*).
That's often easier than taking them to the kids' club, where they doze off and then you ultimately have to awaken them for the trip back to the stateroom.
Childcare for Infants and Tots
I'm so pleased Royal Caribbean has implemented the Royal Babies and Royal Tots nursery program. That option simply wasn't available at the time we were cruising with an infant or toddler.
Parents with babies likely will be thrilled to partake of this service, as it enables adults to have free time to themselves on their cruise vacation.
The nursery has a matted floor with Fisher Price toys, TV, cribs (shown at right*), plush seating area, changing tables and cubbies.
“There’s a 4:1 ratio of children to staff in the nursery,” said Pattison.
Little ones under 3 can be dropped off in the nursery from 9 a.m. to midnight ; the cost is $8 per hour, per child. If kids want to take toys back to the cabin, ask the staff about the Toy Lending Program.
The "Free Play" is essentially a room for scheduled, parental-supervised, staff-run Play Groups, as well as parent-and-child free play time.
This venue is outfitted with large Fisher Price toys, wagons, play strollers and a Dora the Explorer kitchen. It was open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on our cruise.
Themed, hour-long Play Groups operate at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily for Royal Babies, and at 10 a.m., 7:15 p.m. and 8 p.m. for Royal Tots.
On the first two days of the cruise, each family receives a limited number of nursery booking hours. By Day 3, however, the nursery opens up all remaining hours to be given away on a first-come, first-serve basis. Booking in advance is recommended.
“Passengers get up to 20 hours and can get more based on availability,” emphasized Pattison. “Parents have to pack diapers, wipes, food and formula for the fridge.”
If traveling with an infant, you might consider ordering “Babies 2 Go” Huggies diapers and wipes through Royal Caribbean’s Gifts & Gear section on the Web site, which will be delivered to the cabin upon arrival.
Tweens and Teens
“Teens ages 12 to 17 are basically in their own category and on a different side of the ship,” noted Pattison. Once registered, teens ages 12 to 17 are free to come and go from all activities.
Tweens and teens are usually divided into two groups -- those 12-14 and older kids 15-17. The Living Room is the main hang-out room, and Fuel, the teen nightclub, is accessed through the Living Room.
Pre-teens can partake in sports tournaments, pool parties, karaoke, scavenger hunts and themed dance parties.
Teens can participate in a "Dusk Glow" Miami-style party, Vegas nights, Guitar Hero play, a battle of the sexes, teen bingo, a photo scavenger hunt and an "Amazing Race" styled competition.
Incidentally, “no one 18 and over is allowed in Adventure Ocean [and that includes the Living Room and Fuel],” says Pattison. Why?
Legally, those 18 and older are adults "so we’re strict — no exceptions,” according to Pattison.
Beyond the walls of the dedicated teen facilities, a popular teen hang-out onboard was the surfer-themed, fast-food Wipe Out Café.
It features ceiling-suspended, life-size divers, as well as surfboard benches (shown at left*).
All teens have a 1 a.m. shipwide curfew, unless they're participating in a late-night Adventure Ocean activity.
Important Editor's Note: This isn't the end of this story. Definitely read Part 2 of Lizz' story. She gives perspective on additional Oasis of the Seas activities "beyond" Adventure Ocean, details about her family's dining, accommodations and port choices, and personal gleanings about cruise vacation planning for this ship and whether Oasis is the right ship. So visit "Oasis of the Seas=Ultimate Adventure Pt. 2"
Lizz Dinnigan is a freelance writer and senior contributing editor-family cruising for SouthernCruising.com™. She is the former associate editor - cruise for Travel Agent Magazine, a major national weekly trade publication.
*All photographs are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of Lizz Dinnigan or Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.