fain3.jpgThe passengers boarding Oasis of the Seas in Fort Lauderdale probably paid little attention to the tall, softly spoken American standing by the gangway as they entered the ship.
But he was watching them closely, and listening to every word they said as they stepped into the Royal Promenade – a shopping mall the length of a football pitch on the biggest cruise ship in the world.
For the man in question was Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean, who was anxious to gauge their reaction to the mighty vessel which cost £800 million and has been six years in the planning and building before making her first voyages with passengers on board this week.
“Mostly it’s ‘Oh. My. God,'” he told me today. “People are just amazed. Nothing prepares you for this ship and that even goes for members of my board, who have been involved in all the planning, have seen drawings, have been shown renderings, have even seen a virtual reality model. Some of them have been to the shipyard in Turku, Finland to see the ship under construction.
“But when we held a board meeting on the ship last week, the first question from one of them was: ‘Richard, why didn’t you tell us . . . ?'”
Pictures, words and statistics – and plenty of all them have been expended on Oasis in the last few weeks – can’t get close to giving a full impression of this ship. It’s the first to have an open-air park and a Boardwalk play area complete with full-sized carousel, all overlooked by hundreds of inward-facing balcony cabins which are proving even more popular than those with a sea view.
It’s all very well saying that this is a ship that measures more than 225,000 gross tonnage, is 1,187 feet long, 208 feet wide, and 203 feet high from the waterline – with another 30 feet hidden under the water. That it carries up to 6,296 passengers and 2,165 crew, and has a main restaurant that seats 3,056 and a theatre holding an audience of 2,161.
But until you stand on the pool deck and look across the children’s water park, the wide gap between cabins, and then another pool, you can’t really appreciate what that size means. Until you gaze up at the eight decks of cabin balconies that look like an apartment block tipped on its side, and until you attempt to sample all of the restaurants, bars and shops on board – impossible in a week’s cruise, let alone the three days I’m on board – you can’t really take in Oasis.
Richard Fain has taken cruise ships to a whole new dimension, although he refuses to take the credit, and says it’s his team that have done all the work and come up with all the ideas, such as the Central Park, whose 12,000 plants and trees beat even the real grass lawns on the Solstice class ships of sister company Celebrity Cruises, and the new safety drills which no longer require passengers to take lifejackets to their muster stations.
“The ideas evolved through teamwork and through a bunch of people sitting in a room, discussing an issue or a concept. The innovation feeds on itself. One idea led to another. There was no Eureka moment when I leapt up and ran down the street naked,” he says. “My job is to go to the meetings and nod sagely when people come up with new and better ideas.”
Sister ship Allure of the Seas is already well on the way to completion in the Turku shipyard – she was floated out of dry-dock at the weekend and will enter service in less than 12 months’ time.
So now that he has had a chance to see how Oasis handles real passengers for the first time, is there anything that Richard would like to change on Allure while there is still a chance?
“Remarkably little,” was his determined response, as we sat together in one of the ship’s innovative double-height loft suites on Deck 17 (and 18). “I was quoted as saying that when I first saw these suites I wished we had built more of them, but now I’m happy that we have a good balance. If we had any more, they would lose their uniqueness.”
He was almost apologetic that it had not been possible to bring Oasis to the UK, apart from a very quick stop in the Solent to disembark 300 workers, but explained that it was not possible because the plants of Central Park – which have to cope with year-round Caribbean temperatures – could only be loaded on board once the ship arrived in Florida from the freezing Finnish shipyard.
“I know Central Park looks impressive even without the greenery and the foliage,” he said, but you can only really appreciate what has been achieved when you see it completed.
So we’re unlikely to see Allure in the UK either, at least for a few more years.
The UK will, however, be getting the the third of five new Solstice-class ships, Celebrity Eclipse, next year and Richard will be flying to Southampton for the launch in April.
I have a feeling he also has plans for Royal Caribbean’s third brand, Azamara, which operates two much smaller boutique ships, the Journey and the Quest, but company law prevents him from revealing details at this stage.
I shall be watching this space to see what is announced. And I’ll be back with more from Oasis of the Seas tomorrow.