TPG’s Erica Silverstein accepted a free trip from Royal Caribbean to sail its newest ship, Icon of the Seas. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the line.
The cruising world has been breathlessly awaiting the debut of Icon of the Seas, which officially joins the Royal Caribbean fleet Saturday. This week, I experienced the megaship — the latest to hold the title of “world’s largest” — on a three-night preview cruise.
Three days is not a lot of time to experience everything on board a 7,600-passenger, 250,800-ton ship, especially not when our sea day was cold and windy and the pool decks were a ghost town. But my 9-year-old daughter and I did our best to try out as many kid-, adult- and family-focused activities and attractions as possible to see if Royal Caribbean truly has created the ultimate family vacation with no compromises, as its team likes to say.
Icon of the Seas was not sailing anywhere near maximum capacity, with 4,500 guests on board (and only 300 of those children), so I can’t comment on how crowded the ship will feel or how long queues will be when the ship sails full. Also, not all of the shows and activities were running, so I didn’t have the complete Icon experience.
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Here are my first impressions after three days aboard Icon of the Seas.
It’s surprisingly easy to get around
The first time I went on one of Royal Caribbean’s humongous ships, I was worried that I would be lost or that it would take forever for me to learn my way around the ship. But the cruise line invented the neighborhood concept and designed its megaships to make them easier to navigate than you’d think.
Icon of the Seas follows the same mold. The Royal Promenade on decks 5 and 6 is the central public space, flanked by the dining room and the theater. Its upper level leads to Deck 7’s family-focused Surfside, which leads up to leafy Central Park. (And if you don’t want to hit Surfside, you can get directly from The Royal Promenade to Central Park via stairs by the Pearl Cafe.)
Chill Island (the main pool and sunbathing area), Thrill Island (water park and other active pursuits) and The Hideaway (adults-only pool and sun deck) all flow into each other and The AquaDome (the glass dome at the front of the ship housing the AquaTheater). There are a few dead ends, and The Hideaway is purposefully tucked away behind Thrill Island, accessible only from the deck above.
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The trickiest part of navigating the ship is remembering which way to turn toward your cabin when you step out of the huge elevator lobbies. I never got that right in three days; thankfully, signs will direct you where you need to go.
Shows will impress
Royal Caribbean is known for its innovative high-tech large-scale shows — in the theater, in the water and on the ice. The entertainment on Icon of the Seas stays true to brand and does not fail to impress.
“Starburst” is the ice skating show in the newly designed circular Studio B rink. It’s themed around the elements (carbon, helium, etc.) and intersperses group, solo and pair skating numbers with next-level juggling by a character dubbed “The Starman.”
The costumes are creative and fun (including glow-in-the-dark and light-up outfits), and the use of lighting and video on the walls and the ice sets a spacey scene. I’m no figure skating expert, but it seemed that the round ice stage made it easier for the skaters to use the entire space to get up speed to do jumps and tricks, and I was impressed with the lifts, spins and jumps executed in the space.
The AquaTheater shows were not ready for prime time on our sailing because the theater has only been fully operational for a week. We caught a preview of a few of the numbers, and the choreography of acrobats, divers, dancers and robots was mesmerizing.
The marquee main stage show on Icon of the Seas is “The Wizard of Oz,” and you shouldn’t dismiss it. Royal Caribbean has found a way to modernize the show, and the impressive special effects, including set pieces flying above the audience, will captivate cruisers of all ages.
Icon of the Seas has Royal Caribbean’s best Royal Promenade
The Royal Promenades on Royal Caribbean ships have always been compared to shopping malls. The long corridors lined with shops, restaurants and bars suffer from a lack of natural light, even if the ceilings are many decks high. But the cruise line got it right on Icon.
By ditching the promenade-facing cabins for multideck-high glass walls, the Promenade feels lighter on Icon than on any other Royal Caribbean ship. Another win is that the upper level is now a complete circle, so you can walk from the forward to the aft elevator banks and back without running into dead ends. There’s even a stairwell up into Central Park. The whole area feels more inviting and more easily navigable.
The Royal Promenade’s stunning centerpiece is The Pearl, a spherical structure turned art piece with 3,600 kinetic tiles and colored lighting. Climb its center stairway to the Pearl Cafe; its window-facing comfy seating and tasty cafe snacks make it a popular sea-day hangout. The hip 1400 Bar, with its craft cocktails and central indoor-outdoor location, and Dueling Pianos Bar were happening hot spots on my sailing.
Fan favorites like Starbucks, Boleros (Latin music and dancing), Sorrento’s (pizza all day and night) and a British-style pub (here called the Point & Feather) return. You might be surprised to find that you’re spending more time on the Royal Promenade on Icon of the Seas than you have on other Royal Caribbean ships.
New dining venues are a hit
The dining on Icon of the Seas is a mix of returning favorites and new concepts. We were pretty pleased with the new options.
A favorite is AquaDome Market, a five-venue food hall serving crepes, macaroni and cheese, Asian, Mediterranean, and sandwiches and salads. My Mediterranean bowl topped with falafel and veggies was a healthy counterpart to my indulgent Nutella-banana crepe. I enjoyed a bowl of tofu stir-fry, noodles and a veggie egg roll as well. I found the mac ‘n’ cheese dull.
The Pearl Cafe is an elevated take on Cafe Promenade on other ships. Both the roasted apple and the pulled chicken sandwiches I tried were delightful, but the Oreo cupcake was dry and disappointing. Know that the sandwiches are heated up, which takes a moment, so be prepared to wait. You can also help yourself to cold grab-and-go sandwiches and salads.
Surfside Bites had all my daughter’s favorites — pizza, popcorn chicken, burgers and hot dogs — but I was able to get a piece of barbecue chicken and some sweet potato wedges next door at the Surfside Eatery buffet. (However, there was no green salad, which would have been a nice option for health-conscious parents.) We enjoyed breakfast there, as well; it has a smaller selection than the Windjammer Marketplace but has enough options for kids and adults alike.
My fish tacos and Korean chicken at Pier 7 — Surfside’s casual, family-oriented specialty dining venue — were fantastic and possibly my favorite meal of the three-night cruise. My daughter enjoyed her steak tacos, after she pushed aside all the beans, and the molten chocolate cake dessert was so good it might have dethroned Carnival’s as best at sea. I would have liked to see a better kids menu there or at least kid-size portions.
Basecamp is annoyingly extra-fee since it’s comfort food, but the chicken-waffle bites I had were fun and tasty. If you dig Wisconsin-style cheese curds and shrimp bao buns, you might be willing to pay up, or you can get a hot dog, warm pretzel and tater tots for free.
Don’t waste your money on Desserted around the corner. The epic milkshakes topped with brownies and mini-pinatas are meant for social media, but the actual taste is disappointing.
The hottest ticket will be the Empire Supper Club, given that the venue seats fewer than 40 guests and the price tag is $200 per person. Needless to say, we were unable to experience it, but the venue looks intimate and cool.
Thrill Island is more extreme than I expected
My family loves waterslides and had a blast at a recent Great Wolf Lodge visit and on previous cruises with Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line. My daughter and I had high hopes for Icon’s Category 6, the largest water park at sea. It didn’t deliver for us.
Why? Most of the rides were simply too extreme for a 9-year-old and her mom. Our favorites were the two family raft slides, where two to four riders slide together in round rafts. They were fast and dizzying but not overwhelming — the perfect waterslides. But you can’t ride by yourself.
Of the others, one was a 90-degree drop, with no twists or turns. That means it’s over in a few seconds, and you don’t really need to ride it again. My daughter, who loved the drop slide at Great Wolf Lodge, did not like the one on Icon; she said it was too short, too much water went up her nose, and she bonked her head by leaning it back.
The final two slides are face-first toboggan-style mat slides, and they’re so fast that you get a face full of water as you careen from side to side down the slide. I went so fast that, as my raft banked a turn too high, I tumbled off and hit my head.
There was no basic lie-on-your-back thrilling-but-not-extreme slide for tamer riders like some of the ones my daughter rode on Wonder of the Seas. The water park is clearly aimed more at teens and adults, and I was disappointed there wasn’t at least one option for a younger kid who’s outgrown the Splashaway Bay splash park at Surfside but not quite ready for 90-degree drops.
Opposite the water park is Royal Caribbean’s new Crown’s Edge ropes course. It’s also not for the faint of heart since the track takes you over the edge of the ship, where the wind really picks up. I won’t spoil the end of the ride, but you will gasp in surprise. That thrill was more my style, but it won’t be if you’re afraid of open heights.
Note that the course takes perhaps a minute to complete, which is super short compared to the longer courses on lines like Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival. There’s also a lot of prep time, as you have to don a jumpsuit in addition to the harness and safety equipment. The cruise line seems to still be figuring out pricing for the attraction, and it’s unclear if you can do the course multiple times in a row without disrobing and getting back in line.
For more-accessible thrills, try the Lost Dunes minigolf course or the rock climbing wall.
Cabins feel modern, with some smart new categories
The standard cabins on Icon of the Seas felt more modern and upscale than similar rooms on Wonder of the Seas, which debuted only two years earlier. Light wood furnishings are accented with dark blues that lean toward slate, rather than nautical hues, and the rooms are welcoming, rather than mass-market cruise basic.
I applaud the vanity areas, with their large lighted mirrors, deep drawers for storing clothing and a mix of charging outlets: 120-volt, USB and USB-C (the first time I’ve seen the latter on a cruise ship, though I’m told other new ships like Carnival Jubilee have them, as well). Additional USB outlets are located by the bed and next to a shelf, and another plug outlet is on the opposite side of the bed.
I was pleased to find hidden storage behind a full-length mirror and some narrow shelves tucked into a recessed wall area. The bathrooms smartly add a small bench in the shower, plenty of shelving and a drawer for storage.
The line has also added some smart new cabin categories for its target markets. More cabins than ever can sleep more than two people. They include Surfside Family Suites, each of which features a separate windowed sunroom with a loveseat that doubles as a kid bed. Family Infinite Ocean View Balcony Cabins offer a main sleeping area and a fun bunk bed nook for kids, as well as a split bathroom (one room with sink and toilet, another with sink and shower).
Interior Plus rooms have extra-large closets for those who want to squeeze multiple people into the cheapest accommodations, and Sunset Suites position beds to face the ocean views, so you wake up to views of the sea.
… But they miss the mark in a few areas
Not every cabin on board is a true winner, and many are a mixed bag. I had a few issues with my cabin, partly because it was Central Park-facing, partly because it was an infinite veranda and partly because of the new design.
I’ve long been curious about Royal Caribbean’s inward-facing cabins. The reality is that you can see straight into other people’s rooms, either from your cabin or from Central Park.
If you want to keep that gorgeous floor-to-ceiling glass wall unshaded, you give up privacy. Which meant that every evening, we closed the shades and basically created an inside cabin situation where it was pitch dark with no natural light, and I had no idea what time it was. Also, sounds from the new Central Park jazz club and the DJ on the pool deck carried into the room. Presumably, Surfside-facing cabins have similar challenges.
The Infinite Balcony was also hit-and-miss. On the one hand, I don’t typically use a balcony much when I cruise, and I loved the extra cabin space. (I had a sitting area to dump my stuff and a sitting area to actually sit!)
On the other hand, you really don’t want to open the window portion of the outer wall because it lets in the heat (or would on a warmer voyage — our sailing was rather chilly) and even more noise from outside. Plus, your conversations would carry out into Central Park — again with the lack of privacy. It’s not clear if the curtains you can pull to separate the main part of the room from the windowside sitting area would help with climate control.
I prefer the ocean-facing Infinite Balcony cabins to the interior-facing rooms, but you’d still have climate control issues inside the cabin because the balcony is not external to the rest of the room.
Finally, the new design seemed to get some things right and some things wrong. I loved the number of USB ports in the cabin, but I would have liked more than two regular 110-volt outlets, or both regular and USB outlets on each side of the bed.
I loved the functional drawers but disliked the four wire baskets in the wardrobe area that weren’t on tracks and were clunky to pull out and push back in as they’d fall off their storage shelves. The two closest to the wall were also difficult to access because there’s not much room between the couch and the wardrobe.
Our cabin had more than enough storage for a mom and kid on a three-night cruise, but I’d bet that more than two people sharing a cabin on a weeklong sailing might struggle to unpack all of their clothing. It’s unclear how useful all the small, narrow shelves in the room would actually be.
Finally, while I appreciate the new bathroom design with a larger shower that includes a bench, the bathrooms are tight and don’t have a lot of floor space.
The ship caters well to young kids and teens
Surfside accomplishes Royal Caribbean’s mission of catering to families with kids ages 6 and younger. It has accessible dining venues, fun play spaces (such as a toddler pool, splash park, imaginative carousel and play structure) and programming geared to young kids. Moms, keep an eye out for Admiral Awesome, an Australian hottie in a brightly colored uniform who will entertain kids with bedtime stories and card tricks.
In the coming weeks, Icon of the Seas will also add shorter kid-themed ice skating and AquaTheater shows scheduled for earlier hours than the longer evening shows in the same spaces. Families can still enjoy the spectacles of these events without trying limited attention spans or pushing back bedtime.
The youth team has also come up with innovative ways to captivate teens, making the Social 020 teen club (hidden between Playmakers Sports Bar and the Studio B ice rink) more of a touchpoint than a full-time hangout and focusing instead on cool takeovers of adult spaces like Hideaway Bay and Izumi. They’ll also be lured out with teen-only laser tag, exclusive water park time and VIP seating for certain show times.
However, kids in the middle aren’t served as well by the ship. If Thrill Island is too extreme and Surfside too young, kids in that 9-to-11 range will need to be content with swimming pools, pingpong, minigolf and the rock climbing wall. My daughter actually preferred the variety of Wonder of the Seas, where she could easily hop from splash park to approachable waterslides to the pools, all in one convenient location.
The Adventure Ocean play space is large, with sections focused on video and digital games, science experiments, craft projects and active pursuits. If your kids are willing to ditch their parents (mine wasn’t), it promises variety for all ages.
Icon of the Seas is a showstopper. Royal Caribbean mixed data and feedback on its existing fleet with a hefty dose of creativity and innovation to create amazing spaces on board. Will the line’s self-contained neighborhoods and varied programming keep guests moving around the ship without overcrowding any one space? Will you be able to do everything you want on board on a weeklong sailing? Only time will tell.
The ship isn’t perfect for everyone; my daughter, for one, is still staunchly voting for Wonder of the Seas as her favorite Royal Caribbean ship. But everyone can find something to like on board, whether it’s the stunning shows, the thrill rides, the ocean-facing pools, the creative craft cocktails or the dining variety.
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