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Home Travel We tried the world’s biggest cruise ship. Does it meet the hype?

We tried the world’s biggest cruise ship. Does it meet the hype?

by Staff

On the fifth hour of their shore excursion, the cruise ship passengers were losing steam. Many slumped in their seats as a smaller boat shuttled them from Nevis to St. Kitts. Others closed their eyes and mechanically sang along to such wedding reception standards as “Y.M.C.A.” and “Cha-Cha Slide.” As soon as the Icon of the Seas came into view, however, everyone perked up.

The group had toured a sugar plantation, a rum distillery and Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace. Yet the biggest attraction of the day was the mother ship they had boarded three days earlier in Miami. The hulking vessel dwarfed the Caribbean landscape and cast a long shadow over the water. For several seconds, the sun disappeared.

“It’s a monster, isn’t it?” a passenger exclaimed as he snapped photos of the world’s largest cruise ship.

Royal Caribbean International’s newest showpiece took its maiden voyage on Jan. 27, dethroning the previous titleholder for size, the cruise line’s Wonder of the Seas. Its stature is frightening or exciting, depending on your position. The 1,198-foot-long ship weighs 250,800 gross tons. Jay Schneider, the company’s chief product innovation officer, said it can accommodate up to 7,508 guests, depending on cabin occupancy. There is also room for more than 2,000 crew members.

“I was nervous about how many people were going to be stuck on this ship,” said Alecia Bimonte, 45, a Tampa-based teacher sailing with her husband, Anthony. “But once we got on and saw everything, it put me at ease.”

The Icon is all about the superlatives. It boasts the largest ice skating rink at sea, the tallest drop slide at sea and the most expansive pool at sea. Its long list of “firsts at sea” includes a suspended infinity pool, a walk-up champagne bar and a chief dog officer named Rover.

“For me, as a cruise ship nerd, this ship puts it all over the top,” said Danny Genung, a cruise travel planner and owner of Harr Travel in California, who was accompanying almost 70 clients. “I’ve never seen anything close to the excitement or the buzz.”

To experience the enormousness of the Icon, we booked passage on the inaugural cruise. As we explored its 20 decks from forward to stern, we would try to answer the burning question: Is bigger better, or did Royal Caribbean go overboard?

For Icon’s first revenue voyage, Royal Caribbean capped the number of passengers at just under 5,000 to smooth out any kinks. The company will gradually welcome more guests until it reaches full capacity, just in time for spring break.

At the Miami terminal, Royal Caribbean’s app has helped remove the pain points typically associated with the check-in process. After showing my passport and grinning for the camera, I waltzed on board — 12 minutes flat. Before heading to my stateroom to pick up my SeaPass card, the room key with onboard purchasing power, I swung by the karaoke bar. A crew member demonstrated how to use a life jacket, checked my name off on a clipboard and then returned to singing softly to herself.

The muster-at-your-leisure drill may have confused some passengers. Two and a half hours before departure, the cruise director made an announcement: 700 people had not completed their safety briefing. “They can’t sail without checking in,” he warned.

Fortunately, they figured it out. At around 5:30 p.m., the captain blew the horn, and the Icon shuddered to life.

Icon tip: To expedite the arrival process, check in on Royal Caribbean’s app, fill out your health questionnaire within 24 hours of departure, and dump all of your liquids before you reach security.

What to do on the Icon of the Seas

The Icon offers several eastern and western Caribbean itineraries. The seven-day cruises include three ports and three at-sea days, so cruisers have a lot of ship time.

Royal Caribbean does its best to prevent boredom. Passengers can soak in nine whirlpools and lounge at seven pools, including the Hideaway, an adults-only infinity pool with a glass wall that reminded me of an aquarium exhibit.

“It was a lot of people in a tiny space, and you see their legs,” Bimonte said. “It was murky with all the sunblock and everything else. I didn’t want to go in there.”

Most of the adventurous activities are on Thrill Island, one of eight “neighborhoods,” or thematic zones. At Crown’s Edge, an attraction that loosely combines highlining and ziplining, participants in jumpsuits and harnesses step gingerly along the side of the ship before the skyway drops, catapulting them over the water and back to the landing pad. The highflying feat takes only a few minutes, or longer if you stop to pose for the staff photographer shouting at you to smile.

There’s a water park featuring six rides of varying scream levels. Two towers include three rides each; Schneider said this will alleviate waits. Royal Caribbean designed the attraction with 2,000 kids in mind so that no one will have to stand in line for more than 20 minutes.

At Storm Chaser, a mat race down a twisty slide, my already short wait was cut in half when a crew member pulled me to the front of the line because I was solo. I raced against an Irishman who bested me by four seconds. He told me to not feel bad; his slide was faster.

To recover from the adrenaline rush, I attended a hair demo at the spa’s beauty salon. Only three of us showed up, and even with those odds, I didn’t win the free curl and comb. At the Ladies Pampering Party, women with flawless skin walked around the room squeezing lotions and serums onto our fingertips. The lone man onstage flashed an iridescent white smile and described the virtues of teeth bleaching. After the event, which felt like a QVC taping, I grabbed my $50 spa coupon and fled.

From then on, I swore off all “self-improvement” activities. I played pickle ball, learned to dance the bachata and attended a stretch class with an instructor who called out positions like a drill sergeant.

Icon tip: To save money on the Crown’s Edge, book a spot on a port day, when the price drops. Check the Cruise Compass for spa specials, such as $169 for a 75-minute massage.

Bars and restaurants onboard

There weren’t enough hours in the seven-day cruise to eat and drink at all 40-plus restaurants, bars and lounges. I created a meal plan to prevent myself from getting overwhelmed or overfed.

The dining options are split between complimentary venues and specialty restaurants that charge a cover fee or a la carte prices. For my one splurge, I reserved a table at Izumi in the Park, which serves Japanese cuisine including Benihana-style teppanyaki and takeout sushi. On a warm evening under an oval cutout framing a starry sky, I sat outside in the Central Park neighborhood, slurping udon noodles and sipping sake as recorded birds chirped and cruisers in tuxedos and ball gowns strolled by. The dinner probably wouldn’t pass muster in Tokyo, but I grade on a curve.

Not one for formality, I ate most of my meals at the Windjammer buffet, where singing crew members dressed in hamburger, taco and chicken leg costumes remind diners to wash their hands before eating. For anytime snacks, I swung by Pearl Cafe, the only venue open 24/7, and the new AquaMarket, a food hall with crepes, Mediterranean, mac-and-cheese and other casual favorites.

The Dining Room evoked old-school cruising, with set dining times (unless you choose My Time Dining), white tablecloths, assigned tables and a team of attentive servers who never let your water glass drop below the halfway mark. The cavernous space covers three floors and fits more than 2,600 diners, who dig into such classics as escargot a la bourguignonne and chicken cordon bleu.

I ordered the spring pea risotto, which came with a surprise hair. The head waiter was apologetic, and I received numerous phone calls from him and guest services about the incident. He even chased me down at Windjammer, asking me to give the Dining Room another chance. Originally from India, he offered to cook me any dish I desired.

On the last night of the cruise, he presented me with a bowl of yellow dal that he said tasted like his uncle’s back home. All was forgiven.

Icon tip: If a specialty restaurant is booked for dinner, try lunch, which usually has more openings and costs less.

Shows sell out weeks in advance

Royal Caribbean opens up its reservations system months before the sailing, so cruisers can start filling up their social calendars with specialty restaurants, shore excursions, onboard activities and entertainment. Icon passengers pounced.

A week before the ship set sail, I scrolled through scores of sold-out events and activities on the app. I snagged a matinee ticket for “The Wizard of Oz” and an evening reservation for the premiere of “Starburst: Elemental Beauty,” an ice skating performance inspired by the periodic table. However, “Aqua Action!” — a splashy spectacle with divers, acrobats and aerialists — was fully booked. So was the comedy show at the Attic, one of the smaller venues. (The 1,219-seat Royal Theater, where Dorothy and Toto perform, is one of the largest.)

Schneider said passengers without reservations should not lose hope. The cruise line often releases additional seats during the sailing. You can pore over the app or save time and go directly to a box office, where the crew members have all the listings at their fingertips.

Outside the Attic, a cheerful staff member booked me seats for three headliners. (The acts often change week by week.) Though she could not find an opening for “Aqua Action!” or the stand-up comedy, she recommended arriving 30 to 45 minutes before show time and joining the standby line. Ten minutes before the performance, the staff will open up the venue to everyone. (On the flip side, if you have a reservation, don’t arrive late, or a cruiser like me might take your seat.) This strategy worked for both shows, and my seats were a safe distance from the splashing and heckling zones.

Icon tip: Cruisers often bail on late-night performances scheduled on port days and on the last evening of the cruise, so your standby chances improve for these shows.

The Icon offers nearly 30 cabin types. In descending order, the 1,772-square-foot, three-story Ultimate Family Townhouse, which debuted on the Icon, starts at $100,000. It is sold out through April 2026. The windowless, 157-square-foot Interior Plus starts at $3,600 per week and also books up.

For the maiden voyage, a member of a private Facebook group for Icon cruisers organized a cabin crawl featuring 13 staterooms. The organizer’s father, who was directing traffic to the panoramic suite, told me that an astounding 80 people showed up for the free tour.

One the biggest debates among cruisers pitted the traditional balcony against the infinite balcony, a floor-to-ceiling window whose top portion opens halfway. The pro-infinite side, which includes Genung, a father of two, says the convertible window is safer for families with young children, because kids can’t fall out of the open upper portion. Genung said the wall-length window also provides guests with more cabin space.

The anti-infinite camp points out that when the window is down, the air conditioning turns off. In a balcony room, you can enjoy the sunshine and fresh air outdoors while your travel buddy cools off in the chilled cabin.

I was on Team Balcony. When I wanted a private audience with the ocean, I simply stepped onto my private balcony. The waves usually drowned out my neighbors’ talking and coughing.

My midship cabin was bright, spacious and versatile with a couch, a desk-and-chair combo, and a smattering of art, decorative pillows and outlets. I never stubbed my toe, a rarity for me on cruise ships. I had ample storage, with wire baskets in the closet and abundant drawers and shelves. I actually unpacked, a first.

Icon tip: With the RoyalUp program, you can bid on an upgrade, such as an interior cabin to an ocean-view balcony. The cruise line ranks your offer from weak to strong.

The Icon is massive and caters to the masses. Even so, I could carve out an experience that aligned with my preferences and travel style. The public spaces are large and airy, with views of the sea and sky, so I never felt claustrophobic. The neighborhoods flow together, so I rarely got lost. I could always find a seat around the pool, if not in the pool. I never wanted for anything or waited too long.

However, to squeeze the most out of the ship, I needed to plan better and pay more for extras. I spent a lot of time scanning the daily calendar on the app, plotting my day instead of actually enjoying it.

With a few exceptions — the 10,000-balloon drop and the Ships Ahoy! parade in the Royal Promenade — I never felt squished. However, once the ship reaches full capacity, I worry that Icon will become a literal sea of humanity, and the sparkle of the early cruises could fade.

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