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Royal Caribbean might have built the world's largest cruise ship -- once again -- but the size of Symphony of the Seas is only a byproduct of its intention: to build the world's best cruise ship for families. The objective is a bold one, but Symphony hits the mark in every category, which is due to a winning combination of variety and quality. The choice of which room to book, the restaurants to eat in, the activities to take part in or the shows to attend come out to a whopping amount of options for the average, weeklong cruise. Yet even if your family sticks to the basic cabins and included options, the cruising experience is still kept at a high standard, and attentive and friendly service is never the exception.
The reason Symphony of the Seas is its best ship yet, is because Royal Caribbean listened to feedback and kept the passenger experience top of mind when designing it. Complaints that ranged from the omission of a pool in the Solarium on Harmony of the Seas, to difficult-to-reach cabinetry in staterooms or no way to get omelets in the Windjammer Marketplace, have all been resolved on Symphony. Royal Caribbean has even brought back "Hairspray" by popular demand, giving the production a total refresh for a new (or returning) audience.
Symphony comes with all of the perks of big a mega-ship but nearly none of the pitfalls. Like other Oasis-class ships, Symphony of the Seas features the easily navigable neighborhood concept, which includes Central Park, Entertainment Place and the Boardwalk. A brilliant passenger flow, plenty of signage and an intuitive sense of orientation means that despite being massive, it's hard to get lost for long onboard. Other byproducts of size, like pollution or waste, are offset by the line's Save the Waves program and by constant improvements to ship engineering. Symphony, like many of the line's ships, is "zero to landfill" meaning no waste is left behind. A new program has banned plastic straws and Symphony is actually 25 percent more energy-efficient than its fleetmate Allure of the Seas.
Despite having many of the same features as other ships in its class, Royal Caribbean was not afraid to go bigger with Symphony, adding new concepts like "Battle for Planet Z" laser tag; Hooked, a seafood restaurant; Playmakers, a sports bar and arcade; Sugar Beach, an expanded ice cream and sweets shop; and El Loco Fresh, a new Mexican eatery. The strong execution of these fresh ventures, along with their mass appeal, almost guarantees that Royal Caribbean has ensured a new generation of fleetwide favorites. Even better, half of the new venues (laser tag and El Loco Fresh) are included in the cruise fare.
One downside to all the investment and improvement is that the returns have to come from somewhere. In the case of Symphony, the price of nearly every specialty restaurant cover has been raised. Though just a few dollars more per person than on previous ships, it could impact budgeting for families who can't spend hundreds more on dining in addition to what they paid to board the ship.
If as to say, "we got this," Royal Caribbean has traded in a number of partnerships to rely on their own in-house talent on Symphony of the Seas. This includes no more affiliation with Michael Schwartz in 150 Central Park, and also no DreamWorks characters. (The line still offers its DreamWorks partnership on other ships.) Instead, the line has developed its own original parade production for the Royal Promenade, and poured heart and soul into an all-new stage production called "Flight: Dare to Dream." In venues like Studio B and the AquaTheater, Royal Caribbean turned to the performers for help, and as a result, each space has a new show developed and inspired by the talent.
Beyond all of the places to go, Royal Caribbean has ensured there are ample things to see. An art collection with a price tag in the tens of millions infuses the atmosphere onboard with a vibrancy and playfulness that will attract the millennial vacationers they're looking for, but also appeals on a broader level. Not every work or installation is for every person, but the general theme of eccentricity and adventure is hard to ignore. We particularly enjoyed a "hidden" piano staircase, which plays a tune in an homage to the ship's moniker.
Other efforts to attract fun-loving family cruisers include the one-of-a-kind Ultimate Family Suite. While calling it a "gimmick" is too harsh, the over-the-top stateroom is an extremely limited and very high-priced option for families or groups. (Still, that doesn't mean it's not cool.) The word is the line is looking at developing a family-focused cabin category inspired by the Ultimate Family Suite, but priced lower.
While it's been said time and again that Symphony of the Seas is bigger than its fleetmates (by just about 1 percent), it's the focus on improvements rather than size that seems to have driven Royal Caribbean to innovate on its already-winning formula for a family vacation experience.
The two-deck Royal Theater (Decks 4 and 5) is multipurpose, but most passengers will head here for Symphony's evening performances. The first is a reimagined stage production of "Hairspray." Royal Caribbean has already featured the show on previous ships, but it's back due to popular demand, and with all new costumes, sets and style.
The second theater show is an original production, inspired by humanity's relationship with air travel. "Flight: Dare to Dream" begins by transporting the audience to Mars in the future, and then travels back in time, documenting each major milestone of space and sky. The Royal Caribbean entertainment team hired a former astronaut who lived on the International Space Station for five months as a consultant so that the set, along with interpretations of zero gravity, are as accurate as possible. The show was also developed to maintain a high degree of historical accuracy. The performance ends with a recreation of the Wright Brothers' first flight -- and you just might witness a 22-foot plane land on stage before your eyes.
All theater performances are included in your cruise fare.
Royal Caribbean has taken everything -- rock-climbing walls, FlowRiders, zipline, dry slide, waterslides, ice skating -- from its other Oasis-class mega-ships and turned the volume up to 11.
When Studio B, the ice rink, isn't being used for its new ice shows or free skating, it becomes a glow-in-the-dark laser tag arena on most days. "The Battle for Planet Z" pitches robots against aliens for control of the planet. The arena is basically an inflatable maze with "command station" tents, but it's good fun -- especially for the low, low cost of free (don't forget: tennis shoes are required). Passengers should make a reservation to ensure they get the time slot they want. Children of all ages are welcome to play laser tag, but they must be accompanied by an adult and avoid the very tempting compulsion to run.
We're told that there will still be open sessions for ice skating throughout the cruise in Studio B.
Puzzle Break is back, and this time players will have to escape Rubicon, a submarine. Modeled after the escape rooms on land, the latest Royal Caribbean version takes players to the very bottom of the ocean (and in reality, just to Adventure Ocean on Deck 14) to correctly -- and quickly -- solve a number of puzzles and riddles in order to emerge victorious. The cost has not yet been determined, but we're told it will range from $8 to $12 per person.
Beyond the aforementioned fun, Symphony of the Seas also offers hosted trivia, bingo, games in the card room and the Challengers' Video Arcade (Deck 15) and competitions in the casino.
Passengers looking to move around a bit can join a game on the Sports Court, a dance class (usually held in Boleros) or train to receive a PADI diving certification on the Pool Deck (handy if you're looking to dive in one of your ports of call).
Table tennis is set up near the Sports Court on Deck 15 as well as in an alcove off the running track on Deck 5.
Games hosted by the cruise director or entertainment staff around the pool area might include silly competitions like a belly flop contest.
While Symphony of the Seas is a vibrant and thrilling ship all day long, it lets its proverbial hair down at night. Live music, nightly comedy shows in The Attic, stage productions, performances on ice, casino play and more than a dozen bars and lounges keep the good vibes going late into the night.
Adding to the festive atmosphere onboard are the parades held along the Royal Promenade, which is essentially the Main Street of the ship. Symphony of the Seas features a spectacle called "Anchors Aweigh," with more performers and bigger floats than any other parade in the fleet. In an homage to all forms of boats and ships, the Royal Navy makes an appearance, but you'll also find pirates, and even a dragon -- what else?
Riffing on Royal's renowned '70s-themed deck parties, Symphony also hosts "The Greatest '80s Party Ever!" The celebration, centered on one of the best decades for party music, is sure to bring out neon, big hair and spandex -- we're told even "Don Johnson" shows up on a makeshift Ferrari.
Even without a parade or party marching down the promenade, Deck 5 is a fun place to be at night. The house band jams from a Deck 6 bandstand right above you, light projections illuminate the floors and walls, and passengers spill out from the bars and late-night eateries to shop, drink, eat, see and be seen.
Passengers won't want to miss an all-new, state-of-the-art ice show in Studio B called "1977." Royal Caribbean has a bit of fun with the storyline, bringing back Tempus, a time-traveling hero, from Harmony's "1886" ice show. This time, Tempus and his assistant travel to London in 1977 during the Queen's Jubilee to catch a jewel thief who's stolen the crown jewels. The pair follow the thief on a trail that leads to places -- and incredible numbers -- around the world. While the characters are familiar, there's nothing recycled about the staging, which is a jaw-dropping combination of the latest visual projection technology and -- get this -- drones! The costumes, the sets and above all, the talent of the ice skaters, combine to make this one of the best shows we've seen at sea.
A second ice show called iSkate 2.0 is inspired by the actual performers, the music they listen to, and some of the choreography they've developed.
The AquaTheater, an impressive venue at the back of the ship behind the Boardwalk on Deck 6, has two new shows for Symphony of the Seas passengers to "ooh" and "aah" over. "HiRo" takes the passion of the performers for extreme sports and translates it into a high-diving, high-energy acrobatics show with a storyline. "Aqua Nation" is the second new show in the AquaTheater and was developed by drawing inspiration from the performers' favorite stunts. According to the line's senior vice president of entertainment, "It's cool people doing cool things for 45 minutes." Symphony of the Seas Bars and Lounges
Onboard Symphony of the Seas you'll find a well-balanced mashup of traditional bars, some innovative drinking concepts and a lounge for just about every taste. Journey to Latin America with the energetic atmosphere of Boleros, or to the United Kingdom for a round at the Copper & Kettle Pub. Live music can be found in every neighborhood, from the solo performances in Central Park to dedicated spaces within Entertainment place for jazz and club music, or even serenade your friends with your best impression of Cyndi Lauper at On Air on the Royal Promenade. On the Boardwalk, we anticipate that Playmakers, a barcade with tasty plates, will be a game-changer.
The Attic (Deck 4): Imagine if you turned an eclectic living room into a night club, and you more or less have an idea of the ambiance you'll find in The Attic. This is Symphony's comedy club, as well as its late-night space. Comedians typically bring an adult brand of humor, so this is not a place for the entire family. Even later into the night (say, around midnight) The Attic hosts a DJ spinning dance music for all to hear, or a silent disco -- a dance party where everyone wears headphones and grooves to their own tunes.
Jazz on 4 (Deck 4): If The Attic seems too loud and trendy for passing the time at night, then Jazz on 4, right across the hall, is the perfect antidote. A nod to classic jazz clubs, this space is pretty subdued, except when the house jazz band is performing…and then it starts to heat up.
Casino Bar (Deck 4): Wind through the maze of jingling slot machines and game tables in the Casino Royale, and you might come across this spot to grab a drink while trying your luck.
Boleros (Deck 5): Dressed in fiery reds and oranges, Boleros -- Royal Caribbean's signature Latin club -- is hard to miss. A lively band can be found here most nights playing Latin music, and drink specials include a tempting list of specialty mojitos.
On Air (Deck 5): Cruise karaoke is a staple, and the On Air karaoke bar provides a proper stage for families and revelers to perform their favorite songs. Family-friendly karaoke sessions are held, as well as late-night, anything-goes singalongs. Music trivia is held here on some days.
Copper & Kettle (Deck 5): Continuing the Royal tradition of "this & that" British pub-style names, Copper & Kettle serves as Symphony's "local" -- a place to meet friends, grab a beer and maybe listen to some live guitar.
Bionic Bar (Deck 5): Spectacle is the key ingredient at Bionic Bar, where your bartenders are Rock 'em and Sock 'em, two robotic arms that can be programmed to make cocktails using tablets. Patrons must verify their age using their Seapass cards or Wow bands, and can then choose from a selection of neon Bionic creations, classic cocktails or the ultimate attraction, which is creating your own concoction. Drinks you've ordered or created throughout your cruise are saved to the program, so it's easier to find or recreate them later in the sailing.
Rising Tide Bar (Deck 5): For those who need to be on the move -- even while enjoying a drink -- Rising Tide is an open-air bar within the ship that traverses the decks between the Royal Promenade and Central Park via a vertically rising platform. A few cushioned seats and tables are scattered around the oval space. Times of departure are posted on digital screens at each entrance.
Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade (Deck 6): Playmakers, a "barcade" running the length of the Boardwalk, makes its debut on Symphony of the Seas, and we can already tell how popular its going to be. It's not hard to imagine why; it's one part sports bar, one part arcade, with a little bit of a gastropub thrown in. Big-screen TVs located throughout the space show a robust list of sporting matches, from professional tennis and NBA basketball to soccer and more. Even outside of the arcade portion of the bar and restaurant, games line the tables (Connect 4, Jenga) and well as the back walls with bean bag tosses and shuffleboard tables. An adjacent arcade features classic games like Ms. Pacman, SuperMario Racing and Skeeball.
Schooner Bar (Deck 6): Nautical decor that's tasteful and not over the top defines Schooner Bar, which is perched above the Royal Promenade, in a prime location close to the entrance of the Boardwalk. One of Royal's signature bars, Schooner's offers piano entertainment and trivia during the evening. We've heard the scent of oiled rope is intentionally used to help create a sense of authenticity -- see if you can detect it.
Vintages (Deck 8): If you fancy a glass of vino, Vintages is Royal Caribbean's dedicated wine bar. Come here for a varietal by the glass or bottle and enjoy moody indoor seating or a table al fresco in Central Park. A la carte tapas are available here, from $3 to $5, brought in from Jamie's Italian next door. Order bites like olives, garlic bread, crispy squid or a meat board.
Trellis Bar (Deck 8): If you're looking to grab a pre-dinner drink in Central Park before heading into one of the neighborhood's many restaurants, Trellis Bar is a wonderful option. Live music such as classical piano or Spanish guitar is often being performed in Central Park in the evenings, and a cocktail or glass of chilled Champagne is a perfect accompaniment.
Dazzles (Decks 8 and 9): One of your nightclub options on Symphony, Dazzles offers live music, a dance floor and great views to the back of the ship through its two-story window. However, the setup of the tables and chairs makes it slightly awkward for catching a show here.
Solarium Bar (Deck 15): The Solarium Bar provides something to quench your thirst when enjoying the tranquility of the Solarium. It's a focal point of the eye-catching Big Wonder sculpture overhead.
Pool Bar and Sand Bar (Deck 15): The Pool Bar is located on the port side of the ship while the Sand Bar is aptly located near the Beach Pool on the starboard side. Both offer a few stools for stragglers.
Mast Bar (Deck 16): This outfit near the very top of the ship is one of the only bars where you can light up. Plus, there's really nothing else around it, so it's a good place to hide from the kids while still maintaining a view to the Pool Deck below.
Wipe Out Bar (Deck 16): This bar -- as it is playfully named -- is intended to let passengers grab a drink while they root others on at the FlowRider surf simulators…or wait for them to wipe out. However, with its aft location, patrons can also take their drinks across to chairs set up facing the wake. You'll have to negotiate your views from either side of the gaping, fish-mouth entrance to the Ultimate Abyss slide, but apart from that it's your best shot at wake views. Symphony of the Seas Outside Recreation
Royal Caribbean listened when passengers complained about the lack of a pool in the Solarium onboard Harmony of the Seas (the previous Oasis-class vessel). The addition of this adults-only pool brings the Symphony of the Seas total to four pools -- all on Deck 15. All have a lift chair for accessibility; and the three main pools have lifeguards during open hours.
Outside the Solarium on the Pool Deck, families will find a pool with a beach theme (brightly colored chairs and umbrellas with a rock wall), and two other pools known as the Main Pool and Sports Pool but they're both relatively interchangeable. Maximum depth is less than 5 feet, but only toilet-trained children can enter the pools. There is no kiddie pool, but a splash area for little kids and babies is right nearby at Splashaway Bay. Hot tubs flank each pool and a leaf-like tarp overhead provides shade from the harsh sun.
Symphony of the Seas is head of its class when it comes to top-deck activities, and everything out here is included in the cruise fare.
The back of the ship is flanked by two massive rock-climbing walls with an entrance on Deck 7. Cruisers as young as 6 years old can accept the challenge of the rock wall -- it's worth it for the incredible views of the AquaTheater and the wake. A much tamer "Luckey Climber" can be found on the Boardwalk next to Johnny Rockets -- with wide platforms and a safety netting -- for little ones itching to scale the walls.
There is also the line's signature FlowRider surf simulator -- one on each side of Deck 16 -- where passengers can try their best to surf (port side) or Boogie board (starboard side). (The minimum height for Boogie boarding is 52 inches; stand-up surfers must be at least 58 inches.) Lessons are available, for a hefty fee. Between the FlowRiders is the Ultimate Abyss slide, a 10-story drop through light- and sound-effects, ending on the Boardwalk. The entrance on Deck 16 is a through the open jaws of a massive and unmistakable anglerfish -- probably the most terrifying part of the whole ordeal, as the ride is over in a matter of seconds. Mats are used to make it a smoother ride, and all loose bags and jewelry must be removed and tucked away. (Must be at least 43 inches tall to slide.)
Zipping right across from one end of Deck 16 diagonally down to Deck 15 is the zipline. Doing it once is a thrill, as you have a great view of the Boardwalk below, but the ride is super short and easily hampered by unfavorable weather conditions.
Up on the pool deck on Deck 15 are the Perfect Storm waterslides. The blue and yellow slides, named Typhoon and Cyclone, can be used to race, while the green-and-yellow slide on the other end -- also known as SuperCell -- features see-through sections for riders to look out or spectators to gawk at those flying (and screaming) through the tube. (Must be 48 inches to partake in waterslide action.)
Little cruisers can enjoy the pool deck attraction Splashaway Bay, an aquatic activities area for kids with a section that's just for babies still in swim diapers. The maximum depth for each area is less than 2 feet. Brightly colored elements like a giant bucket that dumps water or a flower that mists combine to create an enticing atmosphere for kiddos to play in and cool off.
Elsewhere on Deck 15 is Symphony Dunes, the mini-golf course. It's a festive set-up with cartoonish surfboards, turtles, seashells, palm trees and a light house.
The sports court is a large netted area with a clay floor, basketball hoops and plenty of room for a soccer competition or a pickup game of basketball.
Table tennis is offered just outside of the Fuel teen club and El Loco Fresh on Deck 15.
Symphony of the Seas utilizes all of its free open-deck space surrounding Decks 15, 16 and 17 with various loungers and chairs.
Mesh blue sun loungers and chairs surround the Main Pool and Sports Pool on Deck 15, while striped loungers surround the Beach Pool. Some umbrellas are peppered around the Beach Pool area, otherwise most of the pool seating is directly in the sun. Some loungers line either side of the ship, protected by a roof overhead. We loved the tiny upright chairs found near kid-favorite Splashaway Bay.
Sun worshippers looking to avoid the smell of smoke should be wary that the port side of Deck 15 and Mast Bar on Deck 16 are two of the only places available to light up on the entire ship. Be vigilant of which way the wind is blowing those fumes.
Deck 16 overlooks the pools, and as the middle of the ship is open to the decks beneath, it also overlooks Central Park below. For anyone who doesn't want to be right in the middle of the pool action (or close to the Windjammer), this deck offers plenty of sun loungers as well as a few upright chairs along the very back of the ship near the entrance to the Abyss slide, that overlook the wake.
Deck 17 is the Suite Deck, available to passengers in Sky-class suites and above. A private bar, sun beds with wicker clamshell covers, a hot tub and padded loungers make this exclusive spot extra-cushy. We'd book a suite just to gain access to the unparalleled views, especially from a platform at the very front of the deck providing incredible visibility over the bow.
The multi-deck Solarium starts on Deck 15 and provides its own semi-covered oasis to adults-only sunbathers (aged 16 and older). The calming space offers plush sun beds in wicker clamshells, tan sun loungers, lots of whirlpools in scenic locations and -- after an uproar over its omission on Harmony of the Seas -- a dedicated pool. Exclusive to Symphony's Solarium is a large ambient art installation called the Big Wonder.
Symphony of the Seas Services
Guest services and the Next Cruise alcove aren't tucked away as they are on some other cruise ships, but located right along the Royal Promenade. Shore excursion information, along with the photo gallery and portrait studio are just one deck above, on Deck 6, easily accessed by two open staircases on the promenade. This makes it a breeze to stop by each venue with any fleeting question. Before you can even make it to the actual guest services desks, a guest relations member with a tablet will more than likely greet you to see if they might be able to resolve your problem right then and there. Due to the central location, there's often a lot of background noise created by the crowds, live music and parades -- if the problem is serious, having it heard might add to the challenge.
Right nearby is the tech station, solely dedicated to troubleshooting Royal Caribbean's Voom internet service. We found the internet to be fast and reliable without any need to seek out assistance.
Booking shore excursions has been brought into the modern age with six terminals of shore excursion tablets (four screens at each station) on Deck 6, and more right below on Deck 5. There is still a staffed shore excursion information desk, but these self-serve stations allow you to explore shore tour options, book and even print your tickets all in one go. They reminded us of the automated checked baggage stations in airports (but way more exciting).
Next to the shore excursion area, you will find the Focus photo gallery and Picture This portrait studio. Browsing, selecting and purchasing the shots you want to print and take home is also digitized using a computer terminal; it's a highly efficient way to capture and take home your favorite cruise memories.
ATMs are located on Deck 5 at the beginning of the Royal Promenade. Two machines flank either side of the Entertainment Place sign near Boleros.
As with all Royal Caribbean ships, there is a Park West art gallery, but compared to the spectacular and cutting-edge art displayed as part of Symphony's onboard collection. It's a total letdown to find that nothing like the eye catching, inspiring art that's displayed throughout the ship is available in the gallery, which is more of a passageway than a standalone space. The same tired paintings are for sale as they are on most other major cruise ships; this is a missed opportunity to market the type of art that Royal Caribbean itself finds valuable.
Shops are scattered throughout the ship, but you will find most of them along the Royal Promenade on Deck 5. Solera Beauty sells perfume and cosmetics, while Port Merchants and the Royal Shop sell logo and sundry items. The Collection replaces the standalone Kate Spade and Michael Kohrs locations with one shop that lets you browse and compare designer bags from a variety of those and other brands. Regalia is a watch and jewelry retailer (with two storefronts). Four oval counters are also set up in the middle of the promenade selling a little of this and that from glittery baubles to branded Teddy bears.
High-end designer stores Bulgari, Hublot and Cartier can be found in Central Park on Deck 8.
The Surf Shack is a surf-style clothing and gear outlet located on the Boardwalk (Deck 6) between Sugar Beach and Johnny Rockets.
Passengers will find Seven Hearts, a small card room that doubles as an internet cafe, on Deck 14. The community bulletin board is located outside the room, but if you really wanted someone to see your message, chances are this isn't the best place (nothing else is on Deck 14 but cabins). There are chess tables, a handful of computer stations and a few shelves for books, but not enough that we would call it a library. The room is dark and quiet for anyone looking to escape the sun's rays.
There are no self-service laundry facilities onboard Symphony of the Seas, but you can send out your clothing to be laundered or dry-cleaned for an additional fee.
Smoking is only permitted onboard Symphony on Deck 15 port side near the pool, one deck up at the Mast Bar and in a small, designated starboard section of the casino.