How do you keep more than 6,300 people fed, housed and having the time of their life while floating in the middle of the ocean?
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The Oasis of the Seas -- the world's largest cruise ship -- aims to accomplish that feat nearly every week. Almost five times as large as the Titanic, it has a population during its seven-day Caribbean sailings that is larger than many American small towns -- more than 8,600 when it is fully booked and including staff. The Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. ship, which first set sail last December, is almost as long as five Airbus A380 airplanes, or about four football fields. It has 24 restaurants and its own leafy "Central Park." During the weeklong sailings, about 700 tons of new supplies are needed, all loaded aboard each Saturday. Guests consume about 20 gallons of maraschino cherries and 80,000 bottles of beer.
Traveler demand for cruises is up this year, and cruise lines are raising prices. That is a big turnaround from last year when the recession hit the industry hard.
Barbara P. Fernandez for The Wall Street Journal
Over the past decade, cruise ships have been supersized as operators have tried to cram in ever more lavish features and activities. The Oasis, for example, has two rock climbing walls, a zip line that allows guests to fly through the air, and surf machines so passengers can hang 10 without leaving the boat. Royal Caribbean also has three other ships that can each hold more than 4,000 passengers. "Going to the larger ships just allowed us to offer so many more activities, " says Richard Fain, the company's chairman and chief executive. "We thought people would like it and if they liked it they would pay more...and at the same time, it would offer economies of scale," he says. A one-week Oasis trip in the Caribbean this year costs about $1,458 for an inside cabin and $3,200 for a two story "loft suite" facing the ocean.
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The big ship is controversial. Competitor Carnival Corp. is pushing a fleet of relatively smaller ships -- its largest max out at about 4,000 -- which it says offer a better experience for passengers and ease reaching ports. "I kind of look at her [the Oasis] like the Mall of America. It will also attract millions of people, but it's not what we do," says Micky Arison, Carnival chairman and chief executive. "It's kind of like a train wreck you want to go see."
Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer's Travel Guides, says the Oasis represents "a dumbing down of the travel experience" because it stops only in a handful of ports. The ship is too big to dock in some popular spots such as Venice and Bermuda.
Royal Caribbean says tickets for the Oasis are selling well, and most of its loft suites are reserved for the next two years. "It was amazing," said Lynn Scott, a 59-year-old sale and marketing specialist from Kingwood, Tex. after a recent cruise. "It was relaxing, it was entertaining, the food was great," said the first time cruiser who sailed with a group of 30 friends. "We are trying to figure when we can go back."
Ensuring a floating city the size of the Oasis operates smoothly is challenging. Cleaning the ship, doing laundry, and fixing things are a 24-hour job for crew members. One of the popular acts, an outdoor Aqua Show with divers, gymnasts and synchronized swimmers, gets canceled about once a week because of rough seas. And the task of cleaning salt water off window exteriors is never done.
Dozens of people and 18 robots wash windows each day. "It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you're finished, you start again," says Chris van Raalten, ship manager for marine operations, the group of employees that steer the ship and maintain the ship's exterior and mechanics like the engine. Robots take care of hard to reach places and metal baskets move crew along the upper decks where there are no balconies to support them. Scheduling the cleaning can be tough. The washing can't be done in every port because of environmental regulations, so it often happens while sailing, Mr. van Raalten says.
In the ship's belly, the laundry room hums 24-hours a day: 34 crew members, mostly men from Indonesia, wash more than 20,000 pieces of linen such as towels, table cloths, and sheets daily. Table clothes, sheets and napkins are then fed into giant machines that press them. Clothes and towels are all folded or ironed by hand.
There is always something that needs to be fixed. Recently, an engine exhaust temperature problem caused soot to rain down on parts of the ship where guests lounge by pools and sit on their rooms' balconies. After weeks of study, crew members installed insulation in the upper part of the smokestacks to fix the problem last week, Mr. van Raalten says .
The ship has three doctors on board. It also has its own intensive care unit and can keep one person at a time on life support. Every few weeks a passenger has a heart attack so thrombolytic drugs are kept on-hand, says Chris Taylor, the ship's senior doctor.
If there's a serious illness, the ship's doctors and captain can decide to divert to a port early, but rarely is anyone airlifted back to the U.S., says Dr. Taylor, who has been a doctor on cruise ships for seven years. "Many people have the belief that the U.S. coast guard is always going to come to the rescue if there is any emergency at sea. The actual truth of the matter is that most of the time the ship is well out of range of the coast guard," he says.
The ship's doctors spend most of their time treating run-of-the-mill health issues such as sore throats, back aches, and sinusitis. During every seven-day sailing, the Oasis medical staff dispenses about 2,000 to 3,000 meclizine, a drug that treats sea sickness.
About 200 crew members are dedicated to entertaining passengers. They include performers, child activity planners, and lighting and sound experts. Passengers can see a production of the musical "Hairspray", the Aqua Show and an ice-skating performance.
Feeding more than 8,000 people takes 26 kitchens -- and some complicated logistics. Every Saturday morning, before the sun comes up and while passengers are still asleep, the ship docks in its home port, Port Everglades, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
One recent Saturday, by 6 a.m. semi-trucks had arrived. They would eventually unload about 750 pallets of food, flowers and other supplies. Longshoremen hopped into forklifts and started moving the pallets, buzzing around the ship's giant hull as the sun rose.
By 7:30 am, the ship's inventory manager and staff were reviewing the pallets, searching for any rotten fruit and vegetables, and moving the pallets with smaller forklifts into the ship's food storage areas, each set to a specific temperature. Red wine goes into a warmer room than white wine, beer and champagne, for example. More Corona beer is loaded than any other alcoholic drink, followed by Budweiser and Bud Light. More beef of various types is loaded than any other food.
Supplies fluctuate. When a lot of Germans are on board, extra pork is ordered, says Frank Weber, vice president of food and beverage for Royal Caribbean International. Americans tend to favor chicken and beef. In the summer, if a lot of families are sailing, more ingredients for Caesar salad are needed.
To prevent disease, food storage, food preparation and actual cooking are all done in separate areas. "In our world we cannot afford to have a food-borne illness outbreak," Mr. Weber says.
By 5 p.m. on Saturday, after loading all the necessary supplies and its next group of travelers, the Oasis is usually pulling out of the Port Everglades port and heading for the Caribbean. Even though the ship is very big (with a gross tonnage of 225,282), it is highly maneuverable thanks to the three Azipods -- giant propellers that can rotate 360 degrees -- under its belly, says Captain Thore Thorolvsen.
The majority of the time the ship is on autopilot, he says, except when the ship is pulling in and out of a port. Then, it will sometimes be steered by hand. "That's when there are really some tense moments here on the bridge," said Capt. Thorolvsen, standing in front of a bank of electronic mapping and steering devices in the ship's central command area.
"She is big, she is wide and she is very very heavy," he said.
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