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Royal Caribbean International
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The world's second-largest cruise line, Royal Caribbean International (originally Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines) began in the late 1960s as a consortium of Norwegian ship owners who wanted to get in on the rapidly expanding American market. Ever since its first ship, Song of Norway (no longer in the fleet), debuted in 1970, the company has prided itself on introducing new shipboard innovations. After completing its first three ships (the others were Nordic Prince and Sun Viking) by 1972, Royal Caribbean "stretched" its first two ships and built the much larger Song of America in 1982. These early Royal Caribbean ships became the prototype for virtually all cruise ships since.

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Onboard fun includes FlowRider surf simulators and rock climbing walls

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But Royal Caribbean's biggest splash came in 1988 with the monumental Sovereign of the Seas, the very first mega-ship of the modern era. While only midsized by today's standards, at over 70,000 tons, Sovereign of the Seas was massive in its day, and completely dwarfed every competitor of the era. The most sensational feature -- aside from sheer size -- was the introduction of the first modern shipboard atrium, complete with glass elevators and a grand piano, reminiscent of an opulent hotel -- but with a view no hotel could match.

Not content to wait for other lines to catch up, the even larger sister ships, Monarch of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas, followed in quick succession, along with the smaller Nordic Empress, the first ship designed for cruises shorter than a week. Royal Caribbean also bought Admiral Cruises, a company specializing in short cruises, and turned its nearly new Stardancer into Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade after a massive refit. (To date, Viking Serenade, which left the fleet in 2002, remains the only ship to fly the Royal Caribbean flag that wasn't built for the company.)

By the early 1990s Royal Caribbean moved on to another challenge: designing ships for use outside its traditional cruising grounds in the Caribbean. While the company had sent some of its oldest, smallest ships farther afield to destinations like Alaska and Europe -- Royal Caribbean hadn't built a ship specially designed for worldwide cruising. This changed in 1995 with the introduction of Legend of the Seas, a spectacular new ship that brought Royal Caribbean into a whole new era. Smaller than the Sovereign-class ships, Legend was by far the most luxurious ship Royal Caribbean had ever built, with bigger cabins, more space per passenger and a wider variety of public areas and open decks. The popular shipboard mini-golf course was introduced, as was Royal Caribbean's now-signature adults-only indoor/outdoor pool area, the Solarium, one of the most impressive shipboard spaces that had been built to date. Legend was closely followed by its sister, Splendour of the Seas, and then by two pairs of slightly larger near-sisters: Grandeur and Enchantment of the Seas, and Rhapsody and Vision of the Seas.

At the same time, between 1995 and 1999, the company disposed of the four original ships and replaced them with the new Vision-class ships designed specifically for worldwide itineraries.

Having established itself outside the Caribbean, Royal Caribbean turned back to developing its core market. In the mid-1990s, as the Vision-class ships entered service to rave reviews, the company began planning a new ship that would redefine the cruise industry as much, if not more than Sovereign of the Seas had in the previous decade. Code-named "Project Eagle," the ship began sailing in 1999 as Voyager of the Seas -- and completely blew away every mega-ship that had come before. With features like an ice rink, rock wall and indoor promenade, Voyager of the Seas was the most innovative ship design in decades, the first ship that genuinely felt more like a resort than a ship. Four ships would follow, and the Voyager class became the defining mega-ship design of the early 21st century.

Meanwhile, four Radiance-class ships were built in the early 2000s as a follow-up to the Vision-class vessels of the 1990s. Similarly designed for worldwide cruising, they are larger, with more balconies, dining choices, public areas and greater luxury all around.

After the launch of so many new ships, the company's formerly innovative older ships were beginning to look old and tired. Royal Caribbean spent millions of dollars to refit Monarch of the Seas, Empress of the Seas (formerly Nordic Empress), Sovereign of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas (including a "stretch" of Enchantment) and Majesty of the Seas. Despite the refurbishments, a few ships just didn't cut it. Royal Caribbean transferred two ships to its Spanish subsidiary, Pullmantur, in 2008: Empress of the Seas in March and Sovereign of the Seas in October. Monarch of the Seas was transferred to Pullmantur in 2013. However, Empress of the Seas was transferred back to Royal Caribbean in 2016 after a massive refurbishment.

In recent years, the big news at Royal Caribbean has been ever-larger ships. In 2006, the line debuted Freedom of the Seas, an enlarged, enhanced version of the Voyager-class design that introduced new features like a water park and onboard surfing to the array of Voyager-class amenities. The Freedom class also includes Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas.

In fall 2009, the line launched the 225,282-ton, 5,400-ton Oasis of the Seas. A year later, sister ship Allure of the Seas debuted. A third Oasis-class ship, Harmony of the Seas, debuted in 2016. At over 40 percent larger than Freedom of the Seas, the Oasis-class ships are the biggest cruise ships in the world. The strategy of increasing size with each class ended when the 158,000-ton, 4,100-passenger Quantum of the Seas, the first "Project Sunshine" vessel, launched in fall 2014. Sister ship, Anthem of the Seas debuted in spring 2015, while Ovation of the Seas launched in spring 2016. Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas represent the line's first serious foray into Asia; Quantum of the Seas sails full-time out of Hong Kong, and Ovation is homeporting in China until December 2016 when it heads to Sydney, Australia for a season.

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Royal Caribbean operates one of cruising's most intriguing fleets. Ships range from mid-sized and middle-aged to state-of-the-art and over-the-top mega-ships. The line continuously updates even its oldest ships, bringing onboard some of the most popular features from its newest vessels. The line boasts the four biggest ships in the world -- Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas and Symphony of the Seas.

The line famously offers innovative activities on its cruises, including indoor skydiving, bumper cars, surf simulators, rock climbing walls and its unique North Star, a jewel-shaped glass capsule rising 300 feet above sea level and providing 360-degree views over the sides of ships in its Quantum Class.

Its newest ships flex their muscle with high-tech features such as robotic bartenders, HD-aided whiz-bang entertainment, lightning-fast Internet and virtual balconies featuring real-time views of the ocean and destinations.

And while not a gourmet cruise line by most standards, Royal Caribbean's food is usually good enough to please most of its passengers. All Royal Caribbean cruise ships offer a choice of traditional two-seating (early and late) dining or the flexible "My time Dining" program, which allows passengers to choose any time (within a set range of times) they'd like for dinner. The Windjammer Cafe aboard all the line's ships offers breakfast and lunch buffets, and a casual alternative for dinner. Plus, many of the ships offer a variety of specialty restaurants beyond the main dining rooms and buffet, including a steakhouse, Italian trattoria, pizza place, quick snack deli, Asian and Mexican options -- usually for an extra fee. The food and service in these specialty restaurants are typically a notch above what you find in the main dining room.

While the number of activities offered onboard varies by ship, you'll find a rock-climbing wall on all Royal Caribbean cruises, and most ships also have mini-golf courses. All ships have vast main pool areas and the peaceful adults-only Solarium. On the line's newest and biggest ships you'll find the FlowRider, where daredevils can try their hand (feet?) at surfing and boogie boarding. Some Royal Caribbean cruise ships also have simulated skydiving, ice-skating rinks, bumper cars and roller skating. On the smaller ships, you can still have a good time participating in trivia, dancing classes, bingo, beer or wine tasting classes, and silly pool games. Or you can just spend the day lounging by the pool, reading a book and relaxing.

All ships also have a wide variety of spa and fitness facilities.

Evening entertainment on Royal Caribbean cruises comes in two types: splashy Vegas-style production shows that are among the most impressive at sea, and passenger-participation favorites like the "Newlywed and Not-So-Newlywed Game." There's also a wide range of musical entertainment in a variety of public rooms; the Latin-themed Boleros on many of the newer (and more recently refurbished) ships is especially popular. If you're sailing on a Freedom- or Voyager-class ship, don't miss the ice show: It's one of the most spectacular and unique performances you'll ever see on a cruise ship. These ships even have parades and "street performers" in the Royal Promenade -- another unique entertainment feature not found on any other ships.

One of the most unique entertainment spaces at sea is Two70, found only on Quantum-class ships. The theater cum lounge with a view combines cutting-edge technology with music, dancing and acrobatics.

Accommodations on Royal Caribbean cruise ships range from standard inside and oceanview cabins to standard balcony rooms, with a wide range of suites including the massive duplex Royal Suites with bars, grand pianos and outdoor hot tubs on the line's newest ships. Suite passengers on Oasis- and Quantum-class passengers are treated to one of the most comprehensive suite benefits program at sea, with access to Royal Genie butlers, and free Internet, drinks and specialty dining, among the many, many perks.

Along with the virtual balconies, other innovative cabin styles found on some Royal Caribbean cruises are inside cabins with a view (and even a balcony!) of the Promenade (on select Oasis-, Freedom- and Voyager-class ships) or of the Boardwalk and Central Park (on Oasis-class ships). These unique cabins cost more than insides, but less than balcony cabins, and along with the suites are often the first cabins to be booked up on each cruise.

Fellow Passengers

For the most part, Royal Caribbean ships that sail from the United States attract a wide variety of North American passengers, mostly between the ages of 30 and 55 on the seven-night and shorter cruises, and 50 and over on cruises longer than seven nights. Cruises from the U.K. -- as well as Mediterranean, Asia and Australia cruises -- attract a significant number of locals, as well as Royal Caribbean's usual North Americans. Seven-night and shorter cruises are also popular with families, especially during American school vacation periods, when the ships will often be filled to every upper berth. Mariner of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas are aimed squarely at the Asian market, so passengers will be from Asia and, to a lesser extent, Australia.

Royal Caribbean Fleet

Royal Caribbean's fleet comprises 25 ships, divided into seven classes of ship. The Quantum, Oasis and Freedom classes offer the line's newest and most active ships.

While there are subtle differences within classes, here's what you need to know when it comes to choosing between classes.

The line's newest and largest ships are in the Quantum, Oasis and Freedom classes. They feature virtually everything you could want in a cruise ship. The active set can enjoy ice skating, rock climbing, surfing, mini-golf and more (like skydiving on the Quantum-class ships). Other amenities include multiple alternative restaurants, an indoor promenade with parades and more, and an array of bars and lounges catering to every taste. They also carry the highest price tag.

Each of the three classes currently has three ships in it: Oasis, Allure and Harmony of the Seas make up the Oasis class and are the largest cruise ships in the world. Quantum, Ovation and Anthem of the Seas make up the Quantum class, with both Quantum and Ovation sailing only in Australasia. The Freedom class comprises Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas.

Slightly smaller, but still with many of the line's most popular attractions (FlowRider, Royal Promenade, ice-skating) is the Voyager class of ships, built between 1999 and 2003. These ships inhabit the space between ships that many consider too big and those that others say are too small and don't have enough to do. Included in this class are Explorer of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas.

The line's biggest and newest midsize ships are the Radiance class. The 90,000-ton, 2,500-passenger Radiance, Brilliance, Jewel and Serenade of the Seas were built between 2001 and 2003, and are the biggest Royal Caribbean ships that can fit through the Panama Canal. They lack the indoor promenade, ice rink and some other Voyager/Freedom-class features, but offer some of the most elegant interiors at sea. Unique features include the Colony Club, an elegant, British Colonial-themed nightclub that includes the world's first stabilized, seagoing billiard tables.

Somewhat smaller than the Radiance-class ships are the Vision-class ships. The Legend of the Seas was built in 1995. Carrying 2,076 passengers, this ship is almost intimate by Royal Caribbean standards. Grandeur and Enchantment of the Seas were built in 1996 and 1997 respectively. Grandeur remains in its original 74,000-ton, 2,446 passenger configuration, while Enchantment was "stretched" -- adding a new, midsection -- in 2005 and is 80,000 tons and carries 2,446 passengers. Finally, Rhapsody of the Seas and Vision of the Seas were built in 1997 and 1998 respectively, and carry 2,435 passengers. While they have fewer balconies and dining options than the newer ships, they remain excellent modern cruise ships for Royal Caribbean's less-popular routes, often from secondary homeports.

Royal Caribbean's fleet also includes two other ships, Majesty of the Seas and Empress of the Seas, which are each in a class of their own. Empress is the oldest in the Royal Caribbean fleet, having launched in 1990. Majesty of the Seas is only two years younger. Both have some of the fewest amenities and alternative restaurants of any Royal Caribbean ship, though both were refurbed most recently in 2016.

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