The biggest cruise ship ever built sailed out of Miami for the Caribbean last week, flaunting an over-the-top attitude that makes the Queen Mary 2 look restrained. Freedom of the Seas, as the Royal Caribbean cruise line has christened it, cost more than $800 million to build and can accommodate 4,375 passengers. How tough was the 160,000-ton ship to build? Imagine trying to combine all the services of a four-star hotel with the navigational mechanics of a commercial airplane and the security concerns of a small city. And make it all float.
Royal Caribbean is hoping to stand out in a crowded industry by giving cruise fans just about every imaginable vacation pursuit in one place. "Having all the activities customers want on board required a much larger ship," says Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain. By offering some of its services, like a high-end spa and gourmet dining, at premium prices, the company is hoping to boost revenue as well.
Fain touts the ship as a "city at sea," but that comes with some of the attendant problems. "The possibility of crime goes up, costs go up, and it gets more crowded," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruisecritic.com Royal Caribbean says on-board crime is rare, but hired a former top FBI official to run its security operations. Competitors warn that a ship this big can spoil a cruise destination. "Some ports just won't support 4,000 guests," says Bill Smith, vice president of Crystal Cruises, whose ships have no more than 1,000 passengers. "At that size, you'll no longer have quiet beaches and romantic restaurants."
As the industry grows--10.1 million North Americans will cruise this year, up 47% in five years--other lines are adding niche cruises and longer, luxurious trips, but Royal Caribbean is set on big. In 2009 it plans to launch a ship of biblical proportions, 40% larger than Freedom, with a price tag of $1.1 billion. Its name? Genesis.