Cruise ship holidays are a bit like marmite – you either love them or hate them. Days on end aboard a floating mini-city that is often a Butlin’s holiday crossed with Disney Land is either going to be your personal version of hell or the ideal way to spend your precious holiday time. No judgement here from my end, but I am going to tell you about the largest cruise ship ever to set sail – The Symphony of the Seas.
Now just over two years old, the Symphony of the Seas is an astronomical achievement in many ways. Five times the size of the Titanic and packed with enough activities to keep even the most manically hyperactive child occupied for weeks on end, it is a true floating wonderland. But the ship is much more than just a karaoke bar on steroids. Beautifully designed, with well thought through open spaces complete with over 20,000 plants, the Symphony of the Seas is as close to a real-life floating city as we have ever come.
The 2020 cruise ship season was utterly decimated because of Covid-19 with countless stories of cruise ships placed in quarantines as the disease tore unchecked through their decks. While the Symphony of the Seas, which is owned by Royal Caribbean International, was far from the worst affected, it wasn’t spared, with one employee dying from the illness.
But as the new year develops and bookings begin to swell, the largest cruise ship the world has ever seen will soon be sailing the high seas once again.
We don’t often talk about cruise ships on Megaprojects so we thought we’d quickly delve into their history before telling you all about The Symphony of the Seas.
In many ways, you might think that cruise holidays would be the epitome of modern travel and 21st Century holidays, but they are nearly 200 years old. One of the first examples of what we could term a cruise holiday, although it was limited to the European aristocracy, was the Francesco I, a small ship that trawled the Mediterranean starting 1833.
P&O, the world’s oldest cruise line, started their cruise holidays in 1844, again around the Mediterranean, and was accompanied by a large-scale advertising campaign. The first purpose-built luxury cruise liner was the Prinzessin Victoria Luise, a German vessel completed in 1900.
While there were plenty of people using ships back in those days, the vast majority did so for purely transportation purposes. The Trans-Atlantic routes, which took at least a week, no doubt provided a memorable experience, but for most, it was secondary to the need to get from A to B. The exception being the filthy rich who could afford to pop over to New York for a month or two before returning to Europe. For most of the population, the idea of cruising the open seas simply for the hell of it was still a long way off.
The 20th Century was a strange period for ocean travel. The largest, most majestic ships ever to grace the waters appeared – some sank, others were pressed into action during the World Wars and a small few managed to stumble through to the other side. The mayhem that lasted between 1914 and 1945 set the general public back even further from the notion of pleasure cruises, but by the 1960s things were beginning to change.
We now had aeroplanes that could travel across the Atlantic in a matter of hours and the numbers on the Trans-Atlantic routes plummeted. The Queen Elizabeth 2, an ocean liner built in 1965, was one of the first to be used in a dual role, continuing its regular Atlantic crossing routes during the warmer months and venturing towards warmer climates to act as a cruise ship when the northern hemisphere turned cold. It was soon joined by the SS Norway (formerly the SS France), which again served two roles but is generally considered as Royal Caribbean’s first super-ship.
Things began to change quite dramatically as we moved into the new millennium. Enormous cruise ships capable of accommodating thousands of customers were now scouring the planet, and things had changed onboard too. Ships now came with casinos, multiple restaurants, karaoke bars, libraries, theatres, spas, hot tubs, cinemas, swimming pools, miniature golf courses, bowling alleys, tennis courts, childcare facilities and strangely, but perhaps not entirely surprisingly, even morgues.
These were now astonishingly large floating ecosystems and in 2019, roughly 30 million people took a cruise holiday of some kind or another, creating around $150 billion in revenue. This is a very big business. So big in fact, that another 15 large-scale cruise ships appeared in 2020 alone and word is that there will be a further 28 in 2021.
Symphony of the Seas
And that brings us nicely back to the biggest, baddest cruise ship of them all, the Symphony of the Seas. The largest cruise ship in the world by gross tonnage was built at the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, France, and is the fourth in Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class of cruise ships. She was ordered in 2014 and completed in 2018 at a cost of $1.35 billion.
She comes with a gross tonnage of 228,081 tons and in case you were wondering, no, it’s not quite the biggest ship in the world at the moment. That award goes to FSO Asia and FSO Africa, two supertankers that form for the TI Class of ships with a gross tonnage of 236,638 – so just a little more than the largest cruise ship.
But the Symphony of the Seas is enormous. With a length of 361 metres (1,184 ft) it is only 20 metres (65 ft) shorter than the Empire State Building. Its beam to the waterline is 47 metres (155 ft) and has a full height of 72.5 metres (238 ft), spread across 18 decks. It’s even 30 metres longer than the largest aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Gerald R Ford. The ship has a maximum passenger occupancy of 6,680 and comes with a crew of 2,200.
There are 2,759 staterooms to accommodate the wide variety of budgets on offer. The very top end of this is the Ultimate Family Suite, which boasts a multi-storey in-suite slide, a private cinema, a floor-to-ceiling LEGO wall, a full-size whirlpool with an ocean view, a vertical maze for kids, your own butler and a choice of either the Xbox One X, Nintendo Switch or PS4 Pro. If that sounds enticing, then you better start saving, because one week in the Ultimate Family Suite will set you back at least $45,000, and on the most popular routes, you can pay almost twice that. But on the plus side, there is a little red carpet outside the door which no doubt adds a degree of prestige to your stay.
The Symphony of the Seas began its maiden voyage on 7th April 2018 and continued to tour the Mediterranean through the summer season before moving to Florida where it began winter cruises throughout the Caribbean.
As I said earlier in the video, this ship is much more than just a vast floating tower block. The Symphony of the Seas was designed by Harri Kulovaara – a Finnish naval architect best known for designing two groundbreaking ferries for the Silja Line, both featuring a 150-metre (492ft), two-deck promenade through the centre of the ship with a huge bay window at the end. But while Kulovaara oversaw the bulk of the work, as many as 100 other architects took part in the planning of the ship, a way to diversify the ship’s aesthetics.
The ship is actually remarkably beautiful in places, perhaps most notably with the reflective art of the Paradox Void metallic installation, constructed with 1,200 steel triangles, and amphitheatre-style AquaTheatre with a beautiful ocean backdrop. Speaking of art, Royal Caribbean has said that there are more individual pieces of art on the Symphony of the Seas than there are in the Louvre – 13,347 to be exact. It’s unlikely that anybody is going to go around and count, so we’ll have to take their word on that.
One of the major concerns for those thinking about a cruise holiday seems to be the fear of claustrophobia while out at sea. When you mention that there will be nearly 10,000 other people on the ship it can quickly sound like an unrestrained nightmare. Humans tend to like other humans, just not too many and not too close. With this in mind, the ship has been designed in a way that looks to spread its population out and prevent bottlenecks from appearing.
The ship is divided into seven ‘neighbourhoods’ each designed to provide a slightly different atmosphere. The Pool and Sports Zone is exactly what it sounds like and comes complete with two 66-metre (216ft) slides called Ultimate Abyss, which take 13 seconds to go all the way through and are the tallest slides ever at sea. At 45.7 metres (150ft) above sea level, they are taller than Buckingham Palace. When it all gets too much there is also the adults-only Solarium lounge giving grown-ups some respite from the chaos, while the leafy Central Park neighbourhood comes with 20,000 tropical plants and an alfresco wine bar. Like its namesake in New York, the park is situated in the centre of the ship and is surrounded by cabins on all sides.
Just a quick point on the plants before we continue. Most are watered through an underground system, to reduce the wet weight that traditional sprinklers would produce. Many of the trees needed to be loaded by crane onto the ship and the entire fauna world is overseen by a team of dedicated gardeners. They even used a special kind of soil which is much more volcanic than your typical soil making it less dense.
Much of the action on the ship is centred around the Boardwalk neighbourhood, designed with the old fashioned seaside resort style very much in mind. It’s a place to get some candy floss, ride on a merry go round and imagine times of yesteryear – or alternatively, a place to come and watch sports on one of the 31 big-screen TVs in the Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade.
We also have the Royal Promenade, boasting the world’s first moving bar at sea, the Entertainment Place, where you can catch a performance of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hairspray, the Youth Zone which has its own Adventure Science Lab and Adventure Ocean Theater and finally the Vitality Spa and Fitness – which again I think it fairly self-explanatory.
If claustrophobia was the first fear of any potential passenger, boredom would probably be the second. With this in mind, Royal Caribbean decided to include just about everything on the Symphony of the Seas. I’m not exaggerating here – I’ve been to small cities with less to do than this enormous floating activity centre.
Over 20 different restaurants cater to all tastes, from Mexican to Sushi. Throughout a seven day cruise, the ship’s galleys produce roughly 4,399 kg (9,700 lbs) of chicken, 2,267 kg (5,000 lbs) of french fries, 9,071kg (20,000 lbs) of baking potatoes and 952 kg (2,100 lbs) worth of lobster tail. A massive 2.1 million litres (479,314 gallons) of freshwater is consumed onboard the Symphony of the Seas every single day and when you get bored of water there’s always the 195 separate spirits carried on the ship.
There are two theatres onboard, one a 1400-seat theatre and the other an outdoor aquatic theatre with Olympic-height platforms, one casino, a children’s water park, a full-size basketball court, an ice-skating rink, a zip line and two 13 metres (43-foot) rock-climbing walls.
Think we’re done? Not even close. There’s a laser tag game, a submarine styled escape room, sports bars, fairground rides, pool rooms, surf simulators and ping pong tables. In total, there are 24 pools, waterslides and flowriding waves and all together they contain 94 times the water of one eruption of Old Faithful, the world-famous geyser at the Yellowstone National Park.
Out of Sight
While the lavish activities on offer might grab the headlines, it is the complex system out of sight that really keeps this ship going.
And let’s start with what literally keeps going. The Symphony of the Sea has 6 engines in total, four 19,300 hp Wärtsilä 12V46F engines and two 25,700 hp Wärtsilä 16V46F. The propulsion itself comes from three 27,000 hp ABB Azipods (electric podded azimuth thrusters) and four 7,400 hp Wärtsilä bow thrusters, mainly used for docking (each one of these thrusters produces more power than seven Ferraris) This gives the ship its cruising speed of 22 knots (41 km/h – 25 mph).
The ship was constructed using 500,000 individual pieces, which is 27 times more than to build the Eiffel tower. The decks themselves are composed of 80 different pieces, each weighing as much as 800 tons. These were all constructed separately then welded together to form the ship that we see today. The Symphony of the Seas comes with 18 lifeboats each capable of holding 370 people, these were designed purposely for one of Royal Caribbean’s other Oasis-Class cruise ships just a few years ago.
To help prevent contamination, rubbish is frozen below deck in enormous containers until it can be removed while the ship is docked. The galleys are quite unlike any kitchen you’ve ever seen. Food Processors are close in size to bathtubs, while dishwashers are about the same size as a small car. Food is stored in massive cold rooms often the size of a bungalow, with distances between galleys and tables carefully calculated beforehand to minimize the amount of cold food coming up from the depths of the ship.
The Floating City
Whatever your opinions on cruise holidays, it’s impossible to deny that the Symphony of the Seas is an extraordinary ship. Its gargantuan size alone is enough to give it its wow factor, but the ship is also surprisingly well designed and is much more than just a floating Benidorm.
Getting a ship this size to float is an achievement in itself, but providing a workable and livable environment for nearly 10,000 people on board is quite something else. Royal Caribbean claims that they have 94% positive feedback from their customers who have been on the Symphony of the Seas, again, we’ll have to go with them on that one, but if it’s true, this mighty floating city is definitely doing something right.