Pól Ó Conghaile and family review Royal Caribbean's latest floating resort...
We've just polished off a stack of Mexican tacos on the world's biggest cruise ship. We've helped ourselves to free ice-cream cones, and done a reccie on the zip-line and surf simulators.
Next up? A kick-around on the soccer and basketball court. As we play, Selena Gomez comes blasting from the PA. Dammit, is there anything this ship can't do?
"It can't fly," Rosa (12) deadpans.
Touché. Maybe next year, Royal Caribbean will crack that. But for now, we'll have to content ourselves with the the floating theme park that is Symphony of the Seas - a spanking, Oasis-class behemoth fresh from the shipyard.
At 362m, Symphony is the largest cruise ship on the planet, and she's spending her first summer on the Med before setting sail for the Caribbean. It's the perfect opportunity to try out a cutting-edge family cruise... without long-haul flights.
The kids are first-timers, so I'm letting them lead the discovery. Beforehand, questions ranged from 'How much taller is it than our house?' to 'What if we hit an iceberg?' It's only when we catch sight of the beast outside Barcelona, however, that its scale fully hits home.
18 decks tower above us. The ship is over twice the length of Croke Park and boy, is it white. Blindingly, toothpaste-sparklingly white.
After obligatory selfies, we get stuck right in, grabbing the togs and whizzing down the Typhoon waterslide, which catapults us into a bowl before flushing us down a sinkhole onto the pool deck (min height: 1.2m).
There's a 'Splashaway Bay' mini-waterpark for toddlers, and great excitement in taking a family dip in a whirlpool 15 storeys above the ocean... hot tubs are usually off-limits to kids.
"It's like an indoor Center Parcs," notes Sam (8), as we pinball from Laser Tag to the Ultimate Abyss slide, a pair of twisting purple tubes that drop me down a rabbit hole of dazzling disco lights. At 10 storeys, it's the tallest slide at sea.
"A cruise ship is like a city," Sam continues, warming to the theme.
Symphony can carry 6,680 guests, but it feels big enough to absorb them. The ship sprawls over seven 'neighbourhoods' - 'Central Park' with its cafes, gardeners and piped birdsong, for example, or a 'Boardwalk' with carousel and Aqua Theatre.
We definitely sense motion, but nobody feels ill (a worry before boarding). Getting our bearings takes time, mind you.
At one point, I forget where our stateroom is.
"Oh! You need a taxi to take you there," a helpful member of housekeeping laughs, pointing us in the right direction.
Every new cruise ship comes with its splashes, and Symphony is no exception - from Ultimate Abyss to the €35,000-a-week Ultimate Family Suite.
With so much to do, from yoga to rock-climbing and cupcake classes, families need to make ground rules for checking in - some even use walkie-talkies to stay in touch with free-roaming teens (if your kids have phones, be wary of sky-high roaming rates and Wi-Fi charges at sea).
You do get the hang of it, however, and soon slip into a routine balancing shore excursions with meals, activities and shows on board.
Those shows are top-notch, too. We catch a Broadway-quality production of Hairspray (above) in the Royal Theatre, watch ice-skaters skid so close you can see chunks of ice flying in the flamboyant (if confusing) 1977, and hold our breath as high divers leap from up to 19m into a pool as small as their Speedos... on a moving ship.
It's amazeballs, with a touch of Vegas thrown in.
Shows, staterooms and meals are included in the cruise price, but you need to keep a keen eye on extras - from 18pc gratuities to excursions, spa treatments and speciality restaurants. A small tea and cappuccino at Starbucks costs me $9.22, for example, while two small bags of sweets at Sugar Beach is $6.24. Those $2 plays in the arcade ratchet up quickly too.
The kids love the feel of the ship, crammed with quirks and art (check out the piano steps leading to the Windjammer buffet, or the VW Beetle crushed into a ball in the Royal Promenade), and are fascinated by the staff's nationalities, revealed on badges ranging from Bolivia to Ireland.
As parents, we're impressed by the public health efforts (sanitiser is everywhere, and we're encouraged to use handbasins before the buffet). Like Disney resorts, Royal Caribbean is a spotless production.
We're surprised to find no dedicated changing areas by the pool; the 'fastest Internet at sea' (costing from $12.99 a day) felt sluggish at times, and the all-singing, all-dancing spell of the ship is definitely broken when you step into its soulless accommodation corridors.
There's no escaping the captive and corralled holiday vibe, either. The relentless good cheer leaves you in little doubt as to your ultimate role in this gigantic floating profit-machine.
That said, there's no point bringing cynicism on board. Cruises are what they are, and just as with Disney or Center Parcs, you get the best out of them by wholeheartedly embracing the fake universe. Watch your budget, plan your excursions (if it's Thursday, it must be Rome... or is it Palma?) and go with the flow on a magic carpet of a holiday that allows you to travel the Med without having to pack and unpack as you go.
One of these days, cruise ships may fly. Until then, Symphony will do.
Leisure wear and trainers are essential for activities, togs and rashies for pools, and don't forget sunscreen (you'll fry without it on windy top decks). Bring adapters for charging devices, and nice outfits for dinners - most guests make an effort in the evenings. The Royal Caribbean app is handy, too.
Ultimate family treat
Royal Caribbean is making a big play for families, and the ‘Ultimate Family Suite’ is its latest headline-grabber. With its own slide, Lego wall, giant screens and hot tub, it’s a show-stopper that feels like it was designed by kids, for kids. It’s also eye-wateringly expensive... Christmas week sold for $80,000.
Restaurants like the Windjammer Buffet and main dining room are included in the cruise price, but you’ll pay supplements for ‘speciality’ dining like Johnny Rockett’s ($9.95) or Jamie’s Italian ($25-$35pp), plus gratuities. That said, a night or two in a paid option can help break up the resort feel.
Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean offers clubs for kids aged 3-11, with tween and teen options for 12 to 17-year-olds (older kids can join and leave as they please) and specific programming for babies and tots. Games, events and activities run most of the day, so intersperse them with family time.
Pól travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean (royalcaribbean.ie), which has seven-day sailings on Symphony of the Seas this summer from €1,372pp. If possible, book a balcony stateroom — sea and port views are a cruise highlight. Don’t forget to factor in flights, and consider adding a drinks package if you’ll be imbibing.
It’s natural to worry about kids on a ship, so don’t be afraid to seek reassurance. Muster drills are mandatory, guard-rails and plexiglass barriers are high, and kids under 12 can wear ID wristbands — talk through the ‘what-ifs’ with kids old enough to go off by themselves. Big ships are quite stable, but chat to your GP about seasickness concerns.
A family suite with a slide, so children can whizz from their bedroom to the living room, and a mobile check-in service that uses facial recognition technology are among the “cutting edge” features to be offered on Royal Caribbean’s newest vessel, Symphony of the Seas.
It's hard to tell which gave me the bigger thrill: waving down at the tiny beachgoers as we glided out of Fort Lauderdale and into the open sea, or walking through the Windjammer buffet for the first time and salivating at the Wonka-worthy array of food there for the taking.