Royal Caribbean (RCL) – Get Royal Caribbean Group Report returned to service from the United States on July 2, 2021, with Freedom of the Seas sailing out of Miami. It was a celebratory trip, but with under 1,000 people on board and social distancing in place indoors as well as a mix of masked and unmasked venues, it was also clearly not normal.
Over the next nine months, protocol changes happened a lot. Mask rules loosened for vaccinated passengers, then they tightened again when omicron hit. Passengers had to prove they were vaccinated to board and show a negative test taken no more than two days before their cruise. Passenger counts rose slowly, but the presence of masks onboard (which were required) reminded passengers that while cruising was back, it wasn’t fully.
During that period (March 4, 2022) Royal Caribbean debuted its latest biggest cruise ship in the world, Wonder of the Seas. It was a muted celebration to introduce something so special during such an odd period. But now, just a few months later, Wonder has its last U.S. sailing before heading overseas for a few months, and while some signs of the pandemic persist, Royal Caribbean has returned to near-normal operations.
Wonder of the Seas Returns to Near Normal
Since Royal Caribbean dropped its mandatory mask policy and has raised ship capacity to near-full, cruising has felt decidedly more like it did before the pandemic. You still have to wear a mask while checking in (the terminal falls under federal rules regarding transportation) and crew members and unvaccinated kids over 2 must wear masks, but aside from that, once you board there are few signs of the pandemic.
The final Wonder of the Seas sailing of the season from the U.S. left April 15 from Fort Lauderdale with something approaching a full load of passengers. The ship, however, has so many different areas that it rarely feels crowded.
An Oasis-class ship, Wonder of the Seas has both Central Park and the Boardwalk, two open-air areas that bustle with action during the busier parts of the day while offering tranquility later at night. Playmakers on the Boardwalk had a small crowd Saturday morning for some early Premier League soccer action (come on you Spurs!) while Central Park offered a classical guitarist playing in the evening hours.
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This tree-filled area hosts a number of specialty restaurants and while those eateries were bustling, the overall area was quiet at night. The wine bar adjacent to Giovanni’s Italian restaurant, which offers a sampling of the eateries menu, held only a few passengers while the nearby Trellis Bar sat near-empty much of the night.
What Makes Wonder of the Seas Special
Wonder of the Seas has pretty much everything Royal Caribbean offers on any of its ships as well as a few new things. The Boardwalk and Central Park outdoor areas, while not new, remain remarkable. They do force Royal Caribbean to split the main pool deck in half, which makes the area seem a little bit less connected than its pool decks on Quantum-class ships.
The adults-only Solarium, which has a roof, never has much of a crowd and it offers multiple pool areas, hot tubs (which work decidedly better than the ones on older ships), a large bar and the Solarium Bistro, a sort of alternative buffet serving mildly healthier fare than what you get in Windjammer.
Near the Solarium, Royal Caribbean has added a bar cantilevered over the ocean. It’s a crowded spot with open-air and stunning views. Broadly, the pool areas have enough bars to serve the crowds without passengers ever having to wait more than a minute or two.
The same can be said for the dining choices — both free and paid. Free options like Boardwalk Doghouse, El Loco Fresh, the Solarium Bistro, and Park Cafe (in addition to the main dining room, Windjammer buffet, Sorrento’s Pizza, and Cafe Promenade) make free dining varied and plentiful.
Wonder also has a near-endless array of entertainment with multiple music venues, a dedicated karaoke space, a piano bar, an Aquatheater, the main theater, and even a dedicated comedy club.
On a five-day cruise, you simply can’t see it all (Wonder of the Seas generally sails 7-day itineraries), but if you accept that, the ship takes the Royal Caribbean experiencer to the next level. Add in the lack of masks, full crowd, and general relaxation of protocols, and it truly feels like sailing in the pre-pandemic world.