Biggest Passenger cruise ship

Simon Brooke-Webb

The world's major cruise ship companies are in supersize mode.

Six years after the launch of the largest passenger ship ever built, cruise giant Carnival Corp. announced that some of its upcoming vessels will hold more passengers than any other at sea: a maximum of 6, 600.

While they will be the most packed, those vessels won't be the world's largest. That superlative belongs to Royal Caribbean International, which in 2016 will launch its biggest megaship yet, Harmony of the Seas. That 5, 479-passenger, 227, 000-gross-ton behemoth is a slightly bigger sister of the $1.4 billion Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, which currently hold the "world's largest" title.

With upcoming new builds, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line are also preparing to launch their own biggest-ever vessels; each will hold about 4, 000 or more guests. Although significantly smaller in size, new ships coming from Holland America Line, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises will also set new size records for each line.

"When these ships are brought into the market, people want to try the biggest and the best, " said travel agent Ralph Santisteban, a CruiseOne franchise owner. "The bigger they are, the more people are interested in finding out about them."

And new megaships can often command higher fares than older, smaller vessels that sail similar itineraries. A seven-night cruise on Oasis of the Seas, for example, started at $946 per person in August, while the 3, 634-passenger Independence of the Seas, which launched a year before Oasis, had weeklong sailings that started at $599 per person. Both ships depart Port Everglades and sail the Eastern Caribbean.

While some observers and safety experts worry about the implications of packing a small city's worth of people into a floating resort, industry insiders say there's little to stop cruise lines from increasing their fleets with even larger ships.

Neighborhoods On Board

Cruise line executives insist that they have not been focused on setting records — only on winning popularity contests.

Roger Frizzell, chief communications officer at Carnival Corp., said the goal was to "exceed our guests' expectations" while developing a vessel that could deliver on CEO Arnold Donald's "long-term plan to return double-digit return on invested capital." Translation: Build a ship that will wow guests and make a lot of money for the company.

Royal Caribbean Cruises, which owns the first- and second-largest sets of ships now at sea — the Oasis and Quantum classes under the Royal Caribbean International brand — likewise says size was an afterthought. With room for 4, 180 passengers at double occupancy, the Quantum ships launched so far cost about $1 billion each to build.

"The goal was to build the right ship for what we wanted to offer, " said Rob Zeiger, global chief communications officer for Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises.

In the case of Oasis of the Seas, which launched in 2009 as the first of what is planned to be four ships by 2018, the right ship design featured seven distinct neighborhoods including a Central Park; zip lines; nearly 30 restaurants and bars; balcony cabins overlooking the ocean and the park; and 1, 380-seat theaters for Broadway shows.

"You have to provide so many experiences because everybody wants this differentiated vacation experience, " said Jaime Katz, an analyst with Morningstar. "You can't just have a pool and a bar anymore."

Economies Of Scale

In addition to giving passengers more to do on big ships — and more reasons to get on board in the first place — cruise executives say operators benefit from economies of scale, personnel efficiencies and greater opportunities for onboard revenue.

Andrew Coggins, a clinical professor of management at Pace University's Lubin School of Business, said cruise companies save on the most highly paid shipboard personnel such as captain, hotel manager and chief engineer with large ships.

"If you have, say, three 2, 000-passenger ships, you have to have three of each of [those positions], " he said. "And if you have one 6, 000-passenger ship, you only have to have one of each."

The technical crew required to run a ship of the size Carnival Corp. recently ordered are roughly the same number as on a current smaller ship, said William Burke, chief maritime officer at Carnival Corp.

"You're certainly more efficient from a crew perspective, " he said. "The engine capacity that it takes to move the ship through the water becomes more efficient simply because you have more people on board than you would if you had two ships. So it's efficient from an environmental perspective [and] efficient from a crew perspective, which leads to a more productive and profitable ship."

Cruisegoers tend to be fascinated with megaships, even if some find the size prohibitive.

On CruiseCritic.com, a popular news, review and community website focusing on cruise ships, Oasis and Allure of the Seas are among the most popular vessels featured on the site.

"They get rated very, very well by our members, " said managing editor Colleen McDaniel.

After news broke about Carnival Corp.'s newest order, McDaniel said most discussions on the site's forums revolved around what it might be like to sail with 6, 599 other passengers.

"'Is it going to feel more crowded?'" McDaniel said members have been asking. "'When are they going to stop getting so big?' This especially comes from people who like small ships."

Crowd Control

There is some concern about the long walks to get from point to point; waits for restaurants or activities, and managing illness or emergencies with as many as 8, 700 passengers and crew on board.

"As you get bigger, the traffic planning becomes even more important, how you're going to move that number of people around the ship, the access to the lifeboats or at least to the muster stations, " Coggins said.

Coggins and cruise lines say software that simulates an emergency and evacuation is used in the design process to ensure that crowds could move off the ship safely. International regulations require that lifeboats should be launched with everyone on board within 30 minutes from the time an abandon ship order is made.

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