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Is Icon of the Seas the ‘ultimate family vacation’? It depends


After three days cruising aboard Icon of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s largest ship ever that it touts as “the ultimate family vacation,” my 9-year-old daughter will tell you she prefers the line’s previous record-holder, Wonder of the Seas.

Her favorite things about Wonder?

  • Johnny Rockets for hot dogs and milkshakes (not on Icon, though you can find both hot dogs and milkshakes at Icon’s Thrill Island)
  • “The cookie restaurant,” aka Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade, which serves a mean Campfire Cookie dessert (the bar’s location on Icon of the Seas makes it less welcoming for a family meal)
  • The pool deck with a splash park, waterslides and pools all in one place (these areas are split up on Icon)
  • The only-open-to-suite-guests Coastal Kitchen, where the waiters treated her like a princess, and “the TV that came down from the ceiling” (sorry, kid, we didn’t book a suite this time)

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Does this mean Icon of the Seas is not the ultimate family vacation? Not at all. But our experience on board and my discussions with Royal Caribbean’s product development team members taught me two things.

The first is that data-driven Royal Caribbean focused on the types of travelers who are on board their ships the most: adults and kids under the age of 6. They also spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to please the notoriously tricky teen crowd. Who was not the biggest focus (though clearly not entirely ignored)? The 8- to 12-year-old crowd.

The second is that every kid and every family is different, and even on the largest cruise ship in the world, it’s impossible to account for every single traveler’s preference. All the line can do is follow the data — either collected from the existing fleet or from focus groups with kids — and aim to please the majority.

Is Icon of the Seas your ultimate family vacation, even if it’s not my daughter’s? Here’s what I learned from my time on board.

Families with young children will have a blast

Surfside. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

I’ve cruised with preschool-age kids, and it can be rough. The pools are too deep (or they’re in diapers and can’t go in), the shows are too long or too late, and the buffet is too big and crowded when juggling multiple plates and small children.

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Yet interestingly, kids this age are among Royal Caribbean’s top sailors.

Kids 6 and under “don’t have school, so when we look at the age ranges throughout the year, that’s a consistent count that never waivers,” Erin Stransky, senior manager of Adventure Ocean and family strategic operations for Royal Caribbean International, told me on board. Cruise after cruise, including in the spring and fall when older kids have school, Royal Caribbean ships carry a large number of young families.

When looking at Adventure Ocean, the line’s kids club for ages 3 to 12, “6 to 8 is typically our biggest age group across the fleet,” said Stranksy. “We always see that number as the largest.”

Related: First impressions of Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas

This was clearly a demographic the line needed to focus on — both to create more spaces and activities accessible to young children, and to offer their parents a vacation experience they didn’t need their own escape from afterward. And from what I saw this weekend, Royal Caribbean delivered.

It starts with Surfside. The neighborhood includes everything a young family needs for the day: a baby pool for kids not yet toilet trained, a splash playground with tame waterslides for young kids who can’t necessarily swim, and a cool infinity pool with sightlines to the kids play areas where parents can relax.

Surfside Eatery. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

But that’s not all. Surfside offers several kid-friendly and manageably sized restaurants, so food is easily accessible, including kid favorites (like chicken nuggets, hot dogs and pizza) and a California casual specialty restaurant where kids under 12 eat free and adults can indulge in delicious tacos, sandwiches and Korean fried chicken.

A carousel and climbing structure are nearby, so kids have a place to play during all the “boring” parts of a meal (waiting for the food to come, waiting for slow chatty grownups to finish eating).

There’s even a cocktail-mocktail bar, The Lemon Post, so all ages can enjoy a refreshing drink. The arcade will keep older siblings busy, the dry slide into Surfside from the deck above is fast and fun (even the grownups love it), and a shop sells necessities like sunscreen and goggles to save the day when packing snafus happen.

Royal Caribbean could have stopped there, having created a colorful and well-thought-out neighborhood for the youngest cruisers and their caregivers. But the line took it a step further and implemented new programming to draw families into the space and create more activity options for younger kids.

“We’re slowly starting to find that families want to do more things together,” said Stransky, rather than drop their kids at the club and go their separate ways. As Icon of the Seas was being developed, her team started to ideate on family-friendly events outside of Adventure Ocean.

Surfside. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

These include the Larger Than Life Festival with face painting and oversized versions of table games, the Big Shark Block Party for some dancing with a live band, and the Royal Tournament field day with family races in the sports court. We checked out the festival, and it was a perfect event for young kids. (My slightly-too-old daughter got her face painted but turned her nose up at the games).

As the events started to come together, it was clear that they needed a host, a familiar face, a cruise director for families, if you will. Enter Admiral Awesome. You’ll find him dressed in colorful costumes greeting guests in Surfside and entertaining them with card tricks. He’ll lead events in the space, such as interactive bedtime stories at night as the venues in the area start to shut down.

(The current Admiral Awesome is a good-looking Australian with a sexy accent, and the word on our cruise is that all the moms will make sure they and their families turn up whenever he’s around.)

Related: Photos of Icon of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s newest ship

The family-first programming extends beyond Surfside and family activities in Adventure Ocean. Icon of the Seas will soon debut shorter shows in the AquaTheater (“Pirates vs. Mermaids”) and Absolute Zero ice studio (“Once Upon a Time”). These will run at earlier hours than the main shows, so families with young kids can enjoy Royal Caribbean’s superlative entertainment without having to stay up late or leave halfway through a long performance.

Altogether, this means that families with younger kids finally have engaging entertainment options, rather than having to cobble together a sea day schedule from the events geared to older kids and adults. Parents will find they’re making fewer compromises to have a good time and feel less forced to drop kids off at Adventure Ocean all day in order for both kids and adults to have fun.

Combine that with new cabin types with separate sleeping areas for kids and split bathrooms for ease of getting ready, and the ship just might be the ultimate vacation for young families.

Teens get VIP treatment

Social020 teen club. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

Families with teens will also love Icon of the Seas because the cruise line has put a lot of thought into how to please this notoriously picky age group.

“What we were seeing on some of our Oasis Class ships was literally teens hanging out in staircases,” said Jennifer Goswami, director of product development for Royal Caribbean International. They observed and spoke with teens sailing Royal Caribbean and realized that teens like the club as a space to play video games and meet up, but they want to hang out elsewhere around the ship.

That realization led to a “big fundamental shift in thinking because we used to get bigger, bigger, bigger in the spaces, but it wasn’t making them happy,” Goswami acknowledged. Instead of focusing exclusively on the teen space with Icon of the Seas, the product team started to focus more on programming and utilizing the rest of the ship, especially adult spaces that would otherwise be inaccessible to teens.

On Icon, teens won’t be subjected to cringey ice-breaker activities or cheesy games. Instead, they’ll be invited into the Social020 club to access a QR code that outlines their schedule of events around the ship, which might include a teen takeover of The Hideaway (the adults-only infinity pool cantilevered above the back of the ship) or Thrill Island (where the water park and ropes course are located), a group dinner at Izumi or a show at the Absolute Zero ice rink with reserved seating.

Category 6 water park. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

Not only does this give the teens access to places they already want to go on the ship, but it “maybe creates a little FOMO to the parents like, oh I got to go here but you’re not invited, Mom and Dad,” said Valentina Madinabeitia, senior product owner, product development for Royal Caribbean International.

The end result is that teens can connect with each other more authentically and still have the teen lounge to return to when they want to meet somewhere or simply escape and play video games or foosball for a while.

Related: Why the world’s largest cruise ship won’t be as crowded as you fear

And, of course, the rest of the ship is welcoming to teens and their families. Casual dining venues like Sorrento’s (pizza), El Loco Fresh (Mexican), the Pearl Cafe (sandwiches and pastries to go) and Basecamp (hot dogs, pretzels and comfort food) are accessible to hungry teens in the places where they’d be hanging out. We saw teens happily chowing down with their parents at Pier 7, Surfside’s casual specialty restaurant with elevated food options but without the fuss of more date-night venues like Chops Grille.

Thrill Island is no joke when it comes to extreme activities and is made for this age group. With Icon of the Seas’ multiple decks of pool and sun deck space, teens are sure to find a spot in the sun that suits them. Plus, with more zero-proof cocktails than ever on board, the under-21 crowd doesn’t have to just stick to soda when they want a fun vacation drink.

With the little kids tucked away in Surfside, teens can feel like they’re hanging out in adult rather than kid spaces on board and won’t feel like a cruise is too babyish for them.

Related: The 5 best cruises for teens

Middle kids are a mixed bag

Surfside. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

I was pretty impressed with how Icon of the Seas handled the youngest kids and the teen set. But that leaves us with the kids in the middle, the 8- to 12-year-olds, like my daughter.

Here is where the ship falters, just a bit, but how much this will affect your vacation experience will depend on exactly what your child likes to do.

Though the Oasis Class ships are not so much smaller than Icon of the Seas, their neighborhoods are laid out differently. Whereas the Oasis Class neighborhoods mix ages and interests, Icon segregates different interests in separate parts of the ship and leans more toward the extremes.

Sure, anyone can pop by Surfside, but its attractions are unapologetically dedicated to little kids. It could not hold my daughter’s interest for long.

Rock climbing wall on Icon of the Seas. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

On the flip side, we love waterslides and were excited to try Thrill Island, but many of the slides were too intense for both of us. Instead of a long ropes course that you can keep traversing once you’re harnessed in (and that’s complimentary, like on competitor cruise lines), Icon’s Crown’s Edge ropes course is extra-fee, involves a long gear-up process and has an extremely short course. You’re not going to spend a long time there day after day.

Our sea day was unexpectedly chilly and windy, ruling out the pool and the minigolf course. Without those activities, there wasn’t a spot on the ship that catered to my 9-year-old kid — with the exception of Adventure Ocean.

And she wouldn’t go. Video games and arts and crafts with strangers were not enough to entice my child to leave my side.

Related: 5 best cruise lines for families

What my daughter preferred on Wonder of the Seas was the upper-deck area where she could easily move from Splashaway Bay to the waterslides (which were more her speed) to the pools and back. She loved the Ultimate Abyss dry slide that took her to her favorite neighborhood, the Boardwalk, where she could ride the carousel, climb on the play structure, go rock climbing, check out the AquaTheater show and enjoy meals at the outdoor tables at Johnny Rockets and Playmakers.

In short, she liked that the spaces were for mixed ages and interests.

My daughter might have had a better opinion of the ship if it had been warm and sunny and she could spend time on the pool deck. Perhaps, when the ship is fully activated, she’d be willing to go to Adventure Ocean to participate in science experiments or family events like the field day. (It looks like the ship is planning a father-daughter dance, which is too cute!)

Buffet breakfast. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

Another issue for us on Icon of the Seas was that onboard dining venues didn’t quite satisfy kids who have moved beyond the nuggets-every-meal stage but haven’t yet developed the palate for complicated adult meals. Every kids menu on board was made up of pizza, chicken tenders, grilled cheese, hot dogs, hamburgers and pasta. My kid loves those, but not always for every meal on a weeklong cruise.

Pier 7, the family specialty restaurant, had neither a kids menu nor kid-size portions. My daughter ordered a Mexican-style steak dish without the pico de gallo, painstakingly removed all the steak slices from the beans they were laid out on and ate only a third of the meat portion. Talk about food waste. Her favorite venue was the Windjammer Marketplace buffet, where she could pick and choose what she wanted.

But that’s just one kid. If your 8- to 12-year-olds are content with burgers all day, will happily play pingpong or sports in the sports court, enjoy events like family karaoke or trivia, or go to Adventure Ocean to play video games or make friends, they’ll likely have a blast on board. If they’re adventurous and love drop slides and rock climbing, Icon is the ship for them. If you’ve got a quieter kid who is less of a joiner and doesn’t like thrill activities, they might struggle, like my daughter, to find their place on board.

The ultimate family vacation?

Icon of the Seas. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

After exploring the ship from top to bottom, and talking to several members of Royal Caribbean’s product development teams about how they conceptualized the ship for families, I was definitely impressed. It’s clear the team put a ton of thought and research into how real people vacation and creating both spaces and programming for today’s families of all ages — instead of just creating a whiz-bang ship and hoping people engage with the attractions.

If your family likes big-ship cruising and fun-in-the-sun vacations, I’m confident you will enjoy a cruise on Icon of the Seas. (Whether you can afford it is a whole ‘nother conversation.) If you’re social travelers, who like making friends on board and enjoy the buzz of a bustling venue, you’ll be right at home.

If you’ve got young kids, a cruise on this ship might actually be the ultimate family vacation, given how thoughtfully Surfside was conceived and how tiring it can be to travel with young kids. There will always be compromises when vacationing with littles (how many times do you ride carousels on adult getaways?), but Icon of the Seas gives parents so many options that you’ll feel like your cruise wasn’t just about struggling to keep the kids happy.

Families with teens have a wide variety of vacation choices available to them. Icon of the Seas might or might not be the best choice, but it’s certainly one of the best cruise options for pleasing your picky teenagers. (On my first cruise many years ago, at the age of 17, I was too cool to hang out with the 13- to 15-year-olds in the kids club, too young to drink and too awake to go to bed early like my parents. I wandered the ship at night, totally bored. Icon is decidedly not that cruise.)

What about my daughter and her peers? I don’t think Icon of the Seas is a slam dunk for this age group, but it could be an amazing option if your kids fit with the activities offered and have the right personality for the ship. If you’re unsure, invite some cousins or friends along. Familiar faces and a larger group can do wonders for splitting child care duties or convincing kids to try Adventure Ocean.

And just know that when you go, it’ll likely be a peak school vacation week with 2,500 other kids on board.

Icon of the Seas might not be the ultimate family vacation for everyone, but I’ve never seen a ship try harder to solve vacation problems and create memorable experiences for cruisers of all ages. And that counts for a lot.

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