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Inside Icon of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship

Side by sides of photos Icon of the Sea.
Side by sides of photos Icon of the Sea.

They like big boats and they cannot lie.

For many of the first passengers on the world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas, the onboard reality of the $2 billion behemoth lived up to the over-the-top hype.

During back-to-back preview sailings from the Port of Miami in late January, travel agents, special guests, members of the media and selfie-snapping influencers giddily explored as much as they could of the 20-story floating city that boasts eight distinct neighborhoods — and can hold nearly 10,000 passengers and crew at full capacity.

The gargantuan new Icon of the Seas can sail with 10,000 passengers and crew at a time. Royal Caribbean
The gargantuan new Icon of the Seas can sail with 10,000 passengers and crew at a time. Royal Caribbean

As they ate and drank across the ship a shared sentiment formed: Big is indeed beautiful.

“I think it’s definitely a game-changer,” said Tywana Minor, founder of Live Travel Go, a boutique travel agency based in Atlanta. “You can literally be on the ship for a few days and still not even experience everything.”

The first bunch on board explored the myriad offerings with a sort of collective awe. Couples clinked flutes of champagne at the walk-up Bubbles bar in the Central Park neighborhood, one of 40 bars and restaurants on board.

Adults giggled like nervous adolescents as they blasted down water slides with names like Frightening Bolt and Storm Surge in the 17,000-square-foot water park. Pint-sized passengers, meanwhile, found nirvana at Surfside, a family-centric area complete with a beach-themed carousel and wading pool.

A few lucky souls even had the good fortune to snag perhaps the most coveted reservation on the high seas: the 38-seat Empire Supper Club, an eight-course dinner complete with cocktail pairings and live jazz. The fine-dining experience, which costs $200 per person, is fully booked for the next few months.

But it wasn’t just Icon’s splashy main attractions wowing passengers: Surprises awaited around seemingly every corner of the 1,198-foot ship, including pop-up piano performances, magicians and a duo of donut-costumed employees at the breakfast buffet every morning pointing guests toward rows of sinks and reminding them to “washy washy before yummy yummy!”

Cue the billiards inside an onboard game room. ©2024 Michel Verdure
Cue the billiards inside an onboard game room. ©2024 Michel Verdure

For many passengers, adjusting to Icon’s staggering size — it’s nearly as long as four New York City blocks — presented a learning curve in itself. Even with signage everywhere, getting lost at some point was a given. Furthermore, the ship’s design — a vast open-air interior with elevators located forward and aft but not in the middle — almost guarantees that passengers will hit (or exceed) their daily step count.

“If you don’t like walking around a lot, this ship is not gonna be for you,” said Linda Miranda, a Newburgh, NY-based travel franchise owner with Cruise Planners.

As an antidote to the go-go-go vibe, Icon’s massive square footage also includes plenty of tranquil nooks and crannies ideal for kicking back and catching your breath: bed loungers overlooking the ocean; cornucopias of outdoor couches and chairs across various decks; and cozy, nest-like booths in the AquaDome, an area featuring a waterfall and wraparound ocean views.

With eight “neighborhoods,” 40 bars and restaurants, water slides galore and pools aplenty, the ship is creating a massive wake for its cruise competition. ©2024 Michel Verdure
With eight “neighborhoods,” 40 bars and restaurants, water slides galore and pools aplenty, the ship is creating a massive wake for its cruise competition. ©2024 Michel Verdure

“There are so many spaces that you’re not going to feel the 7,600 passengers it can hold fully occupied,” Miranda said.

To escape the sensory overload altogether, retreat to their staterooms. There are 28 room categories; the most basic accommodations are 157-square-foot interior plus cabins, with rates starting at $3,600 per week for two people.

Meanwhile, one-percenters can splash out with the three-story Ultimate Family Townhouse, which spoils eight guests with amenities like a private patio, outdoor hot tub, in-suite slide, cinema and popcorn machine, and kids’ room. The suite costs, on average, $100,000 per week.

The supership provides stately onboard shelters in 28 room categories.
The supership provides stately onboard shelters in 28 room categories.

So far, passengers are showing an insatiable appetite for Icon and its outsized experience. When the ship was first announced in October 2022, it broke records as the largest booking day and week in Royal Caribbean’s then 53-year history, according to the cruise line. And the remainder of 2024 sailings are almost sold out, a Royal Caribbean spokesperson confirmed.

But since Icon is the first of a new class of megaships by Royal Caribbean — two more are on the way, with Star of the Seas scheduled to debut in August 2025 — there’s plenty more big fun on the horizon. It’s a prospect that has the chubby chasers of the cruise community twitterpated.

“These news ships, I don’t know how they keep building them bigger and bigger,” said Howard Schildhouse — a retired accountant who writes about his travels on his blog, “It Must Be Wanderlust” — “but they do.”