This is the inside story of how cruise ships went from pensioners’ pastime to floating cities engaged in an all-out entertainment arms race
Symphony of the Seas – which, on its maiden voyage from Barcelona in March 2018 became the largest passenger ship ever built – is about five times the size of the Titanic. At 362 metres long, you could balance it on its stern and its bow would tower over all but two of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers. Owned and operated by Miami-based cruise line Royal Caribbean, it can carry nearly 9,000 people and contains more than 40 restaurants and bars; 23 pools, jacuzzis and water slides; two West End-sized theatres; an ice rink; a surf simulator; two climbing walls; a zip line; a fairground carousel; a mini-golf course; a ten-storey fun slide; laser tag; a spa; a gym; a casino; plus dozens more shopping and entertainment opportunities. To put it another way, Symphony of the Seas might be the most ludicrously entertaining luxury hotel in history. It just also happens to float.
Picture a cruise ship. You’re likely imagining crisped-pink pensioners bent double over shuffleboard, cramped cabins, bad food and norovirus. And, once upon a time, you’d have been right. But in the last decade or so, cruise ships have gone from a means of transport to vast floating cities with skydiving simulators (Quantum of the Seas), go-karting (Norwegian Joy), bumper cars (Quantum again) and ice bars (Norwegian Breakaway). Restaurants offer menus designed by Michelin-starred chefs. As a result, the cruise industry is experiencing a golden age, boosted by millennials and explosive growth in tourists from China. More than twenty-five million people set sail on a cruise liner in 2017.
“Most people’s idea of a cruise is ‘Oh God, I’m going to be packed in with five thousand people I don’t want to talk to and getting bored out of my tree,” says Tom Wright, founder of WKK Architects, who has worked on cruise ships and land hotels. “In fact, it’s like going to a hotel that just moves magically over night.” (As one cruiser I met on Symphony’s fan page put it, “We get to see five destinations, and I only have to unpack once.”)
For many, a maiden cruise is rarely the last. From Southampton to Venice to Barbados, ports are full of white-hulled ships packed with repeat customers. Industry satisfaction ratings regularly exceed 94 per cent. And, as Richard Fain is fond of saying: nobody gets those kinds of numbers. Not even chocolate companies.
Fain is chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, a position he has held since 1988. (RCL comprises three lines: Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises.) Now 69, Fain is square-jawed, broad and handsome. More than anyone, he is responsible for the transformation of cruise ships from modes of transport to mega-attractions. (Symphony is one of his. So are the world’s second-, third- and fourth-largest cruise ships.) A gifted salesman, the first time you meet he’ll lean in, tilt his head just so, and ask you straight: “Have you cruised?”
It was Fain who realised that the cruise industry’s image problem was in fact an opportunity. Convince sceptical land-lovers that cruise ships aren’t outdated, boring and, as an industry joke put it, full of “the newlywed and the nearly dead”, and Royal Caribbean could lock up customers for life. The problem was just one of perception.
To attract a new kind of customer, Fain needed a new kind of ship. To build it, he hired Harri Kulovaara, a Finnish naval architect who made a name for himself designing passenger ferries. Kulovaara has a round, boyish face and glasses with such thick upper frames it has the effect of a monobrow. Growing up in the coastal city of Turku, he would watch the ferries sail out of the harbour for Sweden each morning, and spend every moment he could on the water. After graduating in the late 80s, he designed two groundbreaking ferries for Finnish company Silja Line. They included a 150-metre, two-deck-high promenade down the centre, culminating in a huge window at the aft. The window brought natural light into the centre of the ship – before that, dark, depressing places – and created a natural, street-like hub for passengers.
Fain, who has a keen eye for design himself – his mentors included Jay Pritzker, the Hyatt Hotels co-founder and creator of the Pritzker Architecture Prize – took notice. “When Richard saw [the Kulovaara-designed] Silja Serenade, he said, ‘I’d like to have this kind of ship.’ The [Royal Caribbean] technical department told him it couldn’t be built,” explains Kulovaara. So, in 1995, Fain hired him to help run the company’s shipbuilding department alongside Njål Eide, a Norwegian architect who had become a legend in shipbuilding. (Eide had designed the first hotel-like atrium at sea, now a commonplace feature.) The company was planning to commission a carbon copy of its existing flagship, Sovereign of the Seas. “We’re not going to build that, Harri,” Fain told him. “We need something better.”
That “better” was 1999’s Voyager of the Seas. Costing upwards of $650 million (£469m), it was 75 per cent bigger than the previous-largest cruise ship, exceeding Panamax – the width of the Panama Canal, an industry-standard measurement. They introduced a central promenade, similar to that which Kulovaara had designed for Silja Line, ending in two banks of panoramic lifts. It was on Voyager that Royal Caribbean introduced the first ice rink at sea, and climbing walls on the rear funnel. (Fain initially thought climbing walls were a bad idea. Now they’re an industry standard.)
If you want to pinpoint the moment ship design went crazy, it’s with the launch of Voyager. Suddenly, cruising was in an amenities arms race. “There was a big shakeup,” says Trevor Young, vice president of new building at Royal rival MSC Cruises. “Companies started to treat the cruise liner as a floating resort, rather than as a ship.” Consider: since the launch of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1940, the record for largest passenger ship had changed hands twice. Since Kulovaara joined Royal Caribbean, the record has been broken 11 times. Kulovaara has designed ten of them.
“We don’t set out to build the largest ships,” Kulovaara told me, somewhat sheepishly. “The goal is to build the best ship. But we have so many ideas that we need a little bit more space.”
Cruise-ship architects face constraints that would confound their land-based counterparts. Ships need to be able to face North Atlantic storms, Baltic snow and blistering Caribbean heat in equal measure. The hull is beset on all sides by waves, which cause not only perpetual motion, but vibrations through the steel structure – as do the engines and propellers. A ship at sea is its own island: it must generate its own energy and water, and treat its own waste. There is no fire service nor ambulance, so every crew member is fire trained and the on-board medical centre must be able to handle almost any kind of emergency (including death: all ships have a small morgue, a necessity for a pastime so beloved by the elderly). Some maintain a brig, in case of onboard miscreants – though I’m told their use is rare.
Kulovaara’s New Build department is located in Royal Caribbean’s Innovation Lab, which is based in PortMiami – the largest passenger port – in Biscayne Bay, Florida. The team has around 200 people, including naval architects, interior designers, engineers and project managers. “When I started to get involved we didn’t use CAD,” says Fain. “We used SAD, or ‘scissors-aided design’, because what you did was spread out your drawing on the dining room table and then cut and paste it.” Today, the Innovation Lab includes extensive prototyping and testing facilities, and a large virtual-reality “cave” simulator to allow Kulovaara’s designers and architects to walk around interior spaces throughout the design process.
The essential consideration when designing a cruise ship is flow of human traffic. “They have a relatively high density of population. How can you spread the people and make sure they find their way?” asks Kulovaara. “Understanding how people behave, anticipating how they behave, is key.” With nearly 9,000 people on board including crew, distributing attractions evenly across the ship is crucial. Hence, Symphony’s two main theatres are at opposite ends. The casino is central, but below the Royal Promenade. (A rule of thumb is that it takes the first two days of a cruise just to get your bearings.)
Perhaps even more important is the movement of the ship’s 2,200 crew, who must be able to access galleys and stores in the bowels of the ship easily. There are safety considerations, too: today’s megaships are split vertically into six or more fire zones, which can be isolated in case of an emergency. Muster stations (usually large public areas) must be evenly spread. Even corridor width is calculated for the necessary flow of passengers in the event of an emergency.
Once the major spaces are sketched out, there’s the onerous task of plumbing. “The big part of building a ship, 85 per cent, is what you don’t see. It’s the air conditioning, the electric systems, the water systems, power generation,” says Kulovaara. Cruise ships are built using concurrent design: while the keel and lower hull are being cut, the top of the ship is still being laid out. “We do the conceptual design and the architectural design,” says Kulovaara. “The naval architects think about hydrodynamics, hydrostatics, hull forms. Then we transfer that to the shipyard and they do the final engineering.”
As the ship is so vast, the detailed design work is commissioned out to multiple architectural firms. Restaurant architects design restaurants; caravan designers tend to be good at state rooms (the industry term for cabins). “We have probably 100 architects who have worked closely with us for a long time,” says Kulovaara. Early in the design process, Royal holds open competitions to design new spaces. “The reason is if you do it in-house, you become blind to change.”
When trying to introduce “anything extraordinary”, Kulovaara assigns a special projects team. With Voyager, New Build had sketched a blank space in midship for a new entertainment venue. The team proposed an indoor arena including a synthetic ice surface, “glice”. Kulovaara assigned the project to Boston-based Wilson Butler Architects. The firm has since worked on several of Royal Caribbean’s wildest schemes, including a viewing platform that extends high above Quantum of the Seas. “We’ve become pretty good at problem solving,” says Butler.
In January 2018, I went to visit Symphony under construction in Saint-Nazaire, France. It was a miserable day: grey mist hung in the air like gauze, but the ship was still visible several kilometres away. The shipyard, STX France, is one of the few equipped to build liners of Symphony’s scale. The decks are built upside down, in around 80 huge sections – each can weigh upwards of 800 tonnes – and are then robotically welded together like vast LEGO blocks. On the dockside, deck sections of a new MSC Cruises ship lay idle. The legs of an offshore rig stood monolithic, the platform unattached. Symphony was running ahead of schedule.
Kulovaara, Fain and the Royal Caribbean management team were visiting another of their ships, Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge, due to sail in November 2018. While they attended meetings, Timo Yrjovuori, the project manager for Symphony’s build, gave me a tour of the ship. Another Finn, Yrjovuori has light stubble and blond hair hidden under his yellow hard hat. As we boarded Symphony’s lower decks, the ship was teeming with activity. More than 1,000 workers were undertaking the final outfitting, and the sounds of sawing, welding and industrial vehicles cut through a riot of languages and radio stations.
Symphony is the fourth ship in Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, which launched in 2009. Oasis of the Seas was another paradigm shift in ship design: 50 per cent larger again, at 225,000 gross tonnes, it was almost double the industry average. Each Oasis-class ship costs more than $1 billion, not including the vast new cruise terminals Royal Caribbean built in Miami to hold them. “The complexity of building ships goes up exponentially” with size, Kulovaara says. (Previously, the largest lifeboats on the market carried 150 people. In designing Oasis, Royal Caribbean also had to develop a new class of 370-person lifeboats. Symphony has 18 of them.)
The Oasis class’s crowning glory is its split superstructure: 18 decks tall, its central section is a progression of Voyager’s promenade design. The aft is divided up the middle by an 11-deck valley, giving it a horseshoe shape. Standing in the centre of the Boardwalk (Oasis ships are split into seven “neighbourhoods”) feels like standing in Manhattan, with mini-skyscrapers on each side. The chasm is bridged by a Sun deck at the top; from there the 11-storey Ultimate Abyss slides curl down to the Boardwalk.
“To split a cruise liner down the middle in this way was a really big departure,” says Tom Wright, who helped in the development of the exterior spaces for the Oasis class ships. “It’s probably the biggest departure ever by the cruise industry.”
Yrjovuori and I toured the ship. Below decks, Symphony of the Seas is like an Amazon warehouse, a cathedral to logistics. The ship’s bowels are split by a two-lane corridor, nicknamed I-95 after the US highway. In the main galleys are bathtub-sized food processors and dishwashers closer in appearance and size to car washes.
Food is stored in bungalow-sized cold rooms. Even here, flow is king: the layout of the room has been meticulously optimised by observing chefs and service staff to maximise output at peak time; because cold food guarantees unhappy passengers, all of Symphony’s restaurants are designed with a set maximum distance from galley to table.
“The level of hygiene is extreme,” Yrjovuori announced, as we passed a hand-washing station. Though ship-wide outbreaks of sickness make the news at least once a year, the total number of passengers who fall ill is a fraction of one per cent. But close quarters enable outbreaks, so sanitation regulations at sea are stringent. Every part of the ship, from lift buttons to the casino’s chips, are sanitised daily; interior materials have to stand up to the high level of chlorination from the constant cleaning. Rubbish is frozen in vast storage containers to slow bacteria growth and is only removed in port.
In midships above the Royal Promenade lies perhaps Symphony’s most remarkable feature: Central Park, an open-air garden enclosed by the upper cabins. Its development was another first, and was fraught with challenges. “I suggested it was going to be a grassy field,” says Wright. Fain loved the idea, but a grass park at sea seemed insane: the deck faces salt air, scorching Sun and foot traffic from thousands of passengers almost every day of the year.
“We do a lot of research,” explains Kelly Gonzalez, Royal’s vice president of newbuilding architectural design. Gonzalez, who leads the design of the ships’ public spaces, is Kulovaara’s closest collaborator; the two have worked together for 20 years. “We hired a grass and lawn expert from the University of Florida. We did a machine test, which was a rolling wheel with sneakers on it that would simulate footsteps.”
The results were not encouraging. “The immediate response is always ‘We’ll tweak it,’” says Fain. “We said no, this is not a tweak. This is a design flaw.”
Kulovaara called a charrette – a closed-doors design retreat that Royal has used for problem-solving since Voyager. “We went back to redesign it,” he says. Their solution was a landscaped garden with 12,000 plants and trees. It required extensive engineering, right down to the soil. “It’s a kind of volcanic exploded clay, so it’s not as dense as it would be on a land-based arboretum,” explains Butler, whose firm worked on the engineering. “On land you put in a sprinkler system and the soil gets saturated. We can’t afford that wet weight, so we do underground watering.” Botanists were consulted, as were ports’ various customs agencies for rules on foreign plant species.
Even unfinished, it’s remarkable: an airy urban park, floating on a skyscraper with an open-air café and performance space thrown in, all in the middle of the ocean.
After the park, we toured Symphony’s accommodation. Its state rooms are pre-fabricated en masse and inserted into the ship like huge Jenga blocks. Yrjovuori’s army of outfitters were busy adding mattresses and other finishing touches.
More than half of Symphony is taken up by state rooms. “We always say the millimetres matter,” says Harold Law, a senior architectural associate who oversees their development. A centimetre saved by using a thinner veneer might, along the length of the ship, mean an extra cabin per deck. Storage is honed with IKEA-like precision (the secret is calculating average luggage size plus a little extra, for souvenirs).
State rooms must be acoustically insulated – to shield occupants from their neighbours, but also vibrations from the engines, nightclubs or an overhead skydiving machine. The bathroom units are subjected to an incline test: a blocked toilet must still drain at 10° of ship tilt without spilling into the room.
The biggest challenge comes when designing the interior rooms. “Traditionally on inside rooms there’s no natural light, so you can lose track of time very quickly,” says Law. (Days at sea distort time – Symphony’s lifts contain screens reminding passengers what day of the week it is.) On 2014’s Quantum of the Seas, Royal Caribbean introduced Virtual Balconies, floor-to-ceiling screens which show a live camera feed of the outside view. There are four cameras, because during testing, they discovered that a feed facing the wrong direction causes seasickness. “You have the sensation of the motion of the ship; the visual has to match,” Law says.
“We’re constantly using design to alter the perspective of the room environment,” says Gonzalez. Uplighting and mirrors can help ceilings feel taller. The right pattern on a carpet can lengthen or shorten a space, or provide a subliminal help with wayfinding. One problem with such huge ships is the absurdly long corridors, so the architects insert fake arches or obstacles to make them appear shorter. On Quantum, Royal introduced lenticular wall art, which changes whether you’re walking fore or aft.
Celebrity Edge will introduce perhaps the biggest change in state-room design since balconies were introduced in the 80s. “I was watching the cruise ships going out from Miami one day,” explains Xavier Leclercq, Royal’s senior vice president of New Build and innovation. “I counted the passengers on their balconies – only two per cent of people [were] using them.”
Kulovaara’s team commissioned some research and came to a counterintuitive conclusion: offer passengers balconies and they say they want them, but few actually use them. So, on Celebrity Edge, Wright – the ship’s lead architect – and Royal’s New Build team eliminated balconies entirely. Instead they designed what they call the Infinite Veranda: floor-to-ceiling windows, the upper half of which lowers entirely to create an indoor balcony. As a result, Edge’s entry-level state rooms are 23 per cent larger and bathrooms 20 per cent bigger than the previous standard. “The cruise industry is incredibly conservative,” says Wright. “To change the structure of how it’s always been done – it’s really quite a big deal.”
In November 2017, before my visit to France, I flew to New York to see the future of cruise ship design. Royal Caribbean had rented a space in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to demonstrate what it calls Project Excalibur. Guests from the travel industry lounged on white leather sofas, ordering drinks via an app. Wi-Fi beacons tracked our locations, and the waiters’ custom-designed trays included a smartphone displaying our picture, so we never had to go to the bar.
The feature will debut on Symphony of the Seas and be rolled out across the entire Royal fleet. On the main stage, huge 4K screens on robotic arms delivered a dance performance (the show, something of a novelty gimmick, is featured on Quantum-class ships), before Fain made his presentation.
Kulovaara watched from the side of the room. New Build were early in the masterplanning phase for Royal’s next class of ship, codenamed Icon, which is planned to debut in 2022. Notably, Icon class, at 200,000 gross tonnes, will be smaller than Oasis. Instead, the focus is on efficiency, an urgent trend in an industry long criticised for cruise ships’ environmental impact, which included burning huge quantities of fuel and, for several decades, dumping of waste water. (Today, black water – the ship’s sewage – is treated on board, and only dumped into the sea when it reaches near drinking-water purity.)
“Energy efficiency is something we have a lot of pride in,” says Kulovaara. They expect Symphony to be, by weight, the most energy-efficient ship at sea (a claim currently held by Harmony). “We were able to improve the ship’s energy efficiency by 20 per cent with about 100 different initiatives. The hull form was improved, the propellers were improved, the air conditioning controls were improved, the lighting system was improved.” New Royal ships feature hulls that emit tiny bubbles to reduce drag, meaning the ship in effect sails on air.
After Fain’s pitch for Excalibur, we were given a rundown of the attractions Icon might eventually bring. Some, like a shallow VR sushi-eating experience, felt more like gimmicks for the tech press in attendance. But other elements seemed inevitable: check in via facial-recognition, and a Star Trek-like bridge of the future which included augmented-reality displays showing live data streams. Perhaps the most significant demo was the least well attended: a hydrogen fuel cell, which will be used to generate electricity on Icon, supplementing existing diesel engines. Icon will also be the first of Royal’s fleet to run on liquefied natural gas; Carnival, AIDA and MSC also all have LNG ships under construction, as part of an industry-wide move to meet emissions targets.
Icon’s design is still a closely-held secret, and Kulovaara would only speak in veiled terms. “We’re looking at how the infrastructure has been done on a cruise ship for the last 40 years, and we believe that there is the potential of doing drastically different things,” he said. The last time we spoke, in January, the outline for Icon was coming together, but the design was still lacking… something, so they took a break to look for inspiration. “A ship’s lifespan is at least 25 years. So we have to plan that a ship is still relevant, purposeful and efficient, more than 20 years ahead.”
Right now, Kulovaara has 13 ships on order. In 2014, Royal Caribbean became the world’s largest cruise line by passenger capacity (Carnival is still larger by total passengers, primarily because it offers shorter cruises). Other cruise lines have followed Fain’s lead: in 2017, MSC Cruises announced plans to build four 200,000-tonne World class ships, with split hulls remarkably similar to Symphony. Arch-rival Carnival has ordered two 180,000-tonne ships, due in 2020.
Still, Symphony’s record as the largest ever looks like it won’t be broken for a while. “The ships are now large enough and give us a platform that we can really do some amazing things,” says Fain. “So a gut answer is: I don’t personally see a need to build larger. But never say never.”
Back on Symphony of the Seas, Yrjovuori momentarily lost his bearings. We stopped and, taking our cue from the stairway’s decor, set off downwards. The sky was getting darker and it had started to rain. Construction was winding down for the night, and for the first time the ship’s corridors were quiet. “It’s maybe romantic, but I think ships have a kind of soul,” he said. “It’s not like a building. They have a kind of personality. ”
It was a few weeks before Symphony would set out on final sea trials. “It’s such an interesting moment in the ship’s life, when she first meets the sea,” Leclercq told me, back on shore. “It’s like a baby being born. Thousands of people, thousands of skill sets… it’s a big human adventure.” When Harmony was floated, the locals in Saint-Nazaire took to the water to meet her. “Thousands of boats were in the water. It was a beautiful day.”
Symphony of the Seas already has bookings until the end of 2019. At the time of my visit, the ship’s Facebook page was filling with passengers excitingly monitoring its progress and discussing itineraries. Kelli Carlsen, an American teacher based in Oslo, told me she booked after her and her husband spent their honeymoon on Harmony of the Seas. “It was once in a lifetime,” she said – until it wasn’t. They’re booked for June 2018. The week after they disembark, she and a friend are cruising again, on Serenade of the Seas. They’re joining the ship late, in Rome, but Carlsen says she doesn’t mind. “There’s so many stops. We just go for the ships, really.”