New Ship Report: Symphony of the Seas and American Duchess

The Symphony of the Seas’ new, two-level, 1,346-square-foot Ultimate Family Suite is filled with kid-friendly features.

Ships come in all sizes and each has its own personality. Here’s our “personal” first-hand insight about the world’s biggest vessel, Royal Caribbean International’s new 5,158-passenger Symphony of the Seas, and a more intimate vessel, American Queen Steamboat Company’s 166-passenger American Duchess

World’s Largest

Brash and bold, the new Symphony of the Seas, the world’s biggest ship, launched in March. Now sailing Mediterranean voyages from Barcelona, this 228,081-grt vessel will reposition later this year to home port at PortMiami’s new Terminal A. As with its Oasis-class sisters, it has seven neighborhoods including Central Park, which has an interior space open to the sky with greenery, park benches, shops, eateries and park-facing balconies on upper decks. 

A fun, fair-like neighborhood is Boardwalk with a working carousel that guests can ride, the AquaTheatre, Johnny Rockets, and the new Sugar Beach with 100-plus candy types, multiple ice cream flavors and do-it-yourself culinary activities. The two-level Grand Promenade neighborhood offers shops, services, eateries and the Rising Tide Bar. Plus, it has a new conversation piece and top selfie draw — a huge, red sculpted ball made from a compressed Volkswagen Beetle; that occupies the space where the “Morgan” car was displayed on other ships. 

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Overall, the ship brims with multiple activity choices that guests just can’t wait to try — or as Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president of sales and trade support and service, describes it: “We are the unique combination of quality combined with energy.” This ship should appeal to both “loyal to Royal” fans and new cruisers eager for “wow” choices in onboard activities, dining and entertainment.  

New on Symphony of the Seas is “The Battle for Planet Z,” an interactive laser tag activity, which gets under way at the converted Studio B; teams of cruisers square off against each other within a glow-in-the-dark venue with special effects. In “Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon,” cruisers band together in a Rubicon submarine (a custom-built escape room) to solve puzzles before time runs out. Or for other thrills, guests can head for the 10-deck twisting Ultimate Abyss “dry” slide, the Perfect Storm trio of water slides, two 40-foot-high rock climbing walls, two FlowRider surfing simulators, the zip line, ice skating rink or basketball court.

Symphony of the Seas’ 1,401-seat Royal Theater is home to the Broadway-style production of “Hairspray,” and I found the lighting, show production, music and performers (singers, dancers, actors and aerialists) highly entertaining and of high quality. Cruisers might think they’re actually in a real Broadway theater. Another new show is “Flight: Dare to Dream,” which features 3D flying technology, video and automation. Space and zero gravity are simulated as actors “float” within an International Space Station replica.  

During two nights in the main dining room and ordering off the menu there, my experience was quite good. Escargot was an appetizer one night, so I asked for two orders to make that my main course. My waiter made it happen, and when a friend sampled mine, my waiter proactively swooped in with two more servings, both cooked to perfection. Salmon and beef entrées were also tasty and nicely presented.    

Atop the Solarium, a new alternative dining spot to check out is Hooked Seafood. I heartily recommended the surf and turf, lobster mac-and-cheese and Oysters Rockefeller, and my table mates enjoyed their freshly shucked oysters. I’d pass on the crab cake, though (too much filler for my taste).  Based on pre-cruise/tax-inclusive reservations, Hooked Seafood’s per-person pricing is $42.90 for dinner in Europe, while, in the Caribbean, it’s $19 (lunch) and $39 (dinner). At the new Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade on the Boardwalk, sports fans can watch their favorite team on 31 big-screen TVs; play in an indoor and outdoor arcade; and chow down on wings, burgers, popcorn shrimp, sundaes, craft beers and cocktails. Also new is El Loco Fresh, serving tacos and burritos. 

The Symphony of the Seas’ Royal Theater is home to a Broadway-style production of “Hairspray.”

Accommodations-wise, Symphony of the Seas has 28 additional balcony staterooms (compared with other Oasis-class ships) overlooking the ocean or Boardwalk. I was assigned a deluxe stateroom with veranda, #6232, which faced the ocean and happened to be a 408-square-foot handicapped accessible cabin. 

This well-designed stateroom had a gentle ramp-like slope leading up to the sliding balcony door (for easy wheelchair access from inside to outside); wider doors, a walk-in / roll-in shower with a pull-down / push-up bench; bathroom grab bars, a higher toilet, emergency “rope pulls” and button for summoning assistance, and more. Once the key card was inserted, the stateroom door also swung open on its own (just stay out of its way). I appreciated the attention to detail that went into designing this stateroom. My cabin steward was friendly. 

Most talked about onboard our inaugural sailing? It was the new, two-level, 1,346-square-foot Ultimate Family Suite, which sleeps eight. Since there’s only one of these exclusive suites, it goes for $40,000 to $85,000 for a week’s cruise. The Ultimate Family Suite is a prototype, but how the concept will evolve on future ships is yet to be determined.  

Colorful and playful in vibe, this suite is filled with kid-friendly features that adults will secretly love / want to try. It has an indoor air hockey table that doubles as a dining table; private theater space with bean bag seating, Lego wall and 85” HD TV; and a bright orange slide from the kids’ loft bedroom to the lower level. The suite’s 212-square-foot balcony has a ping-pong table (also a dining table), chairs, loungers, a Luckey Climber for kids and a whirlpool for adults. 

Downstairs, in addition to the private theater area, the spacious living room has a pull-out sofa that sleeps two, swinging chair, two side chairs, another large TV, and the end of the enclosed slide (engineered for the weight of kids, so they land gently). A full downstairs bathroom has a shower. Two staircases lead to either the children’s room or the master suite. 

“In the suite’s loft, the master bedroom has a king-sized bed and three-piece bathroom (shower, one sink and toilet); pull curtains provide visual privacy from the downstairs level but not noise privacy, something the line will address moving forward. The kids bedroom also has a pull-out sofa, two pull-down upper berths and the slide entrance. The children’s bathroom has a toilet, double vanity sinks, and a tub / shower.  

We liked this suite’s cute touches including the “Magic Door” opening at the bottom of the kids’ room door for young children to crawl / pass through. A huge blackboard adjacent to the air hockey / dining table is a great spot for kids to get creative with chalk or the Royal Genie (the line’s fun, casual, yet properly trained butler) to leave reminders about family dining or show reservations. For photos, search for Ultimate Family Suite at www.travelagentcentral.com.   

New this year, Symphony of the Seas is using a redesigned check-in experience with a new mobile app. That eliminates lines and allows guests to bypass the counter with a combination of facial recognition, bar codes and beacons. But there’s more to a great ship than hardware and technology. It’s also the people.

One night I arrived at my stateroom, realizing I’d left my card in the cabin. A crew member walking by — not my cabin steward — proactively offered to get me a new one at the purser’s desk. Taking one of my business cards as ID, she raced down an interior stairwell and was back within five minutes with a new key card. 

Bigger ships deliver more guest choices. But bigger doesn’t have to mean impersonal. Despite its humongous size, Symphony of the Seas also delivered impressive examples of excellent one-on-one service.

Small Boutique Surprise

Having sailed previously on AQSC’s 424-passenger American Queen, I was eager to check out the more intimate, 166-passenger American Duchess on a four-night Mississippi river sailing from Natchez to Memphis this past March. AQSC totally stripped a 1995-era hull down to bare steel and rebuilt the entire vessel from the inside out — relaunching it as an essentially new ship in 2017.  

American Duchess fields exterior “paddlewheel” design, but inside is akin to a modern, contemporary boutique hotel. Yes, guests still can view steamboat-era paintings in some corridors, but mostly they’ll see hand-blown Murano glass art pieces, contemporary art and modern patterns in carpeting and wall coverings. Staterooms and suites are similarly modern and contemporary, unlike what Mark Twain experienced during his steamboatin’ days.

American Duchess fields exterior “paddlewheel” design, but inside is akin to a modern, contemporary boutique hotel. 

My two-level, 550-square-foot Loft Suite, #206, had soft, neutral colors and spectacular two-story river views, plus a private balcony. By pushing a remote control, I could close either of four massive drapes (two sets of sheers, two sets of heavier drapes) extending up two levels and covering floor-to-ceiling expanses of glass. The downstairs living area has a couch and chair, large flat-screen TV and entertainment cabinet; a dining table, chairs and a long service bar with Keurig coffeemaker; and full bath with shower.

Upstairs was the open loft bedroom (queen or two twin beds) with a second full bathroom with soaking tub, closet space, a second flat-screen TV and good storage. Guests in the Owner’s Suite (OS) and Loft Suite (LFS) accommodations receive elite Commodore Services. So I dined at the captain’s table one evening, enjoyed daily butler service from Gerard (a fabulous crew member) and received a bottle of wine upon embarkation, nightly canapes and other perks.  For a Loft Suite slide show, search for American Duchess on www.travelagentcentral.com

This intimate vessel will likely appeal to some clients who’ve sailed on European river vessels and desire to try American-style river cruising but aren’t fans of historic Victorian-style interior décor. It also should appeal to new-to-river-cruising guests desiring to try an American product with a nightly musical entertainment component, or those seeking a drive-market vacation without international air travel hassles. 

American Duchess proved a lovely surprise — never crowded. Inside, guests have many nooks and crannies to relax, read or check your phone for messages using the ship’s free Wi-Fi. Outside, cruisers can watch riverscapes unfold from white rocking chairs or soak up the sun in top-deck blue-cushioned chairs and loungers, before taking a whirlpool dip. 

My favorite spot? It’s the Lincoln Library, a large public space with comfortable seating areas, evening entertainment by the American Duchess Show Band, a bar and dance floor. Bookcases hold board games, plus books of fiction and non-fiction focused on flora / fauna, history and culture, the Civil War, Southern and U.S. heartland destinations, jazz and blues, steamboating and more.  

The ship’s comfortable Show Lounge has cushioned, tiered theater seating that gently slopes down to the stage. Sight lines are good. Cruise Director Dustin Cunningham and his wife, Courtney, truly impressed night after night with their Broadway-quality voices, as did fellow singer and performer Jeff Hutson, who also was a hit as Elvis on roller skates. 

It’s good to remind clients, though, that American Duchess isn’t huge. That very talented trio of singers plus the five-piece show band constituted the entire performance team for the nightly shows. But while guests won’t find a dozen dancers, large sets or full-scale Broadway shows, they will see a strong emphasis on pure voices, creative song selection, a bit of humor and truly excellent live musical performance and more entertainment than many other river products. 

Let’s just say I was back night after night for the Show Lounge’s musical shows with different themes — romantic classics / opera, sock-hop classics, Broadway tunes, iconic pop hits and country music. Other onboard diversions include “Riverlorian” enrichment lectures, game / trivia contests, a pilot house tour, bingo and more. The ship also has a walking track, small fitness center, Internet cafe / business center and small shop. 

The elegant Grand Dining Room is spacious, has a country club dress code and can seat all guests in open seating. The creative menus featured tasty southern dishes and American favorites, some creations by celebrity chef Regina Charboneau. Waiters poured red and white wines (included in the fare) for lunch and dinner.

The ship’s attractive alternative dining venue, River Club & Terrace, has a bar, indoor and outdoor seating, buffets for breakfast and lunch (as well as a breakfast omelet menu and burgers for lunch) and à la carte dinner service. American Duchess also has 24-hour room service and the ever-popular Perks for snacks (Think popcorn, cookies, croissants, donuts, fresh fruit, soft-serve ice cream, coffee and tea). 

American Duchess’ complimentary hop on / hop off motorcoaches provide guided tours in ports. Local guides point out top sites and offer insightful tales of local intrigue or historic figures. Secure a coach boarding time by accessing the machine near the purser’s desk. Stops are designated by sidewalk placards and the line arranges some free attraction admissions. AQSC also has premium excursions for a fee.

American Duchess, American-owned and crewed, has friendly, American-style service that’s less formal / more familiar than some European lines. Dining room service was excellent. Our butler was top-notch — arranging a private bridge tour, delivering canapes and reserving priority theater seats. Our cabin steward was eager and friendly, but the “timing” of morning suite cleaning was a tad slow. Purser’s Desk staffers helped with an Internet issue, and entertainers shook hands and conversed with guests after the shows.  

Overall, I loved sailing on this lovely intimate vessel with a modern feel, excellent cuisine and friendly service.

More New Players

Just launched is the 3,954-passenger Carnival Horizon, the second in Carnival Cruise Line’s Vista-class series. This new 133,500-grt ship has the first Dr. Seuss-themed WaterWorks aqua park at sea, a new Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse / Brewhouse with barbeque favorites created by celebrity chef Guy Fieri, and the new Bonsai Teppanyaki, an alternative dining venue. A modern, two-level, mall-style atrium shopping area showcases such brands as Le Vian, Victoria’s Secret and, for the first time, Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Breitling and Hublot. 

Carnival Horizon has the first  Dr. Seuss-themed WaterWorks aqua park at sea.

Carnival Horizon is sailing four-day Bermuda and eight-day Caribbean cruises from New York this summer and will reposition to Miami in September. Travel Agent will sail on the ship later this month so look for our first-hand review at travelagentcentral.com. 

Seabourn also just introduced its newest ultra-luxury ship, Seabourn Ovation, this spring, with 300 all-oceanfront suites with private verandas. Interiors were created by hospitality design icon, Adam Tihany. Onboard highlights include such innovative programs or features as “An Evening with Tim Rice,” “Spa and Wellness with Dr. Andrew Weil,” and “The Grill by Thomas Keller.” Seabourn Ovation is sailing northern Europe this summer on seven-day Baltic and Scandinavian sailings and will also offer 14-day Norwegian fjords/British Isles voyages. 

Setting sail this month are: MSC CruisesMSC Seaview, Ponant’s Le Laperouse and Viking CruisesViking Orion. Yet to come this year are Scenic’s Scenic Eclipse, Star ClippersFlying Clipper, Ponant’s Le Champlain, Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam, Celebrity CruisesCelebrity Edge and Mystic CruisesWorld Explorer.

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