Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas is the first ship in the cruise line’s fleet to launch from the United States in more than 15 months. The ship left the Port of Miami on July 1 for a three-night cruise with stops in Nassau and Perfect Day at Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas.
Cruisers were elated to be back onboard, many of them loyal royal fans. Even with health protocols in place, it still felt like a genuine Royal Caribbean cruise experience full of excellent food, cold drinks on the sunny pool deck, energetic service from the crew, and that feeling of stress just melting away.
Freedom sailed over the Fourth of July holiday and Royal didn’t disappoint in finding ways to celebrate the occasion. Passengers cheerfully waved American flags on the top decks during sailaway and a fabulous fireworks show burst over Coco Cay while cruisers from Freedom and four other Royal ships joyously looked on. On Sunday night, an impromptu and emotional rendition of the national anthem brought about happy tears in the Main Dining Room.
In anticipation of the momentous sailing, the line outlined and reviewed COVID protocols throughout the weeks leading up to departure, with Royal Caribbean ultimately choosing to sail with both unvaccinated and vaccinated passengers.
This probably was no surprise to anyone familiar with Royal Caribbean, which sails with over 1 million children every year. As kids naturally fall into the unvaccinated category, this accommodation allowed all ages to cruise. On this sailing, around 125 kids joined in on the fun, representing more than 10 percent of the just over 1,000 passengers onboard. Freedom of the Seas has a maximum capacity of 4,500. Ninety-three percent of the cruise community (this includes both passengers and crew) were vaccinated. All Royal Caribbean crew are required to be vaccinated.
However, the decision to sail with both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers created some confusion over mask rules and protocols. If you chose to disclose that you were vaccinated, you were asked to wear purple wristbands and were allowed full access to all venues onboard. As for unvaccinated passengers, or those who didn’t choose to show proof of vaccination and were assumed to be unvaccinated, some spaces were completely off-limits, such as the R Bar, the Schooner Bar, the casino, the Solarium, and the Vitality Spa. (Not coincidentally, these spaces are adult-oriented.) The Fitness center was only open to unvaccinated passengers for two hours a day, one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening, and masks were required for all during these two hours. When not eating or drinking, all passengers, regardless of vaccinated status, were required to wear masks except while outdoors or in a space designated only for vaccinated passengers. Crew wore masks at all times — even ashore at Perfect Day at CocoCay.
The boarding process was quick, although faster for vaccinated passengers. For unvaccinated passengers sailing on Freedom out of Miami in July, a series of PCR tests are required – one no more than three days before embarkation, one on boarding day, and a final test before the end of the sailing. The second and third tests cost each guest $136 and were automatically added to the onboard folio. (Tests for guests who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated are covered by Royal Caribbean.)
Reservations were required for attending ice shows in Studio B or performances in the Royal Theater. These reservations could be made using your room phone or in the Royal app, available at no cost for all passengers.
Only one sailing was able to experience Freedom’s $116-million renovation, which debuted in March 2020, just before the industry shut down. This generated buzz for new spaces and activities including PlayMakers Sports Bar and Arcade, Giovanni’s Kitchen speciality restaurant, The Perfect Storm waterslide, El Loco Fresh serving tacos and burritos on the pool deck, and Social 033, the new teen club.
It’s clear that folks are ready to get back to sailing, with both cruisers and crew adapting to changes in stride, their smiles evident even behind the masks, and faces glowing with that infectious energy one seems to only have when cruising.