From napkin to shipyard: meet the world’s largest cruise ship Icon of the Seas

Frances Marcellin profiles the Royal Caribbean’s new ship, Icon of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world.

Royal Caribbean describes Icon of the Seas as a “white paper ship” – a design that began “with a blank piece of paper” with “no boundaries to the ideation”.

But perhaps a more fitting description would be the ‘white napkin ship’. This is because the idea for its Iconic 363-tonne AquaDome was first drawn onto a white napkin by Royal Caribbean’s chairman Richard Fain (who, after serving as CEO since 1988, recently stepped down with Jason Liberty now CEO and president of the Royal Caribbean Group).

“That was the start of the AquaDome journey,” explains Jay Rosser, senior product owner, product development, at Royal Caribbean. “It came all the way down from our chairman, who sketched the dome on a napkin, and gave it to the shipyard and said: build me this.”

An AquaDome that steels the show

The AquaDome is a futuristic domed entertainment venue towards the bow of the ship. It includes a 55-foot (17m) “shapeshifting” waterfall above a pool where Royal Caribbean's high-diving athletes and stunt artists perform, alongside robotic arms and fountains.

Reportedly the largest structure of glass and steel ever lifted onto a cruise ship, the construction and placement of the AquaDome was a feat of engineering in itself that took months to develop and build.

It was created at the Meyer Turku shipyard in Finland – where Icon of the Seas has just moved to its outfitting pier after floating out – as one module, which even included the water system that would be used during performances. Once built, the next challenge was to lift it on board without negatively impacting the ship’s stability.

Icon of the Seas at Meyer Turku shipyard in Finland.

To make the transfer, the team installed a 154-tonne rig. Using 54 cables the AquaDome was connected to a platform called the “spreader”, which had 12 cables attached to the crane. The team confirmed that the last few feet, and the precision involved, took over six hours to complete.

Aqua shows are one of Royal Caribbean’s most successful entertainment programmes, but they are held outside, so the weather is always a factor. One of the reasons for putting the AquaDome on Icon of the Seas was to have greater control by bringing the aqua shows inside and making them more accessible to families.

“Aqua theatres are always in the open – not any more,” according to Nick Weir, senior vice president of entertainment. “Now our aqua theatre is underneath, which means we can control the weather, control the production values, the lighting, the smoke effects, it’s all now at the touch of a button.”

The 365-long (1,198ft) Icon of the Seas – 250,800 gross tonnage –  will be able to take 7,600 guests when it debuts in January 2024, making it the largest cruise ship ever built. It will sail seven-night Caribbean vacations from Miami.

A demographic decision: five new neighbourhoods

The AquaDome is one of five new neighbourhoods that have been designed specifically for this class of ship. Three familiar ones remain: Royal Promenade with 15 restaurants; Central Park – a livelier version will hit Icon; and Suite Neighbourhood – its largest iteration so far.

The new four are Thrill Island, Chill Island, Surfside, and the Hideaway. Royal Caribbean is pitching Icon of the Seas as the answer to multi-generational holidays, identifying this as a major post-pandemic cruise trend. These different zones are strategically designed to meet the needs of parents, babies, toddlers, teens, and seniors, all in one destination – and they have included staterooms that can welcome large families of five plus.

Surfside is pitched as the place parents and kids can spend all day. There’s a splash pool for kids with a view of the ship’s wake, including colourful slides and seats where adults can relax and keep an eye on their children at the same time. There’s also a baby and toddler play area, as well as a Social020 zone for teenagers, and various different eateries.

Royal Caribbean is pitching Icon of the Seas as the answer to multi-generational holidays, identifying this as a major post-pandemic cruise trend.

Thrill Island is created for older kids and is, according to Royal Caribbean, the largest waterpark at sea with six slides and the industry’s first open free-fall slide. Families will be attracted by the raft slide (four people per raft) and dual mat-racer slides. For those seeking more thrills, Crown’s Edge is a combined skywalk, swing, and ropes challenge crossing Royal Caribbean’s enormous logo 154 ft (47m) above the sea.

Chill Island spans across three decks and includes four of the seven pools on board – one of which, Royal Bay Pool, requires 40,000 gallons of water and is described by the cruise company as being the largest at sea. This zone also includes Cloud 17, an adults-only (over 16s) retreat.

The Hideaway has an on-land beach club atmosphere, with the major difference being that it offers the first suspended infinity pool on a cruise ship along with double-bed-sized sunbeds, whirlpools, and a resident DJ.

Reducing friction and energy

Passengers will be able to use the Royal app on board Icon to optimise their time on board. Features include check-in 24 hours before sailing, registering a credit card for online purchases and completing their online health and safety questionnaire. To help reduce friction, the app includes a real-time activity calendar, in-app chat as well as a bookings service for restaurants and excursions.

The ship will also include heat recovery systems that repurpose energy across the ship. This idea is extended further into staterooms as Icon will be fitted with in-room smart technology to help conserve energy. Staterooms have an ‘eco mode’ that “turns on as a guest disembarks and turns back off when they return” to ensure their stateroom “is at optimal temperature” when they come back.

Inside the AquaDome onboard Icon of the Seas.

Icon of the Seas will also be the first ship in the fleet to be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). It includes six LNG-powered engines that provide 67,500 KW of energy to run the ship. The ship will also produce 90% of fresh water on board using a desalination plant.

“With each new ship, we raise the bar in the travel industry while enhancing what our guests know and love,” said Liberty.  

“From the moment they step on board, every experience is specifically designed to give them the best vacation anywhere on land and at sea. With Icon of the Seas, we’ve taken this to a new level and made the ultimate family vacation.”