When I started telling our friends and family that we had booked an August cruise on Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, the reactions were . . . concerned. Which was understandable. We all saw the news of various disastrous sailings around the world in 2020. Events that ultimately led to a complete shutdown of the cruise industry in U.S. ports starting in March 2020 and extending for well over a year.
But then things improved. And they sufficiently improved that I felt optimistic about our cruise vacation prospects. After watching my unvaccinated youngest child (under 12) successfully navigate the spring semester at in-person school, a series of summer camps, and all the attendant mask requirements and periodic covid testing, I felt emboldened to make our reservation. A six-night Caribbean cruise on a brand new ship — Odyssey of the Seas.
So the short version: We had a fabulous, wonderful time sailing on Odyssey of the Seas. No one got sick. Everyone had fun. And we are very much looking forward to sailing again soon! Read below to get the details on what to expect for your family cruise in a world of social distancing. (Also, check out our new guide on how to travel safely during the Covid-19 era!)
Odyssey of the Seas
Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas was originally supposed to launch in November 2020. After several delays, it finally launched for paying passengers in August 2021. Royal Caribbean designates Odyssey as a quantum ultra-class ship that includes many innovative features and is supposed to be a step above its quantum class ships. Although Odyssey of the Seas is designed to hold 4,200 passengers, during our particular sailing, there were only about 1500 guests sailing.
Our round trip itinerary from Fort Lauderdale included port calls at Cozumel, Costa Maya, and the private island Cococay.
Our travel party included two vaccinated adults, one vaccinated teen, and one unvaccinated child.
The Boarding Process
There was some confusion about pre-board protocols. We received conflicting messages that changed several times. This is ultimately what happened:
The whole family took a Covid test three days before boarding (that has recently been shortened to two days).
When we arrived at the port, we showed the results of our PCR tests as well as our vaccination cards for the three vaccinated passengers. The vaccinated folks received special green wristbands that denoted our status.
We were then directed to move to a testing area with our unvaccinated child. It appeared that most of the people waiting to be tested were children. After the nose swab, we were directed to a waiting area.
We then waited 30-45 minutes for the results. There was a designated waiting area with access to vending machines and restrooms. Once we received an email with the results, we showed it to a designated employee, departed the waiting area, and headed off to board the ship.
A Revamped Muster Experience
We have previously explained how one of the more tedious experiences of embarkation day can be the safety drills known as “muster.” Traditionally, muster typically involved either standing outside in large closely gathered groupings or crowding into a designated lounge area and then learning about safety protocols and procedures in case of emergency. And, the entire ship essentially shut down to make sure there were no distractions.
The new post-covid experience is a marked improvement. Now, you have a designated window of several hours where you can watch a safety video on the Royal Caribbean App on your phone or on the TV in your stateroom. (We watched it while waiting for the Covid test results.) You then must walk by your designated muster station during that window to check-in. No lines. No waiting. No close quarters. Hopefully, this will become a permanent change.
Social Distancing & Related
Under the ship’s masking policy, all guests over the age of 2 were required to wear face masks indoors unless seated and actively eating or drinking. No masks were required to be worn outdoors, including in the pool deck areas, or at CocoCay. Masks were also not required to be worn in venues or activities designated for vaccinated guests only. (However, some folks still chose to do so.)
With rare exceptions, all guests seemed to follow the masking requirements. Also, there didn’t seem to be any problem enforcing the restrictions for vaccinated guests only in certain areas.
Anyone who has been on a cruise knows that the ship’s elevators can be quite aggravating. There’s no uniform etiquette. They are often very crowded. And, at peak times, you often have to wait as several packed elevators pass you by – like when returning from port calls.
When we first arrived on the ship, we noticed signs prominently displayed by the elevators that said that each elevator should have a maximum of four people or one family group. We were skeptical as to how that was going to play out. Surprisingly, it worked out well with only one exception.
On our first elevator ride up to our stateroom, we were already on the elevator (our group of 4) when another group of three entered the elevator on the next floor. Apparently ignoring or overlooking the signs. That was the only time something like that happened. At all other times, all guests followed the capacity instructions.
Odyssey of the Seas:Venue Restrictions
The Royal Theater on Odyssey of the Seas can be found on decks 4 and 5. Various rows were blocked throughout the theater to promote social distancing. Plus, deck 4 was reserved for vaccinated guests. Similarly, deck 3 of the Music Hall was limited to vaccinated guests while deck 4 was open to everyone.
For all shows, various time slots were designated as either for everyone (E) or for vaccinated guests only (V). This was also true for events organized by the Vitality Spa and Fitness facilities.
In the Main Dining Room, deck 3 was designated for vaccinated guests and deck 4 was available to everyone.
There were about a dozen bars and lounges scattered across the ship. Most of them were open to everyone. The ones that were restricted to vaccinated guests only were the Casino Bar (as well as the entire casino), Boleros, the Crown & Compass Pub, and the Sunshine Bar.
Covid Testing Requirements
For vaccinated passengers: Other than showing proof of a negative test taken close to sailing, we were not required to take any additional Covid tests.
For unvaccinated passengers: In addition to showing proof of negative results from a recent Covid test taken prior to sailing, our unvaccinated 9-year-old took two additional tests – one at embarkation (described above) and a second one taken shortly before disembarkation. Because he was under the age of 12, we were not charged for either of those tests.
At some point mid-way through the cruise, we received a notification to sign up for a covid test for our unvaccinated child to be conducted on the last day before disembarkation. The day before we were returning to the U.S. Once that test was taken, we were allowed to continue with our day — which was the Cococay day. The results were emailed to us later that day. We were not required to wait for them.
Originally, we booked a balcony room, but we were able to grab a last-minute upgrade to a junior suite via the Royal Up auction.
We have previously sailed in a junior suite on some older ships. They do not compare to the junior suite on Odyssey of the Seas. The absolute game-changer is the addition of a 1/2 bath. So, when you enter the suite, the full bath is on one side (with both bathtub and shower) and the half-bath is opposite. It is basically a powder room with a toilet and full vanity. The vanity has the same shelving and drawers as the full bath.
Not surprisingly, the cabin was beautiful and obviously crisp and new. It also had an abundance of storage space. For a one-week cruise, there was more than enough storage space for four people.
The stateroom had multiple closets — two smaller closets on either side of the bed(s). One with hanging rods and the other with shelves and drawers. There was also a large double closet with space for hanging clothes and plenty of room for our “nested luggage set” at the bottom.
On Board Activities
Odyssey of the Seas has many fun activities available throughout the ship. Some have an upcharge, but most seem to be included with your cruise fare. Here’s a quick overview of what was available:
- Casino (vaccinated guests only)
- Main Pool
- Solarium (vaccinated guests only)
- FlowRider (simulated surfing)
- Ripcord by iFly (simulated skydiving)
- Skypad (bungee cord jumping with or w/o virtual reality)
- Seaplex Sports Deck (various scheduled and freeplay activities)
- Rock Climbing Wall
- North Star
- Outdoor movies
Unfortunately, due to Covid concerns, some activities that Royal Caribbean planned to offer on Odyssey of the Seas were not available for our sailing. These included Laser Tag and Trapeze School.
The Kids’ Club
As with prior Royal Caribbean sailings, Kids’ Club was available for children ages 3 to 12., and it was open for the duration of our cruise.
We went to the open house on the first day of the cruise, and we were introduced to recent changes in the program and to the new covid-related protocols.
To manage capacity and promote social distancing, they had implemented a reservation system. Families started off with 20 hours that you could reserve in advance. If you wanted to visit the club at times that you had no reservation, you could call (or stop by) in advance of a given slot to see if they had availability. If necessary, you could get on a waiting list.
At first, I was worried that the Kids’ Club would be oversubscribed, so I booked slots that I knew we traditionally would want child care. So, for instance, the afternoon or evening of certain sea days, or the last day of the cruise when we need to pack. That quickly consumed all of the initial allotment of hours. So then I crossed my fingers.
It worked out. The staff did a good job of managing slots and encouraging people to update reservations so they could accommodate families on the waitlist. There was never a time when we wanted access to the Kids’ Club and were unable to get in.
We noticed several changes in the programming offered at Kids’ Club. As an initial matter, they have reduced the number of age groups – by combining the 6 to 9 and 10 to 12 age groups. There was a very large attractive space with many different activity stations scattered across the facility. But the programming itself was less structured. And it was very much a “choose your own adventure” model. My child enjoyed it very much – but that’s nothing new.
The Teen Club was also very well received, and my teen spent substantially more time there than he had previously.
There was the “social club” area which had a loose agenda of activity options that was posted each day. But the teens could also just hang out and do what they wanted.
There was also a designated outdoor space overlooking the pool that was just for teens. And, there were the occasional “teen-only” activities scheduled – like a teen-only evening session of bumper cars, and a teen-only “speed climb” event at the climbing wall.
The Seaplex is a two-story indoor activity space billed as the largest indoor activity space at sea. While some of the planned features were not available during our sailing (Trapeze School and the laser tag adventures), lots of fun activities remained.
Laser Tag was not available. We were told that they still had not been provided guidance on how to operate in a manner consistent with CDC requirements, so it was unavailable.
Virtual Reality – which required a minimum age of 13 to play – was completely booked for the entire week when we tried to make reservations. So, if you’re interested, make any reservations as soon as you step on the ship. (I did not see an option for booking VR online before sailing.)
The full-sized sports deck provided many opportunities for both structured and open play activities. The available open play activities included table tennis, pickleball, cornhole, and archery. Some of the programmed structured activities included basketball free-throw competitions and various basketball challenges.
We found the description of the ship having an “arcade” to be misleading. There is no arcade. Instead, there are a handful of arcade games scatted across two levels on the perimeter of the Seaplex facility. In addition, to promote social distancing, essentially every other machine was blocked off.
The games that we found were a Super Mario racing game, a couple of other driving style racing games, skee ball, air hockey, a football throwing game, and that “fishing” game where you spin a giant wheel to win tickets, and a digital pop-the-balloon game where you tried to hit dots bouncing around a large circle before time ran out. There were also those games where you pay for a chance to grab a prize – either with a traditional claw or a dubious Key Master style game where you must maneuver an arrow into a slot under your chosen prize.
The concept is fine. There are many advantages to having the arcade games integrated with the Seaplex area. The issue is expectations.
Why this was annoying? I had purchased the discounted arcade package where you get 20% off arcade credits. Under the circumstances, we were hard-pressed to use all of the credits we had. I would not have purchased them if I had known what exactly was being offered.
Bumper cars were offered frequently. More frequently and at more convenient times than we had ever encountered on prior cruises that had that activity. And, since the ship was less than half full, we had no trouble getting a turn.
Contrast some past experiences of waiting in line, but never making it to the front of the line before the allotted time for bumper cars ended.
The North Star
First introduced on the Quantum-class ships. the North Star is a glass observation capsule that takes guests more than 300 feet above the ocean for 360-degree views.
On this sailing of Odyssey of the Seas, the ship offered both free and paid options for riding in the North Star. Reservations were required for both. Free option was straight up and straight down and took about a minute. The pay version went up then did a 360 degree turn before returning to the down position. That took about 5 minutes.
At first, I was on the fence as to whether it was worth the additional up-charge. Particularly given that it was $15 per person and our group had four people. But we had sailed on quantum-class ships before and encountered remarkably bad luck when it came to actually riding on the North Star.
That was due to a combination of weather issues – high winds – and capacity issues. On those prior cruises, there wasn’t a reservation system. Only a waiting line. And if the allotted time for that activity on the day’s schedule ran out, they shut it down regardless of how many people were still waiting in line.
Was it worth the upcharge? Well, I’m glad we were finally able to get the full experience. And, although I would happily go again, I would not pay for a second turn.
The Pool Deck
Prior to the pandemic, Royal Caribbean had started rolling out a new redesign of the pool decks on some ships which included a variety of lounge seating, bolder fun colors, and other Caribbean-themed elements. This direction continues with the two-level pool deck found on Odyssey of the Seas.
Although the primary focal points of the pool decks are the two outdoor pools and the four elevated whirlpools, there’s also lots more going on around the deck including fun casitas and other lounging options such as sunbeds and hammocks.
You’ll also find several strategically placed giant size yard games like chess, a game loosely based on an oversized pool table, and another involving soccer balls that I didn’t recognize.
Food & Drink
In addition to the main dining room, Odyssey has several complimentary dining venues and several specialty venues that have an upcharge.
The Complimentary Venues:
- Solarium Bistro
- Sorrento’s Pizza
- El Loco Fresh
- Chops Grille
- Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen
- Izumi (sushi)
For specialty dining, unvaccinated guests were permitted to make reservations for 5:30.
Sorrento’s, the pizza place found on many a Royal Caribbean ship, typically offers good pizza. But on this voyage, the pizza seemed to be unusually good. We visited several times for a late-night snack.
Main Dining Room Fixed Seating
We opted for fixed seating and had the early seating. To allow for social distancing, many tables were blocked off so the occupied tables weren’t in touching distance. Waiters wore masks. But, guests did not since we were actively eating and drinking. Everything was clearly well spaced. Our closest dining party was at least 10 feet away.
There were two sorta-formal nights. One was called formal night but our waiter at fixed seating insisted that we could come even if we didn’t have formal clothes. I was skeptical. We did not go down.
The second was billed “wear your best.” There were some people in formal/tuxedo/cocktail dress level attire, but fewer than typically seen in the past and certainly not the majority.
Breakfast through room service was available from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00. There was no charge unless you used the card to order the night before. It was extremely good. Arrived hot, fresh, and tasty. It was also relatively speedy, but that’s likely attributable to decreased occupancy and less demand.
As part of the ship’s safety protocols, the person delivering the room service would position the trolley crossways in front of the door. The guest retrieved dishes from the trolley while the staff person remained in the hallway on the other side of the trolley.
For all other mealtimes, room service orders incurred a $7.95 service charge.
Beverages & Beverage Packages
Many factors help determine whether a beverage package is worth it for particular guests on a particular sailing. As part of its response to the pandemic, Royal Caribbean changed how it offered certain benefits to Diamond level loyalty program members. As a result, Diamond members could automatically receive up to 4 complimentary beverages a day (with a value of $12 or less). Since three of our four travelers were Diamond members, I decided to skip reserving any of the Royal Caribbean Beverage Packages.
We did, however, pre-ordered the bottled water which was delivered to our cabin at the beginning of the cruise. (When I made the purchase online, the advertised water was cans of Dasani. But, when we arrived, the ship had reverted back to bottles of Evian.)
The Shows & Entertainment
The Royal Theater (Main Theater)
The main theater has two levels – one on Deck 4 and the second on Deck 5. Only vaccinated guests were allowed into the Deck 4 seating.
For the Deck 5 level, not surprisingly, there were lots of families with kids. There were certain seats blocked off to permit social distancing. And, each group was led by an usher and directed to specific seats – reinforcing the social distancing safeguards.
All shows in the main theater required reservations. We were able to book all of our reservations for the week during our initial visit to the reservation desk in the Seaplex. The staff members were very helpful with sorting out which shows were family friendly and which ones were not.
These were the headliner shows that were offered in the main theatre:
- Hector is Magic — a family friendly magician and illusionist from Spain.
- Royal Comedian Cary Long
- Showgirl! Past. Present. Future. – a dance spectacular about showgirls. (This was flagged for us as not particularly kid-friendly.)
- Vocalist Jennifer Singer – Performer who sings a wide range of music, particularly from divas like Barbara Streisand and Celine Dion.
- Tap Factory – an electic show featuring steel drums, acrobatics, some comedy, and, of course, tap dancing.
- Comedy Juggler Francois Borie
We enjoyed all of the shows we attended. We experienced the seating on Deck 5 from various vantage points, and we never had a problem seeing the stage or the large jumbo screen above the stage.
The shows we enjoyed the most were Hector’s magic show and the Tap Factory performance. The Tap Factory performance was particularly fun for the kids and quite exhilarating.
The ship also provided significant programming at Two70 and Music Hall.
The panoramic Two70 space at the end of Deck 5 featured the production of “The Book: Seven, Chapters, One Adventure.” Despite its title, this is not one linear tale. Essentially it’s a collection of several different vignettes set in varying locations.
Two70 also featured the technology-based production of “Oceansides” billed as “the newest, most complex and dynamic robotic vignette”
During the daytime, that area provided space for various game show-based games and other entertainment activities. And, some evenings, it featured dance parties and a themed nightclub experience.
In the evenings, Music Hall featured a series of karaoke competitions and activities like Name That Tune, as well as a range of live musical performances. In the daytime, the space hosted various activities such as bingo and thematic game shows.
Several venues provided a scheduled program of live music in addition to Music Hall. These included Schooner Bar, Boleros, and occasionally the Crown & Compass Pub.
Ports of Call & Excursions
Special Covid Requirements – unvaccinated minors
If you were traveling with unvaccinated kids, they were not permitted to leave the ship unless they were on an official Royal Caribbean shore excursion. This appeared to be enforced.
When we tried to exit at Cozumel, I only had one electronic ticket for our entire group. At first, the security person said we could not leave because we did not have a ticket showing that our unvaccinated minor was leaving to attend a Royal Caribbean excursion. Ultimately, what appeared to be a supervisor or more senior person was called over. After carefully examining the electronic ticket displayed on my Royal Caribbean app, he confirmed that it covered our minor child and we were allowed to depart.
As explained in our prior post about the Cozumel cruise port, Cozumel has many delightful excursions to offer. However, because we were traveling with an unvaccinated minor, Royal Caribbean required that we only take shore excursions that were organized by the cruise line. Under the present circumstances, I decided to book something safe and reliable and signed up for the Playa Mia excursion.
I was curious what kind of special Covid protocols would be in place since that was the reported reason that unvaccinated minors could only participate in official excursions. It was explained to us that we were being assigned to a specific group and a specific bus. When it was time to return, we had to return on the same bus we arrived on. We were told that we should not leave the resort by other means or we would be deemed to be out of protocol.
Notably, all the travelers on our bus appeared to be families with kids under the age of 12.
When we arrived at Playa Mia, it did appear as if we had a reserved section of the beach. We spent most of our time on the beach. The chairs appeared to be well spaced out to promote social distancing. Although the pools and splash park seemed a wee bit crowded.
We investigated the splash park toward the end of our visit. I was surprised when my kids returned in about 10 minutes. Apparently several of the attractions were not available due to restrictions so they didn’t think there was much to do.
Perfect Day at Cococay
So, What is Cococay?
Cocócay is a private island in the Bahamas owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises. It appears on the Caribbean itineraries for a wide range of Royal Caribbean ships.
It’s a picturesque island filled with white-sand beaches, blue water, and palm trees. Of course you’ll find pools, bars, restaurants, and other amenities on the island to offer all of the comforts of an upscale beach resort, and many fun activities are free.
The island features an array of activities perfect for all ages and abilities, including snorkeling, paddle boarding, jet skis, and zip-lining. The beachside cabanas make for a great place to stay if you’re looking for a relaxing vacation with easy access to all of the activities.
With something to offer everyone from toddlers to teens, there’s no excuse not to make your way over! In addition, parents will love that Royal Caribbean has thoughtfully designed the island so that children are never out of sight or too far from home base when they need a break from their adventure pursuits.
We had a wonderful day at Cococay Island. But, I must recognize that our view may be somewhat skewed by the relatively low number of people on the island during our visit.
At peak times, the Island can accommodate multiple ships and up to 12,000 guests. On the day we visited, we were the only ship. Given that we only had about 1500 guests, nothing seemed crowded. There were no waits, no lines. At the water slides, the only limitation on your speed in getting access was your ability to swiftly climb the stairs (or not).
We had no problem booking a private cabana by the thrill park.
We booked it at a discounted price pre-sailing and it was definitely worth it. It was easy to set up a home base there and let everyone run around the various attractions. Come back to cool off with icy refreshments provided by the cabana attendant. We also had food delivered which was quite tasty.
The different slides have been handily provided with ratings to alert you to their “thrill” (aka scary) factor. Not everyone in our group elected to check out all the different thrill levels. For more insights, see why Some Cruise Activities Are Surprisingly Scary.
Interestingly, that super long slide – the tallest in North America at 135 feet – was not actually the scariest. That turned out to be the Dueling Demons. When my kids returned from that particular adventure, my oldest son had a bit of a nervous grin and my youngest looked a little wide-eyed and was unusually quiet for a time.
Obviously, I did not personally see the top of the ride, only the bottom where the kids come out. But, as described, you’re standing on some kind of platform and the bottom drops out from under you. And you fall from your vertical position into the tube of the slide. Interestingly, that was the one slide that was not repeated during our stay.
All of the “max” thrill slides received rave reviews.
Thrill Park also has wonderful group-oriented activities that the whole family can enjoy together. Note that there are several stations of life jackets strategically placed.
The Wave Pool
First, there’s the wave pool. The wave pool was very popular, but not remotely packed. Waves seemed unusually strong – which was fun – and the deep end of the pool was actually deep – about 10 feet per the notation on the walls. There were two very vigilante lifeguards standing on the sides making sure no one was in distress. Without being obnoxious about it.
At one point, I noticed one of the lifeguards looking very hard at my oldest son who was hanging out close to the wall during a period when the waves were on the heavy side. Apparently, it was unclear whether he was trapped. The lifeguard gave my son a discrete thumbs up with a questioning tilt of the head. My son returned the thumbs up with a wide smile. The lifeguard nodded and returned to scanning the pool.
The Adventure Pool
This is essentially a medium-size pool filled with a water-based obstacle course. The challenges include various climbing, jumping, and bouncing activities. You can also scale a small rock climbing wall and swing off the rope to splash into the pool.
There is also the “Family Tower” of water slides which is a collection of group-oriented slides. While these are quite fun, you should be forewarned that there are a significant number of steps involved as well as weight restrictions for the group.
The group slide experiences include The Twister, which is a winding tube slide with two-person rafts. The Slingshot has larger rafts that can hold up to four people and involves lots of twists and turns and is mostly open air. Finally, there is Splash Speedway which is a four-lane race track where up to four individuals can race each other down a slide.
Splash Away Bay on Steroids
The Splashaway Bay area at Cococay shares the same name as the splash zone area on the Royal Caribbean ships. It is unclear why because in many ways that’s a disservice to the park at Cococay. We have always loved the Splashaway Bay area found on the newer ships. The one on Cococay is infinitely superior. Also, unlike the thrill park, it is absolutely free.
Welcome to splash park nirvana! The Splashaway Bay found on the cruise ship has essentially been supersized. It has more of everything plus new stuff. It has five waterslides instead of two, two drench buckets instead of one – and these seem higher and larger and making even more of a splash. More cannons, fountains, and water features than back on board.
Plus, it’s right next door to Captain Jill’s Galleon – which is a large replica of a pirate shipped tricked out with more water features such as water cannons, porthole slides, and other water features.
We visited this area after spending most of the day at Thrill Park, so we were short on time. But, we could have easily spent several hours there. Also, on the day we were there, it was a much cooler part of the island.
Other Island Neighborhoods & Activities
Cococay has several other neighborhoods that we did not get to spend much time in, but we’re looking forward to exploring those on our next visit. Other island activities include the helium hot air balloon and zip-lining, along with a variety of traditional beach sports and activities.
Oasis Lagoon – This is a very large pool area that has its own set of chairs, loungers, and private cabanas. It’s billed as the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean, and it has its own different hangout sections including a large semi-circle swim-up bar and three different swim-up islands.
Chill Island – This is a traditional beach area with several water activities available such as snorkeling, jet skis, and paddleboards. This area also has large daybeds and private cabanas. The island includes other beach areas with their own vibe – South Beach, Harbor Beach, and Coco Beach. Note that the Coco Beach Club also has options for floating cabanas and access to a private beach.
Disembarkation from our sailing on Odyssey of the Seas was shockingly seamless and friction-free. From the moment we stepped out of our stateroom until we stepped into the departure terminal, we did not encounter any other guests – only crew. It could not have been less painless.
Per disembarkation instructions, passengers were provided a list of potential places to have breakfast and available hours. You were supposed to eat then return to your cabin and turn on a designated channel with disembarkation information. It was an updated list of which groups were being called. When your group was called, you were supposed to head for the exits.
No waiting in a crowded lounge filled with other guests and your luggage at your feet.
No waiting for elevators while several full ones pass you by.
No long exit lines.
Notably, even the passage through customs after retrieving our luggage was a swift one. Probably assisted by the use of facial recognition technology.
Highlights & Our Favorite Things on Odyssey of the Seas
Our visit to Cococay was unquestionably the highlight of the cruise. We could easily have gone there as a multi-day destination trip.