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Symphony of the Seas

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Royal Caribbean might have built the world's largest cruise ship -- once again -- but the size of Symphony of the Seas is only a byproduct of its intention: to build the world's best cruise ship for families. The objective is a bold one, but Symphony hits the mark in every category, which is due to a winning combination of variety and quality. The choice of which room to book, the restaurants to eat in, the activities to take part in or the shows to attend come out to a whopping amount of options for the average, weeklong cruise. Yet even if your family sticks to the basic cabins and included options, the cruising experience is still kept at a high standard, and attentive and friendly service is never the exception.

The reason Symphony of the Seas is its best ship yet, is because Royal Caribbean listened to feedback and kept the passenger experience top of mind when designing it. Complaints that ranged from the omission of a pool in the Solarium on Harmony of the Seas, to difficult-to-reach cabinetry in staterooms or no way to get omelettes in the Windjammer Marketplace, have all been resolved on Symphony. Royal Caribbean has even brought back "Hairspray" by popular demand, giving the production a total refresh for a new (or returning) audience.

Symphony comes with all of the perks of big a mega-ship but nearly none of the pitfalls. Like other Oasis-class ships, Symphony of the Seas features the easily navigable neighbourhood concept, which includes Central Park, Entertainment Place and the Boardwalk. A brilliant passenger flow, plenty of signage and an intuitive sense of orientation means that despite being massive, it's hard to get lost for long onboard. Other byproducts of size, like pollution or waste, are offset by the line's Save the Waves program and by constant improvements to ship engineering. Symphony, like many of the line's ships, is "zero to landfill" meaning no waste is left behind. A new program has banned plastic straws and Symphony is actually 25 percent more energy-efficient than its fleetmate Allure of the Seas.

Despite having many of the same features as other ships in its class, Royal Caribbean was not afraid to go bigger with Symphony, adding new concepts like "Battle for Planet Z" laser tag; Hooked, a seafood restaurant; Playmakers, a sports bar and arcade; Sugar Beach, an expanded ice cream and sweets shop; and El Loco Fresh, a new Mexican eatery. The strong execution of these fresh ventures, along with their mass appeal, almost guarantees that Royal Caribbean has ensured a new generation of fleetwide favourites. Even better, half of the new venues (laser tag and El Loco Fresh) are included in the cruise fare.

One downside to all the investment and improvement is that the returns have to come from somewhere. In the case of Symphony, the price of nearly every speciality restaurant cover has been raised. Though just a few dollars more per person than on previous ships, it could impact budgeting for families who can't spend hundreds more on dining in addition to what they paid to board the ship.

If as to say, "we got this," Royal Caribbean has traded in a number of partnerships to rely on their own in-house talent on Symphony of the Seas. This includes no more affiliation with Michael Schwartz in 150 Central Park, and also no DreamWorks characters. (The line still offers its DreamWorks partnership on other ships.) Instead, the line has developed its own original parade production for the Royal Promenade, and poured heart and soul into an all-new stage production called "Flight: Dare to Dream." In venues like Studio B and the AquaTheater, Royal Caribbean turned to the performers for help, and as a result, each space has a new show developed and inspired by the talent.

Beyond all of the places to go, Royal Caribbean has ensured there are ample things to see. An art collection with a price tag in the tens of millions infuses the atmosphere onboard with a vibrancy and playfulness that will attract the millennial vacationers they're looking for, but also appeals on a broader level. Not every work or installation is for every person, but the general theme of eccentricity and adventure is hard to ignore. We particularly enjoyed a "hidden" piano staircase, which plays a tune in an homage to the ship's moniker.

Other efforts to attract fun-loving family cruisers include the one-of-a-kind Ultimate Family Suite. While calling it a "gimmick" is too harsh, the over-the-top stateroom is an extremely limited and very high-priced option for families or groups. (Still, that doesn't mean it's not cool.) The word is the line is looking at developing a family-focused cabin category inspired by the Ultimate Family Suite, but priced lower.

While it's been said time and again that Symphony of the Seas is bigger than its fleetmates (by just about 1 percent), it's the focus on improvements rather than size that seems to have driven Royal Caribbean to innovate on its already-winning formula for a family vacation experience.

Daytime: Casual. During the day you'll find everything from bathing suits (you'll need a coverup and shoes, though, to eat in the buffet) to jeans and tees.

Evening: Passengers tend to get a little more spiffed up at night with sundresses, khakis and button-up shirts or polos. There are two formal nights per seven-night sailing, and fashion choices on these nights vary widely, with passengers choosing to don anything from gowns and tuxes to pants suits or jackets and ties. You'll also need to dress up for a few of the speciality restaurants like 150 Central Park.

Not permitted: Tank tops are not permitted for dinner, except in the Windjammer Marketplace buffet. Shorts are discouraged at dinner time, but you'll see people in them at the main dining room anyway.

Theatre

The two-deck Royal Theater (Decks 4 and 5) is multipurpose, but most passengers will head here for Symphony's evening performances. The first is a reimagined stage production of "Hairspray." Royal Caribbean has already featured the show on previous ships, but it's back due to popular demand, and with all new costumes, sets and style.

The second theatre show is an original production, inspired by humanity's relationship with air travel. "Flight: Dare to Dream" begins by transporting the audience to Mars in the future, and then travels back in time, documenting each major milestone of space and sky. The Royal Caribbean entertainment team hired a former astronaut who lived on the International Space Station for five months as a consultant so that the set, along with interpretations of zero gravity, are as accurate as possible. The show was also developed to maintain a high degree of historical accuracy. The performance ends with a recreation of the Wright Brothers' first flight -- and you just might witness a 22-foot plane land on stage before your eyes.

All theatre performances are included in your cruise fare.

Daily Fun

Royal Caribbean has taken everything -- rock-climbing walls, FlowRiders, zipline, dry slide, waterslides, ice skating -- from its other Oasis-class mega-ships and turned the volume up to 11.

When Studio B, the ice rink, isn't being used for its new ice shows or free skating, it becomes a glow-in-the-dark laser tag arena on most days. "The Battle for Planet Z" pitches robots against aliens for control of the planet. The arena is basically an inflatable maze with "command station" tents, but it's good fun -- especially for the low, low cost of free (don't forget: tennis shoes are required). Passengers should make a reservation to ensure they get the time slot they want. Children of all ages are welcome to play laser tag, but they must be accompanied by an adult and avoid the very tempting compulsion to run.

We're told that there will still be open sessions for ice skating throughout the cruise in Studio B.

Puzzle Break is back, and this time players will have to escape Rubicon, a submarine. Modelled after the escape rooms on land, the latest Royal Caribbean version takes players to the very bottom of the ocean (and in reality, just to Adventure Ocean on Deck 14) to correctly -- and quickly -- solve a number of puzzles and riddles in order to emerge victorious. The cost has not yet been determined, but we're told it will range from $8 to $12 per person.

Beyond the aforementioned fun, Symphony of the Seas also offers hosted trivia, bingo, games in the card room and the Challengers' Video Arcade (Deck 15) and competitions in the casino.

Passengers looking to move around a bit can join a game on the Sports Court, a dance class (usually held in Boleros) or train to receive a PADI diving certification on the Pool Deck (handy if you're looking to dive in one of your ports of call).

Table tennis is set up near the Sports Court on Deck 15 as well as in an alcove off the running track on Deck 5.

Games hosted by the cruise director or entertainment staff around the pool area might include silly competitions like a belly flop contest.

At Night

While Symphony of the Seas is a vibrant and thrilling ship all day long, it lets its proverbial hair down at night. Live music, nightly comedy shows in The Attic, stage productions, performances on ice, casino play and more than a dozen bars and lounges keep the good vibes going late into the night.

Adding to the festive atmosphere onboard are the parades held along the Royal Promenade, which is essentially the Main Street of the ship. Symphony of the Seas features a spectacle called "Anchors Aweigh," with more performers and bigger floats than any other parade in the fleet. In an homage to all forms of boats and ships, the Royal Navy makes an appearance, but you'll also find pirates and even a dragon -- what else?

Riffing on Royal's renowned '70s-themed deck parties, Symphony also hosts "The Greatest '80s Party Ever!" The celebration, centred on one of the best decades for party music, is sure to bring out neon, big hair and spandex -- we're told even "Don Johnson" shows up on a makeshift Ferrari.

Even without a parade or party marching down the promenade, Deck 5 is a fun place to be at night. The house band jams from a Deck 6 bandstand right above you, light projections illuminate the floors and walls, and passengers spill out from the bars and late-night eateries to shop, drink, eat, see and be seen.

Passengers won't want to miss an all-new, state-of-the-art ice show in Studio B called "1977." Royal Caribbean has a bit of fun with the storyline, bringing back Tempus, a time-travelling hero, from Harmony's "1886" ice show. This time, Tempus and his assistant travel to London in 1977 during the Queen's Jubilee to catch a jewel thief who's stolen the crown jewels. The pair follow the thief on a trail that leads to places -- and incredible numbers -- around the world. While the characters are familiar, there's nothing recycled about the staging, which is a jaw-dropping combination of the latest visual projection technology and -- get this -- drones! The costumes, the sets and above all, the talent of the ice skaters, combine to make this one of the best shows we've seen at sea. 

A second ice show called iSkate 2.0 is inspired by the actual performers, the music they listen to, and some of the choreography they've developed.

The AquaTheater, an impressive venue at the back of the ship behind the Boardwalk on Deck 6, has two new shows for Symphony of the Seas passengers to "ooh" and "aah" over. "HiRo" takes the passion of the performers for extreme sports and translates it into a high-diving, high-energy acrobatics show with a storyline.  "Aqua Nation" is the second new show in the AquaTheater and was developed by drawing inspiration from the performers' favourite stunts. According to the line's senior vice president of entertainment, "It's cool people doing cool things for 45 minutes."

Symphony of the Seas Bars and Lounges

Onboard Symphony of the Seas you'll find a well-balanced mashup of traditional bars, some innovative drinking concepts and a lounge for just about every taste. Journey to Latin America with the energetic atmosphere of Boleros, or to the United Kingdom for a round at the Copper & Kettle Pub. Live music can be found in every neighbourhood, from the solo performances in Central Park to dedicated spaces within Entertainment place for jazz and club music, or even serenade your friends with your best impression of Cyndi Lauper at On Air on the Royal Promenade. On the Boardwalk, we anticipate that Playmakers, a barcade with tasty plates, will be a game-changer.

The Attic (Deck 4): Imagine if you turned an eclectic living room into a night club, and you more or less have an idea of the ambience you'll find in The Attic. This is Symphony's comedy club, as well as its late-night space. Comedians typically bring an adult brand of humour, so this is not a place for the entire family. Even later into the night (say, around midnight) The Attic hosts a DJ spinning dance music for all to hear, or a silent disco -- a dance party where everyone wears headphones and grooves to their own tunes.

Jazz on 4 (Deck 4): If The Attic seems too loud and trendy for passing the time at night, then Jazz on 4, right across the hall, is the perfect antidote. A nod to classic jazz clubs, this space is pretty subdued, except when the house jazz band is performing…and then it starts to heat up.

Casino Bar (Deck 4): Wind through the maze of jingling slot machines and game tables in the Casino Royale, and you might come across this spot to grab a drink while trying your luck.

Boleros (Deck 5): Dressed in fiery reds and oranges, Boleros -- Royal Caribbean's signature Latin club -- is hard to miss. A lively band can be found here most nights playing Latin music, and drink specials include a tempting list of speciality mojitos.

On Air (Deck 5): Cruise karaoke is a staple, and the On Air karaoke bar provides a proper stage for families and revellers to perform their favourite songs. Family-friendly karaoke sessions are held, as well as late-night, anything-goes singalongs. Music trivia is held here on some days.

Copper & Kettle (Deck 5): Continuing the Royal tradition of "this & that" British pub-style names, Copper & Kettle serves as Symphony's "local" -- a place to meet friends, grab a beer and maybe listen to some live guitar.

Bionic Bar (Deck 5): Spectacle is the key ingredient at Bionic Bar, where your bartenders are Rock 'em and Sock 'em, two robotic arms that can be programmed to make cocktails using tablets. Patrons must verify their age using their Seapass cards or Wow bands, and can then choose from a selection of neon Bionic creations, classic cocktails or the ultimate attraction, which is creating your own concoction. Drinks you've ordered or created throughout your cruise are saved to the program, so it's easier to find or recreate them later in the sailing.

Rising Tide Bar (Deck 5): For those who need to be on the move -- even while enjoying a drink -- Rising Tide is an open-air bar within the ship that traverses the decks between the Royal Promenade and Central Park via a vertically rising platform. A few cushioned seats and tables are scattered around the oval space. Times of departure are posted on digital screens at each entrance.

Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade (Deck 6): Playmakers, a "barcade" running the length of the Boardwalk, makes its debut on Symphony of the Seas, and we can already tell how popular its going to be. It's not hard to imagine why; it's one part sports bar, one part arcade, with a little bit of a gastropub thrown in. Big-screen TVs located throughout the space show a robust list of sporting matches, from professional tennis and NBA basketball to soccer and more. Even outside of the arcade portion of the bar and restaurant, games line the tables (Connect 4, Jenga) and well as the back walls with bean bag tosses and shuffleboard tables. An adjacent arcade features classic games like Ms. Pacman, SuperMario Racing and Skeeball.

Schooner Bar (Deck 6): Nautical decor that's tasteful and not over the top defines Schooner Bar, which is perched above the Royal Promenade, in a prime location close to the entrance of the Boardwalk. One of Royal's signature bars, Schooner's offers piano entertainment and trivia during the evening. We've heard the scent of oiled rope is intentionally used to help create a sense of authenticity -- see if you can detect it.

Vintages (Deck 8): If you fancy a glass of vino, Vintages is Royal Caribbean's dedicated wine bar. Come here for a varietal by the glass or bottle and enjoy moody indoor seating or a table al fresco in Central Park. A la carte tapas are available here, from $3 to $5, brought in from Jamie's Italian next door. Order bites like olives, garlic bread, crispy squid or a meat board.

Trellis Bar (Deck 8): If you're looking to grab a pre-dinner drink in Central Park before heading into one of the neighbourhood's many restaurants, Trellis Bar is a wonderful option. Live music such as classical piano or Spanish guitar is often being performed in Central Park in the evenings, and a cocktail or glass of chilled Champagne is a perfect accompaniment.

Dazzles (Decks 8 and 9): One of your nightclub options on Symphony, Dazzles offers live music, a dance floor and great views to the back of the ship through its two-story window. However, the setup of the tables and chairs makes it slightly awkward for catching a show here.

Solarium Bar (Deck 15): The Solarium Bar provides something to quench your thirst when enjoying the tranquillity of the Solarium. It's a focal point of the eye-catching Big Wonder sculpture overhead.

Pool Bar and Sand Bar (Deck 15): The Pool Bar is located on the port side of the ship while the Sand Bar is aptly located near the Beach Pool on the starboard side. Both offer a few stools for stragglers.

Mast Bar (Deck 16): This outfit near the very top of the ship is one of the only bars where you can light up. Plus, there's really nothing else around it, so it's a good place to hide from the kids while still maintaining a view to the Pool Deck below.

Wipe Out Bar (Deck 16): This bar -- as it is playfully named -- is intended to let passengers grab a drink while they root others on at the FlowRider surf simulators…or wait for them to wipe out. However, with its aft location, patrons can also take their drinks across to chairs set up facing the wake. You'll have to negotiate your views from either side of the gaping, fish-mouth entrance to the Ultimate Abyss slide, but apart from that, it's your best shot at wake views.

Symphony of the Seas Outside Recreation

Pools

Royal Caribbean listened when passengers complained about the lack of a pool in the Solarium onboard Harmony of the Seas (the previous Oasis-class vessel). The addition of this adults-only pool brings the Symphony of the Seas total to four pools -- all on Deck 15. All have a lift chair for accessibility; and the three main pools have lifeguards during open hours.

Outside the Solarium on the Pool Deck, families will find a pool with a beach theme (brightly coloured chairs and umbrellas with a rock wall), and two other pools known as the Main Pool and Sports Pool but they're both relatively interchangeable. The maximum depth is less than 5 feet, but only toilet-trained children can enter the pools. There is no kiddie pool, but a splash area for little kids and babies is right nearby at Splashaway Bay. Hot tubs flank each pool and a leaf-like tarp overhead provides shade from the harsh sun.

Recreation

Symphony of the Seas is head of its class when it comes to top-deck activities, and everything out here is included in the cruise fare.

The back of the ship is flanked by two massive rock-climbing walls with an entrance on Deck 7. Cruisers as young as 6 years old can accept the challenge of the rock wall -- it's worth it for the incredible views of the AquaTheater and the wake. A much tamer "Luckey Climber" can be found on the Boardwalk next to Johnny Rockets -- with wide platforms and a safety netting -- for little ones itching to scale the walls.

There is also the line's signature FlowRider surf simulator -- one on each side of Deck 16 -- where passengers can try their best to surf (port side) or Boogieboard (starboard side). (The minimum height for Boogie boarding is 52 inches; stand-up surfers must be at least 58 inches.) Lessons are available, for a hefty fee. Between the FlowRiders is the Ultimate Abyss slide, a 10-story drop through light- and sound-effects, ending on the Boardwalk. The entrance on Deck 16 is a through the open jaws of a massive and unmistakable anglerfish -- probably the most terrifying part of the whole ordeal, as the ride is over in a matter of seconds. Mats are used to make it a smoother ride, and all loose bags and jewellery must be removed and tucked away. (Must be at least 43 inches tall to slide.)

Zipping right across from one end of Deck 16 diagonally down to Deck 15 is the zipline. Doing it once is a thrill, as you have a great view of the Boardwalk below, but the ride is super short and easily hampered by unfavourable weather conditions.

Up on the pool deck on Deck 15 are the Perfect Storm waterslides. The blue and yellow slides, named Typhoon and Cyclone, can be used to race, while the green-and-yellow slide on the other end -- also known as SuperCell -- features see-through sections for riders to look out or spectators to gawk at those flying (and screaming) through the tube. (Must be 48 inches to partake in waterslide action.)

Little cruisers can enjoy the pool deck attraction Splashaway Bay, an aquatic activities area for kids with a section that's just for babies still in swim diapers. The maximum depth for each area is less than 2 feet. Brightly coloured elements like a giant bucket that dumps water or a flower that mists combine to create an enticing atmosphere for kiddos to play in and cool off.

Elsewhere on Deck 15 is Symphony Dunes, the mini-golf course. It's a festive set-up with cartoonish surfboards, turtles, seashells, palm trees and a lighthouse.

The sports court is a large netted area with a clay floor, basketball hoops and plenty of room for a soccer competition or a pickup game of basketball. 

Table tennis is offered just outside of the Fuel teen club and El Loco Fresh on Deck 15.

Sun Decks

Symphony of the Seas utilizes all of its free open-deck space surrounding Decks 15, 16 and 17 with various loungers and chairs.

Mesh blue sun loungers and chairs surround the Main Pool and Sports Pool on Deck 15, while striped loungers surround the Beach Pool. Some umbrellas are peppered around the Beach Pool area, otherwise, most of the pool seating is directly in the sun. Some loungers line either side of the ship, protected by a roof overhead. We loved the tiny upright chairs found near kid-favourite Splashaway Bay.

Sun worshippers looking to avoid the smell of smoke should be wary that the port side of Deck 15 and Mast Bar on Deck 16 are two of the only places available to light up on the entire ship. Be vigilant of which way the wind is blowing those fumes.

Deck 16 overlooks the pools, and as the middle of the ship is open to the decks beneath, it also overlooks Central Park below. For anyone who doesn't want to be right in the middle of the pool action (or close to the Windjammer), this deck offers plenty of sun loungers as well as a few upright chairs along the very back of the ship near the entrance to the Abyss slide, that overlook the wake.

Deck 17 is the Suite Deck, available to passengers in Sky-class suites and above. A private bar, sunbeds with wicker clamshell covers, a hot tub and padded loungers make this exclusive spot extra-cushy. We'd book a suite just to gain access to the unparalleled views, especially from a platform at the very front of the deck providing incredible visibility over the bow.

The multi-deck Solarium starts on Deck 15 and provides its own semi-covered oasis to adults-only sunbathers (aged 16 and older). The calming space offers plush sun beds in wicker clamshells, tan sun loungers, lots of whirlpools in scenic locations and -- after an uproar over its omission on Harmony of the Seas -- a dedicated pool. Exclusive to Symphony's Solarium is a large ambient art installation called the Big Wonder.

Symphony of the Seas Services

Guest services and the Next Cruise alcove aren't tucked away as they are on some other cruise ships, but located right along the Royal Promenade. Shore excursion information, along with the photo gallery and portrait studio are just one deck above, on Deck 6, easily accessed by two open staircases on the promenade. This makes it a breeze to stop by each venue with any fleeting question. Before you can even make it to the actual guest services desks, a guest relations member with a tablet will more than likely greet you to see if they might be able to resolve your problem right then and there. Due to the central location, there's often a lot of background noise created by the crowds, live music and parades -- if the problem is serious, having it heard might add to the challenge.

Right nearby is the tech station, solely dedicated to troubleshooting Royal Caribbean's Voom internet service. We found the internet to be fast and reliable without any need to seek out assistance.

Booking shore excursions has been brought into the modern age with six terminals of shore excursion tablets (four screens at each station) on Deck 6, and more right below on Deck 5. There is still a staffed shore excursion information desk, but these self-serve stations allow you to explore shore tour options, book and even print your tickets all in one go. They reminded us of the automated checked baggage stations in airports (but way more exciting).

Next to the shore excursion area, you will find the Focus photo gallery and Picture This portrait studio. Browsing, selecting and purchasing the shots you want to print and take home is also digitized using a computer terminal; it's a highly efficient way to capture and take home your favourite cruise memories.

ATMs are located on Deck 5 at the beginning of the Royal Promenade. Two machines flank either side of the Entertainment Place sign near Boleros.

As with all Royal Caribbean ships, there is a Park West art gallery, but compared to the spectacular and cutting-edge art displayed as part of Symphony's onboard collection. It's a total letdown to find that nothing like the eye-catching, inspiring art that's displayed throughout the ship is available in the gallery, which is more of a passageway than a standalone space. The same tired paintings are for sale as they are on most other major cruise ships; this is a missed opportunity to market the type of art that Royal Caribbean itself finds valuable.

Shops are scattered throughout the ship, but you will find most of them along the Royal Promenade on Deck 5. Solera Beauty sells perfume and cosmetics, while Port Merchants and the Royal Shop sell logo and sundry items. The Collection replaces the standalone Kate Spade and Michael Kohrs locations with one shop that lets you browse and compare designer bags from a variety of those and other brands. Regalia is a watch and jewellery retailer (with two storefronts). Four oval counters are also set up in the middle of the promenade selling a little of this and that from glittery baubles to branded Teddy bears.

High-end designer stores Bulgari, Hublot and Cartier can be found in Central Park on Deck 8.

The Surf Shack is a surf-style clothing and gear outlet located on the Boardwalk (Deck 6) between Sugar Beach and Johnny Rockets.

Passengers will find Seven Hearts, a small card room that doubles as an internet cafe, on Deck 14. The community bulletin board is located outside the room, but if you really wanted someone to see your message, chances are this isn't the best place (nothing else is on Deck 14 but cabins). There are chess tables, a handful of computer stations and a few shelves for books, but not enough that we would call it a library. The room is dark and quiet for anyone looking to escape the sun's rays.

There are no self-service laundry facilities onboard Symphony of the Seas, but you can send out your clothing to be laundered or dry-cleaned for an additional fee.

Smoking is only permitted onboard Symphony on Deck 15 port side near the pool, one deck up at the Mast Bar and in a small, designated starboard section of the casino.

Spa

The Vitality at Sea Spa is a complex that begins on Deck 6 forward. As you walk in, past a distinctive flower-faced statuette, you'll pass the Vitality Cafe on your right, and the salon on your left. The salon offers hair, nail and lash/brow services that range from about $50 for a "Fire & Ice" manicure to a Keratin Express blowout starting at $149. A beard trim for men is $15.

Continue into the main lobby and there is a front desk, display cases of Elemis, Kerastase and timetospa products to your right, and a seating area to the left that precedes the entrance to the fitness centre.

The spa is large, with 25 treatment rooms, including a number of treatment rooms exclusively for couples. Choose from a long list of facials, massages, body treatments (salt scrubs and seaweed wraps), or treat your teens to a menu of treatments just for them like a styling session or a 45-minute pedicure. A standard 50-minute Swedish massage starts at $116 and a 50-minute facial at $110.

Specials are run throughout your cruise, and typically include discounts like 10 percent off your first signature treatment, 20 percent off your second and 30 percent off your third (when you buy three at once). A visit to the spa during a day in port is usually discounted because most passengers are off the ship.

After every treatment, your therapist is trained to sell you products that you can use for a home care regimen. If you're not interested in purchasing anything else, politely mention this at the beginning of your spa experience.

A day pass to the thermal suite is $30 per person, $119 per cruise or $199 for the length of a cruise for a couple. Inside you'll find a dry sauna, a steam room and a handful of heated ceramic loungers. Capacity is controlled to ensure a relaxing experience, so if you're interested in a pass be sure to book in advance -- the spa limits thermal suite passes to a maximum of about 45 couples at any given time. Unfortunately, even if you have a treatment booked, no discount is offered to the thermal suite.

A couple's bathing suite is in a separate location, featuring a sunken tub and special amenities like Champagne and rose petals. This experience costs $95 per couple, or an additional $49 tacked on to a couple's pass, which will buy you access to the thermal suite and the bathing suite for the length of the cruise, for about $248. However, because the bathing suite is private, access is by appointment only.

To the right of the front desk on Deck 6 you'll also find a Medi Spa for cosmetic services like Botox and a Smile Spa for teeth whitening. The thermal suite, as well as treatment rooms and changing rooms for men and women, are downstairs on Deck 5. Take a daring glass staircase or an elevator.

Hours might vary, but the spa is typically open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Fitness

Behind the spa on Deck 6 is the Vitality at Sea Fitness Center. Even on a busy day, we can't imagine this wide-open space being overcrowded. An impressive amount of LifeFitness machines and workout areas are evenly spread out, and equipment includes ellipticals, cardio machines, stationary bikes, a rowing machine and more. Treadmills face porthole windows for ocean views. All machines are equipped with the latest technology including USB ports and headphone jacks for charging up or rocking out.

Separate areas are designated for free weights and bench pressing; yoga, Pilates or stretching; and a cycling room for spin classes. RYDE indoor cycling classes run $20 for 45 minutes, but a class called Tour de Cycle is $12. Yoga and Pilates classes are also $12, while personal training and nutritional counselling will cost a bit more: $85 for an hour. Private consultation areas are located in the gym to discuss a personal fitness plan.

Dasani vending machines are located throughout the fitness centre, along with one or two water fountains. We were surprised there isn't a more modern bottle refilling station for such a carefully considered gym.

Fitness Center hours of operation vary, but accommodate those up before the sun and those awake and looking to break a sweat long after its gone down.

A clever design element on Symphony of the Seas is the stairway that leads from the gym to the two-lane running track on Deck 5. (One mile is 2.4 laps; one lap is 2,197 feet and there are mile markers for long-distance runners.) There isn't much of a view for those looking for a scenic stroll (try the upper decks), but for those looking to get in a solid run, the area is shaded from the sun and largely protected from the wind. Those who need a break will find alcoves with seats and table tennis along the route.

If "spoiled for choice" is the main theme on Symphony of the Seas, dining is certainly no exception and the budget-conscious will be pleased to know that this extends to restaurants included in the cruise fare: six venues on Symphony offer included food beyond the main dining room and buffet; seven if you are staying in a suite or have a high-standing loyalty status.

As for speciality restaurants, options range from modern Italian helmed by a celebrity chef to a popular sushi and hibachi spot to a whimsical menu of molecular gastronomy, as well as one of the best-reviewed steakhouses at sea. Speaking of which, 150 Central Park makes a repeat appearance, as on all Oasis-class ships, but now without Chef Michael Schwartz behind it. Most of these are quite popular, so be sure to make reservations in advance. Capacity limits are adhered to closely in the paid-for restaurants to ensure that the experience is an intimate one.

Debuting on Symphony of the Seas are Hooked, a for-fee New England-style seafood restaurant, and El Loco Fresh, a complimentary Mexican eatery open for breakfast and lunch.

Also, be aware that the cover charge listed for each speciality restaurant is not the price you'll actually pay -- you have to factor in an additional 18 percent gratuity and 10 percent service charge for each person.

Even if you choose not to pay more to dine out, we were impressed by the quality of the food in the main dining room. Our crab cake was fresh, the curried chicken was piping hot and spiced perfectly and the cheesecake was beautifully prepared and not at all dry. Serving thousands of people each day, for three square meals, this is not a feat to be taken lightly. And considering the capacity of the ship, dietary restrictions are still paid careful attention, with options like gluten-free or dairy-free offered in most of the dining venues.

Free Dining

Main Dining Room (Decks 3, 4 and 5): Once inside, this three-deck dining room becomes one massive yet elegant restaurant. Breakfast and dinner are served here each day, with lunch on sea days. Which deck you dine on depends on factors like which meal is being served and whether you've selected set seating (6:30 and 8:45 p.m., on Decks 3 and 5) or flex dining (6 to 9:30 p.m., on Deck 4).

The decor is luxurious with deep red carpeting, gold detailing along the walls, a light fixture in the entranceway that looks like oversized diamond rings and an impressively large chandelier that sits in the centre of the main dining room complex and runs the length of the decks. Chairs and carpeting are cream with black detailing, some covered in velvet roses, and crisp white tablecloths adorn each table. There are tables for groups of every size.

Breakfast is open to everyone in the morning, with an a la carte menu featuring American standards like pancakes and eggs, as well as a buffet that offers sides like fresh fruit, yoghurt and pastries. It's a quieter and more intimate alternative to breakfast in Windjammer, and with the supplemental buffet section it doesn't have to take all day -- unless you want to drag out your coffee and croissant.

Lunch is served in a similar format with soups, sandwiches, entrees and desserts available to order off the menu, supported by a sumptuous salad bar featuring various greens, toppings and proteins. Once you've made your selections, a server will chop and mix your custom salad in front of you. You can also find a nice variety of cheeses at the buffet section, along with a few hot items like boiled fish and curries.

Dinner comes with a selection of starters, main courses and desserts. Waiters will make their recommendations for the evening, and we found these to be spot on. To begin, expect appetizers like crab cakes, kale salad, roasted garlic soup, escargots or a classic Caesar salad; mains include standards like a sirloin steak and roasted chicken as well as Thai chicken breast, Moroccan-spiced Ahi tuna steak and a pie of the day, like shepherd's pie. Premium selections are offered each night for a splurge, and include a whole Maine lobster for $29.95; filet mignon from Chops Grille for $16.95; and a surf and turf for $34.95. Dessert hits all the highlights from a cheesecake with a strawberry topping or a baked Alaska, to ice cream, creme brulee and a slice of chocolate cake so large it could feed a family.

All meals have items that are designated vegetarian, gluten-free and no-sugar-added. It's best to notify the line of any allergies or food preferences before boarding, but to ensure that these are known, speak with the maitre 'd on the first night of your cruise to be positive that the dining staff is aware of your restrictions.

Windjammer Marketplace (Deck 16): The ship's wraparound buffet serves as a casual catchall for every meal and every taste. Additionally, it's always without a dress code so it's a safe alternative for anyone not observing formal night. The Windjammer Marketplace opens early in the morning (around 6) for a Continental breakfast and then fully opens for a hot breakfast, complete with an egg station that does omelets, something missing from previous ships in the Oasis Class. Breakfast items include tons of bacon and sausage but also Indian and Chinese dishes. Stations in the middle of the buffet typically offer a variety of meats, cheeses, fruit, side salads all day long, with an extensive salad bar in the afternoon and evening.

Some stations do repeat as you wind your way around the large space, but it's sometimes worth a loop around. At lunch, plan to find burgers, fries and pizza at an Americana counter, a Mongolian wok, and pasta and crepe stations, just to name a few. You'll also find dessert and bread counters. The buffet stays open with limited items in the late afternoon and again after dinner, for snacks.

Dinner might feature a speciality, like German brats, at one of the hot entree stations. Otherwise, with the exception of offerings being a little more hearty (plenty of fish and meat dishes) you'll find many of the same stations as at lunch. Beverage stations with water, juice, coffee and tea are all around the buffet and a few Coke machines are available as well for anyone with a soda package.

The Windjammer offers plenty of seating, much of it near windows. There are also nooks by the walls with cute white-and-red chairs on one side, a booth on the other and a wall behind that looks like the tiny painted bows of boats are popping through. Look up for another interesting design element.

Soft-serve ice cream stations are located on the pool deck (Deck 15) along each side.

Sorrento's Pizzeria (Deck 5): This pizzeria serves up complimentary slices, calzones and fresh pies -- including gluten-free upon request -- from early in the afternoon until late at night (after the bars wind down). Standard flavours include pepperoni, Margherita and daily specials like chicken tandoori or Japanese (trust us, they work). You can also customize your own personal pie from a counter with tons of toppings (this place is a hazard to the waistline). If you have a soda package, two Coke machines are located here to pair with your pizza, and if not, a drink station with dispensers of ice water is on hand. The red-green-and-white motif of the Italian flag can be seen everywhere from the bricks in its columns to seat cushions and the tiled floor, but it's tastefully paired with black-and-white photographs of the Motherland. Sorrento's is located along the Royal Promenade so it's central to the action and always bustling.

Cafe Promenade (Deck 5): A haven for anyone who requires a quick cup of coffee or tea along with a light bite, any time of day, Cafe Promenade never closes. As its name suggests, it's a primo people-watching spot, with a handful of tables located on the Royal Promenade. Pastries like fresh doughnuts are available in the morning, and paninis, sandwiches, cookies, cupcakes and other snacks (we even found scones with clotted cream and berries one afternoon) filter in and out throughout the day. Gluten-free options like Udis-brand cookies and turkey and tomato on gluten-free rye bread are available as well. Self-serve coffee and tea are complimentary, as is the food, but speciality espresso drinks incur an additional cost. Seating here is comfortable and an attractive table in the middle of the cafe looks like one large piece of natural wood; despite seating 10 people it somehow doesn't obstruct the space.

Boardwalk Dog House (Deck 6): Reminiscent of the hot dog stands on the boardwalks along the East Coast of the United States, Symphony's Dog House will sate any hot dog-lover's cravings with a variety of sausages and toppings.

Vitality Cafe (Deck 6): Vitality is a juice bar and coffee counter just to the right of the spa complex. It serves as a relatively calm spot to grab a light snack (fresh fruit, veggie sandwiches, "healthy" muffins or granola bar) as well as a waiting area for customers who have booked salon appointments. Open hours vary, but more or less match up with those of the spa. We noticed many patrons of the gym swinging by for a fresh-squeezed juice (say: beet, ginger, celery and apple) after a strenuous workout. The food is free, though the juices, smoothies and speciality coffee come at an extra fee.

Park Cafe (Deck 8): This Central Park staple is a great place to grab breakfast or lunch, especially at its outdoor seating along the park. While the bagels are nothing like you'd find in Brooklyn, creative cream cheese options (roasted garlic or apricot and raisin) and a variety of toppings make up for it with a morning build-your-own bagel sandwich. Fruit cups and parfaits are also available to grab-and-go or dine in, which can be a lifesaver for families who need to stash some snacks for hungry kids. A drink station provides juice, tea and coffee. At lunch or for a snack, come for the cafe's famed kummelweck -- a roast beef sandwich -- along with other hot items, side salads and sandwiches and salads packed to go. There is also a case of trifles and other sweet treats. If you look carefully, there are cushioned rocking chairs outside the cafe to the side.

Solarium Bistro (Deck 15): Probably the best-kept secret when it comes to included dining onboard Symphony of the Seas, the peaceful Solarium's restaurant is open for a buffet breakfast and lunch, along with a sit-down dinner. While the food is simple, influenced by the Mediterranean, the ambience is stunning and gives the glass-enclosed venue the air that it's worth an upcharge (but we're just fine with it staying free).

Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style and include an omelette station with a mix of other hot and cold items in the morning, and crepes, salads and sandwiches in the afternoon. We liked the variety of meats, cheeses and grilled vegetables.

At dinner many of the appetizers, entrees and desserts available are Greek. Expect hummus and baba ganoush, watermelon salad, Greek roasted potatoes and even ceviche. Kebabs, fish, lamb meatballs and steak are included. A few premium items, like lobster tail, can be purchased (the lobster tail is $15). Dessert is a smorgasbord of Greek and Italian sweets like baklava, loukomades and chocolate nocciole.

El Loco Fresh (Deck 15): This (covered) outdoor Mexican eatery, with bright and cheery decor meant to invoke a sense of "fiesta," is a new complimentary venue, located aft of the Pool Deck. It replaces Mini-Bites on other Oasis-class ships, and also serves as a substitute for Sabor, a Mexican dining venue found on many other Royal Caribbean cruise ships.

El Loco Fresh is open for lunch and late-afternoon snacks. From 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., take your pick of chicken or beef burritos, cheese or chicken quesadillas, nachos, corn on the cob, and beef, chicken or pork tacos with fresh, soft corn tortillas. Packaged salads are also available with a variety of dressings. What makes the meal is the salsa station, where you can take your pick from homemade guacamole, fire-roasted tomatoes, pico de gallo and many more toppings. For dessert, try one of the parfait cups in flavours like tres leches, chocolate dulce de leche or flan. For something lighter, there are watermelon chunks and other fresh fruit. A self-serve drink station is located in the space, but servers will typically walk around offering refills and clearing platters.

Coastal Kitchen (Deck 17): Immediately adjacent to the Suite Lounge at the top of the ship is the dedicated restaurant for suite passengers as well as Pinnacle-level members of Royal Caribbean's loyalty program. Coastal Kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a light-filled space, although only Sky-class suite passengers and above can come here all day for drinks and snacks, while other (Sea Class) suite passengers can only partake in dinner. Coastal Kitchen's cuisine is California-meets-Mediterranean as showcased by simple preparation and fresh vegetables used in grilled salmon and other entrees at night. Breakfast is a sit-down meal supplemented by a luxe buffet on the suite lounge side. We felt the breakfast menu was pretty standard -- eggs, cereals, pastries and fruit -- with the exception of one California-inspired dish (Baja eggs) and one from the Med, aptly called a Mediterranean plate and including toasted points with a tomato spread, hummus, prosciutto and Manchego cheese.

Fee Dining

Izumi Hibachi and Sushi (Deck 4); a la carte, or $45 or $49 for the Hibachi Experience: Book your reservation early, because the Samurai-themed Izumi is not a large space, and it fills quickly -- especially around the hibachi tables. The sushi restaurant is priced a la carte, and open for lunch or dinner. Expect starters like five pieces of pork gyoza (dumplings) for $8; a $6 seaweed salad; carpaccios and nigiri or sashimi -- $10 will buy you an octopus yuzu chimicurri; a long list of signature sushi rolls ranging from $12 to $17; a satisfying menu of soups and noodles, including two varieties of ramen for $13 apiece; and trendy poke bowls with vegetables and raw seafood for about $17. Dessert includes mochi ice cream, 3 pieces for $5.

Hibachi is only available for dinner and two options are offered: "Teppan Classics," a choice of yaki udon (chicken, beef or tofu), tori (chicken breast), gyu (beef tenderloin) or ebi (tiger shrimp) or a premium combination for $4 more per person, which affords the diner selections like beef tenderloin, shrimp, sea scallops and lobster. If you're not familiar with hibachi restaurants on land, the chef puts on a show, flipping fried rice and knives, while cooking your meal before your eyes; you might sit with other people not in your party in order to fill a table.

Starbucks (Deck 5); a la carte: Can't do without your daily Starbucks macchiato fix? You don't have to on Symphony of the Seas, as Starbucks has a stand in the middle of the Royal Promenade. Keep in mind you'll pay standard Starbucks prices for that reliable grande extra-hot soy latte. A few extra-fee snacks like muffins and other pastries are also offered. Seating along the back of the Starbucks stand faces giant TV screens showing sporting matches and other events on the wall of the On Air Bar.

Johnny Rockets (Deck 6); $9.95: Much like the diner-style hamburger chain on land, Johnny Rockets at sea offers chilli cheese fries, hot dogs and patty melts at its fitting location on the Boardwalk. The difference is that for lunch and dinner on the ship you'll pay a cover, rather than per item. The exception is milkshakes and malts, which will cost you extra. The real insider tip here is the included breakfast, which serves up diner breakfast items like eggs, pancakes and bacon made to order. Most passengers don't catch on to this offering, so it's usually an uncrowded place to come for your first meal of the day.

Sugar Beach (Deck 6); a la carte: This new venue on the Boardwalk is a sweet treat, offering a dizzying rainbow variety of loose candy to bag, novelty items like pink poodle plushies, as well as ice cream, sundaes and even classes on cupcake decorating. Precious pastel tables are outside on the boardwalk so you can sit and lick your ice cream while watching the carousel. Ice cream is $3 for one scoop, $4.50 for two, $5.75 for three, $6.50 for a cone and $9 for one of three signature sundaes including a Cookie Crunch Split.

Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade (Deck 6); a la carte: The gastropub-style food offered at the Boardwalk's new bar and arcade includes all the crowd favourites like burgers ($9), sliders ($3 each), wings ($8 for a dozen), nachos ($7), loaded potato skins ($6) popcorn shrimp ($7) and even a warm chocolate chip cookie served with Nutella, melted marshmallow and a side of milk shooters ($6). The Playmakers Challenge presents any one person who can eat 100 wings in 45 minutes a T-shirt -- the "experience" costs $45. Seating is available indoors and out.

Chops Grille (Deck 8); $49: While some other restaurants were tweaked onboard Symphony of the Seas, Royal's signature steakhouse remains the same. Come to Chops Grille, with its romantic location in Central Park, to splurge on premium steaks, seafood and other contemporary American entrees like roasted chicken. Expect colossal shrimp, two different sizes of filet mignon, branzino and gruyere tater tots. For a splurge, pay about $20 more for a selection of dry-aged steaks.

150 Central Park (Deck 8); $49: As its partnership with celebrity chef Michael Schwartz is at an end, Royal Caribbean took the opportunity to revitalize the menu at its upscale restaurant 150 Central Park. Eight new and slightly eclectic entrees and seven appetizers offer a mix of veal, venison, lamb, duck, lobster, salad, scallops, ribs and a cauliflower steak. A beef tenderloin for two can be prepared tableside and doesn't cost anything additional. 150 Central Park comes with a decent wine selection and a house cocktail, if you imbibe, though alcohol is additional. Don't miss the hazelnut passion fruit bar on the dessert menu.

Jamie's Italian (Deck 8); $25 lunch, $35 dinner: The food at Jamie's Italian is inventive, but no-nonsense, and was one of our favourite dining experiences we've ever had at sea (and we only had lunch!) Chef Jamie Oliver, known for his simple, fresh ingredient philosophy, takes a well-known item like bruschetta, and both serves it in a creative way (topped with white crab, crunchy apple, smashed avocado, yoghurt and chilli) as well as the traditional version. But the original is made with such high-quality ingredients that the world seemed to stop when we took a bite of the cold whipped ricotta, warm slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil on a piece of garlic-rubbed toasted ciabatta. The dinner menu is slightly more expansive than lunch, but both serve modern Italian mains and homemade pasta, sides and antipasti, which includes the house speciality planks (meat or veg) meant for sharing. A kids menu is available, but try to convince them to order something like the penne pomodoro (so you can steal a few bites). Dessert takes standards like brownies or cheesecake to another level. The small addition of orange zest to our tiramisu launched it into the stratosphere (and paired with an espresso, fuhgeddaboudit). Shaded tables on Central Park make it a wonderful place to dine alfresco.

Wonderland (Decks 11 and 12); $49: According to an executive chef with Royal Caribbean, some of the ship's best chefs can be found at Wonderland. This is because the intricate preparation of each dish takes immense focus and attention to detail. If you are someone who appreciates the details, and especially if you are a fan of "Alice in Wonderland," you will love the thought put into the decor and the presentation at Symphony's Wonderland space. (Your unofficial maitre 'd is the Mad Hatter, and look for the hidden Alice.) Items are divided into natural elements (sun, earth, ice) and sharing is encouraged so the table can experience the nuances of more dishes. The menus have been revamped for this Wonderland, and a new kids menu promises the same level of discovery and experimentation, but one that would be more palatable to fussy eaters: mac 'n' cheese fries or edible paper, anyone? Our advice: If you're not sure about shelling out for a dinner here, come to the bar (on Deck 12) for a drink. The experience is just as whimsical, you can enjoy the spectacular views afforded by the two-story windows and you can head back out of the rabbit hole after one cocktail. Editor's Note: if you're not an adventurous eater, don't force it -- you're probably better suited to spending on a speciality dinner you know you'll enjoy.

Hooked Seafood (Deck 16); $49.99: Royal Caribbean brought in a Connecticut native with a restaurant background to help develop Hooked, a New England-inspired seafood restaurant whose focus is delivering the fresh catch. Upon walking into the country-chic space, you'll face the raw bar, lined with their best offerings -- like Florida stone crab, Alaskan king crab legs or Maine lobster -- on ice. A few premium items, including the shellfish listed above, do come with an upcharge -- $18 for a half-pound of the king crab or $30 for a lobster -- but plenty of incredible seafood is included in the cover.  A raw oyster sampler for two comes with a half-dozen daily fresh market options. Don't miss the New England clam chowder, lobster mac 'n' cheese or if you want a giant pot of mussels, the drunken mussels. However, the unanimous vote for favourite entree the night we dined was the "messy fish sandwich," an accurate name but one that doesn't entirely describe the satisfaction of battered cod with slaw and pickles on a toasted roll with kettle chips. We really appreciated that dessert and drinks follow the New England theme. Indulge in an IPA, a rosé or the house cocktail (a spritzer that was the best thing we drank onboard) and follow with blueberry cobbler, Boston cream pie or a whoopie pie. If you're really looking to kick things off, order some oyster shooters.

Room Service; $7.95: There is a complimentary Continental breakfast menu, with items like toast, pastries, cereal, fruit, coffee and juice. Otherwise, all other hot breakfast and regular room service items (sandwiches, salads, desserts) incur a fee per order (not per item). General room service is available from 11 a.m. to 6 a.m. and features dishes like chicken fettucine alfredo, grilled salmon, chicken wings or a personal pizza.

Room options onboard Symphony of the Seas might seem overwhelming -- the ship has 34 cabin categories that range from a snug inside room to a one-of-a-kind tricked-out suite designed for families that sells for tens of thousands of dollars. Symphony of the Seas has the most staterooms of any cruise ship -- 2,759 -- dominating Decks 7 through14 (there's no Deck 13) with some also on Decks 3, 6 and 8. Suites are all located on Deck 17. Rooms range from windowless inside cabins to suites that sleep 14 people in various configurations of bedrooms and pullout beds. On Symphony of the Seas, Royal Caribbean has focused on cabins that can accommodate families, as 811 rooms onboard can sleep three or more people, and 488 cabins can be connected.

There are 46 accessible staterooms onboard and those include wider doors, large turning spaces, roll-in showers with grab-bars and fold-down shower benches, raised toilets, lowered sinks, sitting areas with lowered vanities and ramps to and from balconies.

Even the most basically appointed entry-level staterooms are comfortable. All cabins, regardless of category, are designed with clean, modern decor -- many in soothing greys, blues and greens. Standout features include plenty of storage space (deep drawers, multiple closets) and several charging options with four outlets and two USB ports. Unlike other Oasis-class ships, Royal Caribbean did away with overhead cabinets due to passenger complains, but didn't put in bedside USB ports, despite passenger demand. You'll find most of the ports and outlets at a desk with a chair near a large mirror (plus there's a full-length mirror near the door). Other items in cabins include a room phone for calling around the ship, a sofa, a narrow nightstand on either side of the bed, a large, flat-screen TV, a safe inside one of the closets and a for-fee mini-bar inside of a cabinet. The beds, either two single or pushed together to create a "Royal King" are comfortable, with smooth bedding, and they're tall enough to store large suitcases underneath.

Most bathrooms are pretty basic -- toilet, sink, shower with a few shelves -- but the shower is large with a round glass door that swings shut and a shaving bar. Small touches -- like hooks in the shower, a bar of soap that doesn't stick to the soap dish near the sink, and a night light in the bathroom -- are functional and thoughtful. Still, toiletries remain pretty basic in most cabins onboard Symphony of the Seas: a bar of soap and a shower gel dispenser in the shower is all you'll get. You'll want to bring your own hair care products and lotion. A shave outlet is on the ceiling. A hair dryer is in a drawer of one of the bedroom cabinets.

Cabins on Symphony of the Seas are designed to be energy efficient, and lights won't come on if a Seapass card is not inserted into the doorway slot, but the electricity runs to the outlets regardless so you can charge devices when you're not in the room. If you want your bed made or if you are sleeping in and don't want a knock at the door, a reversible magnet serves as your Make Up Room/Do Not Disturb sign.

Interior: There are 599 inside cabins on Symphony of the Seas and they start at 149 square feet. There might not be a view, but the limited space is utilized well and they are priced to reflect their basic offerings. A Large Interior cabin can measure up to 172 square feet. Accessible inside cabins are available and measure 258 square feet.

Virtual Balcony: There are 76 of these cabins onboard and while they are inside rooms, they come with hi-def TVs that mimic a balcony view using a real-time feed of the outside from the ship's cameras -- with or without accompanying sounds. Virtual balconies improve upon regular interior cabins because of the "view", but aren't any larger, measuring 172 square feet. Also, if you pull the curtains back far enough you'll find the TV doesn't take up the entire wall the way a balcony would.

Oceanview: Symphony has 170 oceanview cabins, spread across various neighbourhoods. These rooms range from 179 square feet for a standard ocean view to 191 square feet for a view of the Boardwalk, 194 square feet in rooms overlooking the Royal Promenade and 199 square feet for rooms with a Central Park view. We love that families can opt for views of their favourite neighbourhood, plus the window nook is cosy, complete with a cushioned window seat. Accessible oceanview cabins come in at about 264 square feet.

Family Oceanview cabins are designed to accommodate six people using bunk beds and a pullout sofa in addition to a Royal King bed. These rooms are 271 square feet but the layout can make it feel a bit narrow in some of the sleeping quarters.

Balcony: Balcony cabins account for more than half of all rooms on Symphony of the Seas (1,802 cabins). Staterooms with a balcony start at 182 square feet, with 50- to 80-square-foot balconies that include two mesh chairs with footrests and a small round table.

Balcony cabins don't just face the water, so when you're booking, pay careful attention that you are going to be staring at the sea and not your neighbour. A large number of balcony cabins overlook the action on the Boardwalk or the greenery in Central Park. Both of these options include 182 square feet of interior space and a 52-square-foot balcony. Couples and families with FOMO (fear of missing out) who don't want to skip a second of action, might enjoy people-watching above these neighbourhoods, but anyone seeking privacy might want to book elsewhere. They're not for everyone, but we found the Central Park balconies gave us a feeling of waking up above a charming village piazza.

Family balcony staterooms sleep six in the same arrangement as oceanviews, but are larger -- 271 square feet -- plus they have 82 square feet of balcony space.

Accessible balcony cabins measure about 272 square feet with 80-square-foot balconies.

Suite: There are 188 suites onboard the world's largest cruise ship. Despite the many types of suites on offer, there is only one Ultimate Family Suite, a bi-level room that's attracted buzz for features like a private theatre; a LEGO wall; a balcony packed with game tables, a "Luckey Climber" and a hot tub; and above all, a bright orange slide that goes from the upper-level bedroom to the bottom-level living room. Still, this is just one (expensive) room among many, so don't be discouraged if it's booked or out of budget. If your group is looking to live it up, there are plenty of stellar suites with fine touches, massive balconies and views of the wake, the ship's neighbourhoods and even a front-row seat to the AquaTheater.

Junior Suite: This 287-square-foot cabin category features a bedroom area with two twin beds that convert to a Royal King, full bathroom with tub, sitting area with sofa bed and an 80-square-foot balcony. (Accessible versions of the same cabin are 390 square feet, with a 107-square-foot balcony.)

Suite passengers qualify for a number of perks depending on their cabin category. The Royal Suite Class program includes Sea Class, Sky Class and Star Class; all receive bottled water in their suite; luxury bath products from Hermes, Ferragamo or L'Occitane (depending on the category); bathrobes, pillow-topped mattresses and a pillow menu. All Suite Class passengers also get access to the Coastal Kitchen restaurant for dinner, which is connected to the private Suite Lounge.

Sky-class cruisers also get free internet access; a one-day pass to the spa's thermal room; access to the suites-only sun deck on Deck 17 and Suites Beach on the ship's stops at private islands; a welcome gift; and concierge services.

Star-class amenities also include all-inclusive drinks, speciality dining, an open mini-bar, Nespresso coffee maker, complimentary fitness classes, high-quality bedding and linens, and included gratuities. Star-class cruisers also get their own Royal Genie, a specialized concierge who is available for any and every request, and who also arranges unique surprises throughout the voyage.

Extra-cost, in-suite massages are available to suite passengers, beginning at the Loft Suites category.

Grand Suite: Two Grand Suite configurations are available on Symphony of the Seas: a 371-square-foot one-bedroom and a 580-square-foot two-bedroom. In the one-bedroom configuration, the bedroom has two twin beds that convert to a Royal King; the cabin also has a full bathroom with tub and two sinks, a living room with sofa bed and a 105-square-foot balcony with seating and dining areas. The two-bedroom variation has two rooms with two twin beds that convert to a Royal King, plus a vanity with chair; one of the bedrooms has two Pullman beds as well, and the living area has a double sofa bed, 238-square-foot balcony, marble entry and entertainment centre. There are two bathrooms including a master bath with tub.

Owner's Suite: This one-bedroom suite is 556 square feet and has two twin beds that convert to a Royal King, a bathroom with tub and two sinks, oversized closets, living area with table and sofa and marble entryway. The 243-square-foot balcony comes with a table and chairs.

Crown Loft Suite: This two-level suite has panoramic views and a master bedroom with Royal King-sized bed and bathroom on the second level. The main level has a dining area with dry bar, a table/desk, living room with double sofa bed and a guest bathroom with shower. The entire suite is 545 square feet, but the balcony is just 114 square feet. (Accessible versions of the same cabin are 734 square feet, with a 140-square-foot balcony.)

AquaTheater Suite: There are four versions of AquaTheater suites, which are situated at the end of the Boardwalk overlooking the AquaTheater. One-bedroom varieties come in standard and "spacious" though they're both the same size -- the balcony is actually smaller in the spacious variety (589 square feet vs. 631). Both types feature a bedroom area with two twin beds that convert to a Royal King, one bathroom with tub, large closets, and a sitting area with table and sofa bed. The balcony has enough room for seating and dining areas. The two-bedroom version is similar -- a standard is 739 square feet with a 610-square-foot balcony and a "spacious" is 823 square feet with a 722-square-foot balcony. Both rooms have a master bedroom with a king-sized bed, a second room with two twin beds that convert to a Royal King and two Pullman beds, a living room with double sofa bed and entertainment centre, and a dining room. There are two bathrooms, one a master bath with a bathtub.

Star Loft Suite: This suite is a two-deck-high, 722-square-foot cabin with panoramic views, and a master bedroom (with king-sized bed) and bathroom on the second level. The main level has a dining area with dry bar and living room with double sofa bed. The 410-square-foot balcony has both seating and dining areas.

Villa Suite: This 1,142-square-foot, four-bedroom suite can sleep up to 14 people -- cruisers must have a group of at least eight to even book it. It has two master bedrooms with king-sized beds; each also has its own master bathroom with tub. Two other bedrooms have two twin beds that convert to a Royal King and two Pullman beds -- only one of these has a bathroom. There's also a dining room with dry bar, living room with double sofa bed, and guest bathroom with shower. The 476-square-foot balcony has a whirlpool, dining area and bar.

Ultimate Family Suite: Cabin 1733 on Symphony of the Seas is a one-of-a-kind, two-story, 1,134-square-foot playground for families. Highlights include a private 3D cinema, air hockey table, a slide from the kids-only bedroom to the living room, floor-to-ceiling LEGO wall and a 212-square-foot wraparound balcony with a whirlpool, climbing wall and kid-friendly pool table. The decor is bright, colourful and playful with tons of cheerful orange. In the kids' bedroom you'll find plenty of lime green and wallpaper with bottle caps. The brightly coloured, mural-style walls near the tub in the kids' room makes for one of the most identifiable bathtubs at sea. The kitchen features a tiny Coca-Cola fridge and Orville Redenbacher popcorn-maker.  One feature we like, that's not heavily advertised, are the two nooks -- one blue, one yellow -- carved out of the staircase where kids can sit and quietly read, hide or camp out.

Royal Loft Suite: At 1,744 square feet, this suite boasts panoramic views; a master bedroom with king-sized bed; master bathroom with a tub, shower and two sinks; a second bedroom with closet and two twin beds; and a dining area with dry bar, living room with sofa bed and a guest bathroom with shower. The 843-square-foot balcony has a whirlpool and dining area. The Royal Loft Suite sleeps up to six.

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