Some days the planets align, and something extraordinary happens. August 7, 2021 was such a day. It was that day that I was notified through email that I was invited to take part in one of Royal Caribbean’s simulated (“test”) cruises. At first I was skeptical that this was an official offer and not spam, so I read further to see that this was legitimate, and I REALLY was invited to a two night “test cruise”, leaving Port Canaveral and going to Coco Cay aboard the Mariner of the Seas. I also was invited to bring along a guest. Both my guest and I were to have been fully vaccinated and provide a negative Covid test (PCR or antigen) within three days of our sail date. My guest and I scrambled, got our ducks in a row, and headed toward the port on August 11, just four days after our invitation was issued, feeling grateful to have been chosen to participate in this historic cruise during the pandemic. We were required to download the Royal Caribbean app, as we needed to use it to complete part of the testing protocols.
We arrived at the port and were impressed that the staff had several different lines outside the terminal according to our different boarding times. My guest and I were in the 12:00 PM boarding time, and it was a joy to be amongst other cruisers in this historical cruise after such a long hiatus during the pandemic. We felt excited and grateful that we were selected and decided that whatever Royal Caribbean had in store for us, we were up for the challenge.
As our timed entry arrived, after we waited outside in a line that required neither masks nor social distancing, we were asked first to show proof of our negative Covid test outside the terminal. After that, another associate asked to see our vaccination card and our Covid test results again. Finally, we were greeted with a warm welcome and out stretched arms to walk under a blue and white balloon arch into the terminal. Every single associate we encountered welcomed us warmly and thanked us for sailing. There was a feeling of joy among the crowd that we had made it this far in the pandemic in this country and could relax a while for a couple of days.
We first had to go through standard bag checks and security, and we were previously notified that there would be no luggage assistance at the pier. After security, we went to the second level of the terminal for our “wellness check”, where an associate asked if our paperwork was authentic, reviewed our paperwork, and gave us a wrist band indicated that we would be among the group considered “vaccinated” test subjects. We never had or temperatures taken either on embarkation day or debarkation day, which I found curious, however. We were grateful to be in this group, as the entire ship would be at our disposal. We were not given any Covid test prior to boarding (or later at debarkation).
There were a lot of employees at the terminal, but we were amazed that there were so few people boarding. We later learned that five hundred and something guests were invited to sail that day, compared to the 4000 maximum capacity of the ship.
We were welcomed warmly again as we boarded the ship by several associates along the way and were told that our staterooms would be immediately ready for our arrival. My guest and I made our way to our stateroom 8586, a balcony room on the eighth floor. All other guests we spoke with also had balcony rooms as well and all were so excited.
Upon arrival to our stateroom, we saw a line of cabin stewards in the hallway, welcoming us to the ship warmly and thanking us for sailing. When we walked to our door, our cabin steward, Rogie, greeted us warmly by name and thanked us for sailing. He told us he would be following CDC protocols for cleaning and requested that we put a magnet on the exterior of our stateroom door when we we wanted service, and he would service the room when we were out.
We were required to wear masks in the interior parts of the ship but not in the main theater on level three, the solarium, sports deck, or pool deck. We found out that those guests that were considered “unvaccinated” according to this simulation could sit on level four of the same theater only and were required to wear masks. That did not make a lot of sense to us, as the theater was one big room with two levels.
We were amazed at how few people were actually on the ship with us. It wasn’t until we saw the common areas that the small number of guests really hit us and how fortunate we were. The small number of guests made moving about the ship efficient and quick.
There were hand sanitizer stations available everywhere we went, and Royal Caribbean associates were forthright in asking us to sanitize our hands whenever we went into a new room or area of the ship. We appreciated this direct approach to keeping us safe.
We were told ahead of time that we needed to download the Royal Caribbean app on our phone, as the “muster” and safety drill information would be viewed by us on the app in the privacy of our stateroom. After watching the mandatory videos and attesting that we did so, we were instructed to actually visit our muster stations outside on deck four, where we would receive a sticker for our sea pass card indicating that we had complied with the mandatory muster station. The Royal Caribbean associates at the muster station went over some basic information with us, including the sound of the emergency notification, and asked if we had any questions, all within a few minutes. We appreciated doing this mandatory muster drill so quickly and independently, as it normally takes so long to complete this requirement on the first day of the cruise. We also were grateful that hoards of people were not assembled for the drill.
Elevators had hand sanitizer stations and signs that each elevator could accommodate a family or a total of five guests, and guests appeared to comply with this request. I couldn’t help but wonder how this request could possibly be handled when the waits for elevators are often lengthy when the ship sails at full capacity.
Our welcome lunch in the Windjammer was amazing. I wondered how new Covid protocols would affect the customer experience, but I had no reason to be concerned. Upon arrival, Royal Carribbean associates welcomed us warmly, thanked us for sailing, and asked us to kindly wash our hands at the sink before entering the Windjammer. Once inside, an associate at the beginning of the buffet line said, “Please allow my colleagues to serve you,” and handed us our plate and a rolled napkin with silverware with a gloved hand. The choices in food items were as plentiful as ever, and there was many servers behind the buffet serving every item we wanted. Tables were arranged with a placard on every other table indicating that guest were not to sit at that table, presumably because of social distancing. My guest and I found a table quickly but wondered how the ship at full capacity would be able to offer enough seating to guests. The food choices were plentiful. Some food was delicious, and some food was just okay, however. We found many (most?) of the food choices to be high in carbs overall.
A server brought us our beverages to our table, greeted us warmly, and thanked us for sailing. There was a great deal of enthusiasm among all associates we encountered on the ship during the time we were there.
We were not charged for use of the flow rider, Sky Pad, or fountain sodas on this simulated “test” voyage, which we appreciated.
The main theater was not at full capacity and we were surprised that we were told we did not have to wear masks after using the sanitizer station upon entry. After the show, one section of the theater was dismissed at a time in order to provide greater social distancing, but there was not any social distancing at the elevators after the show.
In the main dining room on deck three, we were again greeted warmly with gratitude by all associates who thanked us for sailing. We were asked to use the hand sanitizer station before entry and were directed to a table for two. Most of the tables were tables for two, which we appreciated during the pandemic. Once at our table, we could take off our masks, but all dining room staff had masks on. We had “My Time” dining instead of standard dining times, and we did not have to make reservations for dining. I noted that our server served even the sugar packets, which are normally on each table, on a tray with tongs. I noted also that the specialty restaurants were open for business at a reduced price (fifty-percent off the normal fee.) Food in the main dining room was plentiful in choices but some of the food was just okay. Some of the food we tried was delicious, including the roast duck.
I saw many associates, including the lifeguard at the pool, cleaning the high touch surfaces during many points during our cruise. I was surprised to see, however, that the hot tubs did not have a sign regarding the maximum capacity for use. Chairs were spread out on the deck to accommodate social distancing.
Chairs in the solarium were not moved to accommodate social distancing from what we could see.
Our test cruise included a complimentary admission to the water park on Coco Cay, which is normally a fee. In addition, all day beach bed rentals, cabana rentals, zip line, jet ski rentals, etc. were subject to a fifty percent reduction in rental feels, which we appreciated. My guest and I were toying with the idea of renting a beach bed, which came with water mats, a cooler, and two lounge chairs and an umbrella as well, but we opted to sit in the complimentary chaise lounges with umbrellas, which were separated within the island to allow for social distancing instead.
The beach buffet at Coco Cay operated like the buffet in the Windjammer on the ship with associates serving the food. I did not feel the experience was compromised in any way with the new Covid protocols. I also noted several outdoor sinks and hand sanitizer stations throughout the island to facilitate hand washing and noted associates cleaning tables immediately after guests’ use.
Because there were no long lines, my guest experienced the water slides in record time, so we had lots of time to explore the island. We took advantage of the swim up bar in the cove and were grateful that the chairs on the swim up bar were spaced apart, although only my guest and I were on the swim up bar platform at the time.
Coco Cay is my favorite island among all private islands in the Caribbean. There is something for everyone, even underwater music speakers and chaise lounges inside the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean. There were swings in another bar, adding a touch of whimsy to the upscale and relaxing vibe of the island. Everything was in excellent condition, so very well maintained and ready for guests to arrive.
Debarkation happened directly from one’s stateroom without guests congregating in common areas. We were asked what time we would like to debark the ship the night before, and our debarkation happened on schedule after our breakfast at the Windjammer.
All in all, we were impressed by Royal Caribbean’s changes to the operational protocol to keep guests safe, and it did not impact our enjoyment of our cruise at all. We were left wondering, however, how Royal Caribbean would accomplish these protocols with a full ship going forward.
We left the ship feeling grateful that we were part of a historic sailing that paved with way in part for the restart of the cruise industry post-vaccine during the pandemic.
“…I’m sailing away
Set an open course for the (Caribbean) Sea
‘Cause I’ve got to be free
Free to face the life that’s ahead of me…
…So climb aboard
We’ll search for tomorrow
On every shore and I’ll try,
Oh Lord I’ll try
To carry on…” (during the pandemic)
“Come Sail Away” by Styxx