Empress of the Seas
For cruisers who have sailed behemoths like Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, the 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas — the smallest Royal Caribbean ship — may just seem quaint. It’s also the oldest: Entering the fleet in 1990 as the Nordic Express, it was transferred to Spanish line Pullmantur Cruises in 2008 before returning in 2016 following a $50 million refurbishment.
This ship was built well before the line was best known for dozens of restaurant choices and activities such as skydiving simulators, ice skating, a massive last-night parade with DreamWorks characters on stilts, acrobatics classes, and zip lines — and the rhythm of life onboard is comparatively quiet. But, even after the refurbishments, it has retained some old-world elegance, and many design details reflect the “The Love Boat” days. While we loved the retro details — including the old-school casino, the heavy curtains of the Royal Theatre, and the dramatic staircase in the atrium — some people might find these details dated.
That said, all the stalwarts are here: Windjammer Café, the “Quest” scavenger hunt for adults, Boleros, and sophisticated Viking Crown Lounge. And not only is the ship a bit quieter than the bigger vessels, there are also plenty of low-key spaces — a small library and seating areas on Deck 9, and seating areas facing floor-to-ceiling windows on Decks 6,7, and 8 make finding a quiet place to relax easy.
The ship also offers a wide variety of programs for families. If you want to enjoy dinner with your family, “My Family Time Dining” means kids are served first in the dining room and the kids’ crew will pick them up right from dinner to take them to Adventure Ocean. The Adventure Dining program, which allows children to dine with the other young aquanauts while adults get some private time, is complimentary, while the late-night kid party (from 10pm to 2am) costs $7 per hour. Parents can also leave kids older than 3 in the kids’ club on port days if they want a bit of exploration time.
What We Love
Easy Maneuvering: In contrast to the hours-long embarkation lines of mega ships, we breezed right in to Empress of the Seas. Similarly, disembarkation — which can involve thousands of cranky travelers in snaking long lines — was a breeze. (This is especially welcome since Empress sails mostly four- and five-night trips.) Once onboard, you can walk the ship in no time, and there are no lengthy waits for crowded elevators.
Island Time: Royal Caribbean’s private island, CocoCay, has gotten a little facelift, too. Getting there and back was so much easier than on larger sailings, and fewer people meant that there were plenty of beach chairs for everyone, and the outdoor buffet wasn’t mobbed.
Fabulous Kids’ Programs: As on other ships, Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean is a blast for the kids and a reprieve for parents. Aquanauts (ages 3-5), Explorers (6-8), and Voyagers (9-11) get complete itineraries for the next day in their staterooms each evening, and activities (including “Adventure Science: Slime,” playing games like “Dragon Slayer,” and face painting) are enough fun that most kids didn’t want to leave their new friends.
Personal Service: With fewer passengers, the crew felt less harried than on some larger ships we’ve sailed on. Crew members were terrific at remembering our names, and dining service seemed to have more heart, too.
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Dining Freedom: As on other Royal Caribbean ships, flexible “My Time Dining” means that guests aren’t shoehorned into a dining slot but can reserve a table, walk in, or request a standard early or late seating. There’s also a new addition: a sea day brunch buffet in Starlight with bottomless mimosas and Bloody Mary's.
Going into Cuba: In April 2017, Empress repositions to Tampa, offering its first two sailings to Havana in April and May. Guests will get to explore the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Old Havana, plus historic neighborhoods, Havana’s rum museum, and Hemingway’s former house.
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Who It's Best For
Families Who Want An Easy Break: Many of the passengers we spoke to were drive-in guests who’d booked close in or last minute for a fast family vacation. Sure, there’s a fair amount of jockeying for seats around the pool on sea days, but for those whose only expectations are letting the kids loose in Adventure Ocean, getting some sunshine, and spending family time together, this ship lives up to the promise.
First-Time Cruisers: Empress is great for first-time cruisers, who might find a massive, floating theme park and long lines to be overwhelming.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Staterooms are Small: Those accustomed to spending lots of time in their stateroom might want to find another place to relax, since the smaller rooms tend to feel a bit cramped. This is a ship on which it’s worth upgrading to a junior suite, where you’ll get a balcony plus perks like Champagne, a coffee maker, and priority boarding.
Royal Caribbean Regulars Might Miss What's Missing: Accustomed to Haagen-Dazs, a pizza parlor, cupcake shops, and sushi? You won’t find them on Empress, whose options are limited to Starlight Dining Room, Chops Grille, and Windjammer Café. We spent most meals at Windjammer, which, because of the smaller size, had fewer options than usual. The food was good, with some regional choices in addition to standard fare, but we missed the evening sushi and more exotic choices we've seen on larger ships.
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Empress of the Seas at a Glance
- Line: Royal Caribbean
- Class: Sovereign
- Number of Passengers: 2020
- Ship Size: Large
- Launch Date: 1990
- Refurbish Date: 2016