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Fear and Loathing on the ‘Oasis of the Seas': Cruising in the Era of COVID

(91 meters)

In 1959, Frankie Ford implored to his gal, “Be my guest, you got nothin’ to lose; won’t ya let me take you on a sea cruise?” But 63 years later, taking a sea cruise in “these unprecedented times” is fraught with some fascinating challenges. First, in order to sail on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas super-mega-liner, it’s necessary to have a vaccine passport, and to be tested within 48 hours of sailing. So that meant, the day before our flight from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Miami, we had to drive 35 miles to be tested at our nearest COVID testing facility, a small hut in the parking lot of the Walgreen’s in Crowley, Texas, population 15,439, preceded by lunch at the funky but tasty Nicky-D’s Family Restaurant nearby.

Having learned that we passed our COVID tests a couple hours later, the following day we boarded our flight to Miami, where the obligatory pre-recorded pre-flight briefing had a telling new change. Prior to the Big Shutdown of the economy, American Airlines employed a brassy sounding young woman who was going to “get us ready” for our flight by explaining such arcane information as how to buckle our seatbelts and not to smoke in the in-flight lavatories, with plenty of corporate irony, I assume to keep us from falling asleep during the announcements.

In 2022, the new announcement has been scrubbed of the omnipresent irony from the Before Times, and includes phrases such as “Welcome back…it is our honor to serve you.” It’s in keeping with the “in these unprecedented times” TV commercial buffer zone from when the lockdowns first started, but before the summer 2020 exemptions for pro-BLM riots and statue toppling were carved out by healthcare officials cautiously following The Science™.

Sentimental Hygiene Theater

Science-y things continued on Saturday night in our Fort Lauderdale hotel, in which our time was spent completing the information required by Royal Caribbean’s app, such as uploading screenshots of our vaccine records and those clean COVID bills of health we obtained in Crowley. The following day, we were driven to the dock in Miami where we sat in the cruising version of the departure lounge while our vaccine and COVID test records were checked by RC employees who then gave us our purple wristbands to show we were safe to be in the shipboard elevators with other humans. The wristbands were labeled “#TheROYALComeback” to encourage free advertising for RC via our sharing cruise photos on social media.

Once we were onboard the Oasis, at 5:30 p.m., the captain came on the ship-wide intercom and gave us a preview of what the warning alarm wound sound like “in the unlikely event of an actual emergency.” It’s a series of several LOUD short blasts and a final long LOUD blast. I had been watching the Tampa Bay Bucs-L.A. Rams NFC playoff game in our cabin, and the blast was inadvertently perfectly synchronized with the Rams sacking Tom Brady and recovering the ball when Brady fumbled. (The Rams would quickly fumble the ball themselves, while our captain was finishing up his spiel.)

Not surprisingly, our cruise was at less than half capacity, a combination of leftists afraid to attend any mass events and conservatives who loathe wearing masks.

Onboard the Oasis of the Seas, there’s plenty of hygiene theater. The Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, which can apparently dispense 146 flavors of Coke-owned brands and their offshoots, are now manned by Royal Caribbean employees, because of fears of germs from any of the vaxxed and tested passengers pressing their touch screens and ice-dispensing buttons. Similarly, there’s no computer room on the ship because of the mass use of keyboards and computer mice. And yet, there were no elevator operators, despite the entirety of the ship’s passengers pressing the elevator controls throughout the week, not to mention all of the doors and lounge tables and handrails throughout the ship.

Coke Freestyle Machine on Deck 5, With Operator!

The ship’s gym, located on Deck 6, behind the hairstyling salons and mani-pedi rooms, has its multiple water fountains all switched off. Rather than installing a refrigerator in the gym filled with bottled water, the sweaty, dehydrated exercise enthusiast must walk back to the entryway of the salon area and obtain — get this — Royal Caribbean’s “spring water” in 12-ounce cans instead of plastic bottles, to placate anti-plastic eco-mentalists. QED: the prominent headline on the backs of the cans: “WHY A CAN? It’s easy to recycle and already made of recycled aluminum. Plus it’s lightweight and easy to transport.”

The canned water is included in a pre-purchased drinks package, but costs extra otherwise. I understand that like any land-based hotel, the Oasis of the Sea is designed to separate a cruiser from as much of his money as possible, but why not a fridge in the gym tied in with a drinks package and/or openable with the cruiser’s credit card-sized room key? It’s all and all a surprisingly kludgy and ill-planned design. And my wife deemed that water from a can tastes like metal even if she poured it into a glass first.

Water in Cans, Curiously Enough.

BYOA: Bring Your Own Aspirin

Speaking of my wife, one bizarre rule we encountered happened when she swam too much the first day out, in the waters surrounding Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean’s private island. Back in our cabin, she realized she forgot her Tylenol and went down to the shops on Deck 5, the “anything for a buck” area of the ship, only to find the stores had no aspirin, Tylenol, or Aleve. She was told to check the sickbay, where she was promised she could get some free packets of over-the-counter pain pills. And yes, there were little packets of these totally non-regulated medications visible from the window. But when a nurse came out to see what my wife needed, she was told “we’re not allowed to hand those out anymore without a doctor’s visit.” For those of you who don’t know, doctor’s visits on ships cost more than plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills. Apparently, since the NSAI’s mask fevers, they aren’t allowed. But Royal doesn’t do random fever checks. Just insane.

When we sailed on Crystal Cruise’s Serenity in July of last year out of the Bahamas, after the first day, mask-wearing among passengers became exceedingly optional, but throughout the week, the maitre d’ or his assistant would take random passengers’ temperatures with one of those no-touch forehead thermometers before entering each dining rooms. On Royal Caribbean, virtually everyone is wearing masks while walking in indoor public areas, and some were wearing them outside too. There are meaningless gestures such as the Coke Freestyle Machine kabuki, but not a single temperature was checked.

So how long will the masks and the vaxxed/non-vaxxed areas last? The left’s 2018 moral panic that led to the de facto plastic straw ban is instructive. Instead of cruise lines putting plastic straws in a paper wrapper that explains how they’re specially removed from the ship’s waste and recycled to prevent harm to Johnny Sea Turtle so that normals are happy and enviro-lefties are as pacified as possible, all passengers must suffer. (Read: those of us from Red States who stupidly forgot to pack a box of real straws ahead of time.) So expect the masks and vax signs to continue for quite some time. (I’ll be exceedingly happy to be proven wrong on this prediction.) I’m not sure how many “strikes” a passenger gets for not wearing a mask before being put on the Royal Caribbean blacklist. But on Thursday, my wife came across a passenger with a “Vietnam Vet” baseball camp and not wearing a mask in one of the elevators — if he was carrying one, it was in a pocket, and not under his chin. Would you want to play Karen and tell him to wear a mask? Had the elevator door not been closing too quickly she would have jumped on and given him two thumbs up.

We Came in Peace for All Shipboard Kind

On Thursday afternoon, we experienced “Apollo 18,” an escape room-type puzzle, built around a fictitious last manned mission to the moon. To participate requires no knowledge of NASA in 1973, except to understand why all the desks have ashtrays. (An astonishing touch by Royal Caribbean, when in 2003, several poster companies airbrushed the cigarette out of Paul McCartney’s hand on the cover of 1969’s Abbey Road.) Of course, because it’s 2022 and not 1973, all of the ashtrays are stamped “MADE IN CHINA” on their undersides. Apollo 18 is solved by launching the Saturn V via a series of clues designed to get the Mission Control desks operational, and by the end, each desk’s black-and-white CRT screen has an instruction to be passed to another desk. Once all of the steps of the puzzle have been completed, the large graphic of a NASA-style illustration of earth on the room’s main viewscreen is replaced by some pretty good CGI of a Saturn V leaving the pad, along with plenty of subwoofer rumble to help enhance the atmosphere. Lastly, the famous Kennedy quote, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” is displayed, followed by the representative of Royal Caribbean handing each participant a pretty authentic-looking “mission” patch.  Of course, unlike our gang, even during the Hong Kong Flu pandemic of 1969, nobody in NASA’s Mission Control was wearing a mask while minding his desk when Apollo 11 and the two other Apollo missions that year went up in space. My wife, a sociology major in college, was amazed at how cohesive and cooperative the group of 12 in the escape room became in just 50 minutes. And at the end, we all cheered and hugged, and left happily clutching our Apollo 18 badges.

As is typical with a cruise, there are plenty of kitschy shows and piano bars each night (where masks come off after being seated). But also onboard was Led Zepagain, a long-running tribute band posing as Led Zeppelin, who delivered a pretty good impersonation of the ‘70s rock titans. On Thursday night, as they tore into “Whole Lotta Love” for their encore, we watched a young woman with a spikey hairstyle, very likely an aficionado of the LGBT+ community, dance in front of the band while videotaping a selfie on her iPhone, in a moment that in earlier decades would have generated a 10,000-word Tom Wolfe article on “Information Ricochet.” Here’s someone seeing a clone of a band that retired in 1980 on a cruise ship, but wanting to document her moment in front of a man who makes his living impersonating Jimmy Page, circa 1970. Celebration Day! Along the way, four more women got up to dance, lending a terrific festive air to the show.

When You Stare Into the Ultimate Abyss, the Ultimate Abyss Stares into You

The Oasis of the Seas contains a ride called “The Ultimate Abyss.” It’s an enclosed curving tubular slide from the aft outdoor portion of the 16th deck all the way down to the “Boardwalk” area of the 6th deck. The entrance is a tall foreboding giant anthropomorphic recreation of a deep-sea common fangtooth fish.

To instill maximum fear, you climb a sharp set of steps to the gallows, err, the drop tube, and are handed what is essentially a large rubberized floor mat with a strap for a handle to ensure the bottom half stays wrapped around your feet. You’re told to place your belongings (which for me meant eyeglasses in a case, eye drops, an asthma inhaler, and a tube of Chapstick) into the bottom of the mat, which wraps around your legs, hang on to the strap to steer, and keep your head low. As soon as the drop begins, you begin accelerating exponentially and aren’t steering, you’re just hanging onto that strap for dear life, as white lights zoom by, illuminating the darkness. My original plan was to do the run twice, with my wife photographing me at the bottom after I got the hang of it — but once was enough. Upon exiting the tube on the Boardwalk, after I had dropped ten stories in about as many seconds, the attendant asked me “how was it?” I told her, “It was a lot of fun! Now I just need to clean the skid marks off my boxers….”

To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you stare into the Ultimate Abyss on Royal Caribbean, the Ultimate Abyss on Royal Caribbean stares into you. At least if you’re older than 12. However, for those who aren’t, I’m sure that every young kid loves it. What kid didn’t watch the Adam West Batman TV series and wished he had his own Batpole that descended into the basement? Or Gerry Anderson’s UFO, and wished he could go down the tube into the Moonbase Interceptor spacecraft? Short of excavating the backyard, this is as close to that feeling as you’ll get.

Ultimately, in spite of the rules, running from mildly annoying to insane, we had a good time. Although I am not sure we’d go on another cruise until the COVID rules are lifted.

Masks are of course still required on airline flights. Going home, I had bought a bag of trail mix at the airport, and by eating its contents very slowly, I managed to get nearly two hours out of the bag, inspired by this ingenious fellow:

By the way, the CDC announcement—that they were making the cruise rules “voluntary” for the cruise line—is just more corona-kabuki. Any line that dares announce they won’t submit is greylisted. Yes, literally the color grey is put next to their ships, as you can see on the CDC’s Cruise Ship Status Dashboard. The deadline for declaring if they will comply or not is Feb. 18. So far, no cruise line has opted out of the voluntary program. Some lines have still not “declared.”

The recent announcement that Crystal Cruises filed for bankruptcy, leaving hundreds of high-end cruisers stranded, is a reminder of how badly the cruise industry was impacted by the COVID lockdowns, and the fear of many people about getting back on a cruise ship, despite seeing near-daily images of crowds attending massive sporting events (such as the recent Super Bowl in Los Angeles County) and rock concerts in the news. I hope the industry recovers — and I hope the CDC allows it to.