The Oasis of the Seas: designed to keep your dollars captive (and “dumb down” the travel experience)

Royal Caribbean’s $1.4 billion new ship, the Oasis of the Seas, is notable not just because of its measurements. They’re extraordinarily impressive measurements, to be sure: 20 stories high, 1,180 feet long, 2,700 staterooms, 225,282 tons. But for its guests, the even bigger story is what those measurements do to the traveling experience.

Arthur Frommer is one of the last great travel muckrackers in an industry crowded with fawning types, and his latest consumer reporting nugget comes from plain sight: the summer 2010 itineraries of the Oasis. The ship, which will depart from Fort Lauderdale‘s Port Everglades, will be crowding its trips with at-sea days.

On many week-long trips, he finds, the Oasis will spend as many as three whole days, or half its time away from port, out at sea with no contact with any port or culture. On many itineraries, one of the only days spent on land will be passed on the cruise line’s private beach of Labadee, on the coast of Haiti. That makes four out of six days, or two-thirds of the trip, that all 6,300 passengers on a full ship will be Royal Caribbean’s captive audience, only spending their dollars with the company.

On many runs, a fifth day will be spent at Costa Maya, a remote beach location that was largely built and maintained exclusively for cruise ship passengers. The only day on those week-long trips spent at an actual, authentic port of call will be the one passed at Cozumel, which Frommer proclaims “the world’s dullest port visit.”

%Gallery-77295%Which brings us back to those colossal numbers. The term “floating city” has been bandied around to describe many cruise ships, including the Freedom-class ships that are two-thirds the size of the Oasis. But in this case, it seems to fit: The new ship has its own park, carousel, tattoo parlor, two rock climbing walls, a Broadway-size theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre, an ice rink, and a cocktail bar that can travel from deck to deck.

With the aptly named Oasis, you don’t need to leave the ship at all. Up to now, there’s been one vacation company that has mastered the art of monopolizing its customers’ time and money, and that’s Disney. Royal Caribbean’s out-sized shipbuilding brings that sort of business model to the high seas.

The bigger ships get, the more the cruise experience becomes nearly entirely inward-looking, and the old distinction between “traveling” and “vacationing” becomes more pronounced. As the Oasis passes by port after port, please pardon the passengers if they’re not gathered at the rail watching the world pass by. There’s every on-board enticement not to.

“In a recent interview,” Frommer wrote on his blog, “I used the words “a dumbing down of the travel experience” to characterize Oasis of the Seas. I was being generous.”

This isn’t the end of this story. Gadling will be on board for the inaugural cruise of the Oasis of the Seas, and we’ll tell you what it’s like to set sail on this engineering marvel.