Sailed the Epic 3/31 thru 4/7. Considered a 'spring break' cruise considering I'm from the PA area.
Overall I was impressed with many things and have very few let downs.
Considering the ships holds over 4500 passengers, embarkation was relatively painless. The check-in and documentation process went very quickly however we had to wait 20 minutes in a holding area before we could board the ship. Not bad at all.
Hearing the comments on how busy the buffet is that first day, we avoided it and went to O'Sheehans for lunch. That was a mistake. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about, but our meal was just so so - actually the worst of the food of our entire stay. It certainly didn't help that our waiter barely understood the English language and couldn't get our dessert order right after three attempts. One order of banana bread, and he brought out two apple pies, then strawberry pound cake, then after pointing out the actual item on the menu, he brought the correct item. He claimed he never worked that "area" before. We were concerned, based on some reviews, that this was a sign of what was to come, but that was not the case at all.
We found almost all the staff to be very welcoming. Not all were over the top, but everyone was pleasant, even workers sweeping in the hallways. I thought the ship layout was not the best, the open spaces were not open enough as I would have expected for a ship of this size (deck areas, etc.) yet surprised to find that the ship never felt overly crowded considering the capacity.
We were shocked to find how incredibly small our balcony stateroom (# 12072) was. I've been on all of the lines other than Holland America and I know what a stateroom is like. However, for a four person stateroom, it was far too narrow. I had read the square footage, but didn't compare the numbers to other ships I've sailed - assuming it was comparable. These cabins are NOT! In walking around the ship and seeing other cabins, I would say that to get what you would expect for a 4 person balcony room you have to book a mini suite. It's not that the room is short, it's just narrow. So narrow that when the upper berth is down, you could barely walk by it to get to the balcony. I have left the upper berth in place on every ship I've taken with my children and NEVER had this problem. It was impossible to get into the closets with the upper berth down.
Speaking of the balcony, it was one of the largest we've ever had and that had to do with the actual location of the cabin, where the ships pops out further. However, the balcony only had two small upright chairs and the tiniest table (more like a stool). There was plenty of room for two full lounge chairs which clearly should have been there. There was no way we would have EVER been able to eat a meal in that room with four people. Now, I kinda expected that traveling with a 12 yo and a 14yo, however, what I did not expect was no table on the balcony. Therefore, we never had the chance to even try room service.
The food was absolutely wonderful. I can not for the life of me imagine why someone would say the food is terrible. I am in the food service industry and I've eaten a lot of food in my 14 years in the business, and I know good, better and best quality. I would not consider myself a food snob, but I do like very good quality food. All of the food I had with the exception of O'Sheehans, was wonderful and very consistent in quality - everywhere! The only thing I felt was lacking was the choices. I never saw Chilean Sea Bass, nor did I see lobster offered in any of the restaurants. The only fish offered on our sailing was salmon, tilapia and grouper. I would have liked to see filet offered in the main dining rooms at least once a sailing. That said, there was always plenty of choices and obviously I never went hungry and this is not a complaint as much as it is an observation.
Entertainment - they have a corner on that market. The BMG was fantastic and we loved it. The Cirque show was also very good. I have no idea why people thought the food was bad at that show. We thought it was wonderful. The meal served was "surf & turf", although don't get excited - no lobster - just 2 bland fried shrimp. The filet was excellent and cooked perfectly. Desserts, a trio sampler, was just as good. Legends in Concert was also very good and worth the time. I'm not a fan of Elvis music but the guy who impersonated him was good. Also, Steven Tyler and Madonna were both very good and entertaining. Howl at the Moon was everything everyone has said and very funny and entertaining at the same time. We could have gone every night (almost did) and never gotten tired of it. Was not at all impressed with Second City. The one we saw was a late night show -figuring it would be funnier with the added option of an adult theme, not particularly. We never went again. Maybe it was an off night? The magician was good and funny... not bad, not great. My 12 yo budding magician liked him. Never went to Fat Cats so I can't comment. Bliss was good the first hour for us 46 yo. It turned very techno and young after 12. Spice H20 was cool but with the same observation. Maybe it was our sailing, but I read this before as well.
About reservations, yes many make them in advance, but the reviews are accurate that if you go 15 to 30 min in advance you can almost always get in regardless.
Kids club for 10-12 year olds. My 12 yo who was 10 the last time we cruised was not impressed with their program. On the last cruise, we couldn't get him to leave the club. I really don't think it was as much his age and what the club offered. He is actually relatively immature for his age, yet even he thought many of the activities were too young for him. Old fashion games, paper airplane contests, Granny Panties?! Really?! Kids today are much more hip and the program needs to match that. More crafts that they could take home like sand art, and things of the like that draw them in. Thank goodness for the water park - that kept him busy.
Teen Club - they did a great job on that. Activities low key and although he didn't take part in much of the organized part, they room they provide for them was a great draw and many of the kids meet each other there. He meet many other kids and exchanged quite a few phone numbers. Even was invited to and attended a sweet 16 party onboard which was very nice of the girls parents to include some of her new friends!
I love the fact that NCL makes very few announcements, it was quite and peaceful. Not ONE Park West announcement and that was awesome. I think I heard Bingo announced once. I literally felt assaulted on our Princess cruises and RCI was middle of the pack in that category so this was a nice change of pace.
We happen to love the goofy 'busy' activities that cruise ships offer. The trivia contests, the stuff by the pool, the game show shows, etc. We felt this cruise did too few of these kinds of things. I remember on RCI not being able to make it to all the activities that I wanted to attend. This ship, there might have been one of this type of activity each day. That said, we actually felt a tad (dare I say it) bored on this ship. Not that it was a major problem, I just napped longer! ;)
Ports - Been to them all before so nothing particularly exciting here. St. Maarten is one of my favs. St Thomas, eh. We did a snorkel tour on our own - The Fury. It was ok. Nasaau - hate it - one time was enough. Never got off the ship and really enjoyed it.
Guest services was great. We were disappointed that we could not pay an advanced amount of our kids cards (hoping they could charge to a limit) and completely understood that was not an option, but asked to speak to a manager to make a suggestion for corporate. Two days later wine and choc covered strawberries arrived and we had no idea why. When we called the manager whose name appeared on the note, she explained it was to thank us for our suggestion - not at all necessary or expected but VERY nice touch.
The on board phone experience was not good. (Think it's called iConcierge - You can use your cell phone in airplane mode, to contact your cabin mates/kids onboard via phone call and texts.) Luckily it was the first week they had it available and therefore offered it at no charge; when it would normally have cost $7.95 USD per phone for the week. We learned quickly it was not at all reliable and didn't mind because we knew it was a a work in progress. We also learned we got an additional $20 OB credit per phone for participating in the survey and that was a nice bonus! It will be a fantastic option once they work out the bugs.
We have only ever had one bad cruise, and that was one were our ship got stuck in Key West for 3 days and we missed all of our other ports. That said, this trip would in no way be considered bad. Was I happy -yes! Would I cruise this exact ship again - no. I weigh in with this thought because this cruise for our family of 4 cost us $3500.00 USD and our Carnival Dream two years ago for 4 cost only $2500.00 USD - neither trip included airfare. So comparing the money spent, I don't think we rec'd another $1000.00 of value in food, services or entertainment value in my opinion.
For me, it's all about the ship. I wanted to trip the Epic - I did. Did I enjoy it - yes. Would I recommend it - yes. As long as you understand what you are getting for the price you pay. Because for me, that is what makes one particular cruise great vs. another. It's the value for what you paid vs. what you received.
Finally, I think if Royal can contract some major entertainment like Stomp, etc. and they hop on board with the Freestyle/Anytime Dining concept - they will blow all their competition away. Right now, NCL has the corner on quality and level of entertainment. I still think Royal offers better programs for the kids, their on board activities and quality AND choice of food. My next cruise will likely be to try the Oasis or the Allure.