We are seasoned cruisers who decided to take our Daughter, Son-in-law, and two grand-kids ages 8 and 6 on a surprise cruise for school vacation. We chose the Jewel due to the embarkation port being within driving distance, and the fact that it was a Nickelodeon cruise. We booked last minute and got great rates making the trip affordable during school vacation week ( when we checked last fall the rates were out of our range and quite a bit higher than "usual"). We also felt the Jewel was the right size ship for their first experience - not too small but not so huge that they would be overwhelmed. The kids/grand kids are not big "beach" people and prefer pools so we knew we would spend a lot of time on the ship and less time in ports and we planned accordingly.
Embarkation and Parking - NYC was an easy port to get to by car coming from MA ( 4 hour drive) and parking was a breeze. I heard people comment on the cost of parking ($245/week) however for our family to take the train or bus would have cost much more than the parking and price of gas so we felt it was an economical way to arrive and we didn't have to worry about packing for TSA approvals! We arrived in the parking area about 10:20 am and we were checked in and boarded by 11:30 am. Note: because our port of exit and entry is US the small children did not need passports - certified birth certificates were accepted with no question - the adults all have passports so no issues there. On line check in makes the process go very quickly as well as long as you have all your paperwork with you.
Staterooms - Because this was a last minute booking our options were limited and we were inside forward in "family" staterooms - Daughter, Husband and two kids chose one cabin and DH and I the other (would have been more comfortable with one of the kids with us but they both wanted to be with mommy and daddy). Cabin space was fine for two, okay for three, but very crowded for four - extras were stored in our cabin - but we are campers with an RV and 5th wheel so we are used to small spaces LOL. Our cabin person was okay - he did seem to be confused with the number of people and quite often we were shorted towels in the 2 person cabin (and yes we were registered as 2 and 4), he also was very bad at bed making and our bottom sheet was never all the way down the bed (picky but it bothered me that I had to remake the bed every nite). We had some issues with getting service - the safe was closed in cabin 2 upon arrival and it took until Sunday nite to get someone there to open it so it couldn't be used until then. By day 3 the shower door was sliding back and forth in cabin 2 all nite and we requested repairs. We left for the day and it was removed to fix it - that took over 24 hours to get back and to come back from a beach day with no shower door was not nice - no offer was made to give us another cabin (there were empty ones near us)to use for just that day - trying to get 6 people thru one shower for dinner was tough and what would have happened if we didn't have two cabins? I did make my frustration known at the front desk, but feel that NCL did not do enough for our inconveniences.
Dining - Traveling with kids makes things a little different from what we are used to and we knew that before departure. We usually prefer to "dress" for dinner, but knowing our 8 year old grandson is a creature of habit we didn't want to have a battle every evening so we had planned to eat in Azura most nites as that dining room is more "casual". We did eat in Tzar's 3 nites and it was disappointing that we got the grandson "comply" yet saw adults being allowed into the dining room in sneakers and shorts. The food was good - not great but it's "included". We do not utilize the "fee" based restaurants - the food is not a priority for us on a cruise but we do like to try new things and found the menus to be very basic - and never saw Creme Brulee on the menu at all! And for those who don't drink soda or alcohol, you are limited to water or milk at dinner - Lemonade is only for the "kids" now at dinner.
We ate at the buffet every morning and always found the right things to keep us happy. Lunches were either at the buffet or poolside and again plenty of choices for everyone. We tended to eat light at lunch because we like to eat dinner early and catch the early "shows"
Juices are only served in the morning - through out the day you are limited to water, coffee or tea - no lemonade any more - unless you drink soda or alcohol your choices are slim.
Ports - We stayed on the ship in Canaveral (we have all been to the "parks" and the kids were not interested in the NASA tour) Knowing we would be on the beach the next two days we decided to use the ship - great idea as so many people got off the ship we had plenty of room to explore! We enjoyed the pool and buffet with no crowds! See Port reviews for GSC and Nassau
Service - overall, in my opinion, "freestyle cruising" is hurting the service we used to see on board. You don't get to know your wait staff and because they don't "work for" the envelope at the end of the week, they don't seem to be interested in "impressing" you at the table. We had mediocre service most of the week, often having to ask for things more than once, like lemons for water, coffee at the end of the meal, dessert.... in the entire week we had only one waiter who went out of his way to impress us - Mauricio made napkin creations for the kids, checked on us often to make sure everything was okay, and came and said hello when we didn't get seated at his table next time. He was our "hero" for the week and so noted on our comment card! Since we are not "drinkers" I can't comment on the beverage staff but they seemed plentiful and always looking for business - because they "work" for their tips and it shows!
Entertainment - there was something for everyone - the kids (and adults)all liked Jean Pierre (JP) the comedic magician - he does a "show and tell" for the kids exposing how some of the tricks are done as well as answering questions from the kids (maybe only because it was school vacation week?); the hypnotist Brenda Kaye was very good as well and we enjoyed the Q&A they did together - they really love what they do and it shows. The gymnasts couple was good but the show got very lame in the middle - we appreciated their strength and precision more. The production cast was okay - not the best we have seen and some of the dancers seemed very new and stiff - the singers were good but not great - we went to all the shows at 7:30 due to trying to get the kids to bed at a decent hour. We were glad to catch the "crew" show and heard some great voices on stage - amazing that NCL has such talent in the "crew" and they don't promote them to the shows.
Overall this was a great cruise for the children's first time out -there was plenty for them to do, and grandson liked the kids club although he didn't go every day - he's a shy one and very sensitive and there were some aggressive kids in the club that didn't go over well with him - it's a shame since we felt he would really have more fun there - again left wondering why NCL can't call the parents and dismiss the bad behavior kids...
In summary it was a good cruise and we got what we expected out of it - no more but no less. For us it will be our last NCL for a while - we will either go back to Princess or try some other lines - we are finding that "freestyle" is not our style and that's okay - you pick the cruise that you think will suit your style and this one was chosen for the kids.