My wife and I selected the Western Caribbean itinerary aboard Royal Caribbean. Our travel agent recommended the Freedom of the Seas as our ship, which turned out to be the perfect choice. We chose to book our own flights and we flew Virgin American from the West Coast to Orlando. We had never flown Virgin American and were very impressed. Very friendly atmosphere, comfortable leather seating in coach and exceptionally friendly staff. We stayed at the Hampton Inn, Cocoa Beach using their Snooze and Cruise package. That turned out to be an excellent choice as well. It included free shuttle service to and from the airport and the cruise terminal, breakfast on departure day, access to the beach and pool area the day of disembarkation and very friendly staff. We were not even on the ship yet and we were enjoying our vacation!
Embarkation was a breeze. We are Crown and Anchor members but only at the Gold level. When we arrived there was nobody in the Crown and Anchor line for our deck so they waved us in. We were on board and enjoying lunch within 30 minutes of arriving at the cruise terminal. We noticed that the lines did not appear to be very long and were moving pretty quickly, but were still glad to be on board so easily. We headed straight for the Windjammer and had lunch. The crew was handling the crowds very well with regular announcements asking those who had finished their meal to kindly leave the table for others just arriving. It was crowded but manageable. We finished and left to explore the ship.
This ship is absolutely amazing and RCCL has done an outstanding job of keeping it looking bright and new. As we walked the Royal Promenade it had the appearance of something freshly polished, even though I knew that it was teaming with people just a few hours earlier. We casually walked toward our stateroom on Deck 6 as 1:00 approached. All staterooms were available at 1:00. This is where I pause to say that I wish RCCL did something more spectacular with their boarding experience. The ship is wonderful but you leave the gangway to board and are dumped into a common area without any clue where you are or what you are looking at.
We arrived at our stateroom and found the Grand Romance package and Anniversary package decorations waiting for us. These are available through the RCCL web site and they really helped make the experience feel very special. Our cruise vacation was in full swing and we were enjoying every second!
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the ship and by the time we arrived back in our stateroom, our luggage was tucked safely inside. We unpacked, got ready for dinner and headed to the Main Dining Room for our first dinner, second seating.
We were seated on the third floor in Leonardo's. We were seated with two other couples who turned out to be great table mates. Unfortunately we were not impressed with the service or the food in the MDR. The waiter was somewhat slow and mixed up the orders. The menu is not very extensive and she wrote everything down, but it was done wrong. We talked to her and our assistant server. We made it very clear that this needed to be fixed by the next visit, and it was. Service was still slower than we would have preferred but there were no more errors in the order and the atmosphere remained very friendly. If you have a problem, speak up. Nobody wants to provide poor service but they can't fix it if they don't know about it. Even so, we found the selections to be uninspired and the portion sizes to be barely adequate. We much preferred the windjammer to the MDR. We also tried Chops one night and were unimpressed. The food was good, but not the top quality I expect from a premium restaurant. The service was much better here, but I've had better at land and at sea. The waiter tried real hard but seemed less experienced than I expected for a premium dining location such as this. We wouldn't do it again.
The ship itself is absolutely fabulous. Every venue is well themed and well equipped to handle the 4,000 + passengers. Nothing ever felt crowded, expect may be the muster drill, which is to be expected. There is so much going on at any given time, people are spread all over the ship. The lounges are active early and often, the very large Arcadia theater had plenty of seating for the shows and was occasionally used for Bingo as well. We had trouble finding a suitable lounge chair on the first sea day, but I have that some trouble at the pool area of nice hotels here on land. Those who hung around while enjoying the pool were eventually rewarded with a chair as people cycled out. We really enjoyed the Solarium adult pool area with the cantilevered spas and the very well done pool. There was plenty of room around the family pool area and the kids play area as well. I was surprised it didn't look and feel more crowded that first sea day as we left rain and clouds behind and sailed into the sunshine.
The entertainment on board was first rate. The Broadway style shows were much more Broadway than Vegas, and that is a good thing. We watched every show and enjoyed them all very much. I was a little surprised at Freedom-Ice.com when a few of the skaters had trouble landing their tricks. There were at least three falls and several more very shaky landings. The seas were calm and the ship wasn't rolling much. The show was spectacular, but I was surprised at this issue. The best show as "Once Upon A Time" by a fair margin. That is because this show was so good from start to finish I almost wanted to book another cruise, this time with the whole family, just to see this one show again. It really was that good. It compelled us both to visit the Arcadia theater on the last sea day for the backstage tour. If you have any interest in theater or show production, I highly recommend this tour. You meet some of the cast and they show you around. It was an interactive session with lots of questions and some great answers. We were also very impressed with the live musicians on board the ship. They were not just playing the music, they were performing it. You can feel the difference and it created an energy in the room no matter where they were or what type of music they were playing. Having live music for the production shows really added to the overall experience. Top rate in all aspects.
The cruise director was the best we have ever experienced. Fun and witty yet highly organized and informative. He was not just a talking head telling you about what is going on and what is coming up. Graham Seymour may not be the best in the business, but if there is anyone better I would like to meet them. He has the whole package and I believe he influenced the entire ship in a positive way.
We were a little surprised at how much the photographers seemed to take over the ship sometimes. The lines were also long as the photographers took time to take shots of multiple poses and encouraged everyone to take group, sub-group and individual shots, each with multiple poses. This occurred every time. That said, the photos were excellent. Advice, start pulling your pictures early and ask them to place those pictures on hold for you, adding to it throughout the cruise. There isn't enough space to display them all and many prints were placed back in boxes if they were not claimed within in a couple of days to make room for new ones. The day of embarkation and formal night photos remained up all the time, but the port photos and pictures with Dreamworks characters were not. Furthermore, the digital images were a bit hit and miss. The facial recognition software keys off of the original embarkation photo. Almost none of our port photos were included on the digital catalog. In order for them to fix that for you, you had to find the print and bring it to them. Even if you are not planning to buy prints and want to buy the CD, it is a good idea to pull all your prints as you go. I also had a problem with my waterproof camera and purchased on on the ship that worked wonderfully. The staff was very knowledgeable about the limited product they had and how it compared to similar products on the market. Those that I spoke with were photo enthusiasts and loved to share tips and help you with your equipment if you had questions. It wasn't just about the pictures they took for you. That was a nice touch.
Bar service was another pleasant surprise. We are not heavy drinkers but we do have a couple of favorites. We had two or maybe three drinks a day at the most. Some days none at all. Even with that small amount, two different servers recognized us and knew what we liked, even if we encountered them in a different venue. Maybe it was because I added 50 cents additional tip for every drink we ordered or maybe it was just because that is how good they are. If it was the 50 cents, it was the best $10 (over the who cruise) I've spent in a while. I know the drinks area already expensive and I know they already put a 15% gratuity on every receipt, but on at least two occasions we walked in less than 5 minutes before show time to the Arcadia theater and had a drink in hand before the show started. The drinks were mixed very well too. RCCL is not stingy with the alcohol.
Embarkation and Disembarkation at the ports was smooth and hassle free. The only place we had any problem was at Grand Cayman, a tender port. The lines to board the tender to return to the ship were long but moved well. This is somewhat unavoidable but it was hot and not a pleasant experience. We were warned of this the night before, encouraging people to mill about the shops rather than stand in the long line. My suggestion is to do just that. Keep an eye on the line while you visit the shops right in that area and when you see the line get a little shorter, then get in line. Stay in the shops where you can see the line and you'll not have any risk of missing the ship and not have to stand in a long line to get back on board.
The Freedom is the most well run ship we have ever experienced. The cruise exceeded our expectations in almost every aspect. Even the issues we had with the MDR were relatively minor and didn't take anything away. Even our fellow guests were exceptionally friendly and helpful. Perhaps there is something to the infectious nature of a very friendly and highly trained crew. It makes everyone happier, and they pass it along to everyone else. Maybe someday I'll find a vacation experience that tops this one, but I haven't had one yet and if I never do, I won't be disappointed.