We booked very last minute; tantalizing rate and interesting itinerary. Expectations were uncertain; our first cruise with Disney set the bar pretty high.
Embarkation process was just passable, shaped by the abysmal organization of the drop-off area at Cape Liberty: A single lane of traffic feeding about 50 angle-in parking locations, with private cars, shuttle buses, and taxis all fighting to get in and out. A multi lane, multi curb setup more like an airport would make WAY more sense, and there is plenty of land / space to set it up that way.
One tip; we used Premier Parking's nearby lot and spent less than half of what other cruisers did to leave their vehicle; their shuttle service was fast and terrific.
First pleasant surprise was cabin assignments; we had been hugely upgraded to an upper deck cabin with 2 forward facing windows. There's a catch though(read on...)
Second pleasant surprise ws the food; we expected to be disappointed after reading reviews. As a family we are definitely quality over quantity people and visions of Vegas style buffet troughs of swill were expected. With a couple of exceptions almost everything we were served was very good. I especially recommend the Indian cuisine; if you like Indian food, the stuff prepared onboard was fantastic.
Generally speaking beef, chicken and turkey dishes were well prepared. Weaker areas were pastas (inconsistelntly prepared) and seafood (ditto).
Wine lists were excellent and for a cruise not too crazily priced. One expects to get killed on the price of beverages so we were prepared and therefore not shocked.
Entertainment was pretty good; Not Broadway but also not amateur hour. The bar / lounge performers were quite good, with lots of variety (from classical guitarist to Elton John style lounge pianist). One thing that would have been nice to see (a-la Disney) is additional "show" type performances in some of the lounges and bars; from Karaoke to stand up comedy there were fewer options on the much larger 'Explorer' than I had expected.
Ports of call were great; Bermuda, San Juan, St. Maartin, and I was pleasantly surprised by Haiti. Embarkation and disembarkation at ports of call went pretty smoothly and quickly (having heard horror stories about 2-hour waits to tender off at some cruise ports...)
The significant issues / areas of concern we had with the cruise itself were as follows:
- AGE of the vessel. Apparently it is scheduled for an overhaul soon, but we had a burst pipe flood our hallway and room mid-cruise. According to the maintenance staff, this kind of issue was becoming more commonplace as the vessel ages. We didn't let this experience ruin our trip, but clearly the staff know this kind of thing is going to keep happening.
- COMMITMENT of some staff. We found a few of the services to be badly coordinated / run. Several of the planned youth activities were simply free for alls because organizers failed to show up. A couple of venues (i.e. inline skating track) were frequently closed because the people supposed to be staffing it failed to show up, or were occupied elsewhere. My biggest beef was with the customer relations staff when our stateroom flooded; instead of immediately getting us resituated (at 2 AM all you want is a warm bed) we got a lot of attitude and "can't do anything" from the first young man we dealt with. Follow up from senior staff was EXCELLENT, and yes we were given a warm, dry bed for the night eventually, plus the leak was repaired and the original stateroom actually RECARPETED to get rid of the musty smell.
For the price our overall experience was very good, and I recommend this cruise, but Royal Caribbean needs to do some updating and tweaking to make this a five star experience and keep up the gap between themselves and Carnival.