After reading many, many reviews before sailing and then experiencing the Epic first-hand, I have to say it certainly is true that you can't please everyone! I am happy to report that we had a wonderful experience all the way around. I have been on four previous cruises; this one was the first with NCL.
We sailed on the Epic the week of January 19-26th. Arrived a day early and stayed at the Embassy Suites Airport, using their "cruise package" pricing (meaning they include the transfer to the Port of Miami). I highly recommend a stay here, as the rooms are very large, clean and comfortable and from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. they have a manager's cocktail party--basically an open bar for drinks, beer or wine. They also serve snacks (pita bread with hummus, chips/salsa, goldfish crackers, etc). The hotel pool and hot tub were very nice with lots of loungers and nice landscaping. The hotel gym was excellent, with good equipment. The breakfast buffet (also included in the cost) was one of the best I have ever seen in terms of choice, with omelets made to order. The port transfer is at 11:00 or 12:00 (sign up for your time when you check in). The transfer to the port was very organized and quick.
Ship size: No doubt about it--she's a big one! I thought it would be hard to navigate, but actually, it was pretty easy to find your way around. The best thing to remember is that the port side carpeting is mostly red and the starboard side is mostly blue. If you can remember this, you will always know what side of the ship you are on. Also, decks 5, 6 and 7 mid-ship have the front desks, restaurants, shopping and entertainment venues. Deck 15 is the Garden Cafe and pool deck. The ship had excellent signage to point you in the right direction. I also have to say that it only occasionally felt like there were 4,000+ on this boat (you definitely noticed the crowds at muster drill time and white hot party time, for example). For the most part, it did not seem that crowded.
Embarkation: quick and easy. We were welcomed aboard by very friendly staff both in the terminal and on the ship.
Disembark: quick and easy in each port. No problems when we got off the boat either. We were scheduled for a Miami bus tour the Saturday we got off, so our luggage was taken the night before. I think people that were leaving with their luggage had quite a time trying to get off (given the line I saw for the elevators with people and their luggage). It might be best to have them take your luggage off and reclaim it in the customs area to avoid these long lines.
Crew: We did not run into any surly crew members. They are so hard working and yet manage to smile and make you feel very welcomed. We had very good service throughout the cruise.
Cost of Beverages: The cost of beverages seemed in line with the industry standard. Plus, the drinks were real drinks with the appropriate amount of alcohol in them--they were not watered down. The bucket of beer (six beers for the price of five) is a good deal if you want that much beer (you can bring it back to your room if you can't drink it all at one sitting). I did not mind the automatic gratuity--these people work hard and if they did not have this put on automatically, I get the feeling many people would not tip at all. I never felt that the service was poor because they knew they would get a tip no matter what; quite the opposite. Every server was friendly and unobtrusive--I never felt harangued to buy a drink. They had a 2 for 1 happy hour every night at Maltings, so that could help with the budget too.
Cabin: we were in a standard balcony cabin (#11064). The cabin is VERY narrow, particularly in front of the bed. This is a cabin that can hold 3, but honestly, I would not have wanted to have three people in this room. The toilet with opaque door was on the left, shower with opaque door on the right and behind the shower a small vanity with the sink. The vanity had a nice feature with a sliding drawer hamper for used towels. There was plenty of storage in the medicine cabinet above the vanity as well as storage for small towels and for the bath towels in the vanity cubbies. The bed in our cabin was located next to the balcony. In some of these cabins, the bed is located next to the sink and bathroom set up. This is because of the wave design. The bed is placed in the concave of the wave; the couch in the convex of the wave. Depending on where the concave/convex is in the particular cabin will determine if your bed is by the balcony or closer to the entry door and the sink and vanity. My friends were in a balcony room the opposite set-up from ours and I think the bed near the balcony is a better set-up. It feels a little larger and it is nice to have the bed away from the sink/bathroom area. Other than that, the bathroom set-up was not an issue for us. The room was adequately cleaned each day and turn-down was always nice with a new towel animal each night. The bed was very comfortable with really nice soft bedding. I would book this room again.
Storage in the cabin: Good storage for the most part, with a nice large closet for most of the clothes (lit up inside when doors opened) and good storage behind the couch. The suitcases fit nicely under the bed as well. However, there is another smaller wardrobe-type closet in the room that has three drawers for storage underneath. This closet was very narrow and was useless for handing clothes (no hangars either) and the drawers were very narrow (about 7-8" wide) it was difficult to get clothes into them. Again, this is all due to the "wave" design of the room.
Balcony: The balcony was a nice size with two chairs and a very small table. It was definitely adequate. The glass was not clean when we got on and it only got worse with salt spray during the cruise.
ROOM TIPS: There is a welcome card with the beach towels that explains where all of the light switches are, how to use the switches with your room card (if you so desire) and other general useful information regarding the room.
Bring one of those multi plug devices for your electric items because there are only two electric outlets and one is for the coffee maker.
Elevators and Stairs: There are no mid-ship staircases or elevators, except on floors 5 through 7--there is an up/down escalator from the fifth floor up to the 6th floor and an open staircase from the 6th floor up to the 7th floor. Folks with rooms mid-ship will find themselves walking quite a bit to get to an elevator or the staircase on their floor. We never had a long wait for an elevator the entire cruise.
Gym: Largest ship gym I have ever seen! Lots of treadmills, elliptical machines, recumbent and regular bikes, etc. The room has floor to ceiling windows, so you have a great view of the ocean when you're working out. They have a large weight machine/free weight area behind the cardio equipment. There were only a couple of machines that were not in working order. I never had to wait for a piece of equipment, even though our cruise was full to capacity.
Spa: For the first time ever on a cruise I did not participate in a spa activity. I felt the cost for a massage or facial was a bit on the high side. They really never had much in the way of specials either (in port days, they add 15 minutes to massage services for no extra charge). The first days on the boat I took a tour of the Spa and was given a sheet with a special for $89 for 50 minutes of your choice of three different services--I can't recall all the choices, but I decided to skip it all this time. I was tempted to buy the Spa entrance (not sure what you call it exactly, but it's the fee you pay to use the thermal baths, recliners, etc. for the week). This did look quite nice, so it is worth going on a tour your first day and then you can decide if this is something for you.
Pool Deck: This is on deck 15. The Garden Cafe is at one end of the ship (forward) with the main pool, hot tubs and waterslides mid ship, then open market place and then aft there is the Spice H20, the adults-only pool. I have to agree with most other reviews that the pool areas are quite small, given the number of people on the boat. On the sea days, it looked like all loungers were "reserved" with towels or books and it did not appear that the "no saving" rule was enforced. How could they do this anyway? They'd have to be constantly monitoring how long people are off their lounger--not very practical. If you want to get a lounger, I suggest getting up early and going up and reserving one. I am not a sun bather, so this did not matter to me. The H20 area was tiered in a semi-circle around a pool that was really not meant for swimming but for plunging to cool off. Behind the tiers of lunge chairs were table and chairs for eating, with the food and bar on either side of the ship. There was scheduled live music on the pool deck every day, lots of opportunity to do some dancing (electric slide and cupid slide were my favorites).
Casino: Very large! Lots of fun slot machines and we even won a bit of money at the start, so we could play on the winnings for the rest of the trip. I have to comment on the smoking, as many people have brought this up. Most of the casino seems to be non-smoking. There are smoking areas tucked away in the far corners of the casino. The main hallway through the casino is a non-smoking area. I saw the staff asking people to not smoke if they were seen lighting up and the slot machines in this area state "please refrain from smoking in this area." So, I personally did not feel the place was that smokey or that it caused reeking throughout the area, as some people have commented about. I think NCL has gotten the smoking issue under control a bit by only having it in the small, tucked-away areas.
Food/Drink: We ate at the included restaurants (except for the Cirque dinner show). The service and food were all very good. I liked not having any set dinner time. We never waited more than 20 minutes to eat (even the night we were a party of 12). We ate dinner at both Taste and Manhattan (good food and great service), O'Sheenan's (again good food and great service) and at the Garden Cafe. The only negative I can say about Manhattan (and Taste to a bit lesser degree) is that they are very loud restaurants. It was hard to talk at dinner time. In Manhattan they have a band playing and they were playing just too loud. This make all patrons talk louder and louder and it becomes quite the din of noise! Taste also was loud--don't know if this is due to bad acoustics or just a lively bunch of people the night we were there. Breakfast at Taste was definitely a quieter affair.
The martini bar was a particularly nice place to sit and enjoy a quiet chat and a good martini. There were other tucked away bars on the boat where one could go for a quiet drink.
Back to food: I particularly liked the choices offered in the Garden Cafe. They had a lot of international specialties (I particularly like the Indian cuisine), with lots of fresh fruits, great breads and pastries and soft or hard ice cream. So, overall I can't complain about the food on this ship. However, the dinner at Cirque was not so good. I had the vegetarian option because I do not eat shrimp. My sister said the shrimp and beef were really bad. My eggplant parmesan was just okay. However, one is not there to eat, but to see a great show and the show was terrific. I actually found the food to be a distraction, as it took your eyes off the show when you were cutting food to eat. I think they could skip the dinner part and just have the show! However, don't let the food be the deciding factor in going to this wonderful show. I suggest paying the $35 and sitting in the balcony--they are all front-row seats because the balcony is in a big circle around the room and the show takes place just below you or at eye level when they are on the trapeze or other aerial equipment.
There were many, many daily activities (bingo, trivia, arts/crafts, seminars, art auctions, newlywed game, movies, etc., etc. -- too many to name). You will never be bored on this ship! We went to a couple of seminars -- one where the officers talked about the ship and took questions from the audience and another seminar with the actors from the Blue Man Group. They took written questions from the audience and talked about how the group came about, how they got the part, their training for the part, etc. Both very interesting and enlightening events.
If you've gotten this far, I have saved the best for last: ENTERTAINMENT! WOW--this ship has the best entertainment! There is so much to experience--you can't do it all in one week. We saw Blue Man Group (twice)--I found people either love them or not and we loved them, Cirque Dreams, Legends (great night with Jimmy Buffet, Donna Summer and Michael Jackson--he was really great!). We loved Slam Allen in the Fat Cats Blues club--he is a really talented musician and great with the audience. We also saw Howl at the Moon--again, very talented musicians and loads of fun with audience participation. There was live music everywhere on the ship. We did not see the comedian/magician, but our friends that saw it said it was really, really good. We also did not see the Second City Comedy, so can't comment on that. This ship is like a floating Las Vegas! There is only so much time in the day to fit it all in.
Thanks for sticking with this long review--I hope it provides some useful information to anyone thinking about booking a cruise on the Epic. Happy sail