Here are our impressions and advice, bucketed into categories:
PRE/POST-CRUISE HOTELS -- We spent two nights at the "Hyatt House Fort Lauderdale Airport" before the cruise, and three nights at the "IL Lugano Suite Hotel" after our cruise. Highly recommend both hotels for their large suites, great staff, proximity to beaches/restaurants and cruise port. IL Lugano has in-suite washers/dryers, ideal for doing post-cruise laundry. Book a waterway-facing room and enjoy the mega-yacht parade from your huge balcony.
EMBARKING/DISEMBARKING -- During our cruise, the U.S. Customs agents were working to rule, in protest of the recent Sequestration bill (4 agents working instead of the usual 20), resulting in unusually long lines according to Royal Caribbean staff. Those who arrived early, say 10:00-10:30 had to wait more than two hours for the ship to clear of previous passengers, before boarding. We arrived at 12:30 and were on board in 50 minutes.
We chose Express Disembarking (carry your own bags and leave by 7:30 am) and were off the ship in one hour, despite the long lines at Customs.
SEA PASS CARDS -- You use these to pay for everything on board, enter your stateroom, and leave/return to the ship on excursions -- so the cards should be with you at all times. We were concerned about our children losing their cards. Many passengers brought neck lanyards for their cards, or purchased them on board, but we thought lanyards would be cumbersome for children. Before our cruise, I went to Business Depot (Staples here in Canada) and purchased flexible wrist key chains in different colors, at $2/each and brought a single-hole punch with us. Once we had the cards, I punched a hole in each one and attached them to the key chains. We then wore the cards on our wrists during our waking hours, even in the pool; super convenient! Many passengers asked where I got the wrist holders. Tip: Don't punch the hole in the magnetic strip area or the two bar codes, or the cards won't function properly. You can also get the cards punched on board, in Guest Services (Deck 5) or in the Casino.
CROWDS -- Our cruise was chopper-block full, 6200+ passengers for March Break. There were definitely times when we felt the crush, especially in the elevators after a show, or at the start of a dinner sitting. But despite being wary of sailing on such a huge ship, people-movement was very well handled and it rarely felt overly congested. Frankly, a busy day at your local mega mall feels more crowded. Speaking of elevators, there are 32 on board, and they're large and move quickly. And there are literally hundreds of places to sit and rest all over the ship, so if you get tired or are bothered by too many people, take a break, grab a dink and chill.
CRUISE COMPASS -- This daily 12-page newsletter was delivered to our staterooms each evening, and provided a wealth of information about the next day's activities; very well written and organized, and extremely helpful. We also made frequent use of the large touch-screens adjacent to all the elevators; these units give you tons of information about what is happening throughout the ship; click on a venue and the screen shows you a map of how to get where you want to go.
WI-FI/CELL -- We spent about $80 to have some Wi-Fi access during the cruise. Cost depends on how much time you book, and ranges from 50-65 cents/minute. Wi-Fi quality was DSL-fast and available ship-wide on our iPhones/iPads. Cell service is good, too, but roaming charges are very expensive, especially at sea. We kept our iPhones in airplane mode, except to make a few quick calls home to family. You can use the stateroom phones to make or receive ship-to-shore calls, but the cost is $8/minute plus long distance rates; encourages brief conversations!
FAMILY COMMUNICATION -- After reading mixed reviews about the ship's iPhone rental service, we bought high-quality walkie-talkies for the four of us. We could talk with one another across many parts of the ship, but coverage was sometimes spotty. And, even though our units have 28 channels, we often shared a channel with other parties, which made for some interesting cross conversations among families. ("Mom, is that you?" "Why are on 'our' channel?" etc.) We ultimately stopped using our units and simply pre-arranged rendezvous points at specific times.
STAFF -- With two minor exceptions (a surly bar waiter and a bored gift-shop clerk), every staff person on board we encountered was friendly, attentive and helpful. They kept the ship spotlessly clean and everything running quite smoothly. We were impressed all week.
ON-BOARD SHOPPING -- There are several mid-to-high end stores on board, featuring a range of goods, along with daily sales on the Promenade (Deck 5). Tip: Bring small portions of every conceivable drug-store item you think you might need -- there is no dedicated drug store on board and supplies of these items are extremely limited.
PHOTOGRAPHY -- As you embark, be sure to have your photos taken by the professional photographers located in the port terminal. They use facial-recognition technology to group your photos in a file, so you can easily find all of them at any time, Photographers work throughout the ship and at ports all week, taking your photos whenever you want, but are not pushy about it. On the last day of the cruise, visit the Photo Gallery (Deck 6) to view and buy any or all of the prints you want, or get any or all of the shots on CD for printing back home. Warning: These photo options can easily set you back hundreds of dollars, or more, depending on what you buy. Our children used their iPads to chronicle our week, so we came home with more than 800 of our own shots and plus lots of video.
STATEROOMS -- We booked a "Superior" Ocean-balcony room and a second balcony room overlooking Central Park -- just down the hall from one another on Deck 14. Both had identical floor plans. Because Deck 14 is directly below the pools on Deck 15, we did hear a bit of lounge-chair scraping around 7:30 in the morning when the maintenance crew did their set-up. However, it only lasted 10-15 minutes and wasn't too loud; no big deal. I'd recommend Deck 11 or 12 instead (there is no Deck 13). On the plus side, our rooms were forward on the ship, close to the Solarium, which was convenient; and the kids loved being close to the pools. The Central Park-facing balcony was quiet and serene; with lovely views over the trees, soft music, chirping (pre-recorded) bird sounds, etc. We heard from others that the Boardwalk-facing balconies are much noisier, but they do give you a birds-eye view of the shows and other happenings in the AquaTheater.
Many reviewers have complained about the small size of the staterooms. And, yes, the rooms would be small for a family of four, unless your children are quite young. But with only two of us staying in each stateroom, the room size was very workable and we never felt cramped. I was impressed with how well the designers used the space, with lots of storage, closet space, hangers, etc. The mini-fridge keeps bottled drinks cool, but has no ice-maker. The safe is tiny and our iPads didn't fit, but it was fine for wallets, passports, jewellery, cameras, etc.
The bathroom is small, but workable for one person. The shower size is fine; I'm 6-1 and weigh 210 lbs., and had plenty of room. There is lots of storage and decent counter space in the bathroom, too. Most impressive, the water pressure NEVER varied and there was ALWAYS hot water for showers -- that's quite an engineering feat considering the 8500+ passengers and crew on board!
Our stateroom attendants were friendly, accomplished and accommodating. Our rooms were cleaned daily, with all-new towels if we wanted them, and freshened again in the evening. The attendants are masters at creating towel characters (elephants, monkeys, etc.), which our kids enjoyed.
STATEROOM TV -- Channel selection for TV was limited, but the interactive features were very well done. It's easy to check your account balance, order excursions, book shows/restaurants, and order room service. (Room service is free, by the way, except for alcoholic drinks; the menu is very limited, however.) There is also a large selection of in-room, on-demand movies available, most at $12/each, including many first-run films. Wi-Fi on the TV is slow.
SOLARIUM -- This is the large, two-story adults-only (age 16+) section at the ship's bow (Decks 15 & 16). Our kids were old enough to be on their own a lot of the time, so my wife & I enjoyed many relaxing moments here. Note: they do allow children of all ages to be with their parents at breakfast in the Solarium.
POOL DECK 15 -- We were amazed at the number of places to be in the water on this ship: One salt-water pool, three fresh-water pools and another pool for children, plus hot tubs all over the place. The pools are all larger than those on other cruise ships we saw in port. On at-sea days, the pools were very crowded, but there were always lounge chairs available. Tip: Get back early on shore-excursion days and you'll find the pools almost empty. The only features missing, according to our kids, were the long water slides one can find on some larger Carnival ships.
SPORTS COURT -- DECK 15 & 16 -- Our children practically lived in this kid-friendly area while on board, with a wide variety of things to keep them happy. They loved FlowRider, but both felt the Zip Line ride was a bit short at 8 seconds. Caution: Kids can run up a large bill quickly in the video arcade, so consider putting a $$ cap on their Sea Pass cards; you can do this at Guest Services on Deck 5.
Our kids enjoy each other's company and did not want to participate in the supervised children's clubs, but never ran out of things to do on their own. If you're travelling with one child, however, you may want to enroll him or her in one of the clubs to make friends and give you a little more adult time for yourself.
DINING: We ate in "Opus," the main dining room, six of our seven nights. Because we booked this cruise late, and the ship was completely full, we were unable to get into most speciality restaurants for dinner. However, we did enjoy an outstanding dinner at "150 Central Park." It costs an extra $40/person and my wife & I opted for the wine-paring option, which added an extra $75 for each of us. A bit pricey at $310, but the food, presentation, wine selections and service were all excellent!
The Opus dinners (8:30 seating) were our only disappointment during the cruise. The starters (delicious soups) and desserts were quite good. But the main courses were, for the most part, consistently underwhelming: overcooked beef, chewy lobster, tasteless-rubber fish, etc. On the plus side, the service provided by our head waiter, his assistant and the drinks waiter were exceptional! The food was delivered quickly, efficiently and with flourish. We loved the dining experience, apart from the poor main-course quality. Note: Men's choices for the two formal nights ranged from open collar shirts with no jackets or ties to tuxedos; women seemed to enjoy dressing up much more for these special nights.
We had several breakfasts and lunches at "Windjammer," the large buffet restaurant. Many reviewers on this site have complained about the quality. Our family thought the selection and quality were quite good, and varied from day-to-day. Yes, there were a few misses, but most of it was delicious... and the service here was very good, too.
Several mornings, we had breakfast delivered via room service (ordered the night before) and enjoyed eating on the balcony. The food was quite good and always delivered on or before the time promised.
We sampled other dining venues (Jonny Rockets, Wipe Out Cafe, Seafood Shack, etc.) and the food was average but the kids enjoyed it. Central Park is a nice place to enjoy breakfast or lunch; lots of relaxing outdoor dining tables.
Breakfasts and lunches at the Solarium were smaller versions of the same food served at Windjammer. But the dining atmosphere is much nicer, with fountains, streams, soothing music, etc.
Our kids loved the inexpensive treats at Cupcake Cupboard (Boardwalk) and the free ice-cream cones available 24/7 between the pools on Deck 15.
My wife and I bought the premium alcoholic drink package. It would have been cheaper for her to pay as she ordered, but I got my money's worth with top-notch brands throughout the cruise. There are 20+ bars on board, and lots of waiters available at all the popular venues (pool, Solarium, restaurants, etc.), so ordering is easy. The house wine served at dinner (part of our drink package) was actually pretty descent and far better than expected. If you're a wine connoisseur, however, go for one of the wine packages.
Tip: Fresh, filtered water is available outside all restaurants, so take your own water bottles and avoid the cost of pre-paying for water to be delivered to your stateroom. One oddity was the fact that the tap water in the stateroom-bathroom sinks was always warm; not pleasant to drink, but okay for tooth brushing, etc.
ON-BOARD ENTERTAINMENT -- We went to all the big production shows and enjoyed them all except Hairspray, which many loved, but wasn't our type of show. Our kids thoroughly enjoyed every show! Don't miss the "Oasis of Dreams Aqua Show" and "Come Fly With Me." We pre-booked everything before the cruise, but there were plenty of last-minute walk-in seats, except for the Aqua Show. We didn't attend the Comedy Clubs, because we didn't want to leave our kids alone at night. If you want to go, book early; they fill up fast.
There are dozens and dozens of activities scheduled throughout each day, all over the ship. The "Cruise Compass" newsletter gives you detailed information about each one, and the program varies daily. The Casino is quite large (for a cruise ship) but I didn't spend a lot of time there because cigarette smoke permeated the atmosphere, despite the supposed "non-smoking" section.
PORT EXCURSIONS -- There are quite a few available through Royal Caribbean at each port, which you can book before sailing, on board via your stateroom TV or on the Deck 5 Promenade. We discovered that the popular/less-expensive excursions sold out quickly. In our view, most of the excursions were over-priced for what you got ($30-50/person for 3 hours at a beach. Really?!), so we did our own thing on each island. Beaches at each port are easily reached by inexpensive taxi and.
We spoke to several passengers who felt a bit like herded cattle during their excursions. In one example, passengers were asked to be in a certain staging area for 11:00, and then waited in the hot sun (no shade or water) for 45 minutes until the tour bus arrived. Everyone we spoke with enjoyed their excursions, for the most part, but many had issues with the pre/post-excursion process.
We all grew tired, very quickly, with the dozens (hundreds?) of aggressive hawkers who formed gauntlet lines as you left the ship and entered the port town; not a pleasant way to start one's shore excursion, although I understand how important and competitive tourism is to the people living on these islands.
If you're a shopper, you can buy jewellery, perfume, cameras, etc. -- all duty-free -- to your heart's desire. My wife did some comparison-shopping, based on prices she was familiar with back home, and didn't feel there were many bargains at these ports; in fact, some items seemed over-priced, especially watches.
As others have written on this review site, you shouldn't take this cruise, or any Caribbean cruise, if you primary objective is to explore the ports of call. You simply don't have the time in the short periods you're allowed to be onshore. You would be far better off flying to directly to any of these destinations, which will give you the time needed to get to know an island well.
FINAL THOUGHTS -- We paid a premium price for this cruise because we: (1) booked last-minute, (2) cruised during March break--so the kids wouldn't miss too much school--and (3) booked two staterooms. As a result, my wife and I felt the entire experience -- while quite enjoyable -- was somewhat overpriced for what we received. We could have booked an all-inclusive 5-star resort at any number of Caribbean islands, with large rooms and great food, and saved thousands of dollars. HOWEVER, we chose this experience mainly for our children, and they loved every minute!! So, from that standpoint, it was money well-spent and a successful holiday experience. Our only concern is that they're now spoiled by the Oasis and will find any smaller ship to be "sub-standard!" LOL
If you love the idea of cruises and have a close/active family, you'll thoroughly enjoy this ship. Royal Caribbean did a fine job of providing 6000+ passengers with a broad range of quality experiences and excellent service. If you're a couple who would prefer to experience the Oasis or Allure without the pervasive presence of children, obviously avoid March Break, Christmas holidays and summer sailings. (We had 1400 children on board during our March-Break cruise!)