Overall - we are very happy with the cruise. We would cruise again. We don't have a comparison as this was our first cruise, but since I read and researched a lot, I knew exactly what I was getting into. I promised myself to write a review so it may benefit others and so here it goes...
It was Spring Break (March 25 thro March 29) and we booked this cruise way back in September 2012, and also availed for some price protection scheme. We booked thru Expedia. Paid about $3600 for 2 adults and 2 kids for a Ext-Balcony, mid ship.Not sure if it is a good deal or not. Will appreciate feedback for future references.
I think we were a little over packed (thanks to the reviews and growing list of things), but guess it was Ok. There was enough room and more in the closets.
Embarkation and Rooms- The ship was full and so was the line to embark. We were asked to show up between 1.30 and 3.30 and we were inside the ship closer to 3.30..to find our room ready and neat. The balcony was an awesome addition. Our bags arrived by 4.30 pm. Most people were friendly, most with kids and grand parents. There were some uptight white folks who were cribbing most times, seemed a little unfriendly too, but on this cruise Uptight would need to go outside.
Service - The room stewards cleaned up I think 2-3 times a day and took pride in their services. At the end, i felt they were all overworked and tired. They get no vacation and they do this back to back each week for 7-9 months. Felt like the bonded labor days are back. I really hope they get remunerated well. We tipped each one very well, over the mandatory $11 per day/per person. Also, it seemed like each crew member had several duties to perform...example - Dancers were also ushers or excursion booking people.
Food - The Normandie/MDR food was pretty good. I liked the selections each night and loved the desserts. Breakfast and Lunch was at the Lido Deck and was boring....seemed very standard after day 2. And was very crowded. I didn't like the fact that on Saturday ( we disembark on Sun), lunch buffet closes at 2 instead of 3. Since it was crowded, most people held on/saving their tables, which didn't seem like a big deal. I think I prefer the sit down set up, over the buffet set up.
Cleanliness/kitchen - I am not sure. After day 2 I was a little worried if they clean the cooking ware, may be they do. Also, I am a vegetarian, and have been very picky with my food getting cooked in a non-meaty vessel...but i didnt have a choice...like I dont know where my food is cooked even in a restaurant..so, this is no different. At one point, I ignored all the mess cos life moves on. Thankfully our healthy genes let us stay healthy and happy through out the vacation.
Pools, activities and entertainment - The pool water was super salty and highly chlorinated. We used the water slide in the Bahamas days...was too cold before that. My 5 year old enjoyed Camp Carnival. My 9 year old found it boring. We used the camps from 10 am to about 1.30 pm until lunch time and after which we were together as a family. Night time entertaining was very average. Comedy was Ok. Casinos were busy. Decor was not bad, my boys ...they didn't even notice the nude pictures and I didn't think anybody was bothered with the decor. It didnt seem dark either like the reviews I read. Also, most shows were "selling" something. That was a bit of a turn off.
Attire - There were several people who attempted to dress up well. Some were there for the fun and did not really care. My husband carried 2 formal coats and there was absolutely no need for that.I now wish I had taken some accessories for the pics.Look good, be decent, but really this is no place to show off your designer wear. There are several photo opportunities, but make sure you look for your picture as and when they are made to display. There is a mad rush towards the end. I felt bad they waste all the ink to print and most into the bin/trash/recycle. They should consider lowering the price of the pictures or offering a discount.
Ports of Call - I would have loved to spend more time at Free port as well. It seemed pretty tight on the 3rd port of call day. I have left detailed reviews for the 3 ports of call. We did the Kennedy Space Center, Blue Lagoon Private Island and the Dolphin Encounter all booked from the ship directly.
There are a few places we didn't go to - David's Steakhouse, The Gym, The Chapel and the Library. Would have loved to sing at the Karaoke club, but didn't get a chance to esp with the kids schedules. Although, I must admit my husband and I left the kids sleeping in the room 2- 3 nights (of course told them before they slept that mom and dad will be back in a bit), but did check on them every hour. It is very safe, but we are very protective parents and we kinda dared to step out of our parental comfort zones.
Tips - Do send your kids to the camp and enjoy time with your partner. Get a balcony if you can afford it and sip your tea, wine there. Get room service to bring you stuff. We lead such busy lives that forced dis connectivity read -no Internet/phone is a blessing. I will do this again. My family had an awesome Spring Break in 2013.