Hello all! This is my first cruise review here on CC so please be kind. I will attempt to give you my brutally honest opinion about everything (that I can remember) from the beautiful but huge Freedom of the Seas. I gave myself a week to reflect so that my review wouldn't be a knee-jerk reaction to anything negative. I am going to include all the "little things" that I wish I had known before the trip in the hopes it will help even one of the readers!
I am also not one to "sugar coat" my words so if I happen to upset your particular demographical apple cart, I apologize in advance.
I went on this cruise with my partner and we have cruised with RCI 7 previous times as a couple, I have been on about 6 before with my parents. We are Diamond Crown and Anchor members.
We began the vacation by flying into Orlando three days early (Thursday morning) on AirTran. The flight was direct from Richmond and it was a perfect start to the trip. We rented a car from Budget. The car looked okay on the outside but the inside smelled like it had been previously rented by someone who stored seafood in the trunk for a few days. Either that or wet towels were left in there to bake after a water park excursion. I politely asked for another car but it was "the last one." My rolling eyes didn't magically make a new one appear, so we took the fishmobile and headed out to find the Bee-Line or Beach-Line or whatever they call it this year. It'll be the "Mickey Line" by 2015...just watch...those people have PULL in that town.
RENTAL CAR TIP: Find out IN ADVANCE what the deal will be with your particular rental car company as far as tolls in the area. We had a little thing on the windshield that we could open or close. I think it was something like $2.95 per day to use it, and they would charge the tolls directly to the credit card on file. At first I thought, "I'll keep the thing closed and just pay cash at the booths to save money." Well, after seeing the line for CASH at the first booth I opened the little gizmo and sailed on through the SUNPASS lane. It was certainly worth the $2.95 per day to not have to worry about it. You will need to check your route of where you plan to go to see if this will work best for you and your family.
On to Cocoa Beach! After a quick McDonald's stop for some "food" we headed to the Jetty Park to watch the cruise ships leave. I think it was 15 or 20 dollars for the day, but well worth it to watch the ships from such a great spot! There were lots of folks there watching the ships, fishing and generally hanging out but it was a great (and cheap) way to spend the first afternoon. We saw the Disney Dream (beautiful...I didn't want to like it but it was quite striking) and two teeny Carnival ships. I said a little prayer to the "Carnival Engine and Toilet Angels" as they went by. No one should have to "go" in the hallway, I mean really.
We were beat from the traveling so we drove a bit south to check in to the Doubletree Cocoa Beach Oceanfront. First problem: the entrance to the hotel is so poorly marked you will drive straight past it, especially since there are no lights on their ground-level sign...not fun at night. Even after coming and going about five times we still didn't know exactly how to turn into the place. Not a big deal but frustrating just the same. The front desk staff was extremely friendly and welcoming, no issues there. The room smelled like a beach hotel. We were on the executive floor and it still felt like a Motel 6. It was fairly clean and we were only staying one night, so we dealt with it.
The next day, we checked out and went to the Kennedy Space Center. This was not my first choice of things to do while on vacation, but sometimes we must give in to the significant other to keep a peaceful household, right? I had been to the KSC as a kid (almost 30 years ago) and have nothing but awful memories of a hot field with a few rockets. When we pulled up on the place I was in complete shock. Holy Shuttle! This place looks like SOMETHING! I had planned on us being there about 2 hours. Six hours later, we left with a sunburn and a new appreciation of NASA. If you have any hesitation at all about going there, JUST DO IT! Also, get there when it opens. The longest line we waited in all day was just to pick up our annual passes.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER TIP: go to www.ksctickets.com and look under "Offers." We were able to get an annual pass for the same price as a one-day ticket AND it came with free parking, discounts on food and the gift shops. It actually came in cheaper than the one-day thing. We got a lanyard with the pass and every place we went, people thought we were VIP's. I wanted to say "It's called doing your research, people!" The Atlantis exhibit was truly spectacular and the "reveal" would have had a bigger wow factor if it weren't for the loud-mouth parents in the corner speaking at volume 10 to their child who couldn't have cared less.
That took most of the day so we drove back to Orlando and checked in to the Hyatt Place, MCO Northwest. Again, I expected a better hotel, but they were under renovation so I can't complain too much. The room had a weird setup...bathrooms and sink were directly in front of the bed. Not my first choice of a room but again, I wasn't on vacation for the hotels. Front desk competence was mixed from extremely helpful to, "sure, I'll wait while you finish your text. I mean, you're a front desk employee but my petty request can surely wait."
Saturday we decided to do some "free stuff" in the area, so we first drove to the Disney-designed town of "Celebration." Hmm...what to say about it...the Desperate Housewives would feel perfectly at home. It was a little too perfect...I'm not sure the people that live there are human. It was the opposite of a "bad part of town" but I felt just as uncomfortable. I was hoping I could find the exit...one way in...one way out. Next we drove to the Gaylord Palms Resort. Inside of the hotel is spectacular, another great "free" way to spend an hour or so. I say "free" because parking is $15 or $16, PLUS TAX! I handed the girl a $20 bill and when she returned nothing but coins, she informed me that the parking fee had tax. My baffled and annoyed look seemed to amuse her so I promptly put her on my voodoo doll list, right behind the Budget Rent-A-Fish-Car lady.
Later we went to the Disney Boardwalk area. It's completely free to park and walk around/shop and was a relaxing end to the morning for us. We came back to the hotel to relax (and cool off) and then made reservations for dinner at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. There's an AMAZING restaurant called BOMA that serves basically "African" food. At first sight, it looks like all side dishes, couscous, hummus, etc. You'll think, "How do I make a meal out of this?" If it looks bland, TRY IT. It's hands-down the best food I ate on the entire vacation, including the cruise ship! Yes, it's about 44 dollars a person but worth every penny. You can also walk outside to see the animals.
I wanted to spend some more time on the Disney property, so we drove and parked at the Polynesian resort. We hopped the monorail and rode it around to the Contemporary, then caught a boat over to the Wilderness Lodge. You never realize how much Disney you can do completely for free!
The boat back to the Contemporary was followed by a monorail trip to the Grand Floridian. We sat in their lobby for about 2 hours listening to piano music then the Jazz group. How relaxing...and free! Just before the Magic Kingdom fireworks, we hurried over to the Polynesian beach and watched them from across the lake. It was the perfect end to a FREE day!
We would have returned the car to Orlando but RCI in their brilliance will not allow you to pre-book ANY transfers if your return flight leaves before 12:30 p.m. on the last day. Okay, our flight was at 12:10. This means we had to either find a reputable shared transfer company out of Orlando, get a town car/limo, or do a one-way rental. I looked for MONTHS to find a shuttle company that didn't have some string of awful reviews. People being literally left on the side of the highway did not inspire much confidence, so we went with the one-way rental, returning the car for an extra $50.00 to the Budget in Cocoa Beach. What a CLUSTER that was. People getting of the ships wanting cars but having no reservations running smack dab into folks like us trying to drop off cars. It was a MESS and a half. Also, because the lines were too long at the dock, they weren't shuttling any of us new folks out of there. Yes, an hour in the Florida sunshine with no shade wasn't my happy idea of departure day, but there it is.
We made it to the port and the LONG lines outside. I'm not sure how it usually goes there but the pier folks need to get it together. They were shuffling people into different lines: regular line, priority line, etc. I think the biggest problem is that the metal detector/security is just inside the door so everyone waiting is outside. There's just one security agent checking passports so it was SLOW. Once we were up the escalators, though, things moved very quickly. We got in the Diamond line (just as long as the others, but it was short) and got our cards. After the typical "get on the boat picture" we walked up the gangway and onto the ship. I hope that you all love this particular moment as much as me. When you first set foot onto a ship, there's that feeling that comes over you...hard to describe. We walked onto the promenade deck (deck 4) and into the ship, expecting the usual "Welcome on board!" What we got was a guy talking to his coworker across the door. We politely stepped between them, not wanting to disrupt their important conversation and went upstairs one deck to the Cafe Promenade (free food). This is truly one of the best things about the Freedom. It's open 24 hours and is a great place to get lunch if you don't want to gorge yourself at the Windjammer. Two croissants with ham and cheese and a brownie are perfectly sufficient. Never a line here, usually a little bit of a wait down the other end at Sorrentos Pizza (also free).
The rest of the review is easiest if I don't go day by day. That's boring to read and harder to find the info you're probably looking for.
CABIN: We had cabin 9696 which is a D1 Superior Ocean View with Balcony. It's the last balcony on deck 9 on the port side of the ship. There is an interior stateroom next to it (9701) that has a connecting door which is great for a family with selfish parents who want a balcony for themselves but want to go cheapo for the kiddies next door. I'm kidding, people! It really would be a great setup for parents/kids. The balcony doesn't really extend but has an extra space next to it where the structure angles down. You can't sit there because of a railing but it made the balcony seem much more spacious. A word of warning: You can hear EVERYTHING through the connecting door so just keep that in mind when you think you're shutting the kids away for the night! Fair warning!
We greeted our cabin attendant Ralph and told him the only thing we really needed was ice in the morning and ice in the evening. Ice is only available UPON REQUEST now, so keep that in mind. We gave him $20 on the first day and our room was cleaned every time we returned from breakfast or dinner. We also keep our room very clean (you walk past some open doors and think ah, THESE are the people they put on Hoarders). Storage spaces were plentiful and we didnt use all of them. Bathroom had the curved shower doors which were small but convenient. Plenty of hangars in the closet. Suitcases fit under the beds nicely. Very comfortable beds! This is a definite improvement. Location of the cabin is great: just two decks below the Windjammer and not many people walking by the cabin making noise. My advice: do NOT get a cabin near where the elevators and stairwells empty out into the cabin hallway. The traffic noise would be awful.
CABIN TIP FOR #9696: There is no cabin above you so you dont have to hear people dropping things the entire cruise. We truly heard very little noise coming from either side of us but we just got lucky. Every RCI cruise weve taken has had cabins with extremely thin walls. Choose wisely! Also, just because the cabin on the deck plan is next to a white space doesnt mean that theres nothing there. Most of those white spaces are crew/storage areas and they can get VERY loud, especially when those crew spaces are stairs!
DINING: Ill start by saying of all the cruises weve been on, this has had the best tasting food, by far. Even the Windjammer food seemed to be of a higher quality, especially compared to the Rhapsody of the Seas Alaska dining disaster we had a few years back. This the first time I havent had to negatively comment on the food! Now, lets discuss MY TIME DINING. As many of you know, you MAKE A RESERVATION for the time you want to eat in the dining room, and thats the time you go eat. As many of you also know, that is a CROCK. We had reservations for 8:00 p.m. on 4 of the 7 nights (one was Portofino, one was Chops and one was a pre-planned Windjammer meal due to a show time). We ended up eating in the dining room just twice. The first night we were promptly seated at 8:00 p.m., as planned. Our table was for two but seeing as our neighbors (also a two-top) were only 6 inches away at their table, we felt like one big family. Food and service were great. Second attempt at MY TIME didnt go as well. We arrived around 7:45 p.m. for our reservation, fully prepared to wait as we were early. No biggie. There are two check-in lines on either side of the entrance for people WITH MY TIME DINING RESERVATIONS. The big open area between is for people trying to leave the restaurant, passing through, etc. A lady who evidently thought she was better than the rest of us walked up through the middle with her husband wheeling behind in his chair (who, in his defense was saying honey, we need to wait in line), flashed her SeaPass card to one of the people at the desk and said, we dont have reservations but want to eat. Keep in mind, there are about 40 of us standing in line WITH reservations waiting for our table. She was promptly seated. I bit my tongue, swallowed the blood and thought, Im on vacation, let it go We were seated around 8:20 p.m. next to a nice family of four. All was well until dad and son started communicating with someone else on the ship via their walkie-talkie. Yes, folks, right there in the middle of the restaurant, full volume, trying to coordinate their evening activities via walkie-talkie. Classy.
This brings me to my next subject:
DRESS CODE: My sarcastic self would say this: Wear WHATEVER you want WHEREVER you want because there is not one iota of dress code enforcement. We went through great pains to bring the right clothes for this trip. We read the literature, scoured these boards trying do the right thing, only to see booty shorts in the dining room on formal night, shorts in Portofino you name it, we saw it. We spoke to a dining room manager about it and she said that although she completely agreed with us, she was powerless to say anything. She said that everyone she speaks to just has an excuse of well, my clothes havent arrived, my bags arent here yet, I didnt know I needed to cover my butt cheeks in the formal dining room, etc. Again, classy. I know this is a huge point of discussion on these boards. Some think you should be able to wear what you want wherever. Some want to follow the rules to the letter. Do what you want, youll be able to get away with it. Thats all Ill say.
PORTOFINO: Arrived just before reservation time, no one at the check-in desk. People started to line up behind us, also with reservations. Still no one to check us in. We were treated to a rendition of some song involving silverware percussion just on the other side of the wall at the server station. Singing included! After hearing what turned out to be our servers musical talents, he came around the wall, saw us, obviously embarrassed, and went to find the person to seat us. She rushed over, found our reservation and sat us at a table, again about 6 inches away from our neighbors. Now, we are from the south, not the DEEP south, but the south nonetheless and have been raised to keep our voices at a reasonable level. Not everyone in the restaurant wants to hear your conversation. (Yes they teach this in other parts of the country, too.) However, the folks next to us felt it necessary to share their Hurricane Sandy survival story with their tablemates at volume 10. Enough said. The food selection was horrendous, even the waiter steered us away from at least three of their dishes. In his words, order that at your own risk. Once the people next to us left (and the volume diminished considerably) their dirty dishes sat on the table for the next hour. Every surface in sight was covered with dirty dishes from the beginning of the meal to the end. This is no exaggeration. Kids were also running through the restaurant to talk to parents seated in the back every 10 minutes. Nice. Relaxing. All was well until the RCI employees showed up next to us for their dinner and proceeded to bash other employees in their departments within ear shot of us. How professional!
CHOPS: Amazing, as usual. Steak was cooked to perfection, people in the restaurant were dressed properly, service impeccable. If you can afford it, eat here every night!
ENTERTAINMENT: I will confess that I only saw the Welcome Aboard show. If you have seen the Cirque du Soleil show KA in Las Vegas, you will find the opener to this show laughable. My profession deals with lots of music and stage shows so I am probably just picky but I couldnt believe that this was the best they could offer. The cruise director, Mike Hunnerup, came on and I was equally as unimpressed with him. I didnt see another single stage show on the ship. I heard the others were great but we just didnt make it.
FREEDOM ICE SHOW: Very good! Although the seating is a nightmare once the show started it wasnt half bad. There was one act, though, that had me scratching my head Imagine, if you will, if Christopher Walken and Wayne Newton somehow conceived a love-child. Now imagine that this child moved to Las Vegas about 40 years ago to become an Elvis impersonator who, at some point, learned to ice skate. That was this guy. His act was good juggling, catching rings on his head, etc. but I just couldnt figure out the look he was going for.
ALL ACCESS TOUR: If you can afford it, do it! Its available to book online and only open to 15 people per cruise. We spent about four hours going to the bridge, the crew areas, the engine control room (NOT the engine room, thats off limits), the galley, backstage in the theater and Studio B, the food storage areas, the crew cabins amazing. We got a ton of information from our tour guide that I never knew did you know that theres a death on board the ships in Alaska just about every week? Did you know that the Explorer of the Seas has dialysis on board? Who knew! She also said if you start seeing ice cream show up on the menu its because the morgue is full and they need freezer space. No lie!
OTHER PASSENGERS: Honestly, I was expecting an all-out kid-fest on this ship. While there were LOTS of kids, they were generally very well-behaved. There was one group, however, that seemed to take over the ship and every space with their Volume 10 voices. Quinceanera. This is the single biggest reason NOT to take a Caribbean cruise. Many of you will now start sending the hate mail to me. I just dont get it. Must we sing at every event? Must we scream at the person two feet across the table? Must we sit in the elevator floors and ride up and down for hours? Who teaches them about how to act in public? And the question I really wanted to have answered: Who is looking after these girls on this huge ship? The way they were dressed the last formal night of the cruise made me think I was in a red-light district. Do their parents know they dress this way? Each Caribbean cruise I have taken has had at least 100 of these kids on the ship, completely unchecked. I guess RCI really doesnt turn away any dollar. You can say well they are just teenage girls. I didnt see one other group of kids acting this way on the ship, not one. I even had kids saying excuse me, please, thank you, yes maam, no sir, etc. And now, while some of you are fuming at me, heres where Ill bring up:
SMOKING: One can smoke on the promenade deck (deck 4) on the starboard side. You can also smoke on the upper decks, starboard side. I am not a smoker and dont enjoy breathing it. I just learned to avoid these areas and the cigarette butts that were constantly blowing around the decks. Do I think its right to have to smell it? No. Maybe if people with body odor, bad breath and chronic flatulence huddled around the smokers and all aimed their way, theyd understand what the rest of us have to deal with. Probably not, but worth a try.
PORTS: Coco Cay was cancelled about an hour after they started sending people over because a weather front was coming in, so we got the folks back on board and got out of Dodge. St. Thomas was great! We took a cab to Sapphire Beach (much less crowded than the other beaches all the cruise passengers go to.) It cost 10 bucks a person to get out there, 7 bucks each for a lounge chair, and we ordered lunch right there on the beach. All for about half of what the cruise line was charging. We took a cab into Charlotte Amalie (again for $10 per person) and shopped until we couldnt take the sun anymore and got back to the ship. A note on excursions: AVOID the Tortola Dolphin excursions! We ran into a lady who had taken this with her kids. Although the literature says its a 6-hour tour, 5 of those hours were spent getting to Tortola, getting through immigration (and having to surrender passports!) and then returning through immigration. Her group of about 15 people almost missed the ship departure. She was in tears before they even got to the dolphins. I hope none of you have to go through that! In St. Maarten, we just took the little boat over to the main part of town and shopped some. It was very hot, wed been there before so we picked up a few gifts and got back on the boat. We were the only ship there so it wasnt too crowded but expect lots of shopkeepers out on the sidewalks trying to get you in their stores.
CELL PHONE USAGE: My AT&T worked in St. Thomas, because its in the USVI, but nowhere else. They have cellular at sea but Im sure its super expensive, and youre on vacation right? Turn your phone off! My advice, turn your phone to Airplane Mode as soon as you leave Port Canaveral. Many people were freaking at their phone bills!
RETURN TRANSFER PURCHASE: If you remember, we werent able to book our transfers via Royal Caribbean because of our return flight time. However, the person at the guest relations desk said it would be no problem for us to do it. I purchased the return transfers and quickly cancelled our one-way rental car reservation. Not sure why RCI couldnt do this in advance youd think theyd want your money.
LEAVING THE SHIP: If you are able, look into the LUGGAGE VALET program they offer to get off the boat. For just $20.00 per person, you can put your luggage out the night before and its checked all the way to your final destination. We put it out Saturday night and didnt see it again until we arrived home in Richmond on Sunday afternoon! It also allows you to just walk off the ship anytime after 7:00 a.m. You dont have to wait with cranky people in a lounge or claim any luggage downstairs. We woke up at 6:15 a.m. and were on the shuttle bus heading to Orlando Airport by 7:45. It couldnt have been easier!
I know this was long but I hope I was able to answer some of your questions. These boards are excellent for the "little things" that make a trip great.
Please let me know if you would like more information about the Kennedy Space Center, the free day in Disney or the cruise. Ill be happy to answer any questions for you!