This was our family's (mom, dad, 2-yr old, 13-yr old) first cruise. We went with another family (coworkers and friends) who had a 2-yr old and a 7-yr old. Since this was our first cruise, we just wanted to have a good time, so we decided to sail during the week of Thanksgiving (school breaks for our kids)on Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas. Our families live in Dallas, so on the morning of the cruise (Sunday), we drove down to Galveston separately.
Embarkation - Not the best, took at least 1.5 hours. What might have added to the problem was our three yr old: fussy and cranky from the long drive. Being newbies at cruising, we arrived at 12 (next time we'll try to be there at 11) and didn't pre-label our luggage. Embarkation wasn't too much of a hindrance though.
Cabin - If don't ant to pay more that the price allocated to an inside cabin but are still looking for something unique, try a cabin with a promenade view. Our family had to adjoining promenade view cabins (connected by a door), which was super convenient. We could see to the registration desk (see whether it was busy or not) and when late night parades went down the promenade, we would be able to watch from our window. If you want privacy just draw the curtains. Definitely recommend a promenade room. Our cabin steward was also amazing. He came in at least twice a day to fix things up and make our beds and take cups or plates from Cafe Promenade. After dinner and a show, we would come back to the schedule for the next day as well as cute folded towel animals. The kids loved this.
Rates - I know that there are other cruise lines that are more expensive than RCI like Princess or Disney, but we just didn't feel comfortable paying over $5000 for 7 nights. Granted, the dates did fit our schedule and everything was amazing. We are going on a cruise next November with Carnival, and are trying to keep it under $2000 for 5 people (not during Thanksgiving week. we're planning the 9th, which means our daughter will have to miss some school, but the price is cut in half).
Dining - I literally gained 10 lbs on this cruise. The main dining room was amazing, most of the adults in our party didn't even have enough room for dessert, although the kids always tried some. The Windjammer is good too, but not the amazingness of the MDR. We ate at the Windjammer every day for lunch and breakfast and tried it once for dinner. There are plenty of options and it's not too crowded. The drinks are ok, but if you want something other than water, juice,or punch, you'll need to pay extra. I really appreciated the crew's attempt at classiness and sanitation: you couldn't get into the Windjammer with only a bathing suit (much less the MDR, but you could get a hotdog or ice cream, which was located right next to the pool) and everywhere you ate, the employees reminded you to sanitize your hands with hand sanitizer dispensers. But no matter where we ate, the service was excellent; esp. at nights in the MDR, the food didn't take too long to be delivered, you could order as much as you'd like, and everything was delicious. We ended up tipping our head server and assistant server extra; they always made conversation and were very friendly. One more thing, on the first day, we and the other family had completely different times and sitting arrangements, and a couple hours after the safety drill, we went to the dining room together and they made arrangements for us to sit together in the late dining time (8:00) together without any problems. I will say that the 3 yr olds and even the 7 yr old fell asleep a couple of times so we might try an earlier seating next time.Cafe Promenade is pretty crowded esp. after ports and you can tell workers are tired, but they are still very kind and the food is still delicious. Best part: you can go back and get as much as you want!! Didn't really try the other dining options, but what we had was plenty and high quality. Didn't use children's centers; they didn't have free babysitting for kids under three, so we decided just to stick together. However, they had this great room behind the arcade filled with fisher price toys that my son loved!!
Entertainment/Public Areas - The shows in the Savoy were pretty good and entertaining. The ice skating show was amazing- definitely try to catch it. As for ice skating ourselves, I did bring our 13 yr old to one session and it seemed like she had fun, nothing too great though.We didn't use the casino much. We did buy a $20 game card to the arcade, but didn't end up using all of it. The day before arriving in Galveston, we were able to go to registration and have the amt. we didn't use refunded back to us. There were many quiet areas on the ship even though there were so many kids, so don't worry about that. Some of the daily activities included: watching movies in the screening room (watched The Hunger Games, go early to get a good seat), scrap booking classes (free, you even get a free little kit with some paper and embellishments every time you attend), jewelry-making ($), towel folding demonstrations, ice sculpture demonstrations, and many seminars. We actually went to a shopping seminar that taught you what to look for in the ports and won a bottle of champagne in the giveaway!! The pools are pretty crowded, so we stayed away from that for the most part, but there are many chairs in various spots (I fell asleep in the sun once) that you can just relax on. Many parades at night and there were "movies under the stars," but we never attended because we were all too tired!!
Excursions - Roatan, we wanted to buy from the locals, and as soon as we were off the ship, we were in a panic that "there would be no more excursions." DO NOT DO THIS. DO NOT SEEM DESPERATE OR ELSE THE LOCALS WILL TAKE YOUR MONEY!! We ended up paying $40 pp for this "beach break" that wasn't too fun at all. Well, it ended up raining that day so everyone who got in the water (musty at first should I say) were shivering in our wet towels. (Just a side note for any other first timers: you don't need to bring a towel. The cruise has towel areas in various locations and you're cabin is just like a hotel room- towels are replenished. So don't bring a towel- it just takes up unnecessary space and ends up smelling bad.)Afterwards though, the water became clear and it was nice to kayak a little (we rented one kayak ($25) for our two families to share). We also rented snorkeling equipment for our daughter ($15), but there really wasn't anything to see. When someone came to pick us up to get back to the ship, it was pretty late, and they told us that originally, they were going to pick up a group from zip-lining and us in one trip, but the group from zip-lining insisted on getting back to the ship because they were shivering and wet... Moral of the story: DON'T WORRY THAT THERE WILL NOT BE ENOUGH EXCURSIONS FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. Take some time researching before the trip, then ask around among the locals and make sure to haggle :)
Belize - ^^ applied the above principal, out family of four had an awesome time cave-tubing and spent only $130!! (according to the cruise excursion, a three yr old can't go cave tubing, but daughter really wanted to go, so we asked and the person said that the baby could sit on dad's lap).
Cozumel - we tried booking with the ship on the glass bottom boat excursion ($150 for three adults, free for under 3)... WORST THING EVER! Mom got seasick and only lasted about an hour. Afterwards, we went to Chankanaab National Park (taxi - around $20 for two families) and tickets to get in (we paid at the door, baby free, $21 per adult, later we found out that there's a $2 off coupon to this park floating around on the internet). Anyways, don't book with the ship unless you want to do dolphin-encounter (those sold out quickly) because the way we did it was purely by accident and we ended up having the same experience for so much less. I have a complete review of Chankanaab on TripAdvisor, go check it out!! If you go to Cozumel, I would definitely recommend this. The only thing was that we didn't have enough time due to that silly and expensive glass bottom boat excursion.
Overall, amazing experience. We are definitely hooked. We are going on another western Caribbean cruise in November with Carnival and are going back to Chankanaab. I mentioned standouts here, but there are the details that made our trip so special that you have to see for yourself.