This was our first cruise as a family. I have cruised before but my husband and kids (5y girl, 7y girl, and 9y boy) had not. Our 7y daughter has autism (moderately verbal, echolalia with severe sensory issues).
We drove from Ohio to NOLA, stayed overnight near port and boarded the ship early on Sunday for a 7 night Western Caribbean Cruise to Montego Bay, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, Mexico.
The Port of New Orleans is a disorganized mess. There is a lot going on and, if you drive, you have to get in several different car lines- one to drop bags, one to park. The signage is confusing and there are a lot of people walking in places that only cars should be. They have the sky walk from the lot to the pier shut down so you have to walk in the busy intersections, over a rail road and road ways. If you have anyone with sound sensitivity- take ear muffs, you'll need them!
Prior to the cruise our TA setup an escort through the security line that was a godsend. NCL sent a representative that helped us by pass a line the would have taken hours and would have prevented our ASD 7y to board- she would have been in full meltdown if we waited in the line. Instead we boarded in less than 10min. The escort then took us to check in and allowed us to bypass this line as well. We were staying in a Family Suite AB so we were afforded suite perks and the escort took us to the VIP lounge prior to boarding to meet our concierge and butler. Then we were taken to Cagney's for lunch and then to our suite.
We booked the AB Suite for the perks because we were not sure how well our ASD 7y would do on her first cruise. We wanted a larger room, the shower and tub would help during meltdowns and food from almost anywhere on the ship could be delivered (so we wouldn't miss out if she didn't fare well and we were stuck in the suite). Best decision we could make. Our other children loved the kids club and pool. Our ASD did not tolerate the restaurants well and had no desire to go to the kids club (I think there was too much noise for her)- so we spent a lot of time in cabin, on the balcony and had several meals delivered.
She did not use the tub for meltdowns as much as it was for entertainment. The suite also allows priority tenders- escorted past the line in GC without an issue. It also comes with snacks delivered in the afternoon and prior to bed (cookies each night- kids loved it). The snacks range from sandwiches to chocolate covered strawberries. I also had pitchers of iced tea delivered which was nice while sitting on the balcony watching the ocean. There was also a complimentary bottle of Prosecco for the suite which was nice in the evening- mixed with a little juice it kept our bar tab down. The suite itself has a large bedroom/ bath with a tub, dining and sitting area, kids bedroom/bath and a large balcony. It was a good amount of space for us and the kids fit nice in the bedroom with a pull down. We also liked the coffee machine and we had the fridge emptied for sodas/juice we brought on board (also our ASD has the fun skill of being able to open pop tabs- that is an expensive skill when a minibar is involved).
The restaurants we did venture our to were great. Cagney's for breakfast everyday was a treat- the staff were great and they were really nice to the two other kids. They have good choices for breakfast and a nice little buffet of fruits, cereals and sliced meats/cheeses to pick from. The choices for lunch were good but they had few kids choices so we ate several lunches at the outdoor buffet or Garden Café. We also ate at Chin Chin, Mama's and Le Bistro. Each specialty restaurant was worth the cover for choice and serving size. Service was always prompt and they accommodated us with a sleeping child at times without a problem. Also had several meals delivered by butler from MDR- always prompt and hot.The ASD 7y didn't eat much due to her sensitivity and pickiness- pizza, cereal, grilled cheese, and cookies.
We spent a lot of time by the pool. Pool chairs are at a premium and NCL does nothing about people saving chairs- it makes it hard to watch 3 smaller kids in the pool without having to stand the entire time. The pool is salt water but the kids enjoyed it. The water slide is only open from 10a-6p, which makes it hard to explain to the special needs kid who wants to ride it at 8a and 8p.The pool deck always has a band or some sort of entertainment. The kids participated in the Nickelodeon events and the hubs did a relay to win beer. Waiters are plentiful and there is a small buffet mid-day and the Garden Café is close.
We saw several shows and listened to several cover bands in different bars. All were good. The Band on The Run was fun. Twosome Awesome did a great Beatles rendition. We also did the Dora Dance Pty and went to the White Hot Party. All were fun and had great music. As with any cruise alcohol is expensive so plan accordingly. There was also the usual cruise classes and exercise sessions- we did not participate in any.
Montego Bay Jamaica is a beautiful yet very poor port. We took a cab $5/person to Doctor's Cave Beach. The cab let us out 5 blocks away from our destination and we had to walk. The "Hip Strip" is very seedy and the people of MoBay are pushy and don't lose any opportunity to sell anything. There are people pushing "ganja" right at you. I did not feel "unsafe" but it is a place to know where you are going and be confident- watch your belongings and give firm "no's". However, once you get to the beach you are in a crystal blue paradise. Chairs and umbrellas cost but t is worth it. There is a café, waiters delivering drinks on the beach and calm blue water. People are also selling things on the beach. The 5y got her hair braided and loved it. The ride back to the pier was less intimidating- we ate lunch on the ship and waited for sail away.
We tendered in Grand Cayman. For ASD you need ear muffs again- the boats are loud and completely filled with people(so a lot of voices). We then took an excursion to Sea World Observatory boat. It was really neat and perfect for ASD- not completely enclosed and there is an upper deck if you encounter problems. The guide was nice and pointed our fish to my other two kids- they were fascinated. After that we walked around and shopped. We ventured to Burger King to get nuggets for the ASD (because she had only eaten cereal and pizza in days)- it was really expensive and they did not have nuggets. Stopped at duty free to pickup Doritos (for the ASD) and tendered back to the ship. My son was impressed with the cold towels (there was no greeting in Jamaica).
Cozumel was a later day than the other two. We left the ship and walked through a market and around the streets close to port for a while. The ear muffs came in handy again- a lot of cars and people. The people of Cozumel also try to sell everything but they are less pushy than in Jamaica. We got several souvenirs and stuff for the kids. Then we took an $18 cab to Mr Sanchos (free beach and a VIP section). The water is gorgeous and there are free beach chairs. There is food and alcohol available and water toys to rent. My hubs and son rented a jet ski. We got tacos and nachos delivered along with some drinks. There is also a VIP section that charges $50/person for unlimited alcohol and use of a pool and water toys- we chose the free (pay as you go) because we had kids with us and could not possibly drink that much alcohol. In all we spent $45 and had a really good day. Then we took another cab ride (this time $25) back to port. Upon boarding the ship this time there was a huge greeting line with music and cold towels- the kids loved it (even the ASD).
One service we did use a lot of was the kids club. My ASD 7y only went one night- sounds did echo and she did not seem interested in the activities. However, the other two LOVED the kids club. They asked to go as soon as they were done in the pool everyday. The activities for the day are adjusted for age. The did crafts and a princess parade for the little ones. They also did a pirate scavenger hunt for all ages that they both liked. Before this cruise I did not understand why anyone would send their kids to a kids club on vacation- I thought "I like taking vacations with my kids why would I send them away". I was so wrong. The kids loved it and it let them make friends. It also gave us a little down time (even though we had the ASD 7y with us she was usually asleep and we could put ear muffs on and take her along to dinner and shows). I would not hesitate now to let them go as long as they want to. The night that the ASD 7y did go, she had a great time and we were able to eat a whole meal and go see a cover band in a bar before they called us to pick her up- that was nice and the staff handled her well. Another thing we noticed is that there is a person at the door but a "wanderer" could easily get by them- so we warned them that our ASD 7y was a wanderer and may try to get out.
Disembarkation was easy. We were in priority due to the suite. We met the concierge and were walked off quickly. Finding a porter in baggage claim was difficult and the porters have to walk all the way across a busy street in traffic, over rail road tracks to your car. It was awkward and I felt compelled to tip more than I would have if they just had to go to the curb.
We will definitely be cruising as a family again and will chose NCL because this experience was nice and the suite perks are helpful with ASD. It is more laid back than other lines and it fit well for our family.