Overall: This was a hit-and-miss vacation. Explorer has some fantastic offerings and some serious problems. Our group consisted of myself & my husband, our two boys ages 6 & 9, my parents, and my husband's parents. All of use have cruised - me, DH, & DS's to Alaska last year, my parents on Holland America to Alaska & the Caribbean, and my in-laws cruise frequently these days everywhere on RCCL, Princess, & Carnival. We chose this ship & itinerary because we thought it would maximize our goals: relaxation & time to socialize, opportunity to see Mayan ruins & encounter animals and because of our (me, DH, DS's) experience on the Serenade last year (which was terrific).
It is important to note that, due to a medical emergency on our first night, the itinerary changed. I don't know why we did not simply stay at sea an extra day; we were already missing the first port, but the remaining ports were shuffled to different days. The original order, from Tuesday through Friday, was to be: Belize, Costa Maya, Cozumel, & Georgetown. The new schedule was to be: Cozumel (stay until 2pm the next day), Georgetown, Costa Maya. Costa Maya was replaced later with Montego Bay.
The ship: It's a BEAUTIFUL ship and all the areas we used were in great shape. I didn't notice any of the rust or wear and tear that some have reported. I was very surprised at how much larger the ship is than the Radiance class. I think our sailing was pretty full, but the only time I felt crowded at all was during tenders. After what I'd read on Cruise Critic I expected long lines at Johnny Rockets, but we ate there 3 times (lunches on both sea days and one port day) and never had to wait. There were always plenty of tables in the Windjammer at breakfast and every other public area. We didn't spend much time at the pools, but from our view (the window in Dizzy's) there were plenty of chairs. Even the elevators were less of a problem than we expected.
The very, very BAD: I must say that this ship has some very serious problems. First, there is no consistency. When dealing with staff, which includes just about everything one would do on a cruise, we never knew if the service would be top notch or incompetent (there was little in between). We didn't know if we'd be greeted with a smile and helpful information or with rolling eyes and rudeness. Granted, they had a lot of unhappy (and, IMO unreasonable) guests to contend with due to the itinerary changes, but I experienced incompetence, rudeness, and mediocre service on Day 1.
The communication on this ship is terrible. Before our Alaska trip I was able to put together a schedule that ensured we were able to fit in just about everything we wanted to do. This time, however, what little information I could get from posts in the forum did not apply to our sailing. Because I could get almost no information about activities until the Daily Compass arrived late the night before, I missed the Ice Show (most shows were during the main seating for dinner and the 9:00 show I got tickets for ended up overlapping with the Adventure Ocean "Pirate Parade" my 6-year-old had been looking forward to for weeks), ice skating, the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle, the Crown & Anchor event, bingo (Ocean Adventure Talent Show overlapped with my last chance), and the first parade (Who's up for a parade at 11:15pm on the FIRST night?). Many of the Compass entries were missing important details and we never knew when and where we were supposed to be for activities and excursions even after asking. The captain was nowhere to be seen and only made announcements when he had to report itinerary changes. The changes were not posted on RCTV (which didn't work half the time) until mid-week and there were few places to get updates. Even the cruise director only made a few announcements (I'm comparing to our Alaska cruise on the Serenade last year). I eventually discovered that communication problems were not limited to onboard (see my paragraphs on Explorations!).
Embarkation: SMOOTH. We (me, DH, DS's, my parents) took a red-eye on Jet Blue (VERY comfy seats compared to others) and arrived in Ft. Lauderdale at 5am. After picking up a minivan rental we drove to the Port (of Miami) and several miles past it to find a place to have breakfast. At around 9:15 we parked at the Port & napped in the van while passengers disembarked.
At around 10:30 DH dropped us & our bags off & returned the van. Porters were just starting to collect arriving bags and we joined the 20-30 people that had also arrived early. They started checking us in around 11:00. by noon we had boarded, gotten our kids' muster bracelets, checked our table location (great table for 8 by a window in the dining room on deck 4), and were eating lunch in the Windjammer. DH's parents arrived by car at 12:30 and found us in our cabin at about 1:15.
Cabin: We were lucky to get an aft JS on deck 10 and it was larger than some hotel rooms. Storage was amazing compared to the E1 balcony we had on the Serenade. Although we didn't use the balcony as much as we'd have liked due to the humidity, it was very comfortable and actually quiet.
Cabin Service: Angus was obviously a veteran as was evident from his towel-folding skills. Despite his experience, though, he visited our room only twice a day to do an adequate straightening & set-up/stowing of the sofabed. Once he saw me in the hallway & opened the door because I could not find my card. Other than that, nothing special. To the contrary, he tried to convince us to use a life jacket that didn't fit our son so he wouldn't have to make a third trip to the storage room. He delivered most things (like laundry and excursion tickets) at the last minute (our kid's shirts arrived at 5:30 the first formal night for our 6:00 seating). He never answered our calls; we tried many times during the week. We had to leave a note to ask him for a laundry form/bag because he didn't replace it and wouldn't answer calls. Then, didn't come back to pick it up until his next usual visit. We asked for robes early on the first day and, although I know we weren't "entitled" to them, we expected to see them that evening like we did on the Serenade last year. Indeed, they were waiting for us when we returned from dinner... but on DAY 3. In a word: mediocre.
Food & Food Service: My husband hates buffets, but the Windjammer was an easy place to meet up with the rest of our party in the mornings and the kids really enjoyed it last year, so we had most breakfasts there. It was just okay. The menu changed VERY little. O'Brien potatoes, however, must have been too much work because they became hashbrowns of the frozen variety on Day 3 and stayed that way. One morning the sausage gravy tasted TERRIBLE. While the service was very pleasant there, the servers were a little oblivious. They would wander in one small area, neglecting whole sections and most of the time I had to go get coffee myself.
Johnny Rockets was never crowded when we went (3 times for lunch) and tasted like home. The servers were energetic & entertaining and we were surprised to find out that ONE C&A coupon covered everyone at our table.
Portofino's was good, but no better than the dining room on this cruise. The wait staff seemed to forget about us and only did the minimum. This was a stark contrast to our experiences at Chops & Portofino's on the Serenade.
The dining room was definitely the highlight of the cruise. We don't expect fantastic food in the dining room, and our Alaska cruise on the Serenade last year met with those expectations (the food ranged from about 4 to 9 on a 10-point scale), but this time we were very pleasantly surprised. Even though the menu was nearly identical to our menu last year, every dish was fantastic. We were told by a bartender that the chef had only been on the Explorer about 3 weeks.
Our waiter was Flory & her assistant was Raul. I've never had better service. We wanted to take Flory home with us. She was so great with our kids we wondered why she was not a nanny instead. When anyone said "no" to a recommendation (including our youngest's rejection of dessert on the first night) she'd bring it anyway and it was devoured. She even sent crab cakes to Portofino's so my mother wouldn't have to miss her favorite appetizer. Unfortunately, Portofino's lost track of them, but when Flory heard this the next night, she acquired more!
Guest Services: All 4 of my face-to-face interactions were pleasant, but the 2 calls I made were not as pleasant, nor was the SeaPass information easy to follow. One phone encounter was just cold, the other I'll describe in my paragraph "Explorations". I was impressed with the way the managing staff handled the angry mobs, though. I overheard more ridiculous complaints, comments, and questions come from guests during this trip than I thought was possible and I saw groups of 15-20 surrounding a purser in front of the desk while ranting on more than one occasion. Still, many of the staff kept smiling.
We quickly discovered that ALL prepurchased excursions that are cancelled (by the guest OR the cruiseline, so it included quite a few on this trip!) onboard are credited to the seapass account of the ticketholder, not the purchaser. So, my parents ended up with about $300 in credits and my in-laws about $150 that were charged my credit card. My kid's accounts had credits, even though they could not charge, and everything my husband charged to his SeaPass was credited back and re-charged to my SeaPass. This I found odd considering the credit card we used for the SeaPass was in his name... I would not have minded this shuffling of funds if it occurred in any systematic fashion, like all at once, but it was sporadic and selective. It also may explain why we did not receive our summary until 7am the morning we disembarked.
Our parents' experiences with Guest Relations were pretty bad. My in-laws wanted to give us an excursion for a Christmas Present, but the excursion desk couldn't figure out how to change them without canceling & reissuing them. After some dancing around with other ideas, they decided to just give us an onboard credit. Now, I'd put a credit on their account 2 weeks before we sailed without a problem. They got a card (but not until Day 2 or 3) with our sentiment. They were also able to put a gift certificate I'd sent my MIL for her birthday on their account a couple of months earlier, so this just didn't seem as though it would be a problem. However, Guest Relations went around in circles with them, saying it was not possible. After 2 visits & lots of discussion, they finally agreed to simply pay the amount they were asking of our balance directly using my in-laws' credit card and put the rest on ours. Well, we've been home a week and it doesn't look like that happened.
As for my parents' experience, that nightmare is in "Disembarking".
Activities & Entertainment: Hard to say because we missed so many. We managed to see the parade on the last night and all thought it was great. The casino was good, but would have been a LOT better if they allowed more than single odds at the craps table! Of course I probably wouldn't say that if we'd been losing... My husband and I don't usually go to the shows, but our parents almost always do. Few of them were appealing on this sailing and my in-laws were the only ones in our party to attend one. They thought it was just "okay".
Adventure Ocean: While they did not measure up to the amazing staff on the Serenade, I'd still rate them VERY highly. The facilities are large and the staff had a very large group of kids. They offered dinner with the staff at Johnny Rockets at least 3 nights. Our boys didn't want to spend every waking moment there, but they certainly enjoyed themselves!
There WAS a lot of idiotic preteen behavior - riding elevators all night pretending to be drunk and pushing all the buttons or leaning on the "close doors" button while people are trying to get off and on. But as much as I'd like to blame the ship's security, it's the parents of these delinquents that anger me.
Excursions: This was the WORST. There were 2 people working the Explorations! desk. One seemed to know what he was doing, but we always got the other. She was unpleasant and bordered on incompetent. My first experience with her was on Day 1. I had booked an excursion for all 8 of us online that I wanted to cancel, but my parents had not yet received their tickets. The woman refused to cancel them without the tickets - which I understand - but never addressed the issue that they had not been received. In addition, I'd booked an excursion in Miami to Parrot Jungle Island to give us something to do until our flight left at 6pm (and to get us to the airport). Instead of tickets I received a note that the tour had been cancelled. When I asked the woman at the desk, she said that the park "wasn't ready" for us. Well, this is simply not true; the park has been open for decades and has been at its current location for nearly 4 years. Why did she lie? If they could not agree on a contract, or if there were not enough people signed up, we would understand, but to imply that the park wasn't even open is not acceptable. Had I taken her word for it, we would have missed a great day (we went on our own).
Once the itinerary change was announced, it was nearly impossible to GET to the desk to cancel my parents' excursion. Luckily, Costa Maya was the port for that excursion & it was cancelled by the ship. Late in the week we discovered that excursions could be cancelled & purchased at Guest Relations, too.
The night before arriving in Cozumel I had to call Guest Relations to find out that we were to meet in the theater instead of at the pier and at 8:30 instead of 7:30 (we didn't dock until 8:00). We sat in the theater for over an hour while they loaded up a boat to go to one direction (I have no idea why it took so long), then spent another half hour or so standing elbow-to-elbow on the stairs and in the hall before getting on tender. The process of loading, traveling, and unloading the tender took another hour at least. By the time we hit shore, we were exhausted. Luckily, my boys were amazingly troopers. The pier is still a horrible mess, but the tour operators managed to get everyone organized. Even though we were 2 days early, 3 hours late, and in one big group instead of spread out over several hours, they managed to get us through our dolphin encounter in time to get a quick lunch before returning to the port at 2pm.
The next port was Georgetown. I'd very much wanted to do a semi-sub trip, but could not find a way to fit it in along with the 10am "Pirate Adventure" that my kids were excited about. The perfect excursion (Nautilus with a trip to the Turtle Farm) was only available in the morning. So I booked directly with Atlantis, but was cutting it close. During our first full day, after the itinerary changed, I emailed the Atlantis operator to let them know and to cancel because I'd managed to book the Nautilus through the ship for 2pm. Well, I booked that tour on Sunday and the information said the tickets would be delivered that night, but they weren't. By Tuesday evening my kids had decided they did not want to do the Nautilus, so I visited the desk to cancel their tickets only, but still did not have the tickets. She flat out refused to cancel the tour without the tickets. I asked how I could possibly provide tickets that were never delivered, but she said they would eventually be delivered. It wasn't until I asked if I would be held to the 24-hour cancellation policy that she barked, "Well, alright, I'll cancel them, but if these tickets get used I'm charging them again!" When my MIL and I visited the desk to add her and my FIL to our Pirate Adventure, there was a new woman working with the man. She had NO CLUE what to do about anything. She couldn't answer a single question or make a single transaction without asking him how to do it. In fact, she couldn't FIND the excursion I was talking about even though I was pointing to it. She took my handout out of my hands and wouldn't give it back. It took about 30 seconds for MIL to insist we talk to the gentleman. He got them booked, but could not (or would not) do the credit to our account. Well, the tickets finally arrived and I turned the two kids' in to Guest Relations with a note that they'd been credited already. At about 11:30pm the night before we arrived in Georgetown I was thumbing through the new excursions handout (Costa Maya said they'd made a mistake and couldn't take us, so we were now going to MoBay on Friday) and discovered that the Nautilus trip (that I was still taking with my Mother and I'd booked for 2pm so that it did not conflict with our Pirate Adventure) was moved to 8:30am! I was never notified, and the tickets had obviously been printed early in the week. I called Guest Relations. The voice that answered made no attempts to hide her irritation; she sighed often and did not listen. I tried to tell her that my excursions overlapped and instead she confirmed when and where the Nautilus was meeting. When I finally spoke loudly enough, she said I just had to bring the tickets down and get them refunded. I asked if I this was going to be a problem after the fact and was told that Guest Relations was open 24 hours. I said, "Look, I'm in bed and don't particularly want to go down to Guest Relations to fix the cruise line's mistake." She said she didn't want to tell me it would be okay tomorrow if it might turn out to be wrong. I finally asked her to allow me to talk to someone that could answer my questions. After putting me on hold for a couple of minutes she returned and told me in a very sweet voice that I would not have a problem if I brought them in the next day. THEN... We went down to tender at 8:30 because we were told the excursion was moved to 9:30. When we passed the RCI representative at the end of the pier one of our party was smart enough to peek at his clipboard. It turned out the Pirate Adventure was moved to NOON! Well, after some failed communications with excursions coordinators on shore, we found the Atlantis office. When I explained our situation, one of the women said, "Oh, I've been emailing you! Your email was how I found out about your itinerary change!" This was a little unsettling, but I did send the email less than 24 hours after the change was made. Well, after hearing about my frustrations & how much I'd wanted to do the sub tour, Rosey managed to move some things around to make room for all 8 of us on the Seaworld Semi-sub getting back at noon, talk to the Pirate people to make sure they wouldn't leave without us (they were right next door), and still leave us time to shop for fresh rum cake. It turned out to be a great day, no thanks to "Explorations!" on the Explorer.
HERE'S THE REAL KICKER, though: When we got off the sub & went over to the Pirates, our tour group had not yet arrived and we chatted with a few of the tour staff that were taking break. They told me that they were not informed of our itinerary change until that morning (this was Thursday; the change was made Monday morning) and they could have told us two days earlier that we'd be moved to noon.
Since we did not want to mess with the excursions desk for MoBay, we "went with the flow" and were sort of hijacked by a wonderful tour guide that took us through downtown and to strip mall pretty far from the "approved shopping". We were ripped off by the gift shops (they switched the coffee on us among other things; when we unwrapped it onboard our Blue Mountain had changed to "Mountain High"), but we didn't really care. We got to eat lunch at a place called "The Port Pit", get bullied by the far-too-aggressive vendors at a crafts market (with fair warning from the tour guide), and visit a beach frequented by both tourists and locals. No time for rum drinking until we were back onboard, though! The port shops in MoBay were actually quite reasonable and I was able to quickly pop down for more coffee before we pulled anchor (we'd docked there, thank goodness). So, overall I'd give the excursions desk a big, fat, ZERO.
Disembarking: Even though our flight did not leave Miami until 6pm, we were in the first group. This may have been because we'd originally booked an excursion, or it may have been because we signed up for the "luggage valet" service (our return flight was on American). We thought this would work out well because we could basically leave whenever we were ready. Our boarding passes actually arrived in our stateroom Saturday afternoon, but my parents did not receive theirs or their luggage tags. They went to Guest Relations right after dinner and were told the boarding passes were currently being delivered. They also printed a new set of luggage tags that came in handy. When my mother returned to her room the original luggage tags were there, along with their SeaPass summary, but no boarding passes. My mother made another trip to the desk and a phone call before going to sleep and was assured the passes would arrive by morning. Sure enough, she called our room at 6:30am - no boarding passes! Another trip to the desk was fruitless because only one person could print the passes & she was out. Luckily, they were delivered while she was at GR and they were able to eat breakfast without worrying about whether or not they'd get home that night... We left our stateroom by 7:30, met everyone for breakfast at the Windjammer, and headed out.
Customs/immigration was a VERY long, slow line, but we didn't mind because Parrot Jungle Island did not open until 10am. Once we'd located all of the bags and dropped them off at the airline valet, we said good-bye to my in-laws and grabbed a cab to the park. We had a great day there and a long flight home. Then our bags did not come off of the plane. The airline obviously thought it would be better to just send them on any flight to LAX. It took about an hour, but we managed to locate all of them (there were 8 between the 6 of us) and get home just in time to get to sleep before Santa was due to arrive.
Overall, we had a terrific time, but I credit this mostly to the company of our family, our waiter, the Adventure Ocean staff, the local tour operators, and a couple of bartenders. The rest of the ship just seemed to be going through the motions, not caring about the passengers' experience. I don't blame RCI for the missed ports, but the staff on Explorer could have handled a lot of the issues better. I know they have to juggle a lot; I expected them to be use to it and even proficient at it. Instead it was one preventable frustration after another, and it started long before the itinerary change for me.
Will I cruise RCI again? Certainly. But I don't think I'll book on the Explorer for a very long time.