NCL vs. DCL vs. RCCL
There's a big difference between the D and the N! For comparisons sake we'll toss in the comparison the RCCL too! We are die hard DCL fans having sailed DCL five times including a 14-night transatlantic all on the classic ships. We've done RCCL twice and decided to give the NCL Jewel a try. We have two girls (ages11 and 8) and we are your typical 40-something, mid-western family.
Why NCL? The timing was perfect for our kid's school break and it left from NOLA-- a city we love and where we thought the kids might have fun doing a swamp tour, eating beignets, etc It was a Nickelodeon cruise, so we thought that might signal family friendly. Indeed there were over 800 kids on board--just shy of 30% of the cruising guest population... Add their parents and a big demographic on this cruise was families with kids.
Our initial impression of NCL Jewel was that it is a ship that was built for a time when NCL's focus was primarily adults and a shift in focus on families has been retrofitted into an older model. The intent is there, but it's like going into a building that's been repurposed-- some things work better than others.
Also, our second impression of NCL facilities is that it has the feel of a "starter home" from a cheap contractor. It looks pretty when you move in, but you start to notice cheap fixtures, nail pops that go unfixed, thin walls, poor insulation, etc. That's how the NCL Jewel feels--- it's bright and cheery, but for a ship only built in 2005, the maintenance is slow. We noticed rusty rails, chipped tables, fading teak, soiled carpet, lots of indents from chairs on the deck flooring, broken theater seats, etc Each in of itself is a minor issue not worth thinking about, but they add up to a "cheaper feeling" environment.
While we love the "introduction" on DCL, the NCL process moved quickly and was unique. We arrived at the port around 11:30 and there was a short, quick moving line. Porters took our bags (with the stapled bag tags, which I thought was odd, but we received all of our bags--- so it must not be an issue). The port staff were pleasant. It lacked the unique flavor if DCL (Mickey hands, etc)... But fine. We boarded immediately and landed on an outside deck where they ran our cards. There as a big colorful balloon arch ( just like your early 90's prom) and a few dancers. A large speaker was blaring festive music--- so it was a fun entrance. We ended up entering the actual ship near guest services and were kind of lost. There wasn't anyone really directing guests and lots of people were sort of sitting and milling around. Eventually we ask a staff member about lunch options and she directed us to elevators. Having never been on the ship, it was hard to navigate and not much guidance.
Our initial impression of NCL was that it was bright and colorful, mixed with typical cruise ship glitz of mirrors, faux flowers and shiny, neon lit surfaces. Some of the lounges had cool furniture which was kind of fun (Fyzz Lounge, Spinnaker’s).
For comparison, we find DCL to be a bit "classier" in style. RCCL has much of the same feel as NCL, but not as bright. I also don't recall much of any pomp upon embarkation at all with RCCL. I also recall RCCL and DCL requiring a bit longer of a wait to board, but that just may be port differences. Both DCL and RCCL had staff ready to move people along....we felt less lost even on new to us ships.
First impression of Meals:
On NCL, we found our way to the "garden buffet" which was in the back of the ship. It's equivalent to any of the other buffets. It's set up like RCCL in "stations" which are easy to navigate as opposed to DCL's cafeteria style on a Magic and Wonder… Lots of variety including Indian and Asian options. The table areas are much larger than both RCCL and DCL, so big that we missed the fact that we could have found a table outside. The food itself was pretty mediocre. We could certainly find things to choose from, but nothing stellar. We are not food snobs, although we like variety--- so if we thought it was mediocre, the true "foodies" of the world would be dismayed. We definitely thought DCL and RCCL had better food quality. There was a BBQ at the pool later on...again, food was just ok—hot dogs, burgers, etc.
Like RCCL, NCL doesn't offer soda as an option without buying a soda package. There were flavored waters, lemonade, and tea available. One flavored water was sugar free and there was unsweetened ice tea. We did buy one soda package for my husband eventually. It was about 50 bucks, but he is diabetic...so worth it to give him more drink options.
We had our first dinner at Azura. It's freestyle dining, so we just showed up like a regular restaurant and we were seated pretty quickly. It was nice that we could just go in whatever we were wearing rather than running back to change for the dining room. On DCL and RCCL, we like eating in the main dining room (or assigned restaurant on DCL), but dressing up for dinner isn't always practical. To be fair, I doubt either would have denied us service in casual capris and t-shirts, but still....we try to follow the expected norms.
So were seated in a fun velvet booth that the kids thought was awesome. The service was friendly, but no effort to personalize the experience or get to know what we liked since we would likely not have them as servers again. It was formal service and the typical course line-up. The food varied from good to just ok to downright bad. For example, I had the ribeye that tasted like it was frozen and right off the Cisco truck...but it was accompanied by spinach that was cooked perfectly and clearly started as fresh that day. My husband ordered the mahi mahi that was well seasoned. The desserts were quite good, which is usually where I find things more pretty than tasty. However, my daughter really enjoyed the lemon sorbet and I thought the chocolate raspberry truffle cake was excellent. I'm not a huge sweet eater, but chocolate truffle is one of my favorites. However, I ended up with this almost every-night as the dessert menus didn't change. It was tiring by the end...
On other nights we tried the other main dining room with similar quality results. The steak was tough, the salads flooded with salty dressing, the soups sort of tasteless.....we did find a little restaurant called Blue Lagoon that had cheese sticks and wings....good for snacks. Again, these were likely just frozen, deep fried fare.... But ok for snacks. The wings were good!
We did discover the downfall of "freestyle" though as we didn't time things right and realized we were going to be incredibly rushed to make the main show. Both DCL and RCCL, by the nature of the scheduled dining times, assure that everyone makes it to the main events. Also, while the staff was pleasant we never found them willing to go the extra mile....so drinks were refilled slowly, coffee arrived after we finished dessert, it was difficult to find a steak knife, etc. There was no need to really please the customer since service isn't tied to tips in any way. For example, DH asked if there was any other sugar free option besides SF tiramisu one night (not a coffee fan, but also diabetic). Waitress simple said she didn't think so, but would ask. She never came back with an answer, even when the rest of us were served dessert. On DCL, I'm betting they would have found an alternative SF option from another venue and RCCL always has a SF ice cream option listed. We found out later that there was indeed SF ice cream available, but she just didn't bother to find out.
This level of food and service was a running theme to the point that the food quality was laughable by the end. I've had better food in school cafeterias. Steak so full of gristle I had to saw through it...one night they served a black bean soup that was clearly reconstituted from a dried mix--- but not even thoroughly cooked so the beans were CRUNCHY! Really? Couldn't even break out canned black beans? We push it aside and they eventually took it away, but never asked why we didn't eat it or if they could replace it with something else. We adopted a strategy of ordering multiple items in hopes of finding something edible among them....
On both DCL and RCCL the food was much better. Hit or miss items on both for sure, but the "misses" were only occasional and quickly replaced with alternatives.
We didn't try the specialty restaurants because I couldn't imagine how the food could suddenly be worth 30.00 per person if the base line was so, so bad. We were so glad we didn't encourage friends to join us because we would have been embarrassed to have brought them there with such bad food!
On a good note....the lobster was small, but tasty though.
The entrainment in the NCL Stardust Theater seems to fall somewhere between DCL and RCCL. The cruise director, Jamie, appears to be sharp and witty without being crass. It's a different approach than DCL as the CD doesn't wear an officer's uniform? On DCL, we've always found the CD's to be class-acts. However, we've always been very put off by the RCCL CD's who seem to major in jokes appropriate for adolescent boys and find mocking children and senior citizens appropriate humor. On this NCL trip, Jamie opened the first show by recognizing the couple married the longest, greeting the children, etc. There seemed to be something for everyone!
DCL is, of course, very family friendly. Unless specifically noted, one can safely assume all events are rated G or a light PG. There are some versions of acts that have an adult version later in the evening in an adult-only venue...but that's fine. We've gone to these without our kids...and they are still pretty tame.
The main shows in DCL are true stage productions and are top notch. However, they almost all are Disney themed, so one has to embrace that going into their vacation--it's a Disney cruise!
We found much of the RCCL entertainment to be less then family friendly and this was similar for elements of NCL. The comedian, Noodles, at the first showing in the main theater was completely inappropriate for the 800+ kids on the ship. Many of his jokes were in poor taste because they were racist/ethnically derogatory (I didn't know people still told "pollock" jokes), but whatever. It was the jokes about four-hour erections and climaxing that really were the ones he might have better saved for a later show. I noticed several families get up and leave. I just hoped it would go over my kid's heads. It would have been just as easy to leave these jokes out and still do an entertaining set. I wondered how he could look out at his audience with kids sitting right near the front and be comfortable delivering such content. He's a regular, so NCL must approve of it and it's similar on RCCL.
There was a show band night of 70's music that I found boring, but DH thought it was ok. The magician was funny and my girls liked him. The Cirque Bijoux was a big hit with my kids, but it was standing room crowds so I could only see pieces of it and the story line was hard to follow. The folks on the silks were pretty cool though.
We skipped the final "concert " which I gather many do since there was only one show.
In other entertainment, there were lots of trivia quizzes and mock game shows (which we liked as adults) and I know there was a casino, bingo, etc as they announced events from time to time. However, they weren't hyped like on RCCL.
Both NCL and DCL seem to make an effort to try to make an "event" of various activities. Theme music, costumes....big intros with enthusiastic staff. In my opinion, I think Disney's execution is a bit more polished-- better costumes, more thematic sets, themed music, etc--- but I appreciate NCL's effort. Karaoke was a hit as usual and NCL made an effort to include kids (as does DCL). On RCCL, we often felt like staff was just going through the motions and couldn't wait to finish to move on to whatever their next responsibility was. Events weren't always well attended either and folks would show up and leave frequently.
Outside the theater, the RCCL big events were the Quest (an adults only scavenger hunt) and a late night 70's party. Not bad things to have to appeal to the masses, but these were the BIG events that were hyped all week and neither had any appeal for kids. The message that kids were to the afterthought was a theme. NCL also had a Quest, but it wasn’t quite as hyped. NCL’s big event was the “White Hot Party”---and they hosted two versions, one for 18+ and one for kids/families. We attended the family one and it was pretty well-attended for the first ½ hour or so…then the teens sort of wandered off. They dressed them all in togas and decorated for the party---there was effort made to make it as unique as the adult version.
There is no casino on DCL, so that wasn't even part of the cruise. We aren't gamblers typically and they always seem smoky, so we didn't spend much time in the casinos on NCL or RCCL. Just from a walk thru, RCCL's seemed bigger and more active though.
This is the Big One for us! We travel as a family, pay for a family and want a family friendly environment. As noted above, DCL really shines in this area. There are plenty of events for families to do together from games shoes, dance parties, games, crafts, etc. We often travel with grandparents in tow too making it multigenerational and they really do have events for all ages.
RCCL is not this! On both cruises, we have felt that RCCL mocks children and only accommodates their needs out of pure necessity, not as an embraced business philosophy. There were very few "family" events on the RCCL cruises---some events for kids (mostly within the kids club programming) and lots for adults--- but not many organized events for both. Even the acts at the earlier time slot often contained language and sexual content not appropriate for kids. The attitude we felt was that the assumed goal is to escape your kids by sticking them in kids club so you can get to the real fun.
NCL fell in between again. There were plenty of events for families to do together. Slime Time live was fun to watch. There were circus clinics that included teaching both kids and adults to spin plates, juggle, etc. This was more fun than I thought it would be. They had karaoke that included kids for the first hour and then switched to an adults only venue. They made a point of fitting in as many kids as possible. Again, it was sort of a retrofit where they were trying to fit kids activities into adult spaces (as opposed to DCL which has designated family spaces where events wouldn't need to be cut-off for one group or another), but the effort to include kids is appreciated. There was a Wii bowling challenge--- and I usually think of things like video games as sort off a half-effort at programming, but we saw it in action and it was well attended by mostly middle school boys.
Our girls have always enjoyed the kids clubs on DCL. We feel they are given lots of personal attention and there are lots of age -appropriate activities. We also like the fact that there is a "tween" club that goes to age 13 in a separate facility. We do find that the activities are a bit redundant in the kids clubs, if one cruises more than once every few years. We did find that it's important to go to the opening events on the first night, especially if you are traveling in a small party (so you haven't brought along cousins, for example, as built in companions) and especially the Tweens seem to "group up" during the first few events making it harder to make cruise friends if you come in later. We also liked that parents can give ages 8 and up permission to self-check in/out (or maybe it was that our 11 year old could check the 8 year old in & out). Either way, this made it convenient to just send them off to the clubs after dinner, etc. Dd 11 would take the wave phone, so we knew we could contact her and she could let us know if she checked out.
They seemed to really enjoy the NCL clubs as well, especially our 8 year old. Our 11 year old regularly checked herself in and out and asked to go and participated in activities. They separate the groups as 3-5, 6-9, 10-12. The oldest group-tweens met in the teen facility when the teens were elsewhere. My dd11 preferred this. Dd11 could check in and out on her own with our permission, but dd8 could not. It wasn't a big deal, but with no paging system or wave phones, we were forever checking in to see if she wanted to leave. Dd11 made a group of friends and with no wave phone, it was a bit of an issue in keeping up with her whereabouts. Not because she was irresponsible, but because there was no means of easy contact. She would checkout to go have lunch or a snack and would have to run back to the stateroom to leave a note, but we wouldn't always go back to get it..or if we did, it was inconvenient. We liked the fact that if they check themselves in, they have to stay for two hours. She found this frustrating and I'm not really sure what the reasoning was behind this rule, but I liked knowing where she was for a given amount if time since there was no other means of communication.
Also, NCL didn't use wrist-bands outside of the kids club. They put them on when they entered and left them when they checked out. This was more comfortable than the clunky bands on DCL.
The clubs themselves appeared to have enthusiastic counselors and a variety of activities. The closing over the meal hour wasn't so much of an issue as I thought it would be because my kids usually swim then anyway. I did hear other parents grumbling a bit though. The fact that they charge after 10:30 was annoying since it meant adults couldn't really participate in late night activities. There was a fee on port days until 5pm too. This was a bit annoying since we came back early on a rainy day and they were looking for something to keep them busy. However, my younger daughter read a book and my older daughter found some other girls in her “group” to go to the Blue Lagoon with—so she was set.
The culminating kid’s "show" on NCL was a circus for which they had learned tricks all week. There seemed to be a lot of participation and the circus was in the theater. This was similar to DCL's "Friendship Rocks". Each has its own flavor and DCL gives them all t-shirts and features a video....but NCL featured smaller groups of kids actively engaged in showing of a new "skill" ( ex--dd8 did plate spinning). If I recall, RCCL did a small talent show, but it was in an out of the way lounge and featured a small audience and not a lot of careful prep.
So overall, DCL's kids clubs had more "polish" and seemed to go farther with professional facilities for each age group...and, of course, the Disney characters are a central feature. NCL had the Nick characters, but they were more of an add-on and maybe it felt this way because we aren't that into Nick. My girls watched Dora when they were in preschool, but not recently. They aren't into Sponge Bob so that was lost on us. Others may be more into it. We did go to a few Nick family events including Slime Time Live and a few dance parties and they were fun, the "Nick team" was definitely energetic....but I spent most of my time cringing that my kids would end up covered in slime or with a head if hair full of whipped cream. This was definitely MY issue though—others probably didn’t care. On a ship without self-laundry, this was a concern. My dd was ask to mash a whipped cream pie in her face right after having her hair "braided" in Jamaica. Luckily she mashed it herself and kept it to her face....I'm not sure how I would have gotten smeared whipped cream out of a head full braids. Again, for other parents this may have been less of an issue---so I’m not faulting NCL for my hang-up.
I would rank the kids clubs with DCL ahead, but NCL had a fine program and we were happy with it. We would return for the kids program. RCCL, for a comparison, was by far (based on our experience) lagging behind. On the two RCCL cruises we've taken, my kids were downright bored. The facilities were plain, counselors pleasant enough most of the time, but not overly engaging with the kids....and the activities weren't timed out to know when to go....and many repeated and were simple things that didn't involve a great deal of creativity...that said, there were a few highlights here and there that they liked--- but the didn't ask to go and wanted to be picked up quickly. At one point, I found my younger daughter (then 6) wandering in a hallway having been separated from the group as they moved around the ship. I alerted the staff to the fact that I had found her and was going to just go ahead and take her with me for the evening and they didn’t really seem at all concerned.
This was the odd thing. We booked an ocean view room for four and were assigned a room for three. When we inquired, it seems that all of the standard staterooms are only equipped for three. There indeed were two twin beds (which could be pushed into a double) and one bunk directly over one of the twins. Hmm...we figured perhaps the other bunked pulled down from the ceiling like on DCL? Nope-- when we returned we found a cot propped in the middle of the two twins! The real odd thing? There was an 8 inch metal handle protruding from the side of it upwards right smack in between two mattresses with the desk blocking the end of one. So essentially we had a giant bed for three that filled the entire 1/2 of the room wall to wall....with an 8 inch handle to fall over in the dark smack in the middle and a ladder on one side and the desk on the other side. There was no way for the person under the bunk to safely get out off bed without climbing on top of the person in the middle. And the person on the other side against the wall had to do the same, plus straddle the 8 inch handle in the dark. I can't figure out how any engineer could have conceptualized this idea as a safe one! I can only figure that NCL is trying to retrofit for families as it changes its corporate focus. Needless to say, we had Guest Services and the Hotel Manager come look and they agreed it was odd, but said that's how they do it. In the end, we had them at least shift the cot to the far right so the handle was against the wall and not in the middle. Now it was just my immediate family and my girls are fine with sharing a bed with the parents....but some kids (including teens) and non-family immediate family units might object more to being quite that cozy. In the end, we slept DH on the left, me in the middle, and dd11 next to me leaving dd8 and all her stuffed animals in the bunk as she tosses and turns the most. It was like camping in a tent all in a row in one bed. Weird! Sure enough, anytime anyone needed to use the restroom, they would have to climb over me....
We think DCL has the best bunk set up as they don't come down over the main bed so there is no head bumping. Instead a couch flips into a bed and a bunk pulls down from the ceiling. On RCCL they flip down over our bed on each side making sitting up on bed inconvenient, but at least everyone has his or her own sleeping space.
NCL, however, had the best storage for a standard stateroom. There were 6 drawers (plus a desk drawer) and then lots of recessed shelves deep enough for clothing, shoes, etc---and the closet. We always seem to be stumbling over our things in DCL and RCCL and DCL usually has a coffee table to trip over or have removed. NCL managed to fit a desk, a small table and two night stands in without taking up much space. We couldn't use the nightstands due to our mega-bed situation, but we stacked them against the wall without a problem.
There was a small refrigerator that we didn't use with a mini bar in it, but it was out of the way. DCL had cool boxes that never seem to cool much and no minibar at all-- which we like! We don't ever use that stuff and it takes up space. RCCL has a messy minibar of junk that takes up space on the desk and, when asked, the stateroom attendant just moves it to a shelf thus using up shelf space. They did finally remove it when we pressed the issue, but it was a bit of a hassle that wasn't necessary.
The shower on NCL was hands down the best...it was pretty roomy for a cruise ship. You could actually pick up the soap when it dropped. DCL's is ok and some might prefer the tub, but NCL was better. RCCL was the smallest and hardest to use-- like showering in a tiny cylinder! The toilet on NCL was in it’s own “closet” though---some might like the privacy of it since others could be in the bathroom at the sink. However, the wall and “closet door” took up valuable space thus making using the restroom a tight, uncomfortable experience and we just had one person in the bathroom at a time anyway. NCL had a nice, normal hair dryer---which was really helpful. I always have to bring my own on other cruise lines which takes up luggage space.
So, all in all, I would say that we would definitely pick DCL over NCL and RCCL if all things were equal (price, timing, ports, etc). The food is better, the entertainment is better, the Kid’s Clubs are top notch and the facilities kept up. It’s just a better quality experience overall for us. However, it does come at a cost…so sometimes the trade-offs might be worth it. I would do NCL again if the price was right, but I would go into it eyes-wide-open about the food expectations and maybe take some granola bars with me! We actually have another RCCL trip planned in the future….the price and timing were right and it is a very port heavy itinerary, so we won’t really be experiencing much of the entertainment or kid’s clubs---so it seemed like an ok option since or priorities for that trip will be meals and sleeping.
So that’s my impression of the three lines. I’m sure others have different takes depending on their preferences and priorities. I’m sure I’m definitely a bit DCL biased since we’ve cruised them more often…..but read the review with a grain of salt from your perspective and hopefully some of it was helpful to your planning.
Let me know if you have questions!