We sailed on the New Years 2013/14 cruise. We were a party of 5 spanning 3 generations so I choose Epic after much consideration of the others (Carnival, Princess, RC) as it seemed to be the best compromise to provide amusement and flexibility for a 10 year old whilst offering good choice in terms of entertainment, dining and facilities for adults inc. seniors.
I have read many of the other reviews on this ship and will give my opinion, suffice to say that many of the negative reviews do not reflect the positive experience we had. Then with 4000 people there will always be some horror stories and divergence based on expectations.
Embarkation - a long line (@1200) but wait as expected, could at least see our progress. Check in operator got stuck processing us (struggled to know how to process non-US citizens!?) but did get her Supervisor to resolve. Suitcases were in rooms at reasonable time and food/drink on Deck 15 accessible despite growing numbers of passengers.
Emergency Drill - Really poor in comparison to Princess in 2012. Staff with pen and paper print out check of attendance (no card scanners) - briefest of here's how to put on a life jacket, no other procedures or situations explained. Is this really the minimum the regulators want?
Ship External Appearance - lets be honest, Epic looks like one ugly ship, disproportioned top (Haven area) meant that only a very tired Carnival and a Costa ship look worse in port. Disney looked stunning beside us (though we heard it goes downhill after that).
Ship Internal Appearance - Very good. Not the most stunning (no real central showpiece, grand stairway), or classy (some fairly ordinary chairs/seats and decor) but it is clean and refreshing on the public areas.
Ship Layout - Got comfortable findings things quickly and touch screen maps and signs were a great help. Some narrow public areas, e.g. around ice bar, but overall there was a good feeling of having some space around and not being in a constant crowd. Casino is too much of a route and focal point (for a family party) but oh well if everyone who gambled helped give me a cheaper deal I can live with it. Haven does make others (us) feel a little bit second class with priorities, then so does Club and First class on airlines - thats just life - money talks and if I had it, I would do the same.
Room - Deck 9 Mini Suite - perfect for 2 adults and a 10 year old. Location, quality, size and even the bathroom arrangement which I was apprehensive about reading reviews before we left were all good. Bed does seem a bit short (curved room compromise?), and I'm only 5'8", the pull out bed could be unsuitable for a larger child.
Pool Deck - Epic has severely compromised the deck space to accommodate Haven. So, for those of us on a budget it is crowded and poorly laid out. How about some providing seating/chairs (away from the bar/dining) instead of just sunbeds NCL? The pools and waterpark was a hit with my son. H20 seemed to be generally noisier with just adults talking than the kids pool area was. Slides quite bumpy/rough, mild bruising on lower back.
Manhattan - 7/10 - Good meal but not as refined as the MDR meals on Princess
Moderno - 8/10 - Good, I liked the red/green concept, but you will need to be hungry to eat the cover charge. The sides were a bit ordinary, salad bar decent.
Le Bistro - 9/10 - Very Good - our best meal
Cagney's Steakhouse - 6/10 - Poor value for the $25 cover. Steak was great, other Entrees were less so (it's a steakhouse right). Sliders too big to be sliders, Pea soup tasty but very thin. Mixed reviews on our dessert choices.
Shanghai - 9/10 - Very good - we like Chinese and this hit the spot nicely and we had leftovers from being too full. Good waiter also.
Taste - 7/10 - My parents ate there twice and said it was decent
Garden Cafe Buffet - 8/10 - Great variety and choice of main meals at lunch/dinner, snacks or just death by hot-dog, burgers and fries (why do some people even go on a holiday). Hard to wander and find everything that was on offer, fruit cobbler was on one corner only away from other dessert options. Would have been nice to have proper Indian cuisine, rather than some token sauces/sides.
O'Sheehans - 7/10 Decent for free food with drinks rather than as a venue for a meal (unless the seated area next to the bowling had different meal options?)
Other locations were not tried by us.
Event and dining booking/I-concierge - Brilliant - well done. Via the TV in the stateroom, on touch screens by the lifts and of course in advance of the cruise itself are essential (although booking for a party of 5, it had to be 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8 in Teppenyaki was an odd shortcoming since we could book for 5 in other places.
Entertainment - We only did Blue Man Group (twice, they were good). You can turn up and still get a decent seat without going too early, pity the Haven reviewer who seemed to expect to turn up moments before and get his reserved area. I refused to pay for the Circus show and we didn't try any of the other shows/comedy to comment on them. I did like the daily main theatre shows on Ruby Princess, so this would have been nice but hard to trade against the selling point of BMG. Bowling was good fun, though we only tried in port but did watch others whilst sailing. Pool table and games machines in pub were appropriate. Games arcade I found disappointing really, could have offered more, surely a decent money maker.
New Years Eve - I had hoped that NCL would make it clear in advance of the cruise what their plans for this were going to be to help me plan something that would work for our diverse party. We thought there might be some additional central event, with food, so did not book any specialty dining venues for fear of missing out. The daily planner flyer did at least give 24 hours notice of what was going on, so in the end we ate in the buffet and toured several bars through the evening. Those on lower decks were pretty dead (8-10pm) so when 2 of our party retired feeling tired, 3 of us went to Deck 15 and stayed there. It was the best NY eve I have ever had (I'm not a party person, but really got into the swing, alcohol enabled with handouts of party hooters, hats, leis and some champagne if you loitered near the bar like we did). Full credit to the bar staff for their excellent service even with a really busy crowd and even a downpour of rain did not dampen spirits. We shuffled to Spice/H20 as the clock ticked 0100 and stayed a bit there to get some more atmosphere.
Kids Ents - Son spent some time over the first couple of days at Dolphin (age 10) and enjoyed what he did, but did not go after that - no major reason, he just wanted time with the rest of us! As a nervous parent, the arrangements seemed pretty good apart from confusion whether he could self-sign in and out if he only wanted 30 mins rather than 2 hours, also a factor in his choice.
Fitness/Recreation - we looked around the gym on sail away and were shocked to see a charge of $20 to do classes, so didn't bother. NCL would do well to consider how to encourage more use of these facilities to offset the unhealthy weight gain we all have after eating lots :-) Maybe all the classes were full, nice money maker if so. To be fair, the pool deck classes were free and those who took part looked like they enjoyed it. I meant to try out the climbing wall and join in events on the sports deck but just got too lazy.
Service - I read other reviews before the cruise so had low expectations. However I felt the service was very good considering a full New Year ship. Tactic for drinks on pool deck is to flag the white shirt bar staff who were regularly touring and asking - well done. Waiting at the pool bar itself was also better than the average pub on a Friday or Saturday night and really impressive service on New Years eve. O'Sheehans also had efficient bar and roaming staff. BMG in Theatre was efficient bringing drinks to our seats. Our worst one was the Martini bar, perhaps understaffed when we were there, several people gave up waiting after 10 minutes. Garden Cafe Buffet service (clean up and table space) was also OK, yes busy at peak times, one particularly poor tidy up lunch, all other breakfast, lunch and a couple of dinners were fine, so in my opinion, the other reviewer who claimed to spend 20 minutes finding a seat and never having a clear table or cutlery is a laughable over-exaggeration, no offence intended. Dining service was fine for us. We didn't want to be rushed at meals and in the MDR and specialty venues we were well looked after (except one missed drink) with very personable staff.
Ports/Shore - Only 3 stops in 7 nights (compared to 4 with Ruby Princess) despite both having a Miami/Ft L start and St Maarten as the furthest port on the 3rd Day. Plenty to find on the 3 stops we enjoyed a private hire mini-bus (Bernards) on St Maarten and Dolphin Swim at Nassau and I remembered to negotiate in the duty free jewellers even after their discounts. Well done to the crew to get us to Nassau an hour earlier than scheduled just ahead of the rain, was amusing to see the Carnival ship vanish into the rain storm behind as it crawled into port. Given an earlier arrival is possible, NCL should make this the standard arrival time for this route to offset the one less port visited.
Other passengers - Mixed experience, no surprises, that's life. Generally I found the majority of fellow passengers friendly and courteous to wait their turn or give way with not too many rude, pushy types, although there are always some in lifts, buffet and bars. Some made the effort to dress up a bit, others did little more than wash and change a t-shirt - we knew in advance that no real dress standard was expected so that was fine by us. The one personal annoyance in specialty restaurants is poor children behaviour, or more accurately their parents who let them play on electronic gadgets through an entire meal without turning off beeps or other noises. Similarly small children 4-8 years old who go completely unsupervised in the spas and groups of teens 11-14s who also hog the spa and pile in to take another 100 underwater pictures of each other, despite the spa being already being full. For our second BMG viewing we decided to sit at the back, in the round bar seats. I was amazed at how many people could not sit through the show without getting up for a break and to others (lots of middle aged-60s) who left the show entirely - what does entertain you!? Highlight was the NY Eve on Deck 15, everyone was really in a good party mood and very respectful of the staff doing their jobs, lots of mutual high 5s and handshakes, it was hard to hug and kiss over the bar :-)
Value for Money/Rates - 7/10. Us punters always get a rough deal with prices at peak times (it does not really cost NCL more to deliver the same service over these periods, but I do understand supply and demand economics), much as we have no alternative with kids in school! Tips/Gratuities - depends on your opinion, if staff/passenger ratio is 1:2 (does anyone know?) then each staff member is effectively on $25+ tips per day, a tidy sum I feel and that represents well over 30% of my room charges for the week, with drinks charges further hidden from summary. Some specialty dining is definitely overpriced (as a top up!), Drinks were reasonable prices (good measures in cocktails/shorts). Plenty of free (already paid for) food and drink options if you are not fussy or on a budget. Bottled water prices astronomic, but I support this to discourage excessive bottle use for the environment, so long as "tap" water is available.
Summary - Met my expectations - 8/10,as per my review title Epic was a good compromise ship for our party. Would do it again but will likely go back to Princess and perhaps try RC when we go as a couple or as a plus one.