This is our 2nd NCL cruise. We chose Epic for 3 reasons: 1) on board entertainment 2) destination 3) experience with NCL and love of "Freestyle cruising"
Saw teaser video when we sailed on the Gem in December '10 out of NYC. When we were planning our cruise, we found the 1/4-1/11 dates perfect for our family (2 kids in HS, 2 kids in college).
Watched lots of youtube videos beforehand, highly recommended gives you tips on cabin, etc.
Flew from NYC to Ft. Lauderdale two days early (in anticipation of any bad weather and extra time needed to get to FLA). Our hotel was great (Sleep Inn Suites in Dania, FL-hotel recommended shuttle service to MIA port for a reasonable price).
Embarkation: No problems, went fast.
Entering ship: No problem, staff sent us to Garden Cafe for lunch. (we were hoping for a dining room sit down lunch but that was not offered). Cafe was super busy, no tables, but staff directed us to La Cuchina to sit down and eat.
Exploring ship day 1: found our cabin easily, very pleased with location! Around corner from elevator and stairs and 2 floors from Garden Cafe (where breakfast and lunch mostly eaten)
Cabin: As expected, lots of space to store clothes/shoes/toiletries. We had two inside family cabins each with 3 people.
Complaints of poor lighting unfounded, I had no problems ever. Only complaint was the loud flushing noise of toilet.
Pool/hot tubs/deck/water park: Yes, it is annoying that everyone saves chairs but you can't do anything about it. It will rain occasionally (that is when you can get the chairs) but if you have a chair, don't leave, the rain lasts about 5 minutes then it is nice again.
Kids liked the slides when they were open. The wait wasn't too long.
Activities: We took advantage of every minute and went to every show, and game shows offered. Played Deal or No Deal, came out $10 ahead. We are not gamblers so no insight on the casino. PS ignore the complaints about being "too smokey", I am not a smoker and felt it was not bad at all.
Dancing withe Epic Stars, Dating Game, Who wants to be a bazillionaire, Adult game show, these all make the cruise super fun to watch and even participate in.
We went to Bliss every night to dance at midnight and also went to the White Hot Party, lots of fun as well. My boys were of drinking age (21, 19, 18-the latter could drink at sea) and beer was only $6 a pop which was not too bad at all and they did not go crazy with the drinking, just enough to have fun.
Entertainment: Book shows before you cruise to save yourself stress and have a "plan". You can change on board if you want but the shows did sell out and some people were not happy. Cirque show, worth EVERY PENNY. 2nd City: Entertaining, not stellar, the adult show slightly distasteful and I am not a prude. Blue Man Group: Fantastic (highly recommend the Q & A session). Magic Show: fantastic (I was even chosen to get my right hand cut off lol) Legends: Entertaining, loved Stephen Tyler he was the best and watch the videos shown during his performance, he replicates the real Stephen very well. Sadly missed the Jazz Band in FatCats but heard it was top notch.
Guitar player in Maltings nightly: Superb
Howling at the moon: Unbelievable talent and entertainment, we went more than once and loved it both times.
Ice Bar: Sorry, $20 to sit in a freezing cold bar, no thanks, we left -10 degree weather for a reason.
Dining: We did not do any of the extra cost dining options. We dined every night in either Manhattan or Taste. Preferred Taste. Staff was decent, food was decent, nothing stellar but certainly satisfied our families needs. Desserts were great, especially the Sherbet. Coffee in the dining rooms was not that great. We ate breakfast in Taste once and it was lovely but the rest of the time we grabbed food in the Garden Cafe. If you went early enough (8:00 a.m.) wasn't too crowded. We had a spot outside that we ate at regularly so all members of the family knew where to find each other if they happened to be up and wanted to join. Lunch once again, Garden Cafe and if you walked around enough, there were plenty of options, healthy and non healthy. Coffee at Garden Cafe surpassed the dining room coffee by the way. Water always available, as well as juices/lemonade and iced tea. (sometimes the drinks/glasses ran out but they replenished them)
Children's clubs: My kids were too old to participate
Playing cards: Saw lots of complaints about the lack of card room. Come on people, we played cards anywhere and everywhere, never had a problem, more fun to play throughout the ship vs. a designated "card room"
Cruise staff: While at first we did not feel the cohesiveness of the staff since the ship was so large and we were comparing it to our experience on the Gem where the staff was well known - we got to know Richard and he was just amazing, pleasant, friendly, always smiling, let us get pics with him, he took pics for us, can't say enough about him, he made our trip extra special "It's the same!" (his tag line)
Ports: With a large family with limited budget, we did not do any excursions. Guest services was always very helpful in explaining how to get to the beach etc.
St Maartin: Walked to Philipsburg beach. Don't get bogged down by the townspeople badgering you for umbrellas, wifi etc., keep walking to where there are no chairs for a peaceful day at the beach (free) and then shopping later. Drinks abundant and cheap, no need for foreign currency.
St. Thomas: Highly recommend the 2 hour island tour and if you have time, the 2 hour stay at the beach. For $20-$25 per person, well worth it, bring your camera for awesome photo ops.
Nassau: Once again, easy on and off the ship to beach/shopping.
Disembarkation: Well you are already sad to be leaving a vacation so it is never fun, there were lines but it wasn't too, too bad.
SUMMARY: Great family memory, great experience. Ignore the bad reviews, I feel people are overly critical and expecting way too much. I will sail NCL again but am curious to check out other similar lines to be able to compare.