This was my third time cruising and first with my 7-year-old daughter. The other two cruises were with Carnival. We chose Royal Caribbean because it was supposed to be a step up from Carnival (which has been described as the Wal-Mart of cruise lines).
Pre-cruise experience: By far this was as bad as it could possibly be. RCI's website is terrible. In fact, my experience(s) in trying to book excursions and other onboard activities were so bad that I may not book with RCI again unless they fix this. I spent roughly 12-14 hours on the phone with RCI (and my travel agent spent even more time on the phone with them) trying to book the Barbie Premium Experience which was/is advertised on the site and was advertised on the link for my personal cruise itinerary. While the agents were to a person, polite, none could give me a good answer as to why I couldn't book this experience for my daughter. At times I was told that it wasn't available, it was only available at a certain time of the year, it was only available on certain ships, it was only available if a certain number of people signed up (and how would they know if they wouldn't let us sign up?), and that I had waited too long to sign up for this experience. In any case, once on board the staff let us sign up, but there were only two girls...in part because of the frustrations with trying to get this.
Furthermore, getting the shore excursion(s) that we wanted was difficult as well. RCI, if you review the reviews about yourself, let it be known to whoever is in charge that for some of us, the pre-cruise experience is an important part of the vacation - anticipating and planning our cruise can be a lot of fun - and you are AWFUL at this portion of the vacation.
Embarkation - lines, but nothing out of the ordinary. Parking in NOLA isn't too bad if you do a little research. We parked at Fulton Street Garage (about $85 for the week in a covered spot). The shuttle to the terminal is about 5 minutes and the people are professional.
1. Cabin - We had a outside cabin. Previously with Carnival we've had an outside cabin on one and a balcony on another. The balcony is a game-changer. Not RCI's fault that I didn't pony up a little more cash to get that balcony. The room was comparable to Carnival's outside cabin. Cramped, but plenty of storage for your stuff if you know where to put things. Bringing a power strip makes a difference, too. Our cabin steward was a gem - super-friendly, very professsional, capable of keeping a 120 sq. ft. space with three humans in it clean and neat. The beds and pillows, on the other hand, were awful. I wasn't expecting my bed at home, but the linens are old and worn (showing frayed edges/hems/etc.), the pillows were all lumpy and weak, and the bed was thin and worn. RCI - time to spend a little cash on new beds.
2. Food - Our first cruise was 10 years ago on Carnival and our second cruise was last summer on Carnival. We noted that there was at least a half, if not full step down in quality. I was hoping that RCI's food would be more like what Carnival's was 10 years ago. I was disappointed. The Windjammer cafe (the open all the time buffet) was mediocre. The fruit was fresh, but the burgers were flat and stale, the coffee was bitter (change a filter every once in a while, RCI), and the casseroles were flat. The dining room food was better, but not well seasoned. Again, I was not expecting five- or even four-star dining, but Royal Caribbean is not better than Carnival. For the price, I was expecting better. The dining room staff was attentive and professional, friendly even. However, the food was exceedingly bland and not very flavorable. We had maybe two above average meals out of seven in the dining room. One other complaint: there was not a single lime on the whole ship! Seriously - not even in the bars! Coronas were served with lemons. Mojitos were served with lemons. How do you send a 2500 passenger cruise ship to sea without a single freaking lime?!? We did not eat at any of the for-pay restaurants.
3. Common spaces - The Serenade is a pretty ship. We sailed on the Conquest previously, so that is comparison I can make. The Serenade is not really showing age - the carpets and floors appeared clean and well-maintained. The elevators all worked the entire cruise. There are several neat areas including the Centrum (the central atrium) where there was a nice bar, sitting area, and several acrobatic shows. The Schooner Bar is a really neat space. The Casino is smallish and has more slots than table game seats, but I never had trouble getting a seat at the blackjack table if I wanted it. I confess that the production shows are really not our bag, so we didn't partake in the theater, but it looked to be spacious and well kept. One neat thing about the Serenade is that passengers can access the forward helipad. Anyone can get their Leo "King of the World!" on - something not possible on the Carnival Conquest. The large pool area on top was well attended with movies at night and the NCAA tournament on during the day. The kid's pool area was ok for my daughter and she loved the water slide, but the Serenade needs to upgrade the slide as well - it is small and slow and it looks like every other cruise ship on earth has a pretty neat one. A water slide isn't a deal-breaker for me, but it could use some work. The fitness center is large and has plenty of equipment. Classes were too advanced for the largely senior crowd on board.
4. Kid's Activities - Adventure Ocean was pretty neat. We hadn't taken advantage of this possibility before (on Carnival), so I don't have anything to compare it to, but our daughter had a great time. The staff was professional, friendly, and capable of dealing with kids of all ages. They also had plenty of security protocols in place so we felt secure leaving our daughter with them. I've written about the Barbie package already.
5. Ports of Call - Key West - only 5 hours? Really? RCI is obviously skimping on fuel costs by going super-slow (average about 12 knots) instead of spending a little extra time in port. I would have much more enjoyed the normal "get into port at 8am - leave at 6pm" than an 11am-4:30pm rush job. The Key West terminal/dock was nice and we had enough time to ride the Conch Train and see the Truman Little White House - nothing else. RCI - go 15-16 knots and give us more time in port!
Nassau - a run-down pit. Unless your bag is hanging at Senor Frogs or buying overpriced t-shirts and knick-knacks, you have to leave Nassau. We did by going on an excursion to Blue Lagoon Island for a dolphin encounter. This staff was also professional and friendly. It is ridiculously over-priced and then they charge even more for pictures and videos, but you gladly pay it because when are you going to get shots of your 7-year-old daughter grinning ear-to-ear while hugging a dolphin again. I can't really complain. Lots of other folks who went to Atlantis on Paradise Island said good things as well. The only real complaint I have about this port of call is that we were there from 1pm-11pm. Just a weird time. Would have preferred the 8am-5pm sort of option.
Coco Cay - Not surprisingly, we were unable to go ashore. The crew told us that they hadn't been able to tender to Coco Cay and had cancelled that port of call for over a month because of rough seas. It didn't take an experienced tar to know that there would have been major injuries and deaths had we tried to tender in 10-foot seas. Thanks to the captain for making a wise (but easy) decision. I won't be taking any more cruises in the springtime in the Bahamas to ports that require tendering. I wish that I had known that before this cruise and I would have chosen a different itinerary (probably in the western Caribbean).
Fellow Passengers - a late March cruise always will bring out the families and there were a ton of us. Lots and lots of seniors as well. I don't think I've ever seen so many rascals (or whatever those electric scooters that seniors ride on these days are called) in the same place before. If you were a single on this cruise hoping to find your true love or even just a hook-up, I bet you were exceedingly disappointed.
All in all, I was disappointed. I had a good vacation, but I expect a lot for the price that I pay when I go on a cruise. I had high hopes for Royal Caribbean, but those were definitely dashed. My family and I will cruise again. Not sure that I'll chose RCI - I'd definitely do Carnival over RCI considering the price - and if I'm going to pay RCI rates, I may try Norwegian or someone else next time.