Wonderful Alaskan family cruise -review and tips for families : Celebrity Solstice Cruise Review by Docmommy
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Wonderful Alaskan family cruise -review and tips for families
This time, we went with a large group of 14, three couples in their 30-40s and their children (ages 3, 6, 7, 8, and 11), and the children’s grandmother and aunt. We just returned and though happy to hop into our own comfortable bed and hug our wonderful dog, we do miss the family time together and the amazing adventure that is Alaska!
It rained nearly every day that we were there, but we were out and doing things every single day. I More never let weather stop me from having a good time and I do believe preparation is key! We were prepared for the rain with thermals, fleece jackets, REI rain pants, Smartwool socks, waterproof Keen shoes, and Northface rain jackets (I mention the brands because I find it useful when I am searching out advice.) They supply an umbrella in each stateroom, but we didn’t need them with our rain gear.
Cruise critic was immensely helpful in planning our trip so I will return the favor by outlining some useful tips for families with young children specifically going on the Celebrity Solstice to Alaska.
We booked the earliest flight to arrive in Seattle (SEATAC) at 9 AM thus allowing ample time to get to the dock, Pier 91. Celebrity begins the boarding process at 11 AM and the ship sails at 4 PM. Though the ride is only supposed to be 30 minutes from the airport, allow plenty of time for getting onto a shuttle. For our family of 14, it took over an hour to even get on a shuttle and we had prepaid Shuttle Express. There were large crowds of people clamoring to get on the shuttle so I would strongly suggest pre-arranging some transfer to the dock or taking a cab. Certainly, smaller groups will find this process less harrowing, but be warned about the throngs of people waiting for transportation. Truthfully, we were in no rush given the ample time we had and the cousins enjoyed hanging out even if it was at the airport baggage claim. I love our kids, so adaptable and awesome!
Once we got to the dock, the process was very painless, maybe less than 30 minutes and we did not have any priority status (booked two cabins with verandah and three inside cabins). They issue you a SeaPass card and this is the room key and your credit card for the cruise. This allows you to store your wallets/passports in the safe and carry only the SeaPass card while on the ship (kind of nice for someone who hates carrying a purse!)
We went to their buffet (Ocean View Café) for lunch and it was very crowded as expected on any cruise on the first day. Really, this has been the same experience on all five cruises…packed buffet on embarkation day. However, I thought this would thin out during the rest of the cruise. To my surprise, it remained a very busy venue and searching for a table was a daily task. I will say that the cruise staff was helpful (offering to carry plates to our table after seeing me try to manage very heavy plates, drinks and two small children) and they were also quick about clearing empty tables. I appreciate hardworking people and this can be said about every staff member we met on the Solstice…thank you, THANK YOU!!!
By the way, other lunch venues were opened including the Mast Grill serving up hamburgers and hot dogs for those wanting to avoid the buffet. We didn’t go but I read this on Cruise Critic somewhere. One comment on the buffet food… great variety with delicious fruit options (sweetest honeydew melons ever!), quality of food so-so for lunch and dinner and I have been told I am NOT a discerning food critic by my family. For breakfast, think of the largest breakfast buffet you get at any nice hotel for about $20-30 per person and that is the cruise breakfast buffet, so no complaints there. Options to avoid the buffet for those picky about food, the main dining room (Grand Epernay) is open for breakfast and lunch at select times. They also have Bistro on the Five (crepes with a $7 pp charge) and three specialty restaurants ($30-50 pp dinner charge).
We went to our verandah stateroom and again, Celebrity Solstice beats them all with how they arrange the rooms to maximize every square foot. Who is the genius behind this feat of engineering? Really, we had two adults (one of them is 6’3’’) and two children ages 3 and 6 with four pieces of luggage, one large box of wine containing 10 bottles, one large gym bag and a MacClaren stroller and we manage to fit comfortably in our stateroom which turns out to be smaller in square footage than our master bathroom at home. It’s like some magic trick! The secret to the trick is all the storage nooks (overhead, under the bed, drawers, closet space). Celebrity is the definite winner for stateroom design among the five cruise lines we outlined and we stayed in a large suite on the Holland America. After plunking down some serious dough for a fancy suite on Holland, we realized a verandah room is all our family needs given the little amount of time we spend inside the room. I can also comment on the inside cabins since some family members were in those…very roomy and hotel like, perfectly fine for two people. I believe it is the same size as the verandah rooms in terms of square footage. My sister’s family of four booked two inside cabins side by side as her children are age 7 and 11. They were very happy about the decision because they could really spread out their stuff. I mentioned the box of wine above. Celebrity policy is 2 bottles per stateroom with a $25 per bottle corkage fee. Since we had 5 rooms booked, we brought 10 bottles. If each bottle is worth $50 or more, it is well worth it to bring your own wine as opposed to purchasing it on the ship with prices marked up by 100% as is typical of any restaurant.
One comment for mothers trying to determine what to bring for their young children… I brought Bubble Bum inflatable booster seats and never used them. All of the transportation is with vans/buses. Many smaller vans have boosters already and buses do not require boosters or apparently seat belts! So I would say not to haul that huge car seat through the airport terminal and cruise (where will you store it!). The stroller and rain cover is useful for walking around town especially when your kid falls asleep, not used at all on the ship. Other useful items for kids…kid shampoo, night light, Ziploc bags for snacks, bubble gum or gummy worms for flight as it helps with ear discomfort with pressure changes, disposable sippy cups, small dish soap and sponge, crocs. They do not have diapers/kid supplies on the ship like Disney does so bring those along if you need them. Would be hard to find in port as well.
Since I am on the subject of kids, I will comment on the kid-friendly nature of the Celebrity Solstice. Certainly it is not like Disney in that the Disney ships cater almost exclusively to family with children. The quality is impeccable with Disney and the shows were hands-down the best for kids and their parents! Dining venues were unique and rotating to allow for variety. However, now that I have been on both cruise ships, I would prefer Celebrity Solstice class ships for our next cruise. I thought we would cruise on Disney ships exclusively after our last wonderful experience on the Wonder. They took such good care of my 7-month-old infant and the kids play area was extensive (in lieu of a casino). However, the children in our family were a bit intimated by the amount of kids and I can understand for them. Imagine being dropped off at Chucky Cheese’s and kids are everywhere. Sure the play structures are cool, but not that cool when you are clamoring to get on them with hundreds of other children. The Solstice had 350 children on the ship this time and this may seem like a lot, but really we didn’t see that many children around the ship. The Fun Factory had about 10-15 children at any given time we dropped off our kids. They enjoyed their time there and spoke animatedly about their special tour of the Galley where animals were being created out of fruit. Truthfully, we spent most of the trip together as a family so they only stopped by the Fun Factory for several hours during the trip. It was perfect to have both options. The facilities are small but adequate and kids are taken to different places throughout the ship. Sure it is no comparison to Disney for kid facilities, but again, my kids liked Celebrity better. One other bonus is that the indoor heated swimming pool is opened to families from 10-11 AM and 4-5 PM each day (since it is too cold in Alaska to use any outdoor swimming pool). From the looks of the guests who didn’t come with little ones, they did not seem too pleased with “family time.” I say, good for you Celebrity! The Solarium is open all day to guests over the age of 16. Sharing two hours with small children who are thoroughly happy in the pool is a nice gesture. My 6-year-old daughter says this is the best part of the cruise…swimming with her cousins in the Solarium pool. I will remember this when my kids are older not to be grumpy with families bringing along small children. They deserve to have a wonderful vacation, too!
The Lawn club was my favorite part about the whole ship. Imagine this…you have a long day of traveling and you finish lunch at the buffet, check out your stateroom, and then agree to all head up to the Lawn club. You arrive at the top deck not knowing what to expect and you are greeted with a well-manicured lawn that reminds you of being in a park with amazing views of the Seattle waterfront. The sun is shining with a mild breeze and the cousins are running around and wrestling on the grass. Indeed, you are on vacation…
Everyone in the group raved about their time and expressed how pleased they were about the ship from day one, even my brother-in-law who hated the Disney cruise. Again, let me emphasize that I very much enjoyed the Disney cruise and have been to Disneyland a million times and have been to Aulani, the Disney resort in Oahu. My husband says that every vacation must involve Disney, so I booked Celebrity to prove him wrong! Now I am a Celebrity fan…sign me up for the Captain’s Club.
As for excursions, we did the following:
Ketchikan –Lumberjack show $38 per adult, $18 per child. About 1 and ½ hours long and the kids enjoyed it. Good activity for a rainy day and it was pouring that day. The show is outdoors but the audience area is covered and heated. We also walked around town and on to Creek Street. Saw salmon running. Last time we were in Alaska, we did the Saxman Village tour, which included a visit to a bear and eagle viewing spot and then Saxman Village. Saw a bear that time and guests who went saw bears again this time.
Juneau – Again, it was raining all day so we went on the blue bus to Mendenhall Glacier, $15 round trip. Beautiful spot but I must say the crowds took away from the natural beauty. To get away from the crowds, we did a short hike along one of the trails from the visitor center. I was even able to manage with a stroller along the paved pathway and the scenery was beautiful lush rainforest. Last time we were in Alaska, we did the helicopter tour and walked on the glacier…now that was awesome! I can’t recall the price but I think it was $250-300 per person from a vendor at the dock (non-cruise vendor). These helicopter tours can be cancelled due to bad weather and this time, other guests on the cruise had their pre-booked helicopter trips cancelled.
Skagway – The sun came out and the scenery was remarkable! Half my family did the train and remarked that it was well worth the 3 hours and $125 pp/ $60 per child. My family did the Alaska Wilderness River Adventure that is about 6 hours long and $200 pp/ $140 per child (booked through Celebrity). You take a ferry to Haines for about 45 minutes, and then board a bus for a 20-minute ride to the Hess family facilities. They have warm outerwear for you to don and then you get on a boat and go along the river for about 1 ½ hours. We saw some eagles but no moose or bears. I was a bit disappointed but this isn’t the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. Animals will appear when they want to and my guess is you have a better chance in the late afternoon as opposed to the early morning when we set out at 7 AM. After the river trip, we were treated to chilidogs and brownies that were delicious! Very nice operation! We got back to Skagway at 1:30 PM and still had plenty of time to go see the town. It looks like an old gold rush town, very charming. There is a great playground for the kids right in the middle of town and we let the 6 cousins run around for an hour while we rested on the park benches.
Victoria – We rented a private van, which came out to about $210 for a family of 14 from 7 PM to 9:30 PM. Not bad given that the regular shuttle crammed with tourists amounted to $11 per person. Our van driver took us to a beautiful park with peacocks and ponds. The kids enjoyed chasing the peacocks. There is a free petting zoo as well (closed by the time we got there, of course). We then went on to Craigdarroch Castle right as the sun was setting, quite beautiful. Following this, we saw Chinatown and then we were dropped off at the Inner Harbor to walk around. We took in sights of the lit up Parliament building (my daughter thought they were Christmas lights, but remarked that they were up a bit early) and the Empress hotel.
Comments on the Celebrity Solstice:
Décor/Amenities: very tasteful, facilities kept tidy and clean by hardworking staff throughout ship and stateroom (a special thank you to Marlon), similar to a four star hotel.
Food: Main dining room was a hit or miss. The “Top Chef’s” night had the best entrees and the French onion soup was superb (offered every night). Some nights served very mundane food (even the lobster on formal night was a bit chewy…I should have expected this when they said Caribbean lobster and not Alaskan lobster.) Appetizers were unique and delicious consistently. Overall, my family was happy to dine at the MDR (Grand Epernay) and every waiter we encountered was attentive and kind to the children. We had flexible dining, which worked out nicely for our family of 14. We made reservations before the cruise started and they seated us immediately. This is wonderful as we have done these large family trips to places like Lake Tahoe and getting dinner reservations for such a large party is a pain in the neck. Our dining service was excellent. We didn’t try the specialty restaurants this cruise, but will definitely do so on the next cruise with Celebrity.
Activities: plenty to do on the ship while at sea, here are some options
• Spa (my sisters did massages and thought the spa service was nice), Casino (packed most nights, but I don’t usually partake in these activities. People seem to be having fun there), computer lounge
• Gym (went twice, packed on day two of cruise, like a ghost town by day six), zumba classes (fun, instructor quite animated) basketball court top deck
• Cellar masters for wine and cheese tasting (disappointed by the one my husband went to as the wine options were not great, but he is a bit of a wine snob)
• Lawn for putting and bocce ball (only on the non-rainy days)
• Hot glass shows on top deck/lawn area (pretty amazing skills on display)
• Pool and hot tubs, indoor heated pool (the kids’ favorite part of the cruise)
• Boutiques for shopping
• Art gallery with self guided tours
• Bingo and family bingo
• Water color classes (wish I had gone to one but conflicted with other fun things)
• Brent Nixon naturalist –lectures on nature and Alaska (pretty amazing guy who enhanced the Tracy Arm Fjord experience by narrating the passage through this breathtaking place.)
• Shows in the theatre nightly including magician (Jason Bishop-very good), cirque du soleil type show (on last formal night), singer/impersonator (Travis Turpin-excellent, I thought I was listening to Ray Charles at one point). Other shows were so-so. Show up at least 10-15 minutes before the early show to get seats together. The late showing was less full consistently, but I was yawning and wanting to go to bed by the end of the late shows.
• Late night comedy show Sin City was riotous, but the burlesque part was rather random. Venue fills up but they have 5 shows to make sure everyone gets a chance to see it.
• Make up tips seminar (I really needed make up tips but sadly missed these due to conflicting activities.)
• Dancing lessons (salsa, foxtrot)
• Star chefs competitions, galley tour (behind the scenes look at how they prepare all the meals).
Okay, I am finally coming to the end of this lengthy review. I hope it is helpful for some people, particularly those with small children. I don’t write reviews in general. In fact, I am very lazy about doing them and avoid the majority of requests for feedback. However, I am grateful for previous Cruise Critic reviewers and wish to add to the helpful information I received.
I think our family will stick mostly to land based travels but we will certainly add more cruises to our travel plans along the way. If we go in a large group, we will seriously consider cruising. And if we do, it will be with Celebrity cruises all the way! Thank you for an amazing family vacation, Celebrity! Less
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