Party of four: me, DW, DD6, DD4. This was my 7th cruise, DW's second, and the girls' first. If you're like me, you're trying to eke every last minute detail out of these reviews, so I'll do what I can to sate your appetite for cruise info.
We flew from California to Houston Hobby via Southwest Airlines on Friday. The cruise departed on Saturday and returned Thursday. I'll put info on what we did before and after the cruise at the bottom, if anyone cares.
DAY 1 - BOARDING
We arrived at the Galveston Cruise Terminal at about 3pm via free hotel shuttle. As Platinum members, we got to jump to the front of the check-in line. It went very smoothly and we were processed in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the freebie food table was being shut down already (looked like they had cookies, mimosas, and more). Also, there had been a maitre d' type who had a table set up to handle seating assignment issues, but he was packed up and leaving by 3pm as well. There was a separate check-in station for the kids. They each received a plastic wristband showing their muster station number which they had to wear 24/7 for the entire cruise.
We had two connecting ocean view cabins on the 2nd deck aft. This turned out to be a great arrangement for us, with the parents in one room and the girls in the next. The difference between having 4 people in 2 rooms vs. in 1 room was only a total of $80 more, easily worth it. Our stateroom attendant was Dorla. We did not have much interaction with her, but she performed her duties sufficiently. The girls particularly liked the towel animals left on their beds each night (as well as the chocolates!). There are no clocks in the room (or in most parts of the ship). No irons either, for fire reasons.
We were booked for main seating in the King & I Dining Room. We had asked for a table for just us 4, but were placed at a table for 10. It worked out fine. The other 6 were three generations of a family, including kids a little older than mine. Our waiter was Diaro from Colombia, asst. waiter was Sherman from Costa Rica, and head waiter was Geraldo (forget where from). We put a lot of demands on Diaro, and he held up admirably. Geraldo visited us daily, and usually cut up the girls' food.
On Day 1, we didn't really do much activity-wise. We checked out Adventure Ocean's open house, had dinner, then went to an AO orientation that night.
DAY 2 - AT SEA
We slept in until around 10am, but the girls were pumped up for AO so we had them do the last hour or so. I participated in a ping pong tournament. We had lunch in the Windjammer, and were impressed by the selection. On our last cruise (RCCL 1995), the poolside selection was just hot dogs and hamburgers. Instead, Windjammer had a full lunch buffet with many options, salads, soups, hot foods, pastas, a carvery, etc. Definitely a viable option.
After lunch, we went swimming in the salt water pool, then took the girls back to AO. DW and I took salsa dance lessons, which were fun. Unfortunately, we never ended up trying them out at any of the late-night dancing sessions.
On at-sea days, AO runs from 9-11:45, 2-4:45, and 7-10:45. There is also a "Late Night Party Zone" from 10pm-1am which costs $5/hour/kid. Our girls loved the AO program and wanted to do activities whenever possible. We kept them with us for all meals (although you can arrange to have them eat with AO) and only did the LNPZ on one night. The counselors were all good. There seemed to be some changeover in the staffing during the cruise, perhaps picking up and dropping off some of them at the ports. All of the counselors have fun AO names: Superfly Sergio, Fishy Trishy, Cookie Claudia, Turbo (never found out her real first name), Jolly Julia, Lollipop Lucy. Our girls were in different age groups (3-5 and 6-8), but they played in the same room.
In the afternoon, we did an informal meet-and-mingle at the Viking Crown. It was nice meeting people who posted in the Roll Call thread.
2nd night was formal night. We had pictures taken, which are later up for viewing and purchase in the Photo Gallery (no commitment). This again was an improvement over our last cruise, which had only one formal photo station so there was a huge line. Instead, Splendour had I think four photo stations (with different backgrounds) so we only had to wait 5-10 minutes. On past cruises, I always wore a tux on formal night. This time I wore a suit and tie. Other than wedding couples, I didn't see any men in tuxedos.
We had one formal night and four casual nights. This surprised me, as I was expecting 1-2 smart casual nights. We were strict about following the dress suggestions. However, we saw many people in shorts, jeans, etc.
For some reason, the Solarium is not crowded at night for swimming. We went a couple nights and were the only ones interested in the whirlpool.
DAY 3 - COZUMEL
We dragged the girls out of bed at 6am for breakfast in the Windjammer, then met at 7:15 for our shore excursion to Xcaret Eco-Park. Cozumel is on an island, so if you do a shore excursion on the mainland, you have to take a 30-minute tender to Playa Del Carmen first. From PDC, we had a 10-15 minute walk to the buses, then perhaps a 10 minute ride to Xcaret. We got to Xcaret a little before 9. It was already open, and not very busy.
Note: RCCL says children 4 and under are free. Xcaret park actually regulates this by height, not age. Kids 40" and under are free. Keep this in mind if taking a tall 4 year old (or a short older child). I originally bought a ticket for DD4, but received a credit to my SeaPass account before the excursion at the Excursions Desk.
Xcaret is awesome. Don't miss it. We only covered maybe 1/2-2/3 of the park in the 5 hours we were there. We may do a later Playa del Carmen trip just to go back. We started off with a boat ride through a river. It was nice, but I would say skip it because you have to walk for about 15-20 minutes on a windy jungle path to get to it. There are some nice orchid and mushroom greenhouses along the way. The highlight is the underground river. Took us about an hour to complete it. Watch out - the water is very cold, and there is no easy bathroom access along the way. Everyone is in lifejackets floating along. You can rent/bring snorkels and fins. Before you go in the water, you put all your gear into a padlocked plastic bag, which the park then transports to the end of the river for you. It is very well organized, efficient, and secure.
The underground river passes through a waterfall, several caves, and some stick-tunnels. Very cool. It ends up in the northeastern corner of the park. We walked from there to the nearby lagoons to have lunch. pricey, but tasty. We had mixed steak/chicken fajitas, seafood ceviche, and grilled garlic shrimp. The lagoons are gorgeous sand and placid crystal water, with free inner tubes available. There are lots of beaches and inlets. After some beach time, we went to a large butterfly pavilion, then a Mayan village and ruins. Then it was time to leave the park (2:30pm). We got back to the ship around 3:45pm. The girls wanted to do the last afternoon hour of AO, so we dropped them off.
DAY 4 - COSTA MAYA
Another early wake up, Windjammer breakfast, and dropping the kids off at AO. We booked the RCCL-sponsored Chacchoban Ruins tour. Thought about David & Ivan's independent tour, but we didn't want to risk something going wrong with us apart from the kids. As it turns out, the early-morning AO program supposedly is only available to parents who are on RCCL-sponsored excursions. But nobody checked.
The tour was very good. Our guide was Ariceli, who clearly came from an academic/historian background. It was a half-day tour, with about 1.75 hours actually on-site at the ruins. Most of the ruins are not fully reconstructed, but there are a couple large buildings up. You can climb a little bit. All in all, a good experience, but nothing breathtaking.
Picked up the girls, Windjammer for lunch, then dropped them off again at AO. DW and I went up to the Viking Crown for drinks and watched the bellyflop contest and sexy legs contest from above the pool. Later on, we played cash bingo with the girls, but won nothing.
At night, we had the girls in LNPZ. We did our first late-night activities: the Quest and Adult Late-Night Comedy. Both were very good. Don't miss the Quest. I hit the late-night Gala Buffet (12:30am-1:30am).
DAY 5 - AT SEA
This was catch-up day for everything that we intended to do on board, but hadn't done yet. I climbed the rock wall. We played mini-golf. We played blackjack. Watched an ice carving demonstration and a towel folding demonstration (how to make all those animals). More swimming on the pool deck. At night, we watched the farewell show featuring Luis Dalton. He's a juggler and balancer, good entertainment.
DAY 6 - DISEMBARK
We chose to do the Express Departure, meaning you carry your own luggage off the ship and get off first (7:00-7:45). The alternative was to wait in a lounge until our color code was called, projected to be at 9:30. You have to be out of your stateroom by 7am. Express Departure was very crammed and it looked impossible that they would get everyone off the ship by 7:45, but they did. Customs went smoothly, and we were free to go by 8:15. All in all, a good trip.
BEFORE AND AFTER THE CRUISE
Before the cruise, we stayed at the Holiday Inn On The Beach in Galveston. There are actually two Holiday Inns in Galveston. The other one looked nicer and is closer to the cruise terminal. We picked this one because of the name, but really they're both on the beach. Our hotel had a free shuttle to and from the cruise terminal, and allowed us to park our rental car at the hotel for free while we were gone. We had dinner the night before the cruise at the Blackeyed Pea, a chain restaurant that we love but do not have in California.
The morning before the cruise, we went to Moody Gardens. They have three large glass pyramids, and we visited two: the Rainforest Pyramid and the Aquarium Pyramid. It's a good attraction, and manageable before embarkation time (we even fit in a short IMAX movie).
After the cruise, we went to a mini-golf place along Seawall (the girls liked mini-golf so much on the ship, we went for a full-size course). We had lunch at Mosquito Cafe (highly recommend) then visited Bishop's Palace, one of the top 100 U.S. historic homes. We went to Stewart Beach Park, which was kind of disappointing. The sand is fine, but the water is brown (from sand and silt) and simply does not compare to the Yucatan waters. Dinner at Casey's, the casual sister restaurant of local mainstay Gaido's.
The next day we had lunch at Rudy and Paco's in downtown Galveston, then drove to Houston for Johnson Space Center, home of NASA. This is a fun place, but the lines are huge for the most popular attraction, a tram tour of the astronaut training facilities. We skipped it because of a 2 hour wait. If we go again, we will get there right when the Center opens. Dinner in Houston at El Tiempo Cantina, an excellent Mexican restaurant (get the deluxe mixed grill).
We spent all of Friday at the Children's Museum of Houston. It is supposed to be one of the best children's museums in the country, and we wholeheartedly agree. We have been to many, many children's museums and this is easily the best. If you have kids under 10, this is a must-see.