I was traveling with my husband, two kids (19 month old daughter and 3 yr old son), my sister, and her boyfriend. This review is pretty family-focused.
We arrived in Miami a day early and stayed at the Embassy Suites Miami Int'l. The hotel was fine, but not great. I used points, so I have no idea what it costs. Breakfast was quite crowded after 7:30am. My 3 yr-old loves airplanes so the view of the runway from our hotel (from the pool-view rooms) was a huge highlight for him. It was loud, but considering how close to the runway you are at the Embassy Suites, I was actually impressed with the level of noise control.
The day before the cruise we went to the Miami Children's Museum. I hadn't seen a lot of reviews on it, so I had some unanswered questions before we arrived. My husband's aunt and uncle met us there for some time with the kids. I wasn't sure ahead of time if there would be places for the aunt and uncle (in their 70s) to sit as we went from exhibit to exhibit (there were) and I didn't know if it would be as interesting and safe for my 19-month old and my 3 yr old alike (again, it was.) We spent a couple hours and could easily have spent more time there letting the kids play in their favorite areas (for my son it was the fishing area). I did know they had a Carnival Cruise ship mock up display, but was disappointed that it didn't have a whole lot for the kids to do in it. But the rest of the museum was such a hit that that wasn't much of a disappointment. The museum has a Subway restaurant which provided a good lunch for us. We sat outside and had a perfect view of all the the cruise ships. If you arrive in Miami early and you have kids, I highly recommend going to the Museum. Everyone over 1 yr - $10. Under 12 months - free.
On the morning of embarkation, I had intended to get out of the hotel by 11:00, but we didn't get out of there until just after noon. I realized as we drove to the port that all of the hotels in Miami kick people out by noon and that this could be the worst of all times to try to go to the port. When we arrived at 12:30 it was an absolute zoo. The line outside was incredibly long. My husband and sister's boyfriend dropped my sister and I and the kids off with the luggage and went to return the van we'd rented. A porter quickly took care of our luggage and it disappeared until we saw it again before dinner. My sister and I grabbed the kids and went to the end of the endless line. Just as we got there, an employee pointed to me and said, "You with the child, turn around. You're the front of a new line. She pointed us to a different un-used door and sent us into the terminal. Suddenly we were at the beginning of a new much-shorter line. We went into the terminal, went through screening, and joined the throng inside the terminal. It took about half an hour to get through the throng. The employees did a good job of sending passengers to other lines to keep the lines even. Despite the huge number of passengers arriving at that time, it still only took us about 40-45 mins from drop-off to stepping onto the ship.
A quick note about my husband and sister's boyfriend. My husband was on my set sail document and my sister's boyfriend was on hers. I made copies of the set sail passes at the hotel front desk. That and their IDs (we used passports) were all they needed to get into the terminal and onto the ship. So it's quite possible to board at a different time from the people on your set sail pass as long as everyone has their own copy in hand. Also, my husband and Dave got back to the port around 2:30. By that point there were absolutely no lines and the terminal was almost empty. So just don't show up just after all the Miami hotels empty and you'll be fine!
We went to our staterooms to drop off our carry-ons, see if our crib was there, and to make requests of our stateroom attendant. We got connecting D1 Balcony cabins so that we'd have privacy for ourselves at night and wouldn't have to tiptoe around while the kids slept and napped. We wanted the balcony so that when we were trapped in the cabin while they slept, we could hang out on the balcony and enjoy the ocean. The crib we requested wasn't there so I whipped out a bunch of neon sticky notes and started writing. I requested the crib to be set up, child-sized life vests, the coffee table in the kids room to be removed (to make room for the crib), both refrigerators to be emptied, and the connecting doors between the rooms and balconies to be opened. We saw our stateroom attendant (who loved the sticky notes and requested that we keep them up until she was able to get to everything so that she could pull them down herself as she did them.) Because of how busy she was, she did some stuff immediately (getting the crib, removing the coffee table, and getting the life vests) but asked if it would be okay if she got to the rest of it later. Despite that, she still had everything taken care of within just a few hours. I was impressed. We had so many requests in the kids' room that I tipped her about 5 bucks up front for all of them.
Then we hit the ship to get stuff requested before everything filled up. First stop was Portofino's. I had no problem getting the date and time I wanted. They open for dinner at 6pm and since we had main seating I just stuck with 6pm for my request. On the night I chose (Monday) there were even a couple empty tables, so 6pm may not be a very popular time. Then I went to the Spa because I wanted to request our massage on Labadee. The price for the 1 hr massage onboard and on Labadee are identical. $129 for a single, $249 for a couple's massage. By the time I made the request, there weren't many times left available. I think the Labadee times were all booked up before the 2pm 'official' boarding time advertised by RCCL even hit. I was glad I got there as soon as I did. A quick note: I definitely recommend the Labadee location. It's nice, but warm. At first I was pretty hot, but as I lay there I cooled down and it was just really nice. My husband had his massage by Maritas (upon the recommendation of my sister) and said it was the best massage of his life. Considering he gets regular massages back home from someone he thinks very highly of, this is really saying something! If you get a chance to get Maritas, do it!
After booking all our stuff, I went straight to Guest Relations to request babysitting. Initially I put in a request for 5:45pm-8:15pm every night because I wanted to have an adults only dinner each night. The next day I called to check on whether my requests had been picked up. I was told that the times I'd put in were too difficult to fit because I'd gone across shifts for a lot of the employees. I modified my request to 6-8pm and immediately got someone great to cover every night starting with Sunday night. So keep that in mind if you want a babysitter to cover dinners.
We had to bring the kids to the first night's dinner because it was too soon to have a babysitter. They did well and lasted quite a while, but it definitely emphasized for me that I wanted to be able to kick back for adult dinners the rest of the cruise. It's just not relaxing to cut up food, cool food off, etc. Lots of other kids were in the dining room every night. Their methods ranged from taking them out when they got cranky to having DVD players. Those worked. But for me, I wanted just 2 hours a day of adult-only time. Dinner was perfect. We had a table for just my family, so each night it was the two couples. We had a lot of fun.
On the first sea day, I went and ran on the 12th deck track while everyone else slept in. Then we all did breakfast in the Windjammer (we weren't sure what time we'd be waking up, so we didn't do room service) and then hit the H2O zone. Both kids loved the H2O zone. Our son enjoyed going through all the spraying statues and jumping into our arms in the pool. The pool in the H2O zone is 5' 7" deep all the way around. Unfortunately, I'm just 5'6" and DH is 5'8". So we had to stand on tip toes and to catch David as he jumped in and still went under ourselves a little. But that's not that big of a deal. Everyone had fun. I wasn't sure if our daughter was going to be willing to hang out just in the baby pool area with all the activity and fun going on in the rest of the H2O zone. But she happily hung out in there for two hours! I would recommend bringing some water-safe toys for the little ones to play with. We had a few shovels, rakes, etc with us and all the kids in there loved playing with them. The baby pool has a single statue that gently showers the baby pool. It's in the corner, so babies that don't like to be splashed aren't. The baby pool is really warm. The depth is only 2 inches and the Caribbean sun really heats it up. If you go from the cooler waters of the rest of the H2O zone to the baby pool it can feel like a hot tub! The employees did a good job kicking potty trained kids out of the baby pool, and did a good job keeping the diapered kids out of the rest of the H2O zone. Unfortunately for us it did mean that our son and daughter couldn't be together. So the parents did shifts with each kid.
A quick note on sunscreen. We used the Banana Boat children's no tears 30 SPF. It worked great and even though we slathered it all over their faces, they never complained about it getting in their eyes.
After a few hours in the H2O zone, we hung out in our cabin while the kids napped in their room. It took about 45 mins for them to fall asleep since they spent that time laughing and screeching at each other. We closed the door between their room and ours and were surprised at the level of sound-proofing it provided. I had brought out baby monitor so we could hear them, but they couldn't hear us. It was perfect.
My husband went and worked out in the fitness center while I hung out in the cabin during their nap. Then it was time to get ready for the first formal night. Our baby sitter showed up and we went to join my sister and her boyfriend. Dinner was very nice. Throughout the cruise we tended to order more than one appetizer per person. The variety was great and there were so many things I wanted to sample.
We did photos afterward (hadn't had time to do them beforehand). The lines were incredible for a lot of the backdrops. Personally, I don't like the fake backgrounds, I tend to opt for photos on staircases, or on that lit-up bridge next to guest relations. And for some reason those tended to have the shortest lines. worst for me!
After dinner we went and got the kids and took them to Windjammer for their dinner. It wasn't until later in the cruise that we discovered that it was much easier and better for everyone if we just ordered room service for the baby sitter to feed the kids while we were at dinner ourselves. We always included an order for her in addition to food for the kids. We left the tip money for her and the kids would be fed and happy when we returned. Wish I'd thought of that earlier!
Monday was Labadee. The tender line around 9am was quite long. It took us about 45 mins to get from the end of the line to Labadee. This was the first day we took David to the kids' club. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it looked great. In the morning, the water park area was limited to the kids' club participants. My son had a ball. When I picked him up at noon he had sand all in his hair and strategically placed around his face. He was happy, excited, and had had a ball.
My family and I had signed up for the noon Dragon's Breath zip line. I wound up going early because the tender took long enough that we weren't going to be able to get back to the ship in time to drop the kids off for the babysitter. (I had left money and a note for the babysitter saying that if we weren't there by a certain time to take the money and enjoy her time off- so I didn't stiff the babysitter) The whole process for the zip line from start to finish took about an hour and 45 mins. So I went at 10:30am, and when I was done I picked up my son from Adventure Ocean and got my daughter from my husband so he could start his own noon adventure. Unfortunately, the winds had picked up by then and the operators told anyone over 200 lbs they couldn't go. That immediately eliminated my sister's boyfriend. So now it was just going to be my sister and husband. But after they got through the practice line and were in the jeeps ready to go up to the platform, it was cancelled outright. There were no more zip lines the rest of the day. I don't know how often that happens, but if afternoon winds are a regular thing, an earlier zip line time definitely pays off. The zip line was awesome! It's short (only a couple minutes to go down the line), but the views from up there are amazing. [Side note: From where the tender drops you off, it only takes 5 minutes to walk to the Dragon's Breath Pub where you meet for the zip line. And everything is flat with no hills to walk up. The path that the tractor-shuttles drive is well packed sand. I saw some people with strollers, but don't think I'd have bothered to bring one myself.]
After lunch at the Dragon's Rock cafe my husband and I headed to our massages. The massage hut is off of Barefoot Beach up some stairs. No one gave us very good directions. My sister and her boyfriend had spent some time that morning hunting for it, so by the time it was our turn we knew where to go. As I mentioned earlier, if Maritas is one of the people giving the massage - get her! The person I had was great and very relaxing, but both my sister and husband who had Maritas said she was the best ever. Apparently she's very strong too which is why I gave her to my husband.
On Labadee my son loved the tractor shuttle. So we rode that around a few times just for the heck of it. It is a little faster than walking if you get the shuttle immediately, but everything is so close on Labadee that's it's not necessary unless you have a hard time walking in the sand or you're tired.
I took my son back to Adventure ocean in the afternoon. They were no longer in the water park, but they had some nice activities planned instead. My son still loved it.
That night was our night in Portofino's. It was everything everyone says. Great food, great service, worth the $20 per person cover charge. I had the Tiramisu for dessert. It was to die for! It's unquestionably the best Tiramisu I've ever had. It was creamy, incredibly delicious, served in a thin chocolate bowl, and came with a shot of Bailey's.
The next day was Montego Bay. I didn't bother to go ashore. I wanted to take advantage of the less crowded ship. It was definitely less crowded that day. On the sea day we couldn't get any lounge chairs around the H2O zone. On the Jamaica day, I had my pick of whatever lounge chair I wanted. This was also the first day I sent my son to the Adventure Ocean on the ship. I got the phone they give you for the 3-5 yr olds. Man, I wish I'd signed him up that first night on the ship! I knew they gave you phones for that age group, but I didn't realize they assign it to you for the entire cruise and that it's truly a fully-functioning ship's phone. We had been using two-way radios to communicate with our whole party. Sometimes two-way radios work well, and sometimes not so well. Having a phone you can call to and from staterooms or any phones around the ship was great. If you have kids in the 3-5 age group, even if you don't plan on using the club that much, go sign up immediately and get that phone! My son enjoyed the Adventure Ocean program on the ship as well. We'd been calling it "pre-school" to get him used to the idea. He had a ball.
The next day was Georgetown, Grand Cayman. We scheduled a SCUBA 2-tank dive through Divers Down specifically for cruise ship passengers. We were to meet at the dive shop at 9am. We got in line for the tenders at 8:15am, before they began announcing them at 8:30. We were on one of the first tenders off the ship. It was an easy 5-min walk to the shop and we arrived at just about exactly 9am. It was just us and one other couple on the dive boat. The north shore had rough waters, so we dove Trinity Caves for the first dive and a place called Aquarium III for the second. Trinity Caves is wonderful. In addition to the wonderful water, really cool coral formations that create the 'caves' (really more like tunnels through the coral), beautiful fish, etc. we also saw a sea turtle and an Eagle Ray. My husband had really been hoping to see a ray, so he was thrilled. The highlight for me was the turtle. On our second dive we found another turtle and my husband and I followed that guy for a while. The turtle was perfectly content having us follow him for a while. It was great. No wet suit is necessary. The water was warm, and the visibility was incredible. Unfortunately, my sister's boyfriend was supposed to join us, but when he got to the shop he had forgotten his certification card on the ship. Since he's not certified through PADI, the shop wasn't able to look him up online. So he had to return to the ship and never got a dive in on our cruise. :-( Divers Down was slightly more expensive (like only $10 per person more) than using the ship excursion, but there was only one other couple on the dive with us. Having such a small group was great. Well worth the slight increase in cost IMHO.
My sister was babysitting our kids while we did the SCUBA dive. When we got back we learned that they had walked all over the ship exploring everything. At one point in the morning, David requested specifically to go to "pre-school", so she dropped him off at Adventure Ocean. This was a pretty big deal because recently David had gone through a separation anxiety thing at our real preschool back home. So I hadn't been sure how he was going to react to the new environment and new people. Apparently I didn't need to worry!
We put the kids down for their customary afternoon nap, hung out in the cabin, and then went about our standard routine for getting ready for dinner, going to dinner, feeding the kids, putting them to bed, etc. With the kids we were the opposite of late night party animals.
I believe it was the night of Georgetown that the ship presented Happily Ever After, their show. My husband stayed with the kids and I went with my sister and her boyfriend to see the show. It was very odd. There were some very enjoyable moments and songs for me, but my overall impression (and my sister and the boyfriend agreed) was that it was like children's fairy tales being told by someone on a serious acid trip - Lots of black-light effects. Of all the shows it was the weirdest one.
Next day was Cozumel, Mexico. We went to Chankanaab Park (sister and boyfriend went their own way and had a blast - they rented a jeep and drove all over the island. They loved it and want to fly back sometime). You take a $10 taxi ride to the park and pay the entrance fee. There are $2 coupons you can print online and bring with you.
The kids loved watching the dolphins in their pens. Chankanaab is where the Cozumel dolphin swim is. It looked amazing. We headed to the children's protected beach. Unfortunately, some of the recent hurricanes put a bunch of rocks into the children's area. So make sure you bring swim shoes that can walk on rocks! We had the kids' swim shoes, so they were fine, but I had lent my snorkel equipment (along with my boots) to my sister and my husband forgot his on the ship. So we had to buy rainbow flip-flops which weren't the most stable, and they hurt my toes! That one thing really reduced my enjoyment of Chankanaab. So if you go to Chankanaab, make sure you have those swim shoes with you already. They had really nice bathroom facilities for a park. And while we were at the children's beach, they put out some inflatable things (a dolphin, a boat, and a boogie board) My kids immediately spotted the dolphin and kept talking about it, so my husband went to see how much it cost to rent them. They were free. So for about half an hour we rotated through each of them. It was a very nice touch. We never did have time to do the walk through the 'ruins' or visit the protected lagoon. I wanted to, but the kids were getting cranky because nap time was rapidly approaching.
That night's show was In The Air. We all went to that. We gave the kids their baths and put them in their pajamas for an immediate bed-time upon return to the cabin. The kids sat spell-bound through the entire show. It was great for everyone, but the kids seemed especially fascinated. They were never bored and were very well behaved.
The next day was our sea day steaming back to Miami (sob). That was the day we got down to the ice rink. David was able to 'skate' and the smallest size skates they have is child size 9, which is exactly his size. So my husband and I took turns skating him around the rink. It killed our backs since he wasn't able to stand on his own, but he had a blast.
After ice skating we went and got lunch at the Windjammer and then hit the H2O zone until nap time. It was again too crowded to get lounge chairs, so we just plunked our stuff down behind someone elses. The H2O zone itself wasn't too crowded. I sometimes had to move my son and myself to a different spot along the pool wall to allow him to continue to jump into my arms, but we never ran out of space entirely.
We went to the 5pm ice show that night before dinner. We hadn't succeeded in getting tickets when they were passing them out on Sunday, so we had to go stand by. The person at the door said that the Friday 5pm show is the one that everyone gets into. That's probably true because there were lots of empty seats that night. My sister and her boyfriend did stand-by on Wednesday night. That's the busiest night and they barely got the seats they did. So my advice is to try to get your tickets within the first hour they offer them. If you don't get any, go on Friday, especially if you have more than 2 people you're trying to have sit together. We easily got 6 seats together. The kids loved the ice show. Half way through, my son asked if we could go ice skating again! Very cute.
Then it was back to our room to meet up with our babysitter. We ordered room service again, got the babysitter her order, left her with the tip money, and headed off to our last dinner (sob).
I didn't get to the photo gallery until the last day before disembarkation. They closed at 9am and I got there at 8:30. It was hectic trying to find all our photos and choose between them and get them purchased in that short time. But I managed to do it.
We were among the last people off the ship. We hung out in the Catacombs which was cool, empty, and right next to where the line was formed for disembarkation. I have no idea why no one else in that nasty line came in to join us, but we had it entirely to ourselves. We could hear the announcements just fine, and while everyone else was in the cattle line, we were relaxing.
We finally got in line at 10:30 and were through customs at 11. We did wind up in a longer line than I'd have liked in customs, so I wish we'd waited until they made the "everyone, get off the ship!" announcement.
Our luggage was waiting all together for us when we went to baggage claim, we quickly got a porter and got two taxis to our hotel.
Now I'm back at work and desperately wishing we were back on the ship. The kids had an absolute ball and I think the H2O zone was such a great thing to do with them.