Background - We're a family of 4 (2 kids - 9 yr DD, and 12 yr DS) and this was our 2nd cruise. Our 1st cruise was with Princess (Caribbean Princess) and while it was lots of fun, our experience on Freedom of the Seas blew that ship away from many, many levels. Pre-trip, I was a little nervous about how crowded the ship would be, but I think that RC has their act together when it comes to handling crowds. We had some waits, but there were 4219 passengers on board!
We flew on American into Miami and luckily we had decided to fly in Miami the day before because this was the week when American canceled so many flights due to plane inspections. This ended up having little impact on us, but I would have been a wreck if we had tried to fly in on the same day. Lesson learned, no matter how early the flight may get in, fly in a day early.
Hotel info - we stayed at the Marriott Biscayne Bay. We didn't get in until 7pm, so it really was more about finding a place to sleep. Only comment I'd make is that the rooms only have kings or 2 doubles. Next time, I'd find a hotel that offered 2 queens in the same room as we were a little cramped that night. Took a quick cab ($5) over to Bayside Marketplace to walk around and find a place for dinner and when we got back, the kids jumped into the pool. The hotel is showing its age, but again, I wasn't really there for the atmosphere and it met our needs.
Embarkation Day - we arrived at the cruise port at 11:15 and hoped that we'd be able to get on early, but we learned that the disembarkation process from the previous cruise was taking long and it was likely that boarding wouldn't start until 1:00. We were bummed out because we wanted to get on and explore, but you just can't make immigration/customs move any faster. The first groups did start boarding around 1:00 and we got on about 1:45. By then, people were very hungry and there was a mad dash to the Windjammer. We decided to take a different approach and we walked up a flight of stairs to Sorrento's. There were only 4 other people in the restaurant and we thought the pizza was good so we felt that we had made the right choice. After lunch we changed into our suits and we were out by the pool around 2:30. It was practically a ghost town and the kids were thrilled to see the "Sprinkles" ice cream station. The pool eventually got busier, but never crowded, around 3:30. Apparently, it had taken a long time for everyone to get onto the ship and although we had to wait, we were glad that we had gotten to the port at 11:15.
Dining - The dining room was beautiful, but we had a table in one of the back rooms (i.e. not in the area where you could see all 3 levels). We had just one other family at our table and they also had two kids so it was a good fit for us. We LOVED our waiter Kumar and our assistant waiter was excellent as well. They were extremely accommodating to the adults as well as the kids. On Princess we had Anytime Dining and this experience was 100 times better. As the week went on, and we realized that they did a few "parades" in the dining room, we realized that we wished that we had asked for our table to be changed. Who knows, though, because we got along very well with our tablemates and that may not have been the case had we moved. Dinner was good - some appetizers and entrees were very good, some were average. This is not a cruise for true foodies, but I really was impressed with the fact that they could turn out so many dinners and they were always delivered hot. Never found anything too salty or greasy, but we could never get a decent steak in the dining room. However, the food on this ship was absolutely superior to the Caribbean Princess.
Activities - The Freedom excels in this area. There was always something fun to do and the Activities staff is a really fun group of people. We were up every morning by 8:00 and in bed around 1:00am and each day flew by because of the volume of things to do. Features of the ship such as the Flowrider, pools, H2O zone, basketball court, and ping-pong tables kept us busy and having fun. We enjoyed the "sexy legs" and belly flop contests and we played bingo a few times (alas, no winnings!). We had full expectations to spend some time in the casino, but we never did! First of all, it was pretty smoky in the room, but more than anything, we decided that we'd rather see the shows (dinner shows as well as adult-themed shows) and spend time having a drink in the promenade. We also loved going out the decks late at night for a walk, or for a few rounds of shuffleboard. By the end of the week, we realized that we had seen 8 shows. We thought the entertainment was very, very good and our kids enjoyed it all.
Service - Our room steward was fine. She made the beds, made towels animals and provided us with ice each day (even though we never used it). I didn't find her particularly outgoing and the one time I asked her for help with something (the batteries in our remote need to be replaced) she told me to contact maintenance. No big deal, but people on these boards rave about their room stewards and I'm not sure I get it. Maybe we're not overly demanding...I don't know. As mentioned above, service in the dining room was excellent. Service was also excellent in Johnny Rockets. We found employees on this ship to be helpful and attentive. No complaints what-so-ever.
Kid's Clubs - DD9 enjoyed AO and definitely met a few friends there, but she didn't spend lots of time because she wanted to spend time in the pool, on the rock climbing wall, etc. DS12 went to "The Living Room" the first night, but quite frankly, I wasn't wild about it. He's on the young side of 12 and I felt that the club was too old for him. Case in point, when we walked over to check it out, they were playing a Pink video on the large screen ("Stupid Girls"). This video features a very scantily clad Pink slinking around the screen. It was definitely risque and I just wasn't into that scene. My son is into video games and had hoped that they'd have a few stations, but they only had one. He didn't go back for the week.
Labadee - I wasn't that wild about Labadee. I thought it was fun, but truthfully, I enjoyed Princess Cays more. The kids did the waterpark for an hour and since we waited until the last time slot (3-4pm), it was deserted- we were the only ones there.
Ocho Rios - We didn't get off the ship in Ocho Rios. I've been to Jamaica before and we weren't into going to Dunns River Falls with the other 4000 people on our ship, plus people from the 4 other ships that were in port. Thought we should really enjoy the ship for the day, and we were sooooo happy with this decision. First, I don't even know if 100 people remained on board, but the ship felt empty to us! The line at Flowrider was never more than 6 riders and there were very few people in the pools. We had the bktball court, as well as the ping pong tables, to ourselves and we were able to get into Johnny Rockets without a problem. Second, the weather got a little ugly in the day and there was some pretty heavy rain. We decided to tour all floors of the ship at that time and I got to spend some time in the gym. Definitely a good decision for us to stay on the ship.
Grand Cayman - we booked the Reefs, Rays, and Rumpoint tour with Nativeways and it was ok. The weather was really a factor here for us. The snorkeling was very difficult due to the roughness of the ocean. The current was strong and my kids became tired pretty quickly. I was only able to last about 20 mins and I'm a pretty experienced snorkeler, but I was getting frustrated because waves kept crashing over my head and I was getting lots of water in my snorkel. The photographer was a little frustrated as well because he was unable to get pics of anyone snorkeling. Stingray City was also rough. All boats were having a tough time anchoring and it was hard to stand still to let the rays swim around your legs because of the waves. Just as we were getting into the boat, the reef guards came along and closed down the sand bar for the rest of the day. We went to Rum Point beach and had a nice lunch (included) and spent another hour or so in the water. Nativeways did a good job at getting everyone back to the pier on time, but I don't think it would have really mattered if we were 10 mins late or so because the tendering lines were very long (i.e. back at the pier by 3:00, not on a tendering boat until 3:35).
Cozumel - Booked with the ATV tour with Island Marketing. Loved the tour and the guides. After the ATV ride, we went to Playa Uva for snorkeling. The snorkeling isn't great because of tremendous reef damage, but we did see a few cool things and for the first time, son saw a Barracuda for the first time (he was a little freaked). Had time for shopping prior to the tour.
We spent the last day at Sea (how sad!) by getting up early and staying up late. Richard Spacey was all around that day and we had lots of fun listening to him and watching his antics. The evening show was fun as well (although there was a comedian for about 15 mins and DD9 doesn't usually get the jokes).
Disembarkation - we had a 12:50 flight out of Miami and our luggage tags indicated that we would disembark between 10:00 - 10:30. I wasn't too comfortable with that timeframe and visited Guest Relations to pick up earlier tags (no problem whatsoever). The next day we were supposed to get off the ship between 9:00 - 9:30, but customs was backed up and they were running 1 hour behind schedule. Our color was called at 10:05. At first, I was very nervous, but I found that RC really handled this as best as they could. Our group was in the theater and it was comfortable and one of the Activity Directors did a Q&A session to make the time go by a little quicker. Once our color was called, we were through customs and had our bags within 20 mins. I much preferred this approach (wait to call us), than the approach of letting us go and having us stand in long lines and wait for luggage. So, although we were delayed initially, we were on our way to the airport by 10:30.
We had a great cruise and we will absolutely be sailing with Royal Caribbean again!