My husband and our three children, ages 12, 8, and 6, sailed on the Aug 24 Eastern Caribbean itinerary. This was the 11th cruise for the hubby and I, with past cruises on Carnival (4), Princess (2), Celebrity (1), Disney (1), and Royal Caribbean (2). We always get at least a balcony room and book the cruise way in advance (we booked this one in June 2007). On this cruise, we had adjoining Cat E1 balcony rooms. We looked into the getting the royal family suite (cat FS), but that was about $4000 more than getting the adjoining rooms, We booked this ship because we love the variety of activities available on Royal Caribbean ships, and when we heard about this class we just had to try the FlowRider.
We flew down the night before the cruise. For us, there was a choice of only two flights the day of the cruise: the one where we have to get up before the sun and the one that may not get us there on time if there's delays. It's much nicer to wake up in the port city, have a leisurely breakfast, then head to the ship on our own schedule. I will gladly pay for one night in a hotel just so I don't have to deal with kids who are cranky because they have been up since 4am. Plus it's always better to cushion your schedule during hurricane season; you never know when schedules might change.
We flew into Ft. Lauderdale airport (was cheaper than Miami airport), then took the Go shuttle to our hotel in Miami for $21 a person. We probably could have saved some money by taking a taxi, but it was the first thing we saw and we were tired so we grabbed it. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Bayside. A nice hotel with rooms that comfortably hold five (two beds plus sofa bed). Our window faced the port, but I forgot to request a room on an upper floor so we could only see the top portions of the ship on Sunday morning.
Sunday morning we did the breakfast buffet at the hotel. The cost was reasonable since kids eat free. They had fruit, bread, cereal, scrambled eggs, pancakes, juice, coffee, etc. They were a little slow about replenishing food and plates when they ran out, but it was otherwise okay. The hotel does not offer any sort of shuttle service to the port, so we took a taxi ($8 plus tip).
Embarkation wasn't too bad. There were over 40 agents available in the first section, where you sign in and get your cards, and there were no lines when we got there (we had agent #42 and there were still a few to the right of us). The ship wasn't quite ready yet, so we waited in the holding area for about 20 minutes. I had a backpack with gameboys, activities, and snacks so it went quickly. We were on the ship shortly before noon.
The ship: I don't know where to start to describe this huge, awesome ship. We managed to experience just about all she had to offer, but it still felt like one week was not enough to thoroughly enjoy it all. Royal Caribbean has really outdone themselves with this impressive masterpiece.
Medical Center - Unfortunately, when we first got on the ship my daughter slipped on some stairs as we were exploring. She wasn't seriously hurt, but did skin her ankle badly enough that I wanted to put a bandaid on it. I had bandaids and various medical supplies packed in the suitcases but they hadn't been delivered to the room yet. I called down to the medical facility and was told that they had a vending machine in their lobby where I could purchase bandaids for fifty cents in quarters. For future reference, fifty cents will get you two regular bandaids, or one large bandaid. They also had benedril, antibiotic ointment, and tylenol.
Spa - I stopped by here shortly after we boarded to make my reservation for a hot stone massage on the first sea day ($195 + tip). The experience was wonderful and very relaxing. I have a strained ligament in my foot and it even stopped hurting after the massage. Even better, I was able to use a coupon in my Crown and Anchor booklet to save 10%. Next time, however, I will book the massage at the end of the cruise. After the rock climbing, the flow rider, and the ice skating, I was feeling a bit sore and my muscles would have appreciated some attention.
Ice skating - The rink is open for guests to try skating, in 45 minute blocks during the mornings. We went to the 10:30-11:15am slot on Fri (day 6) and were able to get skates with no problem. After each session they clear the ice and make you turn in your skates, then get in line again if you want to do the next session. We got in line for the 11:15 - noon session and were able to get skates again, but they ran out of skates during the session. You must wear socks and long pants if you want to ice skate. There are helmets and knee pads available for children, but they are not required. There is no age or height limit for skating, and they had sizes small enough for young children (my 6 year old wears a 13). My family enjoyed it so much, we went back again the next day.
The Flowrider - Height limits are 52 inches for boogie boarding (you can lay down or kneel) and 56 inches for stand up surfing. Even if you don't want to try it, its worth a trip to the back of the ship just to watch everyone else's attempts. The area directly behind the flowrider is in the sun, but the viewing areas to the sides are covered so you get shade. My youngest wasn't tall enough to participate, but the 8 year old and I tried the boogie board; and the 12 year old and her father tried the boogie board and the stand up surfing. The line for the boogie board was about half an hour, but at least you could watch everyone else and try to get pointers. The line for standup surfing went faster because most people didn't last for more than a few seconds. There is a Royal Caribbean photographer posted here to take pictures.
Mini-golf - We played several times, although we didn't really keep score. The kids enjoyed searching for lost balls in the bushes as much as playing golf (we found about 8 one round). We never had to wait to get on the course, but we usually had people right in front of us and had to wait for the next hole several times. All three kids really enjoyed playing.
Rock climbing - The kids went for one session that was "kids only" and we went back another day so I could try it. The ship provides a helmet, harness, and shoes. Both times the guys that held the ropes were very helpful and encouraging. Note that you have to wear socks, a shirt, and shorts or pants to do the wall, and your clothing must be dry. Children must be at least six years old, but there is no height restriction. The six year old didn' make it to the top, but the rest of us got to ring the bell.
H20 Zone - This was a fantastic area for the kids to play in. There was an area that my kids called the whirl pool; I think Royal Caribbean calls it a lazy river. It's a small (~12 ft diameter) circular area with a current. There is a large shallow area with various sculptures spraying water for the kids to run through. There are fixed water guns for kids to squirt each other. Another sculpture collects water in buckets and periodically dumps it on the kids. There is an area specifically for toddlers in swim diapers, too. There is a small pool (depth is about 5 and a half feet) for the kids to swim and jump in the water. The H20 Zone was crowded on sea days, but not unbearably so. I was always able to find a chair to set up camp. On port days it was mostly deserted. My only negative comment is that the H20 Zone was only open from 8am - 8 pm; I would have liked to see it open later because the underwater lighting was beautiful and it looked like it would have been a lot of fun at night.
Photo studio - Good variety of backgrounds for the formal pictures, and as usual, lots of opportunities for pictures. The 8x10's were about $20, but for every four you got a free frame. (you didn't have to buy all four at one time, I bought three early in the cruise, then bought more later and I just had to bring my receipt back to get credit for the first three). Unfortunately, the photo studio is also responsible for one of my low points of the whole cruise. I ordered a crystal photo cube with a picture of the kids as a present for their grandparents. On Wed., I ordered the large one, which cost $99, and was told to pick it up after 10:00pm on Saturday, which was the last night of the cruise. Since I was getting them the cube, I didn't spend a lot of time shopping for other souvenirs like I usually do; that was going to be my main gift to thank them for everything they do for us. As we were packing our luggage Saturday night, I went down to the photo studio and was told that their machine had broken and they hadn't been able to make my cube. I asked if they could ship it to me after the machine was fixed and they said no. So seven hours before the end of our cruise, and an hour before the ship stores closed, I found out that I should have done more shopping in St. Thomas. I understand that its not their fault that the machine broke, but it would have been nice if they had notified me earlier that there was a problem. If they really wanted to get on my good side, they could have offered me a store coupon or a discount on a picture, but that didn't happen either....nothing...nada. So my wonderful week ended on a bit of a sour note.
Future cruise desk- The bookings for Oasis of the Seas opened up for Crown and Anchor members while we were on the cruise, so we stopped by to see what information they had. That led to asking about prices and itineraries. To make a long story short, we're booked in adjoining cabins on Oasis in August 2010. Again, we looked into a room that holds five, but it was about $4000 more (in the $10000 range). Since we booked while on the ship, we will receive a $100 credit on each room. That ship looks even better than Freedom. It will have two Flow Riders, a zipline, and a carousel!
Staterooms- We were in cabins 8600/8602, adjoining balcony cabins, mid-ship on the port side. As anyone with a family of 5 can tell you, most cruise ships don't offer reasonably priced rooms that hold five, so that's why we had to book two. Aside from the cost, it actually works out nicely having two bathrooms. There were plenty of drawers and closet shelves for storage space. With the door open between the rooms, there was plenty of space for us. The flat screen TVs were easy to adjust so you could view them from different places in the room. The balconies seemed a little bigger than the ones on Mariner of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas. One of the room stewards (we had a different one for each room) opened up the balcony door between the rooms and that really gave us a huge balcony. Speaking of the room stewards, they were both very good. Kept the rooms clean, brought plenty of towels, and left us wonderful towel animals on all but the first night. I think the alligator was my favorite. We did note that they no longer leave chocolate on the pillows when they turn down the beds. Guess that's another way of saving money (though not quite as blatant as the fuel surcharges). We also noticed how good the sound proofing is between the rooms. When the door between the rooms was closed, you couldn't hear the TV or anything.
Stateroom bathrooms - While the cabin had a lot of storage space, the bathroom did not provide many places to keep toiletries. There was very little counter space around the sink, and the shelves in the medicine cabinet weren't very deep. There was a shelf under the sink that helped. I can't imagine four people trying to share this bathroom. That was the negative, now for the positive - the shower was wonderful. The shower head was adjustable (nice for kids) and detachable, and the shower had incredible water pressure.
Dining: Windjammer - We ate breakfast and lunch in the Windjammer every day. It was usually quite crowded, but we were always able to find a table. Some mornings they opened up Portofinos and let passengers use the tables in there. Breakfast was nothing special - the usual fare of fruit, pancakes, donuts, eggs, breads, bacon, hash browns, etc. Lunch had a good variety of food plus some standard fare that was available every day (fruit, bread, hamburgers, deli platter, pizza). The desserts were very good and we kept our rooms stocked with chocolate chip cookies throughout the week. My only complaint here is the hours. We usually didn't go to lunch until ~2:00, and lunch ended at 3:00. They usually stopped restocking things about 2:30, so we didn't always have the greatest selection or desserts until we learned to grab them early.
Leonardo - We had dinner every night in the Leonardo dining room, table 300. This was one of the few disappointing things about the cruise. The menus didn't have as many choices compared to my memory of previous cruises, and the entrees seemed rather heavy on vegetarian and seafood dishes. There were a couple nights where the only beef option was to order the steak that was offered from Chops grille, at a cost of $14.95 (I've already paid several thousand for a cruise where food was supposed to be included, so I saw no need to pay even more). There was prime rib on two nights, but no filet minon, chateau briand, beef wellington, etc. offered. They did do lobster, but not on the formal night like we've seen on past cruises, plus we almost missed it because it was labeled as a seafood platter on the menu, and you had to read the small print in the description to discover it was lobster tail and shrimp. Our waiter was very good about bringing out the fruit cups for the kids, and bringing their entrees out (usually mac 'n cheese, peanut butter and jelly, or hamburger), but service for the adults was noticeably slower. One night the kids finished eating before we got our salad (and one night the waiter never brought my salad). We thought the service might be more timely the night we were in San Juan because the dining room was only half full, but there was no noticeable difference. The assistant waiter was also a bit lacking. Four nights into the cruise, he was still asking what we would like to drink, even though we ordered the same things every night. Lastly, the bartender didn't give us a lot of attention. We aren't heavy drinkers, but we usually do have a drink with dinner a couple nights during a cruise. The first night someone stopped by to ask if we wanted wine. When we said no, that was the last we saw of him. Night two, we did get a daiquiri and whiskey sour. Night three we didn't see him. By night four, we stopped at Bolero's on the way in and got drinks. The rest of the nights I just stuck to lemonade.
Cafe Promenade - Made several stops here for desserts. The staff was always very pleasant and willing to dish up plates full of cookies. My son tried one of the ham sandwiches but didn't like that it came with mayo already on it. My husband tried the coffee, but said it was very strong.
Sorrento's - Stopped by for pizza twice, but only ate once. The first time, I asked for Cheese pizza and they said they ran out. That was all they said; they didn't try to offer me any other options or tell me how long until more would be ready. A few nights later we stopped by and I was able to get a slice. It was good.
Ice cream machine - Offered vanilla, chocolate, or swirled ice cream. Good ice cream, bad hours - was only open from 11am - 8pm. One of our cruise rituals on previous cruises was to get ice cream after we picked the kids up from camp at 10:00. Not on this ship (thank goodness for the Cafe Promenade cookies).
Kids Club: Adventure Ocean Explorers (6-8 yr olds) - The two younger kids went to camp every day, usually from after breakfast until noon (when camp closed for lunch), from after lunch until 5:00 (when camp closed for dinner), and from after dinner until 10:00 (when the late night party zone starts and they charge $5/hour). Make sure you sign them up the first night during registration; several days into the cruise we were still getting stuck in line behind people who were signing up. You get a royal caribbean lanyard when you sign them up so they can keep their sail and sign cards. The kids play games and make crafts in camp, and win little keychains during the week. They also put on shows like the Circus on the Promenade and the Pirate parade. As previous cruisers with Royal caribbean, we noticed that they are very similar to the Circus and Pirate parade that we saw on Navigator of the Seas in 2004 and Mariner of the Seas in 2007, but they have updated a few things. My two youngest really liked their time in Adventure Ocean.
12-14 yr olds - Kids 12 and older don't need to register, and can come and go as they please in this club. They have free time, as well as some organized activities such as games and scavenger hunts. There are also time slots reserved specifically for the 12-17 yr olds at the ice skating rink, flowrider, and rock climbing wall.
Entertainment: Ice Skating show - I highly recommend seeing this show, which was performed four nights during the week (M and F at 5:00, Tu and Th at 7:45). It's incredible what they can do in that small amount of space. The guest entertainer, Wolfgang Bientzle, was also excellent and well received by the crowds. (It's hard to describe what he did; if I say gymnastics in a large ring it just doesn't do his act justice.) Ticket distribution was Mon from 9:30am - 10:45am. I showed up about 9:25 and there was a very long line, but it moved quickly and there were plenty of tickets when I got to the table.
Production shows - Went to "Marquee" on Day 2 and "Once Upon a Time" on Day 6. Marquee was not very impressive, but Once Upon a Time was good. My 12 year old went to Marquee with us, but was so disappointed at "wasting an hour of her life on that lame show" that she opted out of Once Upon a Time. Unfortunately Royal Caribbean doesn't schedule the shows very well for people with kids in camp. We had the early seating (along with most of the families) so we went to the 9pm show. We had to pick up the kids from camp at 10:00, and the shows didn't end until after then so we never saw the end of a show. Our tablemates said the Magician (day 4) was very good but we didn't' make it to that show.
Ports: We chose to stay on the ship in San Juan and St. Maartin and enjoyed the relatively uncrowded pools and dining areas.
St. Thomas - took a taxi to Coral World. The taxi driver gave us some discount coupons, so it ended up costing $68 for two adults and three children. They have an underwater observatory where you can watch the fish in their natural habitat. There is also a large aquarium and numerous small aquariums. There is a "touch pool" where the kids could pet starfish and sea urchins. Other pools had stingrays, sharks, and sea turtles, There is also a nature trail that has displays with land turtles and ducks. There is a lorikeet aviary where you can buy cups of nectar to feed the birds. Iguanas are all over the place, to the point where you have to watch your step. We stayed for the 1:00 shark feeding, where we learned about the three kinds of sharks in the pool. At the end, they put one of the baby nurse sharks in a small tub and let people pet it. The kids thoroughly enjoyed it.
In summary, this was an awesome week and Freedom of the Seas is a great ship for a family vacation. The couple of low points (dinner service in dining room and the photo cube disappointment) were far outweighed by the fun we had on the flow rider, at the ice skating rink, on the rock climbing wall, in the H20 zone, on the mini-golf course, in the spa, on the balcony, etc. If the price was right, I wouldn't hesitate to go on this class of ship again; the itinerary doesn't matter. We are psyched about Royal Caribbean and counting the 700 days until our cruise on Oasis!