My family of 4 sailed the Explorer May 30, 2004 on the Eastern itinerary and we had a blast. We left Miami airport at 1pm and were in our cabin by 2pm. There were lots of people there at embarkation, but it surprisingly went quite fast.
We had 2 cabins on 2 different decks, 1 was an outside oceanview with balcony (very small), the 2nd cabin was an outside oceanview--no balcony, but was quite large as it was handicap accessible. It was great size! Luckily, the cabins were both on starboard side aft, therefore we were only 5 decks apart. I don't believe I will ever pay for a balcony cabin again. Although it was nice to go out on it and see the ports as you arrive or depart, I didn't spend that much time in my cabin to make it worth the price. Some may differ on that point.
It has been 18 years since I've cruised, so a lot has changed. First of all, this ship is huge!! My kids were in awe as was I. It is beautifully decorated, was kept clean and has way too much to do. We couldn't get it all done in just 1 week (that is not a complaint!). One of our cabin stewards was a little better than the other, but both were very friendly and helpful. We loved the towel animals! Our dining room waiter and assistant were average. Nothing over the top. I was disappointed that I missed the only night that they actually performed. 18 yrs ago, they performed nightly! The food was very good and I was always stuffed as I left the table. My daughter is a very picky eater and seemed to have trouble finding things she would eat in the formal dining room. However, I must say she would go to Johnny Rocket's or the Windjammer if she were still hungry, so she did not starve! I enjoyed the breakfasts in Windjammer and got a little tired of the lunches--not a lot of changes to the buffet at lunch. The food overall was good, not fantastic.
The kids program gets an A+ from our family. I have a 17 and 14 yr old. Each had their own activities and they met sooooo many other kids. They had even more fun than my husband and I--and we thought we had a great time. I loved the fact that I felt safe leaving my kids on their own at night. They would stay out quite late and always had fun with the kids they met in Optix--the teen disco. I also had heard that there was a charge for Johnny Rocket's. That was not true on our ship. The only charge is for shakes. Everything else is free. There is a charge for Ben & Jerry's ice cream as well, which I didn't think the Explorer had, but we found it at the Cafe Promenade. The kids told us that this is the best vacation we have ever done. Of course, be prepared to not see much of your kids. We had to INSIST they eat dinner with us in the evening and go with us when we got off the ship in port. Otherwise, we may never have seen them!!
I was pleasantly surprised how easy I found my way around the ship. Each deck is marked with the deck plan and as we were told--you eat in the back of the ship and are entertained in the front of the ship. As I had heard in other reviews--the Ice Show was great. It is amazing what they can do on that patch of ice. The other entertainment was ok---nothing fantastic. I prefer the interactive entertainment where the passengers are involved. I wish there would have been more of that.
My husband and I enjoyed the ship shape center. The workout facility was very nice with a lot of equipment. We used the walking track, but you have to use it early in the day as people using deck chairs have to use that same walkway to get around and you have to dodge a lot of people later in the day as there are tons of people around the pool area.
My biggest complaint is about all the "not included" items. Pictures are ridiculously priced at $15-20 depending on size. Drinks were approx. $6 give or take. Shore excursions average $30 p/p--some a lot more than that! (we didn't purchase any shore excursions from RCCL-we did our own thing with car rental or taxi) Tipping for a family of 4 was close to $300. Cokes are extra-however I did purchase the fountain card for my daughter and that paid off in the end. You can easily drop an additional $1000-2000 while on the cruise depending on your shore excursion. and how much you drink. When you pay $2500-4000 to begin with, another $1000-2000 can hurt. (We never ate at Portofino's due to the $20 p/p charge)
I don't want to end on a negative note as this was without a doubt a wonderful vacation. I give it a 5 out of 6 stars and would definitely do it again (as soon as I can afford it!). My kids would give it a 10 out of 10 I'm sure. This was their 1st cruise and I know they are spoiled by it.
Royal Caribbean is tops in my book and I truly loved the large ship. I enjoyed the many activities and the crew was all very friendly.