My wife and two children (ages 8 and 11) just returned from the 12/28/2008 New Year's sailing and we had a wonderful cruise. This was our 9th cruise; 4th time with children (5 w/Carnival, 2 w/Princess, and 2 w/NCL) - all of our last five cruises were with Carnival. We are Carnival "loyalist" because their product fits our budget and we believe they truly provide a very good vacation value. We had a fun and memorable cruise experience on the Freedom, even though the live music entertainers (the alternate club band "Lifeline" and Reggae island band "Eclipse 1") were disappointingly below par compared to last year's New Year's Cruise on the Miracle. These musical venues should have been much better considering that this was a New Year's cruise, which is significantly more expensive than other cruise sailings in the year.
On Christmas Day (12/25) we flew down from New York to Miami, rented a large SUV from Budget and then drove 20 minutes to the Four Points by Sheraton Miami Beach, where we stayed three nights (12/25 - 12/28) in a beautiful mini-suite (free upgrade) with a partial ocean view. We started our first full day (12/26) enjoying a complimentary buffet breakfast; then we enjoyed the hotel's pool, Jacuzzi and beach front, all located on their beautifully landscaped grounds. The second day (12/27) we spent most of the day enjoying South Beach. Our favorite restaurant for breakfast was the Front Porch Cafe (1418 Ocean Drive) and dinners at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (Bayside Market) and Big Pink (157 Collins Avenue at 2nd Street). On the day of our cruise, we drove our Budget rental SUV to the Port Everglades 17th Street Budget drop-off location at 9:45 a.m. and then took two taxi cabs to Port Everglades ($10/each cab); arriving at the port at 10:30 a.m. We were physically on the ship by 11:30 a.m. and didn't have to wait in line for anything! Well done Carnival!!
Many times during our 100% occupied cruise, we found ourselves saying, "where is everybody?" The ship was so big that there was plenty of room for all passengers to enjoy their vacation without seeing large groups of people, except in the buffet areas during peak breakfast and lunch periods. We found the staff and crew to be extremely friendly and all of them greeted you and smiled as you passed them in the corridors. Our room steward (Riviera #1274) was just fantastic and was very accommodating to our requests (i.e., remove the contents of the mini bar from the refrigerator). Although he was not very visible, he always knew exactly when to tidy up our cabin, which he did several times a day. Everything was done to perfection, including creative towel animal creations. Our cabin was very spacious for a family of four and the bathroom/shower was equally sufficient as well. We also enjoyed the flat screen TV, along with the additional channels that were added since our last cruise. As for the rest of the ship, it was always glittering and sparkling clean as expected.
The foods in the buffet areas were great for a quick and convenient breakfast and lunch. On sea days, we had breakfast in the main dining room, where we enjoyed waiter service along with a bagel, cream cheese, lox, capers and red onion and/or eggs benedict. We also enjoyed these other delicious alternative dining options (and late evening snacks): 24/7 Pizzeria, Deli, Fish and Chips, Grills, sushi bar and 24/7 unlimited frozen yogurt and ice cream machines. We had a lovely booth (#573) in the Posh Dining Room overlooking the lower level and our waiter (Agran) and his assistant (Miriana) graciously tendered to our needs every night with big smiles. We found the overall quality of the food to be on par compared to our previous Carnival cruises. However, we have noticed that the quality of the food has been on the decline over the past five years. We always looked forward to the dessert portion of our meal, when the dining room lights would dim/shimmer, upbeat music would begin to play and the passengers and waiters would then dance and sing in the isles. Carnival did not let us down and provided a "fun and exciting" dining experience every night
At night we enjoyed listening and dancing to the Freedom Showband, who were just awesome and had a great sound. On our previous New Year's cruise on the Miracle, the club band "Music Manila" did an outstanding job in entertaining and rocking the house every night and entertaining all of us on New Year's Eve on the Lido deck. Unfortunately, Freedom's club band "Lifeline" needed a lifeline, as they were not a "tight" sounding band and their vocals needed much improvement. Unfortunately, the Reggae island band "Eclipse 1" lacked a live drummer and consisted of just two lazy, tone deaf musicians who made no effort to connect with or exchange words with any of the passengers throughout the cruise. The two productions shows "Ticket to Ride" and "Big Easy" were well performed and very entertaining, as well as the Carnival Legends and the juggler act. Both comedians, Derrick Eason and Dana Tison were also very funny and entertaining. The classical music trios were top notch and a pleasure to listen to, especially during Tea Time in the rear of the Posh Dining Room on sea days. The Freedom Showband was one of the best bands we had experienced on any cruise and on New Year's Eve we were fortunate to see and hear them play big band standards up close and personal in the main lobby in front of the main bar.
On a daily basis, at 6:30 a.m., my wife and I would work out in the health club and never had to wait for an elliptical trainer or treadmill. We were very impressed with the treadmills, which were equipped with individual LCD flat screen TVs, providing many channels to choose from, including the "Today Show" starring cruise director Lenny Halliday and his assistant, Josh "Big Sexy"- both of which were entertaining and funny throughout the cruise. The water slide was very nice and there were plenty of lounge chairs at pool areas to choose from at 6:30 a.m. (LOL). As on most ships, you really need to get up early to find lounge chairs that are situated near the pools. The miniature golf was nothing to write home about, but it was "free" and it entertained my two children.
We had great weather every day and enjoyed all three ports. Since this was our first time in Key West, after getting off the ship we walked a few blocks and then purchased tickets on our own for the one and a half hour Conch Tour Train ($86), as it was much cheaper than Freedom's price for the same tour. This was a very informative tour and we highly recommend this for first timers to Key West. We then sampled some Conch Fritters and did the "Duval Crawl", which means we strolled down Duval Street and went shopping for souvenirs. After reading so many positive Cruise Critic posts, experiences and reviews about Captain Bryan's Buccaneer Stingray City Excursion in Grand Cayman, prior to our cruise we booked via email the 3-hour catamaran tour ($39/adult; $27/child) and we were so glad we did. The Buccaneer snorkeling trip takes you to the World Famous Stingray City Sandbar, Coral Gardens and the Cayman Barrier Reef for great snorkeling experiences. Snorkeling gear and life vests are provided, as well as free non-alcoholic refreshments. A few months prior to our cruise, we also booked the Cool Runnings Dunn's River Falls excursion on Carnival's website ($236) and were glad we did. This tour was the highlight of our cruise excursions and it was worth every penny. The crew of ten consists of several female dancers, a D.J., bar tenders and a captain. Unlimited non-alcoholic beverages are served on the way to the falls and Red Stripe beers and rum punch are served on the way back to the ship as well as the non-alcoholic beverages. Climbing the falls with the tour guides was challenging and fun...we had an awesome time - No Problem Mon!! On the way back, the dancers encouraged all to participate in several line dances to great loud sounding tunes, which we greatly enjoyed.
Since we had a late afternoon flight, we elected not to do the "self assist" debarkation process as we had done on prior cruises. We found the debarkation process to be very organized and stress free. We waited on the lido deck until our number was called around 9:45 a.m. and we were on the Carnival chartered bus to Miami Airport by 11:00 a.m. All in all, it was a fantastic cruise and vacation. The itinerary was excellent, the weather was good and the seas were always calm. For the most part, the food was good, but not great. The passengers and staff were friendly, polite, and pleasant for the most part. I'd certainly recommend the Freedom and a New Year's cruise on any Carnival ship - it's worth the extra expense.
And now it's time to begin my search for our next cruise!