First let me say that as a family having cruised many times on Royal Caribbean we may have set our expectations too high for this particular cruiseline. We had read numerous reviews prior to departing and decided not to cancel and go with an open mind. I'm still not convinced that was a great idea.
There were four in our party, my wife and I, and our sixteen year old daughter and thirteen year old son. We arrived the day before and stayed at the Hyatt Pier 66, which is nicely located one mile from the port and has beautiful grounds and marina. I highly recommend this hotel. The staff was courteous and the rooms nicely appointed and clean. The night before the cruise we had a room in the tower, where from our balcony when we awoke the next morning we could see the Orchestra at the pier. The night the cruise ended we stayed in a lanai room directly on the waterway with two beautiful yachts docked right outside our window. The water taxi stops right at the hotel pier and brings you to some great spots in Ft. Lauderdale and also affords a spectacular view of the homes and yachts along the waterway.
We arrived at the cruise terminal at about 11:45 and were greeted by long lines. I had completed the express check-in on the MSC website a few weeks prior with all of our passport information, etc. and as the instruction said printed the form to be presented at the express check-in window. There is no express check-in window and after waiting in line for an hour we finally made it to the check-in desk and the guy didn't even look at the express check-in form. The process once we were at the desk was quick and we were on board by 1:15. Not as speedy as expected but not too bad.
When we stepped onto the ship there were crew members standing there but they were talking amongst themselves and not paying any attention to passengers boarding. No welcome or directions were given, so we assumed our stateroom was ready and went directly there. It was ready. For four people it was a little tight, but manageable, as we don't spend a large amount of time in the room. There were two twins made into one queen a pullout love seat and a bunk that pulled out of the wall. The room was clean with the exception of the slider to the balcony had finger prints all over it and obviously hadn't been cleaned. Bathroom was small with a tiny shower with a curtain that stuck to you when you showered.
After checking out the cabin we headed up to the pool deck (13) for the buffet. This was extremely unorganized and usually total chaos with people entering the line at any point they felt like, rather than going to the end and waiting their turn. This is obviously not so much the fault of the cruiseline as of the rude people who have no regard for others in line. The food choices were somewhat limited compared to those on other cruises and for the most part was either bland or tasted awful. They did have roast lamb one day that was great, but the accompanying side-dishes were horrendous. The standard burgers and dogs were only offered on one side of the buffet and usually had the longest line. They do have a salad bar and we usually stuck with that for lunch. It would be nice if they added onions to the salad bar. Seating was usually easy to get if you go all the way back to what is know as the Four Seasons Dining Room.
The pool area was crowded but seats are always available. We liked sitting on the lounges on the deck above the pool and watching the activities or reading and relaxing. Beverage service was always available and the servers were extremely polite and not constantly pushing drinks.
Small finger sandwiches and pastries were available around four o'clock and pizza was available at five o'clock. Not being a huge pizza fan I thought it was horrible but my wife who loves pizza said it was "ok".
We had the second seating in the Ibiscus Dining Room and had requested a private table of which there were plenty. We were seated at a table for eight and after speaking with a Maitre d' with an attitude, it was quite evident he couldn't care less what our request was and had no intentions of honoring our request. It turned out fine as we were seated with a very nice group and had a lot of laughs. On the first night I ordered Caesar salad and Chicken Marsala for dinner. The salad had perhaps five or six pieces of lettuce and hardly any dressing. When my entrée was served, I told the waiter I didn't order an appetizer and he informed me that appetizer size drumstick and the accompanying bite size piece of thigh (?) was in fact my dinner! First time I lost weight on a cruise! We also like to enjoy a martini before dinner and discuss the day's events and plan tomorrow's events with the kids, while we review the menu selections. We were told that the dining room staff does not serve cocktails, but that they would get a cocktail server, who showed up as we were finishing dinner. Cocktail service did improve as the week went on, as I tipped one of the servers the second night. He was very attentive going forward. As for the food for the rest of the week…horrible. Absolutely the worst tasting and smallest portions of any cruise we have been on. I have seen better presentation and tasted better food in a hospital. What was advertised as rack of lamb turned out to be two paper thin lamb chops. What was advertised as filet mignon was a not even recognizable piece of rubber boot. Escargot served in a dried up baked potato with no snails, just mushrooms and a brown sauce.
The language barrier was also a major stumbling block, as our waiter was from Indonesia and spoke very limited English except when taking our order he would point with his pen and say "what you want" and when changing silverware or serving food he would give everything to me to pass down the table to the intended recipient. Not exactly fine dining!!
Entertainment in the lounges was terrible. What was built up to be this fantastic Beatles Review turned out to be the ship's cruise director and four other staff singing (or attempting to) Beatles' songs. They should stick to their day jobs! Karaoke and talent show were ok. Usually any show with the cruise activity staff in it was corny and sometimes almost homo erotic. We only attended the Magic show in the theatre, so I can't really comment on this venue. Poolside activities were minimal and rather foolish.
The ports were great. We booked only one excursion through the ship in Antigua and it was excellent. The rest of the ports we did our own thing with shopping and dining, etc.
A few points of concern that I noticed: Pool rules not enforced. There was a large family that basically took over one of the pools and had an infant in a diaper in the pool with them. That did it for me using the pool for the rest of the week. One afternoon while we were sitting having a gelato we were inundated with young children perhaps age five or six who we assume were part of the day care, running wild around the pool deck on a scavenger hunt. These kids were not under the direction or watch of any staff and were let to run all over the pool deck and upper decks above the pool. Not only were these kids at risk of being hurt, etc., I would bet that the parents had no clue their children were running around unattended. The teens group also had very little supervision and age limits not enforced. It is beyond me why a twenty-four year old guy was allowed to hang at the teen club. Trouble just waiting to happen. Thankfully our two were not interested in hanging there and made friends that also chose not to hang there.
In summary, I think MSC has a long way to go before it could even come close to comparing with cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean. While I recognize that MSC is a European company and promote themselves as such, I saw many disgruntled Europeans on the cruise as well. I feel badly for the staff, as I truly believe that given the proper training and a quality product to deliver they could do so. I observed simple frustrations of passengers being elevated to levels of anger because of either a language barrier, or in some cases a "who cares" attitude. I was also dismayed at the way the wait-staff and bar staff was treated by management and in some cases patrons. The bar manager in the Savannah Lounge treated the staff like they were slaves and looked down his nose at everyone including patrons. This guy truly needs to get over himself. Additionally, there were a number of elderly passengers that were extremely rude and degrading to staff with an attitude of superiority and entitlement. It is beyond me why people feel they have the right to be nasty to other people. A little kindness can go a long way in trying to resolve a situation. In a conversation we had with a member of the staff, when asked how much longer he would be serving on this ship, he responded "hopefully not long, nobody likes working here." Mr. Sasso, it shows.
While one might argue that because of the kids sail free incentive we "got what we paid for", to the contrary, we paid about the same price for the owner's suite on the Royal Caribbean Empress two years ago and have unbelievable memories that will last a lifetime and we were fed and treated like royalty. Shop around, there are some great deals to be found.