Background information - I am a retired Navy submarine nuclear power plant operator. My wife and I both work for an atomic power laboratory now. My son and daughter are grown and live in the Charleston, SC area. They did not accompany us on this cruise. We love to ballroom dance, both smooth and Latin. I am a gear head/tech head and love learning about how things work and my electronics/computers.
Flights - We used Southwest Air to fly direct from PIT (Pittsburgh International, PA, USA) to MCO (Orlando International, FL, USA). I am still amazed at the number of people who still think that Southwest just uses the cattle call to board flights. Things have changed folks. To begin with, Southwest has one of the best on time records in the industry. There is no charge for the first two bags under 50 pounds, no charge for snacks/non-alcoholic drinks, or specific seats. Your boarding spot is determined by when you check in for your flight. Starting at the 24 hour before flight point, you can check in online or via your smart phone. You will be assigned an alpha-numeric "number". A1 though A15 are always reserved for Business Select, whether there are 15 people flying Business Select or not. A16 through A60 are the next numbers called, and when you get on the plane, you pick whatever seats you want, where ever you want. Then they board families with children under 4, then B1 through B60, again, you take whatever seat you want that is available when you get on the plane. Then C1 through C60. If you want a good choice, you check in as early as possible. If you check in on your smart phone, then you print your boarding pass when you get to the airport. You will not lose your "spot". I have enjoyed every flight that I've taken on Southwest, the flight attendants have sung songs to us, they make jokes, and they are generally great people. Southwest flies Boeing, which makes me happy, I don't care for Airbus aircraft, just a personal thing, I don't think they're less safe, just don't like the passenger layouts. In addition, our local grocery store owns a convenience chain, for every $50 in groceries you buy, you "earn" 10 cents/gallon discount on gas (up to 30 gallons). It also happens that the grocery store sells Southwest gift cards, and Marriott gift cards. Hmmmm, win win situation here, I use the gift cards for airline and hotel stays and get discounted fuel to boot (not to mention the gift cards are a one size fits all gift). Overall, I enjoy Southwest's product, and I'm a happy Southwest flier.
Rental Car - I use Budget, simple as that. They offer reasonable prices, convenience, and decent cars. For instance, when I got to the Budget counter, they were lined up 5 rows deep (based on past experience, 30 to 45 minutes). As a Budget Fastbreak customer, I skipped the line, went to the Fastbreak counter, and was (cue trumpets here) #1 in line. I like #1. I had the car before my wife had our luggage together. Due to my exile in Pennsylvaniastan, I am slowly getting used to driving on roads that resemble driving across the surface of the Moon. It's only fractionally better than dirt roads. Florida's (my home of record for my entire career in the Navy, no state income tax) smooth, straight, 70 mph highways are such a blessing to that state. I spent a little time visiting an electronics surplus store that I used to go to often while in Nuclear Power School, then we drove to P'Can (Port Canaveral). I'll cut to the chase now, we love the Budget office in P'Can (CC5 on Astronaut Blvd.), they offer shuttle to the pier, pick you up from the pier and make life generally easy. On our return we caught the shuttle, picked up our car and drove to the airport. We even used the $10.50 option, if you drive less than 75 miles (if memory serves); just drop the car off, no need to buy more gas. If you choose to fill it, show them the receipt, and they'll take the $10.50 off.
GPS - I bought a new TomTom One 340 XL to compliment my 3 year old TomTom 1. With Route IQ, lane guidance and an extensive database of POIs (Points of Interest), it's really silly not to have one of these devices if you travel at all. Pittsburgh is a nightmare to navigate; I wouldn't leave my house without my GPS. Its great while driving, just key up nearby fuel, restaurants or shopping if you need something. Just too easy. Mapquest is great, but if you miss a turn, you have to figure out how to get back and start over, with a GPS, it simply recalculates your route from where you are.
Hotel - We stayed at the Residence Inn Cape Canaveral/Cocoa Beach. Fantastic hotel, fantastic location (I could see the signs for the port from the security doors at the hotel); clean, neat, quiet, hot buffet breakfast and very nice personnel. See the flight info about using the Marriott gift cards. We had a disastrous stay at a Choice property in Miami, and after that, our suite at Residence Inn was heaven. We had a separate living room/dining room/full kitchen area; the bedroom/bathroom was separate. The HVAC was centrally controlled and worked very well. I can't say enough about how nice the Marriott properties are compared to what I have seen at Choice properties for the last couple years. There's a Burger King in the parking lot, Raceway fuel 100 yards away, Budget CC5 is 1/4 mile, Wal-Mart is 5 miles, Patrick AFB is 11 miles, the port is 1/4 mile. Very well located. Radisson is practically next door and we attended a Pre-M&M with our CC buddies at the Radisson pool, very nice group of folks.
Freedom (5/24/09 to 5/31/09) - What an incredible ship. I'm not usually one to use superlatives, but OMG, RCL could not have done better than put this beautiful ship in P'Can. We dropped our luggage off at the pier after a short wait in line, and then drove the car to the Budget office. We loaded up our carryon bags in the van and shuttled back to the pier about 11:00 a.m. We breezed through security, breezed through check in (wonderful, happy lady checked us in, joking and laughing, such a pleasure), and after a short sit down, we're on our way onboard (11:30'ish). As soon as we got onboard, couldn't help but notice the decor (Earth, air, fire water motif), and how much effort had gone into making a beautiful ship. We had an inside cabin on the 3rd deck, ready for us to occupy at 13:00). Lunch in the 'Jammer, honey stung chicken, I don't care what you say, that's when I know I'm onboard ship, they only serve honey stung chicken for sailaway lunch. I only eat one piece, but it's a staple part of my first lunch onboard. The Windjammer breakfast and lunch was consistently good, including hamburgers and turkey burgers (truly excellent). They often had my ham and cheese omelets pre-made, so I didn't have to wait for an omelet. Service was awesome, smiling, pleasant, and helpful wait staff.
Cabin - Our cabin was very well appointed, comfortable, clean and spacious. We had our luggage by sail away and had already unpacked our luggage and stowed the bags under the bed before muster. We met our cabin attendant, had her clean out our fridge, and put the beds together. The beds never split, and I probably slept more on this cruise than any other. Needed to recharge the batteries bad. The LCD TV worked great, and it is nice to be able to check your account easily on the TV. The safe in the closet uses a 4 number code that you choose. The shower uses the pull together doors instead of a curtain, which is nice, but I can say that we had less room to hang up wet clothing to dry than we've ever had before. Set up our Wi-Fi account at RCL Online, and then used the minutes in our cabin, had a great signal and good speed.
MDR - They assigned us to a table for two, I guess because we are in different age groups, so we got reassigned to a table for 8, and sat with a family of three with a friend from New York. We thoroughly enjoyed our table mates again. The Mom and Dad were actually first generation Haitian immigrants, the daughter is in ophthalmology school, and the friend is a second generation Eastern Indian about to enter pharmacy school. Very interesting backgrounds and a pleasure to talk with. I had mostly steak and chicken, and it was all good. The prime rib was perfect every time. My wife had various pasta dishes and chicken, and was quite happy with her food as well. The cold fruit soup appetizers and RCL Caesar salads are always great, and a highlight of my cruise. We had the Brasserie30 lunch on one occasion, the tutti salad is a pleasure and with the exception of some children that were seated close to us, the lunch dining was quite good. Our dinner wait staff wasn't the best that we've had, but they were very good, the Head Waiter checked on us every night to ensure we were getting what we needed. Unlike another poster here, I had coffee and fixings waiting on my table every night at the beginning of dinner after asking for it once on the first night. One table of three ladies that were seated near us were consistently late every night, from 30 minutes to an hour, not only did they seat them, but they took very good care of them every night. I just can't see how anyone could fault the staff. They really go out of their way to make dinner an enjoyable affair.
Dancing - Multiple venues on this ship, Latin is served up in Boleros. We were treated to many Latin American passengers on this ship, and it was a treat to see how Salsa is really done. LOL. We danced in the flying saucer (Viking Crown lounge), and Pharaoh's Palace nearly every night. As usual, once the band realizes that there are people who know how to dance, they'll play whatever you ask for. The band was a four piece group of what appeared to be Phillipino men, but they could do a great version (and sing) or anything from Moon River to I'm All Shook Up. We danced waltz, swing, hustle, foxtrot, rumba, bolero, and thoroughly enjoyed it. My wife attended several shows and complimented the dancers and singers extensively.
Diamond Lounge - Our key card for the Diamond Lounge was in our cabin on Day 1. We accessed the Diamond Lounge each evening before dinner and enjoyed an adult beverage and the company of other Diamond cruisers. Having never had a DL before, it is quite nice. It's not a deal breaker, I'll certainly still sail ships that don't have a DL, but it's a nice perk. The Concierge printed out our flight passes for us, we gave him the info and he checked us in and printed out the passes. He also gave us our luggage tags.
Ports - We don't do excursions, so I am not a good source of information concerning them. I will say that we had a really nice time ashore on Labadee. I'm still surprised how many people think Labadee is an island all by itself. It's actually a part of Hispaniola, the island that makes up the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Labadee is a peninsula on one end of Haiti. As such, if you visit either Labadee or Samana, you need to know that you probably won't be able to give blood in the US for a year. Malaria is still present on Hispaniola, so just be aware.
Conclusion - With Freedom in Port Canaveral (one of my favorite places on Earth), I can see that this is going to be a regular cruise for me in the future. Orlando is one of the least expensive places in the East to fly to, convenient to so many things, inexpensive to find lodging or food, and simply a beautiful place (IMHO). I've loved Port/Cape Canaveral since I was a kid when my Dad and Mom brought me to see a couple of the Apollo V moon shots, and just grew bigger when my ships would pull in there during my Naval career. I actually pointed out a submarine in port at the Poseidon wharfs to several people on the port side of the ship at sail away. It looked from a distance to be a British fast boat, but I couldn't tell for sure. RCL has done themselves proud with this choice of ship and home port. I won't kid anyone, I'm an RCL cheerleader, I like the product, and have enjoyed every cruise I've been on. I think the value per dollar can't be beat and I'm looking forward to the remaining 4 cruises that I have scheduled (Grandeur, Liberty, Enchantment and Oasis) through the end of 2010, and I'm already looking into cruises for 2011 (RCL all the way!).