We recently returned from a 7 night cruise on RC's Freedom of the Seas, visiting the Western Caribbean. I am a wheelchair user and Mum so hopefully this review will be of some use to both parents and disabled cruisers!
We flew from London to Orlando with Virgin Atlantic on an absolutely full plane, and had booked the Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites just off International Drive in Orlando for the three nights prior to the cruise. For the money (£50 per room per night, including continental breakfast), we thought this hotel was wonderful. It was spotlessly clean, and the room had two double beds, plenty of storage space, a small pool, plenty to eat at breakfast, and complimentary tea and coffee available in the lobby 24 hrs a day.
The receptionist was very welcoming, and spotting that I was in my wheelchair, allocated us a disabled room without being asked, which meant that we had room for my wheelchair plus a large, roomy and disabled friendly bathroom. Just along the road there was a lovely TGI Fridays and we ate there two nights out of the three, with excellent food and the customarily great service.
We had prebooked a rental car with Budget at Orlando Int'l airport and found no queues to collect the car, and an efficient service. It certainly is much easier to collect a car at MCO now that the cars are just across a walkway in an indoor garage. There was plenty of parking at the hotel and as we also had an easy to use Garmin SatNav with the car driving around was easy.
After spending a wonderful two days at Discovery Cove and Seaworld (both incredibly disabled-and-family friendly), on Sunday morning we drove down to Budget's Port Canaveral office to return the car and pick up the Budget Shuttle to Freedom of the Seas. The SatNav and excellent help from my fellow CC members about the route, how many tolls (two; one was a dollar, the other one dollar fifty), we easily found Budget's office, returned the car, and within a few minutes the shuttle was ferrying us, my wheelchair and our luggage to the pier.
We had spotted Freedom from the interstate but even so we were excited to see how big and beautiful she looked. Immigration and Customs were incredibly efficient at the terminal; a world away from our previous experience boarding Ocean Village in what seemed to be a large shed at Majorca! The terminal is cool, clean and spacious and despite the long queues by the time we arrived at the terminal at around midday, the advantage of being in a wheelchair is that they whisk you through the lines quickly and it wasn't more than about 30 minutes later that we were on board.
Freedom is HUGE. So big that we decided during our holiday that we probably wouldn't book onto an Oasis class ship because we found Freedom big enough, and on embarkation day, crowded enough. Unlike Ocean Village, you aren't provided with a printed, folding map of the ship so at first glance it is daunting and can feel quite difficult to navigate. This feeling dissipated somewhat due to the nicely displayed plans on each deck and the list of areas and attractions by each of the elevators. We were fortunate that our room was ready when we boarded so we dropped off our carry on luggage, changed into swimwear and cover ups, and went to explore.
The Royal Promenade was fantastic; it felt like being in a shopping mall and almost all of the staff members we encountered along the way smiled and said hello which was a very welcoming touch. We had a couple of questions for Guest Relations so visited there first and found them to be very helpful. Next we called in at Ben & Jerry's and had a nice chat with Clyde there, so we sat at the tables in the doorway and watched the hordes of people passing along the promenade. After that we went up to the pool deck and our 10 yr old daughter had a wonderful time in the H2O zone. When we returned to our beautiful and quite enormous Junior Suite our luggage had already arrived so we unpacked before dinner.
We had pre-paid gratuities when we booked the holiday and had also signed up for My Time Dining, so we headed up to Galileo's dining room on deck 5, and were seated within a few minutes. My wheelchair was no problem and fitted under the table so I was able to eat comfortably.
I had read mixed reviews about the food in the Main Dining Room (MDR) but I have to say we thought it was fabulous. I can honestly say we didn't have a bad meal all week. The only thing I had avoided on account of some consistently below average reviews was the New York Strip steak (I had the roast turkey that night instead) but everything else that I chose was delicious, the portions were more than sufficient (two nights I had no room for dessert) and everything was hot and well cooked. The prime rib was particularly delicious. I was surprised that the very tasty onion tart was what we'd call an onion quiche here in the UK but I enjoyed it very much all the same. In fact we found the food in the MDR so good all week that we didn't even try Chops or Portofino. Even though we had My Time dining, 6 nights out of seven we were lucky enough to have the same Waiter/Asst. Waiter team of Darmawan and Wicksel, with Milton as our Head Waiter, and all three of them were fabulous, as was the lovely Katherine who we were assigned to one night. So a big thumbs up for the MDR and food and service there.
We shared breakfasts between room service on the days we visited port, one breakfast in the MDR, and the rest in Windjammer. Breakfast and lunch choice and quality in the Windjammer were excellent; I think there was pretty much some of everything you can think of. I didn't particularly like the bacon but I think that we're used to different cuts or way of cooking bacon here but everything else was wonderful and there were no shortage of helpful staff members to find things for you and bring drinks. Ordering room service breakfast via the television was great; it appeared on time each time and although wasn't quite as tasty as the food from the Windjammer it was fine and helped us get on our way on our port days. Breakfast in the MDR was very tasty and the eggs benedict were delicious.
The only other place we ate at was pizza at Sorrento's, which was lovely; very tasty, choice of three pizzas each time, and we all enjoyed the pizza as a quick lunch; in fact we chose to eat lunch there in embarkation day because it was so much quieter than Windjammer.
I loved the fact that still lemonade (lemon squash really to Brits) and ice water was free during lunch and dinner, and that apple and orange juice, milk, chocolate milk and tea and coffee (not speciality coffee) was also free at breakfast. This worked great for us as I'm not really a drinker and our daughter doesn't drink soda so it still gave her a nice choice of drinks. We visited the pool bar/sky bar, the schooner bar, and the Olive or Twist bar (plus used the bar service in Studio B during the ice show) and as always, found the service to be friendly and speedy. We tried Long Island Iced Tea, Mojito, and a Lemon drop martini and found them all to be nice and strong and very delicious so no watering down of spirits on board Freedom! A 15% gratuity was automatically added to all bar drinks so you didn't have to think about tipping.
We saw several shows whilst on board; my DH and DD saw the musical show (a tribute to several well known musicals) and said it was excellent; we all saw the Ice Show at Studio B (amazing) and we all saw the "Once upon a time" show and were very impressed with the standard of singing and performing. On this trip you did have to get tickets for the Ice Show and these were only given out for an hour or so on the Monday morning so keep a look out in the Compass for ticket allocation times (on the Promenade) because some people missed this and couldn't get tickets. We went to the Wednesday evening show at 7pm and ate dinner afterwards.
Richard Spacey - a complete lunatic - was our Cruise Director and he had me literally crying with laughter. He gives English entertainers a good name and my absolute favourites were the "day in the life of a cruise director" film and his "commercials" on RCTV; Royal's tv channel. Just genius. Rumour has it that he may be heading off to Oasis which is great for Oasis passengers but very sad for Freedom as he is just fabulous. RCTV also shows the entertainment in the theatre on TV the next day, which - if like me - you have to go to bed earlier than you'd like, due to pain or just plain fatigue - I got to watch the Love and Marriage show the day after on my stateroom TV.
Speaking of Staterooms - the Junior Suite was fabulous. We didn't sit out on our balcony as we'd intended, but I went out there several times to gauge the weather or just gaze at the water. There were three of us in our JS but there was ample space for four. We didn't hear anything from above (we were on deck 9, midships) and only occasionally a cupboard closing, or the toilet flushing, from next door, but nothing to disturb us. There was a slight sway at night but I found that quite soothing. Our room steward was wonderful. Those guys work HARD. Each evening, he would make up our daughter's sofabed and turn down our bed, leave us the super towel animals (and a love heart on our last evening), and in the morning would fix the beds and clean everywhere, still finding time to have a cheerful chat and a joke with us. If you get Hansen as a stateroom attendant, you're lucky; he was great.
I'm still jet lagged so if this review is disjointed, my apologies! Oh, I forgot Muster drill. This is much quicker now that you don't have to return to your stateroom for your lifejackets. It was no trouble in my wheelchair; the only complaints I had were that despite plenty of warning, there were still LOADS of latecomers, dawdling along despite keeping everyone else waiting, and when the announcements were given in Spanish and other languages, lots of people started chatting which must have made the announcement difficult to hear if you were trying to listen. The crew let wheelchair users leave first which was hugely helpful as trying to get into the lifts during the cruise was pretty impossible. I couldn't believe the amount of able bodied people who literally ran to the elevators even though people in wheelchairs had been waiting; they barged in front of the wheelchair users so one day we had to wait almost half an hour to get in a lift. You can imagine that this was pretty infuriating; when you are unable to use the stairs and have no choice but to use an elevator and then people not only won't let you in one but push in front of you to get in it's horrible. So I found that quite upsetting sometimes. Other people were wonderful and moved over for us, held the doors etc. so of course it wasn't everyone.
The only other time my wheelchair was a problem was on Labadee but I'll cover that in my port reviews.
Pool and sunbed policies were fine. The compass made it quite clear each day that RC would prefer you not to reserve a sunbed for more than 30 minutes and we found this to be fine. It still meant that you were able to go into Windjammer for a quick lunch and be out again within 30 minutes so we never had our stuff moved. My only wish at the pools were that there were always pool staff to keep an eye on the few badly behaved children with no visible parents who insisted on running, diving, bombing, pushing each other into the pool etc. which if you are frail, injured, or just want to get cool in a corner of the pool, was infuriating. It always seemed to be the same children, oddly enough. When there were pool staff they were great, and asked the children to stop, but most of the time they weren't there so that meant that you either had to speak to the children yourself (I did this once) or try to ignore the horseplay.
The "no babies in nappies in pools" rule was followed well though and with good reason so I was impressed that the babies I saw were playing happily in the baby splash zone - this was shut for re-cleaning a couple of times so I think somebody had a little accident in it - bless! The babies seemed to love it in there though. The H2O zone was wonderful and my daughter loved that and the main pools, leaving the quieter solarium pool for the adults who didn't have children with them.
My favourite time to use the pool decks was on port days (we only got off ship at Labadee and Grand Cayman). The pools and sunbeds were practically empty then so it was a wonderful place to be; very restful!
There was the usual cruise ship amount of hard-sell on board but this didn't trouble us; we simply didn't go to the art auction/shopping seminars etc. We didn't gamble but the casino certainly seemed to be popular, and there was enough entertainment going on that you need never be bored, but not so much that you couldn't find quite spaces on board. My husband and daughter tried the rock climbing wall (excellent), the flowrider (boogie boarding looked great fun) and the ice skating, and the only slight gripe we had is that on port days the rock climbing wall and flowrider were both closed until 5pm or so and then only open for a few hours - it would have been nice if they'd have been open more. I thought the ice rink was almost wasted because it was so seldom open; which meant on the two occasions it was open it was very busy indeed. We didn't use the mini golf but I loved the fact that people could play on it whenever they wanted with no restriction.
On our last evening we received our pre-paid tip vouchers and also enclosed a hand written note in each one which seemed to be much appreciated. We were able to hand these to our waiter team in person which was nice.
Disembarkation day was fine; we were allocated an early disembarkation slot but helpful Abigail at Guest Relations said that we could simply swap our time and labels for a later time which we did. It was great having our luggage available until 11pm on Saturday night; this meant that you could pack your dinner clothes before you went to bed so that you didn't have to take them home in your hand luggage. Our disembarkation time of 8.45 - 9am was slightly delayed but having had time for breakfast in Windjammer and time to say goodbye to our favourite staff members, we were comfortable and cool waiting in the Schooner Bar.
Our daughter used the Adventure Ocean timeout club a few times and loved it. The staff (Clumsy Claudia and Violet Vanessa) were great; the age range in her group of 9-11 year olds was perfect for my daughter, and the activities were fun and varied.
Disembarkation was incredibly speedy. The customs officials were again friendly and efficient and within 30 minutes we were getting onto the Budget Shuttle and heading back to pick up another car for the drive back to the airport.
We adored Freedom and all the staff. We loved the food, found the level of entertainment to be fine; and had no complaints. I think Oasis may be a little big for us but Freedom is perfect; plenty to do so I think we'll stick with Freedom class ships. We'll definitely be back onboard - as soon as I can save some more money!