We just recently came back from our cruise on the Explorer of the Seas to the Western Caribbean. This was our first cruise so I am unable to make comparisons. We've been to the Caribbean before but have always stayed at resorts. I'll try to give a lot of details.
We flew down to Miami on Saturday and stayed at the Courtyard Marriott in South Beach. They offer a Pre & Post Cruise package which included a shuttle to the port on Sunday and buffet breakfast. It was nicely located just 2 blocks from the famous Lincoln Road pedestrian shopping area and 3 blocks from the beach.
We left the hotel for the port at noon on Sunday and were surprised to already find a ton of people there (we thought we were getting there too early!). The porters were waiting outside and took our bags. We then went and stood in line which took a little over an hour to get through. Once we boarded the ship we were told to go help ourselves to lunch at the Windjammer Cafe (their buffet restaurant). It was crowded as this was the only restaurant open at that time. However, it is not like that the whole week. We were able to immediately go to our rooms and our bags showed up a few hours later.
BELIZE: We left our kids (ages 7 & 5) on board that day because we had read other reviews that it wasn't a safe area. There really isn't much to do if you do not book a tour. It is very clear that you're in a third world country and so it is probably not safe to walk around. Also, you wouldn't want to anyway as there are no tourist shops or anything. We did the "Cave Tubing" excursion and had a blast. You wear headlights for the dark areas. While sitting in your tube you float down the clear river. Don't worry - there are no fish or other creatures. You float in and out of the caves, some of which are amazing with their cathedral ceilings. This is not for young kids. There is one section where they tell you "butts up" and there is a mini rapid and you go right into another cave. Sometimes the rapids pull you against the walls of the caves (just kick yourself off) or you get into a current and have to paddle out. There is a reason they say for kids 11 and older. When you're done you're treated with a local lunch which we all enjoyed. My husband bought several bottles of the hot sauce they used on the chicken. There's a small area to buy souvenirs. They have an area to lock up your belongings while tubing.
COSTA MAYA, MEXICO: We did not do an excursion at this port. The ship docks right at the pier so you can come and go as you please without catching a ferry. There is a shopping area especially for the cruisers right off the pier with a salt water swimming pool with swim up pool bar and lots of shops. If you take a taxi (actually a bus) to town just 5 minutes away they sell the same stuff for less (except t-shirts, for some reason they only sell those at the pier). Watch out for them trying to sell you time on the jet skis at the pier. Once you're in town (which is on the beach) they have booths there for less. However, this is where we experienced our first problem. We made a 2pm reservation for a jet ski figuring we'd eat lunch, shop and come back. By the time we came back, a Carnival ship had come in and the place was packed and when we showed up for our 2pm reservation the guy running them was overwhelmed and said it would be hours before one was available. He had no calendar of any reservations. They took our money and gave us a receipt which meant nothing. A few of the men (this happened to more than just us) were standing around this man demanding their money back and he said no refunds. We finally got on an hour later but only because we stayed by his side. So, don't make reservations, if you want to rent a jet ski go to town and do it in the morning.
COZUMEL, MEXICO: We got on a ferry and went over to Playa de Carmen and did the Tulum/Xel-Ha excursion so we never actually saw Cozumel to comment on it. The Tulum ruins were incredible but you cannot go inside them as they are roped off. There are some incredible views though and we took a lot of awesome photos from the cliffs. You're there for about an hour then you head off to Xel-Ha, a lagoon type area for snorkeling. While Xel-Ha was beautiful, we all agreed that we should have given it a miss. There were too many people there and by the time you stand in line and get your life-vest (mandatory), a locker, snorkeling gear, and get changed, you're limited on the time before you have to catch the bus back to the pier to catch the ferry back to the boat. We felt rushed at Xel-Ha. We wish that we had just done the Tulum Express excursion and headed back to Cozumel.
GRAND CAYMAN: We did not book an excursion and just got off at the pier and paid for a trip to Stingray City there. Don't let the ship tell you that this is a popular tour and sells out quick. There were several tour groups at the pier to sign up for. It is just a 15 minute drive to the place where you catch another ferry boat out to Stingray City. We wanted to rent scooters and drive around but we got caught in a storm which delayed our return from Stingray City. This is a nice area and we felt very safe walking around shopping. It is very expensive though.
ROOM: Our room was fine. However, another couple we were traveling with had a room next to the service area and found out that they empty the pools at night and heard this high pitch screeching sound several nights from the water running through the pipes. Our room was well maintained and our beds turned down every night.
FOOD: The food was incredible. We ate at the Windjammer Cafe for breakfast every day except for the day we ate in the dining room and decided not to do that again (you have more choices in the Windjammer). We also ate lunch in the Windjammer too. Even though it was buffet style it was very good food. Every day it changes (except for the salad bar and fruits and stuff). The dining hall was exceptional! I think we all gained 10 lbs. that week. The staff was first notch. The first night I ordered coffee for myself and milk for my kids and each night thereafter it was brought to our table without even asking. The food changes every night too although you always have a choice of a fish, chicken, beef and pasta dish just prepared differently each night. They also have a few items that are always on the list in case you don't like the choices. Dinner is a 4 course meal - appetizer, salad, main course and then desert. You can get seconds too. Also, if you can't choose, they'll bring out both! One night they had crab cakes for appetizers and they were so good they brought out more. That happened just about every night, whether it was seconds on the lobster or otherwise. We ate one night at Portofino's which was incredible, very worthwhile. Dinner was almost the highlight of our day.
OCEAN ADVENTURE: My kids loved the camp. We had planned to take them with us at Grand Cayman but they insisted on going to the camp. When we'd pick them up at night they'd ask if they can stay longer. Daycare is from 9am - 12pm, 2pm -4pm, 7pm - 10pm (included in your fare) then from 10pm - 1am at $5 per hour per child. Children can also eat dinner at Johnny Rockets from 6pm - 7pm but you have to make reservations each morning. The kid area is secured with see through plastic (?) walls. There is a separate swimming area for the kids with a slide which was a big hit. There are daily activities, games and such. They also have their own rock climbing wall inside the play area (not up to the ceiling, it is safe).
THE SHOWS: There is a show every night at 9pm in the Palace Theatre. Some were better than others but all were good. You must see the ice show. It is free but you must get tickets on the Promenade Deck.
PROBLEMS WE ENCOUNTERED: The teenagers - they were everywhere! After a few days they got a chance to form their "clicks". Groups of them would get together and they cut in lines getting on the ferry, at the midnight buffet. They'd also be in the hot tubs when it said "18 or older". No guards were around to tell them to get out. They have a teen nightclub but they didn't go there all the time. They hang out in the pool area smoking. We complained to the Guest Services but were told that they are passengers too. Their response at them cutting in the lines was that we needed to tell a RC employee when it happens but that's the problem - there are no RC employees around when it happens.
DISEMBARKING: What a nightmare! Even though you're given colored tags to disembark, they called all the colors within a short period of time so basically all 3,000+ were trying to get off the ship at the same time. Prepare yourself for a lot of waiting around. Even after pushing (literally) ourselves through the line we waited over an hour at the baggage claim for our luggage. Allow lots of time for this before booking your return flight home.
Hope this helps!