Expectations were high, but I have to say that this ship doesn't disappoint. I really think this ship is a first class engineering marvel. It doesn't have the glass of the Radiance class or the intimacy of the smaller ships, but it surpasses any other cruise experience we have had. The ship is truly amazing, and worthy of the title "a destination in and of itself."
DW & I sailed on the 4 night Labadee Extravaganza, and our overall experience was excellent. Royal Caribbean has really made tremendous efforts to control overcrowding, and I think for the most part, they have been successful. I didn't feel any more crowded on this ship than any other we've been on. In fact, embarkation and debarkation were a breeze -- probably the best we've ever had. You basically check in with no lines because there are so many counters and then just walk on the ship.
Another effort to control over crowding was the pool areas. I wasn't sure that I was a fan of splitting up the pool areas, but after being on board I think it was genius. Parents with kids can hang out around the H20 zone. The Sports Pool, Main Pool, and Beach pool all feel like their own area, and there are deck chairs literally everywhere. There were only about 5000 pax onboard, but I never felt crowded at the pool, and if you're just wanting to lay in the sun (or the shade) there are options everywhere. Furthermore, the Solarium was a pleasant surprise. As it was one of the last areas to be completed, I didn't know that much about it going in, but it is truly a beautiful area. The ship is just so wide that it allows for plenty of space inside. There is a nice stream of water running throughout the Solarium, and there are three extra hot tubs in the Solarium, not counting the large cantilevered ones that are just outside the Solarium entrance. This area also includes a Bistro (actually enclosed by glass and air conditioned), and a second level where the bar is. Loved the Solarium, and while it wasn't completely covered, it was a big improvement over the Voyager/Freedom class Solarium IMHO.
And while I'm on pools, the new towels are nice, and I actually think it was very convenient to "rent them out" with your seapass. There wasn't a line and they were happy to let you have more than one if you needed it. Of course, there is a $20 charge per towel if you don't return them, but we changed them out every time we went to the pool, and also when we went to Labadee.
Speaking of using the Sea Pass. There is a concerted effort to make better use of the Sea Pass. Along with it's traditional uses, it is also scanned at the Muster Drill, at each show you've reserved, and it can even be scanned in the photo gallery and you can see all your pics on a computer monitor. (In most cases, we presented the card to the photographer.) As an additional note on crowd control, RCCL is to be commended for separating your photos for you into an individual folio so that all you have to do is look in your binder to see all your pics. Another effort to control crowds.
The Muster Drill is fantastic. Instead of having a heat stroke standing beneath the life boats on the promenade deck, we sat comfortably in the theater and watched a safety video with all the same info you've heard in the past. A MAJOR IMPROVEMENT, and a big plus as far as I'm concerned.
The ship is just fantastic. It exceeded our expectations in so many ways. Central Park was lovely, and a perfect spot to sit and have a drink in the evenings while listening to a violinist or guitarist. Boardwalk is a neat area with a lot to offer. The carousel is fun, and the aquatheater is brilliant. Not quite as big as I had imagined, but certainly large enough to hold the number of guests expected at each show. The Royal promenade is a gem, and while it is not quite the "heart of the ship" as on Freedom/Voyager class, it is still probably the most active area on board. There are just so many other similar spots that again, it keeps crowds down.
Another effort the cruise line has made to keep crowds down is the reserving of shows. Now the system is not perfect yet, but overall it was a success. We booked online before sailing, but once onboard we saw other things we wanted to do which conflicted with the shows we had booked, so we went to switch a couple of dates. Be advised that as early as the morning of the first full day, all shows for the aquatheater were sold out and so we had to keep what we had. Also, we did not see the "full" show due to the lack of practice during the Atlantic crossing, but what we did see was impressive and the light show was very enjoyable as well.
The ice skating show in Studio B was fabulous, and at least as good as the others we've seen on board, if not a little better. In one portion of the show, there is an amazing sand artist who will dazzle you with her abilities. I won't spoil the treat of getting to see her, but it really is a highlight of the show. The performance was top notch and very impressive. Not just a couple of jumps and a lot of skating around, mind you. There were some pretty challenging feats, and I personally thought it was the best show all week.
The headliners were okay. We've certainly had better, but we've also had worse. Scott Record was pretty funny and the comedian from the first night with the duck was all right. Audience participation certainly made his show a lot better in my opinion. Hairspray was very good, and even though it was probably about an hour and half show, I enjoyed it most of the way through. It was an impressive production with some talented performers.
The dining room was beautiful, and actually looked nicer in person than the pictures made it appear. The chandelier was really beautiful in person, and looked much nicer to me than in the photos I saw before sailing.
Dinner was good, but not innovative. Every meal I had on board, I had had before. But they were good. The Mahi Mahi had changed a little bit, but it was basically the same. The fisherman's plate was good, but frankly, the grilled lobster on Labadee was much better, the Prime Rib was fantastic and I would have ordered it again if it were on the menu. Windjammer food was good, as was Johnny Rockets, Sorentos, and the various cafes we used.
There were a few dishes that were excellent, and many that were very good. I guess the main result is that food quality didn't really suffer as a result of more passengers being on board. My wife's favorite was an egg salad roll they had in the Cafe Promenade the first day, but it was never served the rest of the cruise.
Being able to dock at Labadee was a huge improvement, and again Kudos to RCI for helping with the crowd by spending the money to complete this endeavor. The pier wasn't even that long, and it was so nice to have the convenience of being able to go back and forth any time we wanted. While Labadee lost one of its beaches to the dock, it was worth the sacrifice. Not quite the island paradise I remembered with all the improvements but still a great stop and a nice beach day. It was even rockier than I remembered on the far side, but there was still a nice beach near where you used to tender in that was much easier on the feet.
There was very little sensation of movement, and our stateroom accommodations were nice. We had an ocean view balcony, which was adequate. I had the option of booking any balcony we wanted, but I felt from the artist renderings and later everyone's photos that I wouldn't enjoy the lack of privacy. Seeing it in person makes this even more true. While walking above the boardwalk, you could easily see right into passengers' cabins if they didn't have the curtains pulled, and even if they did, you could see their balconies clearly. Now I'm no peeping tom, but it was hard not to notice, to be honest, and I would say that it's an exhibitionist's dream. Now I'm sure some people will love being able to overlook the Boardwalk, Central Park, etc, and will love this type of stateroom, but for me, I think I'll stick to an ocean view for the privacy.
Without question it was a great cruise. My wife did the zip line, and enjoyed watching the Flowriders. The ship has a great deal to offer and it's design and layout make it very easy to navigate. It doesn't feel too big, and even waiting for an elevator is no worse than normal. That being said, there were minor problems including some technical glitches in some of the shows, and one set of lights on the Promenade that seemed to be hung in one mode and never changed with the rest of the lights. They got our reservations mixed up for our shows, and had to get approval to see our show on the last night.
And the biggest thing for me personally was the dining room service. In the past, we have really enjoyed the experience of getting to know our waitstaff and interacting with them nightly. On this sailing, there was very little personal contact or interaction with them. They were very nice and very friendly and always got our orders right, but the personal touch simply was not there. I was really afraid that this was due to the size of the ship, but it did not appear that they were waiting on any more tables than normal. I know that the crew were "hand picked" for their experience and work ethic, but I was not overly impressed with them. An example is that each night our waiter was visibly taking notes, which was something we've never seen before. I'm not sure how much of this was still learning the new ship, but I overheard our Maitre 'd saying that this was their first time being waiters, and that they used to be galley workers. This fact surprised me, but explained a lot. I feel that our experience was probably personal, and may not have represented the service everyone else received. DW & I shared an intimate table for 2 by the window, and so this still made for a very special dining experience.
I always go with a positive outlook, and I always take the best and try to ignore the worst, but this honestly was a great cruise. My wife even said one time that she thought this was "the greatest vacation ever," while sitting in a hammock on Labadee. While sitting in the hot tubs overlooking the ocean, it all came back to me why we love to cruise so much. There's just nothing else that we can do where you get so much for your money. We have to save and work pretty hard to get to go, and when we do it's nice to have such a rewarding experience for your hard work and sacrifice. Thank you Royal Caribbean. It would have been EASY to drop the ball on this one, but I think even the harshest critics would be impressed IF they would go with an open mind and not have a preconceived idea that they wouldn't like it. It may not be for everybody, but I don't think it's too big, and contrary to what some have said, it certainly felt like a cruise to me.