Background: We are in our late 30's, 2 kids ages 10 and 6. Have traveled extensively; know what good service is, very easy going and do not let issues ruin our vacations or fun. Previously we have sailed on 7 day cruises with HAL, Disney and NCL. Since RCI posters seem to be the most loyal and vocal people on CC we were anxious to see if the hype is worth it.
Grading: I will be comparing to past cruises with a scale of poor, below average, average, very good and excellent.
Embarkation: Took a car service to cape liberty due to overspray problems. Signage to the port is poor and due to long line of cars it took us an hour to get from the entrance of the parking area to where you drop your bags. The line of cars was backed up and very slow moving, note that we hit this around 11:30, when finally were on the ship at 1:30 and looked down the line of cars was gone. It took us close to 2 hours once we arrived on site to get on the ship.
The entire embarkation and disembarkation setup, from drop-off, to busing 500 yards, to baggage needs to be re-engineered.
Cabins: We had a D1 balcony on deck 6, 6354 which was mid to aft ship. Overall the room was clean and in good shape, a bit smaller than what we are used to in this category. It still had the old tube tv. The one area where the cabin is severely lacking is bedding. The RCI bedding is supposedly only 2 years old but each bed had a large dip in the middle. When looking underneath there is no support, its simply a cot. We did not sleep very well because of the poor bedding (and crying baby next door), on previous lines the bedding was far superior. Sheets and comforters were fine, nothing special.
Balconies on the 6th deck are the metal kind, so when sitting in the chair you can not see the ocean.
Overall: Below Average
Windjammer: We really liked the selection of the WJ and also the seating. On other ships the seating is very cramped, the WJ felt more spacious and upscale. Variety and food quality was the best of any previous sailing; we did miss the made to order waffles that NCL offers.
Cafe Promenade: Because of our room location the CP offered us a quick way to get water, coffee or snacks easily. We really liked the CP and the staff was extremely friendly.
Johnny Rockets: Was fun, worth doing once, seems a bit pricey for junk food.
Overall: Very good
Main Dining room: We ate all our lunches and dinner in the main dining room, we loved the 3 level design, very stunning. Salad bar offerings were very good at lunch, however there was always a 10-15 minute wait. We only had one dish we didn't like (salmon) and all of the food was good to very good. However, not one dish wowed us. I know that it's mass production but on NCL we had several dishes that blew us away. One thing that I really liked is that they served NE lobsters and not warm water, they were cooked perfectly and I was quickly served a second upon request.
Dining service: our head waiter Dino was terrific, however our asst waiter was clueless and Dino had to do his best to make up for it. Another first is our Maitre D Jacob was the best we've ever had. Usually we don't know who the Maitre D is until the last night when their hand is out. This was not the case with Jacob, he stopped by every night at least once and conversed with us not only about service and food quality but he also gave us upcoming events on the ship and rec'ds on what to do in port. He also fielded any questions we had about the ship or any topic.
One bad thing about the dining room layout is that its extremely loud and its very hard to hear tablemates if you are not seated close to them.
Family time dining still needs some work. We tried it a couple nights but the entree was usually delivered around 635-640 so the kids had to woof down their meals and go. I think it would be better if there was 60 mins with a pick-up time at 7.
Overall: I would have given a rating of good, but due to Dino and Jacob's service I have raised it to very good.
Cabin Steward Service: Excellent service all around, Jerome was unobtrusive and very friendly at the same time.
Children's program: We were not overly impressed by the offerings and kids club layout. On other ships we had to pull our kids out kicking and screaming at night. On this cruise they were not enthusiastic about going. The staff seemed overwhelmed with 800 kids so that might have played a part in it. The staff was not unfriendly or anything, they just didn't seem to connect with the kids.
One thing that was neat was the 2 parades they did with the kids, that was the one activity that was unique and the kids really enjoyed.
Overall: Below Average
Entertainment: Dance shows were ok, we left early once due to boredom. The ice show was a highlight and I felt was better than the Disney on Ice show we saw last year. Tip: make sure to get tickets to the show the first day on the ship, they will have the time in the cruise compass, you only have to send 1 person from your group to get tickets. Another Tip: the current ice show selects 2 children to go on the ice during the performance, in a sled. Our daughter was picked and she loved it and we were given front row seats. The key to getting selected is getting there early (15-20) minutes and have your child dressed in white.
Overall: Average with the exception of the Ice Show
Pools: not heated, however the kids were swimming in them by the second day. The kids pool with the water slide is shaded all the time and never warmed up. Pools closed on our last sea day due to rough seas. Hot tubs (non adult) were so packed I had no desire to take the kids in.
Ice Rink: This is the one place that you really feel the crowds. If plan on taking the kids skating get there 20 minutes before the start of the session as it fills up quickly and they turn people away. The skates they give you are toys, plastic figure skates. The ice is horrible, huge ruts and people colliding alot. They do have knee pads and helmets available if you want to use them. We love to ice skate and this was one of the worst experiences we had on the ship due to ice conditions and too many people skating around a small surface.
Disembarkation: We were scheduled for Red 1, 8:45. They didn't call us until 9:30 and it was a slow process getting off the ship. Again, the same line of cars circling around, lined up and waiting for pick-ups.
Random observations. I was very impressed with how empty the ship felt at times. Crowding was rarely an issue and we were shocked to learn there were 3550 guests onboard. Elevator wait times seemed to be less than other ships we sailed. Staff, one thing we noticed is that while many of the crew members were friendly you had to greet them first or they would ignore you. They did not go out of their way to help or ask how you are doing. It almost seemed like many of the crew were at the end of their contract's and just going through the motions. We also talked to a guy who said he has sailed on the Explorer many times and that he sees a huge difference in customer service and pointed to the fact that there are only 1100 crew vs the old staffing model (not sure what it once was).
Summary, this is the first cruise of 4 that we didn't feel it was the best vacation ever when we got home. Don't get me wrong, we had a very good time, and I am happy we were able to try Royal Carib and will look to sail on them in the future. However, the price points have to make sense and we will not pay a premium for RCCL vs a similar itinerary on other lines I trust.