We have been cruising since the 80's, where our first ship, RCCL's The Song of Norway, introduced us to luxury vacationing. In those days RCCL was a cut above the rest, and that included Carnival, Celebrity, NCL, Princess and Costa. Since then, 14 cruises later, each time we cruise, the overall quality seems to go down, slowly but steadily, regardless of the company we cruise with. As there are more and bigger ships in the water, the overall experience and quality of service becomes diluted. It can cost a billion dollars to float a mega ship, and in order to make a profit on that investment, compromises in quality and service are being made. Today, it is a business, and a big one at that. RCCL today is no longer a cut above the rest; they compete head on with the Carnival monolith,, and as such fall into the middle of the pack.. They all have good features and mediocre ones.
My comments are therefore based on 20 years of cruising experience. Newcomers should be blown away by the overall experience. This being a holiday cruise, both Christmas and New Year's were well presented. This was the reason we booked this cruise and it delivered on that aspect.
The Explorer of the Seas is a fabulous ship, well appointed, with lots to do, and plenty of space in which to get lost. It is however, overrated. This is not a 5 star ship, 4 stars at best. The ship is beautiful, but needs work, and the staff needs to take lessons in customer service.
The main common area revolves around the Royal Promenade, with the token number of shops and bars, plus a Ben and Jerry's ice cream bar, which is extra cost, but offers the all night pizza and cookies which are not available any where else after dinner ends. There are not a lot of places to sit and just people watch, which for us is one of the main draws of the Promenade. The ice rink is placed mid ship, so that if you need to get from one end of deck 3 to the other, you have to go up or down to get around it. Our cabin was a typical RCCL style cabin, smaller than what you get on most other lines. Unless you book a suite, there is not enough storage space for a 2 week cruise. But then again, you are not supposed to stay in your cabin.
Getting around the ship takes a few days to get used to the layout. In a bid to save money, they no longer print those nifty little maps that fold up and can be stored in your pocket. Stylish elevators are located at both ends of the Promenade, but don't always provide quick service. we would often see
Service from the staff was mixed. The people at Guest Relations were not very helpful in resolving issues that we had to deal with. I felt like they were trained robots, good at what they were taught, but no ability to think outside the box. There was no incentive to go out of their way to be helpful.
The pool area was fine, but the only place to get an iced tea or water was by going into the Windjammer Cafe, and that required shoes and a shirt, which was a problem if you were at the adult pool at the other end of the ship. The adult pool had to be constantly patrolled by deck security, as children were constantly using the hot tubs, sometimes eating ice cream while in the water. Their parents could not care less. Teens were running around being teenagers, but that was to be expected on a holiday cruise.
The quality of food was in general, adequate but disappointing. Breakfast at the buffet was the same for 14 days. Many of the items on the menu did not look like their descriptions on the menu. When the food came out, you had to guess what was being served. On the last day they tried to sell us a cookbook of these fabulous recipes. Portofino's may have great service, but we found the menu selections lacking for a premium dining room, so we passed. The wait staff in the main dining rooms were all great, and always tried to accommodate you with alternates if you were not happy. Getting bar service was a bit of a problem.
Room service was spotty, and you never know what you were getting and when it would arrive. The chocolate chip cookies were, however the best anywhere.
My Time dining is a big problem on that ship. We were a couple who wanted to meet other guests, and they would only sit us a table for 2. They never made any effort to match 2-somes who wanted to meet other guests. We had to argue to be seated with other guests, and most nights we ended up sitting at fixed seating with friends we had met on board, or pre arranged dinner dates with other couples. We were told that most MTD requests are from families or couples who want to be by themselves. Our experience with this concept on Carnival was completely opposite, and led to constantly meeting new people. They also pre charge the tips, when you do MTD, including the cabin steward, and if you have poor cabin service, you cannot adjust them.
The itinerary was excellent, not once did we have to tender into a port, which was appreciated. Our thanks to captain Ryan for keeping the ship steady throughout the cruise, even on the days that were particularly rough. It would be appreciated that island maps that are handed out the days in port show more than all the jewellery stores in that port.
Entertainment was OK, but if one cruises a lot, you tend to see the same old same old on all the ships. The ice shows were excellent, which is unique to this class of ship. The Quest was amazing. That is definitely a winner for RCCI. Being Canadian, I was happy not to have to see the rah rah USA closing of all the big shows that Carnival is know for.
The Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle group was terrific. It allowed us a chance to meet people before we even set sail. They helped make the cruise a positive experience balancing out the mediocrity of service we got from RCCL. We look forward to cruising again, and definitely will hook up on the M&M boards when we do.
On a positive note, they have improved the debarkation process at cape Liberty, which was my biggest fear from my last cruise there. It took only 10 minutes to exit the ship and clear US customs.