This was our second cruise after a 7 nighter a year ago with Royal Caribbean. Our children are 4 and 7 and were very excited about another cruise. I'll focus on the experience of cruising with kids in this review.
We got to Circular Quay about 2ish. Getting on the ship was totally painless, went through the formalities etc and got our passports checked (for the one and only time the whole cruise!). We were on the ship within half an hour easily and headed up to the Lido for the first of many fabulous meals.
We had an outside cabin on Deck 2. It was bigger than the one on Rhapsody of the Seas although it is still a bit of a squeeze for four people. The sofa was made into a single bed (the steward made it every day but did not turn it back into a sofa) and the other bed was above our bed and was pulled down each night. The curtain between the lounge and the bed area is only about 1m wide on each side so not quite sure what that was for, you couldn't pull it all the way across. The window was nice and big and I liked the position of the cabin (2696) because it was only 3 cabins from the aft of the ship, where there is a little deck so you could easily get out there to check the weather in the mornings. It was however very noisy, there is some sort of infrastructure below it and it was very noisy the mornings we were coming in to port. It didn't bother us too much, at first the children were awake anyway then in the second week (when they had been staying up later) they were used to it I think so they slept through it and I was the only one who woke. Something to consider with cabins in this area if you like to sleep in.
The first night they had a BBQ around the aft pool as we sailed out of Sydney Harbour - was delicious and a wonderful way to start the cruise.
We booked this sailing because I knew that even though HAL usually has an older crowd I thought there would be a lot of kids on board because it was Australian school holidays (January). I was right about this - there were over 200 (mostly Australian) children on board. They flew in extra counsellors for Club HAL and it all seemed to work, although it was pretty crowded in there some days as the rooms are not that big. As the captain said the children were 99% well behaved, there were a few issues (kids jumping into the pool mostly I think - it is hard for a kid to resist jumping into a pool but most managed) but hopefully not enough to ruin anyone's holiday. I bet Alex the ice cream man was glad to see the fortnight come to an end though, he was very popular! He was always so patient while my four year old deliberated about which flavour she would have every time she ordered. We found all the staff excellent with the children, especially getting on and off tenders where they were very safety conscious and careful with the kids. There was an information session for people with kids on the second sea day letting people know about safety issues on the ship and in ports and setting out the rules which I thought was an excellent idea.
I thought the set up with the pools was great as the main pool was very busy and full of kids - the water was getting pretty murky by the end of the cruise - but the aft pool was there as a quieter option (I assume it was quiet out there, it was the one time I went out there when my children were in kids club). The main pool had the roof that closed over in bad weather - fantastic the two afternoons it rained. We spent a lot of time here, enjoying the pool, the live music, the delicious ice cream, smooth seas and good weather.
I was a bit worried about the kids club at first as the age groups are a lot wider than on Royal Caribbean so my 7 year old son was one of the oldest in his group which included 3 year olds. The program is not as scheduled as RCCL either with activities only listed every 30 mins instead of every 15 minutes. That being said however both mu kids loved it, my son wasn't sure at first but on about the 3rd day I asked what was happening at Club Hal that night and he said "it doesn't matter mum they make everything fun". So after that I stopped worrying and they went to kids club (at least for a little while) probably 11 out of the 14 nights and occasionally during the sea days.
In terms of HAL being family friendly we felt that they really made an effort with this cruise to make the families feel welcome and ran special events such as the family disco night, family carnival afternoon by the pool etc and we really liked these activities that we could all do together and appreciated they went to this effort. However it was clear that it was an unusual situation and I wouldn't expect this if I booked any other sailing - the one before had about 25 kids, the one after 11. This date and itinerary were definitely family friendly and it was great for us.
The other way in which this cruise must have been a bit different for HAL is that this demographic must drink more than the usual HAL crowd. The second time we went to the Pinnacle Grill we couldn't have the Resiling we ordered - our waiter told us that most of the "lower end" wines were sold out around the ship and they only had more expensive ones left, although he found us another wine and we were charged a cheaper price than the one we originally wanted so that was fine. We then found out a couple of the bars only had light beer left, and some brands of spirits were sold out. This was really surprising as I thought people weren't drinking much, there weren't many mums having a cocktail around the pool in the afternoon, and I certainly didn't see any drunk people (except one Karaoke singer) although I guess I was usually in our cabin relatively early. However we did notice that whenever we had dinner with Americans they would only have iced water while we had a glass of wine, so I guess it is just a cultural difference. It was certainly not a wild party cruise, but bar takings must have been above average; no wonder Australia is getting more ships: higher fares plus higher bar takings must equal happy cruiseline.
We had open seating for dinner which we loved. We never made reservations but never had to wait, we got there any time between 6:30 and 7:45 and we weren't fussy about what size table we had, except one night we sat with another family and requested a table of 8 which we were seated at straight away. Some nights we ordered room service for the kids and we ate after kids club started, other nights we ate as a family, some night we just stayed at the pool and had an early dinner up there (fantastic burgers). We loved not having to be at dinner at a certain time or feeling committed about where we were going to eat most nights and felt like we had enough choices that we didn't get bored in two weeks. We had dinner at the Pinnacle Grill twice, it was very nice but I didn't think it was that much better than the main dining room. If you have children make your reservations for after 7:15 as Club Hal doesn't open until 7. Both nights we were booked there for 6:30 and couldn't change it so the first night we took them and they had ice cream while we had our starter, the next week one of the staff from the front desk came to our room and sat with them for half an hour then took them up to kids club. The food generally was extremely good and was one of the outstanding parts of the cruise for us.
The entertainment wasn't as family friendly as RCCL, I probably would have enjoyed some of the shows such as the Chinese instrument player and Katzenjammer more if I hadn't been trying to watch them with children but if they weren't sitting quietly we would leave as we didn't want to bother anyone so saw only the start of quite a few of the shows. On RCCL the kids enjoyed most of the shows. On this cruise we loved the juggler though (James Bustar) and a couple of the production numbers, considering they are catering to such a diverse audience I thought the entertainment was a good mix.
We loved the Captain, he really seemed to care whether people were having a good "vacation" or not, and our whole family has better hand washing practices after two weeks of regular reminders! Overall the whole family had a great time, and all agree we would definitely sail HAL again. This doesn't look likely though as changes to booking rules so that we can't use US agents mean we'd pay a lot more than we did for this one, and I don't think we'll want to do that. We'll have to see what happens as we'd love to do it again.