Background: This was our 5th cruise (4th with children) but first with Royal Caribbean. Prior cruises were aboard the Norwegian Majesty, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Dream, and Carnival Legend. Our children are 7 and 3 years old. We traveled during school break week with 600+ children on board.
We live in central CT and drove to the port on embarkation day. The directions we received on the East Coast departures board (from 138East) were spot on and we had no problems finding our way. I knew ahead of time that Cape Liberty is somewhat of a 'tent city' and nothing pretty to look at. But they are certainly organized and the entire embarkation and disembarkation process was utterly painless compared to the NY port. We arrived at the port at 11:40ish (ignore the 2:00 boarding time recommended on your cruise docs) and drove right up to luggage drop off. No traffic, no waiting. A porter took our bags (tip them) and directed us to the parking area. We parked and walked the short distance to the terminal. There we found our longest line of the whole process which was ~15 minutes. From turning onto port terminal blvd to boarding the ship must have been 30-45 minutes tops.
Life on the ship: I cannot fathom the poor reviews the Explorer has been receiving. She is beautiful, excellent service, good food & variety. Go with a positive attitude and you won't be disappointed.
Staterooms: We had connecting balcony D1 cabins (7330 & 7332) just behind the hump. I have to take a moment to HIGHLY recommend connecting staterooms for families traveling with more than one child of any age. The extra space and privacy it affords very much outweighs the extra cost over 4 people in one stateroom. No concerns about safety: in reality your bed will be about 6 feet from your child's bed in the next room and you can keep the connecting door open the entire cruise if you wish. The balcony doors are difficult enough to open that young children won't be able to do it on their own. Our staterooms were spacious (for 2 people) and clean. Bedding was comfortable (attractive white, high thread-count...ignore the old pictures on Royal Caribbean's website, they're outdated.) Closets are large with plenty of shelving. Bathrooms are attractive and the shower is large for a cruise ship (despite looking small in pictures.) Lots of storage both in the bathroom (behind the side mirror and under the sink) and in the stateroom (desk drawers, shelving behind the mirror, above the safe.) The whole design of the cabin was very well thought out. Our cabins had full couches, not chairs like some other connecting cabins do. The connecting door was at the foot of our bed. The places our cabin showed its age: paint chipping on the balcony, railing lacking varnish, old-fashioned tube tv, labels on safe buttons worn away (ie. 'close' and 'reset'). All of which we knew ahead of time so it didn't bother me. After all, the ship is 10 yrs old. Stateroom attendant: The service we received was EXCELLENT. The best I have ever experienced. Waaaaay better than NCL. Our attendant did a terrific job of adjusting his schedule to ours and kept the room spotless. Very responsive to any request. Friendly and unobtrusive. A BIG thank you Manuel Sterling!
Public rooms: the Explorer is beautiful. Tastefully decorated. Beautiful artwork throughout. Majestic Main Dining Room & Promenade. Lovely tile floor detail in the Windjammer, Solarium & Promenade. Many different lounges and activities. The only negatives I can think of: the casino smoke drifts up through the open staircase into the Promenade. Cough, cough! Some of the woodwork shows scratches/dents. And, I wish the Ocean Adventure (kid's camp) areas were larger.
Activities: We only used the activities that were kid friendly. I cannot comment from the perspective of adults without children. The ice skating was a definite plus as my 7 yr old loves to skate (she does so 3x a week at home.) The rink is much smaller than a regular one (obviously) and the ice quality is poorer (understandably.) There were open skate sessions for guests on 3 out of 9 days. I believe the rental skates (free) start at a size 2, so bring your own if your children are smaller than that. The rock wall was fun and my 7 yr old climbed it countless times. The man in charge of the rock wall (I forget his name) is extremely helpful and patient. My daughter was determined to make it to the top and he climbed up behind her and helped her get past a hump she couldn't conquer on her own. I still owe him a beer! The pools were great and heated (though not warm enough for my taste.) My 3 yr old would have lived in the hot tubs if I let her. The kiddie pool area was fun for a while, but not the caliber of a Carnival water park. Still, my kids enjoyed them.
Food: we ate breakfast & lunch in the Windjammer (buffet) daily. DH and I particularly enjoyed the Jade section (southeast Asian cuisine.) The food was consistently good and varied. Yes, they had hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, french fries, sandwiches, salad bar daily...but there were so many other choices that did change. We never got tired of the offerings during our 9 days on board. I've read reviews complaining about the food in the Windjammer and I'm not quite sure what those reviewers expected from a buffet, but DH and I were very pleased (and we're typically hard to please when it comes to food.) Breakfast...had a vegetable eggwhite omelet cooked to order daily, potato wedges, fruit, coffee, oj. Service in the Windjammer was quick as far as table clearing but it would have been nice if the waiters offered to refill my soda or coffee more often. I always had to ask someone. The Main Dining Room is beautiful. If you're on the 4th or 5th floor. Unfortunately, we were on the 3rd floor in a suboptimal location but the service more than made up for it. THANK YOU Oktay & Danny for taking such good care of us. After the 1st night, Danny automatically brought us our drinks (soda for adults, milk for the kids) right away. We told them that we're not wine drinkers on night 1 and never again were we 'hit up' for alcohol. Oktay did a terrific job of getting our kids orders in quickly and the food out to them so they'd be ready for 'My family time dining' at 6:40. Let me stop here and say that "My Family Time Dining" is the best concept EVER. The kids get expedited meals (assuming they order off the kid's menu) with you in the dining room and then at 6:40, staff from Ocean Adventure meets you in front of the dining room on deck 4 to wisk your kids away for fun and games in the kids program while you can resume your meal in peace with your spouse. We ate our appetizer while our kids ate their meals then after they were gone, DH and I had our main course & dessert alone. It was like having a date night every night! Not many people participated (<15 kids) and I'm not sure why but I hope Royal Caribbean doesn't drop this program. It made our cruise much more enjoyable. The food served in the MDR was good (except one night was lacking.) Not great (tho Italian night was) but I wouldn't expect great from a restaurant that is trying to serve 3,000 guests at roughly the same time. We were very pleased with the food. Another interjection: check your table assignment as soon as you board. I don't think TA's and Royal Caribbean communicate very well as far as dining requests. We were assigned an 8 person table when we had requested to sit alone at a 4 person table. The maitre de was able to switch us to a 4 person table but it meant we had to move from a pretty view up on the 4th floor down to a corner on the 3rd. If I hadn't made my request as soon as we boarded, I don't know if they would have been able to honor it. After dinner and some alone time, we picked our kids up from Ocean Adventure and brought them to the Windjammer for dessert. DH and I also had a 2nd 'dinner' of sushi from Jade most nights.
Entertainment: with young kids, we didn't make use of the nightly entertainment. The only shows we saw were ice shows during the day. They were fun, not to be missed. My 7 yr old even got to participate, she was pushed around the ice in a sled during the winter themed section. We saw the same show twice (we are ice skating enthusiasts) and the 1st show was clean. The second show, there were 4+ falls or touch downs by multiple performers. Makes me think something was going on with the ice or something. At any rate, it was a great time. I'm amazed that the performers are able to do jumps, lifts, etc. on ice that gets pretty badly beaten up by the end of the show. It practically looks like they're skating in snow by the end. Kudos to the ice skaters.
Children's Club: aka Ocean Adventure. Thank goodness for Ocean Adventure. My kids enjoyed it and it gave DH and I time to relax child-free. My 3 yr old has separation issues and I made her go the 1st night (I ran away as she cried "MOMMY!!!!!!") but after that, she went willingly which says a lot. Yes, I bribed her with dessert only if she went to Ocean Adventure during dinner. Whatever works:) I always requested a beeper for my 3 yr old which alleviated some of my guilt knowing they could contact me if she got too sad. My 7 year old loved Ocean Adventure and we usually signed her out against her will. There were plenty of fun activities the kids participated in including a pirate parade and show, circus parade and show, talent show, etc. They frequently had their face painted or did a craft. Our cruise was during school break and I think the program was overwhelmed a bit. Especially the 3-5 yr old group which really requires a higher staff to child ratio than they had. There were too many kids in that room to handle 'criers.' Advice: don't use the 3-5 yr old room during the 1st day. Wait until things die down a bit and the criers have been weeded out. This may not be an issue at times other than school break. A negative: I felt the rooms in Ocean Adventure were a little small. But neither of my kids mentioned it. Also, I'm not sure if there are enough organized activities for teens because there was quite a bit of loitering. At least it was mostly on the 12th deck near the Ocean Adventure area, so I'm not sure anyone without kids was bothered by them. And I'm not sure you can really organize activities for teens anyway.
Ports: we didn't do any cruise sponsored excursions so I feel it is unfair to comment on ports here. Visit the Ports of Call boards for plentiful info on the ports.
Disembarkation: painless. If you chose the traditional disembarkation. We saw a lot of people who chose "express disembarkation" in which you had to carry your own luggage and that looked like a nightmare. People were lugging their suitcases down 10 flights of stairs and fighting long lines for elevators. What were they thinking? The only reason I can see for self disembarkation is if you have an early flight and have to be out by a certain time. We chose the traditional disembarkation where you put your luggage out the night before and let the crew handle getting it off the ship. Our color tags had us waiting in Studio B for a 10-10:15 disembarkation time and although they were running ~30 minutes behind (probably because of all those people who chose to carry their own luggage), we were quite comfortable waiting to be called. Once our luggage tags were called, we walked right off the ship and onto a waiting bus that brought us back to the terminal. A short wait in the bus (< 10 minutes) while other buses unloaded then we walked right up to our luggage, had one of the many porters available help us cart our luggage through customs (no line at all) and drop our things off at the same luggage drop-off area we used on embarkation (tip the porter.) DH got our car, pulled right up to the tent, we loaded our luggage and we were off. Royal Caribbean did an excellent job of controlling the flow of passengers off the ship so that there were no lines at customs or fighting for porters. Much easier process than any of the 3 times we sailed out of NY.
All in all, a wonderful cruise. Excellent service. I would love to sail with Royal Caribbean again!