My 7-year old daughter summed it all up in one word, "awesome." My sister-in-law, who had to be dragged kicking and screaming on to the ship, declared it the best vacation she had ever taken. And this from the woman, who asked when the cruise idea came up: "Why would I would to spend a week in the hot sun with thousands of strangers?"
We have just returned from our 7-day stay on-board the Freedom of the Seas. Below is a frank and candid account of our voyage. But firstly, a huge mega thanks to Cruise Critic members for providing the tips, advice and wise counsel that allowed us to plan really well for this vacation and avoid the surprises that can be inherent in any travel experience.
We were a party of 11 leaving Port Canaveral. It was a family reunion paid for by mother-in-law who was turning 70 during our time on-board. There were six kids in the group including my 14 year old daughter, two sons aged 12 and 10, an 11 year old niece, a 7 year old nephew and my youngest daughter who is also 7.
GETTING THERE: We flew in from Kansas City the night before our scheduled sailing and stayed at the Embassy Suites, Orlando Airport. It was those postings on cruisecritic.com about European passengers missing their cruises due to volcano dust that got us thinking about what if the weather is bad here in the U-S? Might we be stuck if there was a storm and our flight was delayed? We hadn't bought any trip insurance and decided instead to travel to Florida a day ahead of our ship's departure.
By the way, the Embassy Suites Orlando Airport is a terrific place to lay your head before your cruise. There is a complimentary hotel shuttle bus that takes you from the airport terminal to the Embassy Suites front door in less than 5 minutes. Embassy Suites provides a free and expansive breakfast buffet and for two hours every evening provides a managers reception where you can get free beer, wine and cocktails as well as soft drinks and light snacks. To my dismay, the hotel pool was out of service when we arrived...a big disappointment to our four kids. But when I asked if the hotel had any reciprocal arrangements with any other nearby Hilton hotels (Embassy is part of the Hilton family) they were very obliging. We could swim at the Hilton Garden Inn right next door!!! We couldn't have been happier.
SHUTTLE TO SHIP: We had reserved a Cocoa Beach Shuttle bus to take us to Port Canaveral at 10:00 am the next morning. The driver was cheerful, professional and very polite. He met us in the hotel lobby and took our bags. There were already a couple of other passengers in the large new air-conditioned van when we got on. The shuttle cost $145 for all eleven of us. It was a great deal...and certainly cheaper and more convenient than renting a couple of minivans to make the journey.
SEEING THE SHIP: It took us about 45 minutes to get to Port Canaveral. Our kids spotted the ship first. We knew it was going to be big, but you don't get a full sense of that until you see it next to other cruise ships. Docked next to the Freedom, was the Disney Wonder. My son said the Freedom made the Disney ship look like a toy boat.
EMBARKING PROCESS: We arrived at the Port Canaveral Cruise Terminal about 11 AM. The luggage attendants congregating outside took our bags and explained where we needed to go. The whole process of showing passports, checking-in and filling out paperwork was all well organized and efficient. My mother-in-law commented on the number of groups who were wearing specially made t-shirts with their family's name and cutesy slogans. Some people also took the trouble to also have printed on their chests the name of the ship and the cruise dates. "Why didn't any of us think of doing that?" my mother-in-law lamented. Ah, I said. They may have the t-shirts. But how many of them had brought a hole puncher and a dozen lanyards to hold their sea passes? The shirts are cute for one day, I declared, but the lanyards are a convenience for the entire week. She was impressed at my foresight. So it seemed, were many of the passengers around us, who expressed disappointment that they hadn't thought about doing that! If they'd only been to cruisecritic.com!!!!
BOARDING THE SHIP: Just before you get on the ship, there are a number of places where there are fake cruise backgrounds set up to have your photo taken. We passed up the opportunity and headed straight for the ship. For all the excitement of finally getting on board, we were taken aback that there was absolutely no direction on what we were supposed to do next. A soft-spoken Royal Caribbean crew member with a walkie-talkie greeted us with a half-hearted, "welcome aboard" but we had no clue where we were to now go or do. For all my reading of threads and postings on the cruisecritic.com site, I never recalled reading about this situation.
We followed some other passengers into the ship. You enter on one of the less glamorous lower decks that looks like the deck of any other boat...and in no way tips you off to the fact that you are on one of the largest and most amenity filled ships in the world.
Just inside, there is a makeshift table set up with flyers about the Adventure Ocean clubs. One overwhelmed crew member tried to keep a cheery disposition as he was swarmed by arriving passengers. We asked if this is where we sign up for the kids clubs. He says NO. That doesn't take place until this evening. This is just to give wristbands to any child under the age of 12, so that if they are separated from their parents they can be identified in the event of an actual emergency on-board.
As our younger kids put on their thin plastic identifier bands we look for someone to guide us on what we should do next. There are no crew members around to offer that guidance. I then tell the group that I remember reading on cruisecritic.com that you should go the Windjammer Buffet when you arrive. They have lunch available all day. But for the life of me, I can't recall what deck it's on and we see no place where there's a map of the ship that might tell us that information.
We wander around aimlessly from deck to deck until we get to the fifth floor where there are a stack of ship handouts and cruise compasses and there are printouts of the ships layout. I notice a sign nearby saying GUEST RELATIONS. But you don't see any crew members. They must be behind the mobs of people lined up at the desk.
FIRST MISSION - GETTING TO THE WINDJAMMER: We pour over the ship's map and scour it for any reference to the Windjammer. My son spots it first. Deck 11, he says. We look for the elevators and make our way to the 11th floor. Another passenger in the elevator directs our attention to the carpet which spells out the word Sunday. They change the carpet every day, he says. The next time you'll see this carpet will be a very sad day he says, it's the day you leave the ship. The elevators are super-cool all-glass contraptions . My wife spots the Royal Promenade from the window and comments on the amazing amounts of installation art...from huge traffic lights to magnificent chandeliers.
We arrive at Deck 11 and immediately see the sign for the Windjammer. There are three hand sanitizer stations set up just outside the dining room and a high-energy crew member asks that we please wash our hands before entering. The Windjammer is swamped with people but we see a group vacating a table close to the entrance and make a beeline for it. Most of our group just waits in line at the buffet station next to the entrance which is serving burgers, hot dogs and fries. I wander around looking to see what else might be available. The place goes on and on and on. There are about a dozen different buffet set ups with everything from Indian food, to salads, a massive dessert bar, a carvery and a Chinese food station. I also notice that while the front of the Windjammer is jam-packed with people desperate to find a table, the back of the restaurant is virtually empty. Lesson #1: Go straight to the back of the Windjammer. There's even another burger, hot dog and fries station there with no lines.
I had read about water and iced tea and lemonade being free...but we are pleasantly surprised to see some other offerings that are free too: Kiwi water, strawberry water and mango water. Our kids say they taste great. We decide there and then...let's not bother to get soda cards. We can buy the kids a soda every night at dinner and the rest of the time they'll be happy with these flavored waters and lemonade. By the way, you don't have to ask for the complimentary drinks. The iced water, lemonade, iced tea and flavored fruit waters are pre-filled in clear plastic beakers for you to pick up from several large drink stations dotted around the Windjammer.
WHAT TO DO AFTER LUNCH: We know the rooms won't be ready until 1:00 pm. So we decide to tour the ship. Our youngest kids are getting antsy. They don't want to look around. They want to go swimming, right now. We split up. My wife takes our kids to the pool while I join the other adults in exploring the ship. We haven't even gone down the length of one deck when one of my in-laws complains about how tiring it's going to be to do this much walking getting from one place to another.
When my mother-in-law booked the cruise, the travel agent recommended we get cabins near an elevator so my mother-in-law could save her knees from too much walking. What terrible advice I thought at the time. If you have difficulty getting from your cabin to the elevator, then perhaps the world's second largest cruise ship is not the right choice for you!!!!
THE STATEROOMS: While they say not to expect to get into your staterooms until after 1pm, they were ready well before then. My sister-in-law and mother-in-law had balcony rooms that were amazing. My wife and four kids had two interior staterooms on deck 8. Having cruised once before on a Regency ship more than a decade ago, I know how small the cabins can be. But I have to say I was very happy with the size and the appearance of Freedom's interior cabins. Nice linens, a flat screen TV, attractive artwork and even a small loveseat. The space was very well laid-out. The bathroom was small but very well appointed. But don't look for the little bottles of shampoo, lotion, conditioner, shoe shine kits and the shower caps hotels provide. There was one wrapped bar of soap and a white dispenser attached to the wall in the shower that was labeled, "SHAMPOO." Oh, there was a hairdryer too...and a safe...and a compact under the counter refrigerator ¾ filled with drinks and snacks that you would be charged for if consumed. I was impressed though, that they had purposely not overfilled the shelves so you could still find a good amount of space to chill your own beverages and food items.
My wife and I had booked two interior cabins for the six people in our family. But I noticed each room had only two single beds. Where were the other passengers going to sleep? Was the small loveseat also a sofa bed? I tried to pull it apart. No fold out mattress there. I pulled at the console next to the flat screen TV to see if there was some drop down bed hidden there. I checked the walls, the bathroom and could see no conceivable way any more than two people could stay in each of these rooms.
Sensing a big problem I headed up to GUEST RELATIONS to get to the bottom of it. I waited in a very long line that didn't seem to move whatsoever. Then somebody commented that the line that was forming on the other side of the guest relations desk was moving very quickly and that we should move over there. I had mistakenly been standing in the SHORE EXCURSIONS LINE which is also at the GUEST RELATIONS desk. But no one informed us of that and unless you were right next to the counter, you would have had no way of knowing. When I finally reached the right section of the guest relations counter I explained my predicament to the cruise representative. He looked up my room numbers on the computer and without looking up from the screen he informed me that the beds in those rooms folded down from the ceiling. Yes, you heard right, the ceiling! I had no idea!!! He said the stateroom attendant would bring them down every night.
I went back to the room and could then see the hinges in the ceiling which were disguising the concealed third bed. How ingenious I thought. And better than having three beds in such a small space. During the day, there would be more space to move around. Later that evening, we would see the bunk bed in place with a metal ladder to the side. It laid directly above one of the beds. Though all of the members of our group loved the quality of the beds on the Freedom, none of our kids felt the bunk bed was comfortable.
DINNER TIME: We had selected the first main dining room seating option at 6:00 PM. As we entered the restaurant we had no clue which table we were sitting at, until my son said it was listed on our sea passes. All 11 of us were seated at our own table in a gorgeous dining space and with what would turn out to be two of the nicest crew members on the ship, our waiter Christopher from the Philippines and Maurice from Jamaica. They made our kids feel special by giving them lots of attention and entertained them throughout the week with magic tricks. Christopher and Maurice created an intimate, warm and enjoyable experience for all of us. They made the cruise!!!
The food offerings were wonderful. Our kids all ordered from the adult menu and were brave enough to sample everything from snails to duck, lobster and crab. We felt no need to go to any of the specialty restaurants on board. We ate in the main dining room for dinner every night without exception. This was great because we all did our separate things in the day. Dinner became the time and place we all got together to share our stories and catch up.
While it did create more packing, we followed all of the dress code recommendations including wearing suits, ties and dresses on formal nights and polo shirts and nice khaki pants with shoes on casual nights. Our kids followed the rules too. Though our boys just wore shirts and ties with dress slacks on the formal nights. They did not have jackets.
There's a lot of discussion on the bulletin boards about the dress code for dinner. In fact, there are so many postings complaining about it, I thought most people wouldn't be that dressed up. During our cruise, that was very much the exception. In fact, I thought the vast majority of people were very well dressed and it made the whole experience more special.
ACTIVITIES: While our kids spent their days at the pool, I never once dipped even a toe in any of the pools. There were so many things to do, you didn't need to. We played miniature golf, climbed the massive rock wall, visited the arcade, challenged my kids to shuffleboard, participated in daily trivia games, took in ice-shows and magic shows, surfed the Flowrider and played bingo. And my favorite thing of all, going down to the shaded and quiet 4th deck to hang out in a recliner with my book, surrounded by the soothing sounds of the ocean. EXCURSIONS: Our first stop was Labadee, Royal Caribbean's private resort on the North tip of Haiti. Based on reviews on cruisecritic.com and on Trip Advisor we had pre-booked the Haitian Cultural Tour.
Haiti was hot, hot, hot. On leaving the ship, we were instructed to meet at the adventure tour kiosk on land. Everyone seemed desperate to find a spot of shade to stand in. Passengers who did not bring hats, swiftly headed to a little gift shop to buy one. The heat was "merciless."
The first part of the tour took us on a boat ride to our private paradise beach. The little vessel had an awning that didn't cover the entire boat and no one wanted to sit in the front where they were exposed to the blazing hot sun. After a 15 minute ride we were helped off the boat in knee high deep water about 30 or 40 feet from the sand. The $65 tour offered a complimentary rum or fruit punch which we were offered at a beachside bar immediately upon our arrival. Our tour guide, Hans then took us on a walking tour of this little beachside village. He showed us pineapples and bananas growing naturally on the hillside. Pointed out plants that were used for medicines and cooking from aloe to all spice. We saw a woman making homemade peanut butter, met with Haitian artists and musicians and learned a little about voodoo before heading back to the beach where we got to relax, swim or snorkel for an hour before being taken back to the main cruise pier.
The beach was filled with palm trees so there was lots of shade from the brutal sun. Alas, that was not true of the rest of Labadee. While I headed back to the ship after the tour, my wife took our kids to the other beaches available to passengers and they could find not a lick of shade. They came back to the ship mid-afternoon literally worn out from the experience. They loved the secluded beach on the Haitian Cultural tour but did not care for the beaches elsewhere on Labadee.
Later at dinner, my sister in law expressed her displeasure with the Haitian Cultural Tour. She thought it was like going to a historic reenactment village and did not provide a realistic look at the life of Haitians. She felt the tour guide was going through the motions and did not do a good job of answering questions.
OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA: Using advice from cruisecritic.com and from Trip Advisor we had pre-booked an independent tour with Peat Taylor. We would not be disappointed. Peat's son Sean escorted us in a comfortable air-conditioned van to the Dunn's River Falls, tubing on the White River and the cool blue hole. En route he told us lots about island life, showed us typical Jamaican neighborhoods and other interesting tidbits we would never have gotten on a cruise organized group tour. He was amazingly pleasant and we can't recommend Peat Taylor tours enough.
Just as a side note, while we had a great and safe time at the Dunn's River Falls, when we got back to the ship we learned that several other passengers had slipped there. One had broken her arm and another smashed her head falling backwards onto a sharp rock.
Our family had worn water shoes and had no trouble navigating the wet rocks. But I did notice a number of people were wearing other kinds of shoes including crocs. That may have contributed to their unfortunate slipping and sliding. By reading cruisecritic.com before heading on vacation, I knew what to expect when it came to locals trying to sell you stuff on the island. A firm no thanks was the advice offered...and I used it to good effect. Roadside trinket sellers did not unsettle me in the least. Our driver Sean also told us to be wary of anyone wanting to give free necklaces or other gifts to our children. Nothing is free he reminded us. As we left the Dunn's River Falls a local woman handed my 7 year old daughter a necklace saying it was for free. My wife told my daughter to politely hand it back and say no thank you. The local woman would not be discouraged. She told my wife: "Please, don't shame your children. Just accept the necklace. Don't shame your daughter."
I found the whole thing rather comical. I admired the woman's persistence. But I know these incidents can be unsettling to some people.
Perhaps the greatest example of persistence came when we had cleared the security area to reboard the ship in Ocho Rios. As we crossed the gangway that takes you to the ship, we noticed a Jamaican bobbing up and down in the deep deep water with his hands held up asking for a dollar.
GRAND CAYMAN: Booked an independent parasailing ride with Parasailing Professionals. They get great reviews on Trip Advisor dot com. You cannot book online and have to call them to reserve. But they're a class act. We were picked up at a small concrete jetty a stone's throw from where the cruise ship was docked. All six of us including my 7 year old daughter took to the skies for an exhilarating ride along the coast of Seven Mile beach. Right next to the cruise terminal is a small beach where you can snorkel for free. Our kids spent about two-hours in the water with their $9 Wal-Mart snorkeling sets and saw all sorts of cool stuff. They loved it.
COZUMEL: Pre-booked snuba diving for the boys and the dolphin encounter for the girls at Chankanaab National Park. As we organized this independently, we took a taxi from the cruise terminal to the park. Cost $10. Chankanaab is absolutely gorgeous and there are iguanas running free all around the beautiful grounds.
I did the SNUBA with my two sons. Snuba is a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving. Scuba requires training and diving certification and thus is not an option for younger kids. Anyone 8 and over can do snuba. You wear a mask and flippers and a weighted belt. But you don't have an oxygen tank on your back. Rather, your source of air is through a 20 foot tube that is connected to an oxygen task above the surface of the water. So it's a safer and more controlled experience. But you do have to breathe exclusively through your mouth which I found quite hard. There are lots of brightly colored fish in the coral reef that extends below the water at Chankanaab. Our kids thoroughly enjoyed the experience but I really had a hard time ...it was exhausting. I was also not prepared for the massive pressure in the ears akin to when you're on a real bad airplane ride. It was a super-cool experience but it requires some breathing discipline. I'm pleased I did it. But would not repeat. While I was focusing on breathing underwater, my wife and daughter were doing the DOLPHIN SWIM. My wife said they were in the water for about two hours all told. And that included meeting up with a manatee as well. She said it was quite thrilling. And even with all that time in the water in direct sun no one got burned.
We are a fair skinned family and my kids are all red heads. But I'm pleased to report that thanks to Ocean Potion Gentle and Sensitive SPF 50...none of us got sunburned...even though we all swam, snorkeled, parasailed and tubed our way through the hot Caribbean sun for 7 days...a major accomplishment.
KIDS CLUBS: We had two kids in the 12-14 club, the 9-11 club and the 6-9 club. I expected them to spend more time than they did at these organized children's activities but they really didn't. Three of our four kids are real joiners but they weren't that interested in a lot of the offerings. And they didn't have to be because there was so much else to do on the ship.
On Cruise Critic dot com, a lot of cruisers talked about the importance of teenagers going to the first night mix and mingle. So I ensured they were there. But my son said there were no other kids and the staff was just talking among themselves. He left. But he did enjoy the Scratch DJ Academy later in the week. That's where they teach you mixing, scratching and digital DJ-ing. By the end of the cruise he had made quite a few friends and he's keeping in touch with them by e-mail.
Don't get me wrong, all of our kids thoroughly enjoyed this cruise. They have not stopped talking about it. But none of them really embraced the kids clubs as the main source of their entertainment.
And by the way, they have a terrific family disco twice during the cruise at the Crypt nightclub. It was awesome. They also give away free kids ballcaps and mini-backpacks.
BIGGEST FRUSTRATION: Passengers reserving seats in the theaters even though Royal Caribbean makes it clear that reserving seats in strictly prohibited. I got so fed up of showing up 20 minutes before a show with my family and entering a half filled theater only to find out that no seats were available because huge swaths of the seats were being "reserved" by other passengers. It discouraged me from wanting to go to some shows. After waiting in line to get ice show tickets and then finding out there were "no seats " available when my family arrived 22 minutes before showtime I took matters into my own hands. I saw half a row empty and just sat down in those seats. A woman shouted at me and said she was reserving them for her family. I told her that "you can't keep seats." She said where is that policy? Several other passengers backed me up and said it was in every cruise compass and it was also on a flashing text display screen inside the theater. But this woman wouldn't have it and set her husband on me....accusing me of ungentleman-like behavior.
This was an amazing cruise... this was the ugliest part of it. I would encourage Royal Caribbean to take a leaf out of Disney and Universal's playbook and that is to have someone make an announcement a few minutes before showtime and insist audience members stand up and head to the center of each row so that all seats are filled. They then let newly arriving guests to take the remainder.
DISEMBARKATION: We left our stateroom at 7:30 AM on disembarkation day. We were in no rush to leave the ship because our flight was not leaving until after 2pm. We had a leisurely breakfast in the Windjammer, said our goodbyes to our favorite staff and headed off the ship. The process was fast, smooth and efficient. We left the ship, like most do, with a tinge of sadness. But we all vowed that one day we would return together on the Freedom of the Seas.