I have never been to Disney; it's just one of those places that I could never see myself connecting with. I have spoken too many and am confident that it is an amazing experience that sticks in a Childs mind for a lifetime. What makes it not appealing to me is the whole pretence of pretend, trying to be so many things at once, copying other places in the world, recreated with a look and feel of the original.
I find myself drawing parallels as I sit aboard Independence of the Seas writing this review.
Check-in at Southampton was less than smooth. I queued in the car to get into the port, queued to get my case unloaded, queued to get into the waiting area before security, queued to check in. Over an hour and a half to get from arrival at the dock gates to finally embarking. Not that the delays ended there, my case did not arrive until after dinner (8pm) and if you wanted to try and speak to guest relations; join the long, long line. Now Oasis of the Seas, with it's 6,000 passengers and based in Florida, manages to get kerbside to cabin in 15 mins. Why must we pay 3 or 4 times the price of a cruise in the USA to experience this poor service departing Southampton? This needs to change.
This is my fourth of six cruises this year and as I walked onto the ship she it was as impressive as I had thought. She's big, very big and immediate impression was lots of people, and no ship guide in the stateroom. Thankfully outside each lift there is illuminated cut-away of the ship so you can see where you are in relation to everything around you.
The main feature of all 'Freedom class' ships is the Royal Promenade; a 'mall style' 6 deck high alley that goes down the centre of the ship. Like a mall it has shops and pubs each side trying to sell you items over and above the cost of the cruise. Each shop or bar is individually styled to make it feel like something else. The Dog and Badger pub which is presented like an old Tudor English pub, Sorrento's an Italian style cafe across the way serving pizza 24 hours a day, or Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream etc
I was blessed with the weather on this cruise with sun and temperatures above 25 celcius every day, so relaxing at the side of the impressive Flo-rider or sipping my favourite BBC cocktail at the pool side sky bar were delightful times. Independence is now sailing year round from Southampton and with no indoor pool and so much public entertainment space in and around the pools on decks 11 & 12, sailing from Southampton on a cold, dark February evening would not be fun.
This ship houses over 1,000 more passengers than Queen Mary 2 and is only slightly bigger and as I strolled round the Deck 12 area it certainly felt like it. Every sun lounger had a either a person or a checked-out towel laying on it. You have to present your room Sea Pass card to get a Pool Towel and if not returned you get charged $20. So despite notices requesting people do not take a sun lounger for more than 30 minutes most were there for the afternoon. There were a few times the number of people became an issue, the captain's address in the Royal Promenade on Formal Night was certainly a squeeze as was the 40 min queue to buy a fridge magnet on the last night......
The Royal Promenade is deprived of any connection to the sea or the fact you are on a cruise, no glass roof to the sky being completely encased and artificially lit, no windows to the ocean (only small windows in two of the bars looking at lifeboats). It is a celebration of consumerism; a cathedral to shopping and, for me, adds nothing to the cruise experience that I could not get in my local shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon.
I did find the whole imitation theme; the Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Anthony & Cleopatra and Othello named dining rooms; the Pyramid Lounge complete with fake Cleopatra's needle outside, the stale smoke drenched Labyrinth nightclub complete with fake stained glass, gothic chairs and pews felt more like a gothic S&M dungeon; Sorrentos the 24 hour pizza outlet complete with 24 hour Italian jukebox, a plastic Morgan car and so on. It all had a veneer of reality that was only as thick as the painted coating.
Why could not the largest cruise ship in Europe have the confidence to be original, to create something that is not just lifted from the text book of history or a copy of something else, but actually tried to bring something new to the party? Royal Caribbean had a chance to really impress and set a new standard that OTHERS could have aspired to, but fell way short. From the looks of Oasis of the Seas, they may have found it again.
The food was OK but not memorable. I steak on the first night arrived overcooked and tough as leather, though most meals in the Romeo & Juliet dining room were edible though not exciting. No four courses here like Cunard or Celebrity. Service was good, though hard sold; It was disclosed to me, after I had completed the questionnaire, that if you had marked 'Good', 'Fair' or 'Poor' on the end of cruise survey they count as minus points to the staff you are rating. Only the highest rank of 'Excellent' counts as a positive. So the effort of the waiting staff to impress, and to make sure you turned up on the last night to give them the gratuities envelope, was way to pushy. Joy and Robert our waiters were excellent, even though the dining room we were in was less than half full.
It's the impersonal approach and the little things I missed on this cruise: No bathrobe, no slippers and no chocolate on the pillow last thing at night (Cunard & Celebrity). No real dress code in the main dining room with jeans and shorts at dinner and breakfast. No extra little cakes after dinner or Bread basket and dips on the table (Celebrity)
However it I was looking to take the family on a cruise this would be top of my list. The FloRider surf simulator with the wrap around seating was a great place to see experts and beginners try out surfing. For the more adventurous the rock-climbing wall was open each day adjacent to the basketball court. And for the under 8's the H2O zone with its water jets and vortex pool would be a hit. The ice rink shows on Deck 3 studio B were impressive, 10 skaters pulled from national teams (mainly Russian) executed a through the ages show called Freeze-Frame with great precision. And the Showtime shows in the 1,300 seat Alhambra Theatre were good, especially the Once Upon A Time show on the last night.
As I walked round the ship at sunset one night I passed the windows to the Adventure Ocean kids club and there were toddlers dashing about the place in supervised activities and older kids in the Fuel Teen Club; I did agree that as a family holiday this ship offers both family and adult time with the peace of mind if knowing the kids are safe and having fun, rather than bored and left behind.
Even though this was half term week and the waiter imparted that there was 800 kids on board, the organisation was such that at dinner we were in a quite dining area and families, couples and solo cruisers were well grouped.
To summarise, Independence of the Seas is mass-cruising, how best to cope with the number of passengers. It is mass catering, mass entertaining and mass movement of people, I felt as unique as my stateroom number throughout.
This is not a classy five star ship. It has been designed for the mass family UK market with a bit of something for everyone and at this level it succeeds on all counts. If I were boarding Independence as my first cruise I would be wowed by the experience and everything on offer.
If you have cruised before then this will probably meet all of your expectations for RCI. It's a good cruise ship, but not excellent like Queen Mary 2 or any of the Celebrity Solstice class ships (owned by the same corporate). This is solid four star family fun.