This was my first cruise, therefore this review is geared toward the information for the first time cruisers. Instead of judgments or comparisons, I try to write down all the details that I wanted to know before the cruise. The information is based on a 4-day cruise started on 8/23/2004 from port of Miami, and may be specific to the ship.
Port Miami: Port of Miami was still under construction. It was quite a mess between the entrance of the port area (after the bridge) to the ship dock (the buildings). The Ship dock buildings were NOT under construction though. The main cruise lines that sailed from Miami port were RCI and Carnival. The docks for these two lines were not very close to each other.
Luggage handling: Luggage was taken at curb. Porters/luggage handlers would take properly labeled luggage at the curb and they were also happy to take some tip. Luggage tags were included in the cruise document booklet mailed to home, and the tags needed to be attached to all non-carry-on luggage. Our luggage was delivered to the outside of our room door in a couple of hours. There was no need to be present to receive them. The signs at the port said that carry-on luggage needed to meet the airline carry-on standard, although I've seen people carry luggage slightly larger then that. Upon arrival to the port, we waited a minute or two at the curb before a porter greeted us. We had a rental car, so we dropped off the luggage at the port first and returned the car and then took a shuttle back. We found that it would have been easier if we had just returned the car first and taken the luggage on to the shuttle bus provided by the rental car company (Alamo).
Embarkation: Proceed to the port building and pass a simple security check, one could then follow the sign to the appropriate check-in desk. The check-in desks were assigned by deck levels, e.g. deck 6-8 shared a desk. The check-in area was pretty big, like the front desk of a large hotel. At the check-in desk, a payment method was asked (credit card is most convenient, I believe), and then a seapass was given to each individual. The seapass was in credit card shape and was used as such on board the ship. It was also used as the room key and ship reentry pass. After receiving the seapass, there were a couple of picture taking points to go through. Most pictures taken would be put on "photo gallery" for sale, but one had no obligation to buy. Minors were then asked to put on a wrist band at the ship entrance. There was a large number marked on the band which was the number of designated muster station (which everyone needs to know right away because mandatory muster happens before ship leaves). The wrist band desk was the only place we encountered a short line during the embarkation, probably because we arrived at the port at about 1:30pm, relatively late.
State room: We had a regular ocean view room. The size listed was 122 SF: pretty small as one could imagine. One can even call it tiny if compared to an up-scale hotel room in North America. However, it is very functional. We had four beds in the room (two pull-down berths), two for our children. Most standard staterooms on this ship had only two beds, which can be converted to one queen bed. The room had a small desk/dresser, a small corner storage area at the joint of the two lower beds, a tiny glass table (stool like), one chair and a small (13"?) TV mounted high in one corner of the room. There was also a closet and a bathroom. During the day time, berths were pulled up (by the cabin steward), and the two lower beds were used as couches. At night time, the back rest of the "couches" were raised to unveil more space, so the couches become beds. Berths were of the same size as the lower beds, which I believe were the size of twin beds. At 5'8, I can just sit up on upper berths with my hair touching the ceiling. When berths were down, walking in the room needed caution. For rooms that don't have berths, that won't be a problem. There were plenty of lights, and each bed had its own reading light. The room and linens were clean. It was very well maintained, just like any good hotel. It was probably not really spotless and surely didn't look brand new, in case you have extremely high expectations. The closet had four or five small shelves and plenty of hangers (more than any hotel rooms I've stayed). There were four drawers in the desk/dresser. Other reviews indicated some inside cabins may have slightly different room configuration and furnishing. The room was perfect for four of us to unpack all we needed to use during the cruise, not much space left after that. Luggage cases had to go under the beds. Two large suitcases (27") were probably the most the under-bed space could fit. I had an expandable suitcase, and when expanded, it was too tall to fit under the bed. It fit just right when not expanded. We had a safe in the closet. According to other reviews, safes are only available from deck 7 and above on this ship. After four days of stay, we actually liked the cozy room. I booked a large hotel room for post cruise, thinking we might need some room to stretch after staying in such a small room. It apparently was not warranted: none of us was excited when we entered the large room. That small cabin was just fine for us for four days, even with four beds. On the other hand, if the cruise were for ten days, I won't be that sure. According to the ship layout, Majority of the cabins on this ship were about the same size. Deck 9 had slightly larger "superior" rooms. Deck 10 had suites with varying sizes. Also, windows of ocean view cabins are smaller on lower decks (those had round portholes), and larger on higher decks. Regardless big or small, I don't believe the windows (or portholes) can be opened.
Bathroom: Again, a small bath room and shower area for a standard room. Also again, it had very efficient layout. It is comfortable for one person to use. The shower area is rectangular with a corner cut off. I'm relatively small, and I felt comfortable stepping in with some space to turn around. The shower curtain did cause some problem. It was very light nylon type. Once the shower was on, the curtain tends to be sucked toward inside. It was hard not to touch it. I brought a clap to hang at the bottom of the curtain following another reviewer's advice. It helped a bit. However, I figured it probably would take three claps to hold the whole curtain down. After a short while, when the curtain got wet, it was less a problem. Overall, it was more of an annoyance than a real problem, actually. The shower water did get out of the shower easily and made the small bath room floor wet. The small floor was easy to dry, however. Note that when the bathroom door is closed, water won't run out to the main room (which is carpeted). A hand soap and shampoo (in a wall mounted dispenser) were provided.
Deck: We stayed at deck 7. It was called Promenade deck, and for a reason: this deck was surrounded by a very wide walking or jogging track. It was not obvious when one look at the ship layout map. In fact, most of the muster stations were on this deck in the walking areas. There were no shops on this deck, however, if you wonder. The walking area brings some ramifications: the windows on outside staterooms actually looked out to the walking track (or call it deck), and then over the rail to the ocean/port. Views were not much blocked, and there were few people actually walking or standing, but curtains needed to be drawn most of the time, nevertheless. Starts from this deck, there were not many inside cabins because living space is smaller. One benefit to being on this deck was that it was easy to walk out to get some sea breeze. I'd guess people on other decks tend to forget about this walking area because they don't see it. Deck 8 was right above deck 7 and had similar layout. Most of the windows on deck 8 looked out to the life boats, and they were categorized as obstructed view rooms. Deck 9 had slightly larger rooms, and deck 10 were mostly suites. Deck 6 on this ship existed only in the cabin area (forward of the ship). The public area (aft of the ship) went from deck 5 straight to deck 7. Deck 4 was the main entrance, which was used in port Miami. On other ports, deck 1 was used ("gangway"), but I believe other decks can have "gangway" too. Coming back on board from shore, one needs to pass a security check.
Noise: Really not much noise we noticed in the room. There was some noise at arrival of Coco Cay, probably because of anchoring. Didn't hear engine noise, nor people noise, whether from other rooms or hallway. Obviously, this aspect can be location dependent.
Public area: Very well maintained and clean. The Centrum stair rails and decoration has a lot of brass. They are shiny most of the time, but understandably have some fingerprints if you look closely. There were a lot of lounges and bars. Many of them were nearly empty most of the time. There was a library which is more like a small lounge with a few cases of books.
This itinerary almost always stops at a port during day time, and during evening hours, most people are at dinner or the show. Other than a few occasions, we didn't feel the crowd at all. The most crowded time turned out to be the midnight buffet, a.k.a. sail away party from Nassau. Getting on and off ship in ports can be a bit crowded depending on times.
Pool: There are two pools, but only one was open most of time (both are functional, but one is cordoned off most of time). The pool looked pretty big, but there is a large wading area surrounding the pool. About one third of each pool is very shallow (for kids), and the actual swimming area for adults is rather small (more like a house pool). Not too many adults were swimming, however, so mostly the pool is not crowded. There are very reasonable amount of lounges on the pool deck. I haven't seen any fighting over them.
Elevators: There are 6 elevators in the main elevator bank, which is close to "residential area" and get most of the use. Among them, one was apparently not running during our cruise. The elevators were indeed not up to the task during busy hours, such as arrival at a port, or mid-night buffet time. There could be a wait event during non-event hours, because the main elevators run from deck 1 to deck 11, and a lot of times they stop at almost every floor. It is generally no more than waiting for normal hotel elevator, however. At busy times, we opted to walk the stairs. In addition to the main bank, there are two glass elevators at Centrum, which goes the height of the Centrum (from level 3 to 7, I believe). There are also another two or three elevators at the back of the ship, which serves Viking Crown Lounge (level 14), kids connection and main show lounge. The back elevators run from deck 5 to 14, if I remembered correctly.
On board selling: Main items sold on board are drinks, excursions, photos, art auctions and those from on-board souvenir/jewelry/liquor stores. We did not feel selling pressure at all. As a matter of fact, we had to ask for anything we wanted to buy. There were a couple of people walking around buffet area selling drinks (cocktails), but they were not on our face. Same was true on Coco Cay, where they sell "coco loco -- the island drink". At dinner table, beer, cocktail and alikes are obtained via bartenders working in the dining room. Those drinks are paid using seapass after each dinner. No drink pedaling there. Photos may be taken involuntarily, and most people go along. They didn't even try to sell the photos though. All photos were developed a day or two later and displayed in Centrum area, and whoever wants them goes to pick up and pay. Going price was about $8 for a 5X7 and $20 for a 8x10.
Excursions were sold via a special desk (same area as purser's desk). There is also a form for ordering in the room when one first boards. The form had to be turned in by 3pm the first day, and when ordered this way, the tickets will be delivered to the room. No way tried to sell us any excursions either.
Breakfast: Breakfasts were served as a buffet in Windjammer cafe (deck 11) and dining rooms. They are almost the same everyday, but most standard breakfast affairs were included, such as pancakes, bacon, two kinds of scrabbled eggs, fruits, yogurt, cereals and smoked salmon. Grapefruit juice, orange juice and milk were also provided without charge. The juices were of decent quality, not watered down or soda/punch kind. Although I don't believe they were premium quality either. It's a buffet after all. In addition to these, there were omelet stations. To my taste, the buffet breakfast was very satisfying, although one omelet I had was mediocre. We tried once at dinning room for breakfast, where one orders from menu. It was also very good and the bacons were particularly crispy. Nothing exotic there, but one can find most items that typical American breakfasts buffet would offer.
Lunch: We ate at Windjammer buffet, and the main dishes seemed to change daily. There were generally a few main dishes including meat dishes, seafood dishes and vegetable dishes. Choices were not great, but food tasted good, and I would say above average for a buffet. There were also hamburgers and hot dogs available. There was always salad and a nice dessert bar as well. The lunch on Coco Cay was actually similar to what's on the ship complete with salad and dessert, except the main dishes were simplified to barbecue fairs like ribs. Water, iced tea and lemonade were provided as fountain drinks. BTW, these drinks were available most of the day. There were times that drinks or cups ran out, however.
Dinner: Dinners are quite formal. I mean it consists of bread, appetizer, salad, entree and dessert. Menu changed daily and usually has about 4 or 5 entree choices including meat, sea food, vegetable and pasta. There were also low-carb choices which we haven't tried. Our waiter asked us to order appetizer and entree together and order by person (my family normally share appetizers in restaurants). Appetizers were pretty usual stuff, and are of small size (e.g., cocktail shrimp had 4 medium size shrimps). They were well presented and tasted good, but I've seen fancier and better appetizers from better restaurants. I'd suspect most people could easily eat two appetizers, and I had two sometimes. The waiter asked us if we wanted to try additional appetizers in a couple of dinners. There were usually some soups listed as appetizers too. It seemed to me that salad was always Caesar, and I usually skip. Entrees were well presented although not fancy, and I'd say they tasted equal to some of the better restaurants. Again, menu choices were not fancy (in my opinion, not-very-sophisticated steak, fish, duck, lamb, pasta, etc.), but basics were well taken care of and in very good quality. The portion of entrees were average to a bit small, and about the size I'd expect walking into a typical (if there is such a thing) Italian or French restaurant. It was just right for me considering eating appetizers and dessert. I can see some people can take two entrees if not worried about gaining weight. Service in the dinning room was much better than my local restaurants. I didn't see extraordinary service some other reviews may have indicated, but between waiter, assistant waiter and head waiter, one has to be served pretty well. They usually talk to kids, take away empty plates quickly and prepare for what you need next. Overall, it was quite amazing that each restaurant served about 500 people at the same time. With that in mind, we sometimes arrived about 15 minutes late to avoid the crowd. Kids choices are the same every night, but there are more choices than average restaurants. Kids food looked decent and juices were provided to them. On that note, adults only got water on my table. Most of us ordered drinks from the bartender which we paid at the end of the dinner with the seapass. Another review mentioned that iced tea and lemonade can be ordered for free, but I didn't try that, so cannot report.
Kids program: Kids programs are held in Kids Konnection rooms on deck 11. It is across the pool from Windjammer cafe and under Viking Crown lounge (The highest circular lounge). Room attendant will leave kids program schedule(s) together with the Compass (adult's program) the night before in the room. There is one copy of kids program for each age group. Kids program runs from early morning to about 10:00pm and kids can be dropped off at Kids Konnection most of the time when the program is open. There were two dinners that kids can also be at the Kids program having dinner with other kids, and parents need to sign up for them. For the days kids don't have a dinner program, check out time was about 5pm, although evening programs reopen after the dinner. On the CoCo Cay day, activities are held on the island and are short programs. Usually, Kids program ended at 10pm each evening, and child care was provided till 1am ($5 an hour). Regular kids programs were free. Children received a card for each attendance, and the cards could be used to redeem awards on the last night.
Disembarkation: This process can take a while. Luggage had to be out of the room (leave them in hallway) the night before (before 2am?). Luggage tags were colored and distributed to the room the day before. So pack early. Many people ate in the dining room the morning of departure and breakfast closed relatively early. Certain public lounges were designated as the waiting rooms, because people don't get off at once. The broadcast will call for the color of the luggage tags. Once called, it means that the luggage is ready to be picked up at the terminal. One could then get into the line and walk off the ship. Once luggage was fetched, the line continued for customs, and that was a long line. Well, similar to the customs in the airports for international flights during busy hours.
Entertainment: This is too subjective and I didn't attend all of them. I'll skip this part. There were nightly shows provided, most nights one show for each dinner seating. Other smaller programs were available. Few activities when the ship was docked. The fitness center was reasonably equipped and has ocean view. I didn't go to the spa.
Tip: There was a recommended tip amount, and that's close to $10 per day per person. A letter of the tip recommendation was sent to the room the first day on the ship. One can purchase "prepaid tip vouchers" by filling out the form on the letter and sending to the purser's desk. By doing so, charges will go to the seapass account and coupons will arrive the room before the last dinner, which was the time the tip supposed to be handed out. Coupons have the titles of the recipients printed (e.g. waiter, head waiter). We gave all the tip envelops (provided by the ship) in person. Of course, one is free to give cash as well, if enough cash is prepared. Vouchers don't have amount on them, and the order form allowed the standard amount only. One needs to talk to the purser's desk if non-standard tip voucher is needed, which I haven't tried. In general, that one time tip covers all the tips on board, except room service and other small things. Beverage tips were generally included in the charge already.