I am in my mid 40s and this is my 25th cruise. I was fortunate enough to start cruising when I was a senior in high school, so I've seen cruising from a teenager's perspective all the way to a middle aged father with kids. I traveled this time with my wife, my father-in-law who is in his 80s and my two kids who are 10 and 9 years old. This is my third Royal Caribbean cruise, and to be honest, this is not the kind of cruise I would have ever booked because I've tended away from large passenger ships after a bad cruise on the Sun Princess where I constantly felt crowded and like cattle being herded from place to place. I also had a sub par experience in 2001 on Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas where the service was spotty. But, my kids are old enough now to see TV ads and internet promotions and convinced me to try this Royal Caribbean mega-ship.
With that being said, these passenger reviews have been very valuable to help me set my expectations correctly. Disappointment only really happens when your expectations are set too high. If you are reading this you probably have already booked this ship so I won't go into too much detail about Royal Caribbean versus other lines in this review. My expectations were basically that this would be a crowded ship with average food and so-so service. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was wrong on most counts.
Pre Cruise Hotel: We flew into Orlando a couple of nights before the cruise to visit some relatives who had driven up from Tampa, but we normally fly in a day or two early just so we don't have to worry about missing the ship if our flights are messed up. We stayed at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes before the cruise and found it to be a very nice place with a good rate and a really good pool for the kids with a "lazy river" to swim in.
Traveling to the Ship: For Port Canaveral we always rent a car from Avis and we did so this time without any trouble. We liked the fact that we had a car while we stayed at our hotel and the morning of departure we simply loaded up the rented mini-van and drove to the ship at our leisure after breakfast. This option is great for us as the car was comfortable, we didn't have to wait on other people, and it cost less than getting transportation from the cruise line to the ship. It took about 45 mins. to drive to the port. Once you get there the best option is to drop off family and bags at the ship, then go return the car. When you get to the port there is a quirky thing in that they made us drive into the parking structure to get to the ship. You take a parking ticket, drive through the parking area, then exit the parking area where there is no charge for less than 20 mins. and you are then directed by the longshoremen where to park your car to unload bags. The longshoremen are very adamant about where you unload as the car behind me got yelled at when the driver decided he wanted to park in another spot to unload. The embarrassed driver ended up moving his car back to where they had told him to park. Please remember to tip the longshoremen for taking your bags. I personally know of someone who didn't a long time ago in Miami and her bags were put on another ship.
Embarkation: We arrived around 11AM and embarkation was well underway. I made the mistake of dropping off my family without their passports while I returned the rental car. It turns out that unlike other terminals, this one checks your passport before they let you in the building, so a line forms outside the terminal with people waiting to get their passports checked to get in. It was a fairly hot and humid day so standing outside was not too pleasant. My father-in-law had his passport so he went ahead in. Since he boarded the ship without us, we didn't find him until dinner that day. Moral of the story is to try to stick together because with embarkation it is easy to lose people in the crowd.
I dropped off the rental at Avis with no problem and took their shuttle to the ship. On the way the driver of the shuttle reminded passengers to shut off international roaming on their iPhones and Blackberrys. Once you leave the US, and data you send and receive or and calls you make are considered to be international and thus very expensive. The driver told a story about someone who ran up a $3,000 bill not knowing this. You can avoid this on an iPhone by going into Settings>General then look for "International Roaming" and turn it off. Do that and just don't use your phone unless you are in St. Thomas and you should be fine.
We stopped off at a Publix grocery store before getting on and bought some soft drinks for our cabin. Royal Caribbean lets you bring non-alcoholic beverages aboard. We stuffed some into our carry-ons and had no problem. One thing we did observe that was creative is that we saw some people taping baggage tags to 12-pack cartons and leaving the cartons with their luggage. I don't know how well that worked, but it sounds like a good idea.
Once inside the terminal I was impressed at how organized everything was. You are routed to a checkin line based on your deck number and there is a staff member that directs you to the next open check-in person. Check-in is quick and then you go to the ship. We did have about a 10 min. wait after check-in to board as we got backed up in a line as each passenger has to get their picture taken to go along with their boarding card. The Windjammer was crowded but there was an attendant who was there and directed us to open seating which was a nice touch.
Cabin: We had connecting Promenade inside cabins which was a first for us and worked out very well. Our kids were in the connecting cabin and we had two bathrooms to work with which was very nice. The cabins are small, to be expected, but I was pleasantly pleased with the strong shower pressure and a shower head which was easily adjustable in height. There is no bathtub, but that is not a big deal to us. Shampoo is from a dispenser, but we brought our own anyway. The hair dryer is in the desk drawer across the room from the bathroom, which is not real obvious. One important note about Promenade cabins, remember to close your curtains if you are changing clothes. When your curtains are open you are easily visible from the Promenade and the cabins across the Promenade. The flat screen TV has a feature to check your onboard account. I check ours daily and that way I knew our account was correct at the end of the cruise. The beds were very comfortable and the linen was surprisingly good quality. For a Promenade Cabin, the noise level was not bad at all outside of the parade the first night and the 70s Disco Night which is right outside your cabin. You can hear that, but once again, if you have a cabin facing a busy venue, there will be a couple of noisy nights, but both the parade and disco night ended by 11:30.
I was pleasantly surprised that on a ship that holds over 4,000 passengers, there was no feeling of crowding 90% of the time. There are so many venues and so much to do that people are really spread out evenly. The only time you realize how many people are onboard is when there is entertainment at night. Most shows had a two showings a night. Arriving 20-30 mins. before a show usually gets you a great seat on most ships, but on this one you need to arrive 30 mins. before just to get a seat if you have more than two people in your party. The ship asks that you not reserve seats, but along with most shipboard rules, most passengers believed the rules didn't apply to them.
Fellow Passengers: This is not a sophisticated, elegant cruise ship by any means, and to Royal Caribbean's credit, they don't really pretend that it is in their marketing. My wife has a good analogy that most passengers are "Target Shoppers", meaning that they don't normally spend money at upscale stores, but they look for a bargain at Target and occasionally shop at Wal Mart, but don't admit to it. There are two formal nights and supposedly one semi-formal night but all we found were two formal nights and five casual nights. Formal is defined as tuxedo or dark suit, and casual as "resort casual" which usually means a polo shirt and slacks. I had a bet with my wife that with 4,000 plus passengers on this ship there would be less than 10 tuxedos on a formal night. I won the bet as there were only two tuxedos spotted on passengers with one man wearing a big texas flag on his vest. I wore a dark suit and I was only one of few who actually wore a tie, and this is in the main dining room. On casual nights we saw pretty much everything. There were lots of men wearing shorts and sandals, many people with t-shirts, and even a basketball uniform in the main dining room. People were asked politely with signs and announcements not to save pool chairs, but that again was routinely ignored, although I didn't have any trouble finding a pool chair if you were willing to go up to the second level, which is nice if because it has a breeze.
Dining: This is a mass-market mega-ship so your expectations should be set accordingly. We dined at the 6:00 dinner every night and in the Winjammer for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast has a good variety with average quality. The bacon is very thin and waffles and pancakes are pre-cooked and set under heat lamps. Bagels and toast are pre-toasted and set under heat lamps as well. Donuts and biscuits were not very good, but everything else was ok. Lunch at the Windjammer featured the Jade area and the regular winjammer. Jade is the asian section and usually had some very Americanized Chinese food, or some Indian curry. I enjoyed the curries and vegetables in the Jade section, but the bulk of the Winjammer was hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, etc. which was pretty good and a decent selection. Dinner in the main dining room was a very nice setting but you can see where Royal Caribbean has made some cutbacks. Your server is responsible for your wine order now and as busy as they are they have a hard time taking both wine orders and food orders at the same time. We were impressed by how hard the staff worked and how hard our head waiter worked to help them out. They were constantly running all the time. We were going to use the feature where kids are served in 40 mins. while adults have time to enjoy their meal, but our kids opted not to do that. The table next to us tried that a few nights and it was really hard for the staff to pull it off.
The food itself was very lightly seasoned, which is to be expected on a large ship, and the seafood was a little disappointing with rather cheap quality shrimp and fish. Most of the other items were pretty good though not exceptional. We were surprised that every night there was a curry dish on the menu, though most did not order it. "Surf and turf" was a piece of shoulder roast and three shrimp, and the steak on the last night was not too impressive. All in all the food wasn't bad, and a few dishes were really good, but you can tell that they've cut back here.
Children's Program: My kids thought the Adventure Ocean program was fun, but didn't feel a big urge to go there every day. They liked some of the activities but after being on Disney, they thought it was a little bit of a let down. The biggest mistake the Adventure Ocean staff made was on the first night of the cruise they had nothing planned. My kids first impression was that they had to wait in line for registration, then once registered there was nothing to do. Some kids hung around and made up games and others found books to read. That initial let down coupled with the staff that was more focused on registering kids rather than welcoming them left our kids with a bad taste in their mouth that made them not want to go up there as much as they thought they would.
The H2O Zone is great for kids 10 and under. Kids older than that are too cool to play in the area. Royal Caribbean designed the Adventure Ocean area so that you have to go through the arcade to get to it. Most pre teens and teenagers either hung out in the arcade or hung out on the staircase next to it. Many kids were pumping a lot of money into the arcade, so if you have a kid with charging permission, watch out for this. I didn't let my kids use the arcade and they were fine with that, but there were lots of kids in there.
The Ship Itself: What you first observe is that the ship truly is huge. Walking on the Royal Promenade is mind blowing in that you completely forget you are on a moving ship. There are many areas it takes days for you to find and figure out what you like. Johnny Rocket's is a little hard to find. The golf course is fun and the flowrider looked like fun. Be aware there is a minimum height of 52 inches for the flowrider. My son was just below the height and could not do it. My daughter did it twice and on her second time had a nasty wipeout that left her with a bruise. It can also be hard to get up at the back with all the water rushing so be prepared for that.
Also be prepared for some nickel and diming. Our cruise was much less expensive than Disney, but Disney had much more included in the cruise. For example, if you want fresh squeezed orange juice, it was free on Disney, but you are charged 2.50 on Royal Caribbean. Soft Drinks are free poolside on Disney, but are not available at all poolside on this ship, unless ordered for a cost. Water or tea is not available poolside either, which I thought was a little cheap. There isn't any food of any kind poolside. You have to walk into the Windjammer to get some.
Be prepared to bring a watch or a clock with you. There are very, very few clocks on the ship and there isn't a clock in your cabin. This can be a problem when you need to know when to be somewhere.
The cruise staff is young and energetic and a pretty good group. This was the first time I had been on a cruise where the cruise director had a tattoo and tried so hard to be a comic.
Lines for tenders at CocoCay tended to back up the staircase to Deck 3, but the cruise staff, to their credit, actually kept people from cutting in line by using the elevators to go to Deck 1.
Entertainment was mixed. There was an average comedian who mostly did impressions. There was a magic act which was very good, and the ice show is excellent with all the multimedia worked into it. Ship productions are canned productions which are not very impressive.
The farewell dinner in the dining room doesn't have Baked Alaska, which was surprising, but they do make the staff sing a hokey farewell song. Fans of LSU Football will recognize the farewell tune as the same tune as their school fight song, "Victory for LSU". The words are obviously different, but the tune is the same. We got a good chuckle out of that.
Disembarkation: There are lots of places to wait and getting off was surprisingly easy for so many passengers involved. The last people are off the ship at 9:30 so if you are planning a return flight, you should be fine with a noon departure. We were off by 7:30, had no trouble getting our bags and were out of customs in no time.
We did have a problem with our return rental from Avis. The Avis shuttle picked us up, and took us to their location with no problem. Our car was ready and they gave us a blank contract. I had a reservation, but they never keyed the pickup information into their computer in Cape Canaveral. The result is when I returned the vehicle to the Orlando Airport, I spent half an hour trying to find an Avis person who could figure out how to return the vehicle. They ended up just making some amount up that matched my printed copy of my reservation. It was a good thing I had printed out my reservation when I made it. Next time I think I'll use Hertz.
All in all this is a mass market line with a mega-ship size. It is comfortable, the food is alright, and the service is very good. If you want luxury, try Crystal or Silversea. If you want just a little more refinement and get to know fellow passengers, try Holland America, but this is Royal Caribbean and they do what they do well. If you have kids under 10, I would pay the extra dollars and go on Disney. If you have kids older than 10, you might be better off with this ship. If asked, yes, I would do this cruise again.