Overall: we thoroughly enjoyed the cruise and would do it again, although probably only if we could afford a larger room. It seemed ideal for families and active couples. There is as always room for improvement.
Pre-cruise: We flew from Denver to FLL on Friday, took Larry's Limos to Miami Biscayne Bay Marriott. The Limo was cool and worth the money (I was the only one in our family to ever ride in a limo before last week.) We enjoyed the hotel and had a pleasant afternoon by the pool. The next morning we took a shuttle ($6 each) to the ship. We left hotel at 10:30 and were at terminal by about 11 (had to drop off at Carnival first).
Embarkation: Very smooth. We checked in and were directed to wait for about 15 minutes and were on board by about 11:45. Went straight to pool and ordered a bucket of beer and hung out all afternoon until muster. Slides were supposed to open at 11:30 but didn't open until 12:30. The muster was the best ever, no lifejackets, go to an inside lounge, and it then took about 45 seconds. I couldn't believe how fast it was. people were clapping.
Cabin: we had a "family balcony" on deck 14 port side. 14092 to be exact (easy to remember thanks to Columbus!). It was at the end of a convoluted corridor that made it a bit of a trek but also meant it was very quiet with no one trooping past the door. There is no way around the fact that it is very small. It wasn't so bad during the day but when the 4th bed was down at night it was tough. The fourth (bunk) bed was literally 6 inches from the closet door when down making it very, very hard to get stuff in and out of closet. The bathroom arrangements were fine for us. The sink did not splash unless someone was a total klutz, even my 6 year old only made a mess once on the first day. I really don't see what the fuss is over the potty, you can only see it from a very small section of the cabin. There was alot of storage some of which we didn't find until the last day! Hint: the back of the couch swings open to reveal several fairly deep shelves. However there were no actual drawers, just shelves and cubbies. Kind of weird. Also the amenities were sparse, no lotion! No proper soap, just shower gel and shampoo in the shower. I was concerned about the bed being too short as I'm 6'3" but it was fine. My feet sometimes stuck out a bit but it didn't bother me. The bed was AWESOME and we both slept very well the whole week. The shower was also AWESOME with great pressure and alot of room. The shower head was the kind that comes off and could be put in a high or low position. Overall the cabin was adequate but if I had it to do over again I'd spend more money for a deluxe.
Aquapark: I know this area is controversial but my boys loved it and spent alot of time there. The pools are part of a larger complex of sprinklers, shallow water, etc. Perfect for running through and jumping into pool. I can see though why it was not great for adults, the kids totally took over. The water slides were awesome but VERY long lines. luckily we got our fill the first day and only did it a few times after. Even on port days the lines were over 30 minutes at times. I think they should have them open longer, they did not open until noon! Given it only took 4 people to run them I don't see why they couldn't be open longer. I would advise you dear reader to board in your bathing suits and go straight to the slides on the first day. there were no lines then and we rode a dozen times each. The deck got VERY hot and if you weren't wearing shoes you had to RUN across sunny spots. We met one poor woman with limited mobility who actually suffered second-degree burns on her feet the first day. If you can't run please bring water shoes or flip-flops. Chair hogs were out in full force and it was hard to find a good spot, although we could always find something. Several times I just used a "reserved" chair with the idea that I'd just give it back when the people came. They never did. I did not see any signs or official policy prohibiting saving deck chairs. They now have carpet runners in the wet areas so it was easy to walk around without slipping.
Outdoors: Rock climbing wall was fun, lines sometimes long but random. Eurobungy was out of order for the whole week. Everything should have been open more, the climbing web was only open for a few hours per day. Come on, you can't spare 1 crewmember out of 1500 to keep the thing open all day???!!!
Food: we ate at Cagney's, Shanghai's, Teppanyakki's, and La Cucina and all were outstanding. Kids were half price but still got adult menu/portion. MDR were OK. We ate at Taste once and Manhattan room once. I also ate at taste twice for breakfast. Food was good, not great. However given that it is freestyle and you can eat whenever I thought they did a good job. The only other "freestyle" I've done is Princess, and you couldn't really come at any time, but at 1 of 2 times. It's very difficult to do good cruise dinners and truly allow people to come anytime. The music in Manhattan room was nice and the overall experience was delightful. Buffet was well laid out and had a good variety, BUT, was the same every day and by the end I was rather tired of it. Often VERY crowded and hard to find seats. I had read that crew members would direct you to open seats but I never saw this. There were always long lines for the omelets so I never had one (I'm kind of impatient). O'Sheehan's was awesome and the chicken pot pie was as good as its reputation here on the boards. My son insisted he didn't want one but as soon as he took a bite of mine we had to order another one. The hot brownie sundae was very good as well. A nice place to hang out and watch the big screen in the atrium below. There were alot of cool video games, bowling, and pool. Arcade: very nice but a real money pit. My boys loved the motion simulator ride especially.
Service: outstanding. Very friendly but not pushy drink servers. One could order a bottle of wine, drink a glass, and then have it stored. They gave you a tag and then they would retrieve it anytime from anywhere. Cool. Wait staff were all great, the only hiccup I experienced was when I had breakfast in Taste and had a bad experience (I won't bore you with the details.) Very friendly. Steward Wilbur was awesome. As an example, my wife ordered a Margarita and it came in the souvenir glass. When she wanted another one I asked the server if she could have it in a plain glass for cheaper and the guy said "don't worry about it, I'll take care of you." He came back with the drink in another souvenir glass, and carrying a third souvenir glass that he gave us, and charged us $2 less than the first drink! so now we have 3 souvenir glasses for the price of 1.
Entertainment: AWESOME! (I'll pick a new superlative after this.) We did the Cirque show and loved it. My kids were enthralled the whole time. I was worried they wouldn't like it and we almost didn't bring them but I'm so glad we did. food was better than I thought it would be, not bad at all. Comedy magician was good but it was about 90% comedy and 10% magic. Don't go if you're a member of Focus on the Family! Character breakfast was great. Murder mystery lunch was fun but there was no way you could solve the mystery, I really think they made it up as they went (they are an improv group after all). I saw their regular show and it was good. Slam Allen was FANTASTIC. I wish I could have spent more time in the blues club, if we go again I'm going to devote a whole evening to just that. Blue man was of course great. Slime time live was fun but I really thought we would get slimed (that's the impression I got from the ads) but it's just the 1 family that's on stage. one complaint is that they canceled our Blue man show at 7pm on Friday so we had to go at 10 which is late for the boys. They said they canceled the show due to lack of reservations but given how crowded all the shows were I thought this was kind of lame. We didn't see legends or howling. Overall there was alot to do.
Spice H2O. I have to mention this area as it had alot of potential. It was nice and quiet and when it was very windy on deck this area was not. HOWEVER I think (IMHO) they dropped the ball with the TV. It blocks the view of the wake and they rarely showed anything on it other than loops of nature video. at night it was annoying when I was trying to relax with a book as it would suddenly show a very bright image which would ruin your night vision. If it showed something worthwhile I could see its utility but it only rarely was used for a movie (and then very late) or other show. At one time when we were leaving Cozumel I went back there and the TV was showing, ready for this: the Bow cam!! That's right a nice view of the wake was blocked by a TV showing a view from the bow. Kind of disorienting actually! It was still a nice area to hang out with a book, never crowded.
Nightlife: are you kidding I've got kids.
Spa: we got the couple's spa pass and went there every sea day. It was nice and relaxing and worth the money. I can never believe though how people can talk and laugh so loudly when there are 4 people obviously sleeping or trying to right next to them! This only happened once though. My wife got 1 treatment (teeth whitening) and did NOT enjoy it due to the constant hard selling of other services. She felt like she was in Ocho Rios!! She decided on the spot to never go back. To get them off her back she told them I might be interested in teeth whitening and they actually called me in my cabin! They really need to fix this.
Passengers: by FAR the youngest crowd I've every cruised with, even younger than on Disney! many many kids, teenagers, and young couples. Lowest average BMI I've ever seen either!! Who are all these people? Many of the older adults seemed kind of grumpy and acted liked they wished they booked a different cruise. Despite this not many loud partiers or an excessive amount of smokers. Kids were generally well behaved as were teens, except for one time when a group of them parked themselves next to the pool right in the main walkway and were oblivious as people squeezed pass them. I tried to squeeze by once and gave a look to a crew member, expecting him to ask them to move. instead he pulled a deck chair out of the way so I could go around. Smooth! I did run into 1 jerk from Arkansas (I hope you're reading this!) who "saved" 10 seats in slime time for his family. Didn't even have anything on them, just told people they were saved. We sat in them anyway and he and I almost came to blows. I decided the kids aren't ready to see their dad kick some @ss in public so I retreated. Again, no official written policy against saving chairs in shows that I saw anywhere.
Kids club: My kids generally do not like kids clubs on cruises and they didn't like this one too much either. They went 3 times but not by choice! The main problem was that they had all this awesome stuff to play on but never let the kids be, but forced them into organized activities. The first day we took a tour and my kids were so excited about the jungle gym but they NEVER got to play on it, they were always told it was "off limits." I asked 1 of the counselors and was told that "sometimes at the end of a session the kids can play on it for a little while." I asked her if there was a specific time I could bring them so they could play on it but this was not possible. Frankly I think that sucks. My boys did grudgingly admit to having fun the third time they went, and never actually hated it, they just would rather stay with us. At least we could use it as a threat like "behave or I'm taking you to kid's club!" I think it has great potential but I think they try TOO hard and it might be better if they let the kids have more free play time. The activities did seem cool to me but I'm not 8.
Ship: Beautiful, well laid out. Many nice small areas with music, etc. Giant screen in the atrium was cool although it didn't often show much but nature loops (but unlike in spice H2O it seemed to work inside). Really nice cake at the atrium coffee bar (free.) Very cool electronics with screens in public areas showing restaurant availability, entertainment schedule, etc. There were also touch screens by every elevator that you could use to find a venue then it would show you how to get there. You could book shore excursions from the cabin TV but could not make restaurant reservation from it (although you could view your existing.) Photo shop was great, you had all your photos in a folder with your cabin number or you could just put your keycard in a terminal and view them onscreen. As always they were ridiculously overpriced so we only got 2. The wanted $350 (yes US dollars!!!) for a CD with all your pictures. No thanks. On my ticket was an e-mail address that I could supposedly use to receive e-mail while on board. However I received no instructions on how to access it, and my dad sent me a rather important e-mail to the address and I never got it. On our first cruise over 10 years ago an e-mail sent to me on board was printed out and delivered to my stateroom. Maybe I missed a memo.
Other thoughts: We really liked freestyle, it worked very well for us and will be a major factor in my decision to cruise with NCL again. We made 2 restaurant reservations ahead of time and had no problem making 3 more while on board. We did not try to walk in anywhere. The best part was that the 5 time changes (from Denver to Miami, then on the first sea day, after Costa Maya, after Roatan, and on last sea day) were barely noticed. Try that on traditional cruising!
Weather: perfect, no rain, smooth seas. Very little motion of the ship except some pretty hard vibrations when we returned to Miami that woke us up. We had not noticed them on arrival to our other ports. It was, however, VERY hot and humid the whole time, but of course what do you expect in August.
Disembarkation: very smooth again, except for when the DEA dog took a liking to me so I got to have a little chat with the DEA guys. I think they realized that a 42 yo nephrologist with wife and 2 kids in tow doesn't exactly fit the profile of a drug smuggler so they didn't search me. They were pretty cool and professional about the whole thing. we took the limo back to FLL and spent 5 hours at airport until our 3pm flight. Frontier doesn't open check in desk until noon so we had to hang out in line for 2 hours with all our luggage. Oh well. Got home to Denver and walked out of airport to 83 degrees and 20% humidity! Sad that cruise is over but happy to see my dog, ride my motorcycle, and not sweat! No place like home I guess.
Summary: A great ship, a great cruise, and fantastic crew. Definitely feels like there are alot of people on board. Particularly before shows and when trying to get an elevator you know you are not the only family on board! Some warts but they seem to really want to try to be perfect. For real gourmet dining plan to visit the pay restaurants, but then you will have the best dining experience at sea. If you are adding a fourth person splurge for a larger cabin. Bring water shoes! We will almost certainly go again.
In the interests of space I will not comment on shore excursions or ports, but of course feel free to ask!