I will start by saying that it was very obvious to us that this venture is something extremely new to Norwegian. This vessel is twice the size of anything else in their fleet and we were only the 5th set of regular cruise customers. There are still 'teething' problems although nothing like some of the problems that earlier reviewers have talked about. Having been involved myself with 'new' ground breaking customer service enterprises,I think that the company and crew are very much still learning and in an extremely challenging and unique environment. After all they just can't call out a contractor to fix/supply something when they are at sea! It all has to be arranged for the 8 or so hours in Miami every Saturday!
We are pretty new to cruising as a family having just one experience to call on namely a 5 night Western Caribbean cruise last year on Carnival out of Tampa. We booked on Epic for two reasons, 1) we'd heard about Freestyle Dining amd although we enjoyed meeting others on Carnival for Dinner we wanted our own schedule 2) Blue Man Group. Neither disappointed!
Our boarding experience in Miami was pretty much seamless. We arrived at about 1145 and were on board by 1220. We made our way to the Garden cafe which was extremely busy. My first thought was what had we done. It seemed that all 4200 guests were trying to get Lunch. About 1245 they announced that all cabins (sorry staterooms!) were ready for occupation and almost instantly things appeared to calm down.
On arrival in our Cabin we were pleasantly surprised. It was as expected, clean, tidy and exactly as described. There are plenty of cupboards, under bed storage and even a small fridge which you can request to be stocked as a mini-bar (we didn't we just used it to keep drinks in!). Yes the sink is a bit naff, and the toilet door needs some thought but this ship was built by the French and what do they know about toilets! Even my 5 year old managed to master the sink without flooding the entire cabin and as for it being outside the toilet cubical how many public toilets do you know where you don't have to leave the stall before washing your hands?
The cabin is extremely tight when the 4th bed is deployed as the curved wall means it is in the middle of the cabin and opening the doors of the closets is restricted but it's by no means unworkable.
Our cabin attendant, Ryan, was polite courteous and efficient at all times. He has a 'mobile' phone that you can call him on personally and he was always available to answer our questions. I could not fault him or his towel animals that delighted the kids every night.
In fact I could not really fault any of the crew. They were all polite, efficient and willing to help. No one particularly stood out but nobody was terrible either.
Recess - Kids club. During our cruise there were over 1300 'kids' on board. It was August and I expected nothing different. Apart from the 1st night when there was a bit of a wait, we never had a problem signing our children in or out on our schedule. This was fantastic. They could do with formulating a better system of signing in and out but I think this will come with more experience.I think the club opens at 0930 and they can stay until 2230! Obviously you have to arrange for them to be fed but our 7 year old would have been happy to be there all day everyday. Both the 5 year old and 7 year old loved it. They knew the names of the crew who looked after them by there 'ship' names and I lost count of the times she came 'home' with their faces painted!
Entertainment - our experiences were all 1st class. From Cirque Dreams to Slime time live we had a ball. We had a slight disappointment with Blue Man Group which was postponed due to a technical problem in the theatre but they were fortunate enough to be able to reschedule the performance for later in the week. My wife and I have seen the Blue Man Group twice before and each time it's slightly different, and if I had to comment on this show I would say that it was BMG Abridged! That said it takes nothing away from the show which lived up to and exceeded my expectations! It is worth remembering that NCL are trying something extremely unique on board Epic with both BMG and Legends. These are both internationally recognised and renowned entertainment experiences who have there own reputations to uphold. They are working in a very different environment with a unique set of challenges (shared theatre/rolling/moving stage etc). Taking nothing away from previous 'Cruise ship entertainment groups' but these are all professional performers in their own right, who could at a moments notice return to the Vegas strip or London's West End and perform in another version of the very same show. (On the last sea day they have a meet the men behind the Blue Man Group in the Atrium. If you can drag yourself away from everything else it's well worth listening to these guys.)
Sea Days - This is in our opinion the only time you really appreciate how many people are on board. We never failed to find a sunbed but sometimes it was a case of having to take what ever you could find rather than a prime position. The Kids water park was fun for the kids but NCL need to do something about the amount of time taken to do the deck 'activities'. The Epic Plunge is good but not worth the hour or so wait. The green and purple tubes are good but try them on a port day in the afternoon, they are much quieter. Rock Climbing and Rappelling just needs a little more thought and 2 extra members of staff would make the whole process more streamline but as I said at the start they are still learning! The one big problem in our opinion is the pools. They are 'self policing' and with 1300 kids on board it's probably an accident waiting to happen. Early in the week the pools were busy but bearable, by Friday they were a no go zone as the older kids had taken to using the as 'bomb' zones with little or no regard for anybody else in them. I think NCL could do with a pool 'ranger' who early in the week monitors behaviors and by use of a whistle deems what is acceptable or not. This would have stamped what we believe to be inappropriate behaviour out before it became the norm.
Food - I can only compare this to what we received on Carnival previously. There was no comparison. We ate mostly in The Garden Cafe and as long as you avoided the 'peak' times it was always good. The food was plentiful and varied. We ate in O'Sheehans and Taste with the kids, both were enjoyable if not outstanding. We only paid for one premium experience and that was Teppenyaki. I would say that it was well worth the premium and provided us with an evenings entertainment as well as a meal!
We booked almost all our shows and dining before we cruised. That said we did just stand-by for Legends in Concert and from asking around most people who stood by got into shows in the theatre. The exception to this is Cirque dreams. This is because the Spiegel Tent is relatively small and intimate. I'd heard lots of poor reviews about the meal in Cirque, My wife and I both had the best steak of my week onboard in Cirque.
One other point to note is that NCL have a policy of changing the ships time to local time. This meant that when we booked the 8.45pm Cirque show this was actually 10.45pm EST as we were on Honduran time, it was very late for our kids. If we'd have realised this we would have planned our entertainment differently!
Returning in Miami - We elected to have our luggage lifted off by NCL rather than try and drag us, 2 kids and 8 bags off ourselves as Quick deboarding at 7.30am! WE think the majority of people onboard did this as by 8.30am when our tags were called it was very easy to get an elevator and clear immigration. We were in a car leaving Miami airport by 9.45am. In Tampa last year non US citzens had to see Immigration Onboard at 6.45am and we didn't leave the ship until 11.00am! Well done NCL!
Overall we loved The Epic experience. NCL's freestyle cruising suited our family down to the ground. The on board Shows and Dining were in our opinion first class. NCL have some things to learn but this is their first season with such a large and different vessel. I would certainly go back and I'm sure we would not be disappointed although we plan to try NCL on a smaller ship before we go back to Epic.