I give NCL kudos for calling the night before the cruise, to advise that Earl might force a change in itinerary. We flew into Ft. Lauderdale and we used SAS Transportation (recommended on the CruiseCritic boards) and it all went very smoothly. Our van was full of Carnival travelers, and they all spoke with envy as we were dropped off outside EPIC. Check-in was well handled, and they handed out a letter explaining our revised "Earl-proof" itinerary when we arrived. They dropped St. Maarten and St. John, and substituted Cozumel and Roatan, Honduras; we still hit Nassau as scheduled, but had an additional five hours, which was nice. We waited a short while in the terminal before our area was boarded, but it was efficient and we were on board before noon.
Walking on was non-eventful and very anti-climatic. No welcome, no maps....nothing, really. We had lunch in Taste, and it was quite good. We had time to explore and register for Kids Club, and the rooms were ready exactly as scheduled, at 2:00pm. Our cabin was what I expected, but nice. The inside cabins have straight walls, but share the separate shower/stall set-up of the outsides. The set-up is odd, and admittedly not ideal, but by using the curtain, you have a pretty good area for showering and dressing. I did LOVE the shower. Largest I've had a sea on any line, and the shower head is great. You do, however, need to request extra towels and use them copiously on the floor. The sink is poorly designed, but if you don't turn it on full force, you'll be fine. The inside cabins do not share the flaw of having the sink directly next to a bed, so a big plus there. The beds are very comfortable, but they ARE short. Our cabin was very quiet -- we never heard neighbors or even noise in the hallways -- and the climate control worked very well. We had lots of storage, most of it very well designed. On the downside, the TV is very small and the quality of the workmanship is poor in several areas. The trim on both our bathroom and shower doors was already separated at the bottom, and the bars in our closet were already bent. Further on the TV (and I KNOW we're on a cruise, not there to watch the boob tube), but the number of channels is small, and aside from the news stations, they rerun the same programs all week. And for some reason, there is no CNN. I also wish they had a "free" movie channel. Other lines will often show the feature films which ran in the ship theater on the TV a day later or such. NCL, instead, offers a large selection of pay movies, including lots of adult titles (????....luckily, you can block them out, but act quick...before kids start to channel surf). I also have to hit my head to see they want $14.95 for a regular movie. I also wish they had camera views available from each side of the ship, rather than the single "captain's view" they have. Holland America and Princess both offer four different views, which I couldn't really appreciate until I was in an inside cabin. The I-TV did work well -- their interactive system through the TV to review your bill, book shows, and check your schedule. It even allows you to book shore excursions, which was very helpful, as with our change in itinerary everyone was booking from scratch.
As I said, this was my first experience with NCL. As far as service, etc., I have to give them strong marks. Our cabin steward was very nice, and I'm glad to see NCL still "does" towel animals. We missed them on Princess last summer in Alaska. All in all service was good -- notch above Princess, but below Holland America. They were, admittedly, a little overwhelmed with the last-minute itinerary change, as on embarkation day, the lines at the shore excursion and front desk areas were ugly, with lots of confused people. To add to the mayhem, our sailing was completely sold out.
Rather than go through a daily run down, I'll summarize the highs and lows for me.
Highs first: 1) ENTERTAINMENT! Wow! EPIC rules in this regard. We saw Blue Man Group twice, and absolutely loved it both times. Surprisingly, it was not "sold out" either time we went, which was a shame, as the show is amazing. You do, however, have to arrive early and line up for events, even if you pre-booked -- if you want a premium seat. Not horrible....just be aware. Also very much enjoyed Second City, and would have liked to have seen a second show. The same SC crew performs the Murder Mystery lunch, which was very enjoyable. They inject a good dose of improvisation, and each show is a little different. We also really enjoyed Legends in Concert (Tina Turner, Madonna, and Elvis for our sailing), as well as Howl at the Moon. "Slime Time Live" was also enjoyable, and my 10-year-old ate it up -- though surprisingly, we got splattered at Blue Man rather than Slime Time. We also did Cirque Dreams, and I'm surprised that some reviewers have given it a thumbs down. Perhaps it was out great table (table for two, RIGHT on the edge of the performance area), but this was a true highlight for us. I think you'd have to have seen another Cirque production to appreciate that it's not a "circus, circus," but we loved it. 2) Garden Cafe' Hate to say it, but about the only top-notch design feature on EPIC has to be the Garden Cafe' (buffet). It was the best layout of any I've seen, and even with a full ship, it never felt maddening and the food quality was consistently good. Even finding a table was never a problem, and we usually had a large selection. Real kudos to NCL on this. Anyone looking for a lousy layout should try the Coral Princess... 'Nuff said. 3) Kids Club. Very large areas and tons of counselors. We were told there were 700 children (under 18) on our sailing, and that this was "less than half" of what they'd been seeing. Things worked well, but my daughter ended up not attended as often as I had expected. I fear the ship's size was to blame. On other ships, the numbers of children were smaller and you consistently saw the same group of kids at the center. On EPIC, there are just so many kids, and so many "kid-friendly" venues outside the club, that kids float in and out, which simply changes the dynamic. Not really a plus or minus....just an observation. 4) The "regular" restaurants: On this sailing, we ate at the Garden Cafe', Taste, O'Sheehans, and the Manhattan Room (all free), as well as Cirque and Dinner, Murder Mystery, Tepanaki, the Sushi Bar, Moderno, and Il Cuccina. The food at the free venues was actually better than all the pay restaurants. In fact, my favorite meal of the cruise was at Manhattan, which is a beautiful room, with live music and great views. All the pay venues were okay, but none were worth the extra expense. I now lament the sizable amount I spent on the "extra" restaurants. I also have to give NCL huge props for how they handle seating at the restaurants. They were incredible efficient at seating people at Taste and Manhattan Room, and the lines were never long (that I saw). I was very impressed with their efficiency, and overall, the restaurant service was quite good.
The Lows: 1) The Design: We should all be happy that no EPIC-based ships will follow. The ship is -- simply put -- design-flawed. I fear that there will be (if it hasn't already happened) a huge lessons-learned session at NCL on how NOT to design a ship. Where to begin...?
a) Balcony Cabins: As stated, I did not have a balcony cabin, but I can say that I lost count of the conversations I had or overheard with people complaining about the "wavy cabin" design. The Second City troupe (to their credit) even make tons of jokes about the design problems in their show. Most people stated they were simply too narrow, and the sofas are unusable as seats and misery on which to sleep.
b) No promenade. The ships is designed such that there is no "promenade deck," on which you can walk around the ship. On one deck (6 or 7) you can go out on either side and walk most of the length of each side, but aside from a small stretch in the middle, the area is enclosed by life boats and you can't even see the water or feel a breeze. Without this, you have to go to the top of the boat to see the ocean, and here there are numerous design flaws....see below.
c) Level 14 -- Aaaargh. I spent a lot of time on deck 14, home to the spa, fitness club, and kids club. Alas, the only way to get from the spa/gym side to the kids club, is to walk down a VERY long corridor of "family staterooms." Even though the two areas abut, there is no cut through, so instead there is a steady stream of people walking the halls between the two. I feel very sorry for anyone who had a cabin on deck 14, as the traffic simply has to be maddening.
d) The Pool and Sun Deck: It has been written about by many other people, so I won't belabor, but the pools are tiny and, frankly, a joke for a ship of this size. The two main pools are wholly inadequate and it was usually standing room only (really...I am not exaggerating). There is another small pool in the back -- at Spice H20 -- but it is adults only and was covered up the few times I checked out that area. As for the sun deck, it is NO exaggeration that you WILL burn your feet if you do not wear shoes. At first it was somewhat comical to watch people hop and jump, trying to get their bare feet off the sun deck, but after seeing so many adults and children distressed, it simply became disturbing. In addition, the areas of the deck which are wet (and at least bearable on your feet) are incredibly slippery. I slipped several times, and saw two people fall.
e) SMOKING. Good grief, and I hate to sound prudish, but the smoking was a huge detractor for me on this cruise. There is pretty clear guidance on where smoking is allowed on the ship, but it was UNIVERSALLY ignored and not once, did I see any employees telling people they could not light up. The table of cigar smokers next to the pool was especially offensive. There were, admittedly, a HUGE number of European travelers on this cruise (lots of Italian, Russians, Spaniards, and Germans), and that might explain much of the smoking, but the fact that there were few places on the ship where you did not encounter smoke which made it a huge problem...at least for me.
f) The Casino. NCL is quick to advertise that EPIC has the largest casino at sea. Well, they do, and much of that is attributable to the fact that the casino spills out across a huge portion of Deck 6. This is the only ship on which I've sailed on which it is impossible to not walk through the casino. Most ships do not even allow children into the casino, whereas on EPIC, EVERYONE has to walk through it on Deck 6. Aside from the blaringly tacky and invariable smoky atmosphere, it simply isn't pleasant to have that area occupying so much room. Even though it is confined to Deck 6, the slots go all the way to the atrium, so even on Decks 5 and 7 (the primary food and entertainment decks) you are never away from the sound and smoke. In fact, if you sit in Taste, anywhere near the middle, you hear the slots throughout your meal, as they're directly above you. This design "feature" to me screams of "revenue enhancer" for NCL, and this is confirmed (again, to me at least) by their decision to put three gambling stations on the main sun deck, directly next to one of the pools. There is already a huge problem getting lounge chairs near the pool, but NCL decides to eat up a very large area with poker tables?! At a minimum, why not put them back at Spice H20, which is adult only AND very underutilized. I'm dumbfounded at that decision.
g) Elevators. Okay folks....let's put more than 4,000 guests and almost 1,500 staff onto a ship and let's have 16 elevators for everyone. Ugh! Another huge design flaw for me is the lack of a mid-ship elevator bank. EPIC, instead, has a forward and rear set of elevators (four on each side of the ship). It was a standing joke (also repeated by Second City) that your cruise could be over before an elevator arrived. There simply are not enough elevators for the sheer number of people. A set of mid-ship elevators (or even an accessible stairwell, mid-ship) would have alleviated so much traffic and delay. Alas, that would have meant fewer cabins and -- gasp -- less revenue. On two port days, we spent a lot of time on ship, and it was SO nice to have easy elevator access and actually be able to get in the pool without touching people all around you. The difference on sea days was incredible, and I ended up using stairs most of the time on those days, as I got very tired of waiting and waiting, and then having full elevator after full elevator arrive.
h) Spice H20. Another head scratcher here. What were they thinking? This adults-only area takes up the entire rear, open deck area of the ship. With its stadium like set up and huge video screen, it effectively blocks any view over the rear of the ship. Why?! In addition, the area was literally deserted every time I visited -- a huge waste of space. In another design flaw, the only way to access the sports deck (Deck 16) is via staircases at the entrance to Spice H20, so you have to walk up and past the bar areas (invariably hosting a few smokers) in order to get to Deck 16. As you can imagine, many children go to the Sports Deck, so they have to walk through an adults only area (and a bar) to get there. Once up top, they are free to look down at Spice, and if an "adult oriented" video or movie is playing, all the kids up top can watch.
I know this review will read as overly negative, and I do regret that, as my daughter and I did in fact have a wonderful vacation. I write much of this to help others make a decision as to whether you want to try EPIC, or not, and hopefully offer a few tips for those who do choose to sail on her. I simply have to sum up EPIC, however, as a collection of design flaws. I am anxious to try a different NCL ship -- in fact, I signed up on board for a future cruise credit -- but I will in all likelihood not be returning to EPIC. Based on my own experience and what I heard from many fellow guests (a large portion of whom were loyal NCL customers), once the "new-ness factor" wears off, NCL will be heavily discounting EPIC cruises to fill her up, as many will choose to not sail her again and her itineraries are simply not unique enough to attract many repeater cruisers.