First some quick tips:
1) GMRS/FRS radios (walkie-talkies) are cheap and extremely useful. Cell phone service is $5/min on the ship (so we turned off our phones), but the FRS radios cost nothing to operate and reached pretty much everywhere on the ship and even reached from the ship to the other side of Coco Cay island so we were able to stay in touch. The ship store sells them for $40-60/pair.
2) Taxis may be cheaper and more convenient than excursion buses: at Port Canaveral we took a shared taxi (van) from the terminal to Ron Jon's for $5/head...they only took 5 minutes to pick us up for the return trip.
3) Plan on cash tips for your wait staff and stateroom attendant totaling around $90 per traveler...many first time cruisers seemed unprepared for this.
4) If you don't see an excursion you like, book something else online...the internet makes this easy.
Now here are the pros and cons of our Enchantment of the Seas trip:
Departing from Baltimore was fantastic; it was easily the quickest and smoothest embarkation we've ever experienced. We used the RCI website to pre-register and print our Sail Pass then drove to the terminal which is just off I95, picked up luggage tags and dropped our luggage with the valet and then parked in their secure lot; the whole process was streamlined with staff helping at each step. Parking was $15/day ($135 for the 9 days). The terminal itself is modern and the check-in and security lines moved quickly and we were on the boat before we knew it. We plan to use the Baltimore terminal whenever possible in the future; I can't say enough good things about it and our fellow travelers felt the same way.
The ship itself is beautiful and modern; it ranks with the best we've seen. The common areas are immaculate, opulent, and well maintained; the halls are clean and bright; the dining room is large and spacious. Overall, the ship feels very well run and the crew is friendly and professional.
We enjoyed the Solarium (indoor pool and lounge) when the weather was too cool to use the outdoor pools and upper decks (first and last day). The indoor pool is generally for adults only (kids not allowed except during inclement weather). During the warmer days, the upper decks were very nice with outdoor pools, a rock climbing wall, and a bungee jump; we used all of them, the lines were very reasonable (no more than 10 minutes each for the wall and bungee); the kids had a good time playing and we all enjoyed sitting out on deck reading and eating. The Windjammer market (same deck) offered a large selection of self-service food with excellent table service as well.
The gym was large, clean, and well equipped, but was for adults only. This was a problem for my son who is a runner and wanted to use the treadmill; he ran on the deck track instead when wind permitted.
The Orpheum theater is comfortable, beautiful, and the productions were excellent. We particularly liked the magician and impersonator. The afternoon movies were good family selections and we all enjoyed them.
The staterooms were comfortable and well designed. We had two adjoining staterooms that were remarkably well soundproofed: with the door between them closed, you couldn't hear talking or a TV in the other room.
The dining room was spacious, gracious, and the food was delicious. The portions were reasonable, but not large which helped prevent overeating; if you were still hungry you could always order more. There was an excellent variety of food and it was all excellent; I'm a vegetarian so I expect a very limited selection on a cruise, but I was delighted instead to find a vegetarian Indian entree available every night as well as other vegetarian options. Every menu offered healthy meal options too. We're all still afraid to get on the scale after the cruise, but if we put on some weight, we thoroughly enjoyed doing so. The wait staff was polite and professional and we felt pampered.
We liked the destinations, especially Nassau and Coco Cay (see port reviews below).
If you're getting the impression that I generally liked the ship and the excursions, you're right.
Now for the negatives: our Thanksgiving cruise was full and there were over 500 children...the ship was clearly not prepared for this. The children's center, "Adventure Ocean", was a mob scene and the chaos was obvious; after one hour, our kids wanted nothing more to do with it and we couldn't blame them...we heard the same complaint from many of the other parents. We love spending time with our kids, but we had hoped for some time on our own and we got none; this was by far the biggest disappointment of the cruise...and the reason we're likely to try another line for our next cruise. Even the arcade was lame...it offered the same games (Guitar Hero, Time Crisis, etc.) that you can play at home on a big screen TV with surround sound, but the arcade offered only a small screen and a hefty price ($1.25 per play). There were *very* few activities for kids. RCI, you really need to address this...your childcare was a complete disaster; we heard the same thing from other parents and several of the teens we ate with and this is a show-stopper for family cruising. Thanksgiving cruises are likely to have lots of kids because school is out; you need to plan more child-friendly activities for this cruise and hire more counselors.
Other minor negatives:
- our staterooms were directly below the casino and although the stateroom walls were relatively soundproof, the ceilings were not and we had a lot of noise at all hours of the night coming from above; do yourself a favor and make sure your stateroom is not below the casino.
- our stateroom clearly had not been cleaned when we arrived (we found a plate of smelly old food in one of the dresser drawers). The cleaning during the cruise was good and our stateroom attendant was friendly, helpful, and professional, but that first encounter with the plate of food left a bad impression.
- for a cruise with 5 days at sea, the activities were too thin...especially for the kids...especially considering they didn't have access to many of the facilities (gym, solarium pool, etc.).
- dining room service was slow; although the wait staff was moving about as fast as they reasonably could and never stopped to rest, dinner still took quite a while with substantial delays between courses. However, the food, service, and atmosphere was so good that this was only a minor annoyance; overall, the dining room was an excellent experience and RCI should be proud of their galley and wait staff (they just need a few more of them).
We enjoyed the cruise; in most respects, the Enchantment of the Seas is indeed enchanting. Unfortunately the abysmal childcare makes us unlikely to select RCI for our next family cruise; we would certainly consider them for our next cruise without kids.
The reef was OK (Florida water is just too murky for really good snorkeling), but we saw a lot of coral and fish and had a close (but uneventful) encounter with a very curious barracuda.
Our 10 year old felt sea sick on the catamaran trip, but the rest of us were OK; the catamaran staff was nice and very professional.
My wife and I have been to other stingray cities including snorkel and scuba trips and this one seemed lame in comparison...it was a beach entry into a shallow area that had been fenced in with stingrays whose barbs had been removed for safety. Fortunately though, this turned out to be perfect for the kids who would have been freaked out meeting stingrays in the open ocean (as it was, they took some time to warm up to the rays)...we got to feed and pet and hold the rays and it was overall a good experience...we spent very little time on the beach and didn't think we missed much. If I had gone on the beach-only excursion, I would have felt ripped off.
We rented a waverunner (jet ski) from one of the local guys and that was the highlight of the excursion for the kids.
I thought the captain of the pontoon boat that took us to and from the island made some inappropriate comments to (at least) one of the teenage girls...she took it in stride, but I think RCI should work with their contractors on this excursion to be more professional. The folks working the beach were also not very professional...overall, this seemed like a very low budget operation.
We walked around Nassau briefly after returning from the excursion, but downtown Nassau is mostly a tourist trap and we have been there many times so we didn't spend much time there...it's a good place to buy shirts for the folks back home.
The kids went on the water slide (OK, but not like a real water park); our 10 yr old thought the line was too long for a relatively short ride, but our 8 yr old really enjoyed it. I'd guess about 5-10 minutes between slides.
We went to one of the many beach areas and rented floating mats which were very nice and did some snorkeling; this was actually much nicer than it sounds because the scenery and water were spectacular; others found many live conches, starfish, and we saw a wide variety of fish, rays, etc.
Coco Cay is a really nice destination and an ideal day at the beach (it's going to be hard to take the kids to Maryland/Virginia beaches after this). The private island was also very nice; I felt perfectly safe leaving my camera and things on the beach while I went snorkeling with the kids...I would not have felt that way on a public beach. We brought some small kites and the kids flew them for a while which was fun as well.
The staff served an impressive meal on the island although this was the only meal with a very limited vegetarian selection.
The kids' water park seemed lame and overpriced for 1 hour access. When we were leaving, we noticed that they had sailboats and jet skis for rent; I didn't try these but would have liked to.
Recommended: Instead we booked surfing lessons with Nex Generation Surf School (http://www.nexgensurf.com). We took a taxi to meet the owner (Brian) near Ron Jon's; none of us have ever touched a surfboard, but Brian and his assistant Eli were patient and great with the kids and we really enjoyed it. They supplied everything (including wetsuits, which kept us toasty warm in the chilly November water). Brian gave us a safety talk, taught us how to get up on the board when we catch a wave, and then took us out in the surf. With Brian's help, our 10 yr old got up on the board quickly and looked good. Our 8 yr old got up as well with a little more help (Brian was excellent with the kids). I eventually got up on the board too...it wasn't pretty, but it sure was fun. We'll probably try this again, perhaps in the spring or summer when the water isn't quite as rough, it's easy to see how people can get addicted to surfing.
If you're going to Port Canaveral, this is a great way to spend your excursion.