My husband and I took our 13 and 15 year olds on a Thanksgiving cruise this year. It was their first cruise and our 3rd (1st with Royal Caribbean, other 2 times were with Carnival).
Embarkation was smooth. We got there early and had no lines but had to wait for them to start loading people on the buses. That was probably what I liked least about the process - the buses. Previous cruises we were on left from Miami and we could walk right on the ship without the extra transportation inconvenience. The terminal also could use some serious updating.
Lunch was offered at the Windjammer. It was so crowded we couldn't find a place to sit. That was disappointing. We couldn't get in to our rooms until 1:30 pm so we checked out the ship. I was impressed with the tasteful decorating of the public rooms. We met up at Dizzy's for an informal Cruise Critic get together with the goal primarily being to get the teens more comfortable with each other. That went pretty well and we met some nice individuals, although the kids still seemed awkward. Our room (connecting cabins on the Promenade) was very nice and our cabin steward called us by our first names within hours.
My family opted for My Time Dining. We had 5:30 pm reservations on the days where we weren't in port and 7 pm reservations on the days when we were in port. That worked out really well. We had nice service the first night and enjoyed the entertainment that evening.
The first 2 days at sea we continued to explore and participated in a variety of activities. The last 2 days at sea we mellowed out more and although there were things we ultimately never did (that we said we wanted to), we were ok with that.
My 15 year old met teens quickly and hung out with a group of kids almost the entire cruise. We saw him only for dinner but as long as he was having fun, that was good enough for us. My outgoing 13 year old daughter had trouble meeting friends and found herself alone or with my husband and I most of the trip. She tried going to Optix a few times but said nothing was really going on and she had trouble joining in. My son reported that the individual supervising the area was letting 20 year olds in the 'club' at various points in time so I was disappointed to hear that.
The inline skating rink wasn't open much and when it was, it was crowded with all different levels of abilities making it challenging.
I loved the fitness center but had to wait to use the elliptical at one point - so it could get busy in there. I used the spa services, which was wonderful.
Back to dining - the 2nd night we were seated at a different section where a wonderful gentleman, Wendell and his assistant, Savio took care of us. Wendell was amazing and provided top-notch service. My teens loved the assistant waiter from the first night, Aniket as he continued to help with their sodas throughout all the evenings of dining even when we were no longer seated in his section. The service in the dining room was really spectacular. I saw waiters/assistant waiters cutting the steaks of children while the parents didn't have to interrupt their dinner, as well as anything served on/in a shell (i.e. shrimp, lobster) was removed tableside by the wait staff. The service at the Windjammer was spotty at best. We enjoyed the entertainment for the most part. The drinks were extremely watered down to the point where I will never order a mixed drink from that cruise line again. We didn't book any excurions directly with the ship this time, so I can't comment on that experience. The line for guest services was frequently long, which could become frustrating. I am happy to report smoking was hardly an issue and my smoke-free lungs were happy about that.
Overall we had an amazing time and are anxious to cruise again with Royal Caribbean. I would never go back to Carnival based on this experience. Although the vacation wasn't 'perfect' it was wonderful and I would highly recommend Explorer of the Seas. My family and I began looking at other future cruise opportunities and found we liked the convenience of driving to Cape Liberty (as opposed to flying to FL), love the 9-day cruise itinerary, and enjoyed Explorer so much, we are considering booking again.