My husband and I went on NCL for our honeymoon an eternity ago and loved it for the romance and food. In 2005 we went on a RCI cruise with our whole family minus children and had a blast so we ultimately felt that Royal Caribbean would be the smart choice to take our kids on their first cruise. We also were looking to cruise out of LA to save air fare over Christmas.
ACCOMODATIONS NITE BEFORE BOARDING: We drove from Vegas on the 18th and stayed the nite at Fort McArthur. If you are military I HIGHLY suggest doing this - very very nice accomodations right near the port AND we were able to park our car on base for free while we were cruising. The cab to the port was $15 each way and the hotel for the night was $50. That was a huge savings on parking!
DAY OF BOARDING: Everything went really smoothly - we arrived around noon/1230 and there was minimal wait time. We pre-registered online and printed the luggage info (too late for tags in the mail) WARNING!!! when registering online OR trying to buy on board ship credit for someone as a gift - it has to be done a certain amount of time before boarding AND they do not include weekend days in this time frame so be aware of this - some family members tried to give ship credit for our kids as a gift and almost weren't able to do so because of time limit - it did get done thanks to some great management at Royal Caribbean though and the kids loved that they had their own money to spend on board for gifts or Johnny Rockets or ice cream.
Boarding was incredibly fast and smooth. We got on board and were notified that rooms would be ready by 1:00 and they were. The ship was decorated for Christmas - a beautiful huge tree on the Promenade and other decorations. They did acknowledge Hannukah as well.
ROOMS: We got a GREAT deal thru Costco travel - will definitely book thru them again - decided to go for two connecting Promenade view rooms on the 8th floor and this was absolutely perfect for us. The rooms were in great condition and very clean - our cabin attendant was amazing and friendly - yes some people will say the ship looks a bit aged BUT wouldn't you if you had upwards of 3,000 people roaming around each week? Every part of the ship was clean and we never came across anything that was broken or needed repair.
FOOD: Yes there was a ton of food! We have noticed that quality has gone down slightly over the years. There is still a lot of it and most of it was amazing - some of it was only ok - and some of it was not worth the extra calories but we ate it anyway! I think the quality issue is due to the free time dining. It must be incredibly hard to have food ready constantly and keep up quality over a four hour period especially when you don't know how many people will be coming to dinner. We went traditional and had the late seating - this was perfect for our busy port days but I do feel we missed a lot by sitting at dinner from 830 to 10. I think the 6:00 seating would have been too early tho. We still loved getting to know our servers rather than having random ones each nite with the my time dining. It's a tough choice to make - decide on that based on your port of call plans and your preference of service. A couple of the nites our kids perfered to go and eat at Johnny Rockets or the Cafe with friends - fine with us we had date nites! All of the appetizers were worth the calories - the kids even loved the escargot! Every beef dish we had was melt in your mouth incredible - the seafood was hit or miss - not as good as on the east coast I think. ALL of the deserts were so-so. For some reason they were not worth the extra calories. The BEST dessert was the brownie at the cafe that is open 24hrs!!! In the past we ate at Jade and it was fabulous but we didn't ever make it this time so can't comment. The kids used Johnny Rockets and loved the freedom of going themselves and hanging out with friends. It was a $5 cover when you enter then as much food as you want. The 24 hr cafe was awesome for sandwiches,pizza, cookies, brownies, water, and other treats. Room service was a must do for early ports of call - woke us up on time and all you have to do is tip! We ate lunch at Windjammer unless we were in port. Food is buffet food with some shining stars = to die for french fries and good burgers - great salad bar - had a really good salmon burger - good but basic buffet fare. Never used the extra restaurants.
KIDS/TEENS CLUBS: the big question I couldn't find the answer to is how they divide the kids. On this trip our son had to stay in the younger group at age 10 but some kids that were close to 12 were allowed to go to the next group up if they had bros/sisters or cousins in the higher group- parents just asked and it was allowed. For the 12-14 they had a hang out called the Living Room and weren't allowed into the older group in Fuel. Our daughter was 14(a month from 15) and she was allowed to hang with the older kids in Fuel and participate in their activities. As far as the whole age restriction thing - I think it depends on the group of kids on board - how many there are in each group and who is running the activities. Our son was ten-almost eleven at the time of cruise and he liked some of the kids club activities but felt most were too young for him (coloring and craft activities and such were too young for him but some of the sports games or group games were fun). Due to his age we let him sign himself in and out of the club so he could come and go and not feel like he was in school or daycare. He liked some games and activities and loved the staff but felt most activities were too juvenile for him. That is the only complaint for his age group - I wish they had more cross-over tween activities for his age. He mostly roamed the ship with friends he made or hung out in the arcade using his gift money. He loved feeling grown up going into Johnny Rockets by himself and ordering his food. He did the rock wall with dad and loved that.
Our daughter was 14 almost 15 and LOVED the teen hang outs and activities. They had scavenger hunts, dances, games, WII tournaments, closed down the nite club one nite and had it open just for the teens - they had sports activities (she's way into sports and loved all of that) She made friends immediately and is still in touch with them on FB. They went to the movies, ice skating, went to see the ice shows (which were a must-do) they even made snow for them one nite out on deck so they had a snowball fight. They met for snacks in the 24hr cafe or lunch in windjammer and hung out in Johnny Rockets. They all had fun sneaking around after curfew (1am) and hangin out in each other's rooms (in groups) Basically, she didn't want to leave!!! We did get the soda pass for both kids and that is definitely a smart way to go - makes it easy for them to get drinks if you're not around and saves you money. If you sign up the first day - you get a free coke tumbler and save 15% on each soda package. If I think of anything extra I will try to modify post but basically the Mariner was an awesome ship for tweens/teens!
SHIP ACTIVITIES/SHOWS: Well- we tried to do everything and still didn't do or see all that we wanted to on board! Caught the end of an ice show and wish I'd seen them all because it was the most impressive thing I've seen on a ship. The comedian was way funny - Charo did a show but I missed that one. Basically, there is something every minute of every day. For awesome strong drinks - the bartender at the Champagne bar was the best - they have hor'deurvs in the evening and you can get any drink there not just champagne. We thought the most beautiful part of the ship was Ellingtons - you could sit there and have a drink day or nite and enjoy the views of the ship and sea. Right next door is the sports bar - had fun watching all the LA fans come in and get mad cause they couldn't watch the game on the 25th (apparently RCI doens't have the rights to show ABC or something like that) So, if ur an LA fan or your team is playin on Christmas day - be ready - you might not be able to see the game! We had a fun family tournament playing shuffleboard - that was actually one of the fun highlights of the trip!
WEATHER: Okay this was December 19-26 and it was cold! It was cold and raining the day we left port and stayed rainy all that day. Next day at sea was warmer with no rain but still cold at nite. I was completing a paper that day so was mostly inside (if the stranger who helped me turn it in online reads this - thank you thank you thank you - I got an A on the paper and as a final class grade - you saved my day!!!) the internet onboard is another story!!! Weather in all ports was sunny - chilly in the morning warming up in the afternoon - pretty warm - then chilly to cold when the sun went down. The warmest day was in Puerto Vallarta. Definitely bring jackets/hoodies and pants for nite time and mornings. Those of you from Michigan might have thought it was warm but I was cold most of the time unless we were in port. The hot tubs were always in use and crowded (nite was the best time to use them cause they were virtually empty) It was warm enough to swim in the pools during the day at port and sometimes at sea - again it depends on your cold tolerance - some kids were swimming when it was freezing out and raining. Course - run to any bar onboard for a shot of tequila and u'll warm up fast!
INTERNET: I'm not a techie but is there really no way to get better internet at sea? way too expensive and computers were dinosaur slow. Tried hooking my laptop up to the internet to turn in my final paper for class and couldn't connect. An incredibly sweet gentleman next to me had the same trouble for four hours and finally connected - he let me use his connection to turn in my paper. Really - DON'T plan on using the net a lot unless it's necessary cause it was a painful and expensive process! this was the only true negative on the trip
SPA: well - just don't do it. the staff was very nice and informative but disorganized and there was a communication barrier with my massage therapist - did a good enough job but I think I didn't get the basic swedish massage I asked for because I was charged more and the spa waiting room was the only OLD looking part of the ship. For how much I paid the service and facility should have been much nicer. I wouldn't waste money here for a massage - save it for when you get home or right before you leave.
PORTS OF CALL: After taking the trip we loved the itinerary - with two days at sea at the end for relaxing. WARNING- ALWAYS CHECK THE TIME DIFFERENCE IF YOU ARE GOING TO DO AN EXCURSION! SOME PORTS ARE AN HOUR DIFFERENCE AND SOME ARE TWO HOUR DIFFERENCE - we almost missed our PV tour because of the two hour difference! Also please remember you are not in America - yes other places are less developed and bargaining, begging, pressure sales and tipping are seen as natural- it is a way of life in a tourist area so be prepared to politely say no if approached by merchants - they will politely go away if you give a firm yet polite no. Also, if you are taking a taxi or doing another transaction make sure you agree on a price BEFORE you get in the taxi or buy the item - avoid confusion and make sure you don't pay more than you want to.
CABO: We love Cabo! We stayed there at Fiesta Americana for a week and loved it so were excited to come back on the cruise. Since we had shopped and done beaches already - we decided to do ATV's on Migrino Beach and had a blast!!! Would for sure do it again if we are there again. First time riders for me, daughter and son. He was able to drive his own (with semishift) The trip to the beach was filled with big hills but once you got to the beach it was free roam and you could go full out - awesome is all I can say - fun fun fun. Booked it online on my own (you will pay double doing it thru the cruise) thru Cabo San Lucas Tours. They pick you up just off the dock and bring you back at the end. Once there you will have the option of giving your credit card for insurance or paying an extra $10 per person for insurance. It feels a bit like a scam but we paid the extra $40 and in the end felt it was worth it - people ran into us (small bumps not big crashes) and one guy went all Evel Knievel and broke his handle bar- they charged his dad $450.00 for the damage - so the extra $40 was smart in our eyes. We were back early enough to have a late lunch in Cabo and do a little shopping before returning to ship - we felt sorry for people on another ship - they had to leave way too early - we felt there was ample time in Cabo and were happy with the itenerary.
MAZATLAN: Well - if we had stayed near the port I would have not liked Mazatlan at all. The area near the port is a bit ugly - but other areas are redeeming. We chose to ride horses because my daughter and I luv riding. We booked with Randi's Happy Horses directly online. She is very prompt responding to e mail. Cash only - so account for that before you go. Also custumary to tip the guides so have cash for that and food/shopping. We had a great time on very well behaved horses with great guides. It was just the 4 of us and 2 guides riding on the beach. We could gallop if we wanted. Took some great pics then headed back to Victor's for amazing food and drinks and some beach time (tooks suits and towels with us in backpacks). The beach was warm but the water was too cold for me although some people were swimming. All of this is on Stone Island. If horses are your thing - for sure look up Randi's Happy Horses. If horses aren't your thing I would still recommend taking a taxi to the water taxi for Stone Island - get a ticket for the water taxi- once across hop another ride to the beach - there are restaurants all up and down right on the beach but I would highly recommend Victor's. Oh - a bit of a warning about bathrooms for the women - a lot of them aren't able to flush paper so you have to put the paper in a provided waste basket - uh just be ready for that - it was the same in remote areas of PV also. It wasn't that bad - just awkward. If you don't find an excursion in Mazatlan that suits you - it might be good to plan to stay on board and enjoy the pools in the warm weather.
PUERTO VALLARTA: Talk about a pretty place! Very Americanized close to the docks. The shopping area is amazing - on the beach with huge sand sculptures, tons of art and statues and beautiful shops. Also had those flying performer guys that drop off the big pole and spin around it on long ropes and this guy who balanced huge rocks on top of each other - total festival type atmosphere. We chose to go do the zip lines thru Los Veranos. WOW!!! would for sure do this again in PV and will try it in other places. Warning again about the time difference - here it was 2 hours difference from ship - so be aware of that no matter what you do! We took a taxi for $15 to the Disco (closest to the dock) and waited there for our ride to Los Veranos. Ours was an open truck up to the top of the mountain and it was a cold ride - definitely pack a jacket for that ride. Absolutely beautiful drive tho! All of the guys at Los Veranos are funny and made the whole excursion more than worth it! I am not in the best of shape and had to pause a few times climbing some of the stairs to a couple of the zip lines but all in all a pretty easy to do - and well worth it to see everyone flying thru the air. The guys are crazy and would hop on with you with the camera and film you and encourage you to go upside down - it was crazy fun! Bought the DVD after for $40 bucks- well worth it. After we had amazing food and drinks at their restaurant next to the river. You can swim so bring a suit if you want - they have a water slide and everything! The kids also had fun feeding yogurt to the monkeys they have. Definitely well worth it - book thru them not the ship - again you'll pay more thru the ship. After we were done the driver was nice enough to drop us in the shopping district (saved us some taxi money) There is the flea market a couple of blocks off the beach where you can find great cheaper souviniers or you can go straight to the shopping at the beach. Taxi back to the dock from the shopping was $15 - went back and got cleaned up and went to dinner! We loved our time in PV!
DISEMBARKATION: We chose to take our own luggage off instead of leaving it out the nite before. It was simple and really quick - left our rooms at 8:15 am and just walked right off the ship and grabbed a taxi back to the AF base and got in our car for the ride home!
We're already planning our next cruise with RCI!!!
I hope this review helps you plan your trip - Happy Cruising!!!