I will attempt to answer these questions and more for those traveling similar to our family!
We went down a night early and stayed at the new Best Western near the airport. They have a airport shuttle that ran 5am to midnight. Since we got in at 10pm and it was close and new we picked it. Had a bit of problem with literally being last people to board the Disney ship years back and didn't want to run the risk this time in almost missing the ship. The hotel had a great free breakfast, and only cost us $24 by taxi to get to the port. Beds comfortable and all smoke free.
We left hotel at 11:15 am Saturday morning to be one of the first on board which we were glad we did as the lines were already getting long when we got there. Next time we will aim to be at port around 11. They do board first come first serve at 12:00 so getting early pays off. They have big holding areas with seats where you wait in rooms based on who gets there first. They go room by room. We boarded first and went right on and got our seats by the pool and water slides THEN went to lunch. I suggest wearing or taking your bathing suits, sunscreen and flip flops as you won't get your luggage till 4-6 pm that night and our kids were literally running to get on the slides. After scoping out some places we settled on a quieter place one level up from the main pool deck, up the stairs on the way to the water slide. It was covered and uncovered where you could spend the whole day and still be able to watch the kids as they went up and down. In fact that was our chosen spot all week. The hubby and I could catch some rays, or get out of the sun just by sliding our chairs over a bit. The best part was there was only 6 lounge chairs there at a time and you could spread out a bit without being on top of each other.
The slides are great and seem to be better than any other ship as there are three of them and if the lines get long for the epic plunge (the one that has the rafts) you can just go to the other two. At days at sea we made a point to save our seats around 7:30-8 am with towels and then head off to breakfast. In fact if you don't save your seats around the pool then forget about it... The slides don't open till 9am and are definitely least busy from 9-10:45. Around 11 am they get busy and stay that way most of the day. So our kids got to ride alot more during the early mornings. Since we get up early it worked out great. Some of the reviews talked about not much deck space and the pools being small. I found it to be alot more spacious. There are also two pools on the main deck at the other end of the water slide area. One is a wave pool, the other is isn't but there is a water area between the two that connects them with shooting water spouts. There are three whirlpools on each side of the pool deck. Under the water slide area is a smaller area for the littler kids with a small slide and pool area for 6 months to 3-4 yr olds. It has shooting water spouts too in that area. Behind the area of the water slides is the climbing wall and rappelling wall. Our kids loved both of those but be warned you must be dry and wear socks to do either one of these and they aren't open all day.
There are three different levels of the rock wall too to choose from easy, medium and hard and then you ring the bell once you make it up. Most people cheer when they hear it so our kids got a big kick out of everyone cheering for them. There is a neat area on the highest deck where the kids did a bungee cord jump on a trampoline and a giant spider web they could climb near the full court basketball court. There are also lounge chairs up there to relax in for us when they were doing those activities. This is open very limited hours during our trip and we only did it the first day.
We stayed in a family balcony room that did have a good size balcony. The room was near the kids club (Recess) too. Our room wasn't as big as the Disney Magic's balcony room but we made it through 7 nights together:) The couch slept one of the children (a little hard but we had read to request a egg crate early on and that helped) and the other bed dropped down from the ceiling. Little bit more comfortable there I think. My husband and I's bed was very comfortable but little short as he is 5'11" and his feet did stick out at the bottom. I had to walk around him to get to the bathroom but no big problem as reported in the reviews I read though. Sink wasn't an issue for us and didn't squirt water all over as reported. The shower is in it's own area when you walk in the cabin and toilet directly across from it. The glass is frosted so you can't see through it as reported. Privacy wasn't an issue as there is a curtain you can pull across to separate this area from rest of cabin. We didn't stay in room too much. We did come in from the sun around 3:30 every day and the kids watched tv as we read on balcony or hubby napped. The shows on the tv are continuous feed re-runs all week long. So if you see one episode of Malcolm in the Middle, or SpongeBOB it will be the same one all week long. Not too big of a problem as kids brought their Nintendo DS games.
We did book all of our shows and dinner reservations in the specialty restaurants before we left. Highly recommend this and first time to book is 120 days before your trip! We saw Blue Man group first night out at 7pm Saturday and kids sat in first row with plastic capes the ship provided. They loved it! Saw Legends in Concert at 7pm, Cirque Dreams and dinner at 5:45, and Second City twice once at 7 and once at 9pm. The comedians at Second City have three separate shows so be sure and sign up for them all: 7, 9 and 11pm. Our family does eat early but it paid off for us because the only way to see the 7pm shows was too eat early. If you let the waiter or waitress know when you are seated that you have a show to catch they will make it happen. Most shows even with a reservation require you getting there early to get a seat. We would usually line up to get a seat 20-30 minutes before the show started except the Cirque Dreams show which you need to line up 30-35 minutes early. Don't bother with the premium seats in the Cirque Dreams show as they aren't worth it IF you line up early. I had read to sit upstairs to get best seat and this was the case. But word of advice when you get upstairs go around to the other side and sit there so you can see the stage better. Don't pick the seats right at top of the stairs. They don't use the stage much at all as they use the middle but you can see better on other side up top.
We ate at three specialty restaurants: Moderno 5:30pm (cost $20 per person with tons of delicious skewered meat and fabulous salad bar, La Cucina 6:00pm( cost $10 pp worst food of trip..pasta undercooked, no taste so please don't bother with it or waste your money),and Teppyanki at 5pm ( cost $25 pp and like Kanki restaurant but not as good salad or soup). I heard Cagney's was good but didn't want to spend another $25 per person on it. BTW kids eat for half price in the specialty restaurants even though it doesn't show up that way when you book it so be sure and ask at each restaurant when your bill arrives. Only one that it doesn't is the Cirque Dreams and Dinner show. We also ate at Taste and Manhatten restaurants which are the main dining rooms and not extra. Previous reviews said the menu stayed the same the whole week in each restaurant and they were right. Two or three main entree's change each night but that is it. Same soups, same salads, same desserts... We thought the food there was excellent. During the day we ate in the Garden Cafe by the pool and it was a general buffet and had alot of different choices all throughout the week. We also ate breakfast two or three times at Taste and it was very good! We also ate at O'Sheehan's for lunch and breakfast and it was good and it wasn't a specialty restaurant so it doesn't cost extra. The bowling alley is inside there. We never had time to do it.
Shore excursions we did I booked online as I always find a better bargain to book direct. We usually don't sign up with the ship for them as they are way more expensive. I google the island we are going to and look up excursions and then when I find what we are looking for and I then go to Trip Advisor and to check what others thought and if they are a reliable company. We did Captain Alan's boat charters in St Maarten and only had to put down a small deposit which would have been totally refunded if our boat didn't make it or seas were bad. It was a snorkel and mud bath excursion and well worth it. We were supposed to snorkel at two islands in addition to the mud bath but the sea was very CHOPPY so we just did one snorkel stop and the mud bath. He also took us to a place to see some iguana's that the kids liked and we got to feed them. In St. Thomas we booked a sail snorkel trip through the Fury. We were picked up right outside where we docked and didn't have to get a cab. We sailed to Turtle Cove or Buck Island off St. Thomas to snorkel with the sea turtles. We had a great experience and saw lots of cool sea life and had great guides in the water with us. They provided noodles and helped with our kids get the hang of snorkeling. We didn't get off the ship in Nassau as we had been there many times before and didn't get to port till 12 and had to be back on board by 6:30. We were glad we stayed on board because no one else did and the kids had the slide to themselves and we had more quiet time to relax:) I had previously booked Atlantis for the day but had heard it could be cold during January in the Bahamas so I cancelled it before we left. I had heard if you booked a night's stay at the Comfort Suites in Paradise Island it had Atlantis passes since it was owned by them. It is right across the street from Atlantis and was only $240 a night with all the extra fees added on. So it would have been a huge savings since onboard the shore excursion fee there is $500 to $550 for a family of four. The other big reason I cancelled was it would have only been all that money for basically a half day. It takes at least 30 minutes over there by cab and Atlantis closes at 5 in the water park area. Our kids were upset as I had already told them we were going but I was very glad we cancelled. The weather was definitely colder the last day of our trip in the Bahamas and cloudy. Plus we had water slides they loved already on board and free:)
Although the ship was almost filled to capacity it didn't feel that way except during lunch at Garden Cafe and got jammed first day there as it was the only restaurant open when we got on board. The ship does have a nice adult section in the back of the boat where there is a small pool and outside huge TV. It showed maybe one movie a day and had a bar there and outside buffet. We sat there one day when kids were in the kids club. Most of the time the tv just shows pictures of scenery. They did show a kids movie there one day which I thought it was strange since it is an adults only section. But they let us bring our kids to watch the movie during that time only. It was Alice and Wonderland's Disney movie. I also got lucky one day looking around the ship and got to see the area reserved for the suites section up in the front of the ship. It had it's own key card private entrance and once inside had a huge area way up top to hang out. It was on Deck 18 at the very front of the boat which I would say had over 50-75 plush lounge chairs and cozy circular loungers for two in the sun. They also had their own bar, restaurant, pool, hot tubs, and workout area. They also had another area in the middle of the suite section that was for the pool with more plush lounge chairs. I think there was three levels to that private section in the suites area at the very front of the ship. Definitely a place to be if you are there without kids and on a honeymoon!
The kids area was just OK. It is called Recess and is divided into different age groups. Our kids would have preferred being together. The break down was ages 2-5, 6-9 and 10-13 and then teens. The activities are scheduled ones with little free play but there are some small times the age groups are mixed throughout the day. The Wii games and jungle gym area wasn't available to play on when you wanted only during designated times called Freestyle play. It was only 1-2 hours a day or really late at 10 pm. Our kids thought the Disney kids club was much better and had alot more to do. Plus they got to stay together. Go Figure!!
Disembarkation was very easy and we choose the option for walk off early with our luggage which started at 7:30 am. We had a flight to catch in Miami at 10:35 am and we made it in plenty of time. You line up outside of the Epic Theater to disembark and we got in line early which we were very glad of since it stretched pretty far in a matter of 10-15 minutes. I think we lined up at 7am.
All in all we highly recommend this ship for families. We would like to go again on the Epic. Maybe the Western caribbean one...
Keep in mind you make your trip what it is! If little things bother you or you are very picky of course as in every part of life you can find something to dislike.