We sailed on the NCL Epic on February 19th, 2011 - the week where most public school kids are on mid-winter break, and this Nickolodean cruise was loaded to the gills with families with kids. We were traveling with our 3 children, ages 13, 12 & 7, and it felt like July 4th at Coney Island the entire time. I think before choosing this bigger-than-life ship, especially on the busiest week of the year, Mom & Dad need to realize that there will not be much time for relaxing, as they will need to accompany their children to the limited recreation options on the ship, and to entertain them for much of the time in between due to very limited activity options.
I'm focusing on kids here because I imagine that anyone choosing what appears to be a floating amusement park with Nickolodeon characters, must be traveling with children. For kids, the waterslides are the main attraction, with 2 twisty options and 1 giant funnel-shaped option that resembles the Nickolodeon "Brain Drain" on a popular Nick game show. These slides entertain the kids understandably for a couple of hours each day. Unfortunately, the kids club, which groups all the children together - ages 2-12, is not a viable option for a 12 year old, and all of the activities take place in 1 room inside the ship - a bit unhealthy and depressing for more than an occasional hour. We felt that the kids club lacked imagination vs. the clubs on Disney and Royal Caribbean, which were jam-packed with fun-filled outside activities and interesting projects to participate in, allowing parents a guilt-free few hours knowing the kids were having a blast. There is a rock climbing wall, a bungie-type trampoline activity, a giant spider web climbing activity, and a batting cage on the ship - infortunately they are only open during limited hours, and the lines are sometimes an hour long. Once the kids get to the front of these lines - if they have the fortitude - they must be signed in by a parent, who must sign a waiver so that the child can participate. This was also true of the bowling lanes - there are 6 lanes on the ship, located inside two pubs - open limited hours, and often long lines, and always a fee and a waiver. My husband and I spent a lot of time taking our kids to activities and waiting in long lines to sign them in and sign waivers.
The few kid-centered activities available in the afternoons were very brief - less than 30 minutes in duration. A "Know your Nick" trivia game lasted approx 15 minutes, and a Nickolodean Arts & Crafts activity consisted of a few printed pages of Nick characters and some crayons. 15 minutes in duration. Oddly there were no movies for the kids to watch to get out of the sun for a few hours - plentiful on other cruise lines - until projected on the Atrium big screen at 11:15pm. The cabin TV had Nick shows on a loop - The Nanny, George Lopez, iCarly...the same 1 episode of each...over and over again. While no one goes on a cruise to watch TV, kids do need to get out of the sun after a few hours, and there is VERY little for them to do. There is a video arcade available, but again, young children cannot be left alone in there with their parents' key cards to run amuck. The 1 theatrical production aimed at kids - Nick's Slime Time Live - was a lot of fun. In addition, there was a Nick character breakfast which my husband and 7-year-old son attended on stand-by, which he loved. Book this as soon as you get on the ship - they sell out immediately, and there are only 2 breakfasts. 2 character meet-and-greets - one with Spongebob & Patrick, and one with Dora & Diego, were a lot of fun for our 7 year old.
The main problem with this ship is that it's built for 4-5K passengers, but the design is such that it feels loud and crowded all the time. One odd and uncomfortable aspect of the ship is that one cannot walk outside from forward to aft, except on the pool deck. For example, to get to the spa on deck 14 from the front of the ship, one must walk a quarter of a mile down a narrow hallway of staterooms for the entire length of the ship.
The entertainment was deafeningly loud throughout the ship due to broadway quality and size productions, performed in miniscule venues. For example, Cirque Dreams - a production of Cirque Du Soleil - is performed in a tiny version of their normally gigantic circus tent venues. This dinner theatre production was like something out of a Fellini or Peter Ustinov-as-Charlie-Chan movie. The tent is decorated like a Hong Kong brothel, and the wait staff clad in Orient Express-type Asian costumes. You're seated in the round, as the performance takes place in the center of the room, and behind you, around the perimeter of the room. This was the most uncomfortable 2 hours spent on the ship. Normally I am a fan of Cirque, but there is a reason that they take over Randall's Island in NY to set up their tent..this show is over-the-top in sound, lighting, costuming, and every other aspect, and is deafening and dizzying and overwhelming in such a small space. It was impossible to eat, with the waiters and actors literally bumping into the chairs, and either an inconsiderate fellow passenger marinating in Opium performe, or perhaps it was being piped in with the oriental theme. I offered a silent prayer of thanks that my husband wasn't chosen to participate in the show - the fate of the poor soul at the table next to us - who smiled and nodded gamely through this outrageously annoying production while wearing a crown. Similarly Blue Man Group was deafeningly loud in the ship's theatre, as was the big brass band in the Manhattan Room dining room.
So how does one find peace in this environment? Usually in the quiet hydrotherapy room at the spa. Buy the $199 couples pass for the week. It only entitles you to the hydrotherapy pools, saunas and peaceful inside relaxing space in the spa, but if you're anything like me, it will save your sanity. Unfortunately the Jersey Shore crowd and plentiful Snookies on this vessel didn't "get" that this was a quiet area, but it does provide some respite to the throngs of revelers ever-present on the pool deck.
The pools on this ship were oddly tiny - we didn't swim once in 7 days.
We're not really food critics - we and our children eat to live, and not the reverse - however the food is very all-american burgers, salad, yada yada, except for the additional fee restaurants which we visited frequently.
Be prepared to rack up a few thousand dollars in charges on this cruise - the only free beverage is water, unless you're having breakfast in which case juice is free. All sodas and all juices after breakfast are $2-$4. You'll pay for bowling, video games, drinks, fee restaurants, as well as the usual spa services, excursions, souvenirs, etc.
I would not recommmend this ship - I would opt for Royal Caribbean or Disney instaed for a more civilized and well-designed experience.