Just back from the Freedom of the Seas 3-11 to 3-20 2011 (Eastern Caribbean), right prior to dry dock. We cruised as a family last summer on Disney Wonder to the Bahamas, and enjoyed the experience so much we decided to take Grandma and go on RC. The price difference was a major factor in our choice but I had been on RC before as a teenager, so I had some experience with the RC brand. I will hit the highlights and information that I was looking for on the boards but could not find.
Room - we had a family oceanview stateroom that sleeps 6, at the front of the ship right below the bridge. This is an amazing view but no balcony (we've never had one and so did not miss it). We had 5 in the room and it was plenty of room, large and comfortable. The kids loved the bunkbed area. Only problem was that Grandma snored. A lot. And loudly. But all in the fun of traveling with your family and she took the good natured joking well. We now call her the "Sasquatch of the Seas".
Food - The food was very good, and as good or better than Disney (due to slightly better variety, and the afternoon tea being open 3-5 which was not available on our Disney cruise). The kids loved the windjammer and would have eaten every meal there. We did three nights in the formal dining room, two nights in windjammer, one night at Johnny Rockets, and one night at Portofino. I had oatmeal with dried fruit each morning just like at home and it was wonderful. Despite all the great reviews, I was very disappointed with Portofino. Don't tell DH! I am a vegetarian and they did not have much to choose from, and the two pasta selections they had were uninspired and the one I chose - pesto - was bland and tasteless. I thought the main dining room food choices and taste were better esp. for vegetarian. Very surprising - but now I know! We enjoyed the main dining room the three nights that we went, but after being in the sun at St. Thomas and St. Maarten, with young kids it was just too difficult to get all dressed up. Disney does win out here with us for being a little more casual. Little sandwiches and desserts available in the coffee shop were very good and free. Pizza was bad IMHO but my son loved it. Antipasta at Sorrento's very good and fun for a change. We found the coffee just fine despite negative reviews. You can get coffee with to go cups and lids in the coffee shop, plus every type of tea. We would go down each morning to get the coffee and the cruise compass before getting ready. I didn't find out until near the end of the cruise, but they have a 'CRUISE PLANNER' that you can pick up that gives the highlights of each day. If you pick this up on Sunday you can plan your days. I would definitely do this next time so as to better plan some time for Salsa, cooking classes working around the kids schedules.
Pool - the pool area was awesome, always very crowded but nevertheless we never had trouble finding a place. The kids loved the H2O zone. Be aware that there are two kind of deed pools in the back of the H2O zone, if your kids are not good swimmers you will want to keep them away. The water temp was cold but not as cold as Disney was last June. The hot tubs were full but there are so many that it is not too bad. We spent time at the pool every day.
Activities - we did ice skating, did family disco, did arcade, did lots and lots of pool time, watched surfing and basketball and rock climbing (but did not participate in those). I would have done salsa dancing and the new cooking lessons ($) if this was a couples cruise for us. As it was, we each took time to do workout and let the other parent watch the kids for a while. Ice skating and family disco were tons of fun. We ran out of time on the last day to do mini golf. I did a lot of walking around the ship and would walk deck 4 around the ship (up to deck 5 helicopter pad) when it was open. DH loved the gym. Grandma and DH did the casino one time on the non-smoking day (which was Friday I think).
Internet Room - connection is slow but once you log on, you can get to standard mail servers such as AOL and send out quick messages to family at home for 65 cents a minute. I went in the morning early around 6 or 7 and no one was there. When I peeked in later in the afternoon, the room was very crowded. I am an early riser so this was a great way to start the day.
Wine package. boy, was this confusing. We would generally want to get the wine bottle prior to dinner and each of us (mom, dad and grandma) would have a pre-dinner drink with the cheese plate from room service or snacks hijacked from the windjammer. At dinner we would not want a drink and just have water or DH could order a glass if he felt like it. Despite all the board comments saying that you could get the wine at any bar and take it to your room, we found that in practice no one undestood and they had to call a manager several times. All worked out OK in the end but what a pain. Our main dining server sent our wine up to Portofino -- not sure why they did this -- and Portofino tried to charge us a corking fee for the wine. We had to explain several times before the manager came out and understood, and no corking charge was charged. Next time, I think I'll skip the package. Its not worth the hassle and the price savings is not that significant.
Kids club. The kids went 3 times of their own choosing. They enjoyed Pirates night, PJ night and carnival night for a couple of hours but never stayed late. The club was similar to Disney but focused more on engaging games (looked more fun than Disney) and less on "activities." The science programs on Disney were better. The kids club is right through the arcade -- smart marketing by RC. The kids club is only open certain hours (not continuously like Disney), which was fine with us. Thinking about it, this area may be one reason Disney is so expensive. The staffing numbers were higher on Disney also. The RC staff was stretched thin at times. Of course this was spring break weekend and they had a much higher level of kids than they normally do.
Entertainment. We saw the opening show (with comedian), ice skating show and magic show. All were really good and family appropriate. We were disappointed that the music in the lounges did not start most nights until really, really late - 10:30 or later. We would have loved to sit and listen to piano or jazz prior to or right after dinner but there was not much available. I guess you are supposed to be eating.
Promenade. The concept was great, but needs more focus on free food options, fun activities and shopping that people really want (related to the ports of call). For example, who is going on a cruise to buy a Gucci purse? How do you pack it back home? They had a whole section of a store dedicated to them. Jewelry sales were very popular and I understand the attraction but this was not my thing. I would have liked to see more focus on the ports of call in the stores. We were looking for a little book, map, history, trinkets of the caribbean, or the ocean, sea animals, anything really.
Coco Cay - was much nicer than I anticipated after hearing so-so reviews. It is really huge! Lots of shade but not so much down by the beach. We did the Eco Tour which is a boat ride around the islands where they pull a live star fish and conch out of the water and pass them around the boat. They also give some history and culture of the bahamas, which was interesting. The wind whipped up and it is a little cool so keep that in mind. We also saw a hammerhead shark. Definitely a hit with the kids, and worth doing once.
On St Thomas, we did an island tour after much angst in trying to choose a cruise that Grandma could do with us. It stopped at vistas and overlooks, ending up at St. Peter's Great House. We did all enjoy it a lot, even the kids, but were lucky enought to be the "overload" passengers from the main tour and they had to call another safari bus just for 7 people. We might have hated it if we were crowded in like the other folks we saw. Then we did a little shopping by the Havensight mall; as we were not into jewelry we did a few trinket and T-shirt stores. Had we known we would have bought the trinkets up at the vistas stops or the Great House instead of havensight mall. More selection and beter prices. could not do the down town shopping due to Grandma's limited mobility. Next time we will definitely do a St. John trip or a snorkel trip.
St. Maarten - we did the best of ST. Maarten, which is a 1 hour shopping trip on the French side and 3 hours or so at the Westin on the dutch side. Lunch and free beverages were included. This was worth every penney. The beach was wonderful and they provide towels and chairs. Absolutely beautiful. No nudity (not sure if that is the rule, or if it is just the way it worked out for us) which is one reason we avoided orient beach with our kids. The pool was incredible - you could be in the pool and look over the beach and lagoon. Definitely a repeat trip.
Overall - this was a wonderful trip! I can't say enough how beautiful the ship is, how much fun we had, etc. I would recommend Freedom and Eastern Carribean to all families, but with a stronger recommendation for older kids. My biggest surprise is that I thought Disney and RC would be more distinct from each other and that after sailing both, I would have a strong preference for one or the other. I don't, except that I actually did miss having Mickey Mouse and the characerts on the ship. Silly, I know. The Shrek characters did come into the kids club one night (I guess this was practice for the new Dreamworks experience). I'm going to look both at the Oasis and at the Dream for our next sailing. We were right next to the Dream at Port Canaveral, and it is about the same size as Freedom.