Pre-Cruise: We flew into Orlando on Friday morning and spent two nights at the Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando and did Universal Studios and Islands Of Adventure. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter lives up to the hype. It's a must see for Harry Potter fans. Staying at an on-site Universal Orlando resort is a little expensive, but the perks are great, better than any on-site Disney resort.
Embarkation: We had rented a car from Avis so we drove over to Cocoa Beach, dropped off the car, and caught a shuttle within five minutes. We got to the port around 1145 and embarkation was a breeze. We waited in line about 15-20 minutes and went right onto the ship. Grabbed lunch at the Windjammer and got into our rooms a little after 1:00PM. The only hiccup was the luggage delivery where they are seriously understaffed. I realize it's a huge effort but they need more people running the luggage. The service area was continually jammed with luggage and there looked to be only one guy ferrying the bags to the rooms. We got ours after 6:00PM and actually got one that wasn't ours. I alerted the cabin steward and they took care of it.
Overall Ship Impressions: It was our first time on the Freedom. The ship is in good shape, very nice inside, very clean from top to bottom deck. The Promenade is nice, we enjoyed walking it every night. I enjoyed the fact that they had a smoke free section in the Casino.
The pool deck was good as well. We liked the movie screen over the main pool deck, it was great watching the World Cup Final on Monday (result not so great). My only "complaint" is the choice of music/videos run during the day when the band was not playing. Not my taste.
Cabin Type: Two Promenade View Rooms (#8311 and 8313). These worked great. Needing two cabins on this trip, we couldn't swing two balconies but we wanted a window. It worked out great. The location was good, three up to the pool deck, three down to dining and the Promenade.
Our cabin stewardess (Emily) was very good. Pleasant and efficient. I know people complain about the shape of the cabins and poor maintenance, but we had the exact opposite experience. One evening maintenance showed up at our door, though we hadn't called them. Emily had alerted them that one of the screws had come loose on the shower's soap dish. I never would have noticed or even have been bothered by it, so I was impressed.
As for the crew, I'd describe them as pleasant and efficient. Certainly nobody was rude, but a lot didn't seem overly friendly. There were exceptions. Our dining room staff was great, and the cabin stewards/stewardesses near our room were pleasant in the halls, but by and large it wasn't a jovial bunch.
Food: We had dinner every night at the Main Dining Room, breakfast and lunch were at the Windjammer. We thought the food in the MDR was pretty good. The seafood was flavorful and wasn't rubbery. The beef was tender. Nobody had a bad dinner (unlike the Mariner a couple of years ago). It certainly wasn't gourmet but it was good. The portions weren't huge and some people may complain about it, but with apps, the main course, and dessert, how much food do you really need everynight?
We tried the My Time Dining and probably will stick with a set seating next time. The ability to walk in whenever you wanted was good in theory but we liked our waiter/asst waiter and the six o'clock time worked for us so we stuck with it. For those doing My Time, request Manual and Worsem. A very good team and Worsem is the best Asst Waiter we have ever had, on ship or on land.
The Windjammer was hit and miss. Breakfast was mostly miss. The eggs were runny, the waffles/french toast were bland. The omelets were good if you devoted the time to wait for one. The fruit selection was good and the coffee wasn't awful. Lunch was better. The Jade section was different and I usually made my way over there. It's not spicy Indian/Asian and its Americanized, but it was fresher tasting than the rest of the buffet.
The sandwiches at Cafe Promenade were okay but I was not a fan of the Pizza, too much crust, too much of a frozen pizza taste.
Johnny Rockets was a waste of time and money. It's not that the food was necessarily bad, but with the surcharge, unless you eat more than one burger, you're basically getting free french fries and onion rings. You only have three shake options, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. So it's not a "full service" Johnny Rockets.
Entertainment: Good with a clunker. We missed the opening show and after the first production show (Marquee), I didn't think I'd get my nephew back to the theater. It got better. We didn't like Marquee, you have to be a fan of theater to appreciate (or recognize) the numbers. The second production show, Once Upon a Time, was a little better, probably because I recognized the music more in this one. There was an accapello (sp?) group called 425 (four-two-five) who were excellent. The other big show was illusionist Drew Thomas, who put on a good show.
The Ice Show was very good, it would be worth seeing more than once if possible. Graham Seymour was the cruise director and we liked him. I enjoyed his humor and he did well emceeing the game shows.
Fellow Passengers: A couple of annoyances. First, you had the typical parents who weren't watching their children. It wasn't hugely widespread, but you still had therunning up and down the halls, slamming doors, playing on the elevator, etc. As a parent myself, even though I'm on vacation, I don't take a vacation from parenting. Second, since our party consisted of two adults and two teenagers (< 18 yrs), we were told the two teenagers could not be booked in the same room. Since our rooms were connecting, it was really no big deal. However, there was a tour group of teenagers who were on the ship and there weren't an equal number of chaperones. How was it that a big group like that could have multiple minors booked in a room? THird, dress code (I know, I know). I don't mind putting on the suit for the two formal nights but if I'm going to do it, I expect others to do the follow the same stated guidelines. There were plenty of shorts and T-shirts in the dining room at dinner, despite the signs stating they weren't allowed. On formal night, people were running around the Promenade area in their bathing suits. The kicker was the guy posing for pictures on formal night, in pressed blue jeans, a thick green T-shirt, and a baseball hat (at least it was clean). I wish the cruise lines would make up their minds. Either enforce your dress code, or don't have one. It would make packing easier.
Itinerary/Ports of Call: Having done the Western side on the Mariner a few years back, we opted for the Eastern side this time. I liked Coco Cay, it was a nice beach day. We did the water slide and aqua park and enjoyed both. Our Aqua Park time was for 1000 so we headed over there right away. The slide is right by there so we had 30-40 minutes with no one else on the slide. It's a very tall, very large slip and slide. It was fun. Worth $20 a person? Maybe not but what are you going to do? I would rate Labadee a little higher than Coco Cay but both provide a nice beach.
Next stop was St Thomas. We did a Sea Lion Swim at Coral World, booked on our own as that option was not available via Royal Caribbean. I had called Coral World directly a few months prior and reserved it. We caught a taxi at the port and it was a 20 minute taxi ride. The Sea Lion Swim was great, you got 15 min in the water, 15 min out of the water with a sea lion. It's expensive but worth doing. There were plenty of taxis at Coral World so we hopped in another one and got a little mini-island tour, stopping for pictures along the way. It was $9 a person.
St Martin was the next stop and that was our favorite. Having been to Ocho Rios, I liked St Thomas much better than Jamaica and I liked St Martin much better than St Thomas. It was less crowded and just had a friendlier and cleaner vibe to it. We did the Tree Top Adventure Tour (booked via the ship), which is sort of advertised as zip lining, but in reality it's a ropes course with some zip lining thrown in. It was still a lot of fun. I didn't hear any complaints amongst our tour group. The guide at the place mentioned another, higher course which is mostly zip lining but it's not a Royal Caribbean excursion. That would be worth investigating on a return trip.
Disembarkation: This is where we clearly transitioned from vacation land, back to reality land, but there were a lot of reasons for a semi-chaotic disembarkation, and our fellow passengers contributed to it. Twelve hours out of Port Canaveral, the ship turned around and detoured to Nassau for a medical emergency. That put us off schedule by nearly five hours. The ship did not get to Port Canaveral until 1115, well after it normally would, and about the time the next set of passengers would be getting onboard.
The scramble started with people needing to re-book their flights. We could not get out on Sunday and had to stay an extra night in Orlando. The ship waived internet charges and ship to shore costs, but there were only so many phone lines going out. Plus there was only one or two computers with printing options so it was difficult to print boarding passes and people were getting agitated. I was annoyed when a couple of teenagers made utilized the free internet to go on Facebook, while other passengers needed a computer, and while their parents tied up another computer for their travel plans.
While the ship waived the fees, some of them still showed up on the bill. I had to go down several times to get them to remove them. They waived them Sat night but charges from Sunday AM showed up on the bill. They did remove them w/o protest, but the process should have been better.
The chaos kicked in on Sunday morning. Despite clear guidance as to who qualified for Express departure, a large percentage of the passengers lined up on the fourth deck with all their luggage. You can guess the results. It was slow moving, they jammed the gangway and clogged up customs. The whole thing just took longer. There were even announcements admonishing the people who were doing this, telling everyone else what was happening but it was too late, the damage was done. You could hear what they were thinking "I've got a plane to catch, I've got to get off and go". My response: "Four thousand people have travel plans and by you being selfish, you screwed it up for everyone else". Plus you had people showing leaving earlier than their departure time and them clogging up the baggage carousel area waiting for their luggage.
As an aside, I know they want to put an Oasis class ship in Port Canaveral but that port facility needs some serious upgrading. The customs area needs to be expanded and more luggage carousels are needed.
Once we got our luggage, we were dumped outside and needed to wait for the Avis shuttle. With no clear pickup location, we kind of had to fight our way on. The shuttles were messed up since traffic was so bad getting into port. Since the people hadn't gotten off the ship yet, the parking lots weren't cleared, there was no place to go.
This was amplified at Avis. We got to the facility and there were 75-100 people, with luggage waiting to get to port. Normally there's a semi-full lot waiting for the disembarking passengers. They come, pick up the cars, the lot clears and the new passengers arrive. With the late arrival, the cars that should have been gone were still there and there was no room to park any more cars. I had to change my original reservation since I needed a car for longer than anticipated. But since they didn't have the same size car, I needed to rent two. This process took over an hour. At 3:30PM, we were finally on our way to Orlando.
Final Thoughts: Despite the chaos and the occasional rude and selfish behavior of some of the passengers, ready to go again.