For the sake of perspective, I always like to describe my likes and biases. I am a D+ cruiser with RCI and was traveling directly with my parents who are both D. We met up with some extended family and friends on the cruise, so we had a decent sized group (16). This was our first time on a Freedom-class ship and I was interested to go on it after getting off the Oasis in May. As expected, my Oasis experience did color some of my experiences on Freedom.
Thankfully we were able to arrange flights to Orlando the day before the cruise as day-of flights always tend to give me the nervous sweats. We flew Delta from Indianapolis, connecting in Atlanta, and everything went very smoothly and on time. The perks for their Amex card keep improving as they now include a free bag as well as priority boarding. This allowed for a longer "roll-aboard wrangling" viewing session, especially with all of the families heading to Orlando with little kids pulling bags bigger than themselves. Finally, at least, the airlines have gotten a clue that they need to add time to the boarding process if they are going to charge bag fees, so I did notice a 40 minute boarding window instead of the old 30 minute one.
Upon arrival at MCO, we grabbed our pre-arranged car at Budget and headed towards Port Canaveral. I tend to dislike Port Canaveral because of its distance from MCO. This distance means that either a rental car or a shuttle are about the only options from the airport. A one-way car (with drop off in Cocoa Beach or Canaveral) tends to be the most cost-effective way to travel, especially traveling with more than 1-2 people. It was not a hard drive (I brought my GPS just in case), but there were some tolls. The rental company included a toll device in the car, but the fine print indicated that use of the transmitter would incur a $2.50 fee on top of the tolls ... did not seem worth it for the couple of tolls on the way to Canaveral.
We have stayed several different places in Cocoa Beach in the past (Residence Inn, etc). This time I wanted to try something different, so I booked a one-night condo at The Resort on Cocoa Beach which allowed for this short booking because it was low season. This was a pleasant place to stay with direct beach access, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, full kitchen, living room, and balcony for a little less than the price of a room at the Residence Inn. You had to strip your sheets and take your trash to the garbage shoot at the end of the stay, but I found it comfortable. There is also a pool, tiki bar, and restaurant on premises.
We got up on Sunday morning, had breakfast, and were out of our room by the 10 AM checkout time. We proceeded to Budget to drop off our car and, by 10:30 or so, we were on the free shuttle to the port. Budget seemed to have plenty of shuttles running (though there were 3 ships in port), and by the time we got to the port, we actually had to wait a few minutes as the drop-off area had to be opened up.
We were finally off the shuttle and the porters had the bags. There was then a line to get into the terminal as the building had not yet opened (it was before 11). Once the line opened up, a RCI employee opened a second line for "gold" people which I thought would be only suites but appeared to be anyone with C&A status. We had to show our passport (or other proof of citizenship) and SetSail Pass to get into the terminal, then headed through security and the metal detectors. After that, it was up the escalator to check-in. Here I made a bit of a mistake as I showed my SetSail Pass and was waved into the Priority line (Platinum and above ... Gold members seemed to have a priority line on the other side). The Priority line, unfortunately, was about 10 times longer than the standard lines and people who continuously got into the standard lines were waved up to the next available agents without a wait instead of waiving the priority people down past the 5-6 agents specifically earmarked for priority passengers. My guess is this is only an issue for early arrivers, but as always, it pays to look at the lines.
Once checked in, we were put into the priority embarkation group and given a place to sit until it was time to board (which was about 11:30 I believe). Once boarding was OK'd, the priority group was dismissed by rows with long pauses in between ... and here was another aggravation. While we were standing and waiting for the next row to be released, those who had just checked in as priority were being waved through by the same agent holding the rest of us back. Yes, we are only talking 5 minutes here and it is minor in the grand scheme of things, but it made absolutely no sense.
Finally, though, we were moved forward, took the escalator up, had our security pictures taken, and stepped aboard the Freedom of the Seas for the first time.
When Freedom first came out, I can see why so many loved her. She was the largest passenger ship in the world and simply an extension of the wildly popular Voyager-class with the trademark RCI ice rink, rock wall, dining options, etc. Having come off the Oasis in May though, reduced the impact of Freedom for me a bit. Don't get me wrong ... she's a beautiful ship and is well-kept, but after seeing an awe-inspiring new ship design, it was hard for me to see this ship as anything but a Voyager-class ship with a slightly longer promenade, a Flowrider, and the H20 Zone on deck. I suppose that would be enough if actually used any of those things (besides the promenade).
I guess I'm just getting my disappointments out of the way first ... I found the production shows on Freedom less than inspiring. For someone who has become very jaded against cruiseship productions, I truly enjoyed the ones on Oasis with a full version of Hairspray and lots of wire work in Come Fly with Me. Freedom is unfortunately still following the old model of production shows ... a Broadway mash-up and a story mashup with a mix of music. Honestly I did not attend the Broadway show ... I like musicals, but I've just seen to many of these "highlight" shows to even want to bother with it. I did see Once Upon a Time, remembering what a sensation it was when it debuted with the Freedom. It was a decent show, but still a bit underwhelming for me. There were some nice sets, a bit of wire work, and an interesting mix of music.
The ice show, FREEDOM ICE.COM, was offered several times throughout the cruise and, like every ice show I've seen on RCI, was very entertaining. It is always amazing what the performers can do in such a small space. Make sure you get there early as they let people in before their announced 30-minute window and the size of this venue tends to put people in a frantic, seat-saving mood.
The first headliner show of the week was magician Drew Thomas in his (seemingly permanent) show Now You See It. I am usually somewhat hesitant to see magicians on a ship (having seen many bad ones), but I found this show to be fairly entertaining with illusions that were not immediately obvious. It is obvious that Mr. Thomas has been doing this show for a long time on Freedom as there is a bit of integration with the dancers and wire actors which seemed to be pretty much filler. You can check out a sample here.
I did not attend the second headliner show billed as the "Man with 1,000 Voices" ... not my cup of tea.
Late Night Comedy
I found it very surprising that Graham Seymour is allowed to do the late night set. I guess since he's one of RCI's rockstar CDs they let him do much of what he wants, but I can imagine that many CDs might get nervous about flipping on the "blue" switch and discussing passengers, the ship, and adult topics. With that being said, he did a passable job. It was definitely blue, but I didn't find the show too dirty-for-the-sake-of-dirty that you sometimes get when comedians are told they are doing an adult set.
Beyond the movies on the TV and in the "screening room" (read: small conference room), movies were also shown in the main theater and out on the screen on the pool deck (sports also sometimes shown here, too). I did check out most of Kung Fu Panda 2: 3D in the theater and it was a decent experience though RCI's 3D glasses don't have much give for those of us who have to slide them over our regular glasses.
I found the buffet food on Freedom to be typical of the rest of the buffets I've been too on RCI ... mediocre stuff that seems to be under-seasoned and bland. That's not to say that there is not tasty stuff available ... however, you have to search for it. One thing I'll note is that at least the WJ on Freedom seemed to be able to support the number of people on the ship, unlike the WJ on Oasis which I went to twice and vowed not to step foot into again. My favorite dishes were actually at dinner for one night that I was unimpressed with the MDR's options ... there was some tasty chicken masala and paneer masala in the Jade section. As with other ships, there is also "sushi" in Jade at dinner ... its quality depends upon, well, your access to good sushi at home.
As a benefit to C&A and Suite guests, there was optional seating in the specialty restaurants during breakfast and lunch in the WJ. I believe that Platinum cruisers and above could eat in Chops while gold-card suite guests could dine in Portofino. I chose to eat in chops a few times due to crowding in the WJ, but there was almost no service in there so I had to make sure to grab my own drinks, etc.
Also ... a sad note. Honey stung chicken is dead. Kind of. Anyway, I have always been a fan of the fried chicken on embarkation day as I tended to find it tasty (when it wasn't dried out) and it let me know I was on a cruise. Well ... on Freedom, the chicken was there on boarding day but was terrible. While the previous chicken recipe was "just" fried chicken, it now appears to be what I call "particle chicken" in that it is a pressed, formed piece of chicken instead of a naturally occurring chunk. Ugh.
Main Dining Room
Dining room stairs on Freedom by cmong, on Flickr
The MDR was open every day for breakfast, every night for dinner, and the two sea days for lunch. We tended to eat in the MDR for breakfast to avoid crowds and have a little better service. Eggs benedict is no longer on the MDR breakfast menu but can still be ordered. Chocolate breakfast was on the last sea day (I think) and I believe it is also on the special character breakfast menu (because children need more chocolate at breakfast ). You could also visit a granola/main breakfast buffet in the MDR if you preferred to eat buffet food there.
When it was open for lunch, the MDR used the standard lunch menus that have been around for a few years on RCI. There was also the select-your-toppings salad bar.
Both breakfast and lunch are "open seating" which means that you are seated as you arrive. Unless you request private dining, this also means that you may be seated with others. I've always enjoyed talking to other people, but I've noticed that more and more tend to request sitting alone and, when sitting at a large table, refuse to join in conversation. Too bad ....
For dinner, our large group was seated right at the base of the stairs on the bottom floor of the dining room at a single table for 14. I thought that our waitstaff was excellent, especially given the number of people they had to juggle. The food tended to be good, though there were a few misses (tough strip steak, a Friday-night menu that was just awful past the appetizers, IMO). The worst thing about our table position was that throughout dinner people would jostle or lean against guests at our table to take pictures on the stairwell.
I did not visit any specialty dining during this cruise. I had intended to look into Portofino for the first night with my BOGO D+ coupon, but that plan was dashed when it was announced that everyone could make BOGO reservations for the first night in Portofino.
Crown and Anchor benefits
I usually only find myself using a few coupons on a cruise and this one was no exception. Both the D+ and D books offer free internet minutes (45 for D+, 30 for D), Spin to Win (3), match play (3), and a coupon for a free picture (as long as it has already been printed). I planned on using the D+ coupon for the free "bag of laundry" promotion, but we evidently missed it as a bag or description of the promotion was never left our stateroom.
This was my second cruise with a Diamond Lounge and was nice to be able to enjoy a few drinks before dinner with my parents and other cruisers. I met a few people who I've cruised with before, so that was fun as well. The DL was crazy busy most nights, especially the first and last nights. After the first night, the D Concierge Rahul opened up a secondary room in the Cloud 9 Lounge and kept it serviced with both staff and food. The DL experience was extremely good ... Rahul and the rest of the staff knew my stock drink order after the first night and were quick to bring refills without being asked. The staff was also quick to ask patrons to pour "to go" drinks into the paper Seattle's Best cups.
On a side note ... we noticed on our TV that we were charged by Explorations for a tour (turned out to be 3 tickets for the Dragon Coaster on Labadee which we definitely did not do). It was a $57 charge that drove us straight to customer relations. Three days and two visits later, the charge was still there and there was no contact from either guest relations or Explorations (who we were told were the only ones who could remove the charge). On the last sea day we spoke to Rahul at 8:45 AM and the charge was reversed by 9:15 AM. He was by far the most impressive concierge I've sailed with in terms of remembering me and providing helpful service.
Also ... as a D+ member I had access to the regular concierge lounge. Why I would go there is beyond me as I heard from suite guests that it was incredibly crowded (and of course, smaller with no windows).
On the last sea day, a special breakfast was held for Diamond members and above. It was in the top floor of the dining room and, once seated, each table had an officer or member of the entertainment staff (skaters, dancers, CD, etc) sharing the meal. This was the first time I've been to an event like this and I appreciated it more (more personal) than an evening gathering with drinks (which we could get in the DL).
Beyond the $150 all-access tour, D+ and suite guests also have access to special behind-the-scenes tours of the galley, theater, and bridge. I chose to go on the bridge tour on the off chance that Captain Rob would be there because I find him hilarious. While he did not start the tour, he appeared on the bridge about 10 minutes into the tour and stopped to chat with our 15-person group for about 15-20 minutes. It was great to have face-time with the Captain, who also volunteered to pictures for the group. This was my second time with Captain Rob, with the last time being years ago on the dented Grandeur of the Seas (which I'm sure he would be glad to stop hearing about).
Other benefits of D+ are similar to those of full suites including a reserved area at the shows and an express line at guest relations. Taking advantage of either of these seemed to be a sure-fire way to earn the "hairy eyeball" from other cruisers.
It was a very hot day in Labadee, much to the delight of the sun worshipers. I, on the other hand, took a quick tour around the area and headed back to the ship. They've done a lot of work on Labadee, and it is great to no longer have to tender, but it is not my favorite stop. The beaches are quite rocky and the locals in the craft markets can be pushy in the extreme (which I can understand if not like). I saw at least medical emergency with a small child that could not take the heat, so please make sure you take precaution.
PS ... I've always found the beach buffets to be kind of disgusting and this one was no different. I visited a few minutes after it had been put out and there were already a decent number of flys as well as people straight from the beach dripping everywhere (including into warming trays). ICK.
When I visited Falmouth in May on Oasis, the port was no where near ready. None of the buildings were open and vendors were relegated to selling on all of the sidewalks. Construction has moved along in the months in between and there are now indoor shops, a covered market, etc. The port still has a ways to go, but it was much better. I did not leave the fenced area, though the locals inside were all friendly, courteous, and were not pushy.
PS ... RCI was billing Falmouth as the "new" shopping hotspot. Given the small number of stores and no deals to be had (that I saw), this seemed a bit transparent ... RCI wants you to shop at Falmouth because they have interest in the port and there are not a lot of other shopping options unless you want to pay to go out to Rose Hall (which was free in May).
I've been to GC several times, but have never (successfully) taken a tour (one got cancelled when the ship was forced to leave in a hurry). This time we took the basic Sting Ray, Coral Gardens, and Star Fish tour with Native Way ($40). We worried about making the tour as GC is a tender port, but we need not have stressed. We were on the first tender at 8:00 and made it ashore in plenty of time to meet for our 9:30 tour.
Tendering in GC is a hassle. Those on early ship tours met in the theater and were taken to their own tenders. Others lined up in the aft for the trip. It was first-come, first-serve with no tickets required. RCI suggested heading out early or late, noting that "rush hour" would be 9-11 (with a 3:00 last tender).
As for the tour, it was pleasant. We had a very small group (8 with 2 crew) and the crew had fun personality. The tour offered exactly what was advertised ... time with stingrays, snorkeling above coral, and a few starfish. Travel time probably ate up about half of the tour time and the snorkeling was not wonderful (small areas of coral garden). The reason to take this tour is to spend time with the stingrays, which occurs in about 3-4 foot deep water. The crew would hold them for pictures (and take their own pictures to sell you later if desired), let you hold them, etc. The size of the group was great ... plenty of personal stingray time. This was doubly apparent with the ship tours of 40-50 docked nearby. This was a fun tour to do once, and I would recommend Native Way if you would like to go with an independent company. They seemed professionally run and, at the end, noted that they thrived on word-of-mouth from CruiseCritic and TripAdvisor.
I had originally planned to visit Nachi Cocum again in Cozumel, but I decided against in the end since I had been there a few times in the past year and didn't want to over-do it. In the end, I just did a bit of shopping at the pier and headed back to the ship. As always, I would recommend Los Cincos Soles if you want good quality, fairly priced souvenirs. A brief stop at 1/2 Senior Frogs reminded me how much I dislike those places as the drinks were overpriced ($14 for a yard) and the employees seemed to enjoy blowing a whistle in my ear for the whole visit.
I mentioned it before, but I'll mention it again ... I think Captain Rob is great. He has a sarcastic sense of humor and seems like a straight shooter. I found his "Captain's Corner" on the last sea day to be very entertaining and informative. I also loved the fact that on the bridge tour, he had to be told that he had other commitments (more tours) ... he was that comfortable chatting with passengers, asking first-timers about their experience, etc.
Singing Waiters and Napkin Twirling
Just because I feel I have to include it on every review ....
Just like any other ship I've been on the past few years, cleanliness was stressed by dining room staff and even the captain in one of his announcements. Yet, it still happens ... passengers (spurred sometimes by crew) twirling their napkins in the air in the dining room, polluting the general area with bread crumbs, saliva, and miscellaneous food particles. I don't like it and try to get done with dinner before the dancing starts .... which I also hate on its own merits.
The wait staff works hard. They have a lot of people to take care of. I do not appreciate the occasional dinner show on two fronts. First of all, I don't think that the hard working service staff should be forced to dance for me. It seems demeaning to me. Secondly, I dislike that service has to halt while the dancing takes place. If I'm waiting for dessert and/or coffee, I'd rather the staff serve me and go about their business, not rush like mad to get things done before the show, then rush like mad to catch up after. I know this may not be a common or popular view, but it's how I feel.
The only thing I hate more than arbitrary rules are rules that are pushed but not enforced. As much as they may claim otherwise, there was really no dress code in the MDR at dinner. Shorts were more than welcome. Sagging shorts were welcome as well. I can understand that people don't want to dress up, but if RCI wants to advertise a dress code, then they need to have the maitre'd enforce it at the door. Otherwise, just let people come as they'd like. I don't appreciate the passive code meant to keep out those who would follow the rules but reward those who would bend or break them.
PS ... For anyone who wants to complain about the dress in the dining room, I whole heartedly suggest you visit the WJ for dinner and see what the people wear there ... yikes!
Only the Allure and the Freedom have a Britto Art Gallery. Just an FYI ... unless you are getting a RCI exclusive (bear or art print), every other item in that store can be had for the same price or cheaper online, including the luggage. There's not really savings to be had there.
We were blessed with mostly great weather for the cruise. Captain Rob mentioned he had made a "deal" for sunshine, but that we might end up paying the last day.
Boy was he right.
On our way back to Port Canaveral, we hit the building storm that was situated off the coast. There was quite a bit of rain as well as high apparent winds (as high as 50-60 MPH across the deck) during the day. That night, those winds increased even more as we hit the teeth of that storm. To say that the Freedom was rocking would be an understatement. It was one of those nights where you were glad that the sheets were tightly tucked in because, if they weren't, there was a good chance the movement would roll you out of bed. As it turns out, the next cruise got the worst of it, but this was the most movement I've felt on cruise since my very first with the Premiere line.
Through all fo the weather, the Freedom was docked early in the morning. Self-assist passengers were invited to start disembarking at 6:15 AM. We had tag 2 (1 and 2 were first tagged passengers off) and were scheduled to debark at 7:15 AM which was pretty close to when we were called.
Once we got off the ship and through customs, it was time to wait for luggage. The rest of the people in my party got theirs very quickly on the belt, but mine insisted on being a recluse. 45 minutes, with other numbers starting to populate the belt, it finally appeared. It seems that since my cabin was right by the stairwell, it was taken early and might have been the very first bag in the bin, making it the last out. What a pain, and the reason I hate putting bags out.
By the time my bag came out, it was pouring outside with sheets of near-horizontal rain. Umbrellas would have made no difference (too windy) and there are some large gaps between covered areas outside. Navigating the pickup area was also a pain in that, of course, everyone was trying to huddle into a protected space. Because of the rain, shuttle drivers and personal pickups were using spaces under cover that they were not supposed to (and there was not anyone directing traffic in that weather), so when the Budget shuttle arrived, there was no place for it to park except 20 yards out in the open, which lead to a sloshy and very damp sprint with luggage in tow.
Sometimes when I read through my reports, I feel they come off overly negative. Please know that I had a great time and, while there were a few more mis-steps on RCI's part this cruise than I'd of liked, they would't be enough to even cause me to hesitate booking on RCI again. I think that this is perhaps the burden of bias with a loyal cruiser ... I could be super-sunny and overlook every flaw. That doesn't make sense to me, as the point of these reports it to talk about my experiences in the hope that others might take away useful information. As a frequent cruiser, I'm not as often blinded by the shininess of the product, but I am not so far gone that I can't enjoy something that is not "perfect."
I had a good time on the Freedom, but I found her a bit underwhelming in terms of expectations. This is almost certainly due to my previous cruise on Oasis and the newness of her design and offerings. Due to my personal preferences, the Freedom and Voyager-class ships are on pretty much equal footing in terms of what I would book in the future. I'll be heading out on the Voyager at the end of December, so that hypothesis will be tested.