My wife and I (first-time cruisers together) took the last cruise of the summertime 2011 Alaska season and we were totally satisfied. The boarding process from Seattle was simple: there is a dedicated cruise-ship facility at Pier 91 (even some Seattle residents don't know it is there). I in-processed within a scant twenty minutes through the two security lines. The security lines are similar to Airport TSA, but there's no obsessiveness like the perpetual "orange alert" announcements and the shoes-removal/belts-removal/billfolds-removal to gain entrance to the passenger lobby (where we await our actual ticketing to get on-board). Once we pass into the Ticketing Lobby, there are twenty attended ticket-windows to make registration quick: you get issued a plastic "SeaPass" card that serves as your "everything," and within another ten minutes I was on-board the ship (it's a quarter-mile climb up the stairs and gangplanks to get on-board, and a Security Desk along the way takes your picture and makes you swipe your boarding-card to get through).
Shipboard entertainment in various forums started right-away at noon, and some well-prepared cruisers came with swimsuits in-hand to begin their hot-tubbing and outdoor-pool swimming right away. You can get into your staterooms already if you need to change clothes or get organized. You can lock your valuables away in the personal safe in the room, or relax, but the checked-bags do not arrive until hours later (the baggage-handling process takes crates and cranes and conveyors and carts to get it all on-board and sorted-out for the 2000+ passengers). Show-tune music plays right-away indoors in the reception area with a live string/keyboard/drum combo, and elsewhere on-board there are singers and pianists. Outdoors a dozen casual-dance performers (called the "Rhapsody Entertainers") do a poolside deck dance-show, to 80s and 90s tunes.
From noon-until-2:30, before departure, you can get comfort-food at the large 9th-deck dining hall, with entrees like roast-beef/fish/chicken-patties, sandwich fixings, hamburgers, hot-dogs, salads, various soups and vegetables, and simple desserts like pies-cakes-puddings. It's all included in your ticket-price (the story of the little-old-lady who on-the-cheap decided to bring her own food, and didn't understand until the end that the dining was already paid-for in her ticket price, is one of the shipboard tales of woe that we all eventually hear!). If you're in a big stay-together group it will be hard to find contiguous empty tables, but couples and small groups can easily find tables to share with fellow cruisers. You don't have to get the soft-drink and wine packages if you don't want them: at meal-times there are serve-yourself soft-drink, tea, and coffee machines (and the tap water is delicious with no-charge) but of course casual desires for soft-drinks will benefit from the bottomless-cup package if you don't want to pay $3.50 a can and you drink like a fish. For this 7-night cruise the pre-pay bottomless-cup package was $40 to buy in advance (before boarding the cruise), and $50 to buy upon boarding (you get a souvenir cup to use/reuse and a marking on your cruise-id-card that declares your having paid for the bottomless-cup privilege). The wine package lets you pre-purchase various quantities of assorted wines in bottles that your dining stewards will keep for you to enjoy with your meals (and take-with if you want), at an average cost of about $20/bottle (750ml).
You have to be on-board the ship by an hour-and-a-half before scheduled departure, because there is a mandatory fire-drill then that is an industry requirement. The ship may not always leave at the expected departure-time, because the refueling and other loading processes can simply take a long while: our own cruise left two hours late due to "bunkering" (fueling-fill-up: bunker-fuel or carbuncle is the crudest form of diesel, and that's what the ship burns), but the time can be made-up by skillful piloting. But you still have to be on-board that long before scheduled departing time.
The cruise-id-card has your dinner seating time printed on it, and you have to stick to this time if you want the tableclothed sit-down dinner (which sometimes will request formal wear but usually not). The dining and cooking staff are regimented to attend to other duties and to turn-over the facilities to new seatings and other uses outside of your assigned dinnertime. If you don't want formal fine-dining of course you can always opt for other food outlets on-board for the meals.
Day-2 and Day-7 were all at-sea, with endless waters in every direction. We traveled at about 20knots/hr, the captain told us all in his short PA-announcements about the intended cruising plans for the day. The sit-down breakfast service ("Edelweiss Room") opens each day for a couple of morning breakfasting hours, and the large serve-yourself "Windjammer Cafe" stays open all-day with several different food access areas to cover 'most all food tastes. The pastries are bland, but everything else is fine, including grits. The "Cruise Compass" daily publication explains the many activities planned for each day around the ship, and the largest following on the first morning seems attracted to a cooking-show in the large central atrium of the ship. A lively host there talks about shopping opportunities in the coming port cities of Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan. He comments on advantages of advance-ticketing for scenic tours in those towns, at the convenient RCCL Excursions Desk (it was rumored by seasoned cruisers that RCCL ["Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines"] itself owns some of the shore excursion programs, so go-figure). He highlights the on-board shopping stores for liquors, jewelry, clothing, bags, and souvenirs. Since ours is the last Alaska cruise for the season, drastic markdowns on any product that says "Alaska" on it are in effect, to clear-out the merchandise ($5 for caps, $20 for jackets, $1 for mugs, etc.). The liquors and cigarettes are not discounted for seasonal clearance, but they regularly sell for about half-price of what one sees in city-street retail shops (but no Cuban cigars, which are apparently still contraband on the cruises). Due to spirits laws, you can't physically possess packaged liquors until the cruise is over and you leave the ship. Back to the shore excursion opportunities, it happens that once you get on-shore, there are several competing travel companies beyond what the ship-board-desk sells, trying to get your business for tours and other excursions about town at the ports-of-call, so if you don't get the "limited" supply of Excursion Desk tickets, you can probably get what you want from the competing other-guys out there . . . . My wife and I even took the City Transit bus in Juneau, which is an interesting foray into the normal residential lifestyles: you can hear some Eskimos conversing in Inuit, and overhear English comments about shopping at Costco and Walmart, and you can see the many seaplanes taking-off and landing in the bays.
The cafeteria-style, serve-yourself lunch is on the 9th-deck "Windjammer Cafe" dining area, but you can take your plates with food anywhere to eat, inside or out. You can use your pre-purchased bottomless cup for soft-drinks if you want with your meals, or you can enjoy the free fine-tasting tap-water, coffee, and juices that are part of the included cafeteria offerings. Unless you're an "addict" to soft-drinks, you probably won't get your money's worth out of the bottomless cups anyhow, the regular beverage offerings at the cafeterias are omnipresent, and it's a bit of a nuisance to carry that 12oz insulated cup around with you wherever you go. You can even drink the water from the taps in your stateroom (glasses are furnished, like at hotels/motels on land) if you so desire. The alcoholic beverages are priced like resorts anywhere ("drink-of-the-day" is $6.25, call brands cost $8 or more). The daily "free-tastings" of wines and liqueurs at the shipboard stores may be enough for the revelry needs of low-budget cruisers. The luggage gets scanned before lading to identify improper bottles and cans, but one can get some of those little airplane-style mini-bottles of liquors through the system if a person be so inclined. One of the baggage handlers told me that it's an annoyance for the staff to search bag IDs to locate the ones containing misplaced passports and contraband bottles/cans . . . but they CAN do it.
Movies on-board were recent releases from any video store, which you can watch in your stateroom on TV, or in the ship's 1500-seat theatre. The theatre projection is the conference presentation kind that projects a computer image; it was not always in-focus, which can make viewing hard. The stateroom television reception was clear and included 40+ customary cable stations (TNT, CNN, USA, etc.). For quieter entertainment, the large, leather-furnished library supplies loans of hard-copies and paperbacks to satisfy any bookworm, with a sign-out registry that only asks that the books be returned by end-of-cruise. Donations of books from what you bring-on-board are likely welcome also. The library has large picture-window views to the waves below, if you just need a contemplative break once in a while.
Sound insulation was good between staterooms, so that awareness of the neighbors was minimal. Sleeping came easily amidst the usually imperceptible shifting of the seas on the soft mattresses. My room's floor-plan on the computer said that two twin-beds would be in the room which I could make into a queen, but my room had been already made-up with a queen mattress, so no-problem, that's the way I wanted it. The housekeeping-hints posted in the room say that we can all conserve water and energy by hanging our re-usable towels on the rods instead of casting them to the floor, but my room always got fresh toweling anyhow, sometimes folded into the shapes of animals for a bit of levity. The towels and washcloths are plush white Egyptian-cotton items, large and absorbent. Bars of soap are provided, and shampoo is in a dispenser on the wall of the circular shower-stall. Multiple electrical plugs are provided in both parallel-flat-prong US style and round-prong European style. A smallish 6-drawer dresser is provided, and there are two mirrored-cabinets with four small shelves each. More small shelves and drawers are around the room to make it easy to unpack for the week. The deep closet area makes hanging-up of two-dozen garments easy, and it allows storage space on the floor of the closet for empty suitcases and carry-bags.
This cruise departure had 2000+ passengers, all individuals or small groups, no obnoxious hordes like some other cruise reviewers have described. Despite the big overall number of cruisers, I rarely saw more than a hundred at a time anywhere--there was never any pushing, shoving, or crowding. The complexion of the group was 80% white, from the U. S., Canada, Europe, and DownUnder. The crew and staff comes from all-over the world, wearing id-badges that show their names and countries. The ages of cruisers ranged all-over, but over half were in the 55+ subgroup. Only about 1% kids were on this cruise, and play activities for children were around somewhere, but I didn't discern how popular the areas might be. A secluded "no adults allowed" teen-room was on the 10th deck, with ping-pong tables, multipurpose room, and an arcade room; a few teens were in it as I walked past . . . . The cruise is non-smoking everywhere except outside on one side of Deck 5, and indoors in an observation room of Deck 11.
The rooms and hallways are filled with art: prints, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, weavings, hanging-arts, blown glass, posters of musicians and their concerts, and more. A small photo of each artist accompanies original works, and one stairwell has portraiture prints of Queen Sofia and King Harald V (the Norwegian "royals" which give rise to the Royal Caribbean branding). The Royal Caribbean Players--who were earlier seen dancing on the reception deck at the organizing start-up of the cruise--put on splendid musicals and skits, replete with beautiful scenery backdrops and multiple costuming changes amongst the dozen actors and with an additional dozen instrumentalists. Sound and lighting technicians, and stage hands, are so good that you don't even realize they are there, The Director and most of the regular entertainers are white Americans, but a few come from other lands and skin colors. Most are in their twenties, and they all deserve to get discovered for Broadway and Hollywood, they are that good. Most have resumes at little-theatre (Hershey, Dollywood, BFAs, etc.) and some have been in the movies for small-parts. Featured one-night entertainers also come 'round to highlight the shows.
An unusual circumstance that worked out well with my particular travel package is that the entire cruise was to start in Seattle and end in Vancouver, but my traveling companion (due to personal schedule conflicts) could not board the cruise at the departure point in Seattle and wanted instead to board in Juneau (the first port-of-call on the cruise). The literature that RCCL sends you when you buy the cruise package is pretty scary about the contract, saying that "no exceptions are allowed; all passengers in a party must be ready to board at the embarkation point or all can be denied boarding; the cruise line is not responsible for any changes it has to make in the ports-of-call itinerary; etc." When I called my cruise booking agent to ask about getting a Juneau embarkation point for my companion, the cruise booking agent said "let me check," and then she warned me about violations of the "Jones Act" (which has to do with payment of wages to the crew of the ship, hard to fathom the connection with my boarding question), and she asked me to fax (to the main office) the details of my Juneau embarkation request. A week went by with no response, so I called the agent again only to learn that she had been on vacation, and now that I was calling again the general staff should handle my request. A new round of explanations was requested of me, and I had to produce my copy of the fax that I had sent the previous week, until at last (after a half-hour of the phone call), the service agent said "it's all noted now in our records of your boarding documentation, and we will be expecting your companion to board in Juneau now instead of in Seattle, have a good cruise." And that was it. When I went to the embarkation windows at the cruise beginning in Seattle, none of the agents seemed concerned that I was checking-in alone: the ticket agent asked about my intended companion, where was she, and I just blithely said "she's coming later" and the window agent processed my solo boarding-card, no-problems. I asked if I could check-in my wife in-absentia, but the agent smiled and said "No, she has to be present--you can re-register with her in Juneau at a shore agent there." So when my wife indeed showed up with me at the gangway in Juneau, the control agent found my wife's name on the "exceptions report of the day" paperwork he had, and he waved us both through to the rest of the processing that had to be done on-board at the Registration Desk. The on-board registration facilities were just as professional as were the on-land windows in Seattle, and soon my wife was aboard the continuing cruise like any other passenger. This exceptional arrangement worked out OK for me, but it was a nail-biting experience (and the full price had to be paid, no pro-rating for the lost days) that I wouldn't casually recommend to anybody!
At the end-of-cruise in Vancouver the off-loading procedure is orchestrated to efficiency: we have all been given a debarkation group number to listen for on the PA system, and our bags were already collected the night before for the massive unloading process. The non-Canadians among us have all been asked to complete papers which declare our schedule for how we intend to leave the country after we disembark in Canada, and in my case we've already got plans to stay in Vancouver for a couple days of sightseeing, and we've already purchased our QuickShuttleCoach tickets to take the bus to United States at the appointed time, so that's our plan and we can prove it if we must (but nobody really challenged us about it). We can walk around the ship and enjoy leisure activities on-board while we are awaiting our departure-time, and the 9th deck cafeteria is open for our sustenance if we want it. Even some members of the crew are there awaiting their own times to disembark for shore-leave: my wife and I informally met some of the Rhapsody Players, in their jeans and jackets, eating lunch and chatting amiably, where we sat down with our own food plates from the cafeteria. After a couple of hours our disembarkation group number is called, and we take the big dockside staircase down to the Immigration area in Canada to claim our bags and present our passports (at the top of the staircase we were already handed our liquor and cutlery purchases that we had made on-board, so that we could declare them at Customs). We already submitted our paperwork to declare the liquor and tobacco we bought on-board, and we know we've got twice as many cigarettes as allowed, but Customs waves us through without incident. It's a CD$10 taxi fare (a 24hr-teller machine at the Customs Office lets us access our US bank to get Canadian Dollars with minimal conversion costs) to get to our hotel (The Landmark Empire), and soon we are there, very nice!
My wife and I are elated with the value-received for our Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines experience. We don't know how it could have been better. My 95% overall rating stems from my idle thoughts that the newer, gigantic liners might be a bit more fun, but that's just conjecture. I got a little annoyed at the Cruise Director, who enthusiastically called eveything "unbelieveable!" to the point where I was wondering amidst all the joy of the cruise, "What SHOULD we believe in? What is the reality here? Where is love--does it fall from stars above? Is it underneath the willow tree that I've been dreaming of?"--etc. One single-femruiale cruiser commented that Carnival made her "feel like a queen" and RCCL didn't rise that high for her, but nobody had a real complaint. A few other experienced cruisers said that some other lines had satisfied them a little more, but that those lines were much higher-priced. We probably will not be cruising with any line for a while, but RCCL holds a dear spot in our minds for our future hopes in travel!