As our first cruise we took advantage of a "Kids Sail Free" promotion to take our first family cruise. Here is an overall breakdown of our experience. Individual port experiences will be discussed later.
What we loved and would do again...
Balcony room - worth the extra money! Great to be able to sit out there and watch the ship pull into and away from ports. At various times saw dolphins, pelicans, and flying fish and enjoyed relaxing with a book.
Family time - lots to do as a family. This seemed to be an ideal age for kids, I wouldn't want the extra stress that comes with younger kids but I can also imagine that as they get into their teen years they may find some of the activites boring. There were not a lot of kids on our cruise (we had to take ours out of school for a week) but enough to have kids to do things with.
Mid-ship cabin - took the advice of some more experienced cruisers and booked a cabin mid-ship. Our first 2 days at sea were unusually rough and although we felt the motion in our room, it was noticeably worse at the aft and bow (ends of the ship). We probably spent the most time on the 11th level where the buffets and pools were but didn't find it inconvenient to get to anything.
Kids Crew - I have to admit my initial impression of the kids area was less than spectacular. Compared to some of the pictures of the newer ships it seemed kind of plain. However my kids really enjoyed being in it and on several occasions we went to get the kids and they didn't want to leave so we had to come back later! The counselors were lots of fun and they had a variety of activities for the kids. We loved being able to have a little adult time (including a dinner alone when the Kids Crew took the kids to dinner) to do things like an Art Auction, etc. They also had several family events including pizza making, dodgeball, and sand-castle building.
Freestyle dining - it was a big plus to us to be able to eat when we wanted, not at an assigned time.
Buffets - had a lot of fun trying the different buffets. Other than a couple instances when they were crowded (usually at the end of a port day) they were convenient with an excellent variety of food.
Photographs - before the cruise we had never considered planning to have a family photo done. However, it was extremely convenient. Each day photographers were set up at several points in the ship with different backdrops each day. At any time they were staffed you could stop by and have your picture taken. There was no obligation and you could purchase any (or none) of the pictures after you saw them. After going through the hassle in the past of trying to get the whole family ready and to a photo shoot at a certain time and then having to wait because they are running behind, trying to preview and select the pictures while dealing with tired kids, etc. this was a much easier way to do it.
Towel animals - our steward left several different towel animals. The kids couldn't wait to see what would be next!
Evening shows - we took our kids to all the 7:30 showings in the Stardust Theater and they enjoyed them all.
What I didn't like (which wasn't much!):
Waiting - Once on the cruise ship there was almost no waiting. However when traveling (with kids especially!) keep in mind all the waiting that is involved leading up to and after the cruise. In our case we waited for our plane, waited over 1/2 hour for a pre-arranged shuttle from the Orlando airport to our hotel at Cocoa Beach (a 45 minute ride), waited almost an hour at the hotel the next morning for our shuttle to the pier, waited in line at customs and to get checked onto the boat (both fairly short waits). On the shore excursions there was some waiting for transportation and the tender boats. Finally, after the cruise there was the waiting again to clear customs, shuttle, and plane. Our kids did pretty well with this, but be prepared, especially with younger kids!
Main dining areas service - Although the food, view, and atmosphere were excellent, the main complimentary dining areas (Four Seasons and Seven Seas) were very busy at peak times (we went when they first opened, around 5:30/6, they may slow down later). We had several instances where our servers didn't bring us key items (ketchup for the kids french fries, sour cream for a baked potato) until we got tired of waiting and ate them without. We also gave up one evening on ordering dessert after waiting and requesting to order it several times. I don't think this was due to any fault of the server(s) except being too busy to provide good service.
Distance from airport to port - we chose to port out of Port Canaveral because from Michigan we can get relatively inexpensive flights to Orlando. However the extra hassles involved in arranging the transportation and the waiting time were not worth it. I think next time we would pay a little more for a flight and port out of a dock close to an airport.
Great Stirrup Cay (private island) - we enjoyed our time on the beach here. We were concerned about getting chairs, etc. but there seemed to be enough for everyone (although this probably would not be the case on some of the larger cruise ships). Getting there early had the advantage of getting the better seats, though. We decided to do some snorkeling. One thing that we found is you have several options here: you can bring your own snorkel,mask, and fins (although fins aren't necessary) or you can rent some or all of the equipment needed. In the on-line booking we didn't have the option to just rent some of the equipment, but on the ship or at port this is an option. In our case we rented a vest only for our son ($4.99) because he brought his own equipment. I rented a complete set of equipment ($29.99) or you could rent just the fins & vest for $15.99 (this is adult pricing, kids are cheaper except the same price for the vest). The vest is not required (you are naturally more bouyant in salt water anyway but the vest is an extra safety step) but you cannot rent the other snorkel equipment without the vest. In the main area of water I did not see any fish (although someone said they saw horseshoe crabs). However we went to an area near some big rocks (ask the lifeguards) and it was like swimming in an aquarium. I saw at least 5 different kinds of tropical fish and they were beautiful!
Overall we loved it and immediately started talking about when we can take our next one!