BACKGROUND (or, "The kids make a difficult choice")
My children are one year apart with the same birthday (2/12/03 and 2/12/04). Every year we throw a pretty big party, since we only have to do it once. Last year, we rented out a dueling piano bar, hired a caricature artist, a face painter, the whole nine yards). It wasn't cheap and it lasted for three hours. Then I had a brilliant idea: we could skip the party and use the money for a big vacation instead. (We're not wealthy by any means, so everything for us involves a trade-off.)
Around August of 2010, when I normally book the venue for their February party, I gave the kids a choice: we could have the party OR we could do a really awesome trip. It took two days of endless discussion between the kids (overheard: "But we won't get all those presents!" ... "Yeah, but we will miss school!") but finally they had a verdict: we were going on a trip!
I had been itching to do a family cruise so that decision was easy. What was NOT easy: choosing a ship, a sailing date, a departure port ... whoa. There are a lot of options. Cruise Critic was helpful, TripAdvisor was also really helpful.
WHY WE CHOSE FREEDOM OF THE SEAS AND OUR ROOM TYPE(or "How to balance cost with experiences")
I decided we would cruise in February because it's always freezing here at that time of year (DC area) and often snows. I wanted to cruise over the kids' actual birthday if possible. So the date really dictated what ships/sailings we could do. I ruled out Disney pretty quickly due to the price. It quickly became apparent that Royal Caribbean was our best bet, all things considered. The reviews for Royal Caribbean (for active families, especially) were very favorable. We also realized that we could GO to Disney World for a few days post-cruise if we booked a Freedom class ship instead of the newer Allure/Oasis. Not to mention, Port Canaveral is an easier hike to Disney than Miami/Ft Lauderdale. We also decided to get the cheapest available stateroom (interior, K class) so that we would have money for a lot of memorable excursions. That was a really tough decision ... I wanted a balcony desperately.
Once I knew the company and had the dates we wanted, the rest fell into place. When the WOW Sale came up, I called Royal Caribbean and booked the Freedom of the Seas, sailing 2/5/2012 out of Port Canaveral, sailing to Haiti, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. We got a $100 onboard credit for booking during the WOW Sale, but be warned: if the price drops on your cruise sailing, you can't get a price adjustment. So it's a gamble. We paid $2300 for the cruise itself.
GETTING THERE AND PRE-CRUISE FLORIDA STAY (or "A lesson in unnecessary spending")
We got a decent price on four flights from BWI to MCO ($797 for four tix) but only if we traveled earlier than planned. So what started out as a cost-saving measure ended up costing us a pretty penny (lesson learned). We arrived in Orlando midday on Friday, 2/3/12. I had rented a car, at the advice of fellow Cruise Critic reviewers. I booked with AVIS and used a discount code available through a fellow member on the "I Work at Port Canaveral" thread on CC.
We had an easy drive out to Cocoa Beach, where we chose to stay based again on reviews and advice on CC. We chose the Courtyard Marriott ($169 per night) because it was adjacent to the beach and I'm comfortable with that brand as a frequent business traveler. I gotta say: I was NOT impressed with this property. There's nothing inherently wrong with it, but it's not one of their best. We had this notion that we would actually spend time on the beach (I love the beach) but we didn't.
We went to the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday. It was AWESOME! A great excursion for those coming in early for FOS or after getting off the boat. We are space enthusiasts and so we all really enjoyed the outing. (TIP: book the "lunch with an astronaut" ... it made a big impression on my kids, getting to meet and talk with the day's featured astronaut Jack Lousma who spent 67 days in space.) It was $380 to visit KSC for the day and have the special lunch.
On Sunday morning, we piled into the car and drove to the AVIS Cape Canaveral location (a few miles from the Port). It was super easy to return the car and get a shuttle. Turns out, we were sharing a shuttle with none other than Cruise Director Graham Seymour himself! The AVIS guy told me who Seymour was (I had no clue) but we didn't bother him because I could appreciate that these were his final minutes off the clock for a while. He seemed like a normal, nice guy. On the shuttle, he chatted easily with the kids. (Two days later, on the Royal Promenade, he stopped to greet the kids who he remembered from the shuttle bus. I was impressed!) The rental was $255 in total, by the way.
GETTING ONTO THE SHIP (or "The Part Where Your Otherwise Angelic Kids Will Whine About Being Bored and Find Many Ways to Embarrass You" ... "Come here! Stop that! Stand still! Do NOT climb up the escalator going down! ARGGGH!!!")
We got to the pier around 11:30 and there was a massive line snaking out of the building and around the side. The security people were grumpy and the people in line weren't much better. But hey, we're going a cruise, right?! It took 45-60 minutes to get through the whole process, including having our embarkation photo taken ($20 for an 8x10 print) and going over the gangway.
DINING EXPERIENCE (or "The Part Where Everyone Switches Tables and You Spend Your Life Savings on Soda")
We had booked the Main Dining Seating (6 PM) and specifically requested a table for four. No offense, people, but I don't want to eat with strangers on my vacation. I really don't. So I was a little agitated when we discovered table 249 was a table for 12. That is 8, count 'em, EIGHT people I do not want to dine with. Fortunately, everyone else around the table was equally dismayed. One couple only spoke German, one couple only spoke French, a family of three was from Japan but they did speak very good English (although not to us, mind you). We had an awkward first night of dining, needless to say.
Midway through Day 2, I went down to the dining room and pleaded for a different table. It turns out I wasn't the only one: every other couple/family from our table requested to be moved. The woman originally told me that we couldn't be moved unless we would switch to second seating, but I persisted as nicely as possible and we were assigned Table 262. A charming table for four, on level 3 (Leonardo's). Victory!
We really enjoyed the dining room. It's beautiful, for starters. The service was impeccable. We liked getting dressed up and seeing everyone else looking spiffy as well. The food? The food was fine. This is not a four star dining experience and if you are expecting that, you will be disappointed. Some dishes were quite good, others were just okay. There was nothing that was actually bad. I have dined in many top restaurants, and there is no comparison.
I should note that our "bar man" remembered our special soft drink order (half soda water, half coke) and brought those to the table nightly without being asked -- a nice touch.
Speaking of soda, here's a word of warning: it was around $150 to buy the soda package for the cruise. We're not big soda drinkers (we don't keep it in the house but will enjoy at a restaurant, diluted with soda water) but I somehow got suckered into this. This is a LOT of money for soft drinks. I seriously doubt we drank $150 in cokes. I really regret buying it, because water would have been fine. If I really craved a soft drink, I could have splurged occasionally on the $4 can of coke and probably done better.
STATEROOM (or "It's like sleeping in a clown car!")
For reasons already stated, we had an interior stateroom (6361). I knew it was going to be small, but I was still shocked when I walked in and realized just how small it was. The two twin beds had been pushed together for hubby and me, while the kids' beds retracted from the ceiling as bunks. The kids thought this was AWESOME. We, however, did not. Every night, the stateroom attendant Warren would drop the bunks while we were at dinner. He put them up when we left the room for breakfast. This worked out pretty well. I was surprised that there is actually a decent amount of storage space in the room. I had overpacked, surprise surprise, and there was enough room between the drawers/shelves/hanging rack to squish it all in.
Warren was great. He was friendly and made a bunch of towel animals for the kids throughout the week. He did his best to clean up after us, but we are a messy bunch. I think he probably stared at the mess some days and just shook his head. By the end of the week, we couldn't even sit on the couch because it was covered with souvenirs, towels, random detritus, you name it.
TIP: BRING A POWER STRIP. There are, like, two outlets in the room. If you are anything like my family, you have a digital camera (or two), a digital camcorder, an iPad, a couple of cell phones, maybe a laptop (etc) and they all need to charge. Did we need all that stuff? No. (Stop judging.)
TIP 2: BEWARE THE INSANE POTTY. This toilet packs a punch. Never, ever flush the toilet without shutting the lid first. My poor son learned that lesson the hard way (and it required an immediate shower). Also, if you are a family that lets the yellow mellow, you need to skip that during the cruise. This is a plastic toilet and urine left in the bowl for any longer than a minute will make the bathroom REEK. I am not joking about this. It took THREE DAYS for our room to stop smelling like pee, because my son got up in the middle of the night to pee and did not flush until the morning. Another reason poor Warren did not luck out having to care for our little family's stateroom.
EXCURSIONS (or "Where Most of the Money Really Goes")
Then I investigated the private tours available and booked all of those as well. Here are the excursions we did:
This was a fun day. It didn't blow us away and it was so contrived that I cringed (everyone works for Royal Caribbean and you can't even pretend you are in a foreign country... it's like a theme park). Here is what we did: Zipline (hubby only), single-ride roller coaster (me + kids), aquapark (me + kids) - total Haiti excursions cost $172 (plus $12 for two virgin fruit smoothies in souvenir cups). The free lunch (really your only option, so far as I could tell) was not great. We LOVED the coaster! Beautiful views, so fun. My favorite thing to do on Labadee. Hubby said the Zipline was a great experience.
CAUTION: The aqua park is not for the weak. It takes serious muscle to pull yourself up (or haul up a 55 pound child) onto any of the floating things. My arms were dying after the first climb. It was fun, but terribly exhausting. You have to swim between stuff which is time consuming. You only get 45 minutes per session and each session is $15 per person, so it's likely that at the end of the first session you won't actually have done that much. But I was okay with that. I did think it was worth the $$ and the kids liked it. But they didn't want to do a second session (tired). Also, we booked the 10 AM time slot. There were only 10 or so people for that slot. At 11, however, there were probably closer to 50 people. It did not look fun to be on the stuff with so many others.
We hired a private, independent driver for the day. Costs: $180 for driver plus $40 tip (our decision), $40 for lunch, $50 souvenirs, $100 river tubing, $85 dunn's river falls -- see additional notes, re: Jamaica.
We booked an independent group tour for Stingray City, top rated on TripAdvisor. It was fabulous and a memorable experience. Cost: approx $45 per adult, $35 per child. Included snorkeling and stingray city (2 hours). Loved, loved, loved the water and beaches here.
We hired a private, independent driver for the day. Costs: $200 for driver including a very generous tip, $75 for lunch, $60 souvenirs, $28 for San Gervasio Maya Ruins visit, $24 for Punta Sur ecopark entry, $10 for soft drinks, bottled water, and much-needed sinus medication
We had two sea days, one at the start and one at the end. I enjoyed them immensely. I found a book in the ship's library and spent many hours reading poolside while the kids enjoyed the H20 Zone and kid-friendly "hot" tubs (not really, more like bathwater). Hubby and the kids did the rock wall many times. Hubby wiped out several times on Flowrider and seemed to enjoy the experience. We played ping pong, hubby and son played a few rounds of mini golf. We walked the track a bunch and were surprised by how many people were out running daily.
ADVENTURE OCEAN CLUB (Or "The Place My Kids Loved To The Point of Ridiculousness.")
I was really, really skeptical that the kids would like the club. We checked it out after boarding the ship during their "open house" and it seemed underwhelming to me. The kids wanted to try it, so we stuck them in there for a few hours on day 2. They LOVED it. They begged to go back for entire days, nay, the entire week. I put my foot down about daytime because we had excursions already booked, but we did put them in there nightly from around 7-9:30/10. They had a wonderful time and I was impressed with the enthusiasm and engagement I saw in the club staff. I was expecting a day care, "kid kennel" approach but it was nothing like that. I felt very comfortable with the environment.
TIP: Let your kids go for Pirate Night and the Parade if nothing else. They will have a ball and you will be smiling ear to ear watching them perform in the parade on the Royal Promenade. Many, many pictures were taken by all the proud mamas and dads and grandparents.
Bleh. We were not impressed. The welcome aboard show was dubbed as appropriate for all ages and it was NOT. We walked out because the jokes included references to "white trash" and there was some foul language and seriously inappropriate humor. It's fine for me, as an adult, to hear that, but I wasn't going to have my 8 and 7 year old thinking that this was OK to hear or repeat. For a variety of reasons, we ended up skipping most of the evening shows in favor of quiet relaxation and, umm, other ways one can be entertained when one's children are at an adventure club and you are on a vacation with your spouse.
We did watch Puss in Boots in 3D, at my son's request. It was fun to be watching a movie on a ship, but it certainly could be skipped if you would rather be getting a massage or rock climbing or what-have-you.
OTHER OBSERVATIONS (Or "Really? She has more to say? This is seriously the longest review ever.")
* Bring drugs -- the legal ones. Hubby and the kids all got sick on the ship with some kind of respiratory/sinus thing. We ended up throwing the dice on some mexican version of what we hoped was sinus medicine (it involved our driver translating with a pharmacist). It was cheap, but I would much rather have had our normal meds with us. We did bring sea bands and dramamine, which we never needed but I was glad to have just in case. We also brought headache meds (which we needed), chapstick (also needed!), etc. The sinus medicine (some random off-brand) was $15 on the ship for 8 pills.
* Bring sunscreen, bug spray, AND aloe gel! We had the first two and we did apply them appropriately, but some of us (ahem, husband) still got burned in that lovely hot caribbean sun. The ship was very happy to sell us some "Australian Gold" aloe gel for $15. That must be a 3000% profit margin. Bring your own.
* Don't be afraid to stalk people in the Windjammer. Am I kidding? No I am not. The Windjammer seats 750 people. There were 3,000 people on the ship. All 3,000 people apparently would like to eat breakfast at the exact same time and there is never, ever a table available. So you need to hover near people that appear to be done with their meal (especially if they have a window table; those are ideal) and then pounce when they get up. Apparently the staff will assist you in finding a table (good luck with that), but our method worked too.
* If you are a vegetarian, you CAN have a decent eating experience on this ship! The windjammer at lunch will make you a veggie burger (but you must ask, and then be prepared to wait 5-7 minutes). Every night there was an excellent vegetarian dish, mostly indian cuisine on our sailing. Hubby ate the veg dish almost every night (sometimes we eat fish/seafood) and he really liked them all.
* There is a Dreamworks character breakfast (free!) in the main dining room one morning. You need to make a reservation. This was a much, much better way for the kids to meet all the characters and get photos than to hunt down the characters on the ship and wait in lines. Trust me.
OVERALL / CONCLUSION
The ship is gorgeous and not too cheesy. The service is great. The amenities and ports of call are awesome. The costs can be controlled if you are willing to compromise here and there. We have decided that we will cruise again and we will remain loyal to Royal Caribbean based on this experience. If you have kids, they will have a BLAST. The free ice cream all day long makes everybody happy.
And with that, I wish you a very happy voyage!