Freedom of the Seas has an identity crisis. The 155,000-ton, 3,634-passenger vessel launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship at the time, dwarfing the Voyager-class ships that influenced its design and introducing a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean. (Siblings Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas debuted in 2007 and 2008, respectively). But in 2009, it was forced to hand over its "world's largest" title to sister Oasis of the Seas (and later to Allure of the Seas), Royal Caribbean's massive 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger mega-ship.
So where does that leave Freedom? The ship -- which made waves when it launched with cruising's first surf simulator, a regulation-sized boxing ring and an interactive water park for kids -- received a makeover in 2011 to keep it current with Royal Caribbean's newest innovations and favorite features from the Oasis-class ships. Part of the first wave of the line's fleetwide revitalization program, Freedom got upgrades like a new nursery, an LCD Wayfinder system, a huge video screen over the family pool, a cupcake shop and DreamWorks characters roaming the ship, much to the delight of the youngest cruisers.
Plus, it retains Royal Caribbean hallmarks, such as the promenade and Promenade Cafe, rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's.
We weren't sure how Freedom would feel post-refurb and post-Oasis. Would it feel daunting and crowded, as it's still a huge mega-ship -- now with even more going on -- or would it feel just big enough after the immensity of Oasis?
The cruise didn't start off well. Embarkation took more than two hours from curb to cabin, with some frustrating lines and congestion, and cranky passengers-to-be.
Yet, surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time the ship felt crowded. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not lighter than what we'd experienced on Oasis. That's not to say that the ship felt empty or small. There will almost always be a half-hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks. Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool are great for getting-away-from-it-all moments, particularly on port days.
In general, service is very personal, since there are so many spaces in which you can become a "regular." Baristas at Cafe Promenade (now serving Starbucks coffee drinks) remember complicated beverage orders; the bartenders at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remember names and poisons; and even the waitstaff in Windjammer, the casual buffet, treat kids as the highest-order V.I.P.'s.
The upgrades on Freedom definitely help -- our favorites were the family pool movies and the easy LCD Wayfinder system -- but those who have enjoyed the neighborhood feel of the tree-lined Central Park on Oasis and Allure, where you can escape the madding crowds, will miss it if they really want some private time on sea days. As one of the main inside hangout places on Freedom, Cafe Promenade felt a little too small to accommodate all the people who just wanted to relax with a coffee and pastry out of the beating rays.