Freedom of the Seas Entertainment
Royal Caribbean's 2011 revitalization has brought onboard lots of new features, such as the DreamWorks Experience -- life-sized characters from "Shrek," "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda" that meet and greet and take photos with passengers. A kick-off event on the first day found them poolside, singing and dancing for the kids.
A final blowout parade on our last sea day had everyone acting like a kid. The "DreamWorks Move It! Move It! Parade Spectacular" brought everyone to the Promenade, where a dancing parade included Shrek and Fiona, King Julian, Puss in Boots, and Po from Kung Fu Panda, plus stilt-walkers and dragon dancers (in all, 150 members of the entertainment and cruise staff), moving to the theme song from "Madagascar." The excitement is virtually impossible to resist: we saw everyone from the oldest passenger and the youngest to the surliest teen dancing along with the music.
Daytime activities include the ubiquitous pool games and trivia contests, while Vintages wine bar hosts several tasting sessions throughout the week. Alfresco bars include the Pool Bar, Sky Bar and Wipe Out! Bar.
The main Arcadia Theater seats more than 1,300 people over two levels and is the venue for nighttime productions, both song-and-dance shows by Royal Caribbean's troupe and performances by guest entertainers. As part of its pair-up with DreamWorks, Arcadia now features 3D movies and films like "Rise of the Guardians," "Avengers" and "Madagascar 3."
Late-night comedians and magicians fill out the entertainment roster in Pharaoh's Palace, the secondary show lounge for musical combos and private parties.
The ice rink at Studio B also doubles as a secondary show lounge; it was the spot for the Crown & Anchor welcome back party, as well as the Quest, an adult scavenger hunt. There are free skate hours listed in the Compass. Freedom-Ice.com, the professional ice show, was the best we've seen at sea (and certainly captivated the kids). Tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance. Check your Compass for details on your sailing.
Casino Royale is open whenever the ship is at sea and features slot machines in a range of denominations, as well as table games and a bar. This area can get pretty smoky at night -- if you are sensitive to cigarettes, you might not want to pass through.
After hours, Boleros -- the hip Latin lounge found on many Royal Caribbean ships -- is one of our favorite bars at sea. Though the location (in a hallway, outside the casino, near a staircase) is not ideal, the two bartenders there were absolutely fantastic, made a mean mojito and juggled bottles and shakers for us. It felt like "Cocktail" without Tom Cruise. This venue also draws major crowds with live music and merengue dancing.
Nightly music is found in other areas of the ship, too. A guitarist/soloist performs rock tunes in the Bull & Bear Pub, and a pianist packs Royal Caribbean's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, taking requests until the wee hours. If you'd like to do the singing yourself, swing by the On Air Bar outside Studio B; there are open-mic hours when you can strut your stuff onstage, as well as private booths for those a little less confident. The big screen there is the place to catch sporting events, too. For late-night dancing, there's the two-deck Crypt nightclub, whose spooky decor features bar stools shaped like headstones.
Even with all of these options, we can never resist pre-dinner bubbly at the Champagne Bar or a nightcap at Royal Caribbean's signature top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge (called Olive or Twist on Freedom). There's a special martini menu, and it's a jazz club at night.
Shore excursions on the alternating Western and Eastern Caribbean sailings are well organized and varied. On our sailing, passengers were able to sign up for a PADI scuba-diving certification course, which included classroom and pool training onboard, as well as open-water training dives in St. Maarten. Excursions like glass-bottom boat tours and parasailing in the Bahamas filled up quickly, as did open-air vehicle tours of St. Thomas and a whole-day sail to Christmas and Honeymoon Coves on a schooner. An underwater treasure hunt in St. Thomas was a blast for kids. If you plan to sign up for water sports, do it early. On this sailing, there were paid shopping excursions ($42 for adults), but we'd recommend researching shopping areas on your own; many Caribbean ports are easy to navigate, with plenty of transportation.
Freedom of the Seas Public Rooms
The main artery that runs throughout the ship is the Royal Promenade, a Main Street USA-type thoroughfare where you can visit the purser's or excursions desk, grab a drink or a snack, people-watch or shop. The general store sells incidentals, duty-free liquor and edible souvenirs like rum cakes; a separate venue specializes in perfume and cosmetics, and there's a gift shop that sells logo items, T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, keychains and other odds and ends. You can also buy workout wear at the Get Out There store. (FlowRider paraphernalia is for sale up on the Sports Deck.)
A library with a view of the Promenade through floor-to-ceiling glass windows contains three walls of bookshelves and several cozy leather chairs for a quiet read. If you left reading material at home, just arrive early to check out a read from the decent selection -- and return it before you leave.
Above the library is Royal Caribbean Online, the ship's Internet cafe. The actual connection is touch-and-go; expect slowness unless you log on while most folks are sleeping or sightseeing. The charge is 66 cents a minute, but, if you buy packages, you can pay as little as 25 cents a minute. The commitment is steep: rates range from a 38-minute package for $24.95 to 1,666 minutes for $399.95. The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area "hot spots." On other ships, Royal Caribbean is testing $39 daily plans that include 24 hours of continuous access, and a $149 unlimited plan (one device only). At the time of our sailing, the packages were being tested only on Allure and weren't available on Freedom.
Some services aren't provided. For instance, there's no self-service laundry facility, but laundry and dry-cleaning can be sent out, and it's not cost prohibitive. We paid about $5 to launder a favorite blanket.
Contemporary art-lovers might enjoy the Art Gallery on Deck 3, where there's often a seminar to take in and a revolving selection of works to buy. On our sailing, there were lectures on Thomas Kinkade, a high-speed art auction in On Air (Deck 3) and contemporary art to buy in the Britto Gallery on Deck 5.
Even if you don't buy your pictures, it's a fun diversion to visit the photo gallery on Deck 4, where the staff display all the photos, from your boarding photo to formal nights and pictures with roving DreamWorks characters. You can buy a picture photo CD or even design your own photobook (a combination of your own photos and Royal Caribbean stock photos).
Up on Deck 14 by the Viking Crown Lounge, you'll find the Seven Hearts card and game room and Cloud Nine, which can be used for private meetings or parties. The Skylight Chapel, one deck up, is the spot for onboard weddings.
The LCD Wayfinder system, installed during the revitalization, utilizes a series of touch screens, placed throughout the ship, that not only show you how to get where you want to go but also tell you what's going on at that very moment.
Shameless plug: On Deck 5, across from the cruise director's office, look for the framed poem "Ode to Freedom," written by Cruise Critic members!
Freedom of the Seas Spa & Fitness
There are two main pools on the Lido, Deck 11 -- one for swimming and one for sports -- flanked by three roomy hot tubs. There, as on balconies, tacky plastic-ribbon deck chairs from earlier ships are replaced with nice mesh loungers. The family pool area packs in the crowds since the 18.5-foot video screen overlooking the pool was installed. Passengers secured their spots early to enjoy screenings of family-friendly movies, TV shows and concerts.
Just aft of the main pools, children get a colorful water park, H2O Zone, complete with a kids-only pool, a cascading waterfall, and sculpture fountains and ground geysers that spew water. Frankly, the setup is so cool it keeps kids out of adult pool areas for the most part (though the water was very cold on our sailing, so kids didn't stay in long). The adults-only Solarium pool area is where you'll find peaceful hammocks and two whirlpools that are cantilevered, meaning they hang over the side of the ship; wide panels of glass give an incredible view of the ocean directly beneath you.
Royal Caribbean favorites like the rock-climbing wall and mini-golf course can be found on Deck 13, and a sports court, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong and a jogging/walking track also satisfy active passengers. But the main attraction is the FlowRider, which debuted on Freedom as the first surf park at sea. A three-inch sheet of water flows up the 32-foot-wide by 40-foot-long incline to create a wave-like reverse waterfall. There are designated hours each day for stand-up surfing and boogie-boarding; check on the Sports Deck for your itinerary's schedule. There's no signup sheet, but passengers (and guardians for those younger than 18) must sign waivers to obtain the wristband needed to "hang ten."
Even if you're more of a sunbather than a swimmer, our advice is to get off the bleachers and try the easier boogie-boarding option at least once. Once you're up there, it doesn't look nearly as steep (or frightening). Professional photographers will be snapping away so your sopping-wet self can be immortalized pre-wipeout for a mere $15.
Really want to master onboard surfing? Passengers can book one-on-one private FlowRider lessons for $75 per person, per hour (up to eight people per session). Individuals, or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor, can book the FlowRider for $350 per hour with no limit to the total number of participants. (A 50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)
The Shipshape Fitness Center encompasses the entire forward area of the Lido, and it's packed with free weights, stationary bikes, treadmills and elliptical machines. Though we never had to wait for a piece of equipment, the gym does get packed before lunch, particularly on sea days. Get up early for prime real estate at the floor-to-ceiling windows. Within the fitness center is a boxing ring, which also made its industry debut on this ship. The boxing program is intended to promote physical conditioning (meaning you can't just throw your husband in there for kicks); sadly, it was empty on our two visits to the fitness center. It could be because it is not cheap. A personal one-hour session was $83. There are scheduled group workouts, however, for $10.
Additional fitness classes are offered -- some free (stretching, aerobics), some levying a $10 charge (yoga, Pilates).
One deck up is the full-service Vitality Spa. There's nothing new and unusual about the decor or the roster of treatments, which run the gamut from simple wraps and massages to acupuncture, teeth-whitening and even medispa treatments like injectables and fillers. The prices, however, seemed high. The "entry level" facial was $120. The spa runs daily discounted specials during the cruises. (Look for them in the Cruise Compass.)
We tried an Elemis Tri-Enzyme Resurfacing Facial, discounted to $99 from the usual $125, and were disappointed with what could have been a relaxing experience that turned into a lecture about our "traumatized" skin, an aggressive sales pitch for $250 in skin products and a chatty discussion about crew shenanigans below deck. Too much information. Likewise, what was advertised as a group anti-aging seminar felt like a bit of a bait and switch. Attendees were taken individually into a room for a consultation (read: a hard sell for injectables and products). Don't forgo a spa treatment at sea if you're yearning for one, but we'd recommend telling the therapist straight up if you're not interested in buying products and want to avoid the hard sell. (Ours even called our stateroom the next day to ask when we'd be making our purchase!)