We were very excited when we booked our cruise but also apprehensive about traveling with our 8 year old son, who has autism and is on a very difficult special diet (gluten free, casein free, soy free, corn free). He can also be loud and ... Read More
We were very excited when we booked our cruise but also apprehensive about traveling with our 8 year old son, who has autism and is on a very difficult special diet (gluten free, casein free, soy free, corn free). He can also be loud and act impetuously and since he doesn't "look" handicapped, people are not always understanding. With lots of help, we ended up having a fabulous time! I never thought I would say this, but I came home refreshed! And my son, who is addicted to his home routine, did not want to leave the ship!
First of all, we contacted Mike at Autism on the Seas. Even though we did not book through them, he sent us a package to help us with boarding and dietary issues - pecs for getting my son prepared, a handicap card for the ship - even a T-shirt to help identify us at check in! I can't say enough about Autism on the Seas, their assistance really made a difference for us! I hope we can book through them in the future.
We live near Philly so we had a friend drive us to the port in NYC. It was easy to find and unload the car, porters were helpful and we were ushered to the handicap line when we showed our Autism of the Seas card. We got to the port later than we wanted (around 2pm), due to some issues at home, but still in plenty of time. The line was very long, but the handicap line was much shorter. To my surprise, it took us over an hour to be checked in, and by the time we got on the ship, the very long line of "regular" passengers was gone and we were some of the last people to get on the ship. I don't know what made the handicap/VIP line so slow - I would use it again just to save being crowded but would hope it would move faster.
In any case, we were on the ship by 3pm and were allowed to use the VIP muster station which was in the theater. LOVED this - not crowded, we did not have to wear the life jackets, so much easier than previous muster drills that were PURE MISERY for my autistic son. This was quick and easy. We spent some time on the deck watching the ship sale away from NYC (AWESOME!!) and then headed to our cabins to unpack. We were greeted with a fruit basket and bottle of champagne, plus a bottle of wine in each room! Not sure how we scored all of this - we are past NCL cruisers, also traveling as "VIP's" due to my son's handicap and also were registered as Cruise Critic members - we had quite a few perks this trip and I never knew exactly why! :)
CABINS: We had two interior cabins due to the fact that balconies make me nervous with my son - he is a climber! They were typical interior sized rooms, enough room for us to have 3 in each room and not be too jammed in. (Yes, there were SIX of us in all!) A great bargain, no complaints! Rooms were clean, we had enough storage and the beds were comfortable. Our steward did a great job, but we hardly saw him. Did not mind in the least - he kept us stocked with clean towels and the cabin was spotless every day, plus we got the cute towel animal most nights. I came in one time when he was cleaning and saw he was on his hands and knees scrubbing the bathroom floor - now that is service!
DINING: The first night was hectic and we were confused. We had been given a list of GF/CF food items that we could special order to bring aboard the ship but I was unsure of how to access them. We went to the Azura restaurant and there was a wait, but as soon as they heard that my son had the special diet, "Mr. P." the maitre'd sat us right down and went over the food options with me. My son had plain chicken breast and plain white rice and was happy as can be. Like most kids with autism, he has a limited diet - he likes chicken, rice, pasta, shrimp and hot dogs - all of this was available during the cruise and they had stocked up GF hot dog rolls, rice pasta and GF bread so every night he was able to have something on his short list of "must have" foods. Also available were gluten free cookies, pizza crust, bagels, and waffles - if you have a food allergy, NCL will give you a list and you can just choose what you want!
We did learn that it would be better (for us) to eat in the same restaurant each night. So no real Freestyle. We called each day and made a reservation in Tsars Palace for 5:30. They will say you do not need a reservation for the main restaurants, but we found it helpful to have one and requested the same servers each night - and at the same time I could call the Maitre'd and pre-order whatever foods our son wanted to have for dinner that night. If you find servers you like, ask them where they work for dinner and request them! Your service will be more personalized for sure! The dinners did take some time - one night we were there from 5:30-7pm - so service was somewhat slow, but we were on vacation and did not really care.
For breakfast, we ate every morning in the Blue Lagoon. The buffet was going to be too chaotic for my son to deal with and all the food choices that were not allowed for him would just have driven him bonkers. Other family members ate in the Garden and liked it. I loved the omelets in Blue Lagoon and my daughter loved the French toast - my son brought his own GF rice crisp cereal on board and he ate that each morning with some OJ. This is where we met our favorite servers, Janice and Danillo, and asked to have them serve us for dinner each night. They were fantastic and I also cannot say enough about the helpfulness of both Maitre'd's that I got to know. Very friendly too. Lunch for my special diet kid was usually a hot dog or two (without the bun) from the pool area because we never wanted to get dressed for a dining room. And for the rest of us, something from the barbecue - always very good!
The dinners in the main dining room were great for the most part. (We did not do any specialty restaurants.) Some things that I had and liked - Jerk chicken & plantain, the lobster (half a tail - order two!) - chicken cordon bleu, turkey dinner and shrimp & swordfish kabobs. These were all very good. I limit sugar and have to also note that they had a sugar free dessert option each night. They were OK - some aftertaste from the artificial sweetener. No complaints from me though, I was happy to have the option available.
Our first day at sea was rough and the weather was not great, but my son loved it that the pool was not crowded. We spent time at the pool and got used to the ship. "Dress up or not" night was fun - we dressed up somewhat.
NICKELODEON: We booked before we knew this was a NICK cruise but we were excited to see the characters, especially my 2 year old daughter. I did hear some complaints on the board with some nervous that the whole cruise was going to be Nick themed. Not at all!! You hardly saw the characters. The information was given in the dailies each day as far as "Meet & Greet" times or breakfast with the characters, and there were some poolside shows and one night there was a Nick themed show, but otherwise they were not in evidence. If you don't want to see the characters, you don't have to - if you want to see them, you can. We did the character breakfast and one meet & greet with Dora and enjoyed the shows. Loved it all.
EXCURSIONS: We only booked one excursion through the ship and it was not all that great - it was transfer only to the Disney park. It took longer than advertised to get there (and not due to traffic) and the staff on the piers were NOT helpful in directing us to the bus we needed. As a matter of fact, one woman yelled at us because we were waiting for my 11 year old who was straggling about 10 feet behind us. She told us we could NOT wait for him, that if we wanted him with us we should have waited for him on the ship. ??? Needless to say, we ignored her and waited for my son to catch up. But then we felt so rushed, I ended up hitting a crooked spot in the sidewalk and falling all the way to the ground while carrying my 2 year old. NOT GOOD. No one from the excursion even checked to see if I was ok - my ankle was twisted very badly and while I have to blame my own lack of grace in some measure, it would have been nice to have more direction as to where to go, or at the least had someone to check if I was OK. The people at the bus were nice. The day at Disney was too short, my ankle was in bad shape the rest of the trip - all in all, I would not do this again, not enough time. The time frame needs to be more honest (it is NOT an hour to get to Disney, more like 1.5 hours+ of driving alone - and then it takes a long time to get off the ship.)
In the Bahamas, we booked our own day trip at Blue Lagoon, which is a dolphin encounter and private island. Allow at least an hour to get there - water taxi to the Paradise Island Ferry and they pick you up there. We almost missed the boat. Booking this yourself is a LOT cheaper than doing the ship excursion and very easy if you contact Blue Lagoon direct. This was a FABULOUS day. The private island was not crowded, the water was beautiful and the actual dolphin encounter was incredible! Even the ride to and from the island is beautiful. I highly recommend everything about Blue Lagoon except the food. Not great, just burgers and hot dogs and not even good ones. But who cares?? We came back and ate dinner on the ship.
POOLS: My kids loved the pools and hot tubs. Unfortunately, the decks were very crowded and unless you went up early and pirated a chair or two, there were no seats to be had near the pool. It seems like LOTS of people had this idea because there were saved seats all over the place - I saw one woman who had the same two seats saved each day and no one ever sat in the second seat, she just used it for her lunch plate. Ugh. Same person was rolling her eyes at every kid on the deck - really she should have just sat up a level or two where it was nice and quiet. Once my ankle was walkable again, we did go up a level or two to the sun decks and always found chairs there. It was MUCH quieter too, and bar service available as well. If anyone wants a quieter option, just go upstairs! Maybe that would leave seats open for some of the parents who need to actually watch their kids by the pool. This has nothing to do with NCL though, they did a great job of keeping the pools clean and warm - and quite honestly most of the other guests were VERY understanding and nice. Traveling with a child who has autism is nerve wracking - it is hard to know when they are going to melt down - almost everyone - staff and guests included - were GREAT about it. There was a poolside barbecue most days and that was very good, I also enjoyed the reggae band and tried the drink of the day each day - yum. NOTE - the decks can get very hot - wear Crocs or pool shoes or you will burn your feet!
SODA: My kids all got the soda bracelet and used it a lot on the ship. One thing to note, the bartenders were very slow about filling the soda orders for kids. Still worth it - for $32 they never had to bug us for drinks and we got to bring home a nice souvenir cup.
KIDS CLUB: My older kids LOVED the kids club, we hardly saw them unless we insisted. My son with autism also liked it. He was not able to spend as much time as he would have liked because there were too many kids most days. I have to note, the ship was FULL - 2,819 guests - and with this being a Nick cruise, the kids club was also full a LOT of the time. I think the staff of the kids club did a great job, even with my son with autism - when they were not overcrowded he was able to go and color, watch TV and use the mat play area. HOWEVER - I do think that if NCL is going to gear these cruises toward children with the NICK theme, they need to increase the Kids Club staffing. One day I went to pick up my son and the room was WALL TO WALL with 6-9 year olds (maybe 40 kids?) and there were only 2 staff members available. They looked nervous and frazzled. Wouldn't you be? I felt bad for them, they were all very nice, just overworked. My daughter would not even go to the club - she tried one day and it was just too overwhelming for her. (Can't blame the crowds entirely for that though, she is a mama's girl!)
ACTIVITIES: We spent most of our time by the pool - we are not gamblers and not into Bingo or art auctions - As I mentioned, we did the breakfast with the characters - my daughter loved it! She got to meet Dora, Diego, The Avatar, Spongebob and Patrick - they all came to the take a picture with her and did a little bit of dancing. It cost $15 per adult and $10 per child, but worth it.
My husband and older boys went out and did Karaoke a few times in the Fyzz lounge - they had a blast! They also checked out the chocolate buffet but weren't that thrilled with it - too crowded, too much waiting. I did not go myself, just relating what my husband said.
ENTERTAINMENT: I enjoyed all the shows - the 70's review and Cirque really stand out. We got to Cirque early and sat 15 rows back as I read in another review on here - be sure to do that! It was very full and you really will miss something if you sit up closer. The Nick shows were all very fun too! We went together with the kids to all the shows (not the adult only shows) and everyone enjoyed them, even my 2 year old.
SHIP IN GENERAL: The ship was very clean and we loved it! Loved the view from the Spinnaker Lounge and from the back of the ship in the Great Outdoors. The promenade was also very nice, there were a lot of nice areas with beautiful views - always able to find a spot to look out at sea! We have sailed with Carnival and Royal Caribbean and I do not recall that they had so many areas where you could enjoy the view this way. Even in the dining rooms - Blue Lagoon and Tsars Palace - you could look out at sea - gorgeous!
AUTISM COMMENTS: My son did great, so much better than expected. Once he got into a routine on the ship, he was super happy - breakfast then hot tub, then pool then lunch, kids club if not too crowded, dinner and a show and then to bed. If he ever needed quiet time in the room, we would go and sit for a bit - brought along his laptop and a few movies - plus the room had Nickelodeon shows airing all the time and some decent movies - so he was happy in the room too. He developed a small obsession with the little store near Tsars Palace and wanted to go for Skittles each night after dinner. Normally these are not allowed, but we figured it was vacation and we let it go. If you have a child with autism and you are thinking of trying this, do it!! My son is hard to manage and he did really well. One small melt down early in the cruise when he wanted to get Skittles and we said no - well, he won that round, LOL.
PERKS: As a Cruise Critic member, we got to participate in a Meet & Greet with the captain and other important people on the ship - also got invited to tour the bridge (FANTASTIC) and we arranged a cabin crawl to see some of the other cabin options. All good! The captain was so nice, he answered all of our questions, was very nice to all the kids and just super friendly. Definitely sign up for a Meet & Greet if you can, you will get special treatment!!
As past NCL cruisers we were invited to a special cocktail reception in the Spinnaker lounge, where I won a complimentary bag of laundry service - yay! This was very nice, we enjoyed it immensely.
Because of our VIP (handicap) status, we also were invited to a cocktail reception in the Villa area of the ship. So we got to see this area twice (once at this reception and once at the Cruise Critic cabin crawl) - really nice if you have the money and a quiet family, LOL. Private sun deck, concierge area, private pool & hot tub. I think our noisy family would not have fit in very well in this area, but if your autistic child is quieter than mine you might like it here - no crowds, more privacy, very nice!!
Also we had Priority Tender passes - if we had been able to stop at the private island (couldn't due to bad weather) we would not have had to wait in line to get off the ship, we would be put on the first available tender. Didn't get to use these, but what a help if we had wanted to get off the ship!
When it was time to disembark, we also got VIP treatment - We were allowed to wait in the theater and were let off the ship very early. Our luggage was in the VIP area and much easier to find. It was super easy getting off the ship.
All in all we had a fantastic trip - lots of good food, lots of good weather, great service and VIP treatment for my son with autism. A few little problems, but nothing that would stop us from going again! Read Less