The crew of Empress delivers enough music, dance and activities to keep cruisers entertained for a few days. Most events are well-attended onboard, but keep in mind that this vessel is less of a massive "floating city" with neighborhoods and over-the-top entertainment and more of a traditional cruise ship where lounging and mingling with other passengers keep guests busy.
The Royal Theatre is a dazzling, two-deck theater that feels part opera house, part comedy club, with white marble stairs, a curved balcony and glass cocktail tables. The theater hosts a main event each evening, such as a performance from a comedian or a musical impressionist to shows like "Bailamos," featuring talented ballroom dancers, and "Three," a musical celebration about the showgirls from different eras. Each of the main events has two show times. The theater also hosts other occasional events like bingo, daytime shopping highlights and Quest, Royal Caribbean's hilarious, adults-only scavenger hunt.
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The cruise director and entertainment crew do a nice job with the roster of activities and getting the passengers involved to build a sense of onboard comradery as well as excitement about the Havana call. During the day, there's dance classes, napkin-folding lessons, health seminars and yoga, line dancing at the pool, liquor tastings, and snorkeling demonstrations (in preparation for days in port). Cuba-appropriate activities include basic Spanish lessons, salsa dance classes and cigar-rolling. For some friendly competition among passengers, the crew hosts scavenger hunts, shuffleboard challenges, plenty of trivia, belly-flop contests and speed climbs up the rock wall.
In addition to all the activities happening in the bars and lounges (don't miss the salsa dancers and band in Boleros), cruisers will find poolside movies on the big screen, dance parties on the pool deck, blackjack tournaments and lotto in the casino, and night climbs on the rock wall. While the constant dance music playing from the Centrum (main atrium) during the day can be a bit much, at night when the activity staff takes to the floor and gets the crowd involved it transforms into a fun, temporary dance club. The Casino Royale has numerous slot machines and table options like blackjack, roulette and craps.
Bars and lounges on Empress tend to be busiest right when the main show in the dining room lets out, but fizzles out fairly early in the night. Schooner Bar is the most obvious choice since it is right next to the Royal Theatre and Centrum. A fairly good crowd keeps things lively in the evening, but with limited options the music winds down around midnight to 1 a.m.
Schooner Bar (Deck 5): Located next to the Centrum, the traditional, nautical-themed bar is a staple on many Royal Caribbean ships. Dark woods, ship wheels and paintings of sailboats make up the decor, and a piano player belts out favorites in the evening. The bar itself can get crowded at times and the bartenders know how to whip up just about any drink imaginable -- from mojitos and martinis to rum runners and cosmos. During the day, it is a popular place for trivia, Spanish classes and seminars.
Boleros (Deck 6): A main hub for activities, Boleros is a fresh, new Cuban-themed bar and lounge that hosts Latin dance classes, game shows, trivia, karaoke, daiquiri-making classes, tequila flight tastings and Latin dance music (so you can show off those moves you learned). During the day, the Cafe Royal serves up specialty coffees -- making it a great spot to get the morning started. The lounge spills out onto a quiet section of the promenade (where smoking is permitted) at the aft of the vessel.
Viking Crown Lounge (Deck 10): Featuring a dance floor with disco ball dangling above it, the Viking Crown Lounge serves as the ship's dance club. The second story balcony (once part of the club) is still visible, but it now contains the fitness center. Even without the balcony, the space is still large, but features a rather unexciting decor -- it has no real character to it at all. During the day, the bar and lounge hosts a handful of health-related seminars but is otherwise a quiet place to relax.
Pool Bar (Deck 10): Grab a tropical cocktail on sea days or join one of the outdoor dance parties held here. The bar can get crowded at times, but the bartenders are efficient.
Empress only has one main swimming pool (Deck 10) and it is very small -- too small for the number of passengers lounging in chairs nearby. There are three equally small whirlpools covered by tent-like shade structures, and a children's splash pool that's easy to miss. For those seeking watersports onboard -- Empress is not the best choice.
Other outdoor recreation is very limited on Empress but includes shuffleboard and table tennis on Deck 10 and a rock wall on Deck 11. The ship has no dedicated jogging track.
There is no shortage of places to relax on Empress of the Seas with plenty of chairs and loungers on the pool deck (Deck 10). Many chairs and tables are also under Biminis for those who need some shade. There is no adults-only area, but on Deck 11, a handful of wicker chairs and hammocks provide additional lounge options that are more secluded. However, there is no break from the sun here. Chairs and loungers can also be found on the wraparound promenade on Deck 6, including the spacious smoking area outside Boleros at the aft -- but here you'll be in the shade.
Deck 5 is home to the guest services and shore excursions desks, just next to the Schooner Bar, while the library is located on Deck 9 next to the main atrium, and includes small bookshelves with a handful of books and sleek, modern furniture. The main draw here is the dazzling floor-to-ceiling windows they face. These panoramic windows and new furniture are found on both sides of the ship, including in the Deck 8 card room, which features Jenga, checkers and dominoes. The loyalty desk is opposite on the starboard (right) side. Deck 7 is home to the internet cafe with eight computers, a printer and work desk. You don't need to be in the business center to use the internet, Empress' VOOM Wi-Fi is one of the better cruise ship internet systems we've come across. Prices are $12.99 per day, per device to surf, or $17.99 per day to surf and stream.
The Royal shops for jewelry, perfume, souvenirs, liquor and duty free items are located on Deck 6 next to the centrum, and the photo gallery is located on Deck 5 next to Chops and the "Picture This" photography studio.
There are no self-service launderettes onboard but laundry services are provided at an additional charge.
The Vitality Spa is located on Deck 10 near the Viking Crown Lounge and Vitality Gym, and is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is no steam room, sauna or whirlpool for guests to use; with the absence of an adults-only area onboard, these would have been a welcome addition.
However, there is an extensive amount of individual treatments available for an additional charge. The spa and salon offers acupuncture, anti-aging facials, Botox, teeth whitening, hair treatments for men and women, manicures and pedicures. There are several massage options including couples' massages, bamboo, hot stone therapy, reflexology, lime and ginger salt glows, seaweed treatments and Swedish massages. There is also a daily special for a more affordable option; the minimum massage treatment time is 50 minutes.
The fitness center on Empress is difficult to find, and awkwardly located above the Viking Crown Lounge. Those accessing the gym have to do so through a winding staircase in the lounge, and those exercising overlook the dance floor and bar patrons.
The gym is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and has eight treadmills, three bicycles and a handful of weightlifting equipment and machines. Several classes are offered including yoga on the beach (at select destinations), body sculpting boot camp, Pilates, stretching and wellness presentations. Most fitness classes carry an additional charge (around $12), but presentations are usually included in the cruise fare. Joggers can also enjoy the promenade on Deck 6 -- an unofficial jogging track.
Royal Caribbean ships are known for being family-friendly, and Empress of the Seas continues this tradition with the Adventure Ocean kids club. However, additional kid-friendly amenities are much lighter on this ship than on others (the newest ships have water parks and costumed characters, for instance). Teens and kids will find an arcade with around 15 game machines like air hockey, car racing, the "crane" game and shooting games that charge around $1.25 to $1.50 each.
In terms of family-friendly accommodations, there are no staterooms specifically designed for families, however the majority of cabins onboard include pulldown bunk beds. Empress of the Seas also has special programing for children with autism -- just speak to the staff at Adventure Ocean.
Adventure Ocean is broken up into different age groups with separate rooms: Aquanaut for ages 3 to 5 (kids must be toilet trained); Explorers for ages 6 to 8; and Voyagers for 9 to 11-year-olds. Kids seven years or older may sign themselves in or out of the youth program so long as their parents have given permission via a waver for them to do so.
Aquanauts will participate in games like face painting, "unbirthday" card making, story time, obstacle courses and science activities. Explorers and Voyagers activities include Jenga, Lego challenges, long jumps, silent speedball and other active competitions.
Families can also sign children up for Adventure Dining, which lets kids eat dinner with the kids- program staff. The kids club is open from early morning until 10 p.m., but a late-night party zone until 2 a.m. is available for $7 per hour (per child). On sea days, the club has a little more time in between sessions (breaks for lunch) than on port days. Parents may leave their children (older than 3) in the kids club on port days while they get off the ship to explore.
Kids can also join parents at dinner (highchairs are available) and children who are old enough to attend evening kid's clubs events can be picked up right from the dining room for activities with "My Family Time Dining," which gets the kids served first so they're ready to go when the kids' crew come to pick them up.
Empress of the Seas does not have a dedicated teen's club, however, scheduled activities are available. During the day, expect things like Ping-Pong and air hockey tournaments in the video arcade, scavenger hunts and teen-only trivia sessions. At night, there are teen dinners, teens-only discos, rock climbing under the stars and capture the flag. There's a 1 a.m. curfew in effect for teens under 17. In the port of Coco Cay, a "Teen Adventure Pack" tour is offered for ages 12 to 17 and includes snorkeling and access to water floats and slides. However, there are no other dedicated teen activities in other ports of call. Despite the number of teenagers onboard, there was an overall lack of options for this age group.