Viking Group is the name of Sue Whitfield's group of mostly her agency's clients from all over the country. There were about 69 of us on this cruise.
Embarkation: I have to break down the embarkation to what seems to be Miami's port personnel working for RCI and the check-in folks from RCI. We had to wait on a few lines and at one point sat down in a row of chairs while we waited to be boarded and almost all of the folks barking orders at us were about as pleasant as workers found at your local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). This was horrible treatment. Once we got to the check-in desk the woman behind the counter was pleasant and polite. It took a while to embark, about 45-50 minutes, and there was the sense of extra security. An interesting thing is my wife, Claudine, was not allowed to take a picture of the exterior of the ship at the Miami port.
Explorer the ship for its targeted audience: Familiar RCI signature spaces are all present: the Royal Viking Crown lounge provides various types of entertainment and a commanding view forward from midship/aft high up on the ship and also an overview of the pool area, on the Explorer it is Dizzy's the jazz club by day and evening and Latin hot spot at night; the Champagne Bar provides wine and champagne and some appetizers; the nautical theme Schooner Bar provides piano bar style entertainment; the glass covered Solarium provides a pool to relax in and a jacuzzi and lots of loungers. The Centrums with glass view elevators but this time it is times 2 and connected by the Royal Promenade which provides a few shops, a very large gathering area, a 24 hour eatery, people watching opportunities, a stairway to the Casino, a sports bar, a pub, some video games, unlimited ice cream with toppings. Here, also performers called "Krooze Comics" interactively perform for the pax. The idea of the Centrum, in Europe the Center of Town and what inspired RCI's chief designer, Njal Eide, to make the center of RCI's ships, is now expanded to a main street that's about a block and a half in length and has a ceiling extending 4 decks. 2 parades are given during the 7 night cruise. The ship has a standard large buffet, a specialty restaurant, Johnny Rockets. It also has an ice rink that has ice shows, but also allows passengers to skate, and the floor is also used for a party (flooring changed for this purpose). Outside she has mini-golf, full court basketball/volleyball, rock climbing, inline skating. For youngsters there's lots of video games, for kids their own dedicated spaces. So, this ship succeeds in offering RCI pax many options and the combination of the placement of the public areas in the proximity of the Royal Promenade and Centrums, and various activities and music playing especially evenings and nights, makes for a definite electricity and hustle bustle in the air that I think many fans of the line enjoy immensely.
Explorer the ship: This ship's public areas are designed around mostly two 12-14 deck Centrums and the two lower deck levels, 4 and 5, of public spaces fore to aft. The upper deck areas, 11-14, have much of the active outside areas and kids and teen area in addition to the Windjammer and other eateries. The higher deck forward areas are mostly Spa and solarium areas. Midship is the signature RCI Viking Crown lounge. The skating rink and photo gallery is on deck 3. The ship features a fully wrap around promenade deck with stairs near the front going up to the bow that had full passenger access. The rock-climbing wall, mini-golf, inline skating track (that's padded), are all located aft on deck 13 (yes, this ship has a deck 13).
My critique: I think this ship has a major shortcoming and I found some questionable layout issues.
2 Main Elevator Banks with 14 Elevators ain't enough: I find this to be the major shortcoming of the Voyager class. There are only two main elevator banks, one forward, one between midship and aft, for this 1000 foot ship hosting 3500+ pax. Elevator waits were often excessive. By contrast there are 14 elevators, total, on the 62,000 ton, 1440 pax, Zaandam, and 3 elevator banks located forward, midship, and aft. There also are only two major stairways for the Voyager class ships for pax. This made for long walks between major public areas of the ship and I felt tired walking around this ship.
Cacophonous areas: There are places where public areas merge. The Schooner Bar is located forward near the forward Centrum, within the Schooner Bar is the entrance to the Chamber, the disco, and right near the entrance to the Chamber is the Casino. So, the Schooner has its piano entertainment, the beat of Chamber can be clearly heard since it is an open entrance, and the casino, that turns the sounds of its machines up, can also be heard quite well. In about 1/3rd of the Schooner Bar these three public areas sounds combine and tend to produce, at times, cacophony.
Another problem area of sounds merging is between Dizzy's and 19th hole. Sometimes Dizzy's and 19th hole, only separated by glass, play different types of music, and both can be heard at the same time. Also, sometimes Dizzy's statue, located at the main entrance to the lounge, plays some of Dizzy's famous recordings - but this doesn't last very long.
I also, at times, had problems in the quiet solarium. It's located near the pool area and sometimes the band in the main pool area played loud enough so that they could be heard in the solarium. But even when they weren't playing loud enough to hear when folks came from the main pool area into the solarium, through the sliding doors, every time the door would open the sounds from the pool area would intrude.
I think a somewhat interesting placement of a public room is Portofinos. It is located right next to the very casual Windjammer. Portofinos is an reservations only, for fee, restaurant, and its placement seemed a bit strange to me.
Tale of two waiters: We originally had a table for six, and it was a bit away from the main members of the group. When two of the members switched to early seating, we were changed to a table for four and received a new wait staff. Our first waiter delivered our food later than most of the tables, frequently got the orders wrong, reached over us, did not take the woman's orders before the men's, and seemed unpolished though he was nice enough. His assistant was quick and seemed polished. However...
Our second waiter got all of our orders right, served all meals from the right, took the women's orders before the men and served them before the men, always asked us if we were enjoying our meal, and was very quick in delivering the meals to us. The two RCI waiters in this area combined with our group antics and were very loose while at the same time did their job very, very well.
I think the moral, if I can be a bit preachy here, is that one should never judge a line's dining service based on one waiter (your waiter) and should at least observe some of the other waiters and converse with others on the performance of their waiter(s) and dining crew before coming to any sweeping conclusions about the overall dining service of the line. Also true of the cabin stewards as well.
Bar service: sort of omnipresent on the decks, if you are interested in all sorts of drinks on the deck bar service engages and is quite available. I found, at times, some of the staff too eager. We would sit down for no longer than a few seconds before a bar server would come by to ask us if we wanted to drink. We prefer a less aggressive approach.
Mellow Ferdinand: Is the exception and someone my wife and I immediately clicked with. Ferdinand is coming from Silverseas. Preferred RCI, less pressure, more laid back, less demanding clientele. Ferdinand, from the Phillipines, was very much like a HAL employee. He addressed us by name and I guess if we had established any preferences he would have had it ready for us when we came by. But we changed from night to night. Ferdinand was in the Champagne bar, which was somewhat under used.
The Sell: Ah yes. This is a revenue ship and I did feel the ship sell more than on HAL or Celebrity (which I expected). When we first visited Portofinos the escort to the restaurant very strongly encouraged us to experience the "extraordinary" dining pleasures of Portofinos. When we were strolling along the promenade we looked at a painting for no more than 5 seconds before a saleswoman came by to tell us how great the prices were and how wonderful it is to buy art from the ships. There were plenty of for sale signs in various areas of the promenade. There was also a flower seller parked outside of the entrance to the Windjammer in the mornings, but he never called us over to him.
Announcements: Announcements were moderate, and fairly helpful. I did find "the sell" included in the delivery and pitch of some of the activities and ways to spend money on the ship. All OK in my book, noticeable but not obnoxious.
Captain's address: like HAL, there were regular daily updates from the Captain. The Captain was fairly succinct and had a nice speaking voice and a good command of English.
Just flat out fun stuff: Towel animals, especially the hanging monkey (with cig in mouth); the toga party that was oh so festive; the horseracing was great in that the cruise director called a great race - sometimes it is not the game, but how it is called; the utterly entertaining 50-70s party where the cruise director played Austin Powers with his "groovy man" schtick (sp?) and other cruise members did John Travolta and the Village People - this was done in the ice rink and the floor for dancing and activities was huge; the belly flop which included Dave in a bathing suit and Dave (Sue's husband) with something extra strapped around his waist was another high energy call by Cruise Director Dan Whitney - did I say I found him to be extraordinary?; the wild and crazy Quest game with men and women running around like maniacs. Some of the highlights of the fun activities onboard this 7 day RCI Caribbean cruise.
Overall entertainment: the showroom entertainment is typical revue show but high energy and lots of wonderful sets and costumes and pulsating music. I'd rate it higher than what I've seen so far which is showroom entertainment from HAL and Celebrity. The ice show was a blast, acrobats from Russia were the highlight. The actual skating was OK, it wasn't a show for skating aficionados but its entertainment value was high. The toga party featured line dancing and a people train.
The two areas of entertainment I could have lived without are the Royal Promenade parades and the Krooze Comics. This is the time where the RP felt hot and crowded. The Krooze Comics were good performers but my wife and I just wanted to avoid them and not be part of the entertainment. They are fine, did their jobs well, but we found them a bit intrusive.
Space ratio: excellent, actually. The only time I felt the number of folks onboard was during the RP parades and waiting for those elevators. Even tendering wasn't painful.
Ceiling height: the ship had pretty high ceilings especially on decks 4 and 5 where most of the inside public areas are. Much better than the low ceiling Nordic Empress I toured in New York City. The ship had some interesting ceiling treatments but most were the standard RCI type that we've seen on Legend, Grandeur, and earlier RCI ships.
Ah, the group!: The Viking Group cruise actually is an annual celebration of Dave and Sue Whitfield's anniversary. It's become quite the cliche to say these so and so are a wonderful couple and individually are wonderful people but this absolutely applies to Sue and Dave and I mean this with absolute sincerity. Sue and Dave are both fun-loving and are loud at times but never did I witness them being abrasive, obnoxious, or disrespectful of fellow passengers or crew members.
These are the leaders, planners, coconspirators of the group. They made a booklet with a brief bio of everyone who was on the cruise. They planned shore excursions, ship activities, prizes for people that Sue emceed, all sorts of fun outfits to wear for dinner. And these folks have style. What do I mean by this?
They dress well for formal night, fancy digs. Yet they put a spin on it. Dave, came in as a crime boss, hat and everything, and of course, the presence and attitude. But the real Dave style came through in the belly flop contest. Sorry to report he did not get the gold prize but in my book he won on all stylistic points. He hammed it up totally. He danced, pranced, shaked and shimmied and at one point wore a very revealing outfit (though it wasn't the real thing he was revealing). He gave wonderful speeches during the dinners about his appreciation for all of those who joined in on the group cruise and to his wife and daughter.
Susette made some of her own outfits including a colorful flamingo shirt and also made some outfits for others on the group. Every night she was stylish with a new outfit with matching hats. She engaged everyone in the group.
The idea of the group, I think, is to entertain fellow pax as well as ourselves. So, most in the group, wore various hats, jester, flamingo, Christmas, Viking, and others. The dining staff picked up on it the first night and wore the hats and really seemed to enjoy the group. Every night a procession of us walked down from the top level into the 2nd level where we were seated and most responses favorably cheered us on, laughed, enjoyed the group. I videotaped some of our fun.
Much of the group activities were around the pool area, Schooners Bar, and the dining room. We did the prize awards in Dizzy's lounge where some wonderful appetizers were provided for us. Our group photo was on one of the winding stairways of the Centrum, a popular place for photos. We weren't sure if the stairway could hold 69 folks, but somehow it did.
I didn't do much at the ports but we did find each other in Labadee where the group boasted of their bargaining skills. Not only did they bargain with money, they also used food and bandanas!
One group of our folks, the Tregunnas, had their own themes on dining nights. One night they were dressed as Pirates, in red with black hats. They looked great. They had two of their grandchildren with them and kept them in the spirit. On formal nights the toddler, Danny, and the baby, Cameron, had their own tuxes. Cameron's was the first time I've seen a tux that small.
One more thing (as Columbo would say) is the lobster tail contest. Well, I don't think it started out as such but the grand winner was Eric, who I believe had 7 lobster tails, though it may have been 8. Pete, at my table, had one less. That's a lot of lobsters. I didn't eat any lobster tails, but I went to a restaurant in Maine and ordered a hamburger. So much for me.
I like the size, versatility and style of this group. In the daytime we mostly did our own thing except the days of the belly flop and horseracing and sometimes got together for lunch. At night we got together for the dining procession. I think Sue and Dave had the ideal amount of activities for the group and space for us to do our own thing. I think a very successful and enjoyable cruise was had by all of the group's members.
Disembarkation: the usual colored tags procedure. But, 3 colors were called for the first group. There was some crowding near the elevator shafts and a problem with people cutting into the flow of pax disembarking the ship when they were getting out of the elevators. I also witnessed too many people who ignored the stay out of the stairwells rule.
OK, I'll talk about the decor a bit: There's a I'm not really on a ship feel here to this ship. The corridors of the ship, many of the stairwells, and at least the standard staterooms all use a pastel palette. The pastel is pretty and tropical in feel but some of the carpets are just plain standard RCI and were really dull (Schooner bar, Aquarium Bar, Champagne Bar) - all of these rooms could have benefited from the punch of more vibrant flooring. The area, the "heart" of the ship around the Royal Promenade and Centrum really is where one was hard pressed to feel like they were on a ship. For some this is desirable. I felt that the promenade was pretty much done in suburban mall style. Claudine thought that the promenade area, after looking at it for a while one day, could be improved by making it more charming. She thought it could be done so by1) replacing glass shutters on windows on the above decks with colored wood or faux-wood shutters and painting different sections above the shops/bars/cafes on both sides to resemble brownstones. 2) softening the lighting - less neon/fiber-optic feel 3) making the floor more of a solid cobblestone and more matte and less shiny a texture.
I thought that the addition of old fashioned street lamps would add some needed charm to the area.
In general I think the ship is pretty tropical urban hotel in feel and doesn't really have that public lounge that I found full of some sort of an evocative environment that lulled me in to it time after time. I found Maharajas to be in the Atlantic City casino mode of themed lounge though it worked well. The Aquarium Bar was hotel style but I must say I love watching the beautiful tropical fish in the real aquariums, the Centrums with their almost always active elevators seemed to be more hotel than ship to me. The aquarium bar was pretty, though not intimate because it was split in the middle by Centrum stairs. I have to say I'm not a huge fan of off-the-atrium public rooms and Schonners, Aquarium Bar, Champagne Bar, Royal Promenade all felt like off-the-atrium areas. Dizzy's has some jazz club ambiance but overall the combinations of the furnishings didn't quite do it for me though it is quite a nice room. I think I would prefer less patterns and more solid colors. I did enjoy the carpet leading to Dizzy's from the elevator bank. Fun and jazzy and full of personality. Perhaps Portofinos had ambiance - I did not elect to go there but it felt like it may have had it when I briefly went inside the first day of the cruise. I don't feel I need to spend that much time on decor on this ship because I think the main part of this ship is the action, amenities, and the wonderful deck spaces, not so much her decor. I know lots of people love the Centrums and RCI's decor, and it is pretty, but not necessarily my cup of tea. I prefer the smaller scale lounge areas of Princess and I especially like Princess' rich Wheelhouse Bars, the clubby and quasi-classic ship nooks of HAL's lounges, and the more chic, often art deco inspired, and often period designs of Celebrity's ships, also the traditional splendor of P&Os fleet and the understated chic look of Radisson's Seven Seas Navigator. I also found the dining rooms of HAL, Celebrity, and Princess to feel more luxurious and grand and overall the ships of HAL, Celebrity, and Princess to offer more premium furnishings although not necessarily having the Voyager's class amenities. This was expected. For me the marketing categories stand.
I like it on deck best: Yes, that's where I was much of the day. The promenade deck is truly wonderful, and I'll excuse RCI for not making most of it teak. It is wide, it wraps fully around the ship, there's full access to the bow, and there are a few loungers. The only problem I had with the promenade deck is that sometimes RCI played music out on this deck. The only music I wanted to hear was the sound of the sea on this deck. I also love the peak over the bridge area, the main pool area worked well, and the whole entertainment complex in the aft section worked well.
Sleepy time: I don't know if it was the size of the ship, its motion, or that I felt compelled to be on the deck in the daytime but I took frequent naps on the promenade deck, in the solarium, or any place, usually outside, that I could find a reasonable quiet place, and there were enough areas where I could.
Some outstanding crew members: Dan, Dan, the Party Man. Wow. Very energetic cruise director that made the cruise that much more fun. His calling of the horse race and belly flop and quick wit made him a delight. His sidekick, codirector Double D Derek was also wonderful. Our room steward was one of the best. Never came in on us, the room was clean and he folded our clothes, he was almost magical. Ferdinand, of course. Ozzie, our waiter, in addition to serving us swiftly and professionally and getting our orders right, was witty, entertaining, and engaging. He felt the personalities of our table out well and went along with our style of conversation and humor.
Our impressions of the food: food is absolutely subjective and I really am no connoisseur of fine food. I'm actually not a big eater at all, my wife is a moderate eater. We found the buffet food overall fair at best. Some hits but some real misses. Not a big selection at all for such a large ship, Zenith seemed to have a larger selection. Dining food presentation was inconsistent and the effort was OK, but the execution fell a bit short. The food itself had some standouts, particularly the lobster. The sauces for the meat/fish/foul was where I feel HAL and especially Celebrity had RCI beat. I did enjoy the included sodas at dinner. I think the 24 hour food in the Cafe Promenade was tasty, pizza had a thin crust. The coffee, I must say, may be the worse I've ever had. I welcome the news that the Adventure is going to have a Seattle's Best onboard. Now, time to retrofit it to the other ships. The custard for the ice cream seemed a bit lacking in cream taste but was good enough. Kids had a great time putting as much ice cream as possible on the little cones provided.
It was Christmastime: and the ship was decorated wonderfully. Right outside the Cafe Promenade a wonderful gingerbread village display complete with a train was set up. Tree ornaments were creatively done and located in various public areas. Near the Windjammer were two animated nutcrackers.
Maintenance and cleanliness: The exterior of the ship and painted areas of the deck were absolutely pristine. She was probably the most evenly and freshly painted ship at most of the ports visited and we shared the ports with NCL, HAL and Carnival ships. Inside, it was not quite up to the level of HAL or Celebrity. Carpets were not vacuumed often which allows the dirt to set in and show and for the carpet to have a duller appearance than if they are "combed" by vacuuming them. Their pale and pastel colors also seem to reveal some areas of dirt. The tables in the buffet were not bussed as quickly as they could have been. On the decks there seem to be more cans, papers, food left around in various places than on HAL or Celebrity. The overall cleanliness was good and sometimes very good and not at all objectionable, but not up to the higher standards of other ships I've been aboard.
The big ship moves: Well, the first night we felt nothing. However, with a moderately strong headwind and some moderate seas of 6-8 feet that old familiar feeling of bow pitching with some roll was present. Actually, it felt quite similar to the Century in the same sort of conditions. Also, the Viking Crown lounge vibrates a bit at times and sometimes shakes a bit. Is this true of other RCI ships? So, while the Voyager class is a smooth sailing ship that seems to have no problems staying straight in windy conditions, I think reports of the ship having no motion are optimistic. While the ship is way big the ocean and wind and the forces of nature are way bigger, and she'll still behave like a ship. I welcomed the motion.
Is this big ship small? I feel in some ways it is. I think because the Promenade is scaled mall/main street it seems a bit narrow. Also, not the stores, but the entertainment pubs seem a bit small within. RCI has done a great job of making the smaller scale seem like a larger scale, the illusion was expertly done, but it is still present when one uses references of the scale land-based areas of this type usually have. And, while the Centrums are impressive in a way because one is on a ship, 14 decks is a lot shorter than 14 stories of a hotel. And hotels tend to go up 20 -30 or more stories, so there's much more spacing. During peak hours of activity the promenade can seem a bit crowded and RCI brings out tables to sell things onto the promenade making it feel a bit more crowded. Also, there's lots of stuff in the promenade in the form of huge suspended pieces of art, different textures, different store fronts, and one effective way of making small places seem larger is limiting the amount of stuff. But that would be at odds with the hustle bustle feel and I think RCI did the right thing by putting in all of the stuff. It's their style and pax have responded well to the Royal Promenade.
I think on the deck that the inline track seems a bit squeezed. And I find it interesting that the Millennium seemed to have far more shops than the Explorer of the Seas, larger lounges, a larger quiet solarium area with a higher glass area, and a more expansive feeling spa area.
No port report: We didn't do much at the ports.
Overall: RCI is the fun line I thought it would be. I have plenty pics of their ships and videos and the actual ship really isn't much different than what the photos suggest. I had a wonderful video of much of the action on the Explorer from Bruce Stein, the parades, the singing waiters, the towel animals, the deck antics, and it was very noticeable how much was repeated, almost exactly on this Explorer cruise from the Voyager cruise one year earlier. It is more fun to be involved in it than watch it on video (though it is fun to watch it after being involved in it). There's some of the ballroom dancing and piano bar banter of HAL but it is much less the focus of the cruise as it is on HAL. The proportion of it is less, compared to HAL, and compared to what I've experienced on Celebrity. There's some fun science stuff near the aquarium bar, and a small screening room for edifying facts about ocean life.
I do not, however, think that the Voyager class is the ultimate ship. I am still of the opinion that while it can offer a ship experience it really takes it to the limit and feels, in many ways, to try its hardest not to feel like a ship. I love the ice skating rink and the wonderful show that was presented on it, the rock climbing wall, the mini-golf. I do not however care that much for the Royal Promenade and if the group decides on RCI after the Celebrity Constellation next year I would vote for the Radiance ship because it is a more manageable size, has less pastel colors, and does not have a Royal Promenade while having the mini-golf and rock climbing. And actually, the group did very little meeting at the Royal Promenade. Radiance also seems to have, from viewing her deck plans, a much more sensible placement for Portofinos next to the specialty Steakhouse and near the Schooner Bar. It seems the aft of the ship on Deck 6 has the Champagne Bar near the Centrum, the Schooner Bar, the two specialty restaurants and then a billiard Club, Card Club, and two lounges - there seems to be a unified theme to this area and that it was thought out a bit more than on the Voyager class. Radiance seems to lack the skating rink, this I would miss. If the group decides on Adventure or Navigator or another one of these mammoth beasts, though, I would not hesitate to go again. Haven't decided on Celebrity Constellation but I will predict a cruise with a narrower range of activities on this line with a different type of interactivity from the crew. The ship is also kind of fancy schmancy and understated for the group but they'll figure out a way to have a blast. However, I think groups would do far better with RCI, and don't quite understand why Celebrity is chosen so often for group cruises vs. RCI.
I enjoyed Sue's Viking group cruise immensely. I think they succeed well in their aim to entertain fellow pax often during the dining hours. They encouraged the hard working staff by providing laughs and fun at least during the time they served our group. I think cruising still is a big value.
I look forward to the next group cruise, whether we choose to do the Constellation, or wait until the group chooses RCI again. I would be interested in NCL as a choice as well. I did not find anyone in the group that liked Carnival so that will not be an option. The group tried Princess and it wasn't quite the same, a bit dull, but maybe they'll try it again. HAL would be way too sleepy. But, even if I don't cruise with the group in December, I'll see most of the folks at their annual picnic.
Claudine and I still prefer non-Carribean cruises of 10-12 nights and Celebrity is more often than not our first choice as a couple's cruise. Maybe our next cruise is on the Mercury or a Millie class ship, but may be the Zenith. We will try Princess and we are extremely pleased that we tried RCI and group cruising and look forward to another group cruise with Sue and hopefully on Radiance or Brilliance of the Seas - those shampoo ships.