We are a family of 4. DH and I are in our early forties and we have a daughter who is 5 and a son who is 4.
I'll try to position this as a critical review of the Royal FOTS with (where applicable) comparisons to recent sailings on Carnival Dream and HAL Eurodam.
Obviously this is based on my personal experience ... your mileage may vary and probably will.
Activities There were an abundance of activities on board ~ almost too many. Granted you don't have to do everything, but we found ourselves rushing from activity to activity and had to miss some due to scheduling conflicts between dinner and night shows. I would not say that it was a relaxing holiday but it was an enjoyable one.
I was happy to see that Royal had some family activities (family disco, family karaoke, family wii etc.). I would have been nice if those activities were also printed in the Adventure ocean compass too.
If I had to make any recommendations to Royal it would be to give more thought to scheduling of events and how those conflict with dinner times and kid's club times.
They can't please everyone though, and I recognize this.
Adventure Ocean My kids were in the 3 to 5 AO club. This was the BIGGEST disappointment of the whole trip.
Perhaps my kids are just mature, but I found the kid's club to be very juvenile. I was really disappointed with the counsellors who appeared to be more babysitters than anything else. They mostly had very heavy accents which my kids found difficult to understand. Not one of them appeared to be enthusiastic, happy, or to love their jobs. On more than one occasion, I appeared to pick up/drop off my kids only to find a counsellor yelling at a child (fortunately not my child!). Despite the events that were posted in the compass, almost every time I arrived, the counsellors were reading a book and children were being lectured to sit quietly and listen. Now, I will admit that my kids came home with small crafts/coloured items, so they were definitely doing other things, but reading a book seemed to be the most frequent activity.
My kids did not LOVE the kid's club and I do not blame them one bit. In comparison to other kid's clubs (Club HAL and Camp Carnival), I found the general decor of the kids clubs to be depressing and not happy or stimulating. My kids went reluctantly only on the assurance that we were not going to leave them for a long time. I felt guilty every time I dropped my kids off. I will note that the counsellors (Chop Suey for example) in the next age group were much better.
In comparison, earlier this year we sailed HAL, and based on our experience, Club HAL was way better, which is surprising for a cruiseline that does not target young families. The counsellors were happy and energetic and very obviously loved their jobs. By day 2, they were greeting children and parents by first name. Yes, it is a smaller ship with fewer young families, but I would guess that they had about 40 kids participating in kid's club.
Most of the parents I spoke to in the waiting area seemed to share my sentiments about Adventure Ocean.
I'll also comment on the "Fisher Price" loot bag the kids received at the end of the cruise. OMG, my kids (4 and 6) outgrew Fisher Price a long time ago. Granted it was better than nothing, but I found the loot bag way too juvenile. When the kids left Club HAL, they received yellow nylon backbag bags, filled with all their crafts, chocolates, pencils, and lots of HAL giveaways. HAL was waaaayyyyy more generous with the give aways at every event and not just the final lootbag.
Service Service was surprisingly good. We had the best Head Waiter we've ever had on a ship. We usually gripe about tipping the Head Waiter, but we actually tipped this guy a little extra. He came to speak with us every night to make sure we were happy and was really good at facilitating our character breakfasts and other requests. Our server (Colleen) was excellent. DH thought she was the best server we'd ever had (my vote goes to Yunis on Eurodam). However, with open seating for breakfast and dinner, the service was less than stellar. The breakfast and lunch waitstaff generally seemed grumpy. On one occasion, we had a breakfast waiter who was always grumpy when dealing with us (and no – we are not grumpy people) .... yet he had one of his dinner families seated right next to us ... and as he turned to deal with them, he would always put on his happy face/voice. IT was clear to us, that his gratuity was not based on how he dealt with us ... and so he certainly was not giving his best efforts for us. We give the overall edge for service to HAL. We had great service on HAL, everywhere by everyone.
Nut Allergies Like most ships, Royal does a horrible job with allergies, specifically peanut allergies. For example, last year when we sailed on Grandeur,, I had an allergic reaction to the Apple Parcels which are offered on a sea day lunch menu. I alerted the wait staff on Grandeur and followed up with a complaint to Royal to advise them that the description on the menu should indicate the presence of nuts in the dessert. No action was taken and the Apple parcels still appear on the menu with no flag as to the item containing almonds. DH ordered one for our son for dessert, and fortunately, I stopped him. My son has tree nut and peanut allergies.
The entire chocolate breakfast (served at both character breakfasts) was OFF LIMITS for him. When the waiter dropped the plate of baked goods on the table, he said, "not for anyone with nut allergies" and then I called him back to elaborate. He then sent the Head Wait who explained that Royal Chocolate product has "may contain nuts" on the label, so they consider EVERY chocolate item to contain nuts. If that is the case, this should be stated on the menu. Also, on the first night after we advised both our waiter and the Head waiter of my son's nut allergies, neither advised us of this "all chocolates contain nuts" warning. I know it is just Royal protecting their own butt. It would have been nice if I knew the entire chocolate menu contained or could contain nuts, and then I would not have read those items to him. Unfortunately, it was only after I got my son all excited about the chocolate banana bread, that I had to tell him that he could not have it. My little guy is a TROUPER though and does an amazing job of being told that he can't eat something because of his peanut allergies. Now, we generally, don't follow the "may contain" as my son has a consumption allergy so we generally just specifically avoid anything that expressly contains nuts. Nevertheless, we erred on the side of caution. I offer this as a "heads up" for any families sailing with Nut Allergic children. Next time, I'm bringing chocolate chips from home so my son can enjoy chocolate chip pancakes. But I would think it would not be toooo much effort for Royal to source and reserve some nut-free chocolate for those patrons that specifically request it.
Characters The kids loved the parades and the characters. I wish there were more though. From Shrek, we had Shrek, Fiona and Puss N Boots. From Madagascar, we had Alex, Gloria, and King Julian. My kids LOVE the penguins, and sadly they were not there (except in the video shown at the sail away party OR the inflatable ones in the dreamworks parade). (Despite seeing them on the FOTS videos on you tube). After booking the Kung Fu Panda package (more on this later).... we were surprised to see only 1 character – Po. That was a bit of a letdown. I know some of the characters were small (but I can't help but think Disney would have found a way to do it). I would think that they could have at least had Tigress. We were also looking forward to seeing Hiccup and Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon, but they had just left for Oasis. I told my daughter that Hiccup and Astrid got married and they went on another cruise on their honeymoon, and she was happy with this explanation ;-)
I can't understand why they don't have all costumes on all ships. The only other thing was that we saw a photo op with Shrek and stood in line to meet him. Just as we got to the front of the line, they subbed out Shrek with Puss n Boots. My kids were really disappointed especially my son who was scared of Puss n Boots.
Kung Fu Panda Package (Pandamonium) I think we were on the last sailing of the Pandamonium Package ... but I will offer this for anyone who buys a similar package in the future. Our package was to contain 2 soda packages, 2 cupcakes, 1 photo, and 1 exclusive meet and greet, and 1 pets at sea stuffed animal. Having asked here about people who'd booked the Pandamonium Package, I had read about others who had trouble getting Royal to follow-through on the package; some waiting as long as mid-cruise before it was sorted out. So, I was determined to act quickly, and started asking about my coupons as soon as we boarded. Of course, we had problems too.
The "botch-up" might be rooted in the fact that we booked the Pandamonium Package on our initial cabin and then subsequently upgraded to a new cabin a few weeks prior to sailing. Our TA assured me (pre- and post trip) that she had verified with Royal that we would not lose the panda package with our upgrade. As luck would have it, the panda package did not make it to our reservation. On the first day, I had to really chase down our coupons, which we finally did receive just before midnight on the first day. Sonja at Guest Relations was excellent and took a personal interest in our plight.
We also missed the exclusive meet and greet with Po. It was supposed to happen on Day 5 at 5PM and while I knew this on Day 1, we forgot by Day 5. Invitations like those that are issued for the Meet & Greet would have been a nice and well-appreciated reminder.
Despite getting and using our coupons, we still got billed for everything that should have been included for free with our package. On the debarkation day, DH had to stand in line to get credited for all those charges. When Royal does credits, they have to contact the "head' of that department to do the credit. When we left the ship, we had still not been credited for the pet at sea (stuffed animal), as that needed to be done by the kid's club manager, and she was still asleep.
Dining Room (BLD) We generally prefer to have all our meals in the MDR. Breakfast service was horribly slow. They now have a "breakfast buffet" self-service in the MDR. I think Royal wants to push people towards self-selection for breakfast. By the end of the cruise, we were eating breakfast in the Windjammer. The service was comparable and the food was a lot faster.
We were really disappointed by the food quality. Having just come off HAL, I think HAL food was better. The options on the kid's menu were great, and my kids were always pleased. Presentation for our meals was lacking (okay, food does not have to look good to taste good). But I found the food to be mediocre at best. The food wasn't bad per se; but we were certainly not wowed. Perhaps our tastes are becoming more discriminating as we age and we are just harder to please, not sure. I know DH generally orders 2 to 3 desserts if there is something he really likes, he will ask for more. There was not a single dessert that wowed him on this cruise.
I finally tried the vidallia onion tart that everyone raves about. It was not to my liking, but I'm not a fan of anything quiche-y or too egg-y. I was very disappointed that I did not get to finally try the lab shank. I'd been salivating over this ever since a table-mate ordered it on Grandeur last fall. Unfortunately, the lab shanks did not make it to the dock in time and we sailed without them (seriously.). So, the menu item was subbed with beef tenderloin, which although not terribly flavourfull was cooked perfectly. I found the ship did a very good job of cooking steaks to order. I could not get medium-rare on Carnival as it was supposedly against their policy (or it was against my waiters' policy). I found if anything, Royal errs on the side of rare, but I will definitely take an under-cooked steak over an over-cooked one.
Wind-Jammer: The food was "okay". We're not huge pork eaters, and I found some days, there were mostly pork options. I thought this was poor-planning on Royal's part. I would assume that a fair number of passengers do not eat pork for religious reasons, and I found the pork-heavy menus somewhat exclusionary.
At breakfast, I found the "number" system for the omelettes, somewhat chaotic. I thought Carnival did a much better job with the buffet options on Carnival Dream especially their omelette station. They also had the noodle and pasta stations for lunch which were excellent options when one could not dine at the MDR.
Cupcake Cupboard I was very disappointed with the cupcakes. I expected stellar cupcakes. Having taken the Michael's cake decorating classes, I could churn out cupcakes of comparable decorating quality. But the cake/icing quality was really poor. They were extremely sweet and the cupcakes were lacking in any flavour. My kids each took a bite of theirs and didn't want any more (and they love cupcakes!). Good thing they were free! I'm just an average home baker, but I'd bet I could outsell the Cupcake Cupboard in a bake sale.
Lakeland Airport/Niagara International We generally fly Southwest out of BUF to MCO or FLL (depending on the cruise). This flight we flew Direct Air out of Niagara Falls, NY to Lakeland, Florida. The flight was a lot cheaper so I cannot complain about that. However, we were nickel and dimed ... had to pay for every checked bag (hence numerous people trying to stuff their too large carryons into the overhead bins). Also, no free soft drinks or snacks. But in the end, it was still cheaper. This was our first time flying out of a regional airport. I have to say that the lack of hustle/bustle was nice. Unfortunately, TSA had too much time on their hands and checked (should I say ransacked?) every bag. We had 4/4 bags checked on the way in and 4/4 bags checked on the way out. In all my flights out of BUF/MCO/FLL, I've only ever had 1 bagged randomly checked. TSA left many of my outer pockets open/unzipped and things were falling out as our bags were retrieved from the carousel. They also went through our stuff, and took things (like liquids) out of the poly bags, without re-zipping the bags. They even opened a bottle of pain meds without properly re-sealing the bottle, and the pills went everywhere. I was NOT happy about this. For this reason alone, I'd be more inclined to fly out of a major airport next time.
Despite the above, we did have an amazing holiday. As we continue to evaluate all the cruiselines trying to pick which one is right for us ....we're trying to be critical in our assessment .... I've mainly posted my criticisms here to benefit others who use the same criteria to judge a cruise.
I'm not 100% sure that we would sale Freedom again .... but if we did, these experiences will qualify our expectations. Given that I found a $25 casino chip in my dryer .... I'm pretty sure I'll be sailing Royal again in order to redeem it! Besides, we made Platinum this cruise, so that is a good thing!
Like I said above, this reflects our experience, and the experiences of others may vary. I'd be happy to answer any questions. You can find me here mostly on the Chit Chat board at Cruisemates or PM me through this site.