As a cruise neophyte, I had few comparison points for my trip on Royal Caribbean’s newly refurbished ship, Freedom of the Seas, except for the clichés about cruises being for the geriatric set. Nothing could be further from my experience on the cruise from Port Canaveral, Florida to Nassau, Bahamas aboard Freedom of the Seas. There was never a chance to be bored—not with the multitude of sports activities, restaurants, shops, theater, and dancing onboard. Royal Caribbean has provided an entertaining cruise experience where everyone, of any age, can find activities that will engage them. Though I had a great time as a solo traveler, I imagine this would be a particularly ideal vacation solution for families with children.
Here’s a quick guide to Freedom of the Seas as I found it:
1. Ship basics
Freedom of the Seas is still the largest cruise ship sailing out of Port Canaveral at 1,112 feet, and it recently got a makeover as part of a 24-day dry dock overhaul. What’s new on the ship? Aside from the new specialty dining options, more guest accommodations have been added for a total of 1,891 staterooms. Specifically:
- 44 new staterooms, Deck 12 Forward
- 23 new interior staterooms
And rest assured that such a large ship does not have to be slow-going. We were making 20.5+ knots per hour at 2 am in the morning with 20 mph headwinds, and arrived at our destination before most people had wiped the sleepy dust from their eyes.
2. Staying active
Freedom made a splash in 2006 with the cruising world’s first surf simulator, the FlowRider. The FlowRider is a free activity that lets you learn to surf in a controlled environment. Able-bodied surf instructors show you how it’s done in style, standing on a 42-inch flowboard, though as alternative option you can just lay low on a boogie board. Remember to bring your swimsuit, but make sure it fits securely—as these are power-packed waves.
Try your hand scaling the 42-foot rock-climbing wall. You’ll feel like Spiderman from its top-deck vantage point roughly 200 feet above the ocean. Get geared up with all the help you need from an experienced staff there to help you conquer the wall safely. They provide all of the equipment, including shoes, helmets and harnesses. Beginners can avail themselves of one-on-one instruction by appointment at no charge, or take beginner climbing sessions. For more experienced climbers, there are advanced sessions, speed-climbing competitions and teen tournaments. Climbers must be six years of age or older and minors must be accompanied by an adult.
Also on the top deck are a full-size basketball court, nine-hole mini golf course and an array of pools and hot tubs. A loop around the top deck is also an enjoyable way to get your walking exercise with an ocean view.
Down on Deck 3, the Studio B ice-skating rink offers open skating for guests throughout each cruise. There was also a new 60-minute show featuring 12 professional skaters performing ice renditions from popular musicals like Hair, and thematic routines set to music such as Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” No charge to use the rink, no reservations necessary and they even provide the skates. That’s what I call a triple Lutz.
The ship, being 185-feet wide, easily fits four pools and six whirlpools in which you can immerse yourself. The whole family will be entertained throughout the cruise by pool movies shown on a huge 18-foot-wide LED screen. Nothing like a good soak, a movie and a cold drink under the stars! The multi-tiered main pool deck has two semicircular pools bisected by a walkway and platform where DreamWorks animation characters—the likes of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and the Madagascar Penguins—come to life, much to the delight of children.
Kids will want to check out the H2O Zone water park, where they can soak each other with water jets, buckets and sprays hidden among the statues that evoke Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana sculptures. There are also two wading pools—one devoted to toddlers.
Not in the mood for kids splashing about? Find a quiet retreat in the adults-only Solarium, where the two cantilevered whirlpools overlooking the ocean are located.
4. What to do at night
I found the silent disco offered on Deck 14’s bar and dance club, Olive or Twist, was the perfect combination of private head space and a friendly group experience. Passengers can don wireless headphones to trance dance to disco or rock music while everyone else around them can engage in conversation at a normal decibel. Non-dancers will have a laugh as people sing off-key to the tune coming through their headphones. To quote Randy Jackson from American Idol, “Yo, dawg, that was pitchy.”
While cruising on such a colossal ship as Freedom is often a group experience as you would expect, it’s possible to find some quieter time. Adults will enjoy the revamped Vintages wine bar, where one can sip in serenity from an international selection of wines by the glass or the bottle. Or have a draught of Guinness at the authentic English pub, the Bull & Bear.
Play your favorite hand at Freedom‘s Casino Royale. The casino has 19 gaming tables that generally offer multi-deck Blackjack games, single-deck Blackjack, Caribbean Stud Poker (one), three-card poker (two), low-limit Texas Hold ‘em (one), Let It Ride (one), roulette (three), and craps (one). Since this is more of a family experience than Las Vegas is, there may only be one or two $500 limit Blackjack tables. In addition to table games, the casino has 306 slot machines—ranging from 5¢ to $25.
Cantilevered whirlpools located on both sides of the ship in the adults-only solarium extend twelve feet beyond the sides of the ship. Wide panels of glass allow a breathtaking view from the horizon to the ocean below. Enjoy a Elemis Aroma Stone Therapy at Vitality Spa, a full-service spa offering a beauty salon and spa treatments, including facials, manicures and seaweed body wraps.
5. Child care
Children aged six months through 36 months have their needs attended to in the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery while the parents can relax and enjoy the ship. The Royal Babies and Royal Tots programs offer interactive playgroups that combines fun and learning. Royal Caribbean provides a staff of trained professionals who are available day and night.
Tip: Make care reservations at the open house on the first day of the cruise, since space is limited. Cost is $8 per hour, a sweet deal considering it includes meals and a wireless phone for parents to use to call in case they want to check up on things. So relax mom and dad, and have a most excellent Bloody Mary by the pool. You’re off-duty for a few hours.
Aside from three levels of main dining rooms, there are several new specialty dining options for a more intimate meal (and a surcharge): Giovanni’s Table for family-style Italian, Chops Grille for dependable steakhouse fare, and Sabor’s Modern Mexican, where I had tableside-prepared guacamole and delicious chicken and roasted corn empanadas. Several types of innovative margaritas are offered each night (try the jalapeño; spicy and smooth at the same time). A must-have: the Caja de Dulce mini dessert sampler, which translates to “Box of Sweets.” I’m still dreaming about the chocolate banana empanadas.
Another new addition is the Cupcake Cupboard, where you can pick from 30 different flavors in a vintage-themed shoppe. Deck 5’s Royal Promenade also offers a Sorrento’s for thin crust pizza, Starbucks at the Promenade Café, a Ben & Jerry’s, and several shops.
Factoid: Life-size cow sculptures directly above Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop offer a view of their derrieres to any guest trying to look out their window over the Royal Promenade from Cabin 6305. Royal Caribbean has cleverly decorated this room in a special “moo” motif and complimentary ice cream as compensation of sorts. So if you’re a obsessed with Holstein’s or Ben & Jerry’s, they have the room for you!
7. Finding your way around
I found such a huge ship to be a bit disorienting at times. After all, Freedom of the Seas was once the Guinness World Record-holder for largest cruise ship in the world. The LCD Wayfinder digital navigation system was a big help in navigating around the ship’s 14 guest decks. Fore, aft, stern, bow? Why worry? The system showed me exactly where I was and where I needed to turn to get where I wanted to be. Hey, with nine dining locations, an ice-skating rink, a theater, and ten bars, I was happy to have some help!
8. Summing it up
Freedom of the Seas has something to please 3,782 total guests almost any time of the day or night. It’s a very affordable travel option, considering two adults can book a large Ocean View Stateroom for early 2016 and get all their meals sans alcohol (specialty restaurants noted and shops are extra) for a seven-night Western Caribbean Cruise from Port Canaveral for about $150 dollars each a day. How do they do it? Very well, thank you.