2015 Cruise

Ever since we took our first cruise in 2011 as a family, we have become what can only be called cruise-addicts. Rather than venture to specific destinations, we always find ourselves looking into cruises. Cruising offers a lot of bang for your buck, especially when it comes to including kids in the vacation. It offers an amazing opportunity to meet people from other places and cultures, expose the kids to new locations, let them enjoy a bit of freedom, take advantage of the amazing food and service, and just have a grand time. When planning a trip, we’ve often asked the kids what they would like to do, and surprisingly, cruising is the first thing out of their mouths. Which is fine by me.

My wife (Christina) and I made a deal with the 3 younger boys (Addi, Hayden, and Dean), offering to take them on a cruise rather than get them a bunch of gifts for Christmas. And they were all aboard. What would usually consist of all 7 of us (me, Christina, and the 5 boys) would only be 5 this time. Our oldest had to work and would hold down the fort at home (and probably wanted to spend quality time with his special other), and our other older son is heavy into Nuke School in the Navy. Christina found a great deal on a cruise early in January 2015, so we took the plunge and booked it. We’ve only sailed on Carnival cruises up until now. This time is would be with Royal Caribbean — on their Explorer of the Seas ship.

We decided to take advantage of low gas prices and drive down to the departure port — Port Canaveral, FL. Instead of rushing down overnight as we’ve done in the past, we took our time. We left home on Friday, January 2nd, got about half way, and decided to spend the night at a hotel. We hadn’t made reservations in advance, so we stopped at a few hotels and quickly learned that they were full. We ended up at Thunderbird Inn in Florence, SC, and let me tell you — DO NOT stay there. Christina is usually pretty picky, but I’m surprised she was okay with us staying at this place. While I’m usually carefree, I was not pleased with the accommodations. It was worn, dirty, smelled bad, and just… Ugh! Let’s just say I slept with my clothes on. The Thunderbird Inn is certainly priced right, but once you see what you get, you’ll still feel ripped off. I’d share pictures of it, but I didn’t take any, as I figured my camera would throw up all over me if I did.

Christina got up bright and early (I wonder why!), and got us all up and in gear by 6am. One bright note about Thunderbird Inn is that it is right next door to Krispy Kreme. We were the first customers of the day and took advantage of the warm donuts — yum!

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With our stomachs full and the excitement building for the cruise, we headed down to Port Canaveral. We made great time and arrived at our hotel early in the afternoon. This hotel was no Thunderbird Inn. Thank the heavens. Christina had booked the Courtyard near the port, so we could leave our truck during the cruise. This hotel is magnificent. The lobby was clean and spacious. The room was great. The pool was nice. And it was right on Cocoa Beach, so we took advantage of that too. I’d say the only negatives of this hotel were — (1) no happy hour or continental breakfast as you find in many Courtyards, and (2) one of the bartenders we dealt with was rude. Otherwise, we were very pleased.

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We cruised the beach, hit a few shops, had a hearty dinner, and crashed, so we could be ready for the next day — the day we board the ship. Yeah!

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We woke up on January 4th, grabbed a quick bite, and headed to the port via the transfer bus the hotel provided. We learned that our ship would be docked at the newest terminal in Port Canaveral. In fact, it was brand new. Unfortunately, it showed. The bus dropped us off, and we were ushered to a line waiting to enter the building. We waited for about 30 minutes, and they finally started letting folks in. Folks kind of shoved their way in and made their way through the security gate and then up to the waiting area. Like a herd of cattle, we followed the masses, and we were told to sit in a certain section and wait to be called.

We’ve experienced the boarding process with Carnival, and it has always been handled very efficiently. They’d give us a card with a number or color, and when that number/color was called, we’d go to the counter, and get processed — then we could board. Well, with this particular terminal (or Royal Caribbean), that was not the case. We waited and waited. Christina headed to the bathroom. And then something happened. I’ll be honest — I’m not sure what it was. But everyone started rushing to the counter. I hopped up, counted kids, and got us up to flow with the swarm. People shoved and cut in line, and it was just chaos. Finally the hustle slowed, and we found ourselves in a rather lengthy line. So the waiting continued — but now we were standing.

We eventually made it to the counter, put on a smile, handed over our credit card, and got our room keys. Then we made our way to the ship. Yeah!

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We were on the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas!

As is usually the case, since staff is still cleaning up rooms from the previous guests, our room was not ready. The typical routine is to wander around the ship, ohh and ahh over the decor, and find our way to the lunch buffet. The ship is beautiful. We’ve been on some ships with unique decor, but the Explorer is pretty subdued — nothing over the top. But still flashy and cool. It has fish tanks, crazy art sculptures, and just a fun vibe to it.

While roaming around, we took in almost every inch of the ship.

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This included seeing some of the art gallery. We didn’t get suckered into buying anything this time, so kudos to us.

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We checked out the arcade, which the kids visited almost daily.

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We wandered through the casino, and the boys got fresh with an innocent young lady. And let me just say, other than passing through it to get to the other side of the ship, we didn’t visit the casino. We don’t smoke, but to each their own. But when the casino smells like an ashtray simmering in a disgusting bathroom, there is a problem. On day 1, it wasn’t an issue as it had been aired out and cleaned. But by the 3rd day, you could barely breathe walking by it. In fact, the Promenade level is one up from the casino, and there is a stairway leading from one to the other. Well, just walking by that stairway is enough to choke you. Royal Caribbean must do something about this issue during renovation — for the comfort of its guests. Better vents or something. But I won’t visit or spend money in a place that smells like that. Enough on that…

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We checked out the dance club, which is a favorite of Christina’s. This was definitely one of the cooler clubs we’ve seen on a ship. It had a medieval theme to it, which was pretty wild.

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We even met the captain of the ship, Rick Sullivan. And saw the bridge too.

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Our room was ready pretty soon after boarding. So we went to check it out. Since it would be the five of us, we were able to book an ocean-view room at the front of the ship that would accommodate all of us. The room was bright, had plenty of space, and allowed a good amount of privacy. And it was decorated too. We had requested it be decorated for Dean’s 7th birthday, and they did a great job. Overall, the room was great. And the bed was cozy. I do wish it had more power outlets and a bath soap dispenser. It only had shampoo. But that’s just being picky. We were very happy with the room.

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We had to wait a while for our luggage to arrive, but fortunately, we brought the boys’ swim trunks with us. They took advantage of the nice weather (much better than the snow we were getting back at home), and jumped in the pool. It was a little too cold for Christina and I, so we just watched.

We took in more of the ship. Watched the ship leave port. Enjoyed a lovely dinner with a wonderful couple in the dining room. We celebrated Dean’s birthday (a day early) with a cake, and the staff and guests sang to him.

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After dinner, the ship offered free arcade time for families. Knowing how much money kids can go through in the arcade, we made sure to take advantage of the opportunity. We played some games — other than the quarter of the systems that were broken.

Most nights, our 2 youngest boys (Hayden and Dean) would visit their kids’ club to hang out with other kids their age and play games. The oldest of the three (Addi) would hang out with new friends and check out teen club to see what was going on there, which they always had activities going on. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much involvement from the teens on the ship, so some events had to be canceled or modified. After a little while there, we would pick them up (if they wanted) and do a little something — snack, watch a show, or something. Then, worn out from the day, they’d head to the room to crash.

On the first night, after kid club, we enjoyed a Bon Voyage/Sail Away parade in the Promenade. This is definitely something new from our previous cruises. The parades were a great treat for the kids. However, I will say that the Promenade isn’t very wide, so the crowds were maddening, and when the entertainment staff asked you to dance, you had to keep it pretty tight. No matter, Leigh Xuereb (Cruise Director) and Erky (Activities Manager), along with the staff, always put on a great show, and appeared to have fun doing it.

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The kids headed to the room to crash, and Christina and I got to go check out the nightly events in other areas of the ship and in the dance club — with DJ Spindian (Yeah. That’s right!).

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The next day we would be at CocoCay, Bahamas — Royal Caribbean’s own private island. We woke up to the ship getting positioned and anchoring itself, and then made our way to the breakfast buffet at what is called the Windjammer Cafe. As you walk into the Windjammer, you are greeted by a fun troop of folks with hand sanitizer. These folks are always chipper and singing Washy Washy, so you’ll wash your hands. The kids got a kick out of that. Once washy washied, we ate a quick breakfast.

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Then we made our way to the tender boat to get to the island. We were one of the first groups to head off the ship, so the crowds were light.

CocoCay is wonderful. There are no annoying shop owners to worry about, and it’s nothing but sandy beaches as soon as you step foot on the island. We booked an excursion here that would allow us access to blow-up bouncy toys in the water, and a huge blow-up water slide. Since we got there early, we found a nice set of chairs, and then played in the “chilly” water. Hayden and Addi quickly found some aquatic life and were thrilled.

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A few moments later, all the smiles quickly halted. There was a scream from the other side of the beach with a guy calling for help. We quickly spotted him and saw him carrying a flaccid, tiny body. He rushed the child to the beach, where staff quickly approached. We watched from afar, but the nearby staff informed us that they were able to get the child responsive and ushered her to medical for further assistance. We didn’t hear much about the situation after that, but here’s hoping the young child made a full recovery. As you can guess, this changed the mood and the carefree attitude for the day. We were all eyes on kids from that point on — which we try to do anyway.

Soon after, it was our turn to venture out to the water park with blow-up obstacles, trampolines, slides, etc. We were not aware at the time, but we only had an hour to play in the water park. We could still enjoy the beach and use the water slide all day though. Addi and I tackled some of the bigger obstacles while Christina, Hayden, and Dean took care of the slides and trampolines. We had a blast, and found that an hour was probably plenty.

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Then it was on to the big water slide on the beach. The kids loved it. I actually felt bad for the staff, as the kids went time after time after time after time… you get the point! But, again, they loved it.

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Around noon, we enjoyed the buffet that the ship provides on the island. There was plenty of food, and it was all tasty. Of course, the Coco Loco drinks (virgin and not-so-virgin variety) were great too.

We wandered around a bit, and found ourselves at the other side of the beach, where there was a place called Bare Foot Beach. Bare Foot Beach is amazing. You can walk so far out into the water, yet it’s only ankle or calf deep. It’s pretty wild. I was hoping we could make it to this sand bar way out, but the rest of the crew got tired, and me twisting my ankle didn’t help my argument any.

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After Bare Foot Beach, the kids enjoyed some more sliding, and then we headed back to the boat.

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Overall, the CocoCay visit was wonderful. We all enjoyed ourselves, and the relaxed atmosphere. The only downside we found was the amount of jellyfish-like specimens in the water. I believe they may have been anemones of some sort.

Back at the ship, Christina took on some Michael Jackson trivia, and later on, we ate dinner in the dining room with the same couple as the first night. Then the kids hit their clubs, while Christina and I checked out the production show, Fast Forward. It was a collection of dance and music to classics such as Footloose, Flashdance, and Saturday Night Fever. The shows are ramped up a bit compared to Carnival, and we enjoyed them quite a bit.

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We wrapped up the night with a little more dancing to DJ Spindian. The long day was complete.

Day 3 was a sea day, as the ship made its way to Cozumel, Mexico. This was a day filled with rock climbing, pool time, a belly flop competition, an ice skating show called Spirits of the Seasons (which also included an amazing Cyr wheel act), formal dinner, an excellent headliner show by a group called These Guys, and then a late night deck party.

We woke up earlier than we wanted as we wanted to be first in line for the rock climbing session of the day. Yes, this ship has a wall you can climb. Crazy! We shot some hoops while we waited, and then Hayden, Dean, and I all tackled the wall — and made it look easy I’m sure!

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The kids enjoyed the water park at the back of the ship, which had slides and a pool with jets. This section is only for the kids to enjoy, and they did.

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Then we got to see men of all sizes attempt belly flops. Ugh!

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The ice show was simply breathtaking. The entertainer with the Cyr wheel was ridiculously good. It was just cool to see such a show on a ship.

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Formal dinner was yummy — dessert was better.

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These Guys, a vocal group, were great as well. I can’t believe we hadn’t heard of them before. They need to work on marketing, as they are a talented bunch.

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And while the crowd for the deck party was pretty light, Hayden certainly enjoyed it. Dean fell asleep in the lounge chair though.

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On day 4, we were at Cozumel, Mexico. Again, we woke up to watch the ship pull into port. Being at the front of the ship, you tend to hear all the banging and scratching as tug boats bounce us around and the chains/ropes are released. We grabbed breakfast at the buffet and then hit the gangway to exit the ship. Unlike CocoCay, in Cozumel you are quickly greeted by shops and annoying shop owners. They want to sell you anything and everything. Fortunately, we know the deal — politely decline, find what we want, and carry on. We got a few knick-knacks and checked in with our excursion guide. My parents were very generous and gave us an excursion for Christmas. We were headed to Playa Mia. Apparently, quite a few other folks were too, and the bus filled up fast. The guides split us into 3 groups. 1 would go on the bus. The other 2 would go in a taxi van and taxi car. We were a little hesitant to be stuck in a cab, and in fact, someone from our family would have to ride separately. Addi drew the short straw and wound up riding with another family in a van, while the rest of us rode in a car. Fortunately, we all made it safe and sound, and found ourselves at the spectacular Playa Mia. We have been to Mr. Sanchos in the past, and I feel there is no comparison. Playa Mia is so much nicer. And there is so much more to do. The kids flat out had a blast here. As did Christina and I.

We tackled the blow-up obstacle course out in the water (unlimited use), we snorkeled (there is even some life under the water), we went in the pools (amazing pools), we slid down the twin slides (I’m sure I won the races), we ate (food was okay; salsa was amazing), we drank (they were generous with the alcohol, and the kids enjoyed the virgin mixes), we laughed, and had a great time. We didn’t even have enough time to hit the paddle boats and such that were available too. Christina and I have already agreed that it is an easy decision for our next trip to Cozumel. Playa Mia it is.

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After a full day in Cozumel, we headed back to the ship. Fortunately, they had a van where we could all ride together on the way back. Once on the ship, we all headed to the kids club and played a game sort of like dodge ball called ga-ga ball. You roll the ball around and try to hit people with the ball, but there are a bunch of rules. The rules bested us, but we had a blast anyway. And I think the little kids liked teaching us a new game too.

For dinner, we decided to try the buffet at the Windjammer Cafe, and we found it to be great. There was a huge selection, and a lot for the kids to really enjoy. I actually think we all enjoyed the buffet more than the dining room. Of course, we lost the fun service and company, but the selection of food better suited our family.

While the kids enjoyed kid club, Christina and I enjoyed some of the production show, Invitation to Dance, which was choreographed by Louis van Amstel from Dancing with the Stars. It was okay, but not up to par with some of the other shows we had already seen.

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We all enjoyed a 70’s Disco Street Party in the promenade, which again was very crowded. The show was great, and Leigh’s (Cruise Director) impersonation of Austin Powers is pretty great. And Hayden and Dean even caught some goodies during the show — a T-shirt and a light-up ring.

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Later on, Christina and I decided to check out The Quest Adult Game Show, a show meant only for those willing to put up with a little dirty, filthy, nasty. It definitely got dirty, and ended with nasty as a bunch of men ended up wearing ladies underwear and a face full of makeup at the end. It was not pretty.

And then we wrapped up the evening at the dance club.

Day 5 would be a sad day, as it would mean the cruise would be coming to an end. Christina and I woke up to find that we had made the cut to attend a Taste of Tuscany dining event at the specialty restaurant called Portofino. This would include a cooking demonstration by their executive sous chef and a tour of the galley. We had attended such events on the Carnival cruises, so we were excited to check this one out. While we attended, Addi took the younger boys to find stuff to do around the ship.

The food was spectacular. O.M.G., the steak was great (so good that I forgot to take a picture). The pasta-making demonstration was well done as well. Then the galley tour. This is always a fun treat. I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance. It’s amazing all the things the kitchen staff has to deal with, and how much food is made, processed, and delivered.

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After the meal, we wandered a bit, and then the boys asked to go swimming. Let me start by saying that the ship was hauling butt back to Florida, so there was a strong breeze, and it was not a warm breeze. Christina and I thought they were crazy, but they wanted it — they got it! Christina and I froze on the lounge chairs as they enjoyed the water.

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We enjoyed the last of the parades. Royalpallooza was a fun wrap-up parade with the staff dressed up in dazzling colors and fun costumes. Again, the kids enjoyed it.

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Hayden, Dean, and I took on some ice skating later in the afternoon. Of course, we looked as good as the professionals.

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We enjoyed the last evening, but didn’t go crazy as we knew we had a full day of driving the next day. We packed everything up, got our luggage ready to go, relaxed a bit, and just enjoyed the day.

Day 6 was the day we’d depart, head back to the truck, and drive home. No more towel animals to wish us a good night.

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Nope, it would be back to normal life. We were sad.

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We got up, grabbed all of our remaining bags, headed to breakfast, and waited for our number to be called to depart. We made our way to the gangway, went through customs, and then waited for our shuttle. As we waited, we did see a famous person. You may recognize him.

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Good ol’ Abe.

We caught our shuttle, said bye to the ship, loaded up the truck, and headed home. The drive home was a long one, as we needed to get back for Hayden’s basketball game the next day. We arrived at our door well past bedtime. We unloaded the truck and crashed for the night, and then resumed our normal lives. Boy, I miss the ship!

All in all, we had a wonderful time. My wife does a great job comparing Carnival to Royal Caribbean in her post here. We disagree a bit in our breakdown, as I found that Royal just does some things wrong in my opinion. No ironing room because it poses a fire risk, yet I saw what the casino looked like. No night owl activities for kids to hang out late at the kid club. (Instead they had babysitting hours for later in the evening.) The ice cream machines shut down early. (The kids and adults love the 24 hour pizza and ice cream on Carnival.) A curfew for teens. The chaos at the terminal. None of these are major issues, but they are issues. Of course, the buffet and shows were nicer on Royal, and it was cool having a rock wall and ice skating. So it sort of balances out. In the end, I think Christina and I agree that we enjoy both, and can’t wait for our next cruise, no matter who it’s with.