With the FlowRider, H2O Zone and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families; there were nearly 800 kids younger than 17 on our sailing. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly ranging from their 30's to 50's, and plenty of fun-loving seniors. (We eavesdropped on some World War II vets exchanging fascinating stories.) Many Royal Caribbean cruisers are repeat passengers. The majority hail from North America, though many on our cruise came from South America and Europe.
Seven-night cruises typically feature two formal nights and five casual nights. Theme outfits are encouraged but seldom seen. Many men don tuxedos for formal dining, though suits are just fine and quite common. Women opt for cocktail dresses or gowns. No one looks askance if you don't observe a formal night; plenty of families opt for a more casual experience, bypassing the formal nights for laid-back dinners in Windjammer.
Freedom of the Seas has an identity crisis. The 155,000-ton, 3,634-passenger vessel launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship at the time, dwarfing the Voyager-class ships that influenced its design and introducing a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean. (Siblings Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas debuted in 2007 and 2008, respectively). But in 2009, it was forced to hand over its "world's largest" title to sister Oasis of the Seas (and later to Allure of the Seas), Royal Caribbean's massive 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger mega-ship.
So where does that leave Freedom? The ship -- which made waves when it launched with cruising's first surf simulator, a regulation-sized boxing ring and an interactive water park for kids -- received a makeover in 2011 to keep it current with Royal Caribbean's newest innovations and favorite features from the Oasis-class ships. Part of the first wave of the line's fleetwide revitalization program, Freedom got upgrades like a new nursery, an LCD Wayfinder system, a huge video screen over the family pool, a cupcake shop and DreamWorks characters roaming the ship, much to the delight of the youngest cruisers.
Plus, it retains Royal Caribbean hallmarks, such as the promenade and Promenade Cafe, rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's.
We weren't sure how Freedom would feel post-refurb and post-Oasis. Would it feel daunting and crowded, as it's still a huge mega-ship -- now with even more going on -- or would it feel just big enough after the immensity of Oasis?
The cruise didn't start off well. Embarkation took more than two hours from curb to cabin, with some frustrating lines and congestion, and cranky passengers-to-be.
Yet, surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time the ship felt crowded. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not lighter than what we'd experienced on Oasis. That's not to say that the ship felt empty or small. There will almost always be a half-hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks. Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool are great for getting-away-from-it-all moments, particularly on port days.
In general, service is very personal, since there are so many spaces in which you can become a "regular." Baristas at Cafe Promenade (now serving Starbucks coffee drinks) remember complicated beverage orders; the bartenders at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remember names and poisons; and even the waitstaff in Windjammer, the casual buffet, treat kids as the highest-order V.I.P.'s.
The upgrades on Freedom definitely help -- our favorites were the family pool movies and the easy LCD Wayfinder system -- but those who have enjoyed the neighborhood feel of the tree-lined Central Park on Oasis and Allure, where you can escape the madding crowds, will miss it if they really want some private time on sea days. As one of the main inside hangout places on Freedom, Cafe Promenade felt a little too small to accommodate all the people who just wanted to relax with a coffee and pastry out of the beating rays.
The main artery that runs throughout the ship is the Royal Promenade, a Main Street USA-type thoroughfare where you can visit the purser's or excursions desk, grab a drink or a snack, people-watch or shop. The general store sells incidentals, duty-free liquor and edible souvenirs like rum cakes; a separate venue specializes in perfume and cosmetics, and there's a gift shop that sells logo items, T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, keychains and other odds and ends. You can also buy workout wear at the Get Out There store. (FlowRider paraphernalia is for sale up on the Sports Deck.)
A library with a view of the Promenade through floor-to-ceiling glass windows contains three walls of bookshelves and several cozy leather chairs for a quiet read. If you left reading material at home, just arrive early to check out a read from the decent selection -- and return it before you leave.
Above the library is Royal Caribbean Online, the ship's Internet cafe. The actual connection is touch-and-go; expect slowness unless you log on while most folks are sleeping or sightseeing. The charge is 66 cents a minute, but, if you buy packages, you can pay as little as 25 cents a minute. The commitment is steep: rates range from a 38-minute package for $24.95 to 1,666 minutes for $399.95. The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area "hot spots." On other ships, Royal Caribbean is testing $39 daily plans that include 24 hours of continuous access, and a $149 unlimited plan (one device only). At the time of our sailing, the packages were being tested only on Allure and weren't available on Freedom.
Some services aren't provided. For instance, there's no self-service laundry facility, but laundry and dry-cleaning can be sent out, and it's not cost prohibitive. We paid about $5 to launder a favorite blanket.
Contemporary art-lovers might enjoy the Art Gallery on Deck 3, where there's often a seminar to take in and a revolving selection of works to buy. On our sailing, there were lectures on Thomas Kinkade, a high-speed art auction in On Air (Deck 3) and contemporary art to buy in the Britto Gallery on Deck 5.
Even if you don't buy your pictures, it's a fun diversion to visit the photo gallery on Deck 4, where the staff display all the photos, from your boarding photo to formal nights and pictures with roving DreamWorks characters. You can buy a picture photo CD or even design your own photobook (a combination of your own photos and Royal Caribbean stock photos).
Up on Deck 14 by the Viking Crown Lounge, you'll find the Seven Hearts card and game room and Cloud Nine, which can be used for private meetings or parties. The Skylight Chapel, one deck up, is the spot for onboard weddings.
The LCD Wayfinder system, installed during the revitalization, utilizes a series of touch screens, placed throughout the ship, that not only show you how to get where you want to go but also tell you what's going on at that very moment.
Shameless plug: On Deck 5, across from the cruise director's office, look for the framed poem "Ode to Freedom," written by Cruise Critic members!
Freedom of the Seas is a terrific ship for families, both within the Royal Caribbean fleet and industry-wide. The H2O Zone is now a classic feature, day-to-night activities on the sports deck keep kids occupied, Adventure Ocean not only entertains kids but also challenges older ones with science experiments, and the new partnerships with DreamWorks and Mattel mean that life-sized movie favorites are roving around entertaining kids all week.
Children are broken into five separate age groups that get not only their own activities but also their own private rooms on Deck 12.
The Adventure Ocean Program includes several different groups: Aquanauts (3 to 5) might color and play games while Explorers (6 to 8) learn to make their own candies or kites. Voyagers (9 to 11) might take a backstage tour of the Arcadia Theater or participate in sports activities. Navigators (12 to 14) and older teens (15 to 17) can attend parties at Fuel, the teens-only club; hang out in the Living Room, a posh teen lounge that often looked packed; or chill on the Back Deck, a private outdoor area for teens. Challenger's Arcade, which fills a long corridor between Adventure Ocean, the Nursery, the Living Room and Johnny Rockets, offers modern games like Dance Dance Revolution, as well as classics like Ms. Pac Man. There are also racecar games and three air hockey tables. It's a great place for families to get some in-depth kid time; both adults and kids are welcome.
Adventure Ocean will give parents a cell phone to call in and receive calls from the youth staff. Although the evening session ends at 10 p.m., there's a Late Night Party Zone for kids -- between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. -- a group baby-sitting arrangement that costs $6 per hour, per child. On certain days, you can arrange for your child to accompany the Adventure Ocean staff to dinner. Plus, for those on My Time Family Dining or on the early seating, staff will collect your child from the dining room after 40 minutes so you don't have to leave dinner early.
Tie-ins with Crayola and Fisher-Price provide the latest in learning toys and creative materials, and an "Adventure Science" program by High Touch High Tech teaches kids fun, hands-on science experiments at sea. The new Imaginocean! puppet show is a black-light show that takes kids on an adventure through the depths of the ocean to find treasure. Highlights for kids and parents include a pirate parade: Aquanauts (3 to 5) dress up and paint their faces, and Adventure Ocean staff march them on a spirited pirate parade down The Promenade. Freedom of the Seas also has the nascent Barbie Premium Experience with Mattel onboard, a special program for girls 5 and older that includes a specially decorated stateroom, plenty of Barbie loot and activities like a fashion show and Barbie clothing design class -- for a $349 premium.
There are no free, supervised programs for children younger than 3 or for non-potty-trained tykes. However, complimentary Royal Babies (6 to 18 months) and Royal Tots (18 to 36 months) programs in the nursery on Deck 12 -- offered in conjunction with Fisher-Price and Royal Caribbean's youth staff -- are scheduled throughout the cruise for parents to attend with their wee ones. (If you have a 3 year old who's not toilet trained, you may be able to take him or her to these parent-supervised sessions in the nursery.)
In addition, the nursery offers drop-off group baby-sitting for kids of 6 to 36 months at $8 per hour. Open hours vary by ship and day and are found in the Cruise Compass. On port days, the nursery will open at least 30 minutes prior to the first excursion and stay open until 30 minutes after the last excursion returns. It's also open nightly from 8 p.m. to midnight.
In-stateroom sitting is offered for kids, ages 1 and older, when personnel is available; parents or guardians must reserve this service at the Purser's Desk 24 hours in advance. The cost is $19 per hour for up to three children within the same family.
Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for those in suites). Gratuities can be prepaid or added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. (Passengers opting for My Time Dining must pre-pay gratuities.) Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent tip is automatically added to bar tabs. Gratuity envelopes for those who wish to reward extra service are delivered to staterooms on the last day.
Royal Caribbean's 2011 revitalization has brought onboard lots of new features, such as the DreamWorks Experience -- life-sized characters from "Shrek," "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda" that meet and greet and take photos with passengers. A kick-off event on the first day found them poolside, singing and dancing for the kids.
A final blowout parade on our last sea day had everyone acting like a kid. The "DreamWorks Move It! Move It! Parade Spectacular" brought everyone to the Promenade, where a dancing parade included Shrek and Fiona, King Julian, Puss in Boots, and Po from Kung Fu Panda, plus stilt-walkers and dragon dancers (in all, 150 members of the entertainment and cruise staff), moving to the theme song from "Madagascar." The excitement is virtually impossible to resist: we saw everyone from the oldest passenger and the youngest to the surliest teen dancing along with the music.
Daytime activities include the ubiquitous pool games and trivia contests, while Vintages wine bar hosts several tasting sessions throughout the week. Alfresco bars include the Pool Bar, Sky Bar and Wipe Out! Bar.
The main Arcadia Theater seats more than 1,300 people over two levels and is the venue for nighttime productions, both song-and-dance shows by Royal Caribbean's troupe and performances by guest entertainers. As part of its pair-up with DreamWorks, Arcadia now features 3D movies and films like "Rise of the Guardians," "Avengers" and "Madagascar 3."
Late-night comedians and magicians fill out the entertainment roster in Pharaoh's Palace, the secondary show lounge for musical combos and private parties.
The ice rink at Studio B also doubles as a secondary show lounge; it was the spot for the Crown & Anchor welcome back party, as well as the Quest, an adult scavenger hunt. There are free skate hours listed in the Compass. Freedom-Ice.com, the professional ice show, was the best we've seen at sea (and certainly captivated the kids). Tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance. Check your Compass for details on your sailing.
Casino Royale is open whenever the ship is at sea and features slot machines in a range of denominations, as well as table games and a bar. This area can get pretty smoky at night -- if you are sensitive to cigarettes, you might not want to pass through.
After hours, Boleros -- the hip Latin lounge found on many Royal Caribbean ships -- is one of our favorite bars at sea. Though the location (in a hallway, outside the casino, near a staircase) is not ideal, the two bartenders there were absolutely fantastic, made a mean mojito and juggled bottles and shakers for us. It felt like "Cocktail" without Tom Cruise. This venue also draws major crowds with live music and merengue dancing.
Nightly music is found in other areas of the ship, too. A guitarist/soloist performs rock tunes in the Bull & Bear Pub, and a pianist packs Royal Caribbean's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, taking requests until the wee hours. If you'd like to do the singing yourself, swing by the On Air Bar outside Studio B; there are open-mic hours when you can strut your stuff onstage, as well as private booths for those a little less confident. The big screen there is the place to catch sporting events, too. For late-night dancing, there's the two-deck Crypt nightclub, whose spooky decor features bar stools shaped like headstones.
Even with all of these options, we can never resist pre-dinner bubbly at the Champagne Bar or a nightcap at Royal Caribbean's signature top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge (called Olive or Twist on Freedom). There's a special martini menu, and it's a jazz club at night.
Shore excursions on the alternating Western and Eastern Caribbean sailings are well organized and varied. On our sailing, passengers were able to sign up for a PADI scuba-diving certification course, which included classroom and pool training onboard, as well as open-water training dives in St. Maarten. Excursions like glass-bottom boat tours and parasailing in the Bahamas filled up quickly, as did open-air vehicle tours of St. Thomas and a whole-day sail to Christmas and Honeymoon Coves on a schooner. An underwater treasure hunt in St. Thomas was a blast for kids. If you plan to sign up for water sports, do it early. On this sailing, there were paid shopping excursions ($42 for adults), but we'd recommend researching shopping areas on your own; many Caribbean ports are easy to navigate, with plenty of transportation.
|Fitness and Recreation|
There are two main pools on the Lido, Deck 11 -- one for swimming and one for sports -- flanked by three roomy hot tubs. There, as on balconies, tacky plastic-ribbon deck chairs from earlier ships are replaced with nice mesh loungers. The family pool area packs in the crowds since the 18.5-foot video screen overlooking the pool was installed. Passengers secured their spots early to enjoy screenings of family-friendly movies, TV shows and concerts.
Just aft of the main pools, children get a colorful water park, H2O Zone, complete with a kids-only pool, a cascading waterfall, and sculpture fountains and ground geysers that spew water. Frankly, the setup is so cool it keeps kids out of adult pool areas for the most part (though the water was very cold on our sailing, so kids didn't stay in long). The adults-only Solarium pool area is where you'll find peaceful hammocks and two whirlpools that are cantilevered, meaning they hang over the side of the ship; wide panels of glass give an incredible view of the ocean directly beneath you.
Royal Caribbean favorites like the rock-climbing wall and mini-golf course can be found on Deck 13, and a sports court, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong and a jogging/walking track also satisfy active passengers. But the main attraction is the FlowRider, which debuted on Freedom as the first surf park at sea. A three-inch sheet of water flows up the 32-foot-wide by 40-foot-long incline to create a wave-like reverse waterfall. There are designated hours each day for stand-up surfing and boogie-boarding; check on the Sports Deck for your itinerary's schedule. There's no signup sheet, but passengers (and guardians for those younger than 18) must sign waivers to obtain the wristband needed to "hang ten."
Even if you're more of a sunbather than a swimmer, our advice is to get off the bleachers and try the easier boogie-boarding option at least once. Once you're up there, it doesn't look nearly as steep (or frightening). Professional photographers will be snapping away so your sopping-wet self can be immortalized pre-wipeout for a mere $15.
Really want to master onboard surfing? Passengers can book one-on-one private FlowRider lessons for $75 per person, per hour (up to eight people per session). Individuals, or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor, can book the FlowRider for $350 per hour with no limit to the total number of participants. (A 50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)
The Shipshape Fitness Center encompasses the entire forward area of the Lido, and it's packed with free weights, stationary bikes, treadmills and elliptical machines. Though we never had to wait for a piece of equipment, the gym does get packed before lunch, particularly on sea days. Get up early for prime real estate at the floor-to-ceiling windows. Within the fitness center is a boxing ring, which also made its industry debut on this ship. The boxing program is intended to promote physical conditioning (meaning you can't just throw your husband in there for kicks); sadly, it was empty on our two visits to the fitness center. It could be because it is not cheap. A personal one-hour session was $83. There are scheduled group workouts, however, for $10.
Additional fitness classes are offered -- some free (stretching, aerobics), some levying a $10 charge (yoga, Pilates).
One deck up is the full-service Vitality Spa. There's nothing new and unusual about the decor or the roster of treatments, which run the gamut from simple wraps and massages to acupuncture, teeth-whitening and even medispa treatments like injectables and fillers. The prices, however, seemed high. The "entry level" facial was $120. The spa runs daily discounted specials during the cruises. (Look for them in the Cruise Compass.)
We tried an Elemis Tri-Enzyme Resurfacing Facial, discounted to $99 from the usual $125, and were disappointed with what could have been a relaxing experience that turned into a lecture about our "traumatized" skin, an aggressive sales pitch for $250 in skin products and a chatty discussion about crew shenanigans below deck. Too much information. Likewise, what was advertised as a group anti-aging seminar felt like a bit of a bait and switch. Attendees were taken individually into a room for a consultation (read: a hard sell for injectables and products). Don't forgo a spa treatment at sea if you're yearning for one, but we'd recommend telling the therapist straight up if you're not interested in buying products and want to avoid the hard sell. (Ours even called our stateroom the next day to ask when we'd be making our purchase!)
Freedom of the Seas Cabin Photos
Freedom has four main types of cabins -- inside, oceanview, balcony and suite -- but within each are different configurations, including roomier options for families in all categories at different price points. Of the 1,817 staterooms, 842 have private balconies, and 172 have promenade views. All staterooms are equipped with keypad-operated safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen televisions that feature a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, Cartoon Network) and interactive programming (order shore excursions and room service, or check your portfolio).
Interior and promenade-view staterooms are on the small side, measuring 152 square feet and 149 square feet, respectively. Bathrooms are shower-only, though we appreciate that Royal Caribbean has stuck with sliding doors as opposed to those pesky curtains that always seem to float inward and invariably lead to flooding. Pumps in the shower are preloaded with shower gel and shampoo. Family interiors are nearly double in size (300 square feet) and sleep up to six with two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa and/or Pullman.
Oceanview cabins add a porthole and a smidge more space (from 161 to 200 square feet). Family oceanview staterooms clock in at 293 square feet, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen and a sofa and/or Pullman. Before moving into suite territory, there are two balcony options: Deluxe at 177 square feet (balcony 74 square feet) and Superior at 189 square feet (balcony 68 square feet). Our accessible balcony stateroom had quite a bit more room with 286 square feet (balcony 46 square feet, nearly as big as a junior suite) and wider turning spaces, as well as a fold-down shower bench, which turned out to be useful for a toddler.
Cabins are decorated in teal, peach and white, with lighting overhead and at the desk/vanity. There are also bedside wall-mounted lamps. Balcony furniture comprised a small table and two loungers (metal with mesh covering) -- much nicer than the plastic ribbon variety.
Space and amenities increase as you ascend the suite scale. Some Junior Suites (287 square feet, balcony 101 square feet) and Grand Suites (387 square feet, balcony 126 square feet) have tubs; walk-in closets are standard in both. The Owner's Suites (614 square feet, balcony 209 square feet) each have a private sitting area separate from the bedroom. The one Royal Suite (1,406 square feet, balcony 377 square feet) also features a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano and private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite passengers have access to a concierge -- who can assist with specialty restaurant reservations, spa treatments and the like -- and the Concierge Club lounge, where pre-dinner canapes and cocktails are complimentary.
Four Royal Family Suites (610 square feet, balcony 234 square feet) accommodate up to eight people and feature a living area with a double sofa bed; two bedrooms, each with two twin beds that convert to queens (one also features third and fourth bunks); a verandah with teak furniture and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).
The Presidential Family Suite (1,209 square feet, balcony 805 square feet) is the granddaddy of family-friendly accommodations onboard. The suite can accommodate up to 14 people and consists of two master bedrooms with private baths and two additional bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to queens. It also has a sofa bed. There are two additional "standard" shower-only bathrooms. The huge private balcony is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded teak loungers.
One last "special" stateroom is 6305, a promenade-facing cabin with an obstructed view. The window is blocked by the, ahem, behinds of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor directly below. The good news, though, is that cruisers who find a pair of derrieres pressed up against their window receive complimentary scoops from Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise!
Whatever stateroom you choose, you'll sleep tight: all cabins feature Royal Caribbean's stylish, comfortable bedding. There are pillows and shams, and duvets with cotton blend covers. Custom pillow tops are doubled over when placed atop twin beds, but when the beds are in the queen configuration they're unfolded across both (already) plush mattresses to eliminate the dreaded gap. Our room was set up with twins, but other passengers we spoke to assured us the queen configuration was comfortable and gap-free.
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