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Carnival Platinum Cruiser Tries Norwegian - NCL Escape Western Caribbean, January 25 - February 1, 2020


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As someone who did a lot of research and spent a lot of time contemplating my choice to try a new cruise line for the first time, I wanted to take some time to share my first Norwegian Cruise Line experience with others. My goal within this topic is to review Norwegian Cruise Line and the Norwegian Escape both as a first time Norwegian cruiser, as well as compare it to my previous cruise experiences, primarily with Carnival Cruise Line as well as with Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line. 

 

Background

 

I'm a 32 year old male with extensive experience with both cruise travel and land-based vacations. I previously worked as a travel agent from 2006 to 2008 and have previously cruised with Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Disney. I am a Platinum level VIFP with Carnival, having completed a total of 14 Carnival cruises, ranging from 4 to 8 nights in length. I have also cruised with Royal Caribbean once in 2016 onboard the Independence of the Seas, and once on the Disney Wonder in 2014. 

 

Booking the Trip / Decision-making

 

It is well known that I enjoy cruising, and I typically choose Carnival Cruise Line as I have almost always had a positive experience with the cruise line. I won't give away too many spoilers that will come later in my review and comparison of the Norwegian Escape with my previous cruises, but I typically find Carnival to offer a great variety of departure dates and home ports, as well as itineraries that I tend to enjoy. Highlights of my Carnival experience, or reasons why I continue to return to Carnival include the quality and variety of standard (as in non-upcharge) dining offerings, friendly staff, and my favorite onboard entertainment options, which include the comedy club and piano bars. 

 

When researching for this trip, and really with almost any cruise vacation, I start by researching current pricing and available itineraries using two tools - a third-party online travel agency that gives me the ability to view and compare offerings from many cruise lines (including past guest rates), and Costco Travel, which allows me to view Costco's negotiated rates and the availability of Costco-exclusive rewards that generally come in the form of Costco gift cards.

 

Naturally, I started zeroing in on Carnival offerings, but as my last several experiences with Carnival have taught me, while the food and entertainment are almost always great, the quality and condition of the ship varies greatly depending on age and how recently the ship has been drydocked, and what work was completed during that drydock. I knew that I was looking for a 7-or-8 night cruise, and if I were going to sail on Carnival, my preferred ships would be either a Dream or Vista class ship, or possibly the recently transformed Carnival Sunshine or Sunrise. Based upon previous experience, I prefer to avoid the Destiny and Conquest class ships as I do not enjoy the tiered lido deck design. I actually quite prefer the design of the Fantasy class ships, even if the decor is quite dated. My travel dates were restricted to January or February, so I was searching within that time frame. I also wanted to sail from a Florida port due to the weather at this time of year. Port Canaveral, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami are all easily accessible with direct flights from my home city. I would also consider sailings from Mobile, New Orleans, or Galveston, however these ports either require a very long transfer (Galveston), or a connecting flight or drive to the port. I only consider Baltimore for warm weather sailings. 

 

What I started to find during my research for this trip was that Carnival was actually quite expensive in comparison to other cruise lines, at fact that was amplified by the fact that I would be traveling solo for the second time on this cruise. Carnival very rarely deviates from their 200% single occupancy premium these days as they regularly fill their ships to capacity at primarily double (or more) occupancy, whereas some other cruise lines, such as Norwegian and MSC offer both single occupancy discounts, and in the case of Norwegian, solo traveler "Studios". In this instance, both Norwegian and MSC had several offerings that came in at well less than half the cost of the sailings that I had at the top of my list on the Carnival Horizon or Carnival Vista. 

 

Tough Decisions - Norwegian vs. MSC

 

After my initial research, I found five sailings that really fit my criteria and had a good value proposition in comparison to other sailings for the time of year. After ruling out Carnival due to cost, I had really narrowed down my chices to either Norwegian or MSC Cruise Line, both of which would be new to me. The five sailings being considered were:

 

Option #1: Norwegian Escape - 7 Night Western Caribbean - Departs Miami to Great Stirrup Cay, Costa Maya, Harvest Caye, Roatan

 

Option #2: Norwegian Getaway - 7 Night Western Caribbean - Departs New Orleans to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Ocho Rios

 

Option #3: MSC Meraviglia - 7 Night Western Caribbean - Departs Miami to Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve

 

Option #4: MSC Seaside - 7 Night Eastern Caribbean - Departs Miami to San Juan, St. Thomas, Nassau, and Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve

 

Option #5: MSC Armonia - 7 Night Western Caribbean - Departs Miami to Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, and Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve

 

I'm sure there are two things that really stick out here. The first is that the MSC Seaside sailing is an Eastern Caribbean sailing, while the others are Western Caribbean. I had mixed feelings about the itinerary, as I really enjoyed my last visit to San Juan, and have never been to Ocean Cay (it's brand new!), but try to avoid stops in St. Thomas and Nassau due to previous negative experiences in these ports. St. Thomas was a safety-related issue with a taxi driver that turned me off to the port, while Nassau just really doesn't offer anything that I want to experience at this point. The public beaches are dirty, the historical sites are small and over-commercialized, and Atlantis is WAY overpriced. While this didn't necessarily immediately rule out the MSC Seaside sailing, I wasn't super enthused by the itinerary.

 

The second one that sticks out is the MSC Armonia. The first four options are all on almost brand new mega-ships in the 4,500 passenger, 150,000-165,000 ton displacement range, while Armonia is 19 years old and less than half the size, at 58,000 tons and 2,600 passengers. So how is this one even in consideration when compared to the others? It would be a drastically different cruise experience! The answer is simple - cost. At the time I was booking, MSC Armonia had 7-night sailings in the $209 price range for an inside cabin, several hundred dollars less expensive than the other offerings. This was quite tempting, and after a lot of research on Cruise Critic and YouTube, I found reviews of Armonia to not be all bad, although most certainly found some shortcomings. But, common, its a 7-night cruise for $200! So why didn't I book this one? In the end, my time is more valuable than the dollars that I would have saved, and I didn't want to taint my opinion of MSC as a cruise line based upon an experience on a ship that really doesn't fit with the image and the experience that MSC is going for with their new ships. I still plan to try MSC at some point in the future, and may even take a cruise on the Armonia if the crazy low price tag sticks around, but I don't want it to by my first experience with MSC.

 

As I did my research and really started to narrow down my choices, I ended up with three contenders, the Norwegian Escape, MSC Seaside, and MSC Meraviglia. Norwegian Getaway was ruled out due to the embarkation port (New Orleans) and the lack of direct flights, as well as my desire to combine my cruise with a few days at Walt Disney World to maximize the value of my WDW annual pass. MSC Armonia was also ruled out for the reasons outlined above. 

 

And then there were three...

 

So I've narrowed it down to three - how did I end up selecting the Norwegian Escape, and Norwegian Cruise Line in general, over the two MSC options? Honestly, it was a very tough decision. I've heard a lot about MSC in the last two years, and the YouTube deck tours and stateroom tour videos show some really beautiful ships with features that are comparable to any of the new mega ships from the mass-market and even up-market cruiselines. Quite simply, they are stunning ships, and even choosing between the Meraviglia and Seaside was proving to be quite difficult, with Meraviglia offering a beautiful multi-story promenade and Seaside offering a better top deck design for warm weather sailing. Both also offer staterooms that appear to be significantly larger, and at lower pricepoints, than Norwegian. So why did I rule them out and end up on Norwegian Escape? 

 

1. Entertainment - Reviews of MSC's nighttime entertainment offerings are mixed at best. It seems as if they are still trying to figure out their customers and the North American market. They've built beautiful ships, but based upon the reviews that I've read and videos I've watched, they haven't quite figured out the entertainment offerings. Their theater shows are primarily song-and-dance and variety acts without a central theme or story line, and they seem to be lacking alternative entertainment such as comedy clubs that I really enjoy. 

 

2. Food - MSC gets mixed reviews when it comes to the food, with most of the negative comments centered around the buffet. They do tend to get high marks for their pizza (we'll talk about NCL's pizza later in my review), but the rest of the buffet offerings are somewhat limited (again - see my NCL review later on), and the dining room experience appears to be mixed, although many passengers state that it has improved significantly over the past few years and the pasta courses are outstanding, as you would expect from a cruise line with Italian roots. 

 

3. Itinerary - I've never been to Ocho Rios, and Grand Cayman doesn't enthuse me. I outright avoid Nassau. Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve was just getting ready for its first calls after significant delay, and I really didn't know what to expect or if the island was really ready. I've also been wanting to experience Harvest Caye, so Norwegian won on itinerary. 

 

Booking

 

So I've made my decision, I'm booking Norwegian Escape for the Janaury 25, 2020 sailing from Miami. Here is the itinerary:

 

Saturday, January 25 - Miami Embarkation

Sunday, January 26 - Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

Monday, January 27 - At Sea

Tuesday, January 28 - Costa Maya, Mexico

Wednesday, January 29 - Harvest Caye, Belize

Thursday, January 30 - Roatan, Honduras

Friday, January 31 - At Sea

Saturday, February 1 - Miami Disembarkation

 

This sailing offered several great deals for solo travelers at a reduced or non-existent supplement. I booked roughly 60 days out, 63 I believe, and all categories were still available. Solo rates started around $549 for an inside stateroom, $649 for a studio, and I want to say somewhere in the $849 range for a balcony stateroom, although I could be off on that number. The balcony room was very tempting, however I was also being tempted by another 5-night cruise that was an unbelievable deal (more on that later), and the extra few hundred dollars would cover the cost of a second cruise as opposed to a room with a view on the Escape. 

 

My budget-minded brain said to go for the inside stateroom and save the extra money for the second cruise, but I was also really intrigued by the studio rooms and private studio lounge for solo travelers, because it is an experience that appears to be unique to Norwegian. Yes, it was an extra $100, but I know what an inside stateroom looks like and they really bore me. I hate sailing without a window to the extent that I've only sailed in an inside stateroom twice in my previous 16 cruises. If I'm going to try Norwegian, why not spend a little extra and experience something new? Yes, I really did pay more to stay in a smaller room - where else would you do that? 

 

I settled on stateroom 12511, a solo studio on deck 12, nicely sandwiched between two decks of passenger cabins and hopefully far away from anything that would generate unwanted noise. My booking qualified for one selection from the long-running Free at Sea promotion. Had I chosen an oceanview room, I would have been able to select two options, and a balcony room would have given me four options. For a seven night cruise, my studio included one of the following options:

 

1. "Free" Unlimited Beverage Package or "Open Bar". I put the word free in quotations because although the drinks are free, you have to pay 20% gratuity on the retail price of the package, which is marked up to a hefty $99 per day on Norwegian. Those who have sailed other cruise lines will understand when I say this is marked up, as most of the other cruise lines charge between $53 and $65 per day for their bar package. So 20% of $99 per day equals $138.60 for seven days in added gratuities, which are charged at the time of booking. Certainly not a bad deal for seven days of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, but I have a medical condition that limits my tolerance of alcohol and limits my consumption to a maximum of two to three drinks per day. While this appears to be the most popular Free at Sea promotion option, it doesn't really have much value to me. 

 

2. "Free" Specialty Dining Package. Again, free in quotations because although the package is free, you have to pay 20% gratuity on the retail price of the package. On a seven night cruise, the free specialty dining package includes three specialty dining meals. Shorter cruises only offer two meals. The value of this is $99, or $33 per meal, which means that you'll pay $19.80 in gratuities at the time of booking if you select this option. 

 

3. Free WiFi. This is not one of the unlimited packages that appear to be very popular on the ship. Rather, for a seven night cruise, this is a 250 minute credit, valued at $125.00. This works out to about 35 minutes per day, perhaps enough to stay in touch with family or send a few emails, but not enough for sharing photos/videos or doing any type of real work. I know, I know, you're on vacation, why are you working? In addition to my full-time career, I also run an e-commerce business with multiple channels. When I'm not on vacation, I handle fulfillment for all but one of the channels myself, but when I'm on vacation, I use the inventory that I have in Amazon's warehouse system as a part of the Fulfillment by Amazon program to fulfill orders for all channels so that there is no disruption to my customers. The downside to this... I have to manually create a fulfillment order in Amazon's system for each order that comes in through one of the other channels so that Amazon can ship the product to my customers. This means a lot of time on the computer, and thus greater demand for internet. 35 minutes per day isn't going to cut it. The good news is that Norwegian lets you (actually encourages you - they are all about making more money!) upgrade your free 250 minute package to an unlimited package for an additional charge. Pricing varies by the length of sailing, but on seven night sailings, the unlimited premium package is $34.99 per day, or $244.93 for the length of the cruise. After the credit is applied, the end cost is $119.93 for seven nights of unlimited premium internet for one device, or $17.13 per day. This is the option that I selected as the $125 "value" of the credit was greater than the $99 value of the free specialty dining or the $50 shore excursion credit. The value of the beverage package is variable by person, but for me, I figured that I would consume two drinks per day on the ship at an average cost of around $10 per drink, or a spend of $140. Keep in mind that the gratuity charge for the beverage package is roughly $140, so the net value to me was zero at two drinks per day, or about $70 at three drinks per day, still less than the $125 value of the internet package in my situation. 

 

4. Free $50 Shore Excursion Credit. This one has the least value for most cruisers, especially given that NCL appears to mark up their shore excursions more than other cruise lines. More on that later. 

 

5. Free Extra Guest. This option isn't offered for solo passengers or those in studio rooms, but it may have value to others. Not an option for me. 

 

After Booking

 

So I've selected a sailing, booked my stateroom, and selected my Free at Sea promotional option. What's next? For most NCL cruisers, you'll get an offer to bid on stateroom category upgrades approximately 48 hours after your booking (more on that later), but for this sailing, I was in a Studio stateroom, which is not eligible for upgrades. 

 

In addition to the upgrade offer, NCL provides many other opportunities to spend money to "enhance" your vacation before you board the ship. You can pre-purchase shore excursions, dining packages, drink packages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), bottled water, spa services, etc. In my experience, I found NCL's shore excursion offerings to be somewhat lacking and significantly more expensive compared to those of other cruise lines. In the ports of Costa Maya and Roatan, I was able to make direct comparisons to previous visits on Carnival and Royal Caribbean. In the instance of Costa Maya, I had a specific excursion in mind that I had experienced previously on Royal Caribbean and was somewhat shocked to find that it was not offered by NCL at any price. This excursion was Maya: Lost Mayan Kingdom water park, which is located in the port vicinity and is incredibly popular on other cruise lines. They sell tickets in the port area, but for some reason, it was not offered as a shore excursion on NCL. Overall, I found the vast majority of NCL's shore excursions to be in the $129-159 price range, with some exceeding $250. I feel that this is roughly $30-50 higher than excursions offered by the other cruise lines, for what appears to be an equivalent experience. I did not pre-purchase any shore excursions through NCL. 

 

I did pre-purchase a few things for my sailing on the NCL website. 

 

1. Bottled water. At the time of booking, NCL was offering multi-packs of 1L bottles of Just Water, their new eco-friendly bottled water partner. I think I paid somewhere around $36 for a 24-pack of 1L bottles. Upon arrival, I was surprised to find that the 1L bottles were substituted with four 12-packs of 500ml (16.9 ounce) bottles. The current price for the 24-liter bundle is $44.95 as of February 4, and they no longer specify the bottle size on the website. 

 

2. Specialty dining. I didn't select the specialty dining package as a part of my "free at sea" as the internet package represented a better value, but I knew that I wanted to try the specialty restaurants onboard Norwegian Escape. I knew based upon my research and reviews that I have read previously that NCL's main dining room food is only average at best, and that their specialty restaurants are quite popular. Since this was my first NCL experience, I wanted to try it all. I ended up reviewing the menus for all of the restaurants and making a list of what I wanted to try. I settled on the six meal package for $139.00 plus 20% gratuity, or $166.80, which averages out to $27.80 per meal. In retrospect, six was probably overkill and five would have better fit my cruise experience, but the cost difference to increase from five meals to six is only $10.00 ($129.00 vs. $139.00). It is worth noting that although the specialty dining package is targeted toward the dinner meal period, both Food Republic and Pinchos are open from 12:00 to 1:30 for lunch and accept specialty dining credits, exchanging one credit for any four a la carte menu items on the menu. I skipped one of my pre-planned dining reservations on Thursday night and ended up using my extra specialty dining credit at Food Republic on the last sea day. I'm not sure if it can be used at Margaritaville for lunch, but it does not represent a good value for your credit as Margaritaville is only a $15 upcharge, whereas you'll get $40-60 in value at the other specialty restaurants. 

 

Coming Up...

 

This was a VERY long post, but I wanted to share my cruise planning experience and how I ended up selecting Norwegian and specifically the Escape before I get into my cruise review and comparison. Now that the introductions and background are out of the way, I'll share my review of my cruise on Norwegian Escape and provide comparisons to my previous experiences primarily on Carnival, but also on Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line, where applicable. 

 

Enjoy...

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Interested in how much you spent on drinks. The cost of the package is equal to two drinks a day at $8.25 a drink (before gratuities) out of pocket and you said you're 2-3 drinks a day. So did you not drink every day or did you find cheaper drinks? 

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14 minutes ago, smplybcause said:

Interested in how much you spent on drinks. The cost of the package is equal to two drinks a day at $8.25 a drink (before gratuities) out of pocket and you said you're 2-3 drinks a day. So did you not drink every day or did you find cheaper drinks? 

 

I actually found drinks to be slightly more expensive than I had anticipated on NCL. Draft beer is $10.80 including gratuity, bottled beer was $8.40-9.60, and wine was $10.80. Specialty cocktails were $13.20. The beer and specialty cocktails were slightly more expensive than other cruise lines, while wine was in line when purchased by the glass. 

 

I purchased a total of six draft beers, three bottled beers, and eight glasses of wine on the ship, for a total of $180.00, including gratuity. Yes, I spent more than the cost of the gratuity cost of the Free at Sea beverage package, however by selecting the internet package rather than the beverage package, I saved $125 rather than $61.40 that I would have saved with the beverage package. If you're someone who drinks more, I would recommend the unlimited beverage package, but for me the value wasn't there. 

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2 minutes ago, brilliantseas said:

 

I actually found drinks to be slightly more expensive than I had anticipated on NCL. Draft beer is $10.80 including gratuity, bottled beer was $8.40-9.60, and wine was $10.80. Specialty cocktails were $13.20. The beer and specialty cocktails were slightly more expensive than other cruise lines, while wine was in line when purchased by the glass. 

 

I purchased a total of six draft beers, three bottled beers, and eight glasses of wine on the ship, for a total of $180.00, including gratuity. Yes, I spent more than the cost of the gratuity cost of the Free at Sea beverage package, however by selecting the internet package rather than the beverage package, I saved $125 rather than $61.40 that I would have saved with the beverage package. If you're someone who drinks more, I would recommend the unlimited beverage package, but for me the value wasn't there. 

 

Glad it still worked out for you! Personally I'm always the drink package, but I can't drink beer and my preferred liquor (though I'd pick a slightly cheaper one if I didn't have the package) is $14.95 before gratuities on NCL so it works out good for me even if my consumption was more like at home (I drink way more on vacation). Plus I'm perfectly content to disconnect from the world so no internet is an excuse to only go online if I go where there's free internet in port. 

 

But I know it's a recurring question on here that so many ask. I think a lot don't realize/believe that it doesn't take too many drinks to break even - they just see almost $140 and freak. 

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Pre-Cruise

 

I traveled to from Columbus, OH to Orlando, FL on Monday, January 20 with the plan to enjoy a few days at Walt Disney World before the cruise.

 

I had a 6:30 AM flight and live about an hour away from the airport, so it was a 3:00 AM wake-up alarm for me on travel day. Upon arrival at CMH, I parked in the long-term Green Lot, which remains one of the best airport parking values at any airport in the United States, at just $5 per day. I was fortunate that this was a slower morning at CMH, and the shuttle came quickly and only filled to about half of capacity. There have been times where I have had to wait for two or three shuttles at CMH if I am at the wrong shuttle stop because they fill before they reach the back side of the lot. 

 

Check-in was a bit of a mess as they were running behind checking in the 6:00 AM flight to Fort Lauderdale at the same time as the 6:30 AM flight to Orlando. Spirit Airlines had a total of four agents working the check-in counter, however they were using one to sort passengers in the queue, leaving only three behind the counter. Around 5:15, one of those three left the counter to man the gate in the terminal, leaving only two to actually run check-in. I've found Spirit to be quite hit-or-miss when it comes to check-in, so I always try to arrive early for flights on the airline. 

 

Why Spirit? I'm not personally a fan, and they have left me stranded with significant delays in Florida on more than one occasion. But if I'm not in a hurry, they offer the best price and I have the option to upgrade to their Big Front Seat product, which is roughly equivalent in size to a domestic first class seat, minus the service and recline. All-in, I can generally get a Big Front Seat with a checked bag and a carry-on for between $300 and $350 round-trip to either Orlando or Fort Lauderdale. Southwest has regularly been $400+ RT recently, and does not get me a reserved seat, much less a larger, first-class style seat. I wish Delta would bring back our Saturday direct flight to Orlando, but sadly that hasn't happened with the LCC competition. 

 

After a quick and uneventful flight to MCO, I picked up my rental car at Alamo without issue. Thanks to a "Hot Rate" from an online agency, I was able to get a full size from Alamo for six days with a one-way drop at MIA for around $225. Not a bad deal considering I was originally going to have to do a one way rental to MIA on the 24th anyway, and certainly more convenient than relying on Disney's bus service. 

 

Walt Disney World

 

Part of the reason for my pre-cruise extended vacation was to make use of my Walt Disney World annual pass, and I was fortunate enough to receive one of the best prices on a Walt Disney World resort hotel that I have ever seen. After annual pass discount, I was able to secure five nights at Disney's All Star Sports Resort for $85 per night. For those who vacation regularly at Disney, you'll know what a deal this is. 

 

Unfortunately, my Disney resort experience was not all that I hoped it would be. I have not stayed at the All Star Resorts since the early 2000's, and they have not been well maintained. Thankfully, they are in the process of refurbishing rooms in all of the value resorts, starting at Pop Century, which was completed last year, and continuing through the All Stars, starting at the All Star Movies resort (currently underway), and working through All Star Music and finally All Star Sports over the next two years. Having stayed in one of the remodeled rooms at Disney's Pop Century Resort in October, I can say that the remodel will make a world of difference. Until then, I'd recommend that you stay far, far away from the All Star Resorts as they are in poor shape - like $40/night motel on International Drive bad. My room smelled strongly of chemical cleaner or deodorizer, a smell that did not go away during my stay. Upon reporting it to the front desk, their solution was to turn the air conditioning down to 66 degrees and increase the airflow to try to move the smell out of the room. It didn't work and just made the room cold. 

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Here is an example of the wear-and-tear on the All Star Sports hotel room. The carpet originally had a star pattern that matched the resort's logo, but it has been completely worn down in the traffic areas. I'm thankful the remodel will bring wood look vinyl tile in place of the dirty carpets in these rooms!

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The rest of my Walt Disney World experience was much better. Since this is a cruise-focused website, I won't spend too much time on my pre-cruise experience at Walt Disney World, but I can honestly say that despite the bad experience with the hotel room, the rest of my visit was wonderful. 

 

The weather early in the week was unseasonably cold, with high winds and temperatures that dropped into the 30s in the evening. I was thankful to have my North Face winter coat with me, or I may have disappeared back to my hotel with the rest of the crowds after the sun went down. Crowd levels seemed to be above average early in the week, perhaps partially due to the MLK Jr. holiday early in the week. Wait times for the most popular rides, including Avatar Flight of Passage and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train topped 180 minutes each day, with the second tier such as Space Mountain, Slinky Dog Dash, Frozen Ever After, and Mission Space hitting 120+ minutes by noon. I enjoyed my well-planned Fastpasses and took an early afternoon break each day, returning to the parks around dinner time to shorter waits. 

 

I mentioned how the crowds disappeared as it got cold after dark...

 

Evening Extra Magic Hours at Magic Kingdom and Epcot really paid off in the cold. For those who are not Disney regulars, Extra Magic Hours are when Disney either opens a park an hour early or stays open two hours after park close just for Walt Disney World Resort guests. At Magic Kingdom, wait times dropped below 30 minutes for Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and to about 35 minutes for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, well better than 180 minutes at the peak of the day. At Epcot, the lack of crowds was even more pronounced. On Tuesday night, I walked on Soarin' and only waited 15 minutes for Frozen Ever After, with the remaining attractions all operating as walk-ons. Test Track was down for refurbishment, so I can't weigh in on the wait times for that attraction. 

 

Fortunately, the weather improved as the week went on, and by Friday I was in shorts in Orlando, with high temperatures in the low 80s. Escaping the cold of Ohio is one of my primary reasons for vacationing at this time of year, so I'm thankful that the weather decided to cooperate for at least part of my Disney stay. 

 

Overall, it was a great pre-cruise vacation, and I can't wait to return at least once more this spring, before my annual pass expires. 

 

 

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Lost Mayan Kingdom is usually offered from NCL.  Its the same price as at the gate, $99 adults and $89 Kids 12 and under.  I wonder if they didn't allow it because as a single cruiser the $50 credit would be half the cost of the ticket.  I get what you are saying about pricing and the credit though.  This is probably the only port we will use the credit because we are going to the water park and there isnt a savings booking direct.  We will use it for a clam shell on Harvest Caye but its not really an excursion.  

 

 

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Since most cruisers are also foodies, here are a few of the items that I sampled during the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, also known as Food and Wine Lite. 

 

Pictured here are:

 

Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and Pretzel Crunch

 

Almond Frangipane Cake with Raspberry Jam and Belgian Chocolate

 

Sous Vide Chicken Roulade with Apples and Sage, Warm Brie Fondue, Blueberry and Beet Gel, and Beet Chip Crumbles

 

Seared Corvina with Braised Ratatouille and Lemon-Thyme Beurre Blanc

 

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Aged Parmesan, Truffle Shavings, and Zinfandel Reduction

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More Disney food...

 

Beer Cheese Soup and Santa Fe Chicken Salad from Big River Grille and Brewing Works at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

 

Cinnamon Praline Pecan Ice Cream from L'Artisan des Glaces at Epcot

 

Sweet Potato Pancakes with Chicken Sausage and Scrambled Eggs from The Wave... of American Flavors at Disney's Contemporary Resort

 

Giant Cinnamon Roll from Gaston's Tavern at Disney's Magic Kingdom

 

Ronto Wrap from Ronto Roasters inside Star Wars Galaxy's Edge at Disney's Hollywood Studios

 

Chicken Bao Bun from YeSake at Disney Springs

 

Forest Mushroom Pizza Slice from Pizza Ponte at Disney Springs

 

Pan Asian Noodles with Chicken from Capt. Cook's at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort

 

BBQ Shrimp and Grits from The Boathouse at Disney Springs

 

Napoleon from Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie at Epcot

 

Wood Grilled Chicken Bowl with Hearty Salad Base and Creamy Herb Dressing from Satu'li Canteen at Disney's Animal Kingdom 

 

Troll Horns (end of night BOGO special!) from Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe at Epcot

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MIAMI - JANUARY 24

 

After a great week at Walt Disney World, Friday evening meant that it was time to make the drive to Miami. I opted to use the Toll Pass option offered by Alamo as some of the toll roads are toll-by-plate or Sunpass only on the route to Miami. Alamo charges $3.95 + cost of tolls per day of use, with a maximum charge of five usage days per rental. Beware of toll transponders or services offered by the rental car companies as some are much more expensive than others. Budget, for example, charges the $3.95 fee every day, regardless of whether or not it is used every day. 

 

Drive time from Walt Disney World to Miami can vary with traffic, but my late Friday evening departure (around 7:30 PM) meant that I missed the worst of the Orlando traffic and would be arriving in South Florida well after the rush. In the case of my trip, it was about 3 hours, 40 minutes utilizing the Florida Turnpike. 

 

In my case, rates in Miami for the 24th were unusually high, with even the 2-3 star hotels near the airport pricing out north of $200. Not wanting to pay that much for a place to crash before the cruise, I used an online agency to book a "Hot Rate" hotel in the area of Miami Airport. I don't recommend using "Hot Rate" or Name Your Own Price type services unless you really know how to do your research and compare review counts and scores to identify which hotel you are likely getting before you purchase as you can end up in some really bad hotels if you are not careful. In my case, the "Hot Rate" hotel was listed as a 2.5 star hotel with an average review score of 4.6/5 with 476 reviews. The low review count indicated that this was a newer hotel, and the high average review score gave me faith that I was booking a hotel that would likely be clean and safe. After some research and cross-comparison with the rack rate listings, I was able to identify the Hot Rate hotel as the Candlewood Suites Miami Airport 36th Street. The rate of $115 per night plus taxes and fees was much more reasonable than the rack rates being advertised for other hotels in the area. 

 

After filling up the gas tank on the rental car, I arrived at Candlewood Suites Miami Airport 36th Street a little before midnight and lucked into a parallel parking space right in front of the hotel lobby. One of the negatives of this hotel is limited parking as it sits on a very small pad on the airport frontage road about two miles from the airport. The area has seen better days, and I definitely would not recommend walking around alone after dark, although the hotel itself felt plenty safe. 

 

I was pleasantly surprised to find a large and clean extended stay style hotel room with new furnishings. As an added bonus, the hotel offers free guest laundry, with a wall of four washers and four dryers adjacent to the fitness area. I took advantage of this and did two loads of laundry before boarding the Norwegian Escape, which does not offer any self-service laundry facilities. 

 

After a long night of driving and laundry, I finally made it to bed a little before 2:00 AM. 

 

Up next... embarkation day on the Norwegian Escape!

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As someone who stayed at the All Star Sports Resort shortly after it opened (I think some of the paint was still wet!), your pictures are shocking.  It is hard to believe that Disney would allow any of its resorts to fall into that state of disrepair.

Edited by GA Dave
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31 minutes ago, GA Dave said:

As someone who stayed at the All Star Sports Resort shortly after it opened (I think some of the paint was still wet!), your pictures are shocking.  It is hard to believe that Disney would allow any of its resorts to fall into that state of disrepair.

 

Agreed, I was really disappointed by Disney. This is the second trip in a row that I've experienced problems with Disney resorts. On our October trip, we encountered issues with housekeeping at Pop Century. We had two connecting rooms for an eight night stay. They must have been in two different housekeeping "zones" and the staff couldn't keep track of which rooms they had cleaned and which they hadn't. My room was skipped three times during the eight nights and the room next door where my parents were staying was skipped once, on a different day than when mine was skipped. A phone call to the duty manager and two visits to the front desk ended in them putting in a "work order" to require a supervisor to verify that both rooms were made up.

 

The newly remodeled rooms at Pop Century are a huge improvement over the old style rooms, and I'm glad to know that the All Star Resorts are at least on the schedule to be remodeled, but Disney let these go way too long, in my opinion. Having stayed twice at Universal's Cabana Bay Resort and toured Aventura, I can say that Universal currently holds the upper hand when it comes to value-priced theme park hotels, and if I'm not concerned about Extra Magic Hours or Disney transportation, I'd certainly choose one of the Universal resorts over Disney at this point in time, even when visiting the Disney parks. 

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Embarkation Day - Saturday, January 25, 2020

 

I left Candlewood Suites around 9:30 and made the quick journey over to the rental car center at MIA to drop off the rental car. The drop-off process was quick and painless with Alamo, and I received a receipt from the check-in attendant while standing at the vehicle. I took my bags up to the 4th floor lobby / passenger drop-off / shuttle area and requested a Lyft to get me to the port. I've found that Lyft is often significantly less expensive in Miami when compared to Uber, and certainly less expensive than a taxi. The Lyft app quoted me at just under $14.00 for the 25 minute ride from MIA to the port, and said that my driver would arrive in approximately four minutes.

 

I texted the driver my exact location and waited near loading zone two at the rental car center. And waited. And waited. And waited. I watched the driver circle the rental car center at least three times on the map, but he never arrived in the drop-off/pick-up area. No communication. After more than 20 minutes, the driver dropped the trip and Lyft quickly re-assigned the trip to another driver. Thankfully this guy knew where he was going and quickly arrived to pick me up on the top level of the rental car center within about three or four minutes. Black Toyota Camry must be the model of choice for Uber and Lyft drivers in Miami, because it seemed like everyone had one! His car was clean and he was friendly, although spoke only broken English. A quick 25 minute ride to the port with only minimal traffic slowdowns and I was ready to board the Norwegian Escape.

 

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The Norwegian Escape was docked in such a way that she was utilizing both Terminal C and Terminal D on the 25th, with even numbered decks utilizing C and odd numbered decks utilizing D for check-in. This proved to create some confusion at the port, but I was quickly able to find my correct check-in terminal and proceeded inside Terminal C. After quickly clearing security, I experienced both the fastest and least friendly check-in I've ever experienced for a cruise. The employees of the company that NCL outsources shoreside operations to seemed miserable and offered little interaction, but there were no lines, and I had my key card in hand and was headed to the gangway in less than six minutes from car to gangway. Not bad! 

 

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My first steps onto Deck 16, which would be known as the "Lido Deck" on a Carnival ship. This is the "adults only" pool area around 11:00 AM. 

 

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We were docked behind Carnival Horizon, which I sailed on in November 2018. Horizon was my first solo cruise, and also the most relaxing cruise I have ever been on. I had one of the aft-facing extended balcony rooms in the Family Harbor area (reserved last minute as a Balcony Guarantee and received an upgrade to the aft-facing extended balcony). These rooms are located directly above the mooring deck and below the aft dining room and offer full sun, with slightly less privacy due to the lack of cover above. I greatly enjoyed this and experienced very little noise in the room. 

 

I noted the "CHOOSE FUN" logo painted on the back of the Carnival Horizon, which in the moment had me questioning why I had not chosen fun on the Carnival Horizon after such a positive experience on my November 2018 cruise. I quickly remembered why I did not "CHOOSE FUN" on this trip, as an interior room on the Horizon priced out at nearly twice what I paid for my Norwegian Escape cruise on the same embarkation date. 

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Wow this is a very timely report! We too stayed at the Candlewood Suites on 36th the same night as you (just fine for a 1 night stay; no complaints), rented a car from Alamo (flew into FLL the night before, returned car at MIA and attempted to take LYFT from the same location as you and experienced EXACTLY the same situation, until we gave up and took the free but very slow shuttle bus to the port), and we were on the Carnival Horizon in the deck 6 aft wrap cabin in the Havana section that I circled in the picture I borrowed from you. We too are platinum with Carnival but had a rather disappointing cruise for the first time in 13 cruises, all with Carnival, and I am now looking at an  NCL sailing for our next cruise this spring. I will be very interested in hearing your assessment of this NCL sailing and also any comparisons/differences to Carnival. Keep it coming 🙂

horizon aft.jpg

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I knew that Taste and Savor (main dining rooms) would be open for lunch on embarkation day, but was juggling my carry on and didn't really want to deal with the hassle of going to the MDR for lunch, so I opted to explore the buffet area, known as Garden Cafe on the Norwegian Escape. 

 

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My first thought when I explored the Garden Cafe was that the ship's designer must REALLY like soup. There are no fewer than four soup stations spread throughout the Garden Cafe, each offering two hot soup varieties that changed daily, as well as several bread selections. The soups changed between lunch and dinner, and I only saw one day of repeats on the soup offerings. 

 

The layout and flow of Garden Cafe seemed to function quite efficiently, and I never encountered long lines. 

 

There was a HOT FAVORITES section with varieties such as roasted chicken and a daily fish entree, as well as some roasted vegetable selections. Offerings were comparable in quality and variety to what you would find on the daily themed hot buffet line on Carnival's lido buffets. I wasn't a fan, as the few items that I tried tended to be very dry and had likely been sitting for a long time prior to service. 

 

The first picture is of the deli cold cuts and cheese selection, which was offered at both lunch and dinner, featuring a few different cheeses and a selection of cold cuts. Carnival offers a similar selection of deli meats and cheeses, although Carnival presents their cheeses in a deli sliced variety rather than a cracker cut or cube format found on Norwegian Escape. 

 

The GRILL section is copied on each side of the Garden Cafe, and offered grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as french fries, macaroni and cheese, and chicken tenders. I found the quality to be severely lacking in the grill section, especially when compared to Carnival's Guy's Burger Joint offerings. On Norwegian Escape, the burgers are a round preformed frozen puck that is grilled on an electric grill. Grey and unappealing. The french fries are a skinless "value cut" grade fry that are self-service from a buffet pan. Macaroni and cheese appeared to be watery and more color than actual cheese flavor, something that my taste buds verified when I sampled the offering later in the week. Finally, the chicken tenders are very small with a crumb style breading - they almost reminded me of tiny fish fillets. I'm sure they are fine for picky kids, but I didn't see many adults partaking in the offering. 

 

At the very back of the ship, there is a hidden PANINI station that offered a daily panini that is grilled and then cut into four sections. There is no customization here, it is strictly pre-made and placed out for self-service. I sampled the tandoori chicken panini, which was favorful, although a bit dry. Next to the paninis is a small self-service salad bar with two varieties of leafy greens and several cold salad toppings, think cucumber, shredded carrots, mushrooms, etc., along with a hodgepodge of dressings, some of which were served in grocery store style bottles, while others were in bulk jugs. Very interesting. Aside from the dressings, the salad bar was comparable to those found on Carnival ships. 

 

The bread selection varied daily, although I quickly fell in love with the pretzel rolls and enjoyed at least one every time they were on offer. I found some of the other bread selections to be a bit dry for my tastes. 

 

An ASIAN station was also offered each day, although I found their selection of Asian food to lean much more heavily toward Indian, with curries and plain white rice, with perhaps a stir fried vegetable in the mix. I enjoy more of the Chinese, Japanese, or Thai varieties as opposed to Indian, and only sampled items from this station once. It appeared to be enjoyed more frequently by the crew (officers) dining in the Garden Cafe than by the guests. 

 

The PIZZA station always offered cheese and pepperoni, as well as a third variety that changed each day - think BBQ chicken, or philly steak pizza, etc. Pizzas are large in size and sliced for self-service by the slice. Although Carnival makes their own thin crust using an authentic Italian recipe with imported flour, I found the pizza on Norwegian Escape to be more flavorful, thanks to the bountiful quantity of high quality mozzarella cheese used. Carnival uses fresh mozzarella balls as opposed to a shredded mozzarella, which provides for less coverage over the pizza. I also find Carnival's sauce to be tasteless. Carnival also makes their pizzas to order, offering five or six varieties on the menu, and serves them in a smaller size - typically half a pizza per person, resulting in longer wait times at the pizza station. The pizza advantage goes to Norwegian in my book, which ended up being a good thing as I don't think I've ever eaten more pizza in a week in my life; something that I will talk more about later. 

 

Rounding out the offerings were a salad "action station", which rotated between a made-to-order Caesar Salad, Cobb Salad, or Chef's Salad. There wasn't much "action" taking place as the greens were already tossed in the dressing and were simply topped with a protein, cheese, and the available vegetables of choice. The DELI sandwich station at the back of the ship offered a deli meat based sandwich, as well as a "deli salad" type sandwich each day. Think ham salad, egg salad, chicken salad, etc. Similar to the panini station, these were all pre-made, with no customization options. On one occasion they also offered an open faced cold flatbread with mozzarella and prosciutto, which was quite delicious. I tended to avoid the other options as they were not overly appetizing to me. 

 

Finally, the dessert station offered several selections of pies, cheesecakes, and cakes, as well as one no sugar added option, and several fresh fruit selections and jellos each day. Two years ago I would have said that Norwegian's buffet dessert selection beat Carnival, but Carnival has recently upgraded their lunchtime desserts on their buffets, and I would now rate them both about equal in terms of quality and variety, with Carnival offering a sliced-to-order option in which a team member serves you, while Norwegian is all self service. Next to the dessert station was a warm cobbler with a warm topping. At dinner time, they also offered a made-to-order crepe station with a variety of toppings - berry compote, stewed bananas, fresh whipped cream, nutella, etc. This was a favorite, but is only available at dinner. 

 

Norwegian also offers both soft serve ice cream and hand-dipped ice cream in the buffet at lunch and dinner, although ice cream service stops when Garden Cafe closes. There is no 24-hour ice cream option, as is found on Carnival ships. 

 

The overall lack of customizable or made-to-order items disappointed me on Norwegian Escape, especially since the buffet line food, which was self-service out of regular hotel pans that were regularly topped off as needed out of another hotel pan, presumably from a hot box in the back, led to a lot of plentiful, but low quality food, which was often dried out from sitting under a heat lamp or in a hot box for a long period of time. As a result, my lunches onboard in the Garden Cafe usually consisted of a salad from the salad bar, along with the occasional soup or panini, and pizza. Lots and lots of pizza. At least it was hot and fresh?

 

Overall, I found the quality and variety of buffet options lacking in the Garden Cafe. Carnival has a definite advantage thanks to their made-to-order concepts, including Guy's Burger Joint (I don't eat beef, but the hand-cut fries are the BEST!), Blue Iguana Cantina (made-to-order tacos, burritos, and taco bowls with a self-service salsa bar), made-to-order deli, and made-to-order stir fry and/or pasta station, depending on the ship. The actual "old school" style theme buffet stations are about equal. Overall advantage for the buffet goes to Carnival. 

 

 

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For comparison, here are some photos of the lido buffet on my November 2018 sailing on Carnival Horizon. 

 

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Guy's Burger Joint on Carnival Horizon (seem here after closing - it is open until around 6:00 PM each day)

 

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Blue Iguana Cantina on Carnival Horizon (seen here after closing - it is open for breakfast and lunch each day)

 

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Making fresh pizza to order on Carnival Horizon

 

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Late night (11:00 PM to 1:00 AM) buffet offerings on Carnival Horizon

 

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Late night (11:00 PM to 1:00 AM) buffet offerings on Carnival Horizon

 

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Late night (11:00 PM to 1:00 AM) buffet offerings on Carnival Horizon

 

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Themed dinner buffet station on Carnival Horizon. I believe this night was a New Orleans / Creole theme. 

 

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Themed dinner buffet station on Carnival Horizon. I believe this night was a New Orleans / Creole theme. 

 

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Themed dinner buffet station on Carnival Horizon. I believe this night was a New Orleans / Creole theme. 

 

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Fresh Creations salad station offered on sea days near the Serenity adults only area on Carnival Horizon. This is in addition to the salad bar in the lido buffet area. 

 

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Salad station on the dinner buffet on Carnival Horizon

 

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Children's dinner buffet on Carnival Horizon

 

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Dessert station after closing on Carnival Horizon

 

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Closed buffet station on Carnival Horizon. The newer Carnival ships prefer the island style buffet stations as opposed to the linear buffet as on Norwegian Escape and many of the older Carnival ships. The island style helps to break up the crowds and speed up the lines, although the smaller stations that make up the long linear design of Norwegian Escape also accomplished this quite well.

 

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Seating area in Carnival Horizon lido buffet "Marketplace". I felt that Carnival's design and furniture led to more space to move around between tables, leaving the buffet area to feel much less crowded than on Norwegian Escape. The Escape's buffet area had a combination of booths and tables with oversized padded chairs with full armrests. The tables were located so close together that I sometimes found myself trapped without an immediate path out of the dining area without asking another guest to move. Both ships also offered some bar-height tables for an alternate view. Carnival offers more outdoor buffet seating, while Norwegian's Garden Cafe is indoors aside from a small section of 8-10 tables immediately outside of the Garden Cafe doors. There are no outdoor food service areas or buffet lines on the Norwegian Escape.

 

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Seafood Shack onboard Carnival Horizon. This is an upcharge quick service location serving a variety of seafood, from fish and chips and lobster rolls to chilled crab claws and shrimp cocktail. 

 

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Seafood Shack on Carnival Horizon

 

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Lido Marketplace Buffet salad bar on Carnival Horizon

 

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Vegetarian mushroom-based burger and fresh cut french fries at Guy's Burger Joint on Carnival Horizon. This beats the grill station on Norwegian Epic by a mile!

 

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Buffet breakfast from the Lido Marketplace on Carnival Horizon. Nothing special - made to order omelet with bacon, french toast with blueberry compote, fresh cut melon, a bagel with cream cheese, banana yogurt, orange juice, and coffee.

 

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Made-to-order thin crust pizza on the Carnival Horizon

 

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