A wonderful cruise overall. There are some quirks and processes that MSC needs to work out, but we had an enjoyable experience and are already booked again for November (this time sans kids).
5 out of 5
The MSC Terminal (Terminal F) was clean and well organized, and embarkation was very smooth. Due to having booked the Aurea Experience, we had priority boarding (which is something I don't think is very clearly communicated). Our tickets said to board at 3 p.m., but we arrived around noon and checked in and went through security quickly, then went to the priority boarding area and waited about 5 minutes before we were able to walk onto the ship.
Food and Dining
3 out of 5
Actual rating - 3.5
Buffet - Food selection is very good - fresh fruit, pizza (very good, thin crust), American cuisine (hamburgers and hot dogs), Mediterranean selections (cheese and meats), desserts, and many other choices. The juice selection is good (cranberry, apple, orange, lemonade, and strawberry kiwi.) As with many cruise ships, the buffet at the peak hours is very busy. The process to get a soda in the buffet is a little more complicated than we would have liked. There are few places to get one, and you have to swipe your card in order for it to dispense 16 oz worth of soda. A few times the soda machines were not working, but as soon as we told the staff, they started working on it and also went to get me us the soda we wanted. They did have a bar service button at every table, which we didn't use but might have been more convenient than the soda machines.
Dining Room - We were in the Seashore restaurant with Anytime (or My Choice) Dining. Pros - the staff was nice and remembered our names (including our children) and our drink orders. We were often seated at the same table with a window, which was very nice especially as we ate dinner during sail away. They do have a separate kids menu, which my youngest child (age 9) used a few times, although normally he ordered off of the main menu. One evening he also ordered something that wasn't on either menu, and they happily obliged. If you arrive early (at 6 p.m., which is the earliest you can arrive for My Choice dining), you are seated immediately. The longest wait we ever had was about 15 - 20 minutes, when we arrived during a busier time. Cons - the food at dinner was good, but nothing blew us away. Our kids were very happy and were able to try a lot of new things, but overall we expected a little more. One night (the night we arrived late), we were seated at a different table and the table was not set or ready for us yet, and it appeared that the waiters didn't know who was supposed to serve us. The biggest con, however, is that dinner takes a very long time. You need to allocate two hours for dinner from start to finish. It seemed like this was a dining room-wide issue, not an issue with our particular waitstaff.
Speciality Dining - We made reservations for Monday night at the Tepanyaki restaurant, and that was by far the best dining experience on our cruise. The food was wonderful and the service was fantastic as well. Our chef, Orlando, was entertaining and paid particular attention to our children, which made them feel special.
Gelato - the gelato (in a cup or shake form), which is included in the Aurea Experience, was very good. There are four different areas to get the gelato, with the Miami Beach pool gelato area being open the latest.
5 out of 5
Water park - We used the water park everyday. It was fun and pretty well organized, and there were activities for all ages. Even when it seemed busy the lines were not too bad. Our kids spent hours upon hours there. If it is too windy, which it often was on our cruise, the largest slide (the one that uses a slide board) does shut down.
Jungle pool area - This area was a lot of fun. There was the pool (salt water, which did sting our children's eyes so be prepared for that), two hot tubs, two foosball tables, two table tennis tables, a full service bar and a gelato bar. There are a comfy chairs and pool loungers in this area - be aware that the loungers are often snatched up early in the day, but you can usually find a comfy chair to sit in alongside the large windows.
Zip line - looked like it would be a lot of fun, but due to winds it was never open. It was open for maybe a total of one hour throughout the entire cruise, so we did not get a chance to use it. They have reduced the price to $5 per ride or $20 per stateroom for unlimited rides, however, we would advise not paying that until you know for sure that it is open. Also, they do not make paying for the zip line convenient. You can purchase a single ride using your card or your wristband at the entrance to the zip line, but it is charged to your stateroom, not taken off your Fun Pass. (More on the Fun Pass below) If you want to purchase the unlimited zip line rides package, you can only do it 11 decks below in the Arcade on Deck 7, which is not convenient.
Arcade - We spent quite a bit of time and money in the Arcade area. We did not bowl or do the Formula One simulator, but we did play a lot of air hockey, some racing arcade games, and we did the XD Cinema twice. Because we have a large group, we bought the Fun Pass for $100. If you buy the $100 Fun Pass, you get $160 worth of credit. (You can also buy a $70 pass and get $100 worth of credit, and I think maybe there was also an option for a $50 pass with $75 worth of credit). You can use this credit to pay for all the games in the arcade, and also to pay for the zip line (again, wait on that until you know for sure it will be open), and to rent the billiards table. Unfortunately the billiards table is a little bit of a walk from the Arcade, by the Haven Lounge, so it was not convenient. Billiards was $10 for 15 minutes (very pricey). The XD Cinema was a blast and was $10 per adult and $8 per child. Air hockey was $2 per game, and the two racing arcade games were $1.50 per game. They also have those dumb claw games, which my son soon learned was not worth the $3.00 charge. (Life lessons!) I think bowling was $25 for half an hour, and they did have some shoes to rent. The staff in this area was friendly, but they are not always there. Make sure to use the MSC for Me app to see the times that the different venues are open.
Spa - With the Aurea Experience, you get one free massage per adult in the stateroom (not two free massages per stateroom, which is an important distinction, because as a large family we were split up into two staterooms, with one adult per room. We originally thought that meant we would receive four free massages, but we actually received one free massage per adult, so two total). You need to book your free massage on embarkation day, because the spots fill up quickly. They will offer you a free massage in 35 minutes, 45 minutes, or 55 minute time slots, so if you want a 55 minute one, you will need to schedule it before those slots are filled. We ended up booking 55 minute massages for 7 p.m. on a port day, which was not super convenient but it was free, so we didn't complain. The spa itself is beautiful, and the massages were wonderful. Because we were there with our kids, we never had time to use the thermal spa, but it looked like it would be a wonderful place to relax. If we come back without our children, we will make sure to check it out next time.
Other onboard activities - We did trivia twice and it was a blast. We did it once in the Seaview Lounge, which is beautiful, and the host did a good job. We also did movie trivia on the Miami Pool desk with the cruise staff, and that was a blast. They were hilarious and entertaining. We did some shopping as well and overall had good experiences with that. The MSC shop was a little small and limited, but my son was pretty thrilled that they had a small lego cruise ship for sale ($11.90 USD) even if it wasn't the Seaside. Three of my kids also played basketball and enjoyed that, but it was very difficult to find a time when it wasn't busy. They played the most basketball on our first night on board, before other people discovered it.
5 out of 5
Our entire family loved the theatre shows. They had different shows every night, and they were easy to book once we figured out the MSC for Me app. We usually went to the 8:15 showing but went to the 9:30 showing a few times as well, and we never had a problem making a reservation. The shows are very high quality, albeit a little weird and disjointed at times. The talent of the acrobats, singers, and dancers was top notch, and we were always entertained. The Timeless show (with a Michael Jackson impersonator) was a highlight. We also enjoyed The Wizard and Peter Punk. A few of the shows could use a better, more cohesive theme, but I'm probably being nit-picky on that front.
4 out of 5
With four children, we were looking forward to the kids programs, but honestly, our kids did not use them as much as we expected. Our sons (ages 9 & 10) were in the Junior Club (ages 7 - 11), and only played there on the first night and a little bit on the first full sea day. I think our boys felt a little too old for that area, probably because they are used to hanging out with their older sisters or with us as a family. We have a 13 year old daughter who was in the 12-14 area, and a 15 year old daughter who was in the teen lounge. Those two lounges actually run together and the staff lets those ages interact with each other, which was good. Our girls were reluctant to go, but they checked in out on the first night and had a good time, staying for hours. They did not go back again, however. I think they just enjoyed hanging out as a family, doing the waterslides, etc. so the teen club wasn't a priority for them.
I will say that signing the kids up for the club was a little bit disorganized. When you arrive on board, if you have children under 12, you are directed to an area in the Atrium where you sign them up to get their wristband. Unfortunately, this doesn't also sign them up for the kids club. You have to do that later in the day, at the kids club itself, which is not super convenient. It would be helpful to do it all in one place at one time. Also, the wristbands allow you to track your children in the public spaces, at an additional charge of $18 per child per cruise. We did pay for that feature, which we found very helpful because our boys were old enough to do a lot on their own but not old enough where I felt okay letting them wander without me knowing where they were. At one point in the cruise, one of the trackers stopped working. The kids club staff was able to replace it without any issues (we first tried to get it fixed at the guest services, but were sent to the kids club).
Service and Staff
3 out of 5
Anytime we had a complaint or a problem, it was resolved, however, they were not as friendly or as accommodating as we thought they should be.
Room Steward - our room steward was great. He was friendly and kept our room in tip top shape.
Dining Staff - very nice, sometimes difficult to understand. We often had the same waitstaff, and they were attentive to our children and always remembered our names and drink orders. When we had different waitstaff (due to arriving late and being seated at a different table), our experience was not as good. They were disorganized and even started arguing in front of us, although in Spanish, which they obviously assumed we didn't speak (my husband is fluent).
Bartenders - for the most part they were friendly. Our kids often went to the bar to order virgin drinks and did not have any problems.
Kids Club staff - friendly, and resolved our issues quickly.
Guest services - our experience at guest services was not great. We went to guest services to resolve a few issues, and the woman we spoke with started talking to another staff member as we were in the middle of telling her about our issue. It was very rude and extremely frustrating. She was not very friendly. We understand that this is a job where you hear complaints all day so it can get frustrating, but you have to be able to put a smile on your face and listen to the guests. That is part of the job. She did end up helping us and resolving our issue, but we left frustrated with her attitude. On another note, my husband did go back to guest services on the last day to resolve an issue with our bill, and that was handled quickly and with a friendly attitude.
Photographers - for the most part we had good experiences with the photographers, with one exception. On the night of the white party, we waited to take a family picture, but the photographer was enamored with the pretty woman he was photographing ahead of us, and he literally took hundred of pictures of her. He knew we where there but obviously didn't care. We eventually moved on and didn't get a family picture taken that night. We saw the same photographer taking pictures of the same woman the next day, but by that time even she was started to get irritated by his attention.
General staff around the ship - they were pretty quiet, and not as engaging or friendly as we would have hoped.
4 out of 5
The ship always appeared to be very clean. The ship is beautiful and we loved the designs of the different areas. It was easy to tell where you were based on the different designs. We loved all the windows, which brought a lot of light and created a sense of openness throughout the ship. We loved the amount of outdoor space, which made us feel closer to the ocean. The only reason for the 4 star rating instead of 5 stars was that there was a plumbing issue on our last sea day. For about an hour, the toilets throughout the ship would not flush, which obviously can create a huge problem very quickly. I told guest services as soon as I realized it wasn't just our cabin that was having the issue, and they quickly called maintenance and it was resolved pretty quickly.
Cabin / Stateroom
4 out of 5
We had two Aurea cabins with the extended balconies (the last two at the rear starboard side). The rooms were pretty and comfortable. The couch, which in one of the rooms was turned into a bunk bed for our younger children, was convenient. The extended balcony was great, and highly recommended. It was very nice to have a place to lay out, especially considering it was always too crowded to find a lounge chair at the various pools. We were also able to have our room steward open the balcony between our two cabins so we could move between the two (although he did close it on very windy days).
The only issues with the room was the closet, which is difficult to get into due to the placement of the couch, and the bathroom, which was poorly designed. If you are over 5'6, you will have a problem sitting on the toilet unless you sit sideways, due to your knees hitting the bathroom cabinet.
Take some time to figure out the MSC for Me app. Once you figure it out, it makes it very convenient to schedule shows, book restaurants, and to track your children (if you've paid the extra fee for tracking). It is also the portal for your internet access (you receive an internet package as part of the Aurea experience, but there is no instruction sheet in your room so you have to figure it out on the app, which can be a little frustrating). I found that I used the app often throughout the day.
We enjoyed Miami very much. We arrived a few days early and spent some time exploring Miami Beach. On our disembarkation day, we did an excursion through a private company (via Viator.com). We did the Everglades tour with private ground transportation. They picked us up at the cruise port, took us to the Everglades where we did a fun fan boat tour while our driver stayed with our luggage, then they drove us to the airport. It was extremely convenient.
We did a private excursion in St. Thomas. We had a driver take us in an open air taxi around the island, then to the beach. Our driver was a character and the drive was ... an adventure. He took us to a touristy place atop the mountain where we could get a good view of Magen's Bay, and then he took us to a more secluded beach, which was nice. We were a little worried about getting back to the ship on time due to traffic, but we made it with half an hour to spare so we were fine and ended up having a few minutes to do some shopping at the port.
Ship itinerary changed, and we went to Grand Turk instead. Grand Turk was an amazing port, and we would give it 5 stars. Our catamaran excursion was cancelled due to high winds, but we rolled with it and took a cab to Pillory Beach, which was gorgeous. We would go back to Grand Turk anytime.
5 out of 5
Disembarkation was easy. There was a back up with Homeland Security, but MSC couldn't do anything about that. With the Aurea experience, we were able to get off the ship at 7:30, but we didn't want to get off that early so after leaving our room we ate breakfast and hung out until about 9 a.m. then disembarked without any issues.
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