What is Specialty Dining on a cruise ship? Instead of eating your dinner in the main dining room, you can opt to have a meal in a “special” restaurant, featuring fine steaks, sushi, Italian fare, or something unique. These days, most cruise ships have at least one specialty restaurant, in addition to the main dining room, buffet, and room service.
The Allure of the Seas, being the largest ship afloat, actually has 24 different dining options available! Most of those options are complimentary and included in your cruise fare. However, there are several options that charge an additional per-person fee to dine. Some places are casual: Johnny Rockets if you’re in the mood for a burger and fries ($4.95), or Rita’s Cantina if you’d like to sample some Mexican fare ($3 cover charge, plus a la carte menu pricing; or Rita's Fiesta, with dinner and 3 drinks of your choice for $20 on select nights).
If you’re a die-hard carnivore, you’re in luck. Samba Grill is a Brazilian steakhouse that’s open for dinner in the Solarium each night ($25). While there is a buffet with soups, salads, and appetizers, the focus here is on the meat - there are actually 13 different kinds of meat that are carved tableside, just for you. And the servers will keep coming around until you’ve had enough. Always a favorite, Chops Grille is an American steakhouse ($30), serving all of the traditional classics.
If you’re looking for something different, you can try Vintages, a wine bar with a sampling menu of tapas (a la carte pricing). You can use an iPad to select a wine, and then tapas selections are suggested for you. Or, choose your tapas first, and see the iPad’s wine pairing recommendations! Sushi, sashimi, and even Hot Rock (Ishiyaki) Plates are found at Izumi Asian Cuisine (cover charge is $5 for dinner, plus a la carte menu pricing).
For the foodies, 150 Central Park is a fine-dining experience featuring a seasonal 6-course tasting menu ($40). There are just 2 rotating menus per cruise, so you can view the options when you get onboard to see which one appeals to you more. Or, you can opt for the Chef’s Table, a unique experience limited to just 14 guests. There is a 5-course menu prepared and presented by the Chef de Cuisine, along with special wine pairings for each course ($95). Bonus take-home goodies include a cookbook signed by the chef and a special personalized menu.
During my cruise on the Allure, I was perfectly content with all of the dining options that were included in my cruise fare. However, after spending 6 nights in the dining room with 4 young children, we decided we were going to spend the last night having a quiet special dinner together, without the little ones. At that point, there weren’t many reservation choices left, and we settled on Giovanni’s Table ($20). Described as Italian, and "family-style", I’ll admit I didn’t necessarily have the highest hopes for a “fine dining” experience.
We started out with 3 appetizers to share: Carpaccio di Manzo (thinly sliced seared beef tenderloin, crispy lettuces, shaved fennel, julienned sundried tomatoes, crispy garlic chips, and herb-oil drizzle); Capesante al Forno (oven baked, almond-crusted scallops with red bell pepper pesto). To be honest, I’m not a fan of scallops, but these had to be THE BEST scallops I have ever eaten. If all scallops were like this, I would certainly eat them more often! The third was Melanzane alla Parmigiana (baked eggplant parmigiana Italian style), and even though it wasn't an adventurous choice, it was a really outstanding appetizer. For our pasta course, we shared the Crespelle di Ricotta e Spinaci - baked ricotta and spinach crepes with Pomodoro sauce. Another amazing dish, filled with plenty of cheesy goodness.
(As if we even had room for the main course at this point...) we selected the Grilled Lamb Chops and the Grilled Beef Tenderloin. Both were cooked to perfection. These were probably THE BEST lamb chops I have ever eaten. They were meaty and juicy, with not a bit of fat on them…and while they were thick, they were cooked perfectly!
We also sampled several desserts, including Tiramisu and Cannoli, although we were certainly not hungry anymore!
Dining at Giovanni's Table turned out to be one of the highlights of our week on the Allure, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Royal Caribbean has since introduced a few Specialty Dining Packages on select ships to encourage guests to try specialty dining. For example, for $65 per guest, you can eat dinner at Giovanni's Table, Chops Steakhouse, and 150 Central Park. Purchased separately, it would be $90 per guest. I highly recommend doing this, as it's a great way to sample some fantastic dining experiences, and it is a great value too!
Years ago, there was just one nightly entertainment option on a cruise ship: you would either eat dinner and see your show in the main theater afterwards, or see the show first and eat dinner later. These days, there is so much more flexibility in dining…and now on most of the newer mega-ships, there is now flexibility in your entertainment as well.
On my recent Allure of the Seas cruise, numerous shows were offered in multiple venues at all different times: the theater, the ice rink studio, the Royal Promenade, and most uniquely, the Aqua Theater. The variety was also diverse, from Broadway-style productions, to acrobatic feats, to Dreamworks-influenced (and kid-friendly) shows, adult-only comedy acts, and more.
The only “drawback” is that you have to do some advance planning and make reservations for some shows ahead of time (but no additional costs are involved!). For example, on our cruise, the Broadway musical Chicago was offered on 3 different nights, and we had to choose a night that worked around our dining, other shows we wanted to see, and the hours that our children were in Adventure Ocean or the Nursery. And since we only booked our cruise a few weeks prior to the actual sailing, most of the shows showed up as full when we accessed our pre-cruise planner online.
But we shouldn’t have worried! We found that we were easily able to get reservations to all the shows we wanted, at the times we wanted, once we were onboard. And it turns out, having the shows pre-reserved worked out just fine, and prevented overly large crowds. Can you imagine if all 6000 people onboard showed up to watch Chicago on the same night?! (Note: you can still just show up to a show time if you'd like. Reservations are released 15 minutes prior to showtime, and stand-by folks are admitted on a space-available basis.)
So without further ado, I’d like to highlight some of the shows we saw during our sailing. Unfortunately, there were a few we just never made it to, because we were busy having fun in other parts of the ship!
OceanAria – we opted to see this show on the first night of the cruise. It’s held outdoors in the AquaTheater. We brought all 4 kids to the show with us, even though the showtime was 9pm. (We find that the first night is usually best for staying up late, thanks to the adrenaline burst of being in a new and fun environment!) Seating in the front few rows is considered the "splash zone", but we were lucky enough to be a few rows behind that. Towels are provided, just in case!
The AquaTheater is an amphitheater found at the end of the Boardwalk neighborhood, at the aft of the ship. It features the deepest pool at sea (almost 18 feet!); not only is it the deepest, but the floor of the pool can be raised and lowered, allowing for amazing stunts by high divers, followed almost immediately by acrobats showing their stuff in ankle-deep water. (During the day, the AquaTheater pool may be open for swimming, or covered by a stage for other shows.)
The performance consisted of aerial and acrobatic stunts, synchronized swimming, divers, and more, all set to a musical score. It even kept the attention of our 2 year old for the entire 45 minute show. The entire family rated this a “must-see” for the Allure!
Chicago – this is the same Broadway musical that you’ve probably heard of (or at least seen the movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger). Somehow, I’d never seen this show or movie (even though I like Broadway musicals!). We really loved this performance – the singing and dancing were really top-notch, and we've been singing the songs ever since. If you like Broadway musicals, then this is a “must-see” as well!
Note: due to some of the content, it’s only recommended for guests over the age of 13. However, our 10 year old is a musical theater and singing fanatic, and she really wanted to see it as well. Most of the inappropriate content went over her head…but she REALLY enjoyed the show overall, stating it was one of her favorite parts of the whole cruise experience!
Comedy Live – this comedy show is offered 2-3 times per night for every night of the cruise. But you only need to reserve it once: it is the same comedians and same show every time. (Since the venue is very small and intimate, there needs to be several offerings in order to accommodate everyone!) Note that the show is only appropriate for adults, and no one under 18 is admitted. For us, it was the perfect excuse for a “date night” without the kids, and it provided some good laughter as well. Another thumbs-up!
Blue Planet – this fits into the category of cruise ship/variety/singing/acrobatic show…but taken up a few notches. The musical selections are varied, ranging from soothing instrumental backgrounds for a cirque-du-soleil-ish aerial performance to a high-energy trampoline and acrobatic number set to a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. It was definitely unique, and got a thumbs up from both our 3 year old and our 10 year old!
We had reservations for the “Ice Games!” ice show, as well as the Headliner Show (The Unexpected Boys: a musical tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), but we just couldn’t break away from other onboard fun to make it to see them! However, we were able to see the How to Train Your Dragon Family Ice Show (no reservations required), which the whole family enjoyed. I don't think it's necessary to have seen the Dreamworks film, "How to Train Your Dragon", because the set, costumes, and ice stunts are entertaining in themselves. However, our family happens to really enjoy that movie; in fact, we were able to see the film in 3D in the theater earlier in the cruise!
Other shows included: a variety of 3D movies, The Love & Marriage Game Show, Outdoor Movies in the AquaTheater, Move It! Move It! Dreamworks parade, and Let You Entertain Me! Aqua Show. In addition to all of these “shows”, there were also nightly music venues for Jazz, Latin music, Rock n Roll, Dance music, a piano bar, and of course, Karaoke. There were even family-friendly versions of these venues at earlier hours: Family Karaoke, Family Dance Party, you get the idea. Combine this with an 18,000 square foot casino and multiple bars and lounges, and there's plenty to keep you having fun all night!
There's certainly no shortage of entertainment available on the Allure of the Seas; your only trouble will be finding the time to do it all!
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I recently sailed on the Allure of the Seas and Disney Dream within about a month of each other. These are two of the newest ships at sea, and both are heavily marketed towards families. Since I traveled with 4 kids, ranging in age from 2 to 10, I was able to really put all of the childrens programs to the test. Read on to see how the ships stack up! This post is all about childcare for babies under 3 on both ships.
About the Nursery: While a nursery for babies has been a part of Disney Cruise Line since their inception, Royal Caribbean recently launched the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery on the Oasis and Allure of the Seas (and seeing the popularity, added the Nursery to several other ships in the fleet). If you’re going to cruise to the Caribbean or Bahamas, these are the only ships available that offer guaranteed childcare throughout the day and night for babies and toddlers.
Both cruise lines ask that you provide a change of clothes, diapers/wipes, and any other necessity your child requires (we packed a favorite stuffed animal). Royal Caribbean provides a cute reusable bag that they label with your child’s name, and you can take it home with you after the cruise.
Rates & Availability: For both cruises, I didn’t have any trouble securing the times I wanted. While I could pre-book some hours for the Dream online prior to the cruise, I could only make the Allure’s reservations in the Nursery once I was on the ship. Both nurseries only allow a certain number of hours (I believe it was 10 hours on the 3-night Disney cruise, 20 hours on the 7 night Royal Caribbean), but you can add more hours later in the cruise if available. And if you don’t think you want to use all the hours you reserved, both lines were very accommodating to cancellations, as long as you give them a little bit of notice.
Disney’s rate is currently $6 per hour, and Royal Caribbean’s is $8 per hour. Both require a 1 hour minimum.
Contact: On the Disney Dream, all staterooms are equipped with 2 “Wave Phones” that can be used to call or text any other wave phone or stateroom. While this is a great way to keep in touch with those you’re traveling with, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of toting around a phone to text or make calls…I’m on vacation! That being said, we did keep it nearby when our son was in the nursery…just in case!
On the Allure of the Seas, you are given a “DECT phone” only if you register at the nursery. Whenever you drop your child off there, be sure to keep the phone nearby in case you are needed.
The Play Space: On the Allure of the Seas, the Nursery is located in the same area as the older children’s activity rooms. There is a glass wall and door with a full view of the room, so you can always peek in on your child (though they may see you!). The reception area is very small, only really big enough for one family to enter and check-in at a time (it also makes the drop-off process feel more personalized and a little bit calmer). The play area is large and wide-open, and the toys in the room are changed daily. Being a partner with Fisher Price and Crayola, there is no shortage of kid-appropriate toys in the room! There is also separate area with cribs for when the little ones get tired and want to sleep.
On the Disney Dream, the setup of the play space is a little bit different. There is a large reception area, where many families can be checking in at one time, and a small play area for kids and siblings while they wait. There is one doorway where the babies enter into a corridor filled with a variety of toys. Beyond that, the room opens up into an area off to the side that you cannot see from the reception area, as well as another room in the back with cribs.
Interaction: Every time my son was dropped off on the Allure of the Seas, there were 3 counselors and no more than 4 children or so at any given time (maybe it was a quiet week?), so I know he was given extra-special attention. Although he cried every time we dropped him off (he isn’t used to daycare or babysitters), the staff was caring and patient, and he always stopped crying within a few minutes. By the end of the week, the counselors really got to know him, figured out his language, and even did a special finger-painting with him. One night (with our permission), they brought the babies (in their strollers) to the parade in the Royal Promenade. I know he really enjoyed that little “field trip”! Every time we picked him up, the staff gave us a written report and explained to us what our son had done, how many times his diaper had been changed (and why), and on the night he ate dinner there, what he ate.
On the Dream, we were only onboard for 3 nights, and ended up using the nursery only once so we could have dinner at Palo (adults-only specialty restaurant). Again, he cried when we dropped him off, but he quieted quickly, as we checked on him just before we set off to dinner. When we arrived to pick him up, he was within view of the reception area, so we were able to watch him briefly before he noticed us. He and another boy were having fun making noise by banging puzzle pieces on the table. One counselor was sitting nearby with a little one on her lap. There were quite a few children in the room, but I couldn’t see any other counselors (they were around the corner, I’m sure!).
When I picked him up, I asked the counselor what he ate for dinner (he was there from 5:30pm to 8pm). No one seemed to remember, but after consulting a list, it turned out he didn’t eat anything (this was probably because that night’s dinner was corn-dogs - NOT a favorite for him!). I have no idea what he actually did in the time he was there, but he was happy and healthy, and we enjoyed our one quiet dinner. After our experience on the Allure of the Seas, I think I would have liked some feedback on what he did while he was there, especially a note that he hadn’t eaten any dinner.
The Winner: While I think both nurseries provided overall good care for my son, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use either one again in the future, I think Royal Caribbean’s Royal Babies & Tots Nursery wins. I think my son did receive more personal care and attention there, but that could be attributed to the fact that there were less babies on the cruise, and we were onboard for a week (more time for the counselors to get to know him). The nicest touch was the personalized feedback they provided at the end of each session letting you know what your child did while they were in the nursery.
I just returned from an amazing week onboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. Now, there are a lot of people out there who feel that a week on ANY cruise is an amazing experience…and I won’t argue that. But this ship is so unique, so different. I don't think you can even compare it to other “cruises”.
Because once you have a huge Central Park, with live trees and foliage, pathways lined with boutiques and cafes; a real Boardwalk, complete with fun house mirrors, a hot dog stand, a carousel, and a clown doing face painting; sports activities like a 40+ foot high rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, 2 surfing simulators, mini-golf course, and a zip line… it hardly feels like you are on a cruise ship!
For my family, the cruise was a perfect match. If you don’t already know, we have 4 children, ages 2, 3, 7, and 10. Choosing a cruise requires a little extra attention – for example, we need one room that will accommodate all of us (a real rarity, but several choices on the Allure of the Seas!) or two connecting rooms. We also prefer a cruise with childcare options for our youngest child so we could see a show, have a quiet dinner, or explore the ship. And as far as the kids go, we needed something that would entertain the little ones as well as the older ones. The Allure of the Seas (or her sister, the Oasis) is perfect for this. In fact, I would whole-heartedly recommend this ship for any family traveling together, from babies up to grandparents. There is really something for everyone here.
There are many reviews all over the internet, so I will just focus here on our favorites, which happened to be geared towards the more "active". But trust me, even if you are not interested in these sorts of activities, there is still so much to see and experience on this ship; my experience is merely one perspective, but I can honestly say I wish I had another week onboard to try to do EVERYTHING! If you have any questions to ask about the Allure or Oasis of the Seas, please don’t hesitate to contact me!