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Norwegian Epic – The Most “Un-Freestyle” Ship?

Written by: David Beers

By David Beers [editor: CruiseReviews] - It’s been two months since Norwegian Epic debuted with the expected media fanfare. The ship sailed triumphantly into New York City to pick up the media and other guests – but the media cruise was limited to just two nights and one full day.

All of the media activities were pre-reserved and the passenger load was less than half of the ship’s full capacity. In fact, with a few exceptions like CruiseMates’ Paul Motter who made sure he was onboard for the first full 7-day cruise, the rest of the U.S. media reporters really had very little ability to assess the reservations system or how the ship handles with a ship full of passengers.

After a year of bragging about the vast number of entertainment and dining options, an innovative cabin design and referring to Epic as “F3” the pinnacle of “Freestyle cruising,” it was surprising that so few details about the ship came out during the first few weeks she was in service.

Now that we are eight weeks into regular service it appears there is an Epic problem that NCL does not really want to discuss. The question is whether Epic is capable of handling full passenger loads without significant crowd control issues in the dining and entertainment venues.

We have received letters and have been reading the early passenger reviews. While not everyone is negative about the ship, a significant number of people are encountering onboard problems. As of this writing the ship has completed nine 7-night cruises and while that isn’t many, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that some issues reported early on would be ironed out by now.

NCL touted Norwegian Epic as a high-energy entertainment destination for months before she debuted and we agree the array of shows offered on the ship is impressive.  However, having what is perhaps the best entertainment at sea loses its allure when passengers can’t get seats for the shows.  As I see it, the two biggest problems are the reservations system for the onboard entertainment and an inability to seat all passengers in the various venues during the weeklong cruises.

Among the complaints we are receiving are claims that guests’ who made show reservations online before their cruise are finding their reservations have been changed without their knowledge once they get aboard the ship. As a result, people are finding that the list of reservations they brought onboard is no longer accurate, and that the cabin iTV reservations system continues to have problems, as first revealed by CruiseMates Editor Paul Motter on the transatlantic voyage of the Epic in June.

Given the small size of the venues aboard, if a guest does not have a working reservation and misses a show there is very little chance of getting another reservation. Most shows are fully reserved up to the 80% pre-show limit within the first hour of boarding passengers on the ship.

Basically, Epic was touted as the pinnacle of Freestyle ships, where a person was “free to do… whatever” at anytime during the cruise. In fact, what Epic guests are finding is that while there are many excellent shows offered onboard, if one doesn’t have a reservation for most of the shows the chance of seeing one is severely limited to people who are willing to wait in line for as long as an hour or more.

Here are the best-case scenarios: Norwegian Epic has a full passenger capacity of 5183 passengers. The popular Blue Man Group is presented eight times per cruise in the main theater that holds 681 guests. With 5448 seats this is the only show that everyone onboard is guaranteed a chance to see.

Another popular show, Legends in Concert, runs twice per night on three nights in the main theater, the biggest venue onboard, which means a total seating capacity of 4086 people.  The Legends Unplugged show is done  3 times per cruise in the 600 seat Manhattan Room.

The Spiegel Tent shows the highly touted Cirque Dreams and Dinner show 12 times per cruise, but the theater only seats 237 guests. This means there are only 2844 seats. This same room shows what many people have said is the best show on the ship, – a comic magician. This show is presented twice per cruise in the Spiegel Tent and another two times in the Epic Theater.  Thus 1836 passengers can see the magician.

Another venue that requires reservations is the Headliner’s Lounge, home to Second City. This comic troupe performs here 12 times per cruise with a few different show titles (every show is improvisational, so unique by definition), but each performance can only hold 280 guests. These shows were bulging at the doors even when the ship was only filled to just over ½ of its capacity.  Second City is also featured in the Murder Mystery Lunch, but this is not free and has a $15 cover charge.

One reviewer told us that she had booked seven shows and dinners on-line prior to her cruise aboard the Norwegian Epic.  Taking our advice she brought along a printout of her reservations.  At her first reserved dinner she was told the restaurant had no reservation for her, but since they found her a table she didn’t foresee a problem.  Later, when they were denied entry to a pre-reserved show, she says she went to guest relations and was told that of the seven reservations they had made at home, six of them were now different.  According to this passenger, Guest Relations told her that her reservations were likely changed to accommodate suite guests.  In a follow up email I was told by an NCL spokesperson that NCL would never bump anyone with an existing reservation.  “Our concierge will assist suite guests with their entertainment reservations, but we would never bump any guest that is already booked,” according to the spokesperson.  In any case, regardless of the reason for this reservation mix-up, there were more problems coming.

When our complainant’s party arrived on the ship their cabin carpets were all soaked due to faulty plumbing. They were moved to a new stateroom.  As an apology for having to change cabins the front desk arranged reservations for the SpongeBob SquarePants breakfast with their kids. However, even the reservations for this goodwill gesture went awry.

Although the guest relations desk had reserved this show for our reviewer’s family they were denied entry on both the first and second mornings they arrived to see it. The TV reservation system in their cabin did not work properly for the first two days of the cruise (a problem commonly reported about Epic) so they were going on faith that the reservation had been made.

Both mornings as they were denied entrance to the show by the box office staff they returned to inform guest relations and new reservations were made.

But here is where it gets even worse – our complainant told me that a box office attendant actually seemed to enjoy taunting her to “get out of my line” each of those two mornings. When they were denied entry for the third frustrating time she went back to guest relations and asked the person who had arranged the reservation to go to her cabin TV where the reservation did appear. They proceeded to the box office together where a heated exchange occurred between the box office attendant and the guest relations employee.  Finally, a waitress from the show who had seen all these events unfolding day after day intervened; she came out of the Spiegel Tent and personally escorted these guests to a table.

What really happened in this case is still a mystery to us, but the bottom line is that Norwegian Epic is severely limited in its ability to accommodate guests in its showrooms. Add in the failure of the system to maintain non-conflicting reservation schedules between the pre-cruise web site, the front desk, the in cabin television system and the box office and you have a potential nightmare for many people hoping to see all of Epic’s great entertainment.

In fact, we have seen a number of readers who have been on Epic recommend that everyone, even people with reservations, get in line at least an hour early. If you have a reservation it only guarantees entrance, not a specific seat, so people who want to sit close are lining up as much as 90 minutes early – even with reservations. The people on “standby” have to line up just as early just to get a seat in the back. Remember that only 20% of the seats are left unreserved for people who want to “Freestyle” their entertainment options.

I’ve also read comments from forum members about passengers pushing and shoving to gain an advantage for seats once the doors open. This is not only unseemly; it is dangerous on a ship with non-attached seating. If one of the tall, top-heavy stools in Headliners toppled over someone could easily become seriously hurt.

By the end of the cruise our reviewer was only able to see Blue Man Group on the last night of the cruise by waiting in the standby line (remember our math) and Second City, which was the one reservation that had not been changed. They were not able to see any other shows.

As she told me “What good are all these entertainment options if some passengers can’t see them? If you forget or lose your reservation time or even if you are just late you will miss the show. There are too few vacant seats, too many people onboard and the venues are too small.”

Another reviewer told us “If you don’t jump on a reservation early, you may miss a major performance. I did not see the Cirque Dreams & Dinner performance since it was already sold out by the time I boarded.”

The size of the show rooms is a boilerplate issue that can’t be easily fixed.  So the balancing act between available seats and the number of passengers has very little leeway. Long lines for both reserved guests and standbys create crowding outside of showrooms, long periods of uncomfortable standing and inevitably a fair amount of jostling and jockeying for good seats once the doors are open. It also leads to very frustrated employees who are just trying to keep everyone happy.

This all leads to the question, just how “freestyle” is the Norwegian Epic?  The promise was freedom from scheduling, that guests are “free to … ‘whatever’”.

When you have to create your own reservations schedule far before you even see the ship, keep track of daily reservations, maintain awareness of last minute changes made to show times by the ship, and then ensure that you are not late but in fact early enough to get a good seat, can it really be called “freestyle”?

And what happens when you miss a show? The optional nightly entertainment is Fat Cats blue’s bar, a pianist in the Martini bar, themed parties in Spice H2O, and the Bliss Ultra Lounge.  On four nights Howl at the Moon is presented from 9 pm to midnight (no reservations necessary) in the Headliners Lounge.  There are also movies and a band in the atrium.  This sounds like a lot but then most of it is in a bar atmosphere which doesn’t appeal to all passengers, especially those with children.

Have you ever heard of a cruise ship where you need a reservation every night just to see a show? Regular cruise ships offer a different show every night for everyone. When was the last time you heard anyone say they couldn’t see a show on any ship due to the theater being filled to capacity every night?

But on Norwegian Epic shows are repeated night after night just so people have a chance to see them one time. If you don’t happen to get into a show on any given night your options are fairly limited. You won’t see any real stage entertainment without a reservation unless you get in a standby line very early and get lucky – with the exception of the “Legends Unplugged” show held in the Manhattan Supper Club.

Epic does indeed offer Epic entertainment, but it also seems an Epic passenger is more of a schedule slave than even on other NCL ships or any non-“Freestyle” ship.

You know, those commercials where they make fun of people nervously eyeing their watches, waiting in lines and marching in lock step?  Welcome aboard Norwegian Epic.

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Comments

Comment from Jose
Time September 3, 2010 at 11:47 am

I was reading the threads and I came upon this one and, I swear, my neighbor who traveled the EPIC 2 weeks ago said exactly the samething (expect problems with the staff). He went with his wife and 2 kids and said it was a hassle making reservations for everything, them losing a few reseservations with their electronic reservation system, having to go to shows an hour earlier to get seats all together ( and keeping his kids entertained for that waiting period.) Then he mentioned the large amount of agitated people waiting and pushing and shoving when the doors opened and literally running to save seats for their entire family. My neighbor said he feels NCL got in over their head with the EPIC not able to handle large crowds and poor venue designs. BUT he said the shows were outstanding once he and his family got in.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time September 3, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Thanks, Jose. I’m really saddened to hear your neighbor experienced those problems. Some might think I wrote a hit piece, but it isn’t meant to be that way. Anyone who is a cruise fanatic wants to see the Epic succeed, but I can’t get over the sense they have put a Ferrari engine (the entertainment) in the body of a 59 Edsel.

Comment from Jose
Time September 3, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Actually Dave I live in Miami and see the EPIC depart every weekend and, compared to other ships docked behind it – it looks like a huge ferry or a cargo ship – its that ungainly!
I am waiting to see how it pans out and if NCL is really listening and makes the needed operational changes. Based on what I read on other sites (CC in particular), the EPIC reviews have not been too good from passengers. Its a shame for the ship has enormous potential and the shows have been top rated but its marred by internal disorganization, poor logistics and poor design – maybe they wanted it to be “everything to everyone” but it ended up succeeding in none. Honestly I would love to travel on it and try those – now infamous – studio cabins and see all the shows but I want to give it time to “mature” maybe in a year.

Comment from Jeroen
Time September 6, 2010 at 6:21 am

Sorry to say but i just came of the ship last saturday and it was nightmare. It was my fourth NCL cruise, probaly i will sail again with NCL but not on the Epic. Only lines! Lines for theater, lines for restaurants, lines for the waterslides. I made three reservations in advance for the shows by internet, arriving at the ship they say that there was no reservation. Fortunatly i print out the reservation.
Spoke to a bartender i known him from my last cruise and he told me that still a lot of things are going wrong.

Pingback from Cruisemates Blog» Norwegian Epic “Un-Freestyle” Update – David Beers
Time September 9, 2010 at 2:21 pm

[...] the “Legends In Concert” name.  I also overlooked some show times.  I have corrected the original article to show the proper information.   I appreciate NCL contacting me to clarify things.  I strive [...]

Comment from Andy
Time September 13, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I sailed on the 8-28 sailing and would like to give the other side. Even with a change from Eastern to Western due to a storm we had no problems at all getting everything reserved. We had no problems getting into any show. We had no long lines for anything as a matter of fact. I do feel bad for the people that had issues but my family really had a blast on the Epic!

Comment from Amber
Time September 28, 2010 at 6:01 am

Re Epic’s Entertainment ….

My group just sailed on the Epic (9/18-9/25). As a travel agent, I made sure every member in my group was PRE-scheduled for the major entertainment venues several weeks prior to sailing.

Maybe we just lucked out but ALL reservations were honored, without a hitch.

If you do not use a travel agent (BTW, there is NO fee for using a travel agent!) and you opt to “do it yourself”, then you must do your homework and follow the rules to avoid disappointment.

Before cruising, NCL urges all guests to log on to “my ncl” and complete their online rez which is also where you can make entertainment reservations and book shore excursions — all a full month prior to sail date.

It appears to me that you have two choices: Have a travel agent insure you get the best out of your cruise or … do your homework to avoid disappointment.

As the group’s leader, not only did I ensure every member of the group had reservations, I had a “line monitor” at each venue waaay ahead of time, so that even the group stragglers were able to have GREAT seats for all events.

We had a great time and, with all of the pre-cruise reservations I made, not one had been changed or not honored… all went well.

@ Jereon … we were on the same cruise but had totallly different experiences.

I’m sorry your experience was not a good one. Our experience on the same cruise was AWESOME!!

Lines for the waterslides?!? Hmm — I went on the waterslides 3 times and never had to wait in line as you describe. At most, there were maybe 5-7 people ahead of me on the stairs, but that was about it. The waterslide wait never took more than 5 minutes!

But, as an experienced cruiser, when you book, you should know that the larger the ship, the longer the lines; It’s basic math.

When I enjoyed a yacht cruise with only 300 guests on board, there was practically never ever a line for anything and the service was excellent. But, when sailing on a massive ship with thousands and thousands of guests, one certainly cannot expect there will be no lines (basic math) — yet, the service was still excellent :-)

PS: One entertainment venue not given much mention but packed a wallop of entertainment value is Fat Cats, the jazz and blues club. Was so cool to hang out in a night club environment with awesome entertainment till 1am and not have to worry about driving home (LOL). The guy in there “Slam Alan Band” was truly entertaining and, to put icing on the cake, he encouraged live jam sessions each night, allowing us to enjoy awesome, yet unknown, talent on the keyboards, guitars, vocals, etc.! A guy in the Legends in Concert show dropped in to sing his butt off as well as several other vocalists. An old guy named Rico and a young blond guy conjured Joe Cocker! Many other vocalists joined in at various times. Even two of the Blue Men joined the jam one night on drums and bass guitar … was a real treat to see them in a different light (without the blue skin stuff, but as “real” people getting down to the sounds).

Last week’s Epic entertainment value alone was well worth the price of the cruise … then add in your stateroom (and excellent stateroom steward), endless dining options, 24/7 room service, etc., etc., and you’ve got a steal-of-a-deal cruising on the Epic!!

Comment from Abrahamooms were too small
Time June 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm

We sailed on the second sailing of the Epic. It is a big ship but we were disapointed the moment we arrived in our rooms. Rooms were too small despite all the hype. There is absolutly no privacy in the room as the shower and bathroom are separated by a plexoglass door. Restaurants that are included in your price serve sub standard food. If you want to enjoy any food that is considered decent, you are expected to pay and pay the the high prices. there are more pay restaurants than there are free restaunts.
Over all we were very disapointed with the cruise, food, service, and excursions and tours on board the ship. Will not ever consider NCL for another cruise.

Pingback from Cruise Vacation Carnival Sep 17, 2010
Time June 28, 2011 at 8:53 am

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