Our Drive Down and Arrival at the Port
It was a whirlwind of a ride, literally, to Port of Tampa Bay from Charlotte, NC. It was the night that Hurricane Michael was making it’s appearance upon the East Coast after causing complete devastation to the panhandle of Florida. By the time we left Charlotte, around 7:30 pm, Michael was downgraded to a strong tropical storm. Our friends we were sailing with left about two hours before us, and that seemed to be what we should have done. Had we left two hours later than what we decided on, things could have been a bit different.
As if driving through the storm wasn’t bad enough, leaving two hours later could have been disastrous. We were cruising right along until we crossed the Georgia border. My husband was sleep deprived and was falling asleep at the wheel, so I took over driving. I don’t drive well in the dark as it is, but I would rather get there alive, so I agreed to drive while he slept. I moved our daughter to the front, and husband to the back, so she could keep me company. We were laughing and having a great time until out of nowhere, we came across the first wind/rain band from the storm. This was about 90 minutes into me driving. The fun suddenly turned to complete nervousness. My knuckles immediately turned white, my heart started pounding out of my chest, and I did all I could to keep my SUV in my lane. I felt like a little old lady leaning as far forward as I could just so I could see (not that the 6 inches I moved up really made a difference). The rain was sideways and my car was being pushed here and there, all over the place really. I slowed to about 10 mph. My husband woke up and told me to pull off to the nearest rest stop, which luckily was just a couple miles away. After switching places, I pulled up the radar. The first thing I saw was a tornado watch. I was thinking, “OK, that’s expected…we are on the east side of the hurricane.” After refreshing my screen while in a torrential downpour and strong winds, I noticed “Tornado Warning!” I was pretty much in a panic at this point. We were nearing Savannah. The band was right on top of us. A few minutes later it cleared and we continued on. We hit two more bands from the storm and just as we crossed into FL, the weather was beautiful, well, other than being extremely muggy and 87-degrees at 1:00 AM.
We pulled into Tampa around 4:00 AM and decided to go to the Wal-Mart to get a meat and cheese platter and some drinks so we could have breakfast before boarding the ship. I was too tired to eat, so we pulled into the cruise staff parking lot and we all fell asleep. I was awakened at 6:00 AM by my husband telling me the Brilliance of the Seas was pulling in (actually backing in). I watched it for a few minutes and fell back asleep. At 7:00 AM we decided to head to the parking deck to park and try to get a little more sleep since the port didn’t open up until 9:30. It was impossible! We couldn’t keep the car running in the parking deck, so we tried to sleep with it off. It was just too hot and sticky. We decided to head to the port and sit under an awning until we could get in line to board the ship.
Parking and Arrival to the Terminal
We paid $60 to park in the parking deck ($15/day). Brilliance of the Seas was docked in Terminal 6. After reading the parking directions on our reservations it seemed like we would just be walking across the street to the terminal. We had five pieces of big luggage (3 suitcases, 1 garment bag, and a toiletry bag) PLUS all of us had backpacks for our day bags. We took the elevator down to the main floor and started our walk. We didn’t see Terminal 6 anywhere. A man walking his dog was passing by so we asked him where to go. He said it was down the street on the right. We started walking that way, following the top of the ship. It was now about 90-degrees at 8:00 AM and 100% humidity. We saw the terminal, but there no way to enter, so we kept walking and walking. Finally, we were able to enter the parking lot and found some benches to sit on and ate our breakfast, brushed our hair, and used disposable toothbrushes to freshen up.
My suggestion is you drive to the terminal, drop your luggage off with a porter, then go park! You can also pay an extra $20 for valet parking and you will be parked in the lot outside the terminal entrance. The only downfall with that is your vehicle is subject to the FL weather.
Around 8:30 we headed to security, found a porter who took our bags, tipped him $2 per bag, and went to get in line to board the ship. Check-in started around 9:30, at least it was supposed to! There was a huge wedding party who took priority over us, even though we were first in line. They did not let us in until 10:00, so we just stood in line and talked to the nice family behind us. I had priority check-in, but apparently it is not the same as priority boarding! I was checked-in by 10:10 and we went to stand in line. We were 2nd in line at this point. We stood there until 11:30. I took the time to set up my EVO Gimbal. Apparently you can’t take video or photos in the terminal. Unlike Disney’s terminal or Norwegian’s terminal, there was no place to sit! The lines were narrow and it got crowded real fast. I felt like we were packed in a can of sardines. Finally it was our time to board. We went straight ahead to get the soda package (if you don’t get it 3 days prior to boarding, not only do you lose the online discount of 30% off, but you can only get it once you arrive). We headed towards the Centrum (middle of the ship) and we were on!
Once We Boarded
The Centrum was tiny, comparatively speaking! Disney’s atriums are pretty open and spacious. Norwegian Escape’s atrium was large with a glass staircase, restaurants, and balconies from the upper decks. Oasis of the Seas had the most impressive atrium, or Promenade as they call it, which was just about the length of the ship, and that’s one big ship! I thought the colors in the centrum and the elevators with the glass doors was pretty neat.
We waited in a sitting area for our friends to board. They were only about 10 minutes behind us. We took some photos and headed up to Windjammers to eat lunch. Even though the staff member on deck 4 told us it was open at 11:00, it did not open until 11:30, so we walked around and explored a bit. We walked the pool decks, noticed the one swimming pool outside, the rock climbing wall, sports court, and the mini-golf course. I didn’t want to overdo the photo-ops with our group, so I took a few of us as a group and then just video and photos from around the decks. It was now time to eat!
I was pretty impressed by the modern, nautical feel of Windjammers. There was plenty of seating, probably because we got there pretty quickly after they opened. I was not impressed with the selection of food. If my daughter was younger, I don’t think she would have been happy with the selections either. I didn’t see chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, or cheese burgers. I saw a lot of varieties of salads (potato, pasta, and green). There was pasta dishes, but for picky eaters, there was too much in them (nothing plain Jane for kids). The fish was OK and there were plenty of options for veggies and fresh fruits. The desserts were outstanding, and of course, there was frozen soft-serve ice cream.
One thing I was not impressed with was the lack of areas to get drinks. There were no self-serve stations anywhere on the ship for sodas. Just show your sea pass to the bar staff with your soda sticker and get your drinks filled. My daughter wanted Ginger Ale the entire cruise. At first, when I went to get a cup of it I was told we had to upgrade to the beverage package to get Ginger Ale. I was not happy about that because the difference was $8.50 to over $26/day. She was not going to drink $26/day of Ginger Ale so she said she would just drink water. I went to a different staff member and asked again and was told, Ginger Ale was covered under the soda package. Thank goodness!
You could get tea, water, and coffee when Windjammers was open, but other than that, you had to go to a bar to get refills. Since we got the soda package, we were given the refillable mugs. On Oasis of the Seas, there were Coca-Cola Freestyle machines where you could fill up anytime you wanted (as long as they were not out of order, but that’s for another blog). In Windjammers, one side was out of order the entire cruise, so it was left to only one side being open with long lines during operating hours.
Breakfast was your typical breakfast buffet. We ate at Minstrels one morning of our cruise, but the other days we ate breakfast at Windjammers. I love having variety. Minstrels is the main dining room (there is only one on Brilliance of the Seas, and it’s pretty impressive). For breakfast you can do the buffet there and order something off the menu. Needless to say, I did not eat very healthy breakfasts, but that’s not to say it’s not possible! There was a ton of options from fresh fruits to eggs pretty much any way you could want them cooked, to breads, potatoes, and meat stations.
Time to Cruise!
I went down to Minstrels to make reservations for the My Time dining for all three of our families. There were 10 of us in all. With the My Time dining, you have a choice between 5:30 dinner and 8:00 dinner. The doors close at 5:45 and 8:15. I don’t remember there being a time limit to the My Time dining on Oasis, but I could be wrong. I am glad I registered us, because I was able to get the last large table they had left for that seating. I was afraid the dining time would be too late for the little ones we had with us, but the 5:30 time was just too early.
The dreaded muster drill was OK. We waited for two families who never showed up. Come on people, you cruise, you participate in the muster drill, then you get on with your vacation. It took about 30 minutes and we were done! Our group met in the theater (at least it was not in the sun!).
We headed up to the top deck for the Sail Away party. Compared to a Disney sail away party, there wasn’t much to this one! Once we were moving there was some music and dancing, but a tiny space to participate, so we just stayed on the 12th deck and watched Tampa disappear. There was some pretty rough weather in front of us, but we never hit it. You could see a waterspout and large rain shafts. It took about 2 hours before we were away from land. The most exhilarating part of the sail away was when we went under a large bridge. I thought for sure we were going to hit it! There couldn’t have been more than a foot of clearance, so it was close! Everyone on the top deck was screaming. There were plenty of ship officers on the deck as well. With Hurricane Michael just have gone through, we were afraid the gulf was higher than normal. But we got through and it was smooth sailing from there! The kids enjoyed some time in the pools.
We were waiting on our luggage so we could get ready for the evening. Our luggage finally showed up around 6:00. After unpacking, we headed up to the top deck to watch the sunset around 7:00 and headed back to the rooms to get ready for dinner.
Our first meal in Minstrels was nice. Our wait staff was friendly and the atmosphere was very relaxed. The food was OK. Desserts were the best! I’m usually on a keto diet, but on cruises, I always eat desserts!
Most everyone went to bed. A few of us stayed up a little longer and explored the ship a little more. Then we all called it a night.
When we got back to our room, the beds were made, but there was no towel animal, which I found disappointing. I also found it awkward my daughter’s bed was above ours. We slept well and were ready for day 2!