We just returned from our first cruise ever, the 5 day double dip Dream that sailed on March 27. I learned much from these forums, so I wanted to give back a little if I could. Our kids are 6 & 8.
Things that did not work for us:
1) Arriving early at port. Everyone, and I mean pretty much everyone did this. We were there at 1120AM, and the port was packed. We were concierge so they worked us through a massive crowd of people waiting to get photos. There was some subtle pushing. All in all, not a pleasant experience. We were on board by 1130AM, and the pools were filled with more than 30 kids each, and the aquaduck was lined up with a 60 minute wait. Cabanas was packed with tables very difficult to find. We got up to get some food, and our table was taken within seconds. We ended up standing by the drink fountain and eating.
Our rooms weren't ready so we checked in our gear with concierge, but even that was chaos with the lounge filled with wall-to-wall people. If we had just slept a little longer and had a relaxing lunch on the way and then boarded at about 2PM, this would have solved many of these problems.
There were lots of opportunities for swimming and trying the aquaduck later in the trip. I wish we had just had a relaxing lunch at McDonald's on the way and showed up at 1 or 2PM when the port was probably a wasteland and we could have boarded more leisurely.
2) The aquaduck was disappointing. It is a very average or even below average slide as far as thrills go. If your kids have ever been on any other waterslide, they will likely be disappointed with this. We tried it at a point when the wait was 15 minutes, and it was definitely not worth that wait. I wouldn't wait more than 5 minutes. Fortuntately there were lots of times early in the morning or around supper time when the lines were very short and the kids rode it a few times, but were quickly bored with it.
3) The ship was very crowded. I know, it's a cruise ship, but this was much more than we were expecting. Unfortunately, crowding tends to bring out the worst in many people including us. Bright-eyed friendly casual faces making eye contact or even saying hi to each other become serious, head-down, rushing people when the crowds start to get under our skin. Overall, not a pleasant atmosphere, but only a problem on the first day and at-sea day.
4) I wouldn't go to the sailing away party again. Too crowded, and nothing very exciting about it. When we realized this, we quickly retreated to our verandah where we enjoyed the sailing away much more in privacy.
5) I wouldn't make a big deal about going to the pirate party. Again, too crowded, and the kids didn't get much out of it, and much too late for our little ones. It was not worth it for us, but it was nice to see everyone get into the spirit.
6) Staying on the boat in Nassau. We had just been to Atlantis a few months ago, so we didn't see anything else that caught our eye as far as shore excursions. While we love to relax, there is a limit before we need to get up and do something with ourselves. There is not as much to do on the boat as I was led to believe. We filled our time with the detective game (it only takes about 30-45 minutes for each one if you take the stairs), various classes in lounge D including an animation class and towel folding, a scavenger hunt, some karoake, lots of exercise and a healthy dose of kids club for our little ones. However, if we did another cruise, I suspect we would not be up for another day like this as we prefer a little adventure and lots of the on board activities are sort of once and done.
7) Animator's palate. We hadn't planned on going to all the evening dinners but worked our plans around going to this restaurant based on the recommendations as a can't miss experience. It was chaotic and distracting with the cartoons, and ended up not being very good family time. The chaos made the kids unsettled and unfocused. They ate poorly. Our kids don't watch TV, so the characters on the screen were mostly meaningless to them. Perhaps if they knew who the talking turtle was, it would have been more exciting.
8) Concierge. We just didn't really use any of the services provided by concierge. We don't drink much, so happy hour was not a priority. We're not big eaters, and only eat at meal times, so snacks in the lounge were not useful. We're do it yourselfers when it comes to booking our free time, and don't like to pre-commit to shore excursions or feel overscheduled. We would probably just book a non-concierge room next time as the value was just not there. Also we tipped the concierge $100 on our last night, and one of the guys was visibly disappointed. I thought the tip was generous given how little we used their services. His reaction left a bad taste in our mouths.
Things that worked well for us:
1) Castaway Cay. Wow. What an island. Words can't even put it into perspective. An absolute can't miss.
2) Food. We are picky about food, especially for the kids. We were worried there would be too much junk. We were surprised with the array of choices and many healthy options. Very well done.
3) A verandah. We spent a lot of our boat time on our verandah, especially while the kids were sleeping in the evening or early in the morning. Bliss.
4) Swimming/waterslide in the early morning on non-CC days. Quiet and peaceful.
5) Kid's club. Our kids loved this. We had to keep it to 3 two hour visits as this was a family vacation, but they never wanted to leave.
6) Detective game. Our kids enjoyed this more than a little bit.
7) The gym. Great equipment and hardly anyone ever in there.
8) CC 5K. Lots of fun.
9) Slides, Jungle gym, bikes, sandcastles on CC.
10) Mini-golf. This was okay for us, but the kids seemed to really enjoy it. I won twice against my hubby, so he may not have enjoyed it as much.
11) Basketball. The kids had lots of fun shooting hoops.
12) Believe. Fantastic show. The other shows were okay. We wouldn't go see them again though.
13) Palo. A very pleasant dinner. I wouldn't say it is a must do, however. Easily skipped if you prefer more family time.
Overall, a great first cruise for us. It may be some years before we go again as there are many other things in the world we'd like to do, and only so much time we can take the kids out of school. Thank you to everyone here for all the advice. It made a big difference in our experience.