Well first I want to say thanks to everyone on this board for all of the fantastic advice that I received before my family and I went on our 1st cruise, we just returned yesterday and the tips and info I got from Cruise Critic were a HUGE help! So the least I can do is leave a review of our trip.
We departed from Pittsburgh to Tampa early Sunday morning (Me, my wife, 18yo son and twin 15yo daughters) and arrived about 9:30a. We had reservations at the Best Western Bay Harbor and called for their shuttle after we retrieved our luggage. The shuttle arrived in about 15 minutes and was a newer van. The driver was very friendly, greeted us, grabbed and loaded our luggage and opened the door for us. After we were underway he also offered to stop at the grocery if we'd like on the way to the hotel, which we declined. We arrived at the hotel and he offloaded our luggage and let us know that our rooms wouldn't be ready yet. We then went into the hotel (which looked very nice and clean) they told us that the rooms weren't ready and probably wouldn't be until 1:30 (listed check in time was 3pm). We asked where we could get changed (we chose this hotel mostly due to a nice looking outdoor pool) and where we could store our luggage. They pointed us to the lobby bathrooms to change and to a door next to the check in desk with our luggage. This was one of two frustrations with this hotel, we waited for a few minutes for someone to meet us and when no one showed I asked again at the desk and was then told to "just go in and take care of it ourselves", when I opened the door to a very small room, it was crammed with luggage and had very little space. We moved things around a bit and made space but I was frankly uncomfortable moving others luggage and with the fact the room was completely unsecured and unsupervised. When I came back in from the pool a couple of hours later, all of our luggage was out of the room and sitting in the lobby while another guest was retrieving their luggage. In the end there weren't any problems, but there is huge potential. The property is very nice and reasonably priced ($135/night, water view). The pool sits right on the bay and they have plenty of lounge chairs, etc. There's a bar to get drinks, lunch, etc. My wife and I had a couple of beers that were reasonably priced. The hotel shuttle also took us to dinner and back, all at no charge (I of course tipped the driver), they apparently service about a 3 mile circle around the hotel. The only other negative was that the night that we were there, was a "foam party" that attracted a very young and very drunk crowd. I'm far from a prude, but when we walked into the bar that night my wife was instantly uncomfortable, and I got there pretty quickly myself, so we left. Once you left the bar you could not hear any noise from the bar in the hotel and I do believe that this particular party was a fairly rare event. Overall, we were very happy with the hotel, and frankly would stay again without hesitation.
Monday morning we took a cab to the port, the fare was $25 + tip for 5 of us, far less expensive than any of the shuttles. We arrived at the port at 10:30,a porter took our luggage immediately and we went through 1st level security (hassle free) and then inside and upstairs, through the metal detectors, and around the corner to the registration. There we were greeted by a few hundred people in line ahead of us, but frankly the line move quickly and we were through registration in about 25 minutes. We then went to the waiting area. After about 15 minutes boarding started and about 15 minutes after that we were on board! We came onto the ship on the Empress Deck, which is where our rooms were; we couldn't access them yet so found out way to the Lido deck and something to eat. Good basic hamburgers, hot dogs, etc and by the time we were done eating our rooms were ready. I have to take a minute hear and say that the size of the ship and finding our way around was a little overwhelming. I know that this ship is on the small size, but it was a fun challenge to figure things out.
We had 2 inside cabins next to each other, my wife and I had ours configured as a queen and the kids had a queen and 2 pull downs, we had concerns about room size before we arrived (let's just say that I am not a small guy), but once we saw the rooms, the concerns vanished. I had contemplated putting 5 of us in a room when we booked but didn't, that would have been a nightmare! The room size was really not a problem at all. Had a nice surprise when we arrived, a bottle of wine for my wife and I, and a cake for the kids from our travel agent! We got unpacked, plenty of storage for everything, including luggage. We then looked around a little more and went for the safety briefing; this took about an hour, but was relatively painless. We booked anytime dining and went to dinner at about 6:30 in the Elation dining room. Very short wait for our table and met our waiter the 1st night who was Noel, this was unfortunately they only time that we got him, despite requesting him every night, he was AWESOME! Very good at what he did and a fantastic personality, he really made it a great meal. That night we went to the opening show, went to the casino for a bit and the kids went to Club O2, my son is 18 but still a senior in high school. So although the age for Club O2 is 14 to 17, he was allowed in (this is one of MANY bits of info that I got here). Overall Club O2 was "just Ok" according to my kids, but it certainly let them meet people that first night.
Tuesday was a Sea Day and we just spent time at the pool, didn't see much of the kids. We planned dinner for 7pm. Discovered that afternoon that I forgot my long pants (Tuesday was formal night) so although I didn't intend to get especially dressed up, I ended up being WAY underdressed, what an embarrassing experience! I went to the restaurant and asked for advice and they sent me to Guest Services, they sent me to the Formal Shop to rent a pair, which would have been $35, which I gladly would have paid, but they only had formal tuxedo pants, complete with stripes down the leg. So back to the restaurant, who said that I could some to dinner in shorts. I also asked them about having the wait staff deliver a present to my daughters for their 16th birthday which we had brought with us, and they readily agreed, told me to bring them down ahead of time. This night for dinner was one of my complaints, when we showed up they said 45 minutes but ended up being 90 minutes until our table was ready. After dinner, just when I was starting to think that they'd forgotten the gifts, the waiter appeared with them, my daughters were so surprised that they said it wasn't their birthday when the waiter asked them! Even though we'd already had dessert, they brought cake with a candle for each of them and sang a very multinational happy birthday that was really a fun and special moment! When we got back to our cabin they had left fudge and an apology note due to the long wait, nice service recovery. Finished the night making another casino donation and taking my son gambling for the first time, which he enjoyed a little too much.
Wednesday was Grand Cayman and we had booked Sting Ray City and snorkeling through Captain Marvin's, which was another Cruise Critic tip. Less than Â½ the price if booked through the ship and they could not have been nicer. Their office is less than a block from where you get off of the tender. We paid for our reservation and where on our way in the transportation that they provided, all I about 15 minutes. One note is that I wish I had cash to pay, as it would have been about $20 less than paying with a credit card. The shuttle driver was very entertaining and gave us lots of good info about the island while driving to the boat. When we arrived we found a very nice boat, crew of 2, and about 20 people, including our 5. Went out to Stingray City 1st and it was incredible, what amazing animals. We stayed for about 30 minutes and the crew was great with catching stingrays, letting people touch and hold them, etc. We then reboarded and headed to Coral Gardens for snorkeling. Spent about 30 minutes there and then headed back in. None of my family had done either of these activities before and all thoroughly enjoyed them both. The time seemed about right, didn't feel rushed at all. They had soft drinks and beer onboard (incl in the price), so we had a drink on the way back in. I gave them a $20 tip that they seemed pretty pleased by. Their shuttles were waiting when we got back and took us immed back to town. We really didn't have too much time, so we hit a couple of shops and bought a couple of souvenirs. We then went to the open air market on the water and grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Green Parrot, which was a little outdoor place next to the water. The food was mediocre and it was $70 for 3 hamburgers, 2 hot dogs, and 5 bottles of water, my fault for not asking first. We then tendered back to the ship. Time in port was 8am to 2pm, so it was a pretty quick visit.
Thursday was Cozumel, we pulled in a little early around 10:45am and disembarked soon after, certainly easier not having to tender in. We had pre-booked the Royal Dolphin Swim at Chankanaab Park. This was more great advice that I got here, we pre-booked for $100 per person and told them a name of a hotel that I pulled from the internet. This is necessary because Carnival has an exclusive contract with them and if you say you're on Carnival they won't book you. Cost per person on Carnival for the EXACT same experience, $190/each instead of $100! Took a cab from the terminal ($15) and arrived in about 10 minutes. The process of registration and orientation was all pretty smooth. My wife and I each had to pay to get in (I think $22/each) since we weren't doing the dolphin swim. The kids LOVED the whole dolphin experience and afterwards also got to interact with a manatee, which my son did but my daughters didn't. We did not buy their pix, but our kids were allowed to use our digital camera to shoot each other. We then had lunch, which was basic but decent Mexican fare, $45 for the 5 of us. We then went to the beach and snorkeling area also at Chanknaab and it is absolutely stunning! Great sand beaches, lots of straw huts with chairs and chaises and beachside drinks and food. My only regret was we hadn't known this option before we ate after the dolphin swim. Beers were only $3 and service was great! The ocean here was very different in that the bottom was rocky but the water was beautiful and the fish were everywhere! We spent about 2 hours and then caught a cab back to town. The port side shops in town were nice, it was a little concerning that everywhere we went, they kept offering my daughters free tequila -- remember they are 16! After a while the ladies wanted to go back to the ship, so they did and my Son and I found a table at Fat Tuesday and he had his first couple of legal drinks. We stayed for about an hour and a half and watched lots of very drunk but funny people all around us. We got back to the ship right around 7:30pm and it departed promptly at 8pm. That night my wife and son and I went to the 1st adult comedy show, which was so-so (Mark Hawkins).
Thursday was our last day and a sea day. We spent lots of time pool side and we're really looking forward to a nice sit down dinner as the menu looked the most to our liking yet. We arrived at 7 and were told it would be 45 minutes until we got a table. Based on this being the exact time that we'd been quoted on Tuesday (which was then 90 minutes) and the fact that there seemed to be the same amount of people waiting, and that the kids were hungry and therefore grumpy, we elected to go to buffet, which I frankly was pretty unhappy about. For anytime dining they quote "usually 20 minutes or less" of the three nights that we ate there/tried to eat there, they were WAY OFF twice and frankly very unapologetic the 2nd time. We finished by making a few more donations at the casino and then saw the other comedian, who was HYSTERICAL! And believe it or not, I can't remember his name, but he was only on the ship that week.
We decided to get our luggage ready and let them take it. This was a bit of a logistical challenge for our teenagers, but we made it work. This was primarily because we didn't want to get off of the ship too early as we were going straight to the airport and wanted to kill time on the ship as opposed to the airport. I also went to Guest Services and lowered the tip amount. I did this because as we encountered people who really went out of there way for us, I tipped them directly. This included our Room Steward (Jose, who was very soft spoken and great at his job) and the waitstaff in the Elation Restaurant the two nights that we ate there (even the night that we waited so long, the service was great but it wasn't their fault). The Guest Services staff seemed to want to make a big show of the fact that I was lowering the tip. It took 15 minutes while many people were behind me in line and she printed out literally 12 different receipts that she had to sign and then I had to sign, that's right 24 signatures to lower the tip. In the end, I didn't save anything (that wasn't my goal) but purposefully or not, they made quite a spectacle of it.
Overall it was a great experience and we will definitely cruise again. I had read many postings about the ship showing its age, frankly I just didn't see that. I know that it was in dry dock not long before our cruise and maybe that's why, but I thought she was great. We were docked next to the Carnival Elation in Cozumel and sitting side by side there was a stark difference, much more rust, etc on the Elation.
I hope this helps, I'm sure that I left many things out (a typist I'm not!), but feel free to ask questions.
PS - The best investment I made before we left? $70 for a digital underwater camera -- many, many great pix that we otherwise would have missed.