Our family of five, including our 3 12yr old sons, went on a highly anticipated 8 day Exotic Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Valor over school break in Feb. 2012. Though I had cruised many times before, this was the first cruise for my husband and kids. I spent alot of time reading and researching options---on Cruise Critic, Trip Advisor and the Carnival forums. There is a wealth of information out there if you take the time to read it. With the date constrained by their school vacation, our next consideration was price--we needed it to be fairly low. Also, we wanted a cruise line with a good kids program for our pre-teen sons. Using this criteria, we found Carnival to be the best option for us. We also liked that the cabins on Carnival tend to be larger than other cruise lines.
Travel: we flew in 2 days prior to the cruise for a couple of reasons. We were travelling from MA in Feb. so, did not want to miss our cruise due to weather-related flight delays. Because it was school break, flights were quite expensive. Our cruise left on Saturday and Friday travel was exorbitant. Flying out on Thursday was much cheaper and gave us an extra day in Florida. Also, our ship left out of Miami but, it was cheaper to fly into and stay in Ft. Lauderdale pre and post cruise. We stayed 2 nights at the Doubletree Gallery One prior to the cruise. I was not impressed. There is no shuttle and it is a $30 taxi ride. The location was on the waterway but, not much of a view and there was not much in walking distance--breakfast in the hotel was quite expensive. We used SAS transportation to get from the hotel to the cruise. It arrived late but the driver did call several times to let us know--because of this, we did get to the ship much later than we would have liked. On debarkation, he was prompt. That night, we stayed at Embassy Suites Ft. Lauderdale. We liked this hotel much more than the Doubletree--good location, free breakfast and the evening reception and we preferred the room.
The Cruise: our experience with Carnival was positive right from the start. Booking was easy and efficient. We booked Early Saver and had 2 price reductions on one of our cabins. Registering over the Internet was quick. Our sons have some issues which make standing in long lines difficult. Prior to cruising, I informed Carnival and they had a wonderful representative, Andrew, meet us as we got off the SAS shuttle and he escorted us through the VIP Check-in area and to the ship. He was incredibly kind and helpful. Once we got onboard, it was easy to find something that everyone liked to eat.Despite the fact that the cruise was completely booked up, everything ran smoothly and there were plenty of people to help us find our cabin or show us where to go. In fact, we never felt crowded during the cruise. Throughout the cruise, we found the crew incredibly pleasant and helpful. I can honestly say that we did not have one unpleasant encounter with anyone who worked for Carnival. This, in itself, is a huge thing.
Our Cabins: our cabins were ready shortly after we finished lunch. We had 2 cabins at the bow of the ship. My husband and I were in a cabin which is classified as "interior, obstructed view" It was great! We had a window that looked right out over the bow of the ship. The view wasn't obstructed --it was just that there was a small walkway outside. We were directly under the bridge so it was quiet and because we were so far forward, hardly anyone even walked by. We had direct access to the "secret deck" people write about and, we did have it pretty much to ourselves. Our sons were diagonally across from us in a triple--2 lowers and 1 upper. The only negative thing is, there was ALOT of walking up and down long hallways which was ok with us. Our cabin stewardess was very pleasant and took care of all our needs. We all looked forward to checking out the nightly towel creations holding chocolates which we found on our bed. We passed many other cabin stewards in our travels up and down that long hallway and they were always smiling and pleasant. One thought... I would imagine, in rough weather these cabins--right at the bow--would not be the best location.
Food and drink: My husband and I aren't big drinkers. I do like frozen concoctions but, at $10 or more each, I didn't have many! One tip, if you are part of one of the Cruise Critic forums for your cruise, they may set up a cocktail hour for an hour or two of unlimited drinks for a reasonable price. Also, be sure to attend the cocktail party at the end of the cruise. For us, it was held in the comedy club--it isn't well advertised. There were waitstaff walking around with trays full of free drinks. (you can also go to the bar and order whatever you want, for free)
We bought the soda plan for all of us which, for 7 days(we didn't get it the first day), ran over $200 for the 5 of us. We liked being able to just grab a cold, icy soda whenever we wanted without thinking about the cost. It was good for the kids too as, we didn't have to worry about them running up a big bar bill. The ice tea and lemonade, which is free, is good, too. The food was good though not as good as I remember from years ago when I last cruised. The buffets were always plentiful and fresh. I liked the salads, fresh fruit and the deli. My kids loved the burgers, chicken nuggets and fries. My husband liked a little of everything. The chocolate buffet was a little too decadent/rich for us but looked yummy. We all liked the 24hr soft serve ice cream/yogurt and pizza.
We went to the dining room most evenings and the food was also good. Though we didn't always like the featured choices, there was always something we liked. The waiters were not especially efficient and occasionally messed up our orders but, we were not in a hurry so, it was fine. On the formal night, our waiter did bring extra lobster tails so we would have plenty, which was nice. The waiters' entertainment was fun and we really got to see their personalities. We liked the first seating. We were at a large table with another family with 3 girls- we appreciated that thought was put into placing like families together. My husband and I splurged and went to the Steakhouse one night. As advertised, it did not disappoint!! The restaurant was intimate and nicely decorated. The waitstaff was friendly and very efficient. The food was plentiful and delicious. I had read that the service was slow but, we found the pace was leisurely--allowing us to enjoy each course without feeling rushed. It was definitely worth the time and extra expense--I highly recommend it.
Entertainment: This ranged from good to just plain corny. I liked the musical shows. Some of the audience participation stuff was not to our liking--but that's just us. We didn't participate in any of the deck entertainment but, those that did, seemed to have fun. My favorite thing was the Serenity Deck. I had read that it would be overrun by screaming kids--this was totally untrue. The over 21 rule was totally enforced by a polite but determined deckhand. He also enforced the No smoking rules politely and, when an loud, irate bully came at him screaming how he had "reserved" one of the wonderful, big round loungers, "at the crack of dawn" with his belongings (and was just showing up at 2pm), he was told that the belongings had been removed and placed behind the counter as this was the rule. The deckhand was polite and kept his cool as the man had a huge, obnoxious temper tantrum. This deck had lots of loungers, sofas, hammocks, some nicely shaded areas, and a private bar which never had a line. One thing I learned towards the end of the cruise, the bar has lunchpacks with delicious sandwiches and salads which are free and, which I liked even better than the buffet offerings. There was also an over 21 spa tub (as opposed to HOT tub--none of the tubs are very hot). It was at the bow and you could sit there with a cold drink, looking out at the ocean and, if you wanted, have some nice conversation with other passengers or, if you preferred, just veg out. Heaven!!!
Kids Clubs: this would be the main area of complaint for me. We chose Carnival specifically because they had small age groupings for each of the clubs. We did not want our immature 12 year olds hanging out with older, more experienced teens. Unfortunately, because it was vacation week and there was a huge group of the next younger group, the Circle C club which was promised to my kids was, in actuality, used by the Kids' Club for the younger kids. The 12-14yr olds were "housed" in the disco and Teen club next door. The older teen girls made a game of teasing the younger boys and, they grabbed their(brand new $30) caps and threw them overboard. The club personnel was totally ineffective in helping us rectify the problem. The Teen club was on the very busy Promenade Deck and next to the Casino. My kids had to go into the Casino to get their sodas. On one evening, one of my sons was going to the Casino for a soda and a woman grabbed his arm as he walked by. She yelled at him saying she and her friends were trying to "have a quiet game of cards" and the kids were disturbing her. SERIOUSLY?! She was sitting directly opposite the Teen Club/Disco on the Promenade deck with all the people waiting for pictures and next to the very loud Casino and, she decided to bully my son(who, by the way, was not even part of the noise) She twisted his arm, literally, and told him he had to tell her what his room number was or she would "call Security and have him arrested." My son got free and came running to me, extremely frightened and hysterical--telling me "some old woman really hurt me." He brought me back to her and when I confronted her, her response was that she had, indeed, twisted his arm and she would do it again as she wanted some quiet (REALLY?!! She couldn't find any other location on the ship besides directly across from the kids' club to complain about kids!!) She told me, if I didn't like it, "call Security?"...so, I did! Needless to say, they took her into custody and "explained that she had no right to touch another passenger." They encouraged me to press charges but, stupidly, I assumed that she had learned her lesson and, frankly, I just wanted for us all to get on with our cruise, so I declined. Of note, the Security Officers came promptly and were respectful and kind and with my son and calmed him down. Incredibly. the woman and her friends parked themselves in the same spot for the next 5 nights...terrorizing my son. Security ended up standing in front of the Teen Club the rest of the cruise. In retrospect, I wish I had pressed charges, my son is still upset about "the mean old woman who hurt me."
Ports: We chose our particular cruise for the itinerary it offered and booked 6 months out. Carnival changed all but one of the stops after we placed our non-refundable Early Saver deposit and, incredibly, did not directly inform us of the change. We found out on our cruise forum! We were quite disappointed at first but, liked all the new stops but one--La Romana. We visited Nassau, Curacao and Aruba. We did not book tours through the cruise line, we chose to book independently, choosing tours from reading reviews on this site and Trip Advisor. There is more information later in this review.
Other Comments: If you are in the process of planning a cruise, especially your first one, I highly recommend that you read all you can beforehand. It will help you to identify what cruise line fits your style and help pick the right type of cabin. People who had a problem with Carnival describe it as "the Walmart of cruise lines" ...I found this to be totally untrue. I have cruised with Celebrity and NCL and enjoyed this cruise much more. To have a good time, you need to keep your sense of humor, remember that it is EVERYONE'S vacation so, please don't expect that you deserve special rights or treatment. Take the time to talk to your fellow passengers, they will enhance your enjoyment. Be nice and respectful to the hard working crew and please tip fairly. Finally, if you don't like kids, do yourself and the rest of us a favor and PLEASE do not cruise during school breaks. Kids have rights too.