It was my first cruise ever, and despite the reservations I had about cruising in general, I decided to take the leap and try it out. So I booked a 4-day cruise on the Imagination, sailing out of Miami, with ports in Key West and Cozumel, plus a post-debarkation excursion to Everglades.
I stayed in La Quinta Inn Miami Airport North. The hotel itself was pretty good. The only minus was room entrances directly at ground level or to balcony-like hallways. Young women going alone or families with small children might be bothered by that, so FYI. The room was quite basic, but for a one-night stay, it did the job well. The neighborhood is boring; there's a shopping mall next door with a Pollo Inka (a Peruvian restaurant with good food), two gas stations nearby, and fast food, but not much else. Unless you rent a car and drive somewhere, the only thing to really do is walk along 36th Street.
PORT OF MIAMI AND EMBARKATION
The port was simply OK but the workers were nice. The building is boxy and industrial-looking, and the baggage check process was chaotic, because the entrance to board Imagination was different than originally scheduled. But once I gave my bags to the porter and found the right entrance, it went smoother from there. The workers who collected my boarding pass and gave me my Sail & Sign card were very friendly and patient with my lack of knowledge about the process. Even security personnel actually smiled when I asked then questions about where to go.
I heard people on here complain about the food, but I loved it. The meals in the main dining room were delicious and filling. It felt like a Thanksgiving meal every day. The portions aren't big, but you can order as many dishes as you like. Just as a courtesy to crew members, eat what you take unless you didn't like it, since many of them come from cultures where wasting food is highly looked down upon. The Lido buffet food is more basic, but still good, and the choices are plentiful. Imagination, like other Fantasy class ships, does not have a for-fee steakhouse.
ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT
The Fun Times daily newsletter is your best friend for this. There's always something to do: crew performances, line dances on the deck, towel folding classes, etc. Evening shows range from cheesy (in a good way) to spectacular, but they're always fun to watch. Most of them involve costumed performers singing and dancing. They're timed against the assigned dinner schedules, so don't worry about missing dinner if you go to one. If you're at any point wondering what to do, just check the Fun Times. Or, just wander aimlessly around the ship; that can be entertaining in itself, particularly right after embarkation.
Great service! I saw crew members always cleaning and wiping down surfaces, making sure the ship looks presentable. Waitstaff and food service workers asked people what their preferences, and apologized profusely if something wasn't available. My cabin steward remembered me on the first day and always said hello, and kept my room very clean; I returned the courtesy by not leaving too much of a mess. Entertainment staff always looked very upbeat, happy, and energetic, sometimes putting on spontaneous performances when they saw things looking too quiet.
PUBLIC AREAS AND LAYOUT
Given the fact that it's Carnival, the decor was quite loud and Las Vegas-like. A lot of fake neon lights using LEDs, sparkly signs, and decorations in bright colors. There are plenty of seating areas on the Promenade deck, with couches right along windows. Now, there's a a shortage of dance floors on the ship, so oftentimes, dance parties were held right in the hallway, and more often that not, there was Latin music. The Lido deck has plenty of tables to sit at and two bars; the port bar closes in the evenings, but the starboard bar is open late. The layout is a confusing at first, but once you get a hang of where's forward/aft/port/starboard, finding places on the ship becomes a snap.
I stayed in M21, in the forward starboard section of the Main deck. The cabin is pretty small, with the king-size bed taking up most of the room, but the ledge in front of the portholes is big enough to fit all the but the largest suitcases. It's a great place to put your suitcase, since there's almost no room anywhere else. The safe opens with a magnetic stripe card; for safety, use an expired credit card or an empty gift card. Now, you will feel the rocking and feel the vibration from the thrusters quite a bit. I actually liked it (I saw it as a non-verbal reminder than I'm on a cruise), but if you're prone to seasickness, FYI. I only have two minor gripes. The bathroom doesn't have an exhaust fan, so open the door to vent out the steam after a shower, and use a travel-size Axe deodorant as an air freshner. And the shaver outlet is in the ceiling above the mirror; and the rocking of the ship was strong enough to shake the plug right out of the outlet (it's kind of big to begin with, but still).
I went on April 30, which I'm sure made a difference. There were very few kids, and they were polite and well-behaved for the most part. The crowed ranged mostly from 30 to 55. There was a sizable crowd of 20-somethings, but I've never seen them cause trouble, only party it up at appropriate times and places. I had assigned dining, and my tablemates were great. We all got along well and had fun conversations, which makes a difference when you're cruising solo. No one on the ship even said any of those "how brave of you" comments, let alone give me hard time over that. Quite the opposite, a few people even complimented me on the decision.
It was organized, but tedious and depressing. Passengers who were once talking up a storm and laughing warmly were now only making polite conversation. If you self-debark, like I did, you take your luggage to an assigned waiting area (it was the Mirage Bar on the Atlantic deck for me), and wait until you're told to debark. Not sure how it goes if you leave your luggage outside your cabin to be picked up. At the end, you go to your car, an airport shuttle, or your tour bus; the directions they give you are very clear.