We just returned from a 7 day western Caribbean on the Carnival Dream. Travelling with my wife and our twin 4 year old boys. Before posting, as I just re-read this, I realize it was more about my family vacation than a true cruise ship review, hopefully our specific experiences were helpful for those planning on travelling the dream or these ports of call with small kids
Pre Cruise- We flew in to Orlando on Thursday night for a Sat cruise and stayed at the Marriott Grande Vista Resort in Orlando (International Drive) for 2 nights. We had stayed there before and loved it, and again it was terrific for us. Our rate was $180 per night for a studio which included two $30 food and beverage credits --easily spent at the poolside bar and Starbucks coffee. We looked at other cheaper hotel options, but this place is a destination in itself with 2 massive main pools and a couple of smaller satellite pool areas with lots of kids splashy things and hot tubs. Factor in the credit and the net rate was $150 a night (plus tax). No added parking fees, or resort fees and free wireless internet. Every hour we spent there was a good one, unlike other hotels that might have felt like hotels not "destinations".
We rented a one-way car rental from MCO to Cape Canaveral for less than $70 (total) from Budget. I highly recommend this option if you arrive the night before (or more). It is cheaper than a shuttle / car service from MCO and gives you lots of flexibility to stop and shop. It might add 20 minutes to your time at MCO for pickup and another 30-45 minutes at the port for drop off, but it is easy to do.
On Friday we took the kids to Animal Kingdom for the day. We debated on what to do for this one day, i.e. a Disney park, Legoland, or just hang out at the resort. We decided the night before that we'd go to Animal Kingdom. We had been there before when the kids were 3 years old (maybe too young), so we knew what to expect. We figured that we'd go early and just hit some key rides and not try to wear the kids out completely, instead of trying to "get our money's worth and see everything. What's more, if we left the park early, we had a great resort to return to. This time around Animal Kingdom was great! We walked through 75% of the park, but only did a half dozen attractions. After lunch we did the Lion King show and then made our way to the exit around 2:30 pm feeling fulfilled!
For 2 months, all I could think about was getting on that ship and this pre-cruise stay was so awesome that I didn't think about the ship hardly at all! We were pre-occupied with the resort and pools and animal kingdom and the nice weather!
On Saturday morning we were up early, but took our time leaving the resort at 10 AM and made one last stop for wine before driving to the ship. We wanted to arrive at the ship around 1 PM to maybe avoid the early lineups. We drove our rental car to the port to drop off our luggage first before returning the car to Budget. My wife didn't like the idea of staying at the port with the kids while I dropped off the rental car...particularly since there didn't seem to be a good spot to wait (that we saw) and weren't sure if there were bathrooms, if required. I didn't want the 4 of us to have to wait for a rental car shuttle and take up 4 spots in the bus but at least we didn't have our luggage. From the time we dropped our luggage at the ship, to the time we returned to the ship after dropping off the rental car was about 35-40 minutes, not too bad...Knowing what we do now, next time, I think we'd have one of us stay at the cruise terminal with the kids while the other returned the car and shuttled back. If there was a big wait for the rental car shuttle, you could pay $10 for a cab back to the ship. Anyhow, I am a big fan of the rental car one way instead of cab from MCO.
Embarkation: We got in line at just after 1:00 pm, a big line! Apparently there was some inspection by the coast guard (perhaps), so the embarkation was delayed and the lines weren't shorter as we expected for that time of day. We waited in line for about 45 minutes outside and then again for 20 minutes to get our sign and sail cards. We would have had another 30 minute wait for our boarding group to be called, but one kind Carnival employee saw us juggling two happy but (increasingly) wild 4 year olds, and got us through a little faster! Dropped off our gear in the cabin and hit the pasta bar for lunch. It was hot and sunny and we wished we packed our suits in our carry on!
The Dream (with Young kids):
This was our second consecutive time on the Dream and third cruise overall - all with the same 2 kids :). We considered going back to a smaller ship (i.e. Liberty), but we were glad we picked the Dream. We didn't bring a stroller for our boys this time, so that meant that the kids would have to walk everywhere. They didn't mind the sometimes longer walks on this large ship...there was always something good at the end of a walk anyway!
It turned out that the ship was better for them at 4 years old than it was at 3 (maybe that shouldn't be a surprise). They were BOTH very happy to go to Camp Carnival. That gave my wife and I some time to relax for a couple of hours each day, knowing that the kids were happier without us. We used the camp in the evening on port days and once or twice a day on sea days for 2-3 hours each time. We expected one of our sons to reject camp due to a fear of Funship Freddie (mascot) who sometimes shows up at camp. Thankfully (for all) our one son embraced camp this time and we managed to convince him that Freddie was actually afraid of him! We kept them out of camp on scheduled Freddy visits so the two never had to meet :)
Being a late April cruise, we found the Camp Carnival to be less crowded .The Camp staff were energetic and attentive. The whole camp environment is nicer with fewer kids. Our last cruise was much more crowded and there always seemed to be a lineup of 10 families doing check-in at the same time in a crowded little camp entrance with the inevitable kid crying and stressed out parents (that was us sometimes too!). Not this time, very pleasant! Nice kids too...our kids loved bumping into their camp friends on the ship!
Outside of camp, they enjoyed all the other activities...kids splash park, the saltwater pools and even a couple of times in the lukewarm hot tubs where I quickly explained that if there was someone else in the hot tub, they had to just sit and "enjoy the bubbles", if there was nobody, they could splash around a little!
With fewer kids, our sons didn't have to "compete" with as many kids on sea days at the kiddie water park / slide. The smallest of the water slides (for 2-5 year olds) seems to be the most hazardous of the three water slides, particularly when you get more than 4 or 5 kids jumping around. There are metal stairs and water spraying onto the kids as they climb the stairs (with their eyes closed to avoid getting shot in the eyes with water). There are also slippery surfaces as kids get out of the bottom of the slide. It's not a bad place, but it's not as relaxing as watching your kids on the sandy beach that's for sure. You find yourself standing by shouting "don't go down headfirst", "no running on the deck", "stop grabbing your brother on the stairs"!
We wanted to maximize the kid's enjoyment but also maximize our adult relaxation. Sometimes it takes good luck to line that up and somehow we pulled it off. We even managed to have three of the coveted late afternoon family naps where we ALL re-charged our batteries for fun evenings aboard! That has NEVER happened anywhere for us...and it happened 3 times in 7 days on this cruise! Salt water, sun and a few beers make for good napping conditions.
With or without the kids (in Camp), we are not motivated to go to the shows or comedy acts, so I can't comment on them. After dinner we usually like to stroll the ship, visit the little lounges and have a few drinks here, maybe hit a hot tub before picking the kids up at camp at 9:30. We are asleep by 11 PM and up at 6 AM....
Cozumel - Nothing pre-arranged but knew we wanted to go to Paradise Beach. We didn't want to do an all inclusive because we aren't big drinkers/eaters, so we liked the a-la-carte option. We also liked the idea of a sandy beach AND pool. It was a $14 cab ride (10 minutes) each way, $2 entry fee (x 4) for beach chairs and umbrella. We spent the first 3 hours at the beach. After lunch, we settled our tab maybe $40 for 8 or 9 beer, quesadillas, chips and quite yummy guacamole. I mentioned we aren't big drinkers, but we ordered that first bucket of 5 beer at 11 AM and it was gone at 11:30! A 30 second walk up from the beach was the pool showers area, we rinsed off and had a huge pool pretty much all to ourselves. We spent another 90 minutes there before taking a waiting taxi back to the ship. We walked around the shops at the pier and got a strawberry daiquiri at a little bar (virgin for the kids).
Belize -- We stayed on ship and enjoyed a quiet, sunny, beautiful afternoon looking out on the waters and the Belize landscape. This was our second time at this port, and second time we stayed on the ship. With small kids, we felt that staying on board was our best option. Lots of people raved about their excursions in Belize, but I didn't find one that was kid-friendly enough to motivate me.
Roatan -- We pre-booked a Victor Bodden Tour of the Island in advance for the 4 of us. A year ago on our last cruise we stopped in Roatan and we just walked over to the Mahogany Bay beach - which turned out to be the best beach of our trip...This time we wanted to explore the island a little and go to West Bay Beach, despite the easy and cheap Mahogany Bay beach option. We walked off the port property up "the hill" and then down another to the awaiting tour guides. Carrying a 4 year old made for a sweaty walk. Two things to note, as you walk up the hill you might encounter a few passing taxi's on their way into the port area...they don't give you much room and at first I thought it was a scare tactic for people who were walking off the property to an external tour operator. But as we later drove around, I noticed that the drivers don't give anybody walking on the side of the road, much room, even small kids. Also, as you embark up this hill (steep but only takes 3 minutes to get to the top), you kinda question if you are doing the right thing, walking up a hill into the "jungle" and then to a waiting group of "locals". Let me tell you, its all good! A company rep met us with his clipboard after our 6-8 minute walk and took us to our driver.
We told the driver to take us right to the beach, instead of doing the island tour first. You do get to see some of the island on the 30 minute drive to the beach. The island is lovely, with some obvious "rough patches" in the main town of Coxen Hole.... but the real deal was walking onto that beach in West Bay. We had our driver take us to the Mayan Princess resort, in West Bay and for $10 per adult,we got lounge chairs for the day and access to the showers and bathrooms and little pool area. You can walk onto the beach for free and park yourself anywhere (on your beach towel), but with kids we liked the idea of having the changing area, showers and pool.
Once we saw the beach we just told our driver that we'd be staying there as long as possible even if it meant missing out on some of the island tour stops on our way back to the ship. The beach was beautiful and absolutely perfect for kids. It was calm, shallow water, lots of fish to feed, great spot under a palm tree 40 feet from water's edge. It got a little busier as the day went on, but we had the perfect spot. There was bar and food service right to your chair, a few vendors around but not bothersome. We were one of the first ones on the beach and a lady offered a 40 minute massage for my wife for $30, which she declined. By the time we were leaving, I think the 40 minute massage was going for $10.
We didn't really walk down the stretch of the beach, but there were other options for food and drink than where we were at the mayan princess. The beer was cold, the food was mediocre. It was a busy little scene even though we were the only ship in port, it certainly would be bustling with a few more ships in port. The snorkeling tours were cheap due to low demand, so we eventually decided to go. The operator took our family out for $30 for all of us - even though our kids really didn't do any snorkelling out there, they got a boat ride out of it.
In hindsight since we just stayed the whole day at the beach and didn't do much touring afterwards we could have saved a few bucks and just got a plain old cab ride to West Bay Beach and back, we saw a few others who did that (their drivers just waited for the return trip). I don't mind having given a few more dollars to that economy. Roatan cost us about $175 (transportation, resort fee, snorkling, food and drinks). Had we stayed at Mahogany bay, we might have spent $50-75 on the same things, but not have seen what we did of the island and had quite the same beach day.
Costa Maya - Based on a little research, I knew what we would do at this port. It was about a 8-10 minute walk from the ship along the massive pier to the port area shops...another 3 minutes to walk through the shops to the gate, and another 4-5 minute to walk to the taxi stand just off the controlled area of the port. From there we took a $5 (5 minute) cab ride to the malecon (boardwalk area) in Majahual and went right to Tropicante. We had reserved a couple of chairs and an umbrella and Jorge, saw us coming and greeted us by name and brought us to a good spot. Another great beach day commenced. Here, the menu and food was better than Roatan and Cozumel, the beer was cheap. I read some discussion boards about the water clarity and sea grass in this port....some people expecting the pristine green blue water and white sand beach and not getting it in Costa Maya. On this day, the water was beautiful and clear. There were a few pieces of sea weed / grass floating around, but they made nice hair wigs and made children laugh. It wasn't like you were swimming among weeds and had to avoid them.
The service was good, again- we were the only ship in town and low season was in effect. Tropicante was the busiest spot, but not crowded. Beer was very cheap. Vendors were around, and tried to sell their things. My wife got a 1 hour massage for $25, on the beach, about 20 feet behind our loungers. The overall scene looks a little less "fancy" with faded Coca-Cola branded umbrellas and those cheap white lounge chairs and tables at the beach restaurants...but if you keep your eyes out over the water, it is a gem! Our bill for 8-10 beer, 2 appetizers, 1 hour massage was $70.
If I could go back to one of the three beach spots, I am not sure what it would be. They all had great qualities. Cozumel's Paradise Beach had the pool which was great for a break from the beach. Roatan's sand and water was so beautiful and also had that pool. Costa Maya/Majahual was such a short, cheap trip from the pier and the malecon was an interesting, busy little spot. Really a tough call, but the good news, if I do the same itinerary, I can do all three again!
Sea Days - the first sea day was rainy in the AM and then the sun came our right at noon...just in time for the Lanai deck BBQ....with the improving weather, it felt like the trip had BEGUN! The Lanai BBQ is simple but a nice change from the other casual lunch options on sea days. Not much else to report on the sea days except that I had read reviews about crowds and lines and chair hogs... all three of these things were present, but nothing over the top.
Dining -- The buffet restaurant is nothing special but nothing bad to report except for a few cold items at the hot line one morning, I know they work hard to avoid that...and for what we used it for (cereal breakfasts and a couple of casual dinners) it was fine for Carnival standard.
The Tandoori station near the aft pool was wonderful. The rest of the meals were as expected for a carnival. The poolside burgers are quite good (what is it about a sesame seed bun that makes a burger taste better!). Pizza was decent both times we tried it. Lanai BBQ was a nice option on sea days. Main Dining didn't seem as good as previous, but certainly nothing to complain about. Do we really need the wait staff song and dance routines in the MDR? I didn't know what to do with myself, certainly not make eye contact with any of the staff who were either pretending to enjoy, or worse yet somehow actually enjoying that part of their job!
Steakhouse - just... so... good. I would have done it two times but I couldn't bare to have that massive slice of cheesecake defeat me twice in 7 days! We look forward to that one night in the Steakhouse and accept the MDR and other options the rest of the week for what they are.
Crew / Staff - all good experiences. Hard working and friendly. They kept that ship spotless...At one point in the cabin my son was on the bed with his shoes on and I went to take them off and realized that the bottom of his shoes were as white as they were when we got them...from walking on those clean floors around the ship. As usual the first staff member to meet us, recalled all of our names when we bumped into him 3 days later.
Spa - we had a 11th Deck "spa" cabin which included the spa facilities. We tried to use them once a day and enjoyed them. Very relaxing if you like that sort of thing...not sure if I personally would pay that upgade again. I'd prefer a seat in a hot tub overlooking the ocean than the indoor spa Jacuzzi thingy. The gym (free for all) was good, particularly in the early morning hours to burn off 1/20th of my daily caloric intake.
Camp Carnival - We have had good experiences on all three cruises. The activities are really great, we loved looking at the camp schedule and asked our kids what activities they wanted to participate in. This is really why I see the family cruise vacation "growing" with our family, there is something for all age groups.
Guests - A good mix...young and old, families and singles, the guests were lovely....so many friendly people!
Coffee / Drinks -- the espressos were great in the MDR but the 24 hour coffee was just OK. You can pay for the good stuff at the coffee bar, but I chose to tolerate the free coffee.
I noticed carnival has posted a sign next to the water/juice dispenser not to fill your own bottle. I ignored that to fill up a water bottle a few times. I didn't make people wait until I filled up my own bottle, but I am not buying a $3 bottle from carnival. We watered down the juices for our kids, the full-test juice was a little "heavy", but my kids liked the lemonade.