To begin, our traveling party was my family (mom, dad and 2 kids, 4 and 9) and another family (mom, dad and 10 year-old kid). Both sets of parents have cruised before, but it was the first cruise for all three of the kids. We were making the trip down to Port Canaveral from NE Georgia. Definitely come down to Port Canaveral from I-95, not I-75. Our friends had a wedding to go to in Pensacola the night before and spent a large amount in tolls on the Bee-Line tollway from Orlando to Cocoa Beach. They didn't have a choice in route. We on the other hand, spent $0 driving to Savannah first and then down I-95.
We left the day before we sailed and stayed at the Country Inn and Suites. The room was booked through hotels.com and I was able to add the cruise parking to my reservation by calling the hotel directly and modifying the reservation to include a shuttle to the cruise terminal. While I would stay here again and take advantage of the shuttle service, I will probably opt to stay at the Radisson next year when we cruise for two reasons. The first being that they totally screwed up my reservation when we checked in. I arrived at the hotel around 4pm and attempted to check in. Unfortunately the desk clerk couldn't find my reservation. After about 10 minutes of looking and using my confirmation number, he discovered that I had already "checked-in". It turns out that the staff checked in a person with a different name (last name too!) into our reservation. After a long wait, we were finally checked in and as a mea culpa, they comped our parking for the week. It seemed that the hotel was extremely busy with check-in when we arrived and they had already filled the first two shuttles for the Sensation by the time we arrived at the front desk. The second reason I would choose the Radisson is that their shuttle(s) seemed to be coming and going at a much quicker rate at debarkation. Even though we had a fairly early debarkation number, we were waiting curbside until most of the ship was out of customs before we caught the shuttle back to the hotel.
Embarkation was a breeze for us with VIP check-in. We arrived at about noon and were on board in a relatively short amount of time. There was a line outside the terminal for the non-VIP passengers, but it was moving rather quickly and it didn't seem that those people were tired of standing in line. Once on the ship, we were able to find a table on the Lido deck for us to set our stuff down and find something to eat at the buffet. The lines for the burgers and Mongolian Wok were long as they always were, so we scoped out the buffet. There were much shorter lines inside, except for the Deli and Pizza area. Plus, it seems that everyone had decided to sit outside and there were plenty of spots to sit down inside the Lido restaurant.
The food on board was good, nothing that was overly spectacular that I couldn't get elsewhere, but not terrible either. The only exception was the pizza. That stuff was worse than the cardboard that Little Caesar's offers. I would recommend eating in the MDR when possible, as the food and service were always better than what you get in the Lido buffet line. I did see some unique food choices on the buffet at breakfast. Things like a breaded/fried hard boiled egg. The midnight Mexican buffet was awesome and I wish they would offer something with these selections during 'normal' hours. I would like to note that the 'chocolate buffet' that all the servers raved about was not much more than a germ-filled chocolate fountain. Did they get their dining ideas from the Golden Corral? The Mongolian Wok was excellent, but you may want to try eating this on port days as the line is almost always 20-30 minutes long. The same rule applies to the omelet station at breakfast. If you want an omelet, go to the dining room you will get it quicker. We had early dining and the service was excellent. We were well attended to every night. They did not open the dining room until 6pm on the dot, so it is always crowded in the elevator lobby and on the stairs next to the dining room about 15 minutes before 6pm. The Sushi station was never crowded and offered a nice sampler on the nights it was open.
On board activities they had were typical Carnival fare: dancing classes, the hairy chest contest, etc. The kids used Camp Carnival sparingly. The youngest child was in the 2-5 year-old group which is a really strange grouping for these kids as the 4 and 5 year-old kids have very little in common with toddlers. Many of the activities were geared toward the younger ones in the group. Our 4 year-old did not like it and balled his eyes out the first night and never returned. The older two went more often, but they thought most of the activities were boring except for the break-dancing classes. They complained about the little time they got to play video games as they had to rotate through with the other kids in camp. The Circle C group seemed to really have fun. It seemed like you could always see those kids together playing with each other under the watch of the counselor. The kids did get to make shirts for free and the little ones got pirate hats to keep too! They did make some friends in Camp Carnival that they met up with on the sea days out at the water slides. The kids loved the water park area and that is where they wanted to spend their time when we were on the ship. The mini golf course was rarely crowded. It was fun, but it like many areas of the ship, was showing some wear and it would make me mad if I had to pay extra to use the course.
We only made it to one of the shows, an 80's song montage. It was great for both kids and adults. Of course, the nostalgia was great for the parents and it was a relaxing way to end the day. The highlight of the show was when they started singing "The Time of My Life" by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes and one of the kids got excited and turned around to tell us they knew this song because the Black Eyed Peas sang it.
Disembarkation went smoothly, the only downer was as was described earlier that we had to wait a long time at the curb to catch the shuttle back to the Country Inn and Suites. Since many more people had to get back to the hotel than there were seats, we had to sit kids in laps and stand in the aisles. Not a very relaxing end to the trip. I would also like to note that the luggage handling in port left a lot to be desired. Our luggage had nice rubber address tags on them to help identify our bags. Through many trips trough airports and on trains, etc. These tags had never been damaged. One trip through the terminal and all three of our nice tags were destroyed. Our one cheap American Tourister tag mad it through unscathed.
Overall, this was a good trip and a great vacation. I went in knowing the decor would be a little loud and wasn't distracted by it. The ship could use a little cosmetic work here and there to fix the chipping paint in the elevators and replace some of the bath tubs. Other than that, you can't beat the price or the size of the cabins. This is why we cruise with Carnival.