I will try to give a fairly complete review here as I found that several that I read did not really give a full picture. Many folks seemed to have had a bad experience here or there and focused on that. Also, there was a lot of information I wanted, but did not find anyone writing about. With that said, here we go:
Based on my Carnival cruises, I was really worried about waiting in line forever. Upon arriving at Port Canaveral (around 1 p.m.), we were dropped off and our bags were quickly grabbed by the porters (make sure you have the bag tags printed and attached to your bag). They were helpful and directed us to the HUGE line to enter the terminal. The line looked bad, but really moved along quickly. Tip: Take the inside track (closer to the wall) when the line splits, it will be much faster. Our family got split up and we ended up about 50-100 people in front of them by the time we were through the security checkpoint. It took about 15 minutes to get through the line and up the escalator. Once there, you get in line again (even faster line) to get your SeaPass and photo taken. They will use the photo to verify you every time you get back on the ship in a port. Then, you just get on the ship. From the time we arrived to the time we were sitting in the WindJammer Cafe eating lunch was less than an hour.
The ship is nice and very clean. They attack you with hand sanitizer at every turn. Seriously, it became quite a joke, but you will smell like Purell for a week after your cruise. Anyway, the ship is very reminiscent of a Las Vegas Casino Resort (think Mandalay Bay). There are shops, a promenade, casino, show rooms, bars, etc. It is really like being in Vegas with less smoke and cleaner. One complaint is that near the pizza place, every morning is smelled like stale bleach water (I guess where they cleaned overnight), but the smell was a bit overwhelming certain days). Also, one review I read before my cruise talked about how the elevators are always jammed with people and slow. Because of that, we made a pact upfront to just take the stairs all the time. We did and because of that, we did not gain 10 pounds on the cruise. We were on deck 6. The promenade is on 5, the gym on 12, and the Windjammer on 11. We did a lot of stairs.
The cabin was great. It was the cleanest hotel room I have ever stayed in. It is a cruise ship, so the rooms are small, but with the nice balcony and creative layout, you don't feel bottled up. It is actually a nice place to relax at the end of a long day.
The fitness center is fantastic. I worked out every day on the cruise. There are ample treadmills, ellipticals, etc. I read that the place would be very busy in the mornings and early evenings, but I found that it was never truly busy. I was able to get a treadmill (with a ridiculous view) every morning. The fitness center is at the front of the ship on deck 12 and is all glass on three sides, so you are getting an amazing view with your workout. The classes were good but very overpriced. I was looking to mix up my workouts, so I did a boxing fitness class ($15). It was an ok class, but with the cost and the automatic 15% gratuity (for a fitness class??) it seemed like a bit of a rip off (especially since such classes are free at my gym at home). Anyway, the fitness center is fantastic and you need it because of all of the food - seriously.
We tried the FlowRider. We booked a private lesson on the morning we arrived in St. Thomas. Great choice because there was no one else up there and only one other person taking the lesson at that time. I snowboard and I have surfed many times. Trying to stand up on the FlowRider board is seriously hard (but fun). The boogie board is easy and even more fun. I would recommend a lesson to get the basics, then you just have to wait in line with the masses because it is popular. The climbing wall is really fun, and not quite as busy. If you are up for a challenge (and you don't mind heights), this is a great activity for any age. My 8 year old nephew and I quite enjoyed it.
This is an area that was hit or miss. Based on the reviews I read, I did not know what to expect. People either loved it or thought it sucked. I kind-of understand that. Here are my thoughts (entertainment of this sort is totally subjective). Marquee was a broadway-ish show that just took popular songs from broadway musicals and threw them together in a 45 minute show. The singers are okay, not great, not bad. It was worth the 45 minutes. The magic show was quite entertaining. I remembered the guy from America's Got Talent - he was pretty good. Although, we sat on the far edge of the stage and unfortunately for us (and the magician), we could see things we were not supposed to see. In that way, it ruined the illusions, but it was a great way to finally see how that stuff is done. The "once upon a time" show was actually pretty funny - it kind of made fun of fairy tales and set them to modern music. It was entertaining and one of our favorites. The absolute best part of the entire cruise (entertainment wise) was the late night comedy show by the cruise director Graham Seymore. What that guy is doing on a cruise ship and not starring in his own sitcom or tv talk show is beyond my understanding. He is a first-class stand-up comic. The show was "adult only" and was a complete riot. Everything he did throughout the cruise was hilarious, but the comedy show was the best.
The guitar player in the pub on the promenade and the piano player in the Schooner bar were both fantastic and we never made it much past either one in our late night pub crawls. The other entertainment in the bars/lounges is so/so. The Olive or Twist bar was, we thought, the best kept secret the first night, but it was discovered by night three and because it allows smoking, was off our list due to smoke for the rest of the cruise. The casino was pretty smoky as well which led to some issues in the Schooner bar late at night because of the proximity.
The 80s dance party was hilarious. Not because of the actual entertainment, but because sitting in the stands (it was in the ice arena) watching the other cruisers basically line dance to 80s music was so painfully ridiculous that we laughed until we could not breathe. I don't know why, but hundreds of people were trying to mimic the dancing of the lip-syncers on the stage. It was too funny. The only reason we were there was to get a good seat for the Quest game show which was hosted by Graham Seymore and was also hilarious. It is a "not to be missed" part of the cruise as well. The other game shows were so-so and were held in the Pharaoh's lounge area. If you were not there VERY early, you did not get a seat. The things in the pool area during the Sea Days were pretty funny too. There were several contests and all were funny.
There are a bunch of dodge ball tournaments and volleyball tournaments that were really fun to watch. There is even a staff versus guests dodge ball tournament.
This is another area I was worried about. I read some bad reviews of the food, so I was expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised. The food was good. We ate in the dining room each night (MyTime Dining). We had a group of 10 and though we went separate ways during the days, we decided to always have dinner together. We ended up at the same table each night. Our waiter (Ade), assistant waiter (Herman), and bar server (Miram) were absolutely fantastic. They actually provided service that would make Gordon Ramsay proud. It was "front of the house" at its best. The food might not make Gordon Ramsay proud, but it was pretty good. You can order anything or everything on that day's menu and as much of it as you want. There is always a "Vitality" menu which is their "healthy" option, plus an Indian food selection and vegetarian selection in addition to the standard menu each day. Plus, they have an "every day" menu that includes a steak, chicken, pasta, etc. just in case you don't see anything you want on the main menu that day. Needless to say, we ate a lot at dinner.
The WindJammer Cafe is a giant buffet. The salad bar was the most popular, and there was always a line. However, the lines were never really long, and we never waited in any line for more than a couple of minutes. There was plenty of food and lots of choices in the WindJammer for breakfast and lunch (or whenever). The pizza place was also decent. It was not great pizza, but at 2 a.m., it was pizza. They also have lots of desserts at the pizza place too, you just have to ask for them. The coffee shop also had food selections, but we never got around to trying any of them. We intended to try Portofino and Chops, but never got around to it, and frankly, the food was good enough and plentiful enough that we did not feel like we missed anything.
Also, the dining suggestions (formal, smart casual, casual) are just that - suggestions. On formal night, most people dressed up, but some showed up in shorts and t-shirts. They did not turn anyone away, so you don't have to dress up if you just don't feel like it on a particular day. Don't feel like you have to do the WindJammer because you don't want to put that suit back on again.
My wife got the soda package. I did not. I would HIGHLY recommend that if you get the soda package, do it the day you get on the ship and get the insulated mug/cup. It has a computer chip in the bottom that lets you self-serve any of the sodas up near the pool. This means that you do not have to track down a waiter or bartender to get a drink when the pool area is crowded (and it gets crowded). Someone said that you can only get Coke, Diet Coke, and Sprite with that package, but my wife only drinks Diet Coke, so that was not an issue for us.
There are a ton of these, and if you do a lot of research, you can find that some are just awful. We got lucky with a couple, so I will share what we did and what we learned. On Coco Cay, we did the kayak tour. It was fun. We saw lots of sea life, got to spend a while out of the kayaks in a tidal flat and private beach area, and the guides are pretty good at educating you on some of the sea life you can encounter and interact with there. We also prepaid for the snorkel gear (at your leisure) - wasted money because we never picked them up. By the time we finished the kayak tour and had lunch, the tide started to go out and when the tide goes out on Coco Cay, it REALLY goes out. The kids park area that was 30 yards out in the water and in about 4-6 feet of water was high and dry. I mean the water just receded in a way I have not seen before. We had family (including an 8 year old and 5 year old) that did a discovery boat tour and loved it.
In St. Thomas, we did the "Yacht Adventures Sail & Snorkel." We picked this one because they only take 6 people and we wanted to avoid crowds. Great choice. However, it was rough. The entire cruise, the wind was howling and the seas were very rough in both St. Thomas and St. Martin. We were able to make our way to a protected cove and snorkel around a small reef. Tons of fish and tons of large sea turtles. All in all, a great snorkel and a fun adventurous sail to and from with the rough seas. The rest of the family did larger snorkel tours and ended up with large groups of people who got sea sick due to the rough seas. We originally planned to do the Eco Adventure kayak, snorkel, hike, but we were warned off by several people.
St. Martin was different. We wanted to go Marlin fishing and did not like the option provided by the ship. We booked our own charter ahead of time. After tons of research, we settled on Captain Paul and his boat Natalie Kate. Captain Paul and his first mate Sparrow were great. However, the seas were 6-8 feet outside the harbor and when we got 12 miles out to the Marlin fishing grounds, the seas were 10+. Not too much fun to fish in that. After 20+ fishing trips in my life, this was the first time I ever got sea sick. We ended up only catching barracuda. Mother nature just did not want to cooperate. Once we returned from our four-hour fishing trip, we enjoyed walking around Phillipsburg and hanging out on the beach and in the beautiful water. If you just want a beach and shopping day, forget booking an excursion, just get off the ship and take the water taxi ($6 for an all-day unlimited pass) over to the beach.
The overall service was great. There were a couple of time where you asked someone where to find something or how to do something and got a curt response, but the room attendants and waiters and bar staff were so friendly and helpful that it really did not matter. I did notice that some of the sports staff (climbing wall, flowrider, etc.) were less friendly than most, which struck me as weird.
We do not have kids, but my brother and sister in law have an 8 and 5 year old who made the trip. They had a blast. Not only are there tons of kids activities and a huge arcade, but there are Dreamworks characters walking around (think Shrek, Madagascar, etc.). Also, they have "Kids Party" every night until 2 a.m. This is basically a free babysitting service where you can drop off the kids and they have tons of activities, movies and arts & crafts for them to do. If that is not late enough, you can actually get in-room babysitting for a small fee. Crazy right?
END OF THE CRUISE
On other area that worried me up front was the "getting off the ship" part that is so horrible if you take a Carnival cruise out of Miami. This was a totally different experience. We got up and went to breakfast in the WindJammer and waited for them to call our group. Once called, we only waited a about a 3-5 minute line to get through customs and our bags came out on the carousel at baggage claim right away.
They do kind-of nickle and dime you a bit on the cruise. You get your food and water, but everything else, and I mean everything, is going to cost you. If you forget something - like shaving cream - you will pay dearly. Also, a couple who sat by us at breakfast told us that they had a travel iron in their bag and when the bag was brought to their room they were told that travel irons were not allowed to be brought on board so theirs was confiscated, but they were then told that they could RENT a travel iron for a fee.
We also learned that you can bring your own bottled water on the cruise, so I suggest putting a case in your suitcase on your way to the ship. It is not cheap on board unless you don't mind tap water.
All in all, I swore after my last cruise on Carnival that I would never take a cruise again. The only reason I agreed to go on this one is because it was a family vacation with all of my wife's family. I am glad I went because we will be taking more cruises in the future. Royal Caribbean brought me back.