I recently took my first and last cruise. I always thought that a cruise wasn't for me, but since I'd never been, and since several people said that it'd be more fun than I realized, I gave it a shot. I should have trusted my instinct.
My group was four adults and five kids (6, 7, 8, 11, and 15). We had two connecting balcony rooms and another room directly across the hallway on the 9th floor on the Carnival Splendor sailing from Long Beach to Cabo for two days and Puerto Vallarta for one day (total of 7 days on the cruise).
This review is intended to be as fair as possible and I hope will help first time cruisers make a more informed decision.
Getting on the ship is pretty easy if you plan ahead, bring your ID, and get there before the crowds. In our case, we arrived at the ship at 11am. We left our bags on the sidewalk with a person that looked half-way official looking. It left us feeling a bit vulnerable leaving our luggage, but everyone else was doing it, so we followed the sheep, so to speak. The man handling our luggage offered to help us sneak liquor on board...and it actually worked. We went downtown and bought three bottles of liquor and then brought it back to him. He stuffed it in our luggage and then put those suitcases aside with some others that I can only guess contained liquor too. So much for needing to pour it in Listerine bottles...which probably wouldn't have worked anyway.
We stood in a line for about 15 minutes before going through a smooth check-in process and before we knew it we were in another line. Then another. Then another. And then we were boarding. From check-in to boarding took about 40 minutes and wasn't bad at all, but it looked like it would get much worse as the crowds began arriving.
Suddenly we're in the lobby with our carry-on luggage wondering what to do next. Granted there were employees in red shirts that said "Ask Me", but everyone seemed to know that they were supposed to head for the elevators and so we did (thank God for frequent cruisers). We went to the Lido Deck and scrambled to get lounge chairs that were filling up quickly.
Once we secured our chairs we stood in a long line to get soda cards for the kids. I think the soda cards were around $35 each and then the refillable souvenir cup was another $5 or so. I guess this is a good deal compared to buying soda's at $1.95 each (for less than 12oz). Can someone tell me why Carnival uses cans of sodas rather than soda machines? There's no way it can be more profitable using cans. $200 later, the kids have their Pepsi's and the Sign and Sail Card has begun racking up the bucks.
We then waited for 30 minutes in the line for pizza. There was another line for the "Grill" that served burgers and dogs and fries. If we had walked further we would have seen other lines for various types of food ranging from sandwiches to Mongolian Wok to salad bar to burrito bar (I hope I remember to talk about the burrito bar, but not right now).
I'm a pizza guy. Let's get that out there. I love pizza. I love it. I don't care what type -- from Round Table to Straw Hat to Pizza Hut to Dominos to the frozen brands Totinos and Tony's and Tombstone. I can put ketchup on a Wheat Thin, add Kraft cheese and last nights taco meat and call it pizza and be happy. But the pizza on the cruise was so bad that I didn't want it. I thought I'd eat my weight in pizza during the cruise, but it was bad. I don't know how pizza can be so distasteful, but it was. They had varieties...cheese, pepperoni, veggie, etc. They were all bad. Something sweet was added to the crust maybe (my son thought it had a caramel taste), it was undercooked, burned from the bubbles that didn't get popped while it traveled through the oven, and was cut and thrown onto our plates the way a farmer might throw the slop into the pig pen. What a let down.
I'll stop with the narrative and address each area of the cruise that I experienced.
The one bright spot for me was our great balcony room. I was told to expect to be in the smallest room I'd ever been in. I was pleasantly surprised at the size (about the same as a hotel room), with two small twin beds and a sort of half couch/half bed that was sufficient for two little girls to sleep on. The TV was about 20" and we got plenty of channels that we were accustomed to at home (ABC, CNN, Cartoon Network, TNT, and many others). The bathroom, while very small, had more counter space and shelving than I had expected. The toilet and shower were painfully small -- the type that you would expect to find in an RV. The balcony was worth every penny. It gave the room a larger feel, and let you step outside to enjoy the views and fresh air. It had two chairs and a small table and was big enough for 4 or 5 people to stand against the rail.
Lots of sandwiches and a decent dessert menu, but other than that, not much. Get this...you can't use your Soda Card to get soda from room service...you are required to pay for sodas (even thought you spent $200 on 5 soda cards). I ordered room service maybe 4 times and it took at least an hour each time, and once about an hour and 45 minutes. Hard to complain for free room service, but it wasn't worth the wait. And although the ship is filled with French fries, you can't get them on room service for some reason, nor can you make "special orders". If you want a BLT (which is on the menu), without mayo, you're out of luck.
No ice machines on the room floors. You had to go back to the buffet areas to find an ice machine or you could order it on room service. I ordered ice once and it took 45 minutes to get it.
The biggest disappointment for me and the group that I was in was the pools. Before getting on the boat, I had visions of laying around a big pool and watching the kids swim. There were three pools in all -- one of them was an adults only pool. But all three were roughly the same size. I have a typical pool in my backyard. The pools on the ship are about 70% the size of my pool. I could NOT believe how small they were. No wonder you can't find good photos of the pool on the Carnival website. There are 3,000 passengers on the boat and that they have pools that could reasonably accommodate about 45 passengers (as long as you don't want to move around in the pool). What???!?!?! There were four (maybe five) hot tubs. One or two were adult only. The other three were CONSTANTLY filled (like sardines) with kids. And I have kids. I like kids. But there wasn't enough water for kids and adults to enjoy throughout the day. Oh...and the pools and hot tubs are salt water, which must be for easier circulation and changing the water out (since they must be FILLED with urine). The salt water is irritating on your skin after a while.
There always seemed to be enough, as long as you didn't mind not being were the action was. Most of the outdoor activities (and the big screen TV) was on the Lido deck (Deck 9) which filled up early in the morning. We were almost always on deck 11, which was mostly nice and well served by waiters, but couldn't see the music being played, the big screen TV, or see/participate in things like the Limbo contest, drink making contest, etc. etc.
What can I say? Why do they have this? It takes up a tremendous amount of space. It's "nice." It's clean. There are 9 holes on good Astroturf. Once you pick up your clubs and balls from the attendant on the deck 11, you go up to 12 to play where there isn't an employee in sight. Why should there be an employee? Because someone needs to tame the wild packs of pre-teens and teens that have taken over the golf course and made it their personal hang-out. Our young kids played mini-golf once and didn't find it fun enough to want to go back, even when they were bored and only steps away from the golf course.
You'll think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. It's like there were fifteen guys that took this cruise only to play basketball. There must be less expensive options to play basketball than on a cruise ship. There is one full-court on the top deck near the back of the boat surrounded by netting to save the ball from becoming "Wilson" (anyone get the reference?). Cool, right? Kids can play basketball once in a while, right? The family can go play HORSE, right? Nope. These fifteen guys didn't leave the court. Ever. I think they slept there. They brought their high-top sneakers, and full basketball attire and they never left. I never was able to get on the court.
Eh. Whatever. Also not staffed. I'll let our three girls (6, 7, and 8) tell the story. They went in once for about 10 minutes and never returned. It was lame. And the slides were a bit too fast. Even though they landed on mats that were affixed to the floor AND the walls, they still hit the walls going too fast. I have a video that looks like one of them should have a broken neck from the angle that it bends. The waterpark was closed as often as the waterslide, even thought it was sheltered from the wind. What gives?
The biggest disappointment was the pools. The next biggest was the overall quality of the food. There are plenty of choices, but the lines are always 30 minutes no matter what time it is or what line you're standing in. Picture a Las Vegas casino buffet...that's mostly what the food set-up is like on the ship, only the lines are much longer. It wasn't that anything was actually BAD (with the exception of the pizza), but it just wasn't impressive like I thought it would be. Oh...the burrito bar. It looked great. You start by telling the chef if you want shrimp, beef or chicken and he puts it in a tortilla and then you build the rest. I asked for beef. He put the tongs into the beef and brought up two thin slices into a giant tortilla and then handed it to me. Picture a steak. Then you slice the steak into thin slices that are about 2 inches long. I got two of those slices. I had to ask for more. He gave me one more slice. I asked for more and he looked irritated and gave me one more. If I stretched the slices out and placed them end to end, they wouldn't cover the length of the tortilla. But I can't help but think of the Woody Allen line..."this food is terrible...and the portions are so small." The beef was so fatty that I was mostly unchewable.
Our waiter was very friendly and learned our names and our needs fairly quickly. The dinner menu had two pages. One page had the same food each day -- staples that you could count on and the second page contained that days "Specials." Dinner was fairly good with 4-6 different main course choices each day. There was a good kids menu with chicken nuggets, pizza, hot dog, pasta, etc. Two of our kids have extreme food allergies and they were accommodated quite well with special attention.
There seem to be two types of drinks on board -- regular mixed drinks (7&7, Rum/Coke, Greyhound, Vodka & ____, etc.) and "Classic Cocktails" like Mai Tai, Long Island Ice Tea, etc. I'm not sure the difference. The regular drinks were served in small glasses -- probably 6 ounces, and the Classic Cocktails were in larger glasses -- probably ten ounces. The smaller drinks were $5.75 and the larger drinks were around $10. You expect expensive, but this is a bit too much, in my opinion. In fairness, the drinks weren't as watered down as I would have predicted.
Great waterslide, terribly managed. The waterslide was fun and the line was never too bad (never more than 5 minutes or so). BUT -- two things. 1) It doesn't end up in the pool (how could it, the pool is far too small); and 2) it was closed for about half of the cruise. The slide ends in a long straight-away filled with water...no biggie, but not as fun as splashing down into a pool. And it was closed due to winds. Here's my issue with that: At the time that the waterslide was closed (first thing in the morning each time), it was windy. I'll grant them the wind. But within a few hours -- still in the late morning, the winds had died down. Did the waterslide open once the winds were gone? Nope. Why? Not sure. Each day that it was closed I asked a staff person if it could be re-opened and they either said "no" or that they'd go ask someone. They never came back with an answer. Considering that the waterslide is one of the main features of the outdoor area, this just felt lazy to me on the part of the ship staff and the decision making that took place. A huge disappointment.
Cabo Day 1
Fun. Found a water taxi to a nearby beach with a restaurant and bathrooms and rented waverunners ($80/hour) and umbrellas ($15 for two), and bought junk from beach sales people. Always negotiate. Whatever price they quote you, offer them half, and then meet in the middle.
Cabo Day 2
Our group, along with hundreds of other people stood in line to get on a tender (boat that takes you from the ship to the pier since they don't dock on a pier). We were next to get off the ship at about 9:45am when the captain said that they were going to post-pone people getting off the ship due to high swells and rough water and the fact that divers were under the boat doing an annual inspection. The captain made it sound like the divers had something to do with the way the boat was positioned that was making it difficult for us to get off the ship. We all wondered...why are we doing an annual inspection right now? Wouldn't it make more since to do it in Long Beach when the boat is docked for 8 or 10 hours? Hmmmm.... An hour later, waiting on Zero Deck, and the captain said that the conditions were too dangerous to allow the tenders to get next to the boat so nobody else would be let off the ship for the rest of the day. Wow. Day 2 in Cabo cancelled. What a serious let down. I asked Benjamin Button (comedy club director and man of many hats) for some drink coupons to ease the pain. He sent me to guest services where I went and was nearly laughed at for even asking. Why should I have to ask? The weather is NOT in the control of the crew. But it is, nevertheless, a big disappointment for the customers of the boat and offering up a drink coupon to those who couldn't get off the ship would have gone a long way. The waterslide was closed on this day as well. Again, in my best attempt to be fair, the ship came up with several unplanned activities to try to fill the time that was going to be spent in Cabo. None of them were very attractive to our group, but at least they tried.
This is a much different port. Whereas you get to Cabo and you see stretches of beaches, you get to PV and see a City. This was the only day that we had a planned excursion on the Pirate Ship that goes to a private beach.
DON'T DO IT.
I can't stress this enough.
This is approximately how it's billed: Fun pirate ship, free breakfast, open bar, free lunch, private beach, water sports, snorkeling and more!
Sounds great, right?
It was TWO full hours on the boat (extremely choppy water for us) to get there. Breakfast was stale muffins and staler cereal and some orange liquid that might pass for orange juice in prison. I never saw the open bar, but they brought slushy drinks out that were so bad I poured my overboard. The private island might have been private, but it was private for other people...not us. We were just visitors and were constantly reminded of that by the instructions to stay on our small section of beach (about 100 yards of beach) and to stay inside the bouys for swimming (no joke -- we had about 30 yards by 30 yards of swim area for 260 passengers). Not enough. Water sports? They had about 15 boogie boards that you couldn't use, because you were crammed in with 260 other people. There were about 8 kayaks - if you waited in line, this was fun. The open bar on the beach was warm beer in a small, cheap plastic cup. There were NO bathrooms, no food, no changing rooms. They had the cheap white plastic chairs to sit in, but they sank into the soft and BURNING sand too easily to be comfortable. There were fairly aggressive crabs everywhere. Snorkeling? You had to stay on the boat if you wanted to snorkel and they then took you to another spot for (ready for this?) TEN minutes of snorkeling (and they warned you about the jelly fish). Total time on the beach was one hour and fifty minutes, then back on the boat for two hours of a rough ride back. Lunch was a weird piece of chicken with pasta (it actually wasn't bad). There was a pirate show onboard that was pretty good, but the music and speakers were way too loud -- especially for those that were starting to get queasy. We were happy to get back to the dock where we had about 4 hours left to explore, but felt intimidated by the city and the soldiers with AK-47's, so we got back on the boat and sat in a lounge chair wishing the waterslide would open.
The arcade, where our two oldest kids spent the majority of their time, housed about 15-20 games. There seemed to be mostly driving/motorcycle type games, along with 3 air hockey tables, and a few games that you could win prizes from (if you were lucky -- which my son was who won a Sony Vita handheld game). Most of the games cost $1 -- which is slightly too much. The arcade was busy, but not too busy, but lacked an attendant when and where one was needed occasionally to fix a broken game or break up rowdy teenagers.
I'm a regular gambler and go to Vegas or Reno or an Indian casino two or three times a year. If you gamble at the tables like I do, and play blackjack, roulette, or craps, then you know that you're probably going to lose over the long-run. What makes a casino experience fun, is when you have a friendly dealer. A friendly dealer makes losing seem ok. I played at the tables for a total of probably four hours during the cruise, and I sat at every table in the place. Each and every dealer was unfriendly, unwelcoming, and as fast as lightening, making losing even less enjoyable than it could have been. Is there no customer service training on this boat? And of course, the slot machines were set to unimaginably low levels of payout. I had looked forward to the casino part of the cruise, and was again let down.
Almost everywhere you go on the ship, there is a live band playing. Most of the music was fun, lively and enjoyable. Tommy Green Jr., an acoustic guitar player, was especially fun to watch and listen to his music and humorous stories. The family comedy club nights were also fun but you need to get there early to get a seat. The adults only comedy was also fun, but even more crowded. If you go, plan to arrive 30 minutes early to get a seat. If you're with a big group, show up even earlier or else you won't sit together. Karaoke nights were also fun, and not as crowded and Kristy the host kept things moving along quite well. We never made it to one of the bigger shows, as the times always seemed to interfere with dinner or other activities, but the Spectacular Theater was spectacular, huge and comfortable (we played bingo in that room). Which brings us to...
We heard an announcement for bingo so we tried it out. The price was $20 to get a single bingo card that was reusable for the bingo session. They played three games and it was over. The whole thing took 15 minutes. What?!?! $20? For three games?
Our kids had fun, and in my book, that's what's important. But I could think of less expensive ways for them to enjoy arcade games and riding an elevator all day. And since I have kids, I feel that I am rightfully able to complain about kids. I have kids, my kids are like any other kids and can get a little crazy at times. But the packs of teenagers on board were obnoxious, unmanaged and unchecked. In some places, they simply took over entire areas. I remember simply walking down a hallway from one bar to the comedy club and encountered at least 15 kids just standing in the hallway, making a ton of noise, play-fighting, and making it difficult to pass. Kids ran through the hallways in the stateroom areas, took over the hot tubs, and generally were misbehaved. With 1,000 crew on board, you'd think that a few of those crew would be simply walking the floors and making sure that kids were behaving within some type of boundaries.
I don't get it. Before I went on the cruise, people told me that we were going to love it. I think there are two types of people. Those that love cruising, and those that don't. I talked to both types of people on the cruise. Another family with four kids, echoed my disappointments and agreed that this was their first and only cruise. Another frequent cruiser told me that the Splendor was not a very good boat and had limited amenities compared to others. I don't know what type of person would enjoy this cruise, but they must exist, otherwise this boat wouldn't.
When the boat charges were added in, along with the cruise tickets, the single excursion, the arcade tokens, drinks, soda cards and mandatory tipping, the cruise ended up costing about $11,000 for nine of us -- and this didn't include the transportation (flights) to get to LA. You just don't realize how things will quickly add up. Our same group went to Hawaii the year before and spent about $8,000 for flights, food/drinks, spending money, snorkeling gear, two rental cars and two rooms at a Hilton on the big island. We figured, while planning the cruise and choosing it over renting a house in Santa Cruz, that the cruise would be $6,500 - 7,500. At $650 or so to get on board, it was about $5,800 for the 9 of us. But then you have $1,000 in mandatory tipping (and that doesn't include the mandatory 15% tip for every single drink you order), another $1,000 to go on a pirate ship to a terrible beach, several hundred in the arcade and casino, $750 or so in Cabo (good thing day 2 was cancelled), souvenirs, a few hundred in the spa...and then a bar bill filled with $10 drinks. Don't be fooled by a cruise website that makes it feel like it's all-inclusive. It's not. And don't underestimate the money that gets spent while you're on and off the ship.
In my opinion, the cruise was not worth the price. My disappointment wasn't based on any one thing, but just rather a general let down in almost every area of the experience. Everything was slightly less than I thought it would be and nothing impressed me or exceeded my expectations to the point where I would ever want to go again.