This is my first review, so please bear with me if I am a little scattered in my thoughts.
About us: We are a family of 3, in our early 30's, with a 7 year old son. My wife and I have been on 7 cruises, with this being our 8th (6 Carnival, 1 Norwegian and 1 Disney). This was my son's 2nd Cruise, but first on CCL (went on Disney last year). We consider ourselves pretty active, however do like to relax while on vacation.
Pre Cruise Travel: We drove into Miami the night before the cruise and stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites Blue Lagoon. This was recommended by a friend of ours, as it allows free parking for your vehicle for the length of the cruise and provides a free shuttle TO the port. It was a run of the mill hotel, nothing special, but comfortable bed and free breakfast buffet (think extended continental). For the price, it was a good alternative, rather than paying $20 per day at port of Miami. Parking was in a gated garage and felt pretty secure. I would stay here again if cruising from Miami. It is approx 15 minutes from the port, so be prepared to pay about $25 for a taxi from the port back to the hotel. The shuttle is $10 per person for the ride back, so the taxi was slightly cheaper for us.
Embarkation: We arrived at the port around 10:30 and was surprised how busy it already was. With that being said, The port authority has it down, we were checked in through security and received our Sail & Sign within 10 minutes of arrival. We then sat and waited for the OK to board, which came around 11:15am. I can honestly say that it was effortless, we were standing in the buffet line on the Lido deck by 11:30. Embarkation was GREAT!!
Dining Options: We made a point to try as many of the dining options as possible. I will say that my family LOVED the Burrito Bar. It is very similar to a CHIPOTLE or MOE'S. Pretty tasty, but the line gets very long and it is only open from noon - 3pm daily. I really wish that they would have opened this more often as it was some of the better food on the ship. The Sandwich station was good as usual, but again very busy during peak times. The Burrito bar and Sandwich station are located on the lido deck, on the Starboard/Port side respectively. The lines for these are located in heavy traffic areas, so it gets a little congested while waiting. Rosie's is the Buffet on the Lido deck. I have to agree with some of the other reviews, in that after a day or 2, all of the food begins to taste similar. Rosie's will typically have the same food on the buffet that they are offering for the featured main course in the Dining Rooms, so it is a good option (we figured this out after 3-4 nights on the ship). One complaint that my wife had was with the breakfast buffet on the Lido. Not everyone is a "starch monster" and some actually like to eat somewhat healthy in the morning. That being said, unless you like Cantaloupe, Honeydew and yogurt, not much else to choose from. She asked if they had a better selection of fruit, i.e. strawberries, pineapple, etc, and was told NO. Even in the main dining rooms, these were not available. Egg whites were available, but only on the omelet station which always had a very long line. Oddly, they did put out a large assortment of fruit on the dinner buffet??? didn't make any sense to us. The food in the dining room was pretty good and was always served warm. We chose the Your Time Dining and never waited more than a minute or two to be seated. The servers were all very nice, and loved playing jokes, teasing with my son. One other note about the buffet was the set-up & layout. They seemed to have things in odd places, for example. One day they had a nacho bar set up, well you get your plate and then it was all of the condiments...the nachos were at the end of the buffet! it was backwards and caused the line to back up pretty bad. We did not try the Steakhouse, Scarlett's, but have heard that it is the very good and rated top in the Fleet (heard that about 100 times on the in cabin TV!!!). The Sushi Bar was also great, but only open from 5pm - 8pm. Sushi was also available on the Lido Deck Buffet at dinner only.
In our past cruises, Carnival always did a pretty good job of filling the day with activities for both kids & adults. I think on this cruise, the CD "Goose", was still getting his bearing on the ship because he had just been assigned to the ship a couple weeks prior. There were the typical games played, Couples Trivia, Hairy Chest, etc...however nothing really creative or outside of the box. The pools/hot tubs were always very busy during the Sea Days.
Overall I like the layout of the Ship. We have Cruised on Liberty before, which is the sister ship of Valor, so we are aware of the odd layout of the ship. The main complaint that we heard (and shared with the Liberty), was that you can only go from Forward to Aft on a few levels of the ship. The placement of the Dining Rooms and Casino is directly in the middle of the ship on levels 3-5. So if you are on level 4, and want to get from one end of the ship to the other, you have to go up to level five, cross through the casino, then take the stairs back down to level 4. Not a big deal, but when they are having photos on the lobby staircase, it gets a little crazy.
My Son had his hesitations after the first night in Camp Carnival. He was used to the Disney "Oceaneers Club" in which activities were very engaging and well planned. We had heard that Carnival did a good job with this, so we assured my son that things would get better...and they did. Camp Carnival staff are very good and remember not only the kids, but their parents names as well. This helps when you are trying to pick your child up and they can easily locate them prior to you even getting to the door for pick up. I will say that they have odd hours and seem to do a majority of their activities at night. Daytime activities were usually limited to watching movies or light arts/crafts. My son did not complain and made a couple of friends while on the boat.
Our Cabin Steward, Nelson, was GREAT!! He called us by name on the first day and greeted us every time that we saw him. It seemed that every time we left the cabin, it was turned down upon our return. Great Service!!
Wait Staff - See above, they were all good as well.
Cruise Director - Goose. What else can I say. I had read some reviews about him prior to going on this cruise, so I had prepared by self to be told about a million times to "remember, you're on vacation". Goose lived up to the hype. My wife wanted to rip his tongue out and feed it to the sharks by the end of the cruise. I understand that everyone has their "hook", but his is just lame. I think everyone on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean understands that they are on vacation, and no need to remind them. I will say that he is a very hard worker, he was all over the ship and very pleasant when we saw him on deck. Other than the constant reminder of being on vacation, nothing really memorable about Goose.
I would recommend this Cruise to my family and friends, which in the end, I guess, is the highest compliment that you can give.