Overall, we had a great time on this ship and once again, I am impressed with Carnival's ability to offer a fantastic time at a ridiculously low price.
While I can see what the negative reviews are getting at, you have to be realistic about what you have signed on for before you book - This is a short, budget Carnival Cruise with most rooms costing well below $100 per person each night, including all your food and entertainment, so you should frankly expect something less than the Four Seasons. And you should expect that a lot of your fellow passengers are the type who go for lots of food, tend to be a little cheap about things like tipping and alcohol prices, and who don't understand the concept of "formal night" (or even "appropriate indoor attire"). I think if you sail on the SS Ecstasy with those thoughts in mind, you will have a great time.
Embarkation: We went for a last minute upgrade to a grand suite with extended balcony (which easily fit two lounge chairs, two armchairs and a few tables) and it included "VIP check in" - basically, they whisk you into a private room to sit while they check you in, print your sail and sign, etc. Otherwise, it was a 10 min or so counter wait for that. Then, you go to a second room where they hand you a ticket with a number and call you in as groups (again, we walked right pass this room with our VIP thing, so I am not sure how long these people were waiting, maybe another 10 minutes). Third room is Customs, where they take your picture and sent you on the ship. This room was pretty crowded but once again, we got to skip to the front of the line, so we were feeling pretty cool at that point. We arrived around 11:30 and were on the ship in less than 15 minutes. Once you get on the ship, expect it to take them several hours to get your luggage to you (in all my cruises, this seemed like the longest wait, but we still had our luggage by 3:30 pm).
Stateroom: I purchased a bottle of champagne ahead of time, which was there, but not chilled (found that odd) and was told there was nowhere to get ice until 4 pm. I tried to call room service, but apparently the phones don't work the first day. Once we decided to let that go, we enjoyed some very warm, but very tasty champagne in our over sized balcony and had a great time. The grand suite is really big, for three women we had ample closet and shoe space, which is saying a lot. You also get a whirlpool bath and walk in closet. Here's a tip - smuggle an outlet converter or extension cord on board because there is ONE (no lie, ONE) outlet in your stateroom - I tried to correct that (I mean, how do three women blow and flatiron their hair, charge their phones, etc with ONE outlet), so that was another round of phone calls and talks with our steward with no success. I have no idea why Carnival does this, is it a safety thing? There are other outlets all over the room for lamps, etc., but they are all just the European kind and try as you may, you will not get your smartphone charger to work in one of those. Again, we managed and didn't let it ruin our fun, but I am still just amazed at that little quirk, especially considering the number of "girls weekenders" on this trip.
Service: Carnival has the most amazing room stewards and this trip was no exception - our Steward Ben and his assistant ("Not Ben") very cordial and thorough. Our dinner server Mikaela was an absolute doll, she put up with some really offensive people and smiled the whole way through. With respect to the bartenders, I have to say I agree with some of the other reviews - where did all the fun bartenders on Carnival go? I have been cruising for over 15 years and I think I know why - origianlly, when you bought a drink, you added your own gratuity (and apparently, too many people stiffed the bartenders) - as time went on, they added the 15%, but you could still add more on top of that for good service. But a few years ago, they removed the write in, extra gratuity option for the bartenders, and now they make the same rate off each person, regardless of how fast (or slow) they get you that chardonnay. Under the current system, you can "prepay" tips for your wait staff and steward, but you can easily adjust that up or down - not so with the bartenders. Therefore, the bartenders just don't care.
If the reason for the decline in bar service is the tip policy, the question is, why did it change? The answer - lots of these passengers don't like to tip unless they have to. These are the same people that constantly complain about how much they charge for alcohol and how strict they are about not letting you bring your own booze in - do these people think Carnival is a not for profit? They obviously aren't making their money on the room price, especially with gasoline prices, insurance and other costs, so how do you think you just got 4 nights of accommodations, four days of food and two beautiful islands, plus all that entertainment for $300? They need to make money off their alcohol and excursions, so just factor that in when you book and deal with it, or stay home. But do not come on the ship, expect all that you get for this price, and then not tip properly or gripe about drinks.
(For the record, I agree that drinks are expensive, but not totally outrageous. For example, a bucket of four, 16 oz beers will set you back around $24, the drink of the day is somewhere around 9 dollars, and a martini will cost closer to 10. The disco sells these little "disco ball" drinks, you get to keep the disco ball after you down the rum punch and those suckers are $15 a piece but totally worth it. Surprisingly, wine is not a bad markup on this ship - we ordered a few bottles of Bogle Merlot, which is not an expensive wine, but tasty, and on the ship a bottle was only $26, which is possibly less than what you would pay at a restaurant).
Fellow Passengers: There were not as many families as I thought there would be, several large groups of random people who knew each other, lots of girls weekenders, quite a bunch of couples (young couples, I don't think the older couples go on this ship anymore, which is a shame, I like to see a few people who wear a tuxedo or know what the maitre'D does). There were a number of people who acted like trash (picture the guy with pulled down jeans and a wife beater in the dining room, people who sent their food back (hello, people its free, just order more and don't be a B!@tch), but most of the people on the ship dressed and behaved appropriately.
Ship Condition: Again, since we had a nice suite, I might be biased, but I thought the ship was in great shape (it is a constant hotel floating at sea so there will be some weathered areas, etc). I like Carnival's glitzy, cheesy themes, so I enjoyed all the neon lights and random skyscraper decor. I am always amazed at how well they clean up after all of the passengers - the restaurant is slammed throughout mealtimes, the deck is covered with people stuffing their faces and drinking, but there isn't an empty cup or plate that sits longer than 5 minutes on this ship. The gym was pretty nice, but I would have liked bottled water (which I would gladly charge to my room without complaint) or even some cups, even those small paper cone jobs. Instead, all you get is a fountain with lukewarm water.
Food: I don't really cruise for the food, I like seeing the islands and being at sea. Plus I don't eat seafood or red meat, so I am probably not the best food critic, but I loved the dinners on our ship. And if you try to do the "freestyle option", you are either one of the complaining non-tippers I can't stand (described above), or you haven't really had a nice, relaxing cruise before. This is part of it, get dressed up at dinner, take your time. There is no need to rush through the open air, Golden Corral style buffet all day long - I think most of the negative comments about food come from the buffet option (which you don't have to choose - the dining room has open seating for lunch and a great selection - it was essentially empty when we were there, despite the free for all upstairs). Their vegetarian selections were great, you can get some really interesting stuff in the main dining room. Plus, the servers dance and sing. But, if you want to pile your plate to the ceiling and don't need actual ambiance and "courses" of food, then stay out of the dining room. Aside from the main options, there are 24 hour snacks in the back of the ship - pizza, ice cream and a deli (with fantastic deli sandwiches, but be prepared to wait in line awhile). I do have one big complaint - the coffee is terrible - its available 24/7, but its terrible. Its brown and smells sort of like coffee and I assume it has caffeine, but for anyone who really looks forward to their first cup of Joe, I recommend you bring along some "Via's" from Starbucks. You can also get room service 24 hours a day on the ship for free, but its pretty limited menu and it takes a long time. Once again, people, tip them properly when they arrive and maybe the rest of us won't have to wait so long next time.
Ports: Nassau is an interesting island, I have done the Atlantis Excursion in the past, which costs about 100 per person for transport and admission to their pool (which is more of a water park) - not worth it, in my opinion. This time we went to Senior Frogs, which is stupid, drunken fun. Half Moon Cay - this is Carnival's private island and it is just lovely. We went on a similar one on NCL, but this one was much more lush and established (NCL had a hippo slide and a tent for the food) - there are ample bars, bathrooms, a kiddie water play area and jungle gym, plus some shops. The tender process is done very well here (you wont have to wait forever, but you will have to be patient when disembarking).
Overall, if you don't have a lot of money to spend, this ship will fit all your needs, just treat her and her staff right. If you want top quality, cruise one of Carnival's newer ships or try another line.