About us: DH 44, Me 42, DD 10 and DS 7. My husband and I had each cruised carnival 10+ years ago, as well as a couple other lines (he NCL, me Princess and RCL). We are all (including the kids) well traveled, but this was the first cruise for the kids. We had booked this cruise because it was the best price primarily, and secondarily we liked the itinerary, and the new ship was a bonus. Honestly, we were in desperate need of a vacation, and anything away from work would have been great, and we were prepared to be underwhelmed.
Pre-Cruise: We flew from Ohio to Fort Lauderdale (Southwest) where we picked up a rental car (priceline ~$30) and drove to Miami. We stayed at La Quinta Miami Airport East (LMTdot com, ~$80), which by the way also has a free shuttle to airport and cruise port. The room and breakfast were fine (not the best LQ I've stayed in, but totally fine for one night pre-cruise with the kids). The next morning my DH dropped us and the bags at the port, drove to MIA to return the car, then took the national shuttle back to the port. It seemed a bit complicated to me (I don't love driving in MIA) but DH said it was great and wouldn't do it any other way next time. The port was a bit confused. They seemed late debarking, and it was crowded. We were initially told to take our bags to one spot (by a Carnival rep), but later told to go to another spot. Some of this may have been a result of the fact that we arrived nice and early (10am) so we got there before we should have ( =. Once we got to the right spot, bag drop off was easy-peasy, and it was a quick check in. There was water and lemonade out, and there seemed to be enough shade. As you enter the Carnival check in area upstairs, make sure you get a zone card. We managed to walk right by the guy handing out the cards, and when we got to the front of the check in line, since we didn't have one, we got the zone they were up to at that point (13 versus 8 of the guy in front of us). Not a huge deal, and a difference of maybe 20-30 minutes, but next time we'll be more aware.
We did not buy Faster to the Fun or My Awesome Bar Package, or eat in any specialty/for fee restaurants (although my DH did Cucina del Capitano for lunch one day), we did not use the casino or spa, and we didn't go to the nightclub. We did buy a couple individual drinks, we had anytime dining, and we used Camp Carnival.
Ship: We found the ship beautiful, well laid out, and seldom crowded. We appreciated the traditional aspects (beautiful deck spaces for ocean-watching, big Lido pool area, gorgeous dining rooms, small cozy library/sitting area type spaces, atrium with glass elevators) as well as the "new" touches [Guy's Burgers, Tandoor Grill, Burrito Bar (I think this was called the Blue Iguana, but it's separate from the Bar/Cantina part), ropes course, and multimedia shows)]. The colors were soothing and definitely captured the beach feel, the photos/artwork were stunning, and the various loungers and seats were beautiful and comfy. The ship felt relaxing, but grand without feeling garish or Vegas. The atrium, while tall, was somewhat narrow in comparison to RCL's atriums which stretch a longer length of the ship (Freedom is my only personal experience of this however). In terms of traffic flow and crowds, we only noticed the crowds when you would expect it: right when a show let out, embarkation day lunch in the Lido marketplace, formal nights in the atrium photos spaces and dining room. We LOVED the adults only Serenity space, and only found it difficult to find shady loungers (but loungers in the sun were available). The waterworks were fabulous, and kids loved the slides.
Cabin: We had a 4E inside quad (7261), which we were leery of -- but that's what we could afford. We were pleasantly surprised, and would do this again. The cabin has lots of storage space, and all our stuff fit easily. Folks who don't overpack like I do should be totally fine. The Pullman bunks are both uppers, which fold down from the ceiling. The kids loved these (they were like private little hideaways for them), and they had their own little reading lights up there. The ladders were easy for them to navigate, even at night, and they could also hop down on the bed below if needed. The bunks are head-knockers though, and I think we all bumped our heads at least once. I had brought the over-the-door shoe holder, which was helpful, but the only door it fit on was the bathroom door, which meant it stuck out a little into the narrow corridor into the room (lots of bumping into/catching the snorkels etc.). The shower had lots of hot water (we never ran out, which is such a treat!), and the shower head (removable) was high enough for us tall folks. The bathroom was small, but totally sufficient, and had lots of storage space as well. We found the amenities nice -- we received Pantene shampoo and conditioner, Breathe Right strips, EmergenC packets, Luna bars (yum!!!), and Listerine breath strips. Oh, and Axe body wash, which cracked us up. I brought my own shampoo/conditioner and body wash, but ended up using the gel in the shower, and everyone else used the shampoo in the shower. We did not have enough hangers (remember, I said I overpacked (= ), but the steward supplied us with tons more (although little plastic ones). I had brought a small Belkin surge protector, but we ended up not needing it at all, although there was only one outlet on the desk. Typical safe/minifridge setup -- safe is combo lock, and fridge doesn't get very cold -but fine for drinks, etc. We found the beds and pillows extremely comfortable, and slept very well. This cabin had no noise issues whatsoever, and was a quick walk to the elevators/stairs.
Food: My DH and I are foodies, and can be picky (he refuses to step foot in Golden Corral), so were prepared to be underwhelmed by the food. We were universally very pleased. In the dining room, we found the selection good, if not overwhelming. The kids ended up ordering off the adult menu most nights, but it was nice that they had both options. Our favorite starters were the cold soups (the chilled mango soup may have been my favorite dish on the entire trip), the crab cake, the spring roll, and the Portobello dish. Our favorite mains were the prime rib, Filet Mignon, the Basa (a fish dish the server recommended, which was an award-winning dish created by the chef), and the bacon mac n' cheese. Favorite desserts were crÃ¨me brulee, WCMC, caramelized apple pie (I don't think it was called pie though), and Cappuccino pie. The first night I ordered the tilapia, and found it a bit bland, but perfectly fine. That was the least 'great' dish any of us had the whole cruise. My DH is not above sending a steak back repeatedly if he thinks it's cooked poorly or is bad quality, and he enjoyed all the beef dishes. On the Lido buffet, we found the selections fabulous. The variety was lovely, the hot foods always hot and fresh, and the cold foods cold and delicious. It is important to make sure you wander a bit to see all the selections, as the dessert selections for example could be different from one location/station to another. The favorite dessert of the entire cruise (we all agreed) was the Decadent Chocolate Cake, served in the Lido marketplace buffet, on Embarkation day lunch. The lines in breakfast could be long, but they moved pretty quickly. The omelet line was always long (typical!) -- and this was one of the comments I passed on to management. To get cut fruit salad or citrus segments, or breads like danishes and croissants, you had to go through the crazy long omelet line (they weren't any other place) -- or cut the line. By the 3rd morning I just started politely asking if I could reach in for fruit only, which people seemed ok with. We could have easily just had DH pick these up, since he often got an omelet. The desserts on the buffet were amazing -- truly amazing. The Tandoor is awesome (by the Aft pool) but open only at lunch -- so make sure you go there if you like Indian. It was excellent. The pizza was good according to DD (it's thin crust and made to order, so sometimes there's a wait). The burritos were delicious as were the burgers. The burritos are available for breakfast as well, which my DH and DS loved. Guy's burgers also had amazing fries; if you like burgers, you'll be happy! Room service was great -- always faster than the 45 minutes they advise. We had coffee delivered every morning, as well as sandwiches one afternoon. We used the door hangers for coffee, and the TV for ordering the sandwiches, which was super easy.
Camp Carnival: We had no prior experience with this, so weren't sure what to expect. We were hoping for a little grown up time, so had played up and set the expectation that the kids would go to the club. My son _can_ be a bit clingy and shy, but we had nothing to worry about. I had preregistered, and we stopped by orientation the first (embarkation) day. Maybe it's because it's a new ship, but the space was gorgeous, with lots of new toys and books. Everything seemed to be really well organized and run, and the staff were really on the ball. We missed the family party the first night in the nightclub (can't remember why), but the next morning the kids were excited to go to the club. We had picked up the schedules and let the kids read through and highlight what they wanted, and they were looking forward to it. We initially had my 10y/o DS not able to sign herself in or out, but in consultation with the staff switched this by day 3, and this worked out well. My son, 7, required sign in and out. DS ended up playing a lot of video games, which I was not thrilled about, but he had a ball. They don't appear to force anyone to do anything (other than wash hands- yay!!!) so my guess is he opted for the electronics since they had cool stuff we don't have at home ( =. Also, some of the things that were scheduled didn't appear to happen when they were scheduled, so ask if there's something you're really interested in. For example, 'goop' was listed on the schedule, but didn't happen, so I'm not sure if there weren't enough kids that day, or what (maybe my DS was engrossed in the video games and missed it). Bottom line, there were plenty of kids, nice and qualified staff, and the kids loved it. There were lots of giveaways, so the kids came home with some special free souvenirs. We didn't buy any build-a-bears, or do the for-fee late night parties, but they seemed like a great option to have (we ended up having the kids with us and we all went to the shows together- which they loved!).
Entertainment: We ended up seeing every single one of the 'production' shows, and really enjoyed them. Again, maybe our expectations were low (we really needed a vacation lol!!) but we found the singing and dancing really top-notch, and the multimedia effects were cool. The shows were pretty short, so we could usually do something else that night too, and we found the variety and types of music great. We went to the 'family-friendly' comedy show, and it was just meh, but the kids liked it. I sort of wish we had gone to an adult show. The Hasbro game show was fun and the kids really liked it. Butch, the CD, and 'SixThree', the assistant CD, were awesome. We went to the Sail Away deck party, as well as two other deck parties (the Blue Iguana versus Red Frog parties) and they were loads of fun. Lots of great music, group dances, giveaways (at the two mid-week parties), and a great way to spend the evening. My DH and DS (7) were part of an enormous conga line that wound all around the Lido, up two flights to deck 12, back around again, and under the 'bridge' of hands. It truly was Fun for All and All for Fun. The 'Dive-In' Movies at night on the Lido were great; we loved watching these one night on the loungers, eating burgers and buffet desserts, while the kids alternately swam, watched and ate. The night we did it they had Tangled and Up, but they also ran adult movies other night (Bourne Identity, Sherlock Holmes and Bond movies). There was popcorn as well. The music we heard, via the DJs and the live performers in the Atrium and on the Lido (an acoustic guitar guy) were really good. They had trivia games going, and one day when it was rainy we borrowed a Scrabble game from the Library. The Library appeared well stocked and had lots of new books, a neat wine machine for by-the-glass drinks, and quiet comfy chairs for a spot to curl up.
Service: We found the service simply fabulous. From the cabin steward Dwipa, who kept our mess in check and always had a smile (and remembered our names and greeted us each time!), to the dining and Camp Carnival staff to the CDs, everyone was kind, capable, and efficient. We ordered a couple drinks, and found them stiff, delicious, and quickly delivered with a smile. Maybe because we weren't looking to order very many, it seemed like bar waiters were going by every 30 seconds. The wait staff were friendly and helpful, with recommendations and patience for the kids. The singing and dancing in the MDR were fun, and a treat for the kids.
Ports: We missed Grand Turk due to high winds, which was a disappointment, since we really wanted to see this island, and it was the only one where we had a special excursion booked. But it was totally understandable (I always happily defer to safety) and it was nice to have another sea day, since we were finding it hard to do everything we wanted to do on the ship!
Falmouth: we had decided ahead of time to make this an extra ship day for us, due to distance and expense of excursions. Due to missing GT, obviously, this worked out differently than we expected. We got off to shop in the port and bought a few souvenirs; the locals were nice and not too pushy, but the port area is obviously very artificial. It felt like Disney does Jamaica, as my husband said. DH and DS ventured out of the port for a little walkabout, and he said it was pretty rough out there, but he didn't feel unsafe. I just wish there was a nice, close, beach at this port. It would keep the tourists and their dollars in the town, and passengers would enjoy it more. Otherwise they just get on buses and leave the town for excursions. The Margaritaville is nowhere near finished, and since I don't think there will be a beach there anyway, I'm not sure how many people this will serve.
Nassau: We cabbed it to Cabbage Beach, $4 pp plus $1 toll for the bridge. We were happy to be at the beach, but this was not my favorite beach ever. The sand is nice, and there is shade, but the waves were a bit rough, and there's a steep dropoff. We had planned to walk to Junkanoo beach, but I broke my toe on Day 2, so we ended up switching gears and cabbing it to Paradise Island instead. We bought drinks in coconuts, and a couple souvenirs, and enjoyed the day. We might opt for a different beach if go to this port again, but it was fine. The locals were friendly.
A note about cruising in December: I had only ever cruised before in the Spring (April/May/June), and in general, the seas were rougher and temperatures cooler in December. Duh, right? But having never done it before, I found the ship's motion noticeably more pronounced, the water much colder, and the need for sun hats, tons of sun block, and loads of water much diminished. Just an FYI as you pack and plan.
Post-cruise: We had a late flight, so had a later zone. We relaxed on the Lido with breakfast and coffee. Customs was just fine, but our pre-reserved shuttle (SAS) was late, late, late -- so we decided to share another shuttle with another group also waiting for SAS. I think it was called JR tours or something -- I believe they had dropped someone off, but one of their reps finally approached us and asked us if we wanted a ride. It was 12 pp (I think the other guy who was waiting may have haggled with them?) to take us to FLL. SAS was super apologetic -- and for us it wasn't such a big deal, but for the other folks who were there waiting, they were in danger of missing their flights and had been waiting for an hour and a half. We had debated renting a car on the return, and ultimately booked a shuttle since we thought it would be easier. In hindsight, it might have been a toss up.
Finally, an observation about the complaints, while, on the cruise, and having read the comments on these boards since returning home: I don't know if it's the economy, the time of year, or phase of the moon, but it seemed like every time I was within earshot of someone I heard complaining. Someone standing next to me in the same line -- complaining about the wait (never more than 5 minutes tops -- I know because I was watching my watch to get the kids to the kids club), or that the bacon was all gone (more was delivered like 30 seconds later). People just seemed to be whiney and grumpy. Now my husband and I can be demanding -- we work hard for our money, and expect to get good value when we pay for something. But there was not one single thing I found worthy of complaining about -- only comments of appreciation or possibly suggestion (move the smoking area away from the entrance to Camp Carnival and separate the Omelet line from the citrus segments. Seriously -- that was the worst I came up with!). Granted, I didn't try every single dish, or go to every single place on the ship. But if I got a dish I didn't love, I would have ordered something else if I were still hungry. If one line were longer than I cared to stand in, I would go to another station, or enjoy a cup of coffee for a few minutes then go back. Sure there were lines for elevators after shows -- duh! Take the stairs if you can, and let the folks in the wheelchairs get on the elevators first. /rant/
We would book this ship and itinerary again in a heartbeat. My son is nearly inconsolable with cruise withdrawal, and has asked for a cruise for his next birthday present. We all had a GREAT time, and would not hesitate to recommend Carnival (based on this ship/trip) to anyone we know!