My wife and I recently sailed on the Carnival Imagination from Miami>Key West>Cozumel>Sea Day>Miami. It was my wife's first ever cruise and my second, my first one being in 1996 on Carnival Fantasy, a sister ship of Carnival Imagination.
While we were in port in Cozumel on Wednesday, January 23, 2013, there were three other cruise ships in port at the same time - Disney, Holland America, and another Carnival ship. While enjoying a seaside margarita, we ran into some people from the Holland America cruise, and they asked us how we liked the Imagination. I choose to describe the ship using a baseball stadium metaphor, so if you're not a baseball fan, this may not make sense to you, but here goes.
In 1992, the Chicago White Sox unveiled new Comiskey Park. It was a fine, functional baseball stadium, built much like many of the stadiums that came before it. It was (and still is) basically a concrete donut. It serves its purpose, but it doesn't really inspire anyone. The same year, the Baltimore Orioles unveiled Camden Yards, which was a revelation in baseball stadium construction. It's unusual lines, its incorporation of the city skyline of Baltimore, its classic yet modern design, and its attention to the entire fan experience inspired and influenced baseball stadium designs for the next 25+ years.
The Carnival Imagination is the Comiskey Park of cruise ships. She was debuted at almost the same time as Comiskey Park (1995), and much like the Chicago stadium, she gets the job done, but doesn't really inspire anyone.
I have a sense that shortly after the Imagination debuted, a renaissance of sorts began in the cruise ship industry. I think there are many other ships (Carnival and otherwise) that are grander and better designed than the Imagination.
Yes, she did have a major upgrade in 2008, but she's still just your "basic" cruise ship. The brass and neon everywhere and the winged "creatures" looking down from every edifice give away her age. She's clean, and our cabin was very comfortable, but she was nothing special. (My wife compared it to staying at a casino hotel in old downtown Vegas, as opposed to the glitz of the Strip.)
Check-in on sailing day was a breeze. I completed most of the paperwork online a few days ahead of time (including setting up my Sign&Sail account), and this saved some time.
Our cabin steward was professional, courteous, and took the time to call us by name on multiple days.
The comedians were funny and worked hard.
The "Serenity Deck" on the aft of the ship was heavenly, an adults-only (21+) oasis with comfortable lounge chairs, two hot tubs, and drink service. We spent an entire afternoon between Key West and Cozumel just lounging and watching the sea go by.
The food was plentiful, but not all that special. It tasted like it was mass-produced (it was), but I hear that other lines can feed thousands of people and still make it taste fresh and made-to-order.
Carnival prides itself on being "The Fun Ships," and the deck parties were rocking, and people really seemed to cut loose and enjoy themselves. However, some of the entertainment was just so-so.
The casino had been retrofitted with electronic tables for blackjack and poker. If you played on the electronic tables, drinks were on the house. (A dangerous way to spend the sea day.)
We enjoyed a couples massage in the spa, which was OK.
The ship draws ALL KINDS of people, from retirees to families with small children to college students to international travelers. It's quite the "eclectic" crowd.
The Not Great
We opted for the Your Time Dining, which meant we could show up in the dining room between 5:45 and 9:00 and be seated. This was convenient, but the service was S...L...O...W. I imagine that this is because different tables are on different courses, but we didn't have a single meal that took less than 75 minutes. We weren't in a hurry per se, but when more than a half hour passes between appetizer and entree, something is amiss.
When you consider that my wife and I spent about $600 TOTAL for our room, board, entertainment, taxes, and port fees, I'm pretty sure that Carnival's margins were razor-thin to start. Therefore, Carnival seems to work extra hard at the "upsell." Everywhere you turn on the ship, you're being asked if you want a drink, if you want your picture taken, if you want a bingo card or a raffle ticket, if you want a spa treatment, if you want a shore excursion. I realize that these are the places where Carnival makes its money, but the constant selling got old after a day or two.
The cruise docked at 7:30 in the morning in Key West and departed at 1:30 p.m. That's a pretty short port call, and not much time to do anything other than shop, see the southernmost point, and down a few drinks as you hustle back to the ship.
Carnival's pier in Cozumel is actually at Puerta Maya, which is a kitschy shopping and restaurant area right off the pier. Downtown is an $8 cab ride each way.
The Bottom Line
With Carnival Imagination, what you see is what you get. She's nothing special, but she gets the job done.