In an effort to make this easier to read, I've broken this down into categories. I hope this helps. Enjoy !
Pre-cruise -- To set the scene, myself and a friend decided to take a cruise vacation together. Neither of us had ever gone on a cruise before. We chose this particular cruise since we figured a lot of kids would be in school, the location sounded nice, the ship sounded like it had a lot of activities for 2 single girls in their late 20's/early 30's, and the shore excursions offered by carnival really appealed to us. We booked through an on-line travel agency that was really good. I called carnival once to get info and the sales folks there were so pushy. I found this to be a major turn off and it was then we made the decision to book through an alternate source. Our booking experience was great - our agent did everything we told her to and everything was correct upon arriving on the ship.
Getting on -- We flew down to Miami a day before which was nice. We had time to sight-see Miami. If a friend hadn't driven us around and showed us how pretty the city is, I wouldn't have had a very good impression of Miami. So, I recommend arriving a day early - particularly if you're taking a cruise during the winter & you live in a location that gets snow or ice.
The Port of Miami was very nice. I didn't feel it was dirty or anything. All the baggage handlers and Carnival reps were very happy and friendly. It was a great way to start the vacation. We arrived at the port early - about 10am and I'm glad we did. Going through the lines was easy and pretty quick. Then, we were placed in a room with the zigzag line ropes and held there till the ship was cleared. It was a long wait but that's why we brought a good book and our ipods. We were on the ship by 1pm.
The ship itself -- I felt the ship was in great shape. I didn't see anything that would give the impression it needed extra work or that the staff didn't take good care of it. We booked one of the cheapest cabins possible as we figured we'd be spending a lot of our time hanging around by the pool in the day and dancing at night. And, we did. It was the perfect choice for 2 young newbies. Our inside cabin was bigger than we thought and prettier than in the on-line photos. We also had more than enough closet space and boy did we pack clothes !! However, if you book an inside cabin for more than 2 people though, I would think at that point, you would run into space issues with storage and you might also begin stepping on each other's toes. It's not a huge space but was just big enough for 2. Public spaces were public spaces - that being said, at the end of the day sometimes it was like using the bathroom at the mall. Overall, I really think if you don't go in with super high expectations you won't be disappointed. We weren't.
Activities -- In a way it was nice that almost all of the activities took place on 1 space on the Lido deck and in another way it was bad. We spent most of our time at the pool at the back of the ship which has the kids free whirlpools. It was far less crowded there which is what we felt comfortable with but we missed out on all the Lido deck activities. The evening shows were pretty good. I actually thought the welcome aboard show and the guest talent show were better than the vegas dancing shows. The dancing it self was great but at times the show lost it's momentum or skipped parts during a themed show. For example, the around the world show really didn't focus on Africa that long. And, the century of time show miffed the 80's. Tia Thompson was fabulous - my favorite performer of the entire cruise. If she's on your ship - - - - - GO !!
Food & Service -- The food on the buffet was what you would expect when feeding 2000 guests. Edible but a little bland. The dining room food was better and I think part of this has to do with presentation and there's just something good about a sit down place & being served : ) The buffet was okay but to be honest we actually preferred room service over it. Desserts were yummy. Only a few were to die for but hey - it's dessert - it's still good. We felt service was excellent. We're very chatty, outgoing girls and the crew was happy to chit chat with us in the hallways and answer any questions we had. Even the folks at the purser's desk seemed happy to be there and I know that has to be a crappy job - dealing with people when stuff doesn't go right. Our room steward was amazing. I'm bummed I couldn't take him home with me : (
Shore Excursions -- The shore excursions offered by Carnival were a deciding factor for us when booking this cruise. We booked 1 short to medium length excursion at each port. That way we got a little bit of a tour and then had time to explore on our own. This was great for a first timer - particularly for a first timer to these islands. That being said, if we go back to those islands now we'll feel comfortable exploring on our own. I know some folks say you can do it cheaper if you book excursions on your own but it was good peace of mind knowing that if something went wrong Carnival was involved. Nothing did.
Getting off -- Oh yuck. Partly because it's time to go home and partly because of how stinking long it took. My flight out of Miami wasn't until later that evening so I stayed on the ship as long as I could. They kicked me off around 10am. Then we stood in line line line line line until 1:30pm. I made it to Miami airport by 2pm. Checked in and was ready for my long wait by 2:30pm. I certainly hope my experience, as others around me stated, was unusual. Because this was super yucky.
All in all though, the vacation was sooooooo much fun. I wanna go again : ) I hope this info has helped you and I hope that you also have a fun filled vacation !