Let me start off by saying we have only cruised with Royal, so all of our opinions are based on our experience with Royal. Our friends that we went on this cruise with are Platinum on Carnival, so they talked us in to trying it out. I actually cancelled a booking I had for the same week on Royal to go with them. We decided to give it a go when they sent us Friends & Family voucher they picked up on their last Carnival cruise in May. When I received the voucher, which was good for a $50 on board credit, I called carnival and made the reservation. When I did, the agent informed me that the voucher was also good for $100 off the booking. Pleasantly surprised and pleased, I paid the balance (less the $100) on July 5. The following Monday when I received the email confirmation I noticed it said I had a $100 balance due on July 12. I called Carnival to ask about it, and the rep told me not to worry about it, that I since I booked late Friday night, the reservation system hadn't had time to update. She said she was changing the due date to my sail date of Aug 5 and again assured me not to worry. Fast forward to one week before my sail date. I get a call late on a Friday night saying that I needed to take care of the $100 balance on my account. I explained to the rep what had transpired and she said she was emailing the "promotions" department and for me to follow up Monday. Of course I did. This rep informed me that I had been given incorrect information and that I was only eligible for $50 on board credit and that I owed the $100, and furthermore, that if it wasn't paid by midnight my cruise would be cancelled. So at this point, it's not about the $100 anymore, after all, it wasn't something I was even expecting. Now I'm angry because I've been told by not one, but two carnival reps the same thing and now one week before my cruise I'm being told it was incorrect and I need to pay more money. I felt as though Carnival should honor what their reps stated. I escalated through two more reps before a reached a supervisor in the customer care department. This person basically told me to "get over it and pay the money" that carnival had done everything they were supposed to do and there was no one else that I could talk to. I could not believe they were willing to lose a customer over $100. I paid the money and vowed to NEVER sail Carnival again. A few days went by and I cooled off. I was excited to be going on vacation but was still adamant that this would be my first and last carnival cruise.
Now on to the cruise itself. We drove down and spent the night in Jacksonville the night before. We are Marriott rewards members and only stay at Marriott properties. We found a great deal online for $59 so we booked it and stayed there. It was about a 10 minute drive to the port. We used the port parking ($75 for 5 night cruise). Jacksonville is the smallest port we have sailed out of. From the time we pulled in the parking lot around 10:30a, unloaded our luggage with the porter, and parked was no more than 15 minutes. Because our friends are platinum and had priority boarding, so we were able to "shadow" them through the entire boarding process. We were checked in and had our sign and sail cards in 10 minutes. We were escorted to a special priority boarding area to wait for boarding to begin at 11:00a. Boarding did start promptly at 11:00a and we were on board, dropped our bags in our friends room and were sitting down on the Lido deck for lunch by 11:30. By far the easiest and smoothest boarding process I've experienced. The food at the buffet was very good. Once we were done with lunch we went to check our rooms and they were ready promptly at 1:00p as promised. We noticed right away that this was a much smaller ship than what were accustomed to. Although in good condition, the layout of the ship was awkward. We are used to the "promenade" feel of Royal's ships. The kids went straight to the water slides and had fun before it got crowded. The sail away was great and going "under the bridge" in Jax was very exciting.
Other impressions from this cruise-
1. Dining experience was not as "fun" as our experience on Royal. The wait staff were very busy and not very personable. The dining room itself seemed very small and cramped. The food in the MDR was very good and we would prefer it over Royal.
2. Cabin was a "tiny bit" larger than interior rooms on Royal. The size difference seemed to be in the shower. The complimentary bath robes were nice.
3. We were surprised to find that there were always chairs available on the pool deck. Our experience on Royal has always been you have to get up at sunrise and reserve your chairs to get one. Royal does not enforce the "no saving" policy.
4. There is only one pool on this ship and we never were able to get in because it was always too crowded. The kids did get in the hot tub one day. The adults only Serenity area does not have a pool.
5. The layout and traffic flow of the buffet on the Lido deck is ridiculous. There were only 2 lines for the inside buffet, a separate line for burgers and the Mongolian grill was a separate line. We always had to wait 20-30 at lunch to get food and then wait in a separate line to get drinks. DW waited 1.5 hours one day in line for the Mongolian grill. The Windjammer on Royal wins this one hands down. The whole layout, traffic flow, and lack of food lines makes one want to avoid the buffet altogether.
6. There is a lack of activities for the kids on this ship. There is a putt-putt course and ping pong but that's about it. Our kids went to Camp Carnival at night but there wasn't much for them to do during the day. They prefer Adventure Ocean on Royal. (Remember, the pool was too crowded). The Freedom class on Royal wins this by a long shot, with the kids pool area, basketball, ice skating, rock climbing, etc.
7. Service seems to be better on Royal. The staff seems to be more friendly and engaging. We have always had conversations with and gotten to know our stateroom attendant and wait staff but that didn't happen on this cruise.
8. Entertainment was pitiful. The welcome aboard show was the cruise director doing a stand up comedy act for 30 mins followed by the two comedians on board. We left early. The Motown show was below average. Again, we left early. The Diva's Show was bit better, but the singing on this cruise was some of the worst I've heard. It was almost painful at times. I was also shocked at the lack of live music. As a matter of fact, there was only one band- Deja Vu- and they only played at night. There was no house band, no pool side band, etc. Most of the music on board was "canned music". We missed the Caribbean music on the pool deck. All of the shows used "canned" music. The DJ mostly played "club" music. There were two other live singers who played guitars and sang at night.
9. We spent a lot of time in the Casino with our friends, learning 3 card poker. We have never been in the casino before. DW had beginners luck and won $540.
10. Ports were great. We visited our favorite spot in Nassau, Blue Lagoon Island. We have been to Little Stirrup Cay before (Coco Cay on RC) and it was a great day. The priority tender we enjoyed with our friends was great!
All in all we think Royal Caribbean is a better experience. There wasn't one big thing that stood out, just a lot a little things that make Royal better. Our friends said they were very disappointed with this cruise and that out of 11 cruises on Carnival, this was the worst. If you can afford it, pay the extra money and go on Royal. We have cruised Royal's smallest and oldest ship (Monarch) and it was still a better cruise than this one. We will probably give Carnival one more shot, but only on a larger ship.