Let me start by saying this was my first cruise. I went with 19 girlfriends from work and the cruise was coordinated by a local travel agent who did a great job. Had no problems with my reservations.
Embarkation - This was probably the worst part of my trip. I had no idea what to expect, but didn't expect line after line after line in a very warm location with no water! We didn't arrive until about 2:15, but so did everyone else. Next time I will DEFINITELY buy priority boarding. 2 of the girls did this and were on the boat, unpacked and having fun at least 1.5 hours before we were. However, I did like I could carry on my own luggage (small amount for a 4 night cruise anyway) so that I didn't have to wait for it later. Carnival staff was all terrific and very patient, just the long lines were miserable.
Ship - very clean. The staff was always cleaning railings, carpets, rooms, dining rooms, outside areas and bathrooms all the time. Purell stations everywhere. Had no issues with sewer gas smells as indicated in other reviews. Was impressed at cleanliness considering other reviews and the age of the ship. Very easy to take stairs everywhere, but even elevators were never packed except on the last day when everyone tried to leave. Ship to me, even as a first timer, felt very small, but I was always able to find a quiet spot. Just wished there was more to explore and that there was more shopping! Just a couple of stores to shop in and that was it. Either we didn't have a lot of smokers or ventilation was great. Never had an issue with second hand smoke. I had absolutely no problem with the motion of the boat, but my roommate felt every little wave or turn. She wore a Dramamine patch; I needed nothing. Our weather was terrific the whole time.
Staff - so friendly and totally remembered our drink orders from previous days, who needed ice, etc. Harri was our room steward and he was great. Just had to ask for ice on the first day and it was there whenever we came back to the cabin. He was like magic - even if we left for 30 minutes, when we got back our room was all straightened up again. We loved him and left him an extra cash tip and a thank you note.
Cabin - on U deck in middle of ship. My roommate and I liked our cabin - we had a window which was great for getting in some natural light (and to see what was going on outside - very important since we were both first timers). 2 pretty nice sized closets! We had robes ready for us which was a huge surprise. Safe in the closet was perfect for our ipads and prescription meds. Bathroom had a shower bigger than the one I have in my master bedroom at home! Never had any issues with water pressure or heat of water. Thank goodness I brought a power strip as there was only one outlet for the whole room! That would have been an issue with 2 iphones and 2 ipads between us let alone a hair dryer and curling iron! One girl in our group got her power strip confiscated...what's the deal with that? Got mine in no problem. Definitely want a balcony room on my next cruise.
Food - ok, so here's another area I was disappointed in. First, dinner was great. Tuesday night's lobster tail and shrimp was fantastic. If you like chocolate, don't miss the melting chocolate cake for dessert. Never even bothered to have a different dessert. So what were my issues with the food? A couple of things - first, on the last night of the cruise, they served veal parm with potatoes. Potatoes? On the menu was a pasta dish with seafood. You would think, hey there is pasta, so let's substitute potatoes for pasta. They would not do this for me. Not a huge problem, had steak instead (which was good) but considering my easy substitution request, I was a bit put off by the "no". Second, the cruise buffets are always hyped up by everyone who goes on a cruise. I was really disappointed by the buffet on our ship. French toast for breakfast was good. But eggs were runny, bacon greasy. Not many choices I liked. Tended to just have a plain bagel with butter and even that was just ok. I was on that boat for 4.5 days and I can say I couldn't find one thing I liked on that buffet any day. I did have a burger from the pool grill one day and a turkey sandwich from the sandwich line another. Nothing great. Never did try pizza or Mongolian grill because the lines were always long (because the buffet wasn't that great? don't know). As there were 20 girls in our group doing all sorts of stuff during the day, we had late seating for dinner. That, on one hand was good because we weren't rushed, but on the other hand it was really late. So I would go to find something to snack on around 5pm and the buffet was closed! I couldn't believe it closed every afternoon from 3:30 to 6! Then just left with pool grill and sandwich and pizza, but no snacks to tide me until an 8:30 dinner! Never thought I would have to bring my own snacks, but next time will definitely do so just in case. Probably should have ordered some room service, but that menu was also very limited. I think I actually lost weight on this cruise.
Drinks - very very expensive. Bought only one - $10 with gratuity. You can bring 12 cans of soda and one bottle of wine in your carry on. 12 cans was too much for a cruise of this length. Left the rest for our cabin steward! For me and my roommate, 2 bottles of wine for dinner was just the right amount.
Outside areas - Serenity adult area was great but way, way too small! Great for the days everyone was out to tour, but not good at day at sea. Make larger adult only areas!! Lucky for us not too many kids on the ship as it was a school week. I will say, even with the few kids on the boat, I will never, ever travel during times kids are off from school. Babies were cranky and the few teenagers were board. Put your kids in for a nap, and make sure your teenagers have something to do other than sit on the stairs or take all the lounge chairs :) And don't do late dinner with little kids! The kid next to us screamed every night at least one time during dinner. (probably because she should have been in bed!) Deck pool areas were pretty run. Always found a place to sit. Didn't use pools. People crammed into hot tubs especially kids(yuck. However many activities around the pool area. Line dancing, music, etc. A lot of fun to watch people!
Excursions - didn't do any. The other girls had fun, but I chose to stay on the boat. Guess which days are fun to stay on the boat? When everyone else gets off the boat!! Everyone did say Catalina was fun but Ensenada was yucky (unfortunately lots of poverty). One of the girls said the best tours she did was the "behind the scenes" tour - on the boat! Sounded great. Will do one of those next time.
Shows - Went to adult rated comedy show. Hilarious. Don't go if easily offended. Probably one of the highlights of my trip! Adult Karaoke also so much fun! Not many there, but those who were sang their hearts out. The girls went to other shows and to the nightclub each night. They had a blast. I went to bed as I am not a night owl and that was fine with me as I was on the cruise to relax, not be up 24x7. I did hit the casino one night - lost all my money, but for me that was fun and not really very smoky like you might think.
Photos - omg they want to take your picture all the time. So get over it. Just smile. I never even went to look at the photos.
Spa/Gym - didn't use spa. Some who cruised before thought spa was so-so. Gym was small but nice. Only used exercise bikes. Most of my exercise was walking and stair climbing so wasn't really in need of the gym.
Debarkation - Had no issues. Carried our own luggage and were one of the first ones off the boat. However, later, the other girls said things got really mucked up because everyone was trying to get off at once and no one checked which deck they were on. Two of our girls had to beg to be let off because the rest of us were waiting and our shuttle to the airport was waiting for us.
Other - Check your bill before you leave. A couple of girls were charged twice for their tours, and another charged for WiFi which she never signed up for. About that - WiFi is extremely expensive. Make sure you have your phone on airplane mode before you get on the boat! Otherwise you get linked up with WiFi without you even needing to do anything (at least that's what it seemed for a couple of girls with Verizon service). Bring a lanyard with a badge holder for your sign and sail card otherwise you have to carry a purse that you don't need everywhere. Gratuities are added to all drinks (so don't tip twice unless you want to) and automatically added at $11 a day to your bill. The folks on this cruise work so darn hard and get paid very little, do not begrudge them their gratuities because that's how they are expected to be paid (fair or not, that's the way it is). My roommate and I left additional cash for our room steward with a thank you note. BTW, say thank you to people...they work so hard for us; I hated when people didn't say thank you when they were sitting their butt in a lounge chair and someone was running in the heat getting them a drink.
Summary - Great room, fantastic service, great dinners, fun shows. Not so great embarkation and buffets. Thank god hardly any kids on board. I give my first experience a rating of 4 out of 5. Will definitely take another cruise but I definitely need a bigger boat, better choice of food on buffet and more things to explore on the boat. I will be looking for cruises with better excursions, and probably more than 4 nights. Overall a good first cruise for me.