We chose this cruise because the port was only 1.5 hours from our home, and the price was right. We knew that the experience with Carnival would not be as good as Royal Caribbean, but the price for 7 people made the decision. Overall, the experience was better than we expected, especially the service from the Carnival staff on the ship.
We had 3 cabins for 7 people. I traveled with my husband, 3 children (ages 2, 2, 17) and in-laws. We were lucky to get a Faster to the Fun (F2F) pass for all three of our cabins ($50 per cabin), and it was well worth the money. I heavily debated spending the money, but I didn't want to wait in embarkation/debarkation lines with my toddlers and knew I would regret it if I didn't just pay the money. I called to find out what time I could arrive with F2F passes, and they said 11 a.m. When we arrived at the terminal at that time, we were able to go to the F2F line, which is basically the same as the VIP line! We got through security and registration in no time and were guided to the F2F waiting area past the many people waiting in line. Now, if the ship didn't arrive in port a little late that day, we would have boarded right away, but we did have to wait one hour. We boarded the ship at the same time as the handicapped assisted travelers and were able to go straight to our cabins to drop off our carry-ons as F2F cabins are ready right away. Our checked luggage was also already at our doors.
We were satisfied with our interior cabins. Bobby, our room steward, was wonderful. He remembered our names and was always happy to help, especially with a sandy mess after a beach day. We liked being in the aft section of the ship because it was near the restaurants and pools, but if I had it to do over again, I would choose the middle of the ship because Camp Carnival is on Deck 5 at the front of the ship as are all of the shows and casino. I did like that we were on Deck 7 and no lower because we went to Deck 9 (buffet, pools) often.
We bought small backpacks for our toddlers and filled them with new items (potato heads, sticker books, kid watches, glow sticks, etc.) to keep them busy during the cruise. What a life-saver! They liked Camp Carnival the first two days and ran inside without looking back, but by the third day, they didn't want to go again and pitched huge fits. (We left them for 2.5 hours the first day and 1.5 hours the second day.) I noticed other kids doing this too by mid-week. It can be quite difficult to take 2-year-old twins on a cruise. You are together a lot; they can't run around, and they need this play time to burn energy on those sea days. What worked for us was to tell the toddlers that we would only be gone a little bit and then we would take them to the pool to swim; we asked them not to cry because it made us sad. They were much better after that, and we only left them for one hour a day just to catch our breath and talk and then promptly picked them up. Parents need that little bit of time to keep from going nutty, especially if you have more than one little one. We could stand outside and watch them on the TV monitor and make sure all was well before taking a walk. We were given a Camp Carnival phone that worked throughout the ship, and our other family members could call us on it too. For swimming, I noticed that the best item was the puddle jumper devices that were less bulky but kept children from going under.
If you are traveling with someone who has difficulty walking distances, consider renting a "travel" scooter (Standard cabin doors are 22".) or wheel chair. Be sure to contact the Carnival Special Assistance desk prior to travel to fill out a form and mark those needing or who may need assistance. This designation could provide them with a wheel chair at ports to embark or debark. Very helpful and valuable.
I must warn you that the quality of the food was very disappointing. It was sometimes cold and always unseasoned and bland across the board. Many dishes were just second rate. For instance, the hamburger tasted like a school cafeteria soy burger. It's obvious that Carnival is cutting corners on quality, and the food is a reason not to return. I did not have this experience on Royal Caribbean, but I knew I pay a lot more to go with Royal Caribbean. My husband was very disappointed when he was told twice that the 24-hour pizza station was closed. He said it was one of the only things worth eating and would affect whether he signed up for another cruise with Carnival.
You have two main choices for getting food. On deck 9 is the serve-yourself-buffet (Mermaids), and you can walk around gathering whatever you want and find a table. It's open most of the time, and you can always get something to eat or drink. We weren't crazy about that option as it is difficult with small children. The better option is to go to deck 2 or 3 to the main dining room to have your meals. You will order from the menu and be waited on. Breakfast opens later at 8:30 a.m., but the food is much better than the food at the buffet. For dinner, you would need to pre-register (when you purchase your cruise) for early or late seating. We all loved our dinner dining room server Houston. He went above and beyond to make sure we enjoyed ourselves. He made sure our toddlers were taken care of and made them napkin animals; he was patient with my picky father-in-law, he was constantly professional and fun, and he made us laugh. The servers danced for us each night, and my children LOVED watching them. They were very entertaining!
This ship is very clean, and the staff is so friendly. We were impressed with both. It was a little cool sailing out of Baltimore at this time of the year. Take a jacket and expect the pool water on the ship to be cold as well. Once we reached Florida, it was quite comfortable and warm.
We had planned to go to Paradise Cove Beach Resort on our own and snorkel at the reef right off the beach, but we were all beached out. Instead, we walked around and visited a few shops right at the ship. A lady approached and asked if we wanted to go to Port Lucaya where there was more shopping. It was $5 each way per person (No charge for younger, lap babies), and we took a rickety, 15 minute van ride. We were a little wary, but it turned out OK.
There were many more shops like the Nassau Straw Market that were mostly selling the same things. We purchased a number of souvenirs from the ladies who liked to call us over with words like "beautiful," "sweety," and you do feel for those who are trying to eek out a living. It was obvious though that they throw out a high, ridiculous price first, and then start lowering it when they see the look on your face or you start walking away. After you do this a few times, you will figure out their lowest, common price, and it's obvious that they have all agreed on that.
We stopped by a restaurant for a very water-down Bahama Mama shot and then happened upon another walk-up bar. I told the bartender that I didn't want a watered-down drink, and if he made it worth it, we would tip well and come back often. He delivered, and we were happy with our Bahama Papa and Zombie drinks.
We could have walked across the street and taken the public walkway beside the police station to the beach, but we were ready to get back to the port. We had to go into the little building where we were dropped off and tell them that we were ready to return. A van took us back and we shopped a little more. As I took the toddler back onboard, my husband and oldest son stayed for a little bit at Senor Frogs. They came back raving about the place and wishing they had stayed there the whole time. It was one big party with great drinks, a conga line, etc. Quite the scene!
We signed up for the Balmoral Island excursion on 10/3/13. It took entirely too long to get the group organized and walk over to the boat to take us to the island. On top of that, it was so hot, and my toddlers were having a hard time waiting in line to board the boat. Many people commented that it was too many people for that boat, and we didn't think we would all fit. The staff packed us in like sardines, and there was barely enough space to even look for a seat. And the fact is, not everyone got a seat, which meant there probably weren't enough life vests. When I asked the Carnival staff about additional seats, I was told to go below and look for seats. There were no seats below, and people were tightly packed on the boat. I was then told to sit in the wheelhouse with the captain. There were two seats, not enough for me, my husband and three children. The captain ignored me when I tried to talk to him and cast off anyway.
Some nice passengers offered us their seats so that we could sit down with our two toddlers who were overheated and getting sick. It was one of the most miserable experiences we've ever had! The boat ride was slow and hot, which didn't help after the long wait. When we arrived, it took at least 20 minutes to get everyone off the boat because (as with boarding) there was no step stool, and people had to take a huge leap with the help of the staff - quite an insurance liability!
Once on the island, our experience was much better, but we only had about two hours to spend there! The water was beautiful; the food was good (but expensive), the drinks were strong, and swimming with the rays was mostly a nice experience. One aggressive ray bit my finger when I was feeding it with the fish they give you, and it then bit my toe. It didn't break the skin, but I didn't want to do it again. They were fun to watch and feel.
However, we had to endure the loading and unloading procedure again (all of which took valuable time from our excursion), which ruined a good part of the experience.
My husband got off to pick up our pre-arranged rental van and came back to pick us all up. It was a smooth process, but a long, flat walk for my in-laws. We had to get a wheel chair on the return for my MIL. We drove to Cocoa Beach to Alan Shepard Park. (You can also take a shuttle from the port to the beach if you don't want to rent a car.) There was a $10 parking fee, and a company with two big trailers was on the beach renting chairs, umbrellas and boogie boards. We rented 3 chairs and an umbrella all day for $30 plus a $10 deposit. They obviously come out when a cruise ship is in port because they wanted to see our Sign & Sail card. There was a drink machine, bathrooms, showers, restaurants and a long pier in walking distance, and it felt very safe and comfortable. There are several area shopping malls, but we just went to lunch a few miles away at Long Horn and stopped by Wal-mart on our way back to the ship. You would need a rental car to do those things. It was a nice, easy day.