Background: This is my 7th cruise, although 2 were back in the 80's so I don't remember much of those. I'm 36 (my birthday was the day of departure), my wife is 37 (her 4th cruise) and our daughters are 7 and 4 (the youngest turned 5 on 1/19).
Before the trip, I used CC for many tips and background information, so I hope that I can provide some good information back to you all. We decided to carry on our own liquor (2 small bottles), so I bubble-wrapped it and put it in Ziploc bags in the bottom of our largest suitcase. We also brought along a small 3-in-1 plug strip, 2-12 packs of Diet Coke and a first aid kit. I also booked excursions in Grand Cayman (Capt. Marvin stingrays) and Belize (cave-tubing.com) before we left.
We almost had to cancel the trip because my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer the week before we left. Thankfully, the tumor was localized and removed, her treatment was worked out the day before we left, and my wife felt it was OK to go ahead and go. I'm glad we had insurance just in case. Needless to say, we really needed a vacation.
Pre-Departure: We left Alpharetta, GA on Friday, 1/12, and headed to Disney World for a long day in the Magic Kingdom on Saturday. On Sunday morning, we drove to the Port of Tampa, dropped off our luggage and parked at the port around 10:30. As we unloaded our carry-ons, we realized we had forgotten to stop for a couple of last minute items. We asked if we could leave the garage and run to Walgreens and at first, the attendant said no. We white-lied and said we had to grab some Benadryl for our kids' allergies, and she finally relented. After we had run our quick errands, we walked over to the port and it was starting to fill up with our fellow passengers.
Embarkation: We entered the port building and had our documents checked. They ushered us quickly through security screening and x-ray. We checked in and were placed in group 11. About 15 minutes later, our group was called and we boarded. It was very organized and quick compared to previous cruises.
1/14 Embarkation Day: (Also my birthday!) We went to Deck 9 and had lunch. As luck would have it, a nice couple from Michigan sat at the next table with their 8 year old daughter. Our kids became fast friends and were inseparable the rest of the week.
When we were finishing up lunch, I sneaked into the cabin (the doors were still closed) and dropped off our carry-ons. We then explored the ship for a while before we were officially allowed in our cabin. We changed into bathing suits and were leaving for the pool when I picked up our pool towels and a half-empty cigarette pack fell out of the towels! We took everything to the purser's desk to complain and they were very apologetic. The purser told us she would let our steward know and immediately called the head of housekeeping while we were standing there. We didn't let it bother us and we went to swim.
When we returned to the cabin, the stewardess introduced herself (Nevi from Bulgaria) and apologized for the towel issue. She was very nice and we chatted with her often throughout the week. She spoke great English, although sometimes too much as my wife's nickname for her was Chatty Cathy.
Our luggage arrived before 6 and we unpacked. We went up on deck to watch the Skyway bridge passage and the kids were excited to see how close we came. It was already dark, so we got some good pictures of the lights on the bridge and ship.
Before dinner, we went to the Camp Carnival orientation. See below for more on Camp Carnival.
Dinner was casual, although we were more casual than most. Our wait team was great (Ioan from Romania & Johnny from The Philippines) and we sat upstairs at table 377. See below for more specifics on food.
After dinner, the kids took me up on deck and sang happy birthday to me. We went to bed a little early as we were still tired from Disney the previous day.
1/15 Fun Day at Sea: We relaxed and sat by the pool. We also took advantage of the excellent gym facilities. That night, we took the kids to their own formal parties and dinner, so we could have a nice dinner alone. I went to the late comedy show, but my wife didn't make it.
1/16 Grand Cayman We booked a snorkel/stingray tour with Captain Marvins at 11:15AM. After breakfast, we all tendered ashore to look around at the shops before our tour. The kids were a little whiny about the shopping, so my wife was frazzled by the time we got to the tour. We had to wait about 15 minutes at the dock for the boats to return from the earlier tours, but we left around noon. Snorkeling was fun, but my wife found the water too cold and mostly stayed on the boat. My 7 year old loved the snorkeling and we brought an underwater camera to snap pics of the fish. The stingrays were also fantastic. There were about 20 people on our boat, including 5 kids. We could see how many were on the Carnival tour and it would be hard to even get near the stingrays. I got to hold and feed a stingray and my kids loved petting them. Despite the fun of the tour, we decided based on the kids' whining about walking and waiting during the day to scrap the idea of them joining us cave tubing. We also decided that the water in the river would probably be too cold for my wife. More on that below.
When we got back to George Town, it was about 2:15. Some on our tour were from the Norwegian Majesty, whose last tender left at 2:30. Needless to say, they booked pretty fast to the tender dock. We also almost missed the last tender, because I spent too long looking at a watch that I ended up not buying.
That night, we took the kids to the kids' dinner and spent a nice evening alone.
1/17 Cozumel After the stress of dragging the kids around Cayman, we left them at Camp and tendered ashore. We had to get a tender sticker at 9AM in the Casino (we were #3), but we were ashore by around 10AM. We tendered at Puerta Maya so we took a cab to the main shopping area for $6. We walked around and got a little lost, but we eventually found the main flea market area. My wife was in heaven and we spent about 3-4 hours walking around. I also found the watch I looked at in Cayman for a little cheaper and bought it at Pama.
We went back on board around 3 and ate a late lunch. We picked up the kids and everyone took a much-needed nap. We took the kids back for kids' dinner and we decided to skip dinner because of our late lunch. We just ate a little sushi and went to Frankie & Johnnies to listen to Music Boardwalk (they are great don't miss them!)
1/18 Belize After scrapping the cave tubing idea, we were deciding between horseback riding, biking or a canopy tour. We decided to play it safe and book through Carnival because we were leaving the kids on board. The tour desk agent steered me to the canopy tour and it didn't disappoint.
We were taken off on an early tender and made to wait at the port for a few minutes for some latecomers. The bus picked us up just outside the tourist village. There were about 30 people on the bus (a converted school bus), our driver was Arthur and our guide was Carol. We drove through the city first and Carol pointed out some landmarks. When we drove outside the city, she gave us some interesting background on Belize and passed around some sheets with pictures of local animals, birds, etc. for us to look at. We turned off the highway after about 45 minutes and then the fun began. We spent about 30 minutes on the bumpiest road before stopping for a quick potty and water break. We then spent another 20 minutes on that road before we reached the Lost World cave. The canopy tour was excellent. The guides were very professional (but fun) and we felt very safe. There were 5 traverses and 2 rappels with plenty of picture opportunities. We headed back after another quick water and potty stop and got back to the tourist village with about an hour to shop before the last tender back at 4PM.
That night we went to Nick & Nora's while the kids went to Camp again. We also went to the hypnotist show, which was great.
1/19 Costa Maya A pier! Finally, no tender. We took the kids and went to Majahual. We ran into my daughter's friend from Michigan, so we sat at the beach with them. I wasn't a big fan of the place we chose. If some guy named Charlie Brown tries to get you to sit at his restaurant, keep walking. His margaritas are watery and he has a lack of beach chairs. The kids had fun and we left around 1PM to go back to the ship for lunch. We took the kids to the pool after lunch and took turns running back down to the port area to look at the shops.
That night was formal night and my younger daughter's birthday. The waiters brought a cake (we had ordered it earlier in the week) and the surrounding tables sang Happy Birthday. We gave her some small presents we brought with us and then took the kids to camp where they made a big deal about her birthday again. We went to Ticket to Ride that night and the late night hypnotist show.
1/20 Fun Day at Sea We took the last opportunity to relax and recharge. My wife tried a seaweed wrap at the spa and thought it was pretty good. I managed to finish my book. We decided to keep the kids out of the sun after the amount they got the day before. As the day wore on, it got a little cooler and windier. The slide was also closed due to high winds. We packed a little early to avoid rushing later on and put our luggage out around 9:30PM.
We also had our last dinner without the kids and then picked them up to play bingo and see the Legends show (my wife and youngest didn't make it that late though).
1/21 Tampa We docked around 7, and had breakfast from room service so we could take our time. We went down to deck 2 and got in line around 8:15 after the final call for self-assist. They let the early flights off around 8:30 and then we were off by 8:40. We picked up the bags and were through customs and in the car by 8:55. Truly painless. We were back home in Alpharetta by 4:15 in the rain and cold.
Food: Breakfast: We ordered room service several times using the door hanger and it was always on time. This was helpful on some of the early port days and the last morning. We went to Bacchus once and were not that impressed. The breakfast waiter was surly and got our order wrong. Horatio's was great for breakfast, with several omelet stations and hot food stations.
Lunch: Horatio's took some getting used to and is very spread out. I tended to check out everything and then pick one or two stations to get food rather than pick and choose from all. Basically, the Pizzeria, coffee bar and Salad Bar are at the rear separated from the Rotisserie, Deli and Dessert areas by drink stations. Around the corner moving forward, you have the Taste of Nations and Asian stations, along with more drink stations. Further forward, the grill is outside, along with ice cream stations. We particularly enjoyed the pizza, Asian station and our favorite days for Taste of Nations were Indian and of course Chocolate (last sea day). The kids usually ate either pizza or burgers and dogs from the grill.
Check out the Sushi bar on Deck 2. They had 3 or 4 different things every day, and although it was all cooked or smoked, it was tasty and filled the void between lunch and late seating dinner. The sundae bar on the afternoon of sea days was also a nice touch.
Dinner was always good to excellent. Some dishes we particularly enjoyed were: the sushi appetizer, Indian vegetarian entrée, lobster tails (order two because they are small), chateaubriand, jerk pork, and of course, the warm chocolate melting cake (we must have ordered this 4 times). We skipped dinner once in the dining room due to a late lunch when we returned from Cozumel and once when we went to Nick and Nora's. Definitely try N&N's at least once. The food and service are excellent. I had the porterhouse and my wife had the lobster. We each ordered 2 appetizers and a salad as well as dessert.
We didn't eat much late night food except ice cream, but the Caribbean buffet on Thursday looked very good (couldn't eat because we had just left N&N's stuffed). The Gala Buffet on Friday night was more style than substance, but it looked good anyway.
Shows: We enjoyed the comedians (although the family shows were actually funnier than the R-rated shows) and hypnotist (both shows). We are not big fans of Broadway-type shows, so we walked out after about 2 minutes of Generations. I really enjoyed Ticket to Ride, although parts were a little disjointed. My wife only liked the last 15 minutes or so. I won't spoil that part for those who haven't seen it. I went to Legends with my oldest daughter and we really enjoyed it. Some of the passengers could really belt it out, while others at least tried (that's you Britney Spears).
Activities: I won Millionaire on the last sea day and we did a couple of trivia contests. Bingo was also a fun family activity. I spent some time in the casino, but I was not a fan of the electronic poker table. A dealer would be more fun.
Camp Carnival: The kids loved it. We even left them on the ship in Cozumel and Belize while we went ashore. My older daughter stayed until 12 or 1 most nights and made some good friends. There were only about 30-40 kids on the ship (which was great we love our kids, but don't want to hang out with everyone else's), but they still had staff levels from the holiday time (where up to 700 kids sailed). All the kids got great attention from the counselors. Our kids participated in the kids' talent show on the last day, brought home many art projects, and received lots of goodies. We also did the family build a bear activity (for $19.99 per bear) on the last day. Camp Carnival gave my wife and I the chance to eat dinner alone and recharge our batteries.
Summary: Awesome! The ship surpassed our expectations in every way. It was a fantastic family (and adult) vacation.