This was our 4th cruise, and was the 2nd on a Carnival ship. We were looking for an affordable cruise so that we could take some friends and get out of the Montana weather during the winter.
Our cruise was out of Port Canaveral to the Eastern Caribbean, and included the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten. It was a seven day cruise, beginning and ending on Saturday.
On this cruise, we were accompanied by another couple who had never cruised before. Because of connections out of Montana, we had to arrive a day early and stay a day late. That's probably a good idea anyway, and good insurance should a flight get missed. The baggage claim at Orlando was slow and disorganized, taking longer than any other airport I have ever flown into, but we were in no hurry so it wasn't a problem.
We rented a mini-van from Thrifty Rental, as we had 4 people and 8 bags. The van cost about $70, and was cheaper than a shuttle. We got the optional GPS for $9 a day - which I highly recommend for getting around the Orlando area. We stayed at the Quality Inn Main Gate in Orlando, as I had free nights coming at that hotel chain. The rooms were adequate, but not luxurious by any means.
We wanted to arrive early at the ship, so as to make sure that we could get reservations for at least one night at the Emerald Room - the upgrade supper club on the ship. They don't take reservations early, so you have to make them once you arrive. Out boarding documents indicated that boarding was from 1:30 to 4:00, so we dropped the car rental at Thrifty at Port Canaveral at about 1:00 and found that the lady at the counter bordered on rude. The shuttle was quick and efficient, and the driver a very nice young man.
Upon arrival at the embarkation area, we were surprised at the lack of lines - when I inquired why there were no crowds, the clerk informed us that most people were already on the ship and that embarkation had been going on for hours. They tell different people different times to try and spread the crowd out. The embarkation process was quick and easy, as we had filled out all of our information on-line in advance. I highly recommend that.
The only snag in the process of getting on the ship was that we were informed that we had been assigned to the latest dinner time possible - 8:30 instead of 6:45, as we had requested. We tried to change it, but there was a sign up stating that all of the other times were full. It really wasn't that big of a deal, as time really didn't matter much to us on the ship.
Our rooms were what you would expect of an inside room. No window, no couch, just 2 twin beds, drawers, closets, and a bathroom. The couple we were traveling with had to have a handicapped accessible room, and it had a larger bathroom. We requested that the beds be moved together, and it was promptly taken care of. We had decided to get the less expensive rooms and spend more on excursions, so there's really not much to say about the cheap rooms. They were always clean, the heat and A/C worked great, and the beds were comfortable. The beds allowed the luggage to slide under them.
Excursions: In Nassau, we took the "Thriller" power boat out to an island and did the snorkeling with the stingrays. It was a great deal of fun, and the water was warm and beautiful. I did get bit by another fish while feeding the stingrays and bled a bit, but it was minor and more surprising than painful. The excursion was perfect for our friends that hadn't snorkeled before. We also bought the pictures they took of us holding a stingray. In St. Thomas we also went snorkeling. We selected "Captain Nautica" based on the very high recommendation of the shore excursion desk. They weren't wrong. They crew was great, and the two sites we went to were excellent. Beverages and fresh shrimp were served. In St. Maarten, we went looking for a scuba shop that would do a caged shark dive, which the excursion desk told us that the Carnival wouldn't allow to be offered due to liability reasons. We ended up on a regular two tank dive with a dive shop just down from the pier in Bob's Marina. The dive shop was fine, and the diving enjoyable. Overall, the excursions were excellent. The only thing we noticed was that Carnival has a tough time handling people getting back on the ship - especially in Nassau. Lines and wait times were quite long for an organization that should be used to handling a lot of people.
Food: This is the hardest part to review. The food wasn't bad, and it wasn't great. I can tell you that it was nowhere near what we had on a Holland America cruise - but then again, keep in mind that I paid 2 or 3 times as much for the Holland America cruise. I'm simply saying that when I pay $550 for a seven day cruise, I'm not expecting the food to be on par with a five star restaurant. The food was always plentiful, and better than a cafeteria. There was lobster and steak, but it wasn't the best quality. I generally had two entrees each night, as portions are small - but that's not a problem when you can have whatever you want. There is a pizza place that is open 24 hours, and it's pretty good. The hamburger place wasn't bad either. Keep in mind that you can get room service 24 hours a day at no extra charge. I also got a fountain drink card on the first day for $38 for all the soda you want during the cruise. Drinks like a margarita or a daiquiri were in the $7 range. They add up quick. The really bright spot in the food service was the Emerald Room. You pay an extra $30 per person for a truly great meal. I began with Lobster Bisque that was excellent. Next was a spinach salad with warm blue cheese and walnut dressing and then a 24 ounce porterhouse that I could cut the tenderloin portion with a fork. The wasabi mashed potatoes were a great side. I finished with the chocolate trio. The whole meal takes 2 to 2 ½ hours, and we went back again a few days later. The reservations were not hard to get, and there's no reason to arrive early at the ship for them.
Entertainment: Lots of bars, lots of entertainment choices. There was a live band called Manilla in one of the smaller bars that was fantastic, the only problem was that the bar was so small that it was hard to find a seat, they should of moved them to a larger venue, since there are plenty. The Karaoke was pretty poorly attended, and generally quit early. The disco was fun, and got moving around 10:30. The thing that amazed us about all of the entertainment on the "Fun Ship" was that all fun stops at 12:30. We couldn't believe that at 12:00 or 12:30 most everything shut down. don't plan on listening to a band until 1 or 2 AM. The floor shows are entertaining, but maybe not for the right reasons. We found that we were laughing at them rather than with them, they have a feel that they're extraordinarily well practiced high school productions that take themselves way too seriously. I'd rather they'd knock $20 off the cruise and get rid of the floor shows. I'm sure there's some of the folks that love them, and they are kind of an icon on the ships. One word of caution regarding the comedians - when they warn you that they're R-rated - they're serious. I was surprised at how many older folks there were on our cruise - given Carnival's reputation for being party boats. I think a bunch of them were shocked at the comedians, but they were clearly told multiple times before the show. One comedian even looked at the front row and said "Are you folks really ready for some bad f***** language?"
Pools and Decks: We'd heard the warnings that chair saving was a daily war. It looked like it to me, but it didn't matter. It's not that you can't find a chair, it's a matter of you can't find a chair in the most popular areas. We didn't care about that, and simply went to one of the more vacant decks. If you want a popular area, get up early and get a chair - you'll never win the "you can't save seats" battle. The pools and hot tubs were fine. Anywhere on the decks the beverage service is frequent.
Kids: We saw a few young kids on the ship, and quite a few teenagers. They were never a problem. We did question how much there is to do for young kids on the three full days at sea.
Disembarkation was not a problem since we had a full day before we flew back. It's not possible to get a flight back to Montana the same day - you'd never make the Orlando airport in time. Since we were in no hurry, we ate a leisurely breakfast and strolled off about 10:00 am. Luggage was delivered quickly, and the Thrifty Car Rental van was waiting. Our bill had been delivered to our room the night before, and there were no mistakes.
Overall: All was not perfect, but when you consider value for the money, I don't think you can beat Carnival. It appears to me that they're pretty much the Toyota of the cruise industry. They've dropped a lot of the luxuries and dropped the price to a bare minimum. You can add on the luxuries for a price, but don't expect them in the base price. What you get is solid value for the money you pay. We all agreed we'd do this again, and thought it was a great mixture of activity and relaxation time - with a little something for everybody.