We were 3rd time cruisers (Carnival Inspiration - 1999, Disney Magic - 2002), 30's traveling with a 1 yr old & 4 yr old. We drove down from Chicago as my wife is not much of the flying type and we both enjoy driving. We booked our cruise with skyauction.com (great site) and paid about $1550 for the four of us. The room was small, but about what we expected (inside cabin on the Riviera deck; which if you get sea sick is where you want to be). The room was clean, and the steward (Sorvio from India) did a nice job to keep it clean; he wasn't much of a chatter, but was nice, just not helpful in answering questions... I'm not sure how great his english really was as it seemed that he didn't understand too well. All the same though he made some great towel animals and did keep the room clean, and did a fantastic job at doing stuff while we weren't around (enough said... this is a crap shoot on any cruise at who you are going to get and either way it was not going to have that big of an impact on our cruise; only the tip that we leave).
Embarking... we arrived to find that the parking by the ship was full and had to park at a local garage for $12/ day (by the ship was $10). That was somewhat annoying but oh well... we dropped off the luggage and I took the car to the garage and hopped their free shuttle bus back to the ship. Then we waited in a fairly long line which only took about 15 minutes to get through. Once through that line we got to move to the next line which was for the welcome aboard family photo which took another 20 minutes or so... from their it was on to another line waiting to get onboard that took another 15 minutes or so... somewhat long, but it seems like this varied by the time of your arrival... ours was a bit later arriving around 1:45 pm (if you are traveling by car, I believe arriving around 11:30 will get you parking by the ship).
We went upstairs and got some FOOD: The one thing I like about Carnival is that they make food VERY available, especially compared to the Disney Magic. The quality... well... it is OK. The one gripe I have about the Cezzane rest (which is their upstairs restaurant - buffet) is that they put the omelette stations at the end of the buffet line which made for some long waits or rude cutting for those that didn't want an omelette... I found that annoying; they should have either been off on the side like they were on the other 2 cruise we took; or put them at the beginning of the line.
Dining room... we ate in the Monet for dinner and breakfast (after trying out the breakfasts in the Cezzane upstairs). The food was good there, our service was just OK... not great. However... our baby has food allergies and we needed to know the ingredients in the foods... Alyson the hostess was AWESOME! She made our experience that much more special and was VERY helpful in accommodating special meals for us. And this was actually a common experience for us... the staff was overall terrific... of course their were a few people here and there who looked like they had just been baptized in lemon juice... but overall they were fantastic and very helpful. One day for breakfast, I had both boys with me, and we had 3 waitresses waiting on us... and had the freshest food that day (they all loved our baby :-).
Other than that... the food took too long to get and the water glasses just weren't filled often enough (as in it was filled once and you had to ask after that). I'm not sure if there is anything to this or not... but this was our first cruise where the cruiseline automatically deducts the tipping ($10 / day per person) from your sign & sail account... almost making the tips more of a right than something earned... I'm not sure... it could just depend on which staff you get because for breakfast the service level varied a great deal.
Shows: they were OK... not great.. the Conquest Orchestra (which was led by John Piazza Jr who is leaving to go to the Carnival Glory) was great... they had a couple nites where they played big band music; which I love... but it was mostly an older crowd and not very well attended. The disney shows were certainly much better for the kids (I liked them a whole lot better too). The "magician" that they had named Deja was terrible... it was mostly illusions that she did with a lot of dancing. The Cruise Director: can't imagine they could find much worse (Stewart).
Ports: We had read a lot of people saying to stay on the ship in Jamaica... I'm not sure if they went to a different port or not (we went to Montego Bay); but we had a fabulous time in Jamaica after almost taking their suggestion! We rented a personal tour guide for $30 / hour) and took about 2 hours to see the island. Our guide was fantastic and everyone on the island was very nice, and took NO for an answer the first time it was given... we've been to ports in the past where we'd wished we stayed on the ship and believe me... this wasn't it! We did get asked if we wanted to buy some weed though as did our dinner mates on their excursion which we found annoying (obviously we didn't buy any : - ).
Grand Caymen: we went on the Nautilus submarines which was pretty fun (we bought absolutely NOTHING from the ship! Everything we did, we did on our own on land). The subs were $35 / person and $15 for our 4 yr old... 1 yr old was free. On the ship it would have been $47 per person for 3 of us & the little one free. Then we went to the Turtle Farm (and once again saved a bunch of money doing that ourselves) and had a really fun time there... you can pick up the turtles etc...
Cozumel: This was the best island! We rented a jeep wrangler and did the island ourselves... can't imagine there is a better way to do this island! For insurance, baby seat & car it was $92 for the day. This island is FABULOUS! We drove around and went to the ruins (don't remember the name of them, it is not the Tulum ones... those you have to ferry too... these were good enough for us to get a flavor of what they are all about... we took a personal tour (not really recommended by us) guide... the other ruins are just bigger... it was personally more than enough for me).
Then we went to Chankanaab which is a park that you can see / swim with the dolphins and apparently sometimes Sea Lions though that part was not in operation while we were there. Pricing there was actually not much cheaper than onboard the ship. If you go to their website in advance, you can apparently get good deals (we were disappointed by that... it is $10 per person to get in (kids were free) and then at LEAST $99 / per person to do anything at all with the dolphins... the dolphin swim was much cheaper than on the ship (by about $50 per person), the dolphin discovery was priced the same (but the ships would have provided transportation which we had already done... so in reality the ships was cheaper). The website for advanced reservations is http://www.dolphindiscovery.com/home.htm only had we known...
They also have a beach here where you can snorkel from (but if you are really into snorkeling... just bring your gear; rent a car and drive around. There are so many areas from this island you can do that from! We had a lot of fun, and would like to stay on this island for a week sometime!
The Ship: It was OK... it really didn't seem that much bigger than the other ships we were on... I think maybe they just have more rooms (which means more people - our cruise had 2900 on board, the ship holds 3500). It didn't seem overly crowded, but at times there were some long lines. We personally would rank this ship in 3rd place from our 3 cruises... I'm not sure the Inspiration today would still be better, but 5 years ago it was nice. Honestly though... at this point a ship is a ship; we don't get that big awe anymore in approaching them like the first time we cruised. The layout was not that great as mentioned by others... but I will say it is well marked so you can get around.
The internet cafe we thought was easy to find (since it is so well marked) though it is tucked away. They charged an "activation" fee of about $4 to get the internet account going which was annoying but whatever... Obviously checking email on shore is always much cheaper, but after 2 days at sea.... I wanted to check my email... so my 3 minutes of doing so cost about $7. Overall... I was kinda disappointed by this ship (not the cruise... the ship).
New Orleans was kinda cold (unseasonably so from talking to people) so the first day at sea and the last day at sea were both kinda cold... especially the last day! as in high 50's or low 60's... we're from Chicago (sub zero when we left) and we thought it was cold ;-). The cruise got VERY bumpy on the return trip home with sea conditions rated "Very Rough". My wife got a bit sea sick... I was fine, though glad we had our inside cabin near the mid ship. We didn't get as much sun as we would have liked since it was colder so leaving for the southern Caribbean this time of the year might have been better. (Forgot to mention the weather on the islands... all days were PERFECT! As well as the 2nd day at sea).
Disembarking: It took about an hour for our color to get called which wasn't bad. Then it took maybe 15 to 20 minutes to get through the line after that. We got our luggage no problem, but here is where I made some mistakes out of ignorance! The "free" shuttle bus to the parking garage is quite small... so only a few peoples luggage is going to fit on it, and then only a few people (maybe 20). So it was recommended to us that I get the car and drive back... :@
It took me over an hour to do that! In retrospect, the BEST option is to take a cab for about $7 WITH your family and Luggage and NOT got back!!!! That took forever... so total time spent was 3 hours getting off from the first color call... this port is not a good port; way too small. Port Canaveral is MUCH nicer!!!! (we drove to that one as well).
Conclusion: We had a fabulous time, made that way by great stops, terrific friendly staff and our wonderful dinner mates who I hope we can remain friends with for a long time to come! The ship was a ship, the seas got a bit rough, the food was plentiful.... I give it 3.5 to 4.0 stars. Email me with questions.