A little background about us. My husband and I are in our late 30's. I had cruised Premier Cruise Lines 13 years ago so this was technically my second cruise. My husband and I brought my 2 and 6 year sons. Our cruise was completely filled but I never noticed it was "crazy" crowded except at the pool, some dining rooms at popular times, and de-embarkation. This cruise was actually a gift for my husband and I and I think if I had paid, I would have been a little harsher.
We found the embarkation process not bad. There were lines but we found they went pretty quickly and the employees seemed to have a system that worked. We checked in at about 1:30pm and our rooms were ready so we able to go right to our cabins. As I had read in some past reviews, the ship was older and was slightly dated, but aren't all ships supposed to be a little over-the-top and a little tacky? Everything was clean, if a LITTLE worn. I found our cabins to be fairly roomy, especially the bathroom. Again, you could tell this was not a new ship (slight crumbling around window, cracked tiles in shower, etc) but I didn't feel anything was neglected. My husband and I each had a 6B Oceanview cabin and kept one child each. Adjoining cabins would have been nice but according to deck plans we couldn't find any on this ship. CABIN PROS: Nice large windows, great linens, blankets, towels, pillows, nice size bathrooms, good size cabins, nice robes provided. Reading lights for each bed were great. Safes in each cabin for valuables. CONS: The TV was terrible, very grainy and dark in one room, a little better in my husband's cabin. The curtains in my stateroom didn't quite reach the bottom of the window so light would shine in your eyes at daybreak if you didn't put towels or pillows as shades.
My husband as I disagree on the steward service. From my last cruise, I remember being out of my cabin and coming back to an immaculately make room. EVERYTHING was straightened up. Now I don't expect a maid to clean up after me, but I would have liked to have seen more than my bed made and towels replenished. My husband said his room was usually straightened out. The stewards and cleaning crew always had a presence and you could always see their cards in the hallway, usually right outside my cabin.
When you check-in you are issued "Sign and Sail" cards that act as cabin keys/charge cards. They are very handy as I don't like to carry cash. One big pet peeve of mine is that all beverages have a 15% gratuity charge added. While tea, juices, coffee, and milk are free. You have to pay for sodas. My husband bought a "Fountain Fun Card" for about $7/day as he is a big soda drinker and we figured it would be cheaper than the $1.75 plus gratuity for his drinks. Plus getting sodas required you to go to a bartender or bar waiter which is NOT convenient. We aren't big drinkers but I did have a drink or two and found them to be a little pricey but not expensive ($6.95). Carnival also charges $10/day per person for tips for room steward, waiters, etc. You can go to the Purser's desk and remove the charge and tip the staff as you would like. This, of course, does not include tipping room service or the Maitre'D. I did try to tip a casino attendant who assisted me, but she politely declined.
I found that employees, who were getting their tips automatically, weren't putting forth as much effort as the ones who weren't being tipped. Example, bartenders or waiters were acceptable, but many of the people who picked up plates or filled your juice glasses were the friendliest.
After checking out our cabins we went to the pool deck to get some lunch. There are 4 main places to eat. The first is the Brasserie. It is a casual dining room open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that includes a pizza counter, a sandwich counter (omelet station in the AM), salad bar (fruit bar in the AM), and 2 buffet lines. There were odd times during the day when they didn't have food on the buffet but the sandwich and pizza stations seemed to always be open. One line usually had standard lunch fair (carving station, pasta station, main and side dishes) the other side would have a specialty cuisine such as French, Indian, Caribbean, etc). We probably ate here the most because our youngest didn't have the patience for the main dining room and my husband likes pretty basic food, no escargot for him. I would say the food was definitely mediocre. Not bad, but nothing mind blowing either. There was an ice cream machine that was popular with everyone. The staff however, was VERY friendly here and was always there to help. PROS: Friendly staff, variety of food, open seating. CONS: Mediocre food, lines/not able to find a table at popular eating times. Going to bar to buy sodas. At some lunch buffets, aside from the ice cream, the only desert was one variety of "diet" cake.
The second choice is the grill/buffet on the pool deck. They are open for lunch from about 11am to 6 pm for hamburgers, hotdogs, fries, macaroni/potato salad on one side of the buffet. The other side of the buffet had the same food as the Brasserie. The hamburgers were pretty tasty but you can only eat so many. PROS: Convenient, especially if you were on the pool deck. CONS: Going to bar to buy sodas.
The third choice was the one of the two Main Dining Rooms (Mardi Gras or Carnivale). We had the 6:15 seating in the Mardi Gras Dining Room. We didn't eat breakfast or lunch in the Dining Room at all, but we had dinner three times. However, I reviewed the menu almost daily and found it interesting but resistible. The dress code is resort casual (no shorts or tank tops) but this was not enforced by some of the young men eating. We were seated at a table for 8 with some other family members on the cruise but our table was full only on the first night of the cruise. Since you may not get your luggage until 4 hours after you sail, the dress code is not applicable. REVIEW: I found the dining experience disappointing. The food (especially the meat) was just OK, and our waiter would never ask for our drink order, so if you forgot you may have to wait for awhile. The salads were fairly generic. I was very excited describing how the Baked Alaska is set on fire to my 6 year old. Imagine our disappointment when a slice of ice cream with a brown tinged meringue was delivered. Overall, there was not a lot of fanfare. The staff was nice and our food arrived quickly. PROS: Upscale menu with a lot of variety. Fast service. CONS: Mediocre food, none of the fanfare I expected. Tracking down bar waiter for sodas. The midnight buffet extravaganza was a Mexican buffet that I can't review as we didn't attend.
Our fourth dining choice was cabin service. We ordered cabin service three times from a limited sandwich/salad menu. Service was fairly quickly, but mustard was put on my roast beef and brie baguette which was not on the menu or I would have ordered it without it. We found out, unfortunately after we ordered that it is "customary" to tip the person who delivered it. While this may seem like common sense in hindsight, there was no spot for a tip on the receipt which acknowledged you got your order. PROS: Convenience of 24 hr dining and fairly quick delivery. In room beverages were same price as bar sodas. CONS: Limited menu and additional tipping required.
Obviously a major income source for Carnival is their photo offerings. Even before you get on the ship you are posed for photographs with your group. This continues throughout the cruise in the main dining room, about 10 formal night photo backgrounds, at every port, and at the shows. The cost was about $8 for a 5X7, so not bad but I imagine it could really add up.
On our second cruise day, a day at sea, we realized that we may have some problems with keeping our boys and ourselves entertained. As common with cruise ships, the small main pool, was salt water, which neither of my boy was a fan of. Nice water slide. Also, you literally couldn't go 5 seconds without a kid jumping in and drenching your face. It was VERY crowded and/or the pool was too small. As no swim diapers or non-potty trained children are allowed in the main pool, I asked the towel attendant if there was a pool for my 2 yr old. She directed me to the kiddie pool in the back. There was no one there but also had the no swim diaper sign. The sign claims it was US Dept of Health rule but at Disney pools swim diapers are allowed and I'd be shocked if they would break such a rule. We decided to get in anyway. Even though the pool was only 1 1/2 feet deep and maybe 10 feet wide, it had major sloshing from being at the back of the boat. My son couldn't even stand without being knocked over by a wave. A cruise employee came shortly after and told me that the swim diaper wasn't allowed. I explained the attendant had sent us but he said that my son could come back in the pool without the diaper in this bathing suit. This still makes no sense to me. But he assured me we didn't have to leave if we removed the swim diaper?!
My older son loved the jacuzzi, but on such a hot day, I didn't like him staying in too long. The pool got too crowded so we all headed back to the cabins. My 6 year old was only interested in the kids program, Camp Carnival, at video game time so we decided that we'd try it out the next day. This turned out to be really the only thing for children to do on the cruise besides swim. I really felt like there was nothing for children to aside from those 2 things. They didn't even sell kids books, crayons, etc. in the shops, just some Carnival Cruise ship boats and a Carnival Cruise playset. Since my 2 yr old would never go for being dropped off with strangers, we were limited in terms of activities we could participate in. This of course was not the cruise lines fault but I think an indoor or even outdoor playground for toddlers would be a welcome addition for parents who want activities with their children. They could easily take one of the MANY bars and convert it. My older son did go to Camp Carnival 3 times over the course of the cruise, during the video game time mostly, but he enjoyed it and said the counselors were nice. A nice feature is you can rent Game Boys for $25 for the whole cruise.
Even my husband and I discussed what we would do if it was just the 2 of us and we still felt like there would have been a lot of "bored" time since we aren't big drinkers or sun worshippers. We did hit the casino several times and won a little, lost more, won some, lost more, but I think that is typical of any casino. Again, it would be great to have more activities going on, especially on port days.
On our port day at Grand Cayman, we didn't wait very long for a tender but we waited for a couple of hours before departing so I think we missed the big crowds. We walked around did some shopping but frankly, it was so hot; we headed back after a couple of hours. We didn't do any excursions, except my son and father-in-law did the Atlantis submarine. They enjoyed it but got bored quickly as young children are prone to do.
On Calica, we signed up for the Muyil Ruins and Jungle trek. While it is true what they say about Calico being a quarry, I liked not using the tenders and didn't mind the lack of scenery. We boarded, new looking, clean, air-conditioned mini-buses with our guide and were off. I was a little of a nervous wreck as we didn't have seat belts much less a car seat for my 2 year old. Our guide was informed and spoke decent English. We stopped at a store for shopping and clean restrooms. I'm sure someone was getting kickbacks to stop at that store, but in fairness it was the nicest, cleanest one I saw. It took us about 40 minutes to get to the ruins. The only recommendation from the excursion documentation was to bring sunscreen and comfortable shoes. I had done some research and discovered that this location in Mexico is a malaria risk and decided that insect repellent diligently worn should be enough for the 2 hours we would be outside. Unfortunately, no one else in our tour knew about the mosquitoes (which I feel insect repellent should have been mandatory) and you could see the swarms and see 5 or 6 mosquitoes on each person's leg. We shared out limited supply of insect repellent wipes, which people gladly took. I don't think most people were able to really enjoy the tour or even listen to the guide due to constantly swatting their legs for bugs. After the 3 or 4 Mayan buildings, which were very interesting, we trekked through a "jungle" area to the Muyil Lagoon where, thank God, our buses and cold bottled water was waiting. The sites on this excursion were worth seeing. I could have done without the trek in the unbearable heat.
As for de-embarkation, being warned that this was a long arduous process. The announcements advised us to stay out of the lobby area until general de-embarkation was called. However, our cabin steward kicked us out of the room to clean it before they announced we could get off the ship. So we sat on the floor of the elevator lobby and waited as you couldn't even get out of the elevator on the de-embarkation level due to the crowds. Once we were off the ship, it was pretty easy to get our luggage and customs walked us right through.
Overall, I would say the PROS of this cruise were: nice cabins, relaxing atmosphere, mostly friendly staff, Camp Carnival was a step in the right direction for children.
CONS: Lack luster food, not enough adult or non-Camp Carnival kid activities, didn't like soda situation or automatic gratuity.