This was our first cruise, so we cannot make comparison with other lines. We went with extended family and occupied 5 cabins in total on the ship.
The embarkation in Venice was very well organized. The maritime station in Venice is accessible by water taxi (if coming from another part of Venice) or by land (if arriving from the airport). If staying at a hotel that is not on the water in Venice, you would need to get to a water taxi pick-up point. Expect to pay about 50Euro on average for a water taxi when taking luggage. The terminal was well sign-posted, with a representative on hand, and the check-in was very quick, by allocated number, with little waiting time, before being called for security and boarding (less than one hour in total). We boarded by 1pm, having arrived at around 12 noon. Luggage was delivered to our cabins about an hour after that. The disembarkation was also extremely efficient. Bags had to be outside the cabins by 2am the night before, with colour-coded labels which were provided. Disembarkation was by colour, and bags were on conveyor belts for pick-up immediately. The ship arrived in Venice at 9am and we were off by 10.00am. Taxis/buses/minivans were available right at the terminal for wherever you needed to go. There was absolutely no waiting around.
Outside cabins were small (deck 9 - there are 12 decks in all), but clean and with good storage. The outside suites with balconies are more spacious (deck 10). The outside cabin bathroom (deck 9)was tiny, with a very small shower, but manageable. There were twin beds in the regular cabin, which could be made up as a double. We had one cabin with a third bed (bunk bed style, pulled down from the wall). The cabin service staff were very helpful, and supplied everything we needed upon request - extra pillows, fresh towels, bottles of water, etc. The staff are mainly Indonesian, except in the main dining room where there are some Italian staff and other European staff. The staff speak and understand English, although the first language on the ship is Italian.
All drinks, ice-cream, spa services, excursions are extra. These can be charged on the cruise card (and then paid at the end by cash or credit card). MSC do sell some discount package coupons for soft drinks/ice-cream/mineral water/wine at the time of embarkation (and a few days into the cruise). We bought some but ended up not using them all in the end. There are a few shops on the ship, mainly open in the evenings when at sea (8-midnight). There is a perfume store, an MSC logo store, a ladies/gents clothing store. Sunscreen/lotions etc. can be purchased at the spa. Shampoo, shower gel, soap is all provided in the cabins.
Dining and food services: We requested first seating upon booking. This was already arranged for our group upon check-in and the table assigned and dining time was printed on the cruise card for each member of our group. Otherwise, see the maitre d' upon check-in for your requested dining time. There are two sittings, 7:15pm and 9:15pm. We ate in the Marco Polo dining room on deck 5. There is one other dining room which is smaller, the Pergola (no comment because never ate there). The menu in Marco Polo offered a regional choice each evening, a regular menu (with about three selections for appetizer, pasta course, main entree and dessert). There were also a number of items always available (e.g. roast chicken, beef). Service was good, but not rushed. Food was generally good - no complaints. You do have to arrive promptly for dinner (within 15 minutes of the assigned dining time).
We also chose to eat in Marco Polo for breakfast (no set table or time - breakfast was from 7-9:30am). Good choice, from cooked breakfasts to fruit and yogurt, cereals, etc.
Lunch was served on deck 11 (the main pool deck area)between 12-2pm. The brasserie is a self-serve, with air-conditioned indoor seating area. A good choice, with salad items, some cooked food, cold meats, whole fruit available etc. Alongside, but in the open area, there is a pizza area, also serving sliced melon) and a fast food (fried) section (serving hot dogs, burgers, fries, salad). Basically, you can line up in any or all of these areas, pick up what you want and find yourself a seat. It did get busy at times (especially when everyone was on the ship), but it was best to go at around noon when the queues were lower - or locate your seat, hold it, and take turns to pick up your food. There were always tables outside, but in July it is pretty hot and we preferred to eat indoors in air conditioning. Note (clothing over swimsuits while indoors).
Formality: - There were two nights requiring dressing up. I did not see anyone in a tuxedo. Men did wear suits/ties those nights and ladies were dressier, but not in true "gala" clothing. The other nights were casual - no ties required for the men -mainly long pants for the men, but nothing really dressy.
Shows: The shows were good, held in La Fenice, on deck 5/6 - two shows per night to accommodate the dinner seatings. The first night was mainly music (some popular Italian songs), the other nights had a lot of dancing, some singing, good costumes, a couple of acrobat acts which were excellent, an illusionist (a good show) and a mixed extravaganza night. Most of the lounges had live music all evening, with some cabaret acts (not so good in my estimation). There is a disco that starts at midnight on deck 12 (over 16 after midnight). The show host introduces in about 5 languages - Italian being the first language. Shows can be enjoyed by all. The casino is of an adequate size, with table games as well as about 20 slots (accessible to over 18 only). The theatre was pretty good overall - attractive, comfortable tiered seating, cocktail tables. The captain's party is also held there, with champagne and hors d'oeuvres served before dinner.
There is one movie provided free daily on the cabin TV network. We never watched, so no comment there. Otherwise, TV was fairly limited. There is an ongoing intro/safety channel, BBC world news, a couple of Italian channels, an ongoing channel showing ship info, position, weather, another channel showing ongoing photos/videos of the cruise.
Services on the ship: There is a good air-conditioned exercise room with weights, machines, treadmills which is rarely used by guests. It is located by the spa on top deck 12. Spa treatments have to be booked, but no problem there. There is a children's organizer for younger children (probably up to around 10) with activities going on during the day (also deck 12). There is an animation team that run some ongoing games on deck 11 (pool area), including a half-hour exercise session, some dress up events, etc.) Ongoing popular music is played on deck 11 throughout the day. There is a gelateria (ice-cream bar) serving soft-serve and other ice-cream bars. Lower down on the ship there is a card-table room (little used) and a small library (don't expect a good selection of English books!). Top deck also has a basketball court (with high net all around), deck 11 has a small mini golf (ok, but not fantastic), also a shuffleboard. Equipment for all of these areas gets picked up and borrowed against the cruise card at an office beside the Lido bar on the main pool deck (deck 11). Towels get signed out on the cruise card (daily, or as you wish) on deck 11 as well. You are expected to return all used pool towels daily.
Pool deck. I found this especially crowded (except when guests were out on excursions). There are two small rectangular pools (each with a wading section) which are filled with sea water daily (and drained each night). My kids did swim, but I considered these more like plunge pools than a place to swim. By the end of each afternoon, they would look a little murky, so swim early if you plan to swim. There is a wall that divides the two swim pools. Along the wall, there is a water fountain, good for cooling off. Between the two pools are two hot tubs (each accommodating about 6 people).
People are not supposed to reserve seats on the pool decks, but they do. After 10am, it would require searching deck 11 and the upper half deck (deck 12) to find chairs together. Sometimes, it was impossible to find loungers. People are pretty crowded in, but I think most ships experience this. When the ship was docked, it was much less busy around the pool deck and the upper deck.
Some quirky things to be aware of: There are about 4 elevator shafts and sets of stairs on the ship - one at either end and two in the middle. Some parts of the ship are occupied by staff, so it is not always possible to cross from one end of the ship to the other. You have to walk one flight, or take the elevator back up a floor to walk and go back down on another deck. Deck 7 is like this. There are very good maps of the ship posted on every floor, so you get to find your way around.
This is an Italian ship, crewed by Italians. The majority of guests are Italian. People embark in Venice and also in Bari (the first stop). There are a lot of families, but English speaking children may not find other children to play with(unless they speak Italian!). There is also a mix of other Europeans, from Germany, France, Switzerland, etc. There are not many English speaking guests. I am of European descent, so this was not in any way a problem for me, but it is something to be aware of.
Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of smoking on board - but mainly on the pool deck. There are a couple of smoking bars, but no smoking in the dining or theatre areas is allowed.
Excursions. These have to be booked after you get on the ship. You pay with your cruise card. Each stop has about three excursions to choose from. The first stop, Bari, the ship docks. Bari is a big city port and we did not get off. The excursions were mainly out of the city. The second stop is Santorini, which is by tender. There were about three other ships also in the bay when MCS was there - so it was busy. We took the tender only, but found that we had to either take donkeys (very stinky) or a cable car, to get anywhere. We were lucky to be ahead of the crowd and opted for the cable car (6 per car) and only 8 cars on the circuit at any time). The ride was about 3 minutes and got us to the town of Fira, where we had a couple of hours. MSC went to Mykonos that evening - a busy day (which was also by tender). Mykonos was very busy, with again, about four other ships in the bay that night. We mainly shopped as there was no excursion offered. This was my second time in Mykonos. A bit more time would have been good there. Athens (Piraeus), we took our kids up to the Parthenon on the tour. It would be hard to "do" Athens on your own. That was well-organized, but very hot and crowded - over 40 degrees in Athens that day. The ship docks at Piraeus.
We also docked at Corfu, but picked the wrong excursion. We took a 3 hour transfer to a beach - which turned out to be very disappointing. We complained to MSC and they said they would "pull" that excursion and refund us. Even the bus was not air-conditioned! There was another tour of the island, with short beach stay - and I believe that was much better.
Dubrovnik was excellent. We took MSC's bus shuttle ticket only and met up with friends for three hours. The rest of our group did the walking tour of Dubrovnik and were very satisfied.
If anything, the stops are just too short and there is the feeling of being a little rushed all the time. There was only one day at sea. The rest of the time was at a stop for mostly least a half-day (full day - Bari and Piraeus).
We came away from this cruise saying that we would do this again. This is not a glitzy ship - it is only mid-sized (58,000 tons, with 1500 passengers, 700 crew), and a bit older, so does not have all the bells and whistles of the newer ships. However, it is clean, attractive, and has reasonable amenities. There are lots of families on this ship, but also a range of ages. The Med. was very calm, so there was barely a feeling of being at sea.
I hope this is useful to some others. For a first-time cruise experience, it would get a good rating from our group.