This will probably be pretty long but if you're looking for the nitty gritty, just stay tuned and you'll get it.
Background: This was my husband and my third cruise, second with Carnival. We're both 28. This was our children's very first cruise: DD 10 and DS 7. We booked this cruise because it left out of Tampa, was reasonably priced for a summer cruise, and we thought that a length of 4 nights would be the perfect way to introduce our children to cruising. We booked inside gty and were upgraded to an oceanview on Empress deck.
Pre-cruise: We stayed one night at the La Quinta Busch Gardens. The hotel is directly behind the theme park and a 15 minute ride from the port. I booked directly with the hotel and received a Sam's club member discount. Price: $58 , with taxes $64. There were other hotel guests in front of me getting rooms even cheaper with AAA. Technically you can walk to the park from the hotel, but the entrance is on the opposite side so the walk in a mile and a half. The hotel is really in a great location. There is a mall one block up and about a million restaurants/fast food places in a 5 block radius. The rooms were fairly clean (I used to be a maid so I have pretty high standards) and the pool area is really nice with a waterfall and landscaping. The highlight of staying at a La Quinta is the continental breakfast, complete with make your own waffles.
Embarkation: We headed to the port around 11:30am. This has to be the best port authority in the country....unbelievable! After the chaos we experienced last May in Port Everglades I was pleasantly surprised at how organized Tampa port authority was. There is a driveway to pull thru to unload your bags. It can accommodate at least a dozen cars at a time. There is no shortage of porters. After parking and walking over to the terminal, we were literally whisked thru security. After zig zagging thru the empty ropes we were escorted directly to an agent at the counter who had our cards to us in all of 5 minutes. She told us when they called "15" we could get in line for our sail and sign photos. No sooner had she said it, they called our number. The entire process from start to finish couldn't have taken more than 30 minutes!
Once on the ship I have to say it was complete chaos. There were MANY groups booked on this cruise, including a radio station, "guns and hoses" (cops and firefighters), a travel agency, and a dance troupe. There were people whooping to each other in line, throughout the atrium, and in the buffet. The buffet was BODY TO BODY. I was starting to get nervous, thinking we had booked a cruise with a bunch of party animals and potential drunks. However, my fears were unfounded because sometime around sail away the crowds were more evenly dispersed and the ship was much more pleasant. And, in spite of seeing one group of teenage boys wearing "Booze Cruise II" shirts, I never once saw anyone falling down drunk. I was also concerned about the amount of trash, plates, cups, I saw laying everywhere. It was like everyone had descended on the buffet and took their food to go...leaving evidence shoved in every nook and cranny on the ship. However, I think it was more of a case of the crew trying to get everyone on the ship and all the rooms flipped because once we set sail, I rarely saw a dirty dish or garbage on the ship.
Cabin: Our room was set up to accommodate three. The king and an upper bunk. We knew this in advance and also knew they would be providing a cot of some sort. It was a trundle bed. It does cramp space a bit but it was manageable. This was our first window and we LOVED it. The room is definitely showing some wear. Many of the drawers were difficult to open and shut. There are some cracked tiles and the grout is due to be redone. However, the room was kept immaculate by our WONDERFUL room steward, Mr. Johnson. He went out of his way to talk to us (not just to say hi, but REALLY talk to us). We got into our room before he was finished and we told him it was fine, yet he insisted on dusting it! We never had a day go by without a towel animal. He even folded our clothes and hung up wet ones.
Public Spaces: The buffet is poorly laid out. The worked so hard to maximize seating that there is hardly any room to maneuver around the buffet itself. The open 360 style deli by night, omelet station by day is ingenious though and I think its a shame that the newer ships aren't using this design. The purple worms on the ceiling are odd too. The atrium is nice if not a bit narrow. The sun roof lets in alot of light but it tends to make the room too warm for my tastes, which is why I didn't spend much time at the atrium bar. I didn't like the way the main showroom, Paris Lounge, was laid out either. There are poles blocking the view in a lot of places and the sound booths take up an enormous amount of real estate. The promenade is great, it looks almost identical to the one on Liberty. The temperature is always nice and icy and DH and I really loved hanging out at the violins bar for its proximity to Camp Carnival. I can't really say much about the dining room. It seemed odd to be in a one story dining room after having been on two ships with tiered dining rooms. The pools aren't very attractive. The new renovations they will be doing are much needed. However, the fact that the Inspiration is going to dry dock next month did not mean the crew slacked off on maintenance/cleaning. Those pools were SCRUBBED down quite vigorously. We never had trouble finding deck chairs, even on sea days.
Entertainment: Tony Espisito is not to be missed. The guy is hilarious! The first show he does is family oriented and extremely clean. However, the adult show is really adult. Not that he cusses a lot, just that a majority of the material is sexual in nature. The shows were good, better than some I've seen before but nothing that knocked my socks off. The magic act is pretty good but be careful where you sit if you go to see Brad Tassall's act. He dumped water all over a woman sitting right behind us as part of his act. Not funny. Other entertainment we enjoyed: the galley tour, ice carving, "what's in the bag", towel folding lessons, and of course the hairiest chest competition.
Camp Carnival: They really should put some effort into explaining the activities listed in the camp capers. Going by the titles alone, my children were convinced that all the activities were boring and not for them! However, once I got them in the door, they didn't want to leave. Don't miss the family welcome aboard party in the disco. My only complaint is that the WII and xbox 360 were made available only to the 15 and up group. My 7 year old was looking forward to this. They offered his age group ps2 and gameboy playtime, which he enjoyed, but we have these systems at home. Also, my daughter was looking forward to arts and crafts and for some reason, there were about five offered in a row during our port day, but hardly anything offered the rest of the trip. Of course we weren't on the ship on port day! They spent about 2-4 hours a day at camp carnival which was perfect for DH and I. We came on this cruise to spend time with them but it was nice to have a few hours to ourselves each day.
Food: Good as usual! The only thing I ordered that I didn't like was the Chateaubriand. It was gamey tasting. I think my favorite meal, strangely enough, was the turkey and dressing. It sounds boring but the stuffing was something special and there were pan fried yams. Yum! My DD tried escargot and loved it! Oh, and try the pear poached in red wine, wow..only 60 calories (like I'm counting. I have to learn to make that one when I go on my next diet. Everything was beautifully presented and our wait staff was fabulous as usual. This is the first time my husband and I actually enjoyed the assistant waiter more than the head waiter. I think his name was Espiderion (or something to that effect). George the Greek is a hoot! Make sure you get his chocolate cake recipe on the last night.
Food in the buffet was good as well. My son must have ate a cheeseburger every day...as a snack! I loved the different ethnic theming as did my adventurous family. My two MUST HAVES on Carnival (Reuben sandwich and goat cheese pizza) were fabulous as usual. The coffee is actually palatable. How they manage to make edible coffee while other ships make boiled tar paper is beyond me. There are also hot cocoa dispensers and it doesn't taste instant. However, it is LOADED with sugar. Be careful how much you let the kiddies drink. The melon must be in season because the cantaloupe and honeydew melon were ripe, juicy, and delicious. I think I ate about 10 lbs of it during the trip. I am disappointed that grits weren't offered every day. On the Liberty they had one buffet line with grits and one with oatmeal and on this ship grits were offered one day and oatmeal the next. They are offered every morning in the dining room though. They had stewed bananas for the pancakes in the DR as well. I only mention this b/c it is on all the Carnival menus, yet every time I tried to order it on Liberty I was told they were out. Guess if they're out on the first day they won't magically get them a few days later. The stewed bananas are like bananas foster...floating in caramel sauce. YUM.
Port: The only stop on the itinerary was Cozumel. We actually docked, no tendering. Customs check was delayed, I'm told that the Holiday "cut" in line but I don't know if that was true. We were off the ship by 8:20 local time. I'm not sure what our hurry was because nothing was open. Most stores open around 9. We shopped until about 10 then went looking to meet with our excursion. We booked a 4 and a half hour atv/beach break excursion privately thru Island marketing. Island Marketing is merely a booking agent and not the company that does the tour. The company that does the tour is one of the two that Carnival books through. You save a couple of bucks but our main reason for booking privately is that Carnival would not allow children under 18 to book this excursion. By booking privately, children ages 6 to 15 are aloud to ride with their parents. Our total price was approx $260 for the four of us. Just beware that even though you have the option of 8:30 or 10:30, they reserve the right to change your time to 10:30 if you book 8:30 (I believe its b/c they give those booking thru Carnival the earlier time). We were taken by cab (they paid) about 30 minutes up the road to our starting point. There were about 8 atv's in our caravan. We rode around thru rocky terrain and muddy pits for about an hour and half and stopped at three different places, including a sink hole, a ruin, and a cave. The tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and gave us a lot of history. This excursion is DIRTY but fun. If you have plans for afterwards you may want to bring a change of clothes. Don't be shy about using the goggles, many people opted not to use them. I, myself, did appreciate not having to rub rocks and dirt out of my eyes. One lady started whining about her contacts (not wearing goggles..only sunglasses)...of course she whined about everything so DH and I chose to be in the back of the caravan where we could kick up as much dirt and mud as we pleased. Our excursion was followed by a beach break. I had been told by the booking company that the beach area was not good for snorkeling but that I could pay to rent gear while I was there. However, the gear was free to use and there were lots of rocky areas to snorkel. We also received tickets for one free drink each. The break was supposed to last one hour but because we were the only ones that booked the tour WITH the beach stop, we were told we could leave whenever we wanted and they would take us back by private car. The beach (Uvas) was absolutely beautiful. We cooled off in the ocean, rinsed the dirt and grime off, washed off at the shower station, and then kicked back at the pavilion with a plate of nachos. All prices are quoted in pesos. My tip to you is to know the exchange rate. We asked the waiter what 200 pesos would be in US and he told us $25, when in reality it was $18.50. We realized right away he had built himself a nice little tip in there. You also need exact change because anything you give the waiters at this beach, they will not bring you change for...which is the only reason our waiter got such a hefty tip. Our bill was about $15 U.S. and we only had two tens. Just remember, the employees at this beach bar are not affiliated with the tour company. This excursion was GREAT and worth every penny. They had a great attitude and the tour guide earned his tips (optional, but I'd wager you'll opt to). There are other things I'd like to try the next time we're in Cozumel, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this tour or book it again.
Debarkation: Quick and painless! My biggest problem here was the other passengers. What's your hurry!? Do you think the ship is going to leave before you can get off? We did self disembark. Several times people squeezed in between me and the rest of my family. I don't mind being separated from my husband for some of the wait but I'm not going to leave my kids in line by themselves. We have matching luggage, how hard is it to figure out we're together? We also have the ONE CUSTOMS CLAIM FORM PER FAMILY so it doesn't make sense to cut in. Some people. Be prepared to wait in line for the elevators. There are two separate ones you must ride to the bottom. We braved the stairs for the first one but totally missed the stairs for the second one and had to wait for the elevator. There was no room to back out of line. Total time spent from start to finish was about 30 minutes.
Overall: This is an older ship and is missing some of the amenities that the newer ships have. HOWEVER, we had a WONDERFUL cruise and I would not hesitate to book this ship again. The ship is clean, but comfortable, like a broke in pair of blue jeans. And most importantly, the service and staff on this ship is the best I've experienced to date.