Sorry this is so long but I want this to be as helpful as possible. I have broken it into sections so hopefully its not too bad :)
I went on this cruise with my 18 year old younger brother, our parents in their mid 40s and our grandmother who is in her 60s. We have been on one carnival cruise a long time ago, and have cruised several other times on other lines including royal Caribbean, Norwegian, princess, disney, the big red boat (for those who remember it.) We got a good deal through an online travel agency for this particular cruise, which was our number one reason for choosing it. We had heard in recent years that carnival was the lowest class cruise line, but for the price we decided to take our chances.
Arriving Hotel/Flight Info:
We stayed Saturday night before the cruise at the Best Western Atlantic Beach Resort near South Beach in Miami. We paid a little more for a hotel on the beach, but due to delayed flights More
and rain, we didn't get to enjoy it. The room was clean and the beach looked nice, but I wouldn't want to stay there long term. The restaurant was overpriced with bad service, and few other family friendly dining options are within walking distance.
I do highly recommend flying in a day early for any cruise. Our flight was delayed 5 hours out of Chicago and several people on our flight were close to missing or missed other ships leaving on Saturday. Also, leaving an extra day gives you some padding in case your luggage doesn't make your flight.
My family really enjoys watching karaoke on every cruise we take. Carnival has come up with something really neat called the "legends show". Throughout the week during karaoke, try outs are held for the roles of famous singers (Elvis, Garth Brooks, Aretha, etc). The audience chooses their favorite singer for each role. Then, on he last night of the cruise, the winners were the stars of the show in the main theater. They had full costumes, orchestra, lights, backup dancers, and they all ended up doing an excellent job. I definitely recommend watching the tryouts and the show. It is such a good time for everyone.
As for the pool, get there early to get your chairs! No one likes early rising chair hogs but this does not seem to be prevented by the ship. It turns into "if you cant beat 'em, join 'em". Trust me on this or you will have trouble getting enough chairs to sit your group together. Late risers will have better luck getting a chair on the back of the ship, where extra chairs are stacked until they are gone.
I found the service on the victory to be excellent. Our waiter and his assistant were amazingly sweet and made our dinner experience wonderful. Our cabin steward was great; we ran into her at least once a day and she always spoke to us and remembered our names and asked about our day. Our rooms were always made up promptly after we left each morning, and the beds were turned down when we got back from dinner each night. She left cute towel animals every night as well.
Cozumel - My brother and step dad did the ATV tour and both said it was their favorite part of the whole trip.
Grand Cayman - Our whole group got a taxi and spent the day at 7 mile beach. The bus taxis at the pier were $5 a person each way. The beach was well kept, but the area where beach chairs can be rented is crowded. Bring your towels from the ship and just lay on those on the nicer part of the beach. Water sports and snorkel gear can be rented there also.
Jamaica - Our whole group took the Cool Runnings II catamaran to Dunns River Falls, booked through Carnival. We had been warned about Jamaica being somewhat dangerous, with locals trying to sell drugs to tourists and pick-pocketing, but we avoided the whole situation by taking the catamaran. The music was enjoyable and the ride was scenic. When we arrived at the dock at the falls, we got off the boat, left our bags on the boat, and the boat was moved away from the dock, which was nice to be able to leave your things in a safe place while you climb. The falls themselves are a physically demanding activity, so my grandmother stayed at the bottom at the beach. My mom and step dad are in their forties and had trouble getting up some parts, so I would not climb the rocks unless you are in good physical condition. There are stairs along the side for those who want to watch but not climb up the rocks. I highly recommend the falls- they are so beautiful and unlike any other shore excursion I have done. It was my favorite part of the trip.
The state rooms seem a little larger than normal, which is nice. If you have long hair, be sure to bring a hairdryer! The one provided does a pitiful job.
The food in the dining room was excellent. Some cruise lines try to make their food too fancy in my opinion. Every night on carnival I enjoyed what I ordered for dinner, and never had the same thing twice. A lot of people on cruise critic had recommended the chocolate melting cake. It is delicious but I enjoyed the other desserts I had as well. If you like creme brule, try it the night it is offered! Its great. The buffet was hit and miss but the deli, pizzeria, asian food station, and grill are open every day as well. You will not go hungry!
Both of the production shows are very high quality. The sets, lights and costumes are of good quality, and the live orchestra does an amazing job. The songs they performed were popular songs the audience could sing along with. The magician was very good, and all but one of the comedians were very funny. The Legends Show I mentioned before was my favorite. It was really impressive to see fellow passengers doing so great in front of a huge audience.
We did the self service disembarkation and chose to leave around 8:30. It was kind of hard getting an elevator, but once we got one it was easy to carry our things off, and it was nice not having to search for our bags at the luggage carousel. The customs lines were mess. It took probably 40 minutes to go 20 feet.
The American Airlines counter out of Miami was the biggest mess I have seen in my history of airline travel. We had a later flight, but went on to the airport 5 hours early thinking we would just pass the time there. The line just to get to the baggage counter took 2 and half hours and stretched what seemed a mile. Easily over a thousand people were in line, and most of them had missed their flight. The AA employees were rude and barely spoke English. Also, when I arrived in Ohio, my luggage did not make it with me. If you must fly out of Miami airport, go early! It might have been worse than usual due to spring break, but it would be awful to miss your flight if you could make it just by leaving a little earlier. If you don't believe it was that bad, photos are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashleyhalsey/sets/72157604352810529/
A great trip! Don't listen to people who say Carnival isn't nice enough. Vacation is what you make of it. Have a good attitude, enjoy meeting the people around you, and you will have a great time. Cruising offers something for every age group and my whole family had a great vacation.
Photos I took of the ship can be viewed here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashleyhalsey/sets/72157604348226676/ Less