Our family of five took a 5-night cruise on the Inspiration, departing April 7, 2008. I have a son who is eight years old, and my daughters are 14 and 16. We've cruised with Disney twice and Royal Caribbean once, and I've been a Carnival skeptic in the past. We chose this cruise for some new ports of call and to fit in our kids' Spring Break, and we enjoyed the cruise overall.
Pre-Cruise: We drove from our home near Atlanta and spent the night before at the Bon-Aire Resort Motel in St. Pete Beach. I used to go there with my parents when I was a kid, and it has been remodeled and maintained nicely. It was about a 30 minute drive back to the port, but we wanted to have some beach time before we left.
Embarkation: Very easy, no problems. Dropped off the family and luggage, parked in the garage, and then checked in. We arrived at 10:45AM and were on the ship at 11:30AM. We received a letter at boarding saying that the ships' propulsion system was hampered, so the arrival and departure times were shifted an hour later than advertised, but that worked better for us. The room hallways were blocked until 1:30PM, but we just had lunch on the Lido deck in the Brasserie Grill.
Cabin: After making our reservation, I was concerned about the five of us fitting in a cabin, as well as the location of the cabin (E165), but we had no problems. There were two twin beds, two lofts, and a mattress with frame that was stored under one of the beds. Our son was happy with just the mattress on the floor, so we asked our room steward to not bother with the frame each night. When changing for dinner, typically the girls would get ready while my son and I were at the pool or in the arcade, and then mom and daughters would hang out near the Sushi bar while my son and I got dressed. If I had it to do over I might splurge for two cabins, but for five nights it was not a big deal and saved us over $500. I had read some complaints by others of galley noise and crew stair noise for this particular room, but again there was nothing noticeable to me (it would be hard to hear much of anything over the air rushing from the ventilation system). I could occasionally hear possible crew stair noises while in the bathroom, but no worse than noise from the hallway.
Dining: Cruise food is basically hotel food. Cooking for 2000 people at a time poses limitations, so overall I would say if your expectations are not five-star, then the food is what you would expect. Knowing what to avoid helps (such as the "filet mignon" which is not a quality piece of meat).
Breakfast / Lunch: We typically ate on the Lido deck or in the Brasserie Grill every day for breakfast and lunch. We did have breakfast in the dining room on debarkation day, and the Eggs Benedict were pretty good. The custom made omelets on the Lido Deck were good. My kids enjoyed the pancakes, and there are the usual breakfast buffet choices. For lunch most days I would get a turkey wrap from the deli and make a salad at the salad bar. I did have a hamburger one day which was decent, and also had a grilled chicken that was a small piece of chicken, but fine otherwise. One day at lunch was the rare problem I had with customer service. Each hamburger came pre-dressed with lettuce, tomato, and one slice of pickle. My son asked if he could have extra pickles, and the manager working the hamburger line said "No, we don't have any more." There was one on every burger, so I guess I could have taken another burger and thrown away everything except the pickle, but I couldn't figure out why extra pickles was such an unachievable challenge. I noted that on my comment card at the end of the cruise.
Dinner: I had asked for the 8PM dinner seating, since the early times would cut into our afternoon pool time too much. We were assigned 8:30PM, which wasn't surprising since the cruise was sold out and I'm sure more people request earlier times. We thought about requesting a change, but liked our waiters and table location so much we stuck with 8:30PM. We were at a table of 10 (very few small tables available), but the other family at our table only came on the formal night, so we were mostly dining alone anyway. I was surprised how many people passed on the dining room dinners, but that's the nice thing about a cruise - you have choices. The food was mostly average, but as I said earlier, cooking for 2000 people has limitations. I got tired of seeing every meat and fish entrée covered in some type of sauce or gravy, but that appears to be a technique of masking cheap food. In general the seafood entrees were more appetizing to me than the beef. Chocolate melting cake is pretty darn good, and we didn't have any desserts that were more worth the calories. We used our carry-on wine allocation for our before dinner drinks, but there are reasonable wine choices in the dining room for $20-$25. One of my complaints on Royal Caribbean was that they used the same glasses for red and white wines. Carnival does actually use red wine glasses for red wine, so there is more of an effort to provide a "fine dining" experience. I was also pleased to see that after the first night, our Maitre D' (Freddy) did enforce the dress code - no shorts, no tank tops, etc.
Children's Clubs: My eight-year-old son really enjoyed the Camp Carnival activities and spent more and more time there as the cruise progressed, although the facilities don't compare to Disney's (but, you're paying a lot less also). My 14-year-old daughter was pretty disappointed in the activities she was offered, and also disappointed that there is not actually a specific "club" location for this age group - they just meet at various places on the ship. My 16-year-old daughter enjoyed Club O2 and found friends there easily. We had to set a curfew for her - otherwise some of the kids were basically roaming the ship until the wee hours. The WaterWorks and putt-putt were fun onboard.
Entertainment: I must say that night life on Carnival is better than Royal Caribbean or Disney in terms of music and club options. The only show we saw was the Talent Show and then the comedian (Tony Esposito), who was very funny (the family show). I wanted to go back to see the "R-rated" show, but we were dancing at the Avant Garde Lounge instead. The guitar player, Bruce, who played nightly at Violins bar was also very entertaining.
Grand Cayman: We booked the Reef n Rays Snorkeling the night before we arrived at Cayman and were glad we did. It was reasonably priced and was fun for the entire family, snorkeling with the stingrays and then at a nearby reef. Note: We received an excursion "addendum" onboard with additional options, so I'm glad I didn't commit ahead. I considered booking an independent excursion also, but with the short time in Cayman (and then the arrival/departure time shift), we decided we would either just take a taxi to the Seven-Mile Beach or book something onboard. There was the infamous long line to get back on the tender, but it moved fairly quickly. Of course, there are always folks who think the rules are for everybody except them that were cutting in line - probably the same folks that leave towels on the chairs at the pool. (By the way, Carnival signs out towels to you and they are $22 if not returned, so you're taking your chances leaving your towels unattended on a pool chair. I saw a couple of folks come back to chairs to find their $22 towels had walked away.)
Cozumel: We just wanted to relax by the time we reached Cozumel, so we just wandered the shops in the morning and had lunch at Carlos and Charlies (much better food than anything on the ship of course). In the afternoon, we enjoyed the much less crowded pool and WaterWorks onboard.
Spa Carnival: My wife, oldest daughter, and I all used the gym and it was well equipped. My daughter and I signed up for a spinning class, although I would have preferred that it not be held on the sea days at 3PM when most folks would like to be at the pool. I was expecting the spin class to be maybe 7AM or 8AM, but regardless, we did one and it was intense. We skipped the second one so both of our sea days would not be interrupted.
Debarkation: We did self assist and there was a very long line to get off the boat. Don't assume you're done with your Sign and Sail Card until you're off the ship - we had to dig ours out while standing in line.
Overall, our family enjoyed this cruise - I personally did more than I had expected. Food is not great, and the pool could get crowded, but it was a relaxing trip with plenty of fun.