This was my first Carnival cruise, and I'm pleased to say that almost everything was better than I was expecting. The service we received in the dining room (thanks Richard!) was top notch, and far better than my other two cruising experiences (NCL and RC). Being on one of the older Carnival ships definitely had its downsides: the pools were very small, and the design/decor/layout felt very dated compared to my trip on RC's Liberty of the Seas. We loved Nachi Cocum in Cozumel, took about a thousand pictures at Chichen Itza, and I managed to make it a week without being sunburned. Overall, we had a great time on our 5 day cruise, and I was pleasantly surprised with how well Carnival matches up against Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The Ship: If you want a ship with all the amenities of the newest ships (bowling alley, ice skating rink, etc.) then this ship isn't for you. However, we just wanted to have a good time with our friends, so the Ecstasy was just right. I have to complain a little bit here because the age of the ship is definitely a downside. The art/lighting in the hallways was truly ugly. The "art" in the stairwells should be burnt (it might be an improvement). The carpets are awful looking too. Getting around the ship is a bit tricky because of the layout. Getting from one end of the ship to the other isn't as easy as you would think. The dining rooms should also be renamed; many people were getting confused about the WindStar vs. the WindSong. The first night we were among the hordes who went to the wrong dining room, and had to spend 5 minutes making our way to the other one. Being on the Ecstasy really helped me appreciate how far shipbuilding has come in the past 15 years.
Embarkation: It was a cinch, and I'll definitely consider sailing out of Galveston again simply because it was so easy. Anyone who doesn't check their luggage at the curb is nuts. It was delivered promptly to our rooms, and it really saves a lot of work not lugging it around through the security lines. Checking in was extremely fast for those that got all of their paperwork filled out online. If you plan on booking excursions when you get on the boat, definitely try to arrive as early as possible. The line for the shore excursion desk was massive later in the afternoon. The lifeboat drill took ages, for no apparent reason, which soured our mood a bit for the sail out.
Dining: The buffet was decent for a buffet, but we quickly discovered that breakfast in the dining room was both tastier and calmer than the buffet scene upstairs. Breakfast was also a great opportunity to meet other passengers, and throughout the week we never really ended up seeing many of the drunk, redneck cruisers of Carnival's reputation. In fact, I found this cruise far more laid back than my week on the Liberty. Dinners were excellent for the most part; the quality of the food seemed to vary a bit though it was never awful. Dessert was my favorite part of the day, and I really fell in love with the chocolate melting cake. Overall, it was still quite a bit better than I had on RC last year, perhaps because we had about half as many passengers. I definitely recommend the 2nd seating for dinner, we didn't feel rushed, and I was told the 1st seating was more rowdy and noisy. We had a blast dancing with our waiters on the various nights, but if being asked to interact with your waitstaff makes you uncomfortable, I'd recommend a different cruise line. We mostly lunched by the pool, which had the requisite burgers, hotdogs and fries. The room service menu was short, but we managed to find some tasty sandwiches which got delivered very quickly.
Sea Days: I couldn't believe how easy it was to find open deck chairs on the Ecstasy. There were plenty to be found, even at peak times on our sea days. I recommend the aft pool on the veranda deck if you just want to soak up the sun in peace. However, if you're traveling with children who are dying to swim, pick a different ship. The pools were very small, and other than the big slide, the open decks don't offer much for kids, especially the under 10 set. Since our group just wanted to tan and read simultaneously, it was ideal. We didn't do many of the activities offered on board during the day, but the line dancing class was fun, even if it did seem a bit short.
Entertainment: The stage shows in the evening were truly awful. The show that really cinched it was "Xtreme Country". I'd wager 90% of the cruisers on our ship were from Texas, and the theater was near full with country fans. The terrible costumes we saw at the welcome show the 1st night were a portent of things to come. It seemed like Xtreme Country was attempting to mock southern culture and country music. The song choices were often bizarre, and I cringed each time the dancers came back from a costume change. It was unbelievable how many unflattering, and just outright strange costumes they managed to fit into the show. It was a good thing were were drinking. The passenger talent show was a bit better. It was 6 (maybe 8, I was drinking) slow songs in a row. I can't imagine why the staff auditioning acts didn't encourage anyone to change their act; anyone singing an uptempo song would surely have stolen the show. It was the most boring talent show I've ever attended. I kept hoping the evening entertainment would improve, but sadly it never did. The comedians were okay, but not good enough to balance out the other awful evening entertainment. We had much more fun just going to the piano bar
Ports: Cozumel was first, and was wonderful. We pulled in late because of weather issues, but it cleared up right as we were getting off the ship. This was my first visit with the new pier (Puerta Maya), and I was surprised by how far south on the island it is compared to the others. Plenty of shopping right there are the pier, though you'd be smart to do your shopping at the Progresso pier instead. Coming into Puerto Maya made the cab ride down to Nachi Cocum shorter, but we missed out on seeing anything of San Miguel. Nachi Cocum was lovely, and definitely deserves the raves it gets on this website. The food was good, the beach was clean and uncrowded, and the staff was very attentive. We rented a kayak (~$15) and a beach mat ($8), swam a little bit, but mostly drank daiquiris and margaritas. I doubt I'll ever be doing any other excursions in Cozumel again; Nachi Cocum was the perfect beach day.
Progresso wasn't quite as perfect. We chose the Chichen Itza excursion and booked through Carnival, and I'm glad we did. Our buses were late getting back from Chichen (I suspect because of a miscommunication about docking time and the time change), and the boat was held for us slowpokes. I wouldn't be comfortable doing Progresso on my own because of the long travel times to anything worth seeing, and because of the increase in violence in Mexican cities. We felt quite safe on our excursion, though. My biggest complaint about this port is that the bus ride to and from Chichen Itza was LONG. The ruins were great to see, and I really enjoyed the tour, but its not something we'll be doing again. We didn't have time for anything besides the excursion, not even shopping at the pier before or after. I definitely regret not being able to shop at the pier; the prices were much lower for most things compared to Cozumel. I spotted some $1 necklaces, cool luchadore masks, etc. though we weren't able to actually buy anything. TIP: Bring food with you on the bus. The packed lunch provided with the trip is extremely small, and lots of people didn't like the sandwich or chips provided.
Disembarkation: I wish it went as smoothly as embarkation. The wait was really long, and the staff seemed unorganized or confused. Putting your bags out the night before doesn't save you any time, and only saves you a tiny bit of work. As soon as you're off the very short gangplank, you pick up your luggage anyway and have to drag it through the long, long lines for customs. Our customs agent was fast, but I think that there just weren't enough agents to process everyone quickly. Once through customs, getting picked up is a breeze.
We're already planning our next girl's cruise, and I'd be happy to host it on Carnival again. We'll definitely be going on a newer ship though. :)