Carnival set up our flights and we were almost the last people to board (about 3pm) so there was no line, no pictures, etc for us to get on the Valor. Kind of nice, but about 5 minutes after we got there (very frazzled by traveling all day with kids) we had to go to muster...which by this time we were all almost in tears. How many times do we need to get our passports out? Our baby had to get on with relatives because only 4 people can get on a single stateroom fun pass, lots and lots of minor little things traveling with kids just made it not much fun process.
We had a balcony stateroom, 7372 Empress Deck, Port Side Aft. We had me and my wife, our 7-year old son, our 5-year old daughter and 10-month old son. There was a bed that pulled out of the ceiling for our son. The couch converted to a bed for our daughter (not a pull out, but the cushions turned over and the back rests came off). Our baby got a crib.
Although our cabin was crowded, it was adequate for our needs. Showering with the baby takes 2 people as we're used to a bathtub. The balcony was great. One complaint however was the chairs on the balcony. One of them was the "lay down" type...which is a joke because the balcony is only 4' deep...but the way the chair is constructed, it takes up about 3.5 feet of the depth of the balcony. The other is a normal chair, easy to maneuver around. Why can't both be normal chairs? Minor detail. One great thing about the balcony however is that it's very secure - we could actually just let the baby crawl around at his leisure and look out at the ocean through the glass. There's no fear of him falling because he couldn't get anywhere. Also, it was a great place to store the stroller.
The duration of the cruise our TV showed "System Unavailable" for keeping track of our S&S expense tracking. There is only 1 plug-in in the room. We had anticipated that so we brought a power strip which was nice. There was an extra plug in the bathroom but it only works when the lights were on.
Also, we took the over-the-door shoe holder for the bathroom. Highly recommended. There were a few shelves in the bathroom, but this made it much easier, especially since we had 5 people. Whomever got our stateroom afterward now has one unless Amporn took it down. We thought instead of throwing it away, perhaps someone else could use it.
One big thing we used a lot was the safe. I brought a little net book laptop and it fit perfectly (normal sided laptops would not fit)...as well as our cash, passports, cameras, camera cards, etc. The only problem we had was after the first night, it wouldn't open anymore. We had to call 3 times to guest services, finally we got our room steward Amporn to make a call on his little phone and finally someone came and opened it for us (total 1-1/2 hours). They told us NOT to have our safe magnetic stripe card anywhere near other magnetic stripe cards or it would mess it up (??!!). Whatever. The card we used was an old gift card from Wal-Mart, so we just kept it inside a book in the room for the remainder of the trip and it worked fine after that. I guess the moral of the story is to not put all your credit/debit cards in your wallet at the same time.
Bathrooms - we had a standard step-up bathroom with a toilet that you have to wince every time you flush because you think it'll suck you in too. I'm a big guy - 6'-2", 230 pounds. Amazingly, the shower was not too crowded. I could wash off no problem. It looks small, but the way it's designed, it's pretty easy for me. There were, however the multitude of very round waddlers on board that may beg to differ, but there are some fresh water showers out by the pools they could have used sans-soap to rinse off the 1st, 2nd or 3rd breakfast residue baked on by the hot sun between grazings.
A couple of times out on the balcony we had smoke wafting up into our faces, but it was never so bad we wanted to go inside.
It seemed like the ship was always being cleaned. There were always the little things drunks leave around like melted ice cream cones shoved into peculiar places, but people were always busy cleaning and the ship smelled pleasant.
When we got to our room, the first thing we thought was "what in the heck are we going to do with our luggage?". But luckily, they thought of that. The beds have a very high side, so you can store luggage underneath. Ours was large and it worked well. However, as I pulled up the bedskirt, I found a rather large pair of dirty men's briefs. YUCK. Needless to say, we called Amporn and had him come pick them up. I wasn't about to touch them. He appologized right and left, no big deal (and we did give him a large additional tip at the end of the trip for being so awesome).
Formal Dining: We were Washington Room Upper. We were seated starboard side aft, the back corner of the ship windows were right outside our table. Sitting in this location meant quite a bit of propeller noise and vibration. Actually when we were seated and the ship was moving away from port like in Roatan and Belize, it meant vibration so severe that stacks of plates crashed and liquids spilled from cups and glasses. I think we ran aground in Roatan due to the tides and recent earthquake activity...so that may be the reason for severe vibration. Belize we sure stirred up a bunch of mud off the floor as we were going away so I'm not so sure we didn't hit something there too.
The quality of the food was very good. The temperature was always good, never noticeably extreme one way or the other. The selection was excellent most nights, but I thought was a bit lacking a couple of nights. The 3rd night I didn't care for fish (broiled red snapper), so I ordered the beef (tenderloin and shoulder - 2 cuts) and didn't think it was all that great either. Most other nights, the food was great. Especially the prime rib (mix together the horseradish and sour cream...awesome!)
We were traveling with children, so we did have problems with the way the meals in the dining room were served. First of all - we had 6:00 dining, but the amount of time between courses felt very long, especially for the kids. Usually the appetizers / kids meals came around 7:00. If the kids did not order an appetizer, their food was brought out with the appetizers which was fine, but then they were done and sitting around for an hour before they could order desert. We did notice one night when a large table near us were not present, the food came much faster and we liked this better.
One other minor detail we didn't like was that when a kid's meal was brought out to our 10-month old, the waiter continually (every night) sat the food right in front of him, where he would promptly grab either the plate, or food on it. More than once the waiter from the bar put drinks within his reach and caused spills. Luckily, we were watching close enough most of the time, but when our attention was diverted, it would have been nice if we could have been warned before putting things down in front of a baby. Most places we visit the wait staff has kids and understands this. Also, it seemed to me like I did a lot of waiting for refills for water or tea. Every night I had to ask for more before someone came around. Just a little thing that I would like to see addressed.
One other small thing - the music over the loudspeakers during meals was too loud. I mix sound for live venues, and I would have guessed this music was around 80dB at our table...way too loud for normal conversation.
We never saw our Matride'. We heard him very loudly over the loudspeakers several times when the waiters danced and sang...and we were urged to tip him by the Cruise Director at our debarkation Bingo / instruction talk, but really didn't see the need to tip someone for personal service when we didn't even know what he looked like.
One night we saw magicians going to other tables doing tricks and our kids got really excited, but they never came to our table.
We spent most of our breakfast, lunch and one dinner in Rosie's which is on Lido deck aft. Scattered around this dining area are several other options like "Fish & Chips", Deli, Asian, and Grill & Pizza along with the usual buffet stuff which constantly changed for lunch and dinner (dinner was typically the same as main dining options, but buffet style)
Fish & Chips - I'm not a real fan of fried food, tried the fish & chips on the first day and didn't feel too well afterward...so stuck with the "seared ahi-tuna with watermelon" and boulibase...AWESOME. I think I ate it almost every day afterwards.
Deli - no question, my favorite was the Reuben Panini. I had 6 of them on my 7-day cruise. VERY good. There was often a line for the Deli, but sometimes I could catch it empty. The cook (who also does the sushi at 5:00 up on deck 5 near the Java Cafe aft) cooked the Panini's longer when there was less line, which meant they were easier to eat because they weren't falling apart. Either way they tasted good...minor detail.
Asian - I had a hard time finding it open. Maybe it's my weird eating hours (??) but it seemed like it wasn't ever open. I saw it a couple of times after I had already eaten, and my wife got a BBQ beef wrap and said it was awesome...but not much to report there.
Grill - popular place. Always a line. Of course, it's right next to the adult pool area, but very good regular American hot dogs, fries and cheeseburgers. Good quality. I got some chili-cheese fries one day...but mostly ate fish & chips or deli because those are things I couldn't get back home as easily.
Pizza - pretty good. I had the anchovy one; my daughter (5 yrs) loved the cheese pizza. Only had it once because I really enjoyed the deli sandwiches and the plethora of options on the buffet. There was usually a line for pizza because most of it is made to order and they only have 4 slices per pizza.
Breakfasts were always good. Usually a line for the omelet station. Oatmeal, Grits, Potato patties, Scrambled Eggs, Waffels, Pancakes, Sausage Gravy, Bacon, Ham & Sausage...sometimes corned beef hash. One thing, though...I would like to see sour cream on the buffet somewhere for the omelets. The first day I grabbed cream cheese thinking it was sour cream. Very tasty, but kind of hard to spread on an omelet. If anyone ever figures out where to get those little crescent type pastries with the yellow crème in the center...please let me know. I love those things!
Fruits - always seemed to be the same cantaloupe, honeydew and pineapple. True, we're on a 7-day cruise and it's probably hard to keep too many fruits fresh, but grapes and/or strawberries would have been nice since I'm not a big fan of melons.
Desserts - always a good selection of pastries pies and cakes. Dinners always had (semi) warm chocolate melting cake and whatever the special desert for the main dining room for the day was. (I always tried to sneak an extra warm chocolate melting cake for a late night snack).
Ice Cream - Now that we're home from the cruise, I really miss being able to go out on Lido deck and grab an ice cream cone whenever I want. One night, the kids and I grabbed ice cream, sat in the hot tub and watched Wall-E on the big screen. My 5-year-old said "this is the life..."
Another minor detail about informal dining (I know, they're all minor...) - we could never find a high-chair in Rosie's. We always had to find someone to ask. I would have preferred to just know where they were and not have to bother anyone (because it always took a while) - but we could never find one. I think they might have only had 1 or 2 on the ship, because we saw very few babies on board.
Informal Dining: I would give food quality an "A"...service an "A" because everyone always wanted to play with our baby and atmosphere an "A" because it was always clean and well managed.
Formal Dining Room: I would give the food quality an "A", the service a "B-", and atmosphere a "B-". Overall good, but there is room for improvement. Some things like propeller noise can't be fixed which is fine, but the volume of the music and the attentiveness of the waiters could be fixed.
Yes, I'll even review the infirmary...have you ever seen this on a review? We had the fortune of getting a 5-year old with an infection on the ship, so had to go visit the infirmary. It went a little slower than I would have wanted, and they don't take insurance, so a talk with the doctor will cost $80. Luckily for us, though he was sick so we just got to talk to the nurse for $30 plus a little more for the medicine. The entire time, there was an employee there trying to get something from the staff that they didn't like him asking for. Couldn't really understand them but the staff was quite irritated with this man. "Not my problem" was all I kept hearing.
As we had kids with us, we were limited on the entertainment...but my wife's parents took the kids on the last day at sea so we could see a show. The show we watched was called "Far From Over" and it was an 80's era tribute. Now, I do mid-high end sound and lights production fairly often...and I'll say that this was a top-notch performance in the stage dancers and singers as well as the behind-the-scenes lighting and sound production. Not only that, but it was very entertaining. I knew from before the show that there was a live band tuning their instruments...but when they started playing some of those old 80's pop hits, I really wondered if they were performing from tracks or if it was a band. Then, the band rose up from the front of house, and sure enough, they had brass, strings, percussion, etc. Wow. Awesome show is all I can say. Very good stuff.
Family & Children:
We used Camp Carnival quite a bit. Interesting, though...we didn't see in any of the previous literature that children under 2 years of age can go up to Camp Carnival between 12:00 and 2:00 every day (also from 10pm to 3am as advertised). There is a $6 per hour charge for this, but it was nice break for us on the days at sea.
Also, for the 5 and under kids, parents are given a cordless phone that we could keep with us (for free) for the duration of the cruise (so the counselors could get ahold of us if needed). The phone had a number on the back that we could call from our stateroom if we wanted to get ahold of the other person. Kind of a nice little freebie that we didn't know about.
For myself, I thought Camp Carnival would be boring for the kids. My son (7yrs) said it was, but he started changing his tune. I don't think he did a lot other than played playstation and air hockey...but he seemed to enjoy it. He's a little more advanced for his age, so he probably would have enjoyed it more had he gone with the older kids. Maybe next time.
My Daughter (5yrs) loved it. She liked the crafts, the counselors, every activity. Loved it.
Grand Cayman: We took Moby Dick Tours Stingray City. About $20pp cheaper than carnival's excursion and way less crowded. They put about 30-40 people on our boat, and left early enough to make it before the "Carnival" people go there. Good thing too. When they got there, about 300 people go off of boats into the water and it was extremely crowded. Our guides warned us this would happen, so we left and went snorkeling on a reef nearby. This was my favorite thing on the whole trip. Awesome.
Roatan: We took Victor Bodden tour guide in a private van around the island. All in all, I would say it was OK. Nothing really extraordinary. The guide's phone kept ringing and he was talking fast to some mystery person on the other end of the line about who-knows-what half the day. Whatever we told him we wanted to do, it would have been nice if he would have given us suggestions. For instance, we wanted to see Iguanas, Monkeys, Zip line and Beach. Well, Iguanas were 40 minutes on the other side of the island from everything else. If we had known that, we would have skipped the iguanas. It wasn't that neat. We ended up running out of time because of this. Also, when we wanted to shop, I could tell he was only taking us to places where his friends were owners. When we told him we wanted to swim on a beach, he was taking us to the one where his son owned a boat to take us out on it. The zip line was very fun at Victor Bodden's house and the monkeys were pretty cool, but we ran out of time and didn't get to a beach.
Belize: Getting off the ship, we had to go to the aft lounge (Eagles Lounge) and get a tender ticket, and then called by ticket number when the tender go there. We were then escorted by group through the ship to the tender area on deck 0. I noticed several people that bypassed this process, just simply "merged" with the group on the lower decks as the group passed by...so evidently "veteran cruiser" also means "rules don't apply". We cave tubed with Shoretrips.com (also called VIV tours). The price was $20 more than Major Toms or other excursions in the area, but it was worth it...and I'll tell you why. 1) We had 14 people in our group with 2 tour guides. 2) Because of our small group, we went another 30 minutes up farther into the jungle than the other groups, so we got additional cave tubing. We eventually ran into the other large groups and I felt sorry for them. They were all forced to wear their cheesy little life preservers which looked uncomfortable and hard to paddle in. Our guides let us keep our life vests strapped to the tubes. Our guides knew each of us by name, and filled us with information about Belize. In addition, their guides didn't look like they were as prepared as I would have hoped for. One of the guides was really struggling walking through the caves pulling long lines of people through. Also, our guides Mario and Manuel were very knowledgeable about their country and talked and talked about everything showing us around the entire trip. Very good experience
Cozumel : Piggy Flu - Key West instead.
Key West: We had nothing planned other than going to Ft. Zachary Taylor Beach - since this is my son's name; it was a must-visit. We're not heavy drinkers, mild-shoppers, so not much else to do in Key West. We got one of those little electric golf-cart cars which really helped the 2-miles between the port and the beach. The snorkeling and beach area were not nearly as nice as Grand Cayman (water was cloudy and the beach was very rocky just inside the water line).
Debarkation was very easy. Just follow directions. It's those people that try to skirt the instructions and procedures that cause the problems. How many times do they have to say "Please do not loiter in the Atriums unless you are called by debarkation number" before people will listen? I guess "veteran cruiser" means rules don't apply.
Everyone on the ship was very accommodating. We could tell, even when they were tired, in a bad mood, etc always made an effort to smile and greet us appropriately. Most of the staff wanted to play with our baby...we believe because most of them had kids back home and missed them. We felt warmly welcome by most of the staff on board. Guests, on the other hand were not as accommodating...more than once we got dirty looks because of the baby being too loud (he likes to hear his echo in big spaces...so a few times he gave little bursts of shouts in Rosie's...) and several times people would scramble to beat the stroller on an elevator so we would have to wait for another...but most everyone made friends with us. We learned quickly to just carry the stroller down stairs. Funny how in-shape 20-somethings "need" that elevator space while a family of 5 with a stroller should just take the stairs.
There were a couple things that bothered me on the trip that I wanted to mention.
First, I think it was the 2nd day at sea. Right after Belize. They had a big advertisement in the Capers about these $80-$150 watches going on sale for $20 at a certain time. So, my wife and I decided to check it out. When we got there, it was before the sale started and there were tables of watches with blankets over them and people crowded around. We couldn't even see the watches. The workers in the store were continually giving a pitch about OTHER sales going on, OTHER things we could buy, OTHER stuff to spend money on, etc. Got my Radar going. Finally, the orgy of people got out of hand and just started grabbing watches. My wife grabbed me one and I looked at it. Looked OK, had a wallet and a pen with it. A little plastic marker inside the case that said "$79.95" which was evidently the regular price of the watch set. I tried it on and immediately thought "this is a cheap watch"...I could just feel it. I turned around the box and it said "Japan Movement - $19.95" right next to the UPC code. Ah-ha! Kind of felt like a scam. These weren't $80-$150 watches; there were $20 at best. AT BEST! I took another look and thought - well, it's kind of nice, it comes with a nice pen and wallet, so I'll go ahead and bite. However, when I got back to the room and tried to set it, I realized all the extra dials on men's watches that tells date, month, etc...THEY WERE PAINTED ON! Didn't even function. So, I got scammed by Carnival out of $20 just so they could give me a sales pitch on more expensive junk. Oh well, at least I wasn't those droves of people buying 10 or more of them and thinking they were getting a steal (yes there were many of them). This soured my opinion of Carnival a bit as its very evident here that they are just after money, not customer happiness. Classic bait & switch. I fell for it.
The layout of the Valor. In my opinion, having the Lincoln Dining room Decks 3 and 4 amidships is just plain dumb. It made it very difficult to get around. I've heard this from many others...but it's true. Yes, we figured it out after several days, but still...it was a pain to get around that dining room. Too often it was closed or people were in it, etc...that's actually making me consider another cruise line. Given, this was our first cruise so we are new to much of this...but honestly I thought it could have been laid out better. I liked the ship for the most part, but I also looked at Carnival's Splendor Class and it's the same layout...so evidently they haven't taken customer comments into consideration on newer designs. Or maybe they had, and just liked the proximity of the Galley to the dining rooms. Both dining rooms should just be on the aft end of the ship to stop the confusion.
Also, the Cabana Coach people that Carnival hires to transport between Port of Miami and the airports - I was a little bothered by the audacity asking for tips. They would tell you to stay seated until they get all the bags off the bus and in a line. Then, they would let you off and run you down the line to your bags and stand right there telling you they need a tip. I was planning on tipping, but boy, that kind of boldness really turned me off. However, when we left the ship and got to Ft. Lauderdale, there was a young man who took the time to get our stroller out, set it up and lock it for us perfectly instead of just get it out and put it on the sidewalk. Also, he didn't stand there waiting for a tip. I gave the guy waiting for a tip $1 and went around him to the other young man, thanked him personally for his service and gave him $5.