So the answer to my burning question - Has Carnival improved since we last sailed? Marginally. Problem is having experienced most of the the other major lines (excluding the super-luxury ones), the bar has been raised, so a marginal increase isn't all that bad. My general impressions:
Embarkation - one of the highlights. Flew in same day. Smooth, well organized and on board within a half hour from time of arrival (shortly after noon). Had a car service pick us up at LGA as it just seemed easier but grabbing a taxi would have been just as good and half the cost (at least). Would have been better if they had folks to help guide you to where you needed to go (not the rooms as they weren't ready, something we found out after going up to the Veranda deck to find the hallways closed).
Room - lots of storage, a little worn, but no real complaints. Balcony was average size with two chairs and a small table. No mini-fridge (disappointed as we like to cool down our diet cokes). Bathroom was functional. Interesting they provided a disposable razor and toothpaste single use samples. Room steward was friendly and very efficient.
The Food: Biggest disappointment as we had heard Carnival had upped the ante on food quality. Buffet for breakfast and lunch unfortunately lived up to what a lot of post indicated - poor. I'd actually rate them as the worst we've ever encountered and on that alone most likely will not return to Carnival. Dinner on the other hand was better than expected. Chocolate Melting Cake? Fabulous (wish the buffet food was half as tasty). The fish dishes (lunch or dinner) were almost inedible. Meat dishes at dinner were done very well. Pizza was ok as were the hamburgers (liked the mushrooms) and dogs with kraut.
Gym: well appointed and came in handy to keep some of the pounds off (yes, although the food wasn't up to par, didn't stop me from eating).
Dining Room Service: Waiters (Ketut and Imade) were two of the better ones we've had in the past 5 to 6 years. They made an effort to learn our names and use them. We asked for a large table (forces us to talk to others as we're on the shy side) and got a table for 10 (late seating, Paris dining room). We got to sit in a different seat each dinner as we were the only ones at the table.
South Beach Wait Staff - poor. All do it yourself. Not quick to clean off tables.
Entertainment - better than expected. Comics were very good, surprisingly the dance troupe were good and the routine different than the normal 50/60's review or Broadway review, magician and hypnotist were snoozers (my opinion, wife like the magician more than I).
Cruise Director: Jorge - funny man and not your average or stereotypical CD.
Shops: nothing special, though they did sell candy by the ounce/pound.
No specialty restaurants which is ok as I have a hard time spending add't money for dinner on a cruise.
Ice-cream: multiple places to get the free stuff (you can buy 'premium' if you want. Not bad.
Deck Activities: standard Carnival stuff.
Debarkation: did the self-assist (our first time, typically we do assisted (luggage taken off for you). No problems and off within 10 minutes of our deck being called.