Background: This was our "first annual" girls cruise. No guys with us at all ... my mother, sister, mother in law, 2 teens, my 8yodd, and a friend all found a great bargain on early saver rates for this cruise and booked! We ranged in age from 8 to 73 and all of us had a fantastic time.
EMBARKATION: My mother fell off a train back in July and broke both of her ankles, so we had a wheelchair with us on this trip. We've never really had to deal with infirmities before ... our whole family is relatively healthy ... and Carnival was very accommodating. They upgraded her to a handicapped room (we called about 5 weeks out from cruising when we realized she would still be needing the chair) and assisted us with embarking in the first group of people. Port of Miami also offers FREE parking for handicapped people, so that saved us a cool $80 (which we promptly spent onboard!). We arrived early because we'd been advised that we might need to fill out additional paperwork, and didn't have to wait very long at all. We were onboard and enjoying a snack by 11am. This was probably the fastest and most well-organized embarkation experience we've ever had, and it wasn't all due to the chair. They let us know that we should go on up, but as we were rounding the corner from the elevator, we heard them calling groups 2-3 to board as well. There was barely any line at all, and plenty of seating. We were on Destiny in May and it was far more crowded, boarded later, and didn't seem nearly as well run.
CABINS: We had 4 cabins, 2 people in each. Mine was a porthole room; a great bargain if there ever was one! We had the light you get in an outside cabin for the price of an inside cabin, and the windows were cleaner than our picture windows have been in the past. We were in room U17. My mother-in-law and my friend were in room U16 on the other side of the ship (we were starboard, they were directly opposite on the port side). My daughter and one of her friends were down the hall in room U196 (interior room), and my mom and sister were upstairs in E57 (the handicapped room). As usual, the rooms were very well laid out, roomy, and comfortable. We all had robes in the cabins (even the interior), but no hairdryers. I had known there wouldn't be any and actually had one packed, but my 12yo got a last minute call that kept her from going on the cruise, and I guess when we unpacked her things from our bags, the hairdryer decided to stay home with her. Oh well, we were on vacation, not a job interview, so we made the best of it. Our cabin steward, Aurelio, was very nice. He did a great job keeping the cabin clean and my 8yo loved the towel animals. She couldn't say his name, so he told her to call him "Oreo" (her favorite cookie ... she loved that).
The one downside to the cabin is that it very heavily smelled of smoke. The steward told us that the former occupants were not smokers, but that there were smokers in nearby cabins. He did his best to remove the smell, going so far as to change the curtains and bedskirts and wash down the walls, but nothing helped. The second night, the smell was so bad that I had to move my 8yo down the hall into the bed her older sister would have slept in if she had been able to come. It improved a little from time to time, but was not ever gone. Guest services told me that it was coming through the vents and there was nothing they could do ... if I didn't have asthma, it would have been merely annoying, but it was starting to impact my breathing. Thankfully I was able to pick up some Febreeze and spray Lysol in Key West and by hosing the cabin down with those things before bed, I was able to get through the week without any major attacks.
DINING: Our wait staff was excellent and they went above and beyond to keep us happy. I Gusta (the head waiter) worked my 8yo really hard ... she tends to be a little shy, but by the end of the cruise she was hugging him, making napkin animals with him, and dancing(!) with the waiters. She actually ended up trading e-mail addresses with him before we left. The seating arrangements were a little weird the first night. They placed a newlywed couple on their honeymoon with all of us girls. We didn't mind, but I think the poor guy was just overwhelmed by so many women. The next night they had moved to a different table with couples, which seemed to be a better fit, but we chatted with them all through the cruise as we met up with them in various locations around the ship.
The food was excellent in the dining room, but I did notice some changes and cutbacks. Of course we hit the sushi bar, ate our fill of warm chocolate melting cake, and the pizzeria. The Mongolian Grill by the pool was really good, too. Breakfast on the Lido deck wasn't my favorite,(I'm not a big one for buffets) but it was good in the dining room. The tables and eating areas on the Lido deck were kept really clean, contrary to other things I'd read on reviews of this ship. Almost as soon as you stood up they were right there cleaning up after you so the next person could have a clean place to sit. They were so efficient that they picked up my daughter's juice after she dropped it off and went to get her food (and we were sitting right there).
SEA DAY: Very relaxing, beautiful weather, what more can I say? It was a typical sea day. I went to the afternoon tea and enjoyed that ... first time I've done that, but I'd recommend it. Nice atmosphere, beautiful music, yummy desserts ... I loved it. I also spent some time on the serenity deck, hit the water park with the girls, and thought about playing bingo ... then I decided I'd rather be outdoors watching the wake of the ship than in the Dynasty Lounge hoping they'd pick my number.
ENTERTAINMENT: The entertainment staff was excellent. The shows were wonderful, the deck parties were amazing, and we had a great time. The first night Frank DelPizzo was the comedian ... I laughed so hard I thought I was going to split my sides. This guy is REALLY funny! I missed his late show due to having to move my daughter out of the smoky cabin, but would have gone if I could have. The show on Tuesday (Elegant Night) was Livin' In America and was very well done, too. I have to say that the female singer (Alesia) was ten times the entertainer the male singer (Kevin) was, but they were both good. The third night was a balancing act by "Lubo" ... kind of interesting, but not my thing, followed by Ronnie Bullard. He was also very funny, but not nearly as funny as Frank DelPizzo. The last night was another production show, "Shout!" and was also quite good.
Karl with a K was our cruise director. We were so happy to see him when we got onboard ... he'd been our cruise director for our cruise in 2007 and we loved him. He is quite funny, actually can sing(!), and throws one helluva great deck party. This was my 9th cruise overall and I have to say that while I don't normally book a cruise for a cruise director, if I had 2 to choose from and was looking for a determining factor, I'd pick the one he was on if I could. The guy was all over the ship, remembered our names, and really was very entertaining. Aside from the tried and true "standard cruise director" jokes and patter, he really did bring his own personality to the cruise and it was evident that the crew members liked him, too.
DEBARKATION: Again, the worst part of any cruise ... but not because they weren't organized. I just hate getting off. But, we had fairly early numbers, so got up and moving early, had our stuff cleared out of the cabin and headed up for breakfast. We enjoyed a leisurly breakfast in the dining room and then were heading to the promenade deck to look at OPP (other people's photos ... there is funny stuff there, I'm telling you!) when they announced that self debarkation was over and it was time to start calling numbers. Before we knew it, we were off the ship, had found a porter to collect our bags and skipped the line for customs (thanks, CC ... first time I've done that) and were in the car heading for Orlando before 9:30am.
OVERALL THOUGHTS: This was a fantastic way to spend 4 days. I usually prefer the longer cruises, but this one was quite good. The older girls enjoyed Circle C, they all enjoyed the water park, and there was something for all of us to do all the time. We were a little anxious about this one because we had 3 first time cruisers, 2 in their 70's, 1 in a wheelchair, and the three kids, so didn't know how it was all going to work out, but Carnival didn't disappoint. We're looking at booking Victory next year and doing a longer cruise on the Southern route ... but I don't think any of us would balk at going back out on Imagination, either.