We are a family of 4, with 11 year old twins, looking to go on a cruise for the first time. We wanted a budget priced 20th Anniversary/Thanksgiving cruise with a port we could drive to. So we ended up picking the Fascination out of Jacksonville, a 6 hour drive.
EMBARKATION - Probably the area that I have the most comments on, mostly negative. Jaxport is minimal facility not really designed to handle the crowds of a fully booked cruise ship. Take our advice - if you do not have your luggage totally organized and ready to hand over to the porters, skip the front of the terminal and just go park. Then, you can take your time without cars backing up behind you. Just tow your luggage over to the building. It's not that far. Once inside the building, the lines were long, but moved along quickly and the Carnival staff did a decent job getting people through. But, the biggest disappointment was when we finally walked on the ship. I wasn't expecting much, just a smile, a "welcome aboard" and some suggestions as to where to head to first. None of that. Just people milling around in the lobby of deck 3 trying to figure out where to go. I finally tugged on the arm of a Carnival employee and she said that we could go to our stateroom and then eat. Felt kind of like being herded like cattle.
STATEROOM - It was great! Even with 2 adults and 2 kids, we felt very comfortable in the space. Luxurious compared to our tent camping trips! The room was very clean and we had plenty of places to store our clothes and stuff. Nigel, our steward was very pleasant and unobtrusive and came by several times a day to straighten up the room. The kids loved the towel animals. Because of weather, we spent more time in our stateroom than anticipated and it felt very cozy. And we loved having a window - so much to see!
ACTIVITIES - This was probably the biggest challenge for us. We are kind of low key people and would have been very content to just sit on the deck and read. But during our days at sea, the sky was kind of cloudy and often, the wind was very strong and chilly. Not Carnival's fault, though. We went to the Not So Newlywed Game, which was pretty funny. When not too windy, we played mini-golf. It was hard to get a ping pong table and even harder to play on a rolling ship. :) The kids did some Camp Carnival activities and seemed to enjoy them. My son especially enjoyed the dodge ball games and family scavenger hunt. My daughter is a little bit more shy and didn't spend as much time at the camp as her brother. We decided that our next cruise would like to have more ports and less time at sea. My husband was disappointed by the casino. He was hoping for more variety of card games, not just 21 or Hold 'em. But, I guess that Carnival wants to provide the most popular games. We did visit the gym twice and found the facilities to be very satisfactory. Nothing like working out on an elliptical trainer while the ship is rolling!
DINING - We ate in the dining room each night and were pleased with the service. The food was good, not great though. It's hard to crank out 2300+ plus dinners every night and not sacrifice some quality. But, it was all fine and I, being a working mom, was delighted that someone else was doing the cooking. Our waitress was charming and the kids really liked her. The chocolate melting cake was fantastic! Breakfast in the dining room was more relaxed and the food better quality than eating at the buffet in the Coconut Grove. The buffet lunch, both on the Lido deck and in the Coconut Grill was often very busy, but you were able to eventually get around, get what you wanted and find a place to sit down. One word of advice, though. If you are picky about how your soda tastes, bring your own or spend money on the cans in your stateroom. I made the mistake of buying a soda card and discovered that the sodas from the bars, where you get them, were very watered. $27 I really regretted spending.
ENTERTAINMENT - We went to one show, Hey Mambo. It was well done, the singers and dancers very good and countless costumes changes. All very Vegas-like. My kids were bug-eyed. We need to get them out more.
Both of the ports that the Fascination stops in were fun places and we had a wonderful time ashore. We did excursions on our own, rather than through Carnival and everything worked out fine. It's interesting to observe how cruise lines try to separate you from your money. But, it's not hard to keep the spending under control. We brought 2 bottles of wine and bought a couple of mixed drinks. We also bought a couple of the pictures, a Christmas tree ornament and some time playing laser tag. I didn't mind the built in gratuities. Nearly everyone on the crew was friendly and very hard working.
The ship was well maintained most of the time. Any problems we encountered, like public restrooms not always clean or tables not cleaned off in a timely manner, seemed to stem mainly from the sheer overwhelming number of people on the ship. I think that the ship had about 500 people more than it's regular sailings.
Disembarkation went very smoothly and we were in our car heading home by 10am.
We learned a lot, this being our first cruise. We hope to do it again in the near future and, unless our financial situation drastically improves, it will probably be on Carnival again. You can't beat the overall experience for the price.