Background: My family and I went on a 7 day western Caribbean cruise debarking from Tampa, Florida on December 27th. Our group consisted of my parents, with an outside extended balcony suite, myself and my two siblings with an inside 3 person cabin and my sister and her husband with an inside cabin. This was our 5th cruise as a family and third on Carnival. Several of us have been on cruises without the family, as well.
We spent a few days prior to leaving in Tampa so that we could spend Christmas with some family members. We stayed at the Homewood Suites, just next to the airport because of the convenient location, large suite (two bedrooms and a living room/kitchen with a pull-out sofa) and continental breakfast (also continental dinner/snacks, but we only did that once). Overall, it's very nice and close to the International Plaza Mall, where we tried to get some post-Christmas deals.
On the 27th the embarkation lines were among the longest I've seen to board a ship, but as my parents were in a suite we were able to use the VIP lines which made it relatively painless. We were onboard the ship within an hour.
Ship: The dEcor of the ship is the usual: gaudy but fun. It's pretty easy to navigate and has lots of nice lounges, sitting areas and more private nooks etc. The pool decks are nice, with a good mix of chairs in the sun and in the shade. Never had a problem with kids in the adults only pool area. However, on days at sea the pool area is (obviously) just PACKED so get there early to get some goods spots - try to get some out of the way or in a more secluded corner. We had a problem with people climbing all over our chairs (as we were sitting in them!) instead of using the paths to get from A to B. Mini-golf and a basketball court on the top level and a large waterslide were nice touches but I really hated the chairs that were laid out. Something about them made the backs hard to adjust and stay put.
One thing that did not impress me was the gym - very old cardio equipment. On every other cruise I've been on there's been personal tvs on each piece of equipment, and at the very least I expect some magazines or something. This gym had neither, which was disappointing. Also, no water cups or anything in the gym - so if you're not a fan of using a water fountain, it may be smart to bring a water bottle with you. Nonetheless, my family and I made it to the gym almost every single day, so it's obviously still usable.
The suite that my parents had was very nice. HUGE bathroom (for a cruise ship) with a tub and two sinks. The extended balcony was great for when you're traveling with a larger group like us. Most of us could sit on the balcony at any one time. The inside cabin with three people was tough - not sure I would recommend this to anyone. Even though we were careful and planned ahead, there's just not enough storage space for that much stuff in one of those tiny cabins (none of us overpacked). I would very much recommend getting a balcony cabin if you're traveling with two or more people in a room. The little bit of extra space and the extra air circulation makes a huge difference. It also makes a difference to have some extra space to put wet towels and swim suits. The bathroom (even using the small cord that goes across the shower) isn't enough room for thee peoples' wet things. The bathroom had shower gel and shampoo (both smelled great!) and there is a very old hairdryer in the main room (in the desk drawer).
Entertainment: This cruise was different than most of the others we've been on by having only two of the big "song and dance shows" and instead filling the week up with comedians. Some were better than others, but all were more entertaining that the generic cruise ship dance shows - the juggler/physical comedian especially. The New Orleans show dragged on a bit too long for my liking, but it wasn't terrible. There are some obstructed views in the top level of the theater, so go at least a few minutes early to be able to pick out a decent seat. During the day there's always trivia, game shows, card games etc, so it's hard to find yourself bored. There's a guitarist in the main lobby lounge that plays before and after dinner, and we listened to him quite a few days. Very good and a good play list.
One note: the cruise director (Jen) is by far the MOST irritating we've ever had on any ship. I cannot believe the length and number of useless announcements she would make. And her MC'ing skills were painful - she would ruin a perfectly enjoyable show by explaining some long-winded story that wasn't even the slightest bit funny. Terrible and a voice to match!
Anyways, back to the good stuff:
Food: As per usual, the food on the ship was very good. Obviously some meals are better than others (you can't win them all!) but nothing was ever bad. As someone who doesn't eat red meat, there were always vegetarian and fish options. Service in the dining room was excellent, and we chose to eat there for breakfast most days to avoid the craziness of the buffet. The dinner shows were entertaining and funny. I never found the layout of the buffet to be a problem, on some other ships all of the food is centralized in one spot and the lines become unbearable. I think the layout of this buffet was to avoid this problem. The buffet food was always quite good - the deli sandwiches and salad bar in particular. At dinner we ordered the 5 bottles of wine package and went for the higher up package (can't remember what they named it), after initially ordering the lesser priced package and being quite disappointed with the first bottle. The chianti in the better package was excellent! The sushi at the sushi bar was very good, but the hours were sporadic. We never ordered room service or went to the Golden Fleece, so I can't comment on those. Formal nights provided a range of dress, I saw some ball gowns and tuxes, but the majority wore suits and cocktail dresses. On New Years, although it was not a formal night, most people dressed up and treated it as such. The majority of evenings people wore sundresses, khakis or occasionally jeans in the dining rooms.
Pictures: As per usual on a cruise ship, they bombard you with photographers. However, if you firmly refuse they will more often than not just leave you alone. My family took a few of the posed pictures and bought one. However, one thing we noticed was if you deferred from the poses they gave you (we wanted to do a "fun" one with goofy poses) they don't seem to appreciate it. We basically had to beg one guy to take a goofy picture for us (which was the one we ended up buying).
Grand Cayman: We did the string ray city, which I would highly recommend - approximately $40 pp. It was a lot of fun and my sister planned ahead about bought a waterproof baggy for your camera so that we could take pictures in the water (also would recommend - ebay!). A nice experience, but a lot of the younger children were completely losing it - the string rays are huge and very unafraid of people so they swim all over you - so if you have younger kids you may want to rethink this option. Also as an FYI - this tendering process was absolutely terrible coming back. They cram way too many people onto these boats so the disembarkation process takes forever. Expect about an hour between when you board a tender and when you finish security.
Cozumel: We hired a private boat to take us deep sea fishing, which is not something I would necessarily recommend. We only ended up catching one fish after being on the water for over 5 hours and the rest of the time was spent just sitting on a rather small boat. If this is something you would like to do I would recommend bringing some books and magazines, and just enjoy the sunshine and being on the water.
Belize: We'd been to Belize before and had done the cave tubing, which was fantastic. So on this day we did the alternate thing there is to do here, which is snorkeling, and we did it with Fab Tours. Total cost was about $40 per person. Although the snorkeling here was fantastic, a couple of notes about Fab Tours: 1) if you have it, bring your own snorkeling equipment. The equipment they provided was rather old, falling apart or in odd sizes. Women's average sized flippers (thinking shoe size 7-8) went quickly and then you were left with nothing, many of the face masks leaked; 2) Be careful with timing! We were specifically told that we would have plenty of time between when we finished the tour and when the last tender would leave (she actually said 2 hours). It didn't really work out like that (the tour was ridiculously unorganized) and we literally ran for the last tender. Overall though, a nice time in Belize and really excellent snorkeling!
Roatan: The only day where we were the only ship at the port (other days there were usually four or five other ships!) and we just walked off the ship and went to the beach. The beach is fantastic with tons of chairs (free!) and no one walking up and down harassing you to buy things (as we've experienced in other places). It was a nice way to finish the cruise - relaxing and a day of great weather. We didn't use the chairlift as the beach was only about a 5 minute walk. I went through some of the shops in the port, but they were all very generic and overpriced. I tend to prefer the more authentic souvenirs than a t-shirt, but that's just me!
Some final suggestions: In the past we have found that even if we didn't have precise plans for each of our ports and shore-excursions booked, once we walked off the ship there would be plenty of options at better prices than the Carnival purchased shore-excursions. Although this was still true, because there were so many ships at each of the different ports there was some serious competition for the good shore excursions and they filled up FAST. I would say that in these ports you should aim to be off the boat ASAP or plan ahead.
Disembarkation: We did the self-assist and had no problems. We grabbed a quick breakfast up on the Lido deck (noticed a bit of a food shortage - no more skim milk, etc) and then just walked right off and onto a shuttle.
Hope this was helpful!