For my wife and I, this was our fourth cruise. It was our kids' third and my mom's third as well. It was the first cruise on a Carnival ship for all in our group. We chose the 5 day Ecstasy cruise because it was an easy 1 hour drive to Galveston from where we live. My wife and I wanted to be home for Christmas and New Years and the price was reasonable. My wife's birthday was during the trip so I preordered some cabin decorations and a cake on the Carnival website prior to the cruise.
Embarkation: We drove the hours drive to Galveston and used Galveston Park N Cruise for our parking paying $40 online for an indoor parking space. They were great. A gentleman directed us to our parking space, we loaded our bags onto a large golf cart and he drove us to the corner of New Strand and 25th where we took a 5 minute walk to the terminal. We were a little early at about 11 AM and once we dropped off some of our bags we went into the terminal and quickly moved through security and received our Sail and Sign cards. This was quick and effortless as the online registration apparently worked as intended. (There were some glitches when we did the online check in for our RCL cruise last March and we had to repeat the process at the port.) We directed to wait in an area set up for embarkation for about 20 minutes until 12 noon when we were permitted to board. As we did not have access to the cabins until 1:30, we headed up to the Lido Deck where we had lunch. Galveston was cool with intermittent drizzle so we were glad to have a nice, warm spot to sit and relax.
Cabins: When 1:30 came about we headed to the cabins. My Mom and daughter were in a Class 1A Cabin on Riviera. It was small, but an easy walk to the elevator. With the top bunk down, the beds were placed in a "T" relationship with the lower bed extending out from the wall under the top bunk. The problem with this was that there was no way for an adult to sit up from the bed without having to duck under the upper bunk. We partially solved this by sliding the bed forward, but grandma still managed to take a dizzying hit to the head while packing her bags the last night of the cruise. The rest of us had a 6B OV cabin just around the corner. The room was spacious compared to the standard cabins we had on our RCL cruises and we were impressed with the size of the bathrooms - particularly the shower. Closet space was well organized. My wife was surprised by the nice birthday decorations set in the room. There was much more to the decorations than is shown in the ordering pictures. Again, when navigating around the upper bunk, we had to be constantly careful about watching our heads. On the RCL ships, the upper bunks were lowered from the ceiling. On the Ecstasy, there was a wooden frame against the wall that the upper bunk lifted up and out from. The edges of the platform that the mattress sat on also had sharp corners to it. The safety rails to the upper bunks in both our room do not lock upright and easily fold down towards the mattress. This was a problem when the kids would use the rail to pivot onto or off of the mattress as they maneuvered to and from the ladder. Both experienced minor accidents due to this design. (My daughter fell off the bed as she was trying to get off the bed and onto the ladder and my son got bumped when I stepped up to the side of the bed and as I leaned into the rail it folded down onto his forearm and wrist. I instantly lifted the rail and thankfully, neither had any injuries. We also had a problem with the temperature being WAY TOO COLD in our cabin. When we bought that to the attention to our cabin steward, he said it would be better was we reached warmer weather. He showed us that we could regulate the vent that was over our bed to limit the cold air coming in, but it would not close completely so we weren't thrilled with our prospects until he brought us 2 extra blankets. After the first cold night huddled under the blankets it DID get warmer and the temperature was never a problem again.
Dining Room: We had the Main 6PM seating in the Windsong Dining Room and the five of us were paired with another wonderful family of five from San Antonio. We had much in common and enjoyed their company. Our waiter and assistant waiter introduced themselves to us the first night but were not very engaging on the following nights. They were efficient and with only a few exceptions (having to ask for water refills) were very prompt with service. So no real problem, but this was a little bit of a let down compared to past experiences. In fairness to them, the table next to us were their biggest and loudest cheerleaders and were obviously very pleased. Oh well... Food was very good and my family felt that the dinner food was equal to what we had on RCL. My Mom thought it was equal if not better than what she had on Holland America and on another ship (Emerald Seas) many years ago. My favorite desserts were the Chocolate Melting Cake paired with Butter Pecan ice cream, Cappuccino Pie, and another dessert that reminded me of Flan. Additionally, we usually had breakfast in the Windstar Dining room and found our service during these meals to be much more engaging. Perhaps this was due to the more laid back and less frantic atmosphere and schedule. Breakfast was always excellent.
Lido Alternatives: The selections at the Panorama Grill on Lido Deck were varied and usually quite good. The Mongolian Grill was tried once but the sauce selections were a little too spicy for me (though I usually like spicy foods). I did take note that many of the ships officers and cruise director staff chose this venue for their lunches. Just adjacent to the Mongolian Grill the Burgers, Hot Dogs and Chicken fingers were excellent with plenty of side selections such as various veggies and fixins, chips and salsa etc. The biggest hit with my son was the 24 Pizza stand at the aft end of the Lido deck. Pizzas and the calzone were excellent and the service was always fast. We also enjoyed having plenty of seating options on that deck to enjoy your food - inside the Panorama Grill, outside near the pool, along the aft decks behind the Grill, etc...
Ship Layout: I was very pleasantly surprised how much I was able to appreciate the layout of the Ecstasy. I was absolutely WOWED by the RCL IOS last March and was prepared for less on this cruise. The Ecstasy was very easy to navigate and you could move throughout the ship with great ease. Several times, I had to make trips back to our cabin for items forgotten or run about while on a Scavenger Hunt (more on that later) and it was so much easier to get anywhere compared to the IOS. I now can appreciate why some don't care for the larger ships. I'd still like to try the Oasis someday. (ducking...) In spite of her age, she is still well cared for.
Entertainment and Activities: We saw the main show each night and enjoyed all of them. Steve, the cruise director was amazing with his violin and fiddle playing then blew us away with his juggling skills. Karaoke with Jay was a hoot but should really be described in just two words - "Absolutely brilliant!" We enjoyed dancing to 70s and 80s tunes in the disco and I was generally impressed with the varied and abundant musical talent that was ever present throughout the ship. While my 14 YO son was not engaged in the youth program, he had a ball with the shoes, playing mini-golf, ping pong, trivia games and scavenger hunts. (The kids and I managed to win a regular and a digital scavenger hunt and my son won the mini-golf competition.) I managed to win my round during game show night and in the end, my family left the cruise with two medals and three solid gold plastic ship on a stick trophies! The Cruise director's staff were everywhere and working hard to see that everyone was having a great time.
Camp Carnival: With over 800 kids on board, this group did a phenomenal job. My daughter participated heavily in RCL's Club Ocean and she says she enjoyed Camp Carnival more. She won a competition and brought home an impressive Camp Carnival Backpack. My son was more engaged on the IOS probably due to that ships, extensive teen facilities and it's greater diversity of activities for kids in his age group. He still had a great time, and I am grateful that he chose to spend his time with me (At age 14 I know my days of him wanting to hang with Dad are numbered...)
Ports of Call:
The first port was Cozumel and we had reserved the Isla Pssion by Twister Excursion through Carnival. The boat ride to Passion Island takes about 30 minutes. The seas were too rough for the kayaks and pedal boats to be used and the tour operators offerred everyone a chance to back out if this was a deal breaker for them. No takers...
That said, the ride out to Pasion Island was bumpy. Our boat could hold 28 passengers and the 2 crew members. The further back you sit, the wetter you get get and the more lateral forces you are subjected to as the boat "twists" by rotating or skiding its rear out to the side. These twists are done in the more sheltered waters near Pasion Island rather than in the rougher, open ocean water. They do about 4-6 twists during each of the outgoing and return trips. The further foward you sit in the boat, the less wet you will get and the less violent the twists will feel but in rougher waters like on our day, you will feel the pounding over the waves more. Grandma sat in the 2nd row of the passenger seats and did fine.
Once at Pasion Island, the beach was beautiful and the are very peaceful. THere were an abundance of chairs, lounges, umbrellas and hammocks. It was very private. THere are a few shops that the guid who greets you shows you as you walk to the beach, but nobody ever approached us to sell anything. The food was very good, though some of it was a little slow being prepared. Drinks were OK but it was disappointing that you could get regular pina coladas for free but had to pay extra for pina coladas without alcohol. While we were there, the water calmed down enough that the put the water trampoline back in the ocean and the kids enjoyed this. We were on the island from about 3.5 hours.
When it was time to leave (about 2PM), we were walked back to the boat dock, boarded the boat(s) and did about 5 twists in the lagoon before heading back to the port. The ride was a lot smoother with the waves coming from behind us as opposed to head on as we were traveling to Pasion Island. Once back to the port we did a final twist (They are more of a 180-270 degree tight radius turn than a true 360.) between the our ship, the Carnival Ecstasy and the Celebrity Century. That was cool. In all, we felt that the trip was a good value and a nice time to spend the day in Cozumel. The boat ride and crew were a lot of fun and the Island was beautiful and peaceful and MOST DEFINITELY uncrowded.
The second port was Progreso. We left the ship to take the $3PP double decker bus ride and enjoyed getting an overview of the city. We were pretty tired from the day and night before, so we spent the rest of the day aboard the ship enjoying the new Carnival Waterworks upgrade most of the afternoon.
Debarkation: Alas, all good things must come to an end. We awoke that final morning surrounded by fog circling the gulf waters south of Galveston with about 2 dozen freighters and tankers for company. We had breakfast in the Windstar dining room and planning on doing Self Assist Debarkation, camped out in the Library. (An excellent area to do this BTW...) The Cruise director and eventually, the captain kept us updated on the weather conditions. When it became apparent, that the fog was not lifting anytime soon, the ship opened phone communications for use by passengers free of charge. Several bars were opened and the service on Lido Deck went into overdrive. Instead of reaching the port at 8AM, we eventually docked at about 3:30 PM. Kudos to the crew and passengers for making a potentially tough situation run smoothly. Many passengers missed their flights - some at great expense. I heard of one family of 12 that was going to have to pay an addition $600PP for flight changes!!! We offered to take a couple we met while waiting in the Library to IAH and when it was clear they were going to miss their flight we helped them reserve a hotel and took them from the port to it. In spite of the long wait, debarkation went without a hitch and I was relieved to find the staff at Galveston Park N Cruise still there!
In short, we all enjoyed our first cruise with Carnival. The age of the Ecstasy is not an issue and she is a very easy ship to navigate. The Cruise director's Staff works hard to keep everyone entertained and Camp Carnival has loads of activities to keep the little ones entertained and out the adults' way. BTW, The Serenity deck did enforce the 21 and over policy. Food was comparable to our experiences with RCL but service seemed a tad below. In addition to the dining room service mentioned above, we had trouble reaching guest services and housekeeping via telephone more often than not. Cabins were spacious but the upper bunk design is poor and potentially dangerous. When traveling on the Ecstasy out of Galveston, be prepared to be surrounded by a lot of Texans. This is a good thing as this native New Yorker - now living in TX for over 16 years will attest.
Below are my kids' reviews - in their own words.
The first from my 11 year old daughter:
I think the cruise was very fun. The Kid's program was great and I enjoyed all of the games they did on the ship. (scavenger hunts and trivia) The food in the dining room was delicious. I loved the chocolate melting cake the best. Their slides, miniature gold and shuffle board were nice. Steve, the cruise director, was awesome! He could play the fiddle, violin and juggle. He is so funny! The staff was very nice and helped me enjoy my cruise.
The second from my 14 year old son:
My cruise experience on the Carnival Ecstasy deserves two thumbs up! Even though I did not participate in any of the kids' activities, I participated in many of the activities not relating to the kids' program including trivia, scavenger hunts, gold, ping pong, etc. I went to almost all of the shoes. I was amazed at some of the tricks and moves that the Ecstasy dancers and Cruise Director, Steve performed. All of the staff made sure to make us happy. Even our stateroom steward addressed me by my name! Everything about the cruise was exciting and I recommend it to anyone and everyone!