This was our 4th cruise and our 1st on Carnival. Previous lines we have cruised are Disney, Royal Caribbean and Princess. My family consists of my husband and I (both in our 40's), our 12 year old daughter and our 9 year old son. My mother and my aunt also cruised with us and this was their 1st ever cruise. We spent a few nights with family in Orange County prior to the cruise. We used Prime Time Shuttle to get to the port. They were on time, clean, efficient and reasonably priced (I think about $80 + tip to get 6 of us from Huntington Beach to Long Beach).
Check-In and Embarkation: Efficient and quick, we arrived at the port at 11:45 and were on the ship about an hour later.
The Ship: Nice, clean - the decor did not bother us (although it was not as elegant as other ships we have been on). We liked some of the art work. Overall, it was fine - but did not have the "wow" factor of other ships (like the Royal Promenade on the Royal Caribbean ship). One major issue was that it was much more difficult to navigate than any other ship we have ever been on. Most of the decks did not allow you to walk the entire length of the ship - so there were lots of dead ends and difficulties in getting from A to B. We eventually worked this out, but my mother and aunt never quite got the hang of it, always felt that they were lost and said that this had a real negative impact on their cruise experience.
The Cabin: We had an outside cabin. It was nice and probably the most spacious cabin we have ever had. There were, however, 2 issues - first the shower only had a flimsy curtain and we found that, no matter how careful we were, the bathroom flooded each time someone had a shower. Second, there was no privacy curtain in the room for getting dressed, this was difficult with 4 people trying to get ready. Our cabin steward, Jenny, was very nice and did a great job.
The Food: Our wait staff, Su and Ninga, were wonderful. The food in the main dining room was good - some things were great (warm chocolate melting cake) others could have been better (bland fish, a tough steak) - but, overall, it was good and we enjoyed every meal we had there. The buffet was the best buffet we had ever seen with choices such as a Mongolian grill, Tandoori Indian food, a burrito bar as well as the usual. There was also 24 hour pizza and self-serve ice cream. One minor issue was that the cups they used for drinks in the buffet were positively tiny, requiring several trips to the drink stations for refills. The specialty steak house was superb in every way - the food, the service, the ambiance were all wonderful. I do wonder why Carnival charges $30 for this, when the other lines charge $20??? - But it was very good.
Kids' Programs: What a contrast! Our daughter was in Circle C and proclaimed it to be "the best kids' club ever". She really liked her counsellor, Hayley, and it seemed to be a fun and well-organized program. Camp Carnival for our son, however, was not so great. I won't go into all the little issues, but it just seemed unorganized, we would get different answers from different staff members, staff sometimes were not very helpful. While it was a disappointment compared to other clubs, our son still had a good time.
Entertainment: The production shows were as good as any we have seen - really enjoyable! One disappointment was that they had to cancel their grand finale production show on the 2nd to the last night due to rough seas - I understand they have to look out for the safety of their dancers, but it was still a disappointment. The welcome aboard show was weak (in my opinion) and we did not really care for the "legends" show on the last night.
Activities : A disappointment. There was plenty of trivia, bingo and poker - but very little in the way of arts and crafts, enrichment, wine tasting, etc. Thank goodness we like hanging out by the pool (although the pools were closed on the last sea day due to the rough seas).
Disembarkation: Aaaaaarrrrggghhhhhh!!! We know that the disembarkation process is always the worst part of any cruise - but this was just ridiculous! They told people to wait in the theater, but then the theater was closed, resulting in traffic jams of people outside the theater, not being able to get on an elevator, not being able to get off the elevator (if you were lucky enough to get on one), major traffic jams on the stairs, etc. Also, there seemed to be no one to help or direct traffic (we really felt like their attitude was "we're done with you anyway, so we can't be bothered..."). Also, there was great difficulty in hearing the PA system from some parts of the ship.
Summary: This wasn't a bad cruise - it just wasn't a great one either. Unfortunately for Carnival, all of our previous cruises (on other lines) have been great. We will not be sailing with Carnival again, it's just not the best line for our family. We would, however, return to the Mexican Riviera - either on another line or to a resort. Mexico was beautiful, had a great vibe and lovely, welcoming people. The rough seas were unfortunate and, obviously, not Carnival's fault (although maybe they would have had less impact if there had been a wider variety of activities to occupy people on that last day?). I hope this review was helpful to others - and happy cruising!