Embarkation was easy - the large parking garage was nice (until we got the $106 bill when it was time to leave)! We got on the boat, were able to get into our balcony stateroom right away (minus the luggage that didn't arrive until close to 5pm). The room was nice, with a comfy bed and flat screen tv. The balcony was decent sized -with two little chairs and a table. The bathroom was tiny, as they usually are. Warning to those with long hair - the pathetic excuse for a hairdryer was very aggravating. I would have had better luck standing out on the balcony and letting the wind dry my hair! Bring your own! Also, there is only one plug, so that too is a challenge. The closet space was decent, which was a plus. The walls are paper thin, and we could hear every sneeze and toilet flush in the cabin next to us.
Food: the food was fair, at best. The feeding trough - AKA the Gathering (buffet) was always way too crowded and we avoided it as much as possible. Instead, we liked the pasta bar, and the tandoori buffet at the rear of the ship. The sushi bar was okay - but they only had three selections at any given time, so if you didn't like what they were serving that day you had no other options. For some reason, the design of the main buffet area was all wrong. There was only one juice/tea station in each main room (which looked like it could hold 1000 people) and it was placed right next to the walk way. There was always a line for drinks, and the people basically blocked the entire path. Otherwise, you had to meander through the chairs. We were traveling in a group of 7 people (4 adults, three kids - ages 15, 10 and 7). We chose the flexible dining option, which I would definitely recommend. There were several nights that we had gone out on excursions, and needed some rest before jumping right into a sit-down dinner. The dining room was pretty, and clean. The wait staff was very nice. But, be prepared to spend AT LEAST 90 minutes each night if you eat in the dining rooms. It was painfully slow - which is a challenge for adults, not to mention a 7 year old. There were lots of choices on the menu each night - but the food was average at best. Nothing that would make me want to order more - or usually even finish.
Spa: My husband and I took advantage of the spa by joining the VIP package on the first day. They told us it was limited to the first 40 people who signed up. We really enjoyed being able to go at our leisure each day to the mineral spa, two steam rooms, and two saunas. This was a great idea and I would definitely do it again. Also, for an additional $50 you can opt for the Mud Bath - which was also great!
Gym: The gym was really nice - lots of treadmills, ellipticals and bikes. All very new and modern. The weights were pretty sparse, but hey - its a cruise ship. Surprisingly, the gym was busy every time we went by.
Pools: one word: SMALL. Why the engineers built two teeny pools on a ship of this size is beyond me, On the sea days there were so many people in them it was ridiculous. We didn't swim at all. Plus, I was really hoping that Carnival would have taken some tips from Disney Cruise Line and made the pools fresh water, rather than salt. The big water slide was nice - but usually way too crowded - and make sure you wear a shirt when you go down - since both kids said it pulled their hair on their neck.
Entertainment: Terrible. The main shows in the Encore theater were so cheesy it was almost funny. The first one we saw was a western-theme. It was just awful. The featured singers were so melodramatic it was painful to watch. The other show we saw was "Dancin in the Streets". Again, other than the little bit of break dancing from the 4 guys - it was terrible. Also, a warning - both shows had at least one part that was very inappropriate for the "family" theme. In the western show, there was one scene where a girl on a saddle with a pole performed a sexy romp with a cowboy -not good for the little ones. In the Dancin show - there was a part where the female dancers were "street walkers" dancing to Donna Summer's song "Bad Girls"...really? I almost got up and left. In the casino, they had some old guy with his guitar that ruined every song he could get his hands on. Even the dealers agreed that he was awful.
Casino: this was one of the areas that they got right. Plenty of tables for everyone who wanted to play. They also have two electronic Texas Hold 'Em tables that were really state-of-the-art. Very impressed. The only negative about the casino is the bar service. It was very hard to get a cocktail waitress and unlike Vegas - the drinks aren't free when you are gambling.
Ports of Call. We travelled to Cozumel, Belize, Isla Roatan and Costa Maya. Cozumel is just like Nassau in the Bahamas. A cheap straw market and your typical shops. We booked an excursion through the cruise line (the only one we did this way) and it was pretty good. We went to a small private island beach that served free beer, watered down drinks and "authentic" Mexican food (to include lots of flys). The beach was beautiful, though and the service staff was very nice. Belize was interesting. We had to take a tender to the pier, and the shopping was terrible. The country is very poor, and the people seem desperate. We booked an excursion through the internet - along with about 75 others from our ship and took a tour bus out to the rain forest (a 1 hour ride through the poorest countryside). We went on a 30 minute ATV ride through the jungle that was a blast -then back on the bus for another 10 minutes to a park where we got our tubes for the cave tubing part of the trip. We walked through the beautiful (very humid and hot) park for about 30 minutes where we rafted down the river (spring fed and lovely) through caves and the forest for about 45 minutes. It was really a great experience for the kids and the adults. Oh, and as a side note - in Belize, if you didn't book an excursion though Carnival then you had to wait until all of those that DID got off the boat. I overheard one lady ask what the wait time was going to be - as she and her group waited at the back of the ship - that it would be an hour to an hour and a half before they got on a tender. This was after being told that in order to even GET a sticker to get off the boat - you and your ENTIRE party had to be present. Isla Roatan, Honduras is a port that was built by Carnival Cruise Line. It was very clean, and the beach was nice. Otherwise, there isn't much to do here. Costa May a was my favorite port. We took a cab to the lighthouse ($3) and walked along the boardwalk until we found a quaint little place with free beach chairs, cheap beer, free Kayaks and $30 rentals of jet skis (oh, and $20 massages for 30 minutes!). This port is definitely gong to be up and coming- since it has great potential. The people were friendly, and although they all want to sell you something, they weren't pushy or pathetic like Belize.
Overall, the trip was good - but it could have been great. The main gathering areas were too small, and the entertainment was cheesy. The pools were ridiculous for the number of people on this boat. The food was decent but not great. The staff was nice and accommodating. The ports of call were good -but the Eastern Caribbean is much better. My next cruise will definitely not be on Carnival - although I still like cruises for a family vacation.