Warning this is a very lengthy review but full of information.
We stayed the night before just north of Mobile in Saraland, AL. It was close enough to downtown only taking about 15 minutes to drive down I-65S to I-165S that dead ends right on to Water Street that runs right in front of the dock. We used free hotel points so this more than made up for the price of parking at the port. We did have to drive past and flip around to get in to the parking deck line since they had the other street blocked off as an exit only for debarking passengers out of the parking deck. Got there about 10:30.
Once in line it did not take long to drive into the deck, (about 7 minutes) a porter took our cabins bags right as we pulled in (tipped him $5 for 3 bags and he said that was the best tip for him so far), drove up the ramp to pay the $75 cash to park and got a spot in handicapped on the 2nd floor near the elevators. Did not seem like many cars were left from the previous cruise when we parked around 10:45. I know many complain of the high cost to park but hotels with free parking are located near by.
We made it in side, down the elevator and were able to go right through to the guest assisted line which probably saved about 30-45 minutes of standing like others did. We only had about a 10 minute wait after getting our Sail and Sign cards until they called the VIP's and guest assisted to start boarding. They took our Embarkation photo and then we took the long walk up the gangway. We could have waited for a wheel chair and had someone push DH up the ramp but he was feeling alright in his knee brace and only had to stop twice walking up with his cane, with our carry on bags. It was sprinkling a little outside, just enough to wet the pavement but not too bad.
Once on board you enter right on to the Empress deck near our cabin, E65, but we could not see the door with the hallway door closed. So we sat right at the Plaza Bar in the Atrium and got our "Fun Ship" drink of the day just before 11:30. Note: Carnival no longer sells a one a day Fun Drink card as mentioned in some posts. The soft drinks are also no longer a separate card but a sticker placed on your Sail and Sign card and are only available the first two days and not prorated as we had read on earlier posts. We enjoyed talking to the bartender Merinka, and watching folks come aboard. We deposited DH's insulin with Guest services and ordered his sharps container to be delivered to the cabin. I checked with the Shore Excursion Desk on getting the Behind the Scenes Tour. I had been told it was a shorter tour on a 5 day cruise but found it was going to be a full 3 hours so I ended up booking just myself due to all the walking and stairs in the tour, I was the first ticket. After an hour the line coming on thinned out to just a trickle so, we went up to the Lido Deck to get lunch around 12:30 to eat before the next wave came on and the opening of our cabins at 1:30.
Many were just getting hamburgers but we went for the carved roast beef with potatoes and salad from the Lido Deck food line. Later we went into Tiffany's and got some ice cream. Must say the food was good for the most part at both of these but food in the sit down dinning rooms was better for us over all. The tea was horrible, very strong, only un-sweet and the lemonade was so sweet and tart we would had to mix our own glass to tolerate it, 1/3 tea, 1/4 lemonade and the rest water and ice. That helped but was very glad I had brought my own crystal light ice tea drink mix packets and drank them for most of the cruise except for a few mixed drinks, wine or water in the dinning room. For breakfast the OJ and apple juices were very good.
We finished lunch by 1:30 when the cabins opened up. We went back down to our cabin and found it was already decorated for my Birthday. I will post photos of this handicapped cabin on a separate shorter post, but will talk about it here now. First the door is wider than the normal cabin door and DH found it easy to get in and out. But we still could not easily pass each other if one was standing in the short hallway between the closet and bathroom. For those wanting this room there is light under the door all night and there can be some noise from the Atrium until late but none came from above us like it can on the other side of the ship under the teen club.
A word of warning: We did have kids playing the race out of and back to the elevator around the stairs while pounding a door game more than once a night after midnight. The first night it happened three times and our neighbors called security and I sat at our door waiting to pounce on the next kid that did it but they did not return after 15 minutes so I went back to bed around 1:30. During the entire cruise unsupervised kids all but took over the two atrium elevators and we more than once caught them hitting every level or just riding the elevators for fun keeping them so full that other passengers could not get on. I made everyone of them get off more than a few times on level 7 since that is the lowest the elevator goes weather they wanted to get out or not. Had to threaten a few with security or finding their parents to make them behave. But for the most part most of the kids we saw were well behaved and involved in the Ships activities. Some acted better even than some of the adults we saw.
We never saw any kids back on the Serenity Adult only area and that area is accessible for handicapped through doors at the back of the Cole Porter lounge even though there are still a few steps, it is better than the whole flight of outside deck stairs. There are only Hot tubs though and they are very hot and depending on how the ship is traveling they can be in full sun making it worse. The covered area is nice and shady but hardly any breeze so it also can be very hot. Best place was the lounge chairs right on the rail under an umbrella, shaded but with the breeze of the ship traveling even if no other wind.
Back to the cabin. Our two large bags got to the cabin by 2:00 but our small one with our 12 bottles of water, snacks and empty drink bottles were AWOL for quite sometime. Later (after dinner) it showed up with a letter apologizing that the contents had looked suspicious under their rapid luggage scan and required a later hand inspection to find out that they were not contraband. We spoke with some passengers later unhappy that their bottles of liquor and or pre mixed drink mixes had not been so lucky and where being held until debarkation night.
Size of the cabin: With the beds set as twins on the walls there is plenty of room for anyone with a motorized chair or scooter to maneuver in these type rooms. We had the steward put them together the first night but even then we could have put DH's scooter against the bathroom wall and still have had room to walk around the end of the bed, but with the permanent corner night stand that holds the life vests one person does have to crawl over and into that side of the bed under the window.
The shower was plenty large enough and the fold down handicapped seat was very ample and easy to put up and down. Word of warning watch your toes when lowering the seat, the seats metal feet can really bruise the toes if dropped on, just ask my DH. The shower head is on a long slide and removable which was very continent. The toilet was hard to push to flush at times, very noisy and sometimes did not want to flush at all, so we only flushed it when we first got up each morning and every time we left the cabin to save on our hands and on water. The entry door is also very hard to loosen from the bathroom door because of the very strong magnet. I put a small footy sock over it held with a hair band to help with that. The medicine cabinet is huge (larger than ours at home) and the sink ample. Not very fond of the bar soap or shampoo in the shower but the shower gel in the shower was ok. It does take a lot of water to wash soap off the skin. Believe the posted warnings: Always turn the cold water on first before the hot. Sometimes just turning on only the cold was fine and luke warm especially in the sink. Did not need the night light we were told to bring due to the light coming in under the door but down on the lower decks I can see where it would be needed. It is dark as a tomb down there.
Our steward, Asta, did a great job decorating the room, was only seen when we called for him, but with a note and a $5 tip the first afternoon we always had a full ice bucket, clean towels to replace the ones on the floor, towel animals every night, turn down with mints and at least one copy if not two of the next days activities. (Better than we heard some other passengers got) We did keep one or two towels hung up to dry each day and reuse and these where left alone. We did ask and get one extra pillow and had the beds put together before the first night. We kept the air turned down all the way most of the time and the shades drawn during the heat of the day so our cabin never got hot and sometimes even cold. We did not need the small fan we brought but did offer it to another couple that was very hot in their room down the hall so be forewarned not all rooms are cool even on the same floor.
Closet space was more than adequate for us. There are two hanging areas one inside the closet and one right by the door. There are shelves in the closet, the safe takes up one, and extra blankets another, but no drawers, the drawers number only four and are not very deep in the vanity under the mirror. Only kept essentials in the top one and under garments in the rest. Cabin is showing it's age and the drawers very hard to move in and out and not easy to shut all the way. Could have used a few more hangers, doubled up on many, even with bringing all our dressy clothes on their own hangers. Found putting shoes up on the top shelf in the closet easier than digging them off the bottom. Also could not put anything under our beds, Carnival was storing a set of new mattress there but we did store our two small carry ones in the corner floor cabinet with the life vests, have no idea if that was ok or not but it worked for us. Our two large cases we stacked under the vanity where the stool would normally go but we kept it out and used it quite a lot to sit on and set things on so it was not a problem. Kept the small trash can under the round side table. We brought a long heavy duty electric power strip that we plugged into the outlet under the vanity. We only used it at night to plug in anything that needed charging and DH's nebulizer and back massager, we unpluged it during the day and stored it. The six cans of drinks and large bottle of water with sign we placed on the shelf over the clothes by the door and replaced them to the vanity top the night before we debarked not to incur any fees and where the steward could always see them.
Dinning: We had anytime dinning and for the most part that worked very well for us. Most nights we ate around 7:30 and never had to wait during normal service time although we did see some people having to wait to be seated on a few occasions as we left. Portions are on the small size so we normally ordered at least one appetizers each and one to share, same with entrees some nights. We never ordered and did not eat them like many people we saw. And would even just ask for just extra individual items like a creamed spinach or baked potato. Carbs are the norm on the ship and it is hard to get enough vegetables unless you ask for them. We brought two bottles of wine on board with us and used them the first and last night. Both times we called room service for a beer bucket of ice, tipping a $1, a few hours before dinner to chill the wine and that worked quite well. We ate most meals alone but seating is so close we had very nice conversations with neighboring dinners and even asked and got a window sitting for four that we shared with a couple we had eaten next to the night before. We only ordered room service for food once and was very disappointed. Called around 9:30 pm, it took over 15 minutes to get through, DH ordered a Ruben which showed up with no sauerkraut on it and only about half of a small bag of chips, 8-10, with it. Could not get room service on the phone again so I took the plate to Guest Services and they had to have someone walk down to room service when they also could not get through on the phone. It took another 20 or so minutes to get a call back from room service and then a new proper sandwich with extra chips to come to the room so we spent a little over 90 minutes in all for this.
One major complaint is about the hot meal planning. On excursion days plan to either pay to eat off ship or starve. Both days we got back right at 3:30 when they where closing all the lines on the Lido and in Tiffany's and sit down lunch dinning is over. This only leaves pizza (not very good to me) or what ever is left in the deli for a sandwich. They even take up all the salad items which makes no sense since it is all replaced at dinner time and hour and half later. The first day we had to bully a line service person to let us plate a little food that was still out and grab a small salad, the second day we tried to get a sandwich but they were all out of any bread I would eat and the line was long. We tried room service but again could not get through so we gave up, showered and changed and stood in line early for 45 minutes to get into the dinning room as soon as it opened at 5:45 that night. You would think Carnival would transition even just one hot food line from 3:30 to 4:00 for those coming back on board from excursions.
Weather and motion: Even though we had clouds quite a lot while in ports the crew found enough sun during the sailing days. We only felt the ship moving slightly when we where back in Tiffany's, or in the show rooms, and only once during one dinner. The only time the ship really rocked was in the early morning when we were docking to debark back in Mobile at 2:30 a.m. due to the fact that we were not secured to the dock yet before another large barge ship was traveling the channel and rocked us quite a lot even to opening some passengers closet or bathroom doors, that was the all the talk at breakfast.
Excursions: We chose not to use Carnival's but do our own at both ports. In Progreso, we wanted to visit Uxmal, not the scheduled ruin trips Carnival offered, so we contacted Autoprogeso, on line before we came, and reserved our tour, they are the same company that supplies the buses from the ship to the shops at the end of the pier. We did not have to pay until we arrived so we were in no danger of losing any money if we had to have cancelled. The tour was just as advertised at $49 per person in an air-conditioned coach bus. You are shuttled from where you met at the fountain in the pier shop square to a staging area with open air local craft booths, note if you want anything from these stands you must buy then because the tour bus will not come back there but drive directly to the pier shops to make sure you make the ship. There are bathrooms there and once you arrive at Uxmal but the bathroom on the bus is use at your own risk. Plan to eat a large breakfast because there is mostly snack foods at Uxmal, There is a restaurant but you won't want to waste the time eating instead of exploring. (The Carnival bus tours may say they include lunch but they are a pitiful box lunch most end up not eating on the bus ride back.) On our tour you do not get back to the port until 2:30-3:00 so there is not much time for shopping even at the port shops. We got back at 2:45 only because some on our bus insisted on stopping at a connivance store to buy and drink beer on the way back. We had a great real Mayan guide, Miguel, that grew up very near Uxmal. The ruins are one of the very best example of Mayan architecture in the area and much easier to see and hike around than others.
Shopping in Progreso: We pre shopped at the pier as we walked through so we knew actually what we wanted to get and at what shops the items were located. Buyers Tip: check with your credit card companies before traveling to find the ones that won't charge you international exchange fees when using your card (like Capital One and be sure you notice which currency your charges are in when you sign for them.) They could be either listed as $xx US or $xx NM. Some stores can fool you especially if you charge more than once in the same store. Some can set for which rate the receipt is to print out in for each transaction and if you notice for one that it is in $NM and is for quite a lot like $2,500.00 NM but the next one that should be similar is now in $US you may not pay attention when you sign a receipt for a few T-shirts for $1,999.00 US. Did not happen to us but have heard of it happening prior to our cruise.
In Cozumel we shopped in the morning. We tried to stick to the guaranteed shops given in the seminar but we did shop for dresses in one shop that was the only one I found with something I liked in my size. Although a little pricy at $95 it was a nice dress. You can't really haggle in Cozumel like you can in Progreso in the markets but you can try. We did enjoy the Del Sol shop and bought most of our souvenirs there, also one silver chain, got the free DI bracelet and a few of the charms, found the price of gold still too high along with the gems in the stores they were pushing at the seminar. We did get a few bottles of vanilla. Next we went to the 'Chankanaab Park' to 'Dolphin Discovery'. We did both a swim adventure with dolphins and with manatees for an hour each. They also have one available with sea otters. I had heard that these events were far superior to the dolphin only ones at the Dolphinarium that Carnival books. We had a great time, great photo ops, were allowed to bring our own underwater cameras and you could buy a very professional DVD video of your group's experience ($50 each). It was well worth the money. Check on line for the type of event you want, pricing varies and discounts are available quite often if you book early. Even though we pre paid, your money is refundable up until 24 hours prior, so if you can't make the cruise you can still get your money back, also suggest paying with a credit card not a debit card for added protection. It is a rain or shine event though and it did sprinkle for just a little bit on the group just prior to us. We spent around $300 for both of us that included taxi coupon transfers, entry to the park, which covers all the grounds and museums if you want to do that instead of shop in town, a free pool area next to the animal water pens that you can use before or after your event, and the extended swim with the dolphins and manatees. They also have a small snack bar with burgers, nachos, etc that people we asked said tasted good. But we would rather spend money on photos than food we were already paying for on aboard. They also have free lockers available to place all your dry clothes, towels and other items while you are in the water, also showers and changing rooms if needed.
Activates on board: We had no kids with us so we can't speak to those. I was pretty happy with the casino games available, we don't play slots or most electronic games so was glad to see at least one roulette and 3-4 black jack tables always open when the casino was open. We did enter and try our luck at the new electronic "Poker Pro" Texas Hold em tournament the first full day cruising. Entry was kind of stiff at $50 each with only 10 players and only two winning places. We did better later in Biloxi at $30 tournaments with 40 players and 3-6 winning places. Won enough on roulette the first night to pay for my poker entry the next day and ended up breaking about even for the cruise. Did not go to all of the shows, only the first night, part of one of the dance reviews, the marriage game (which was a riot), a few of the bingo games ($10 for a single card, $20 for a triple to play all the games that session), a few parts of some adult karaoke nights (pretty awful after the first night, mainly drunks trying to sing). Went to the shopping seminar, no art events, and DH went to the learn how to fold towel animals seminar (which he liked and he bought the book) Note: all the Elation shows are retiring after next month, September 2010, after 12 years and a whole new set will take their place (found out on the behind the scenes tour from the dance manager) She could not say what the new shows would be or if any where ones coming from sister ships or not. Heard at a breakfast that the comedian was good but had to stop his adult late show half way through and revert to his clean show when one family brought in their young kids. I heard they were almost heckled out by drunks that wanted the other version and I am sure those kids heard worse from those adults than the comedian, but I commend him for trying but those parents should have known better. The mini golf looked rather minimal but we saw many of all ages trying it. Note it is on the upper most deck and only accessible by stairs.
Photos: Found them to be rather pricey. The Embarkation and small 3x5's run $9.99, 5x7's are $11.99, the large 8x10's for the formal and casual shots are $21.99 each. Word of warning. Many of the formal shots taken are printed with an out of focus "soft lens" effect. Make sure to ask the photographer that is taking the shots if that scene will be one that the "soft lens effect" is to be used on. If so and you don't want all your photos to be out of focus blurry, pick another scene. Note: if you like a photo but don't want it in the size provided when set out in the photo gallery, ask to have only the ones you love printed in the size you want and they will be happy to do so. Also if you already know you aren't going to buy any photo shot that a photographer asks you to pose for please don't accept. You will have a lot more pull with the photo manager to get what you want when you can demonstrate you have tried to be considerate of their service. For example if you know you do not want any single shots only couple shots of just a few formal scenes ask for just those instead of posing for 8 different poses at all 8 or 10 formal and casual scenes. Same goes for the dinning room shots and debarkation shots at every port. Not planning to pay for a picture with a pirate, then don't stand for the photo. The photo manager reprinted the three formal scenes we wanted (removing the 'soft lens effect' from two of them) and two debarkation port shots (originally in two different sizes) in the sizes we wanted and gave us a discounted rate because we had not wasted his film or photographers time. We got three large 8x10 formals and three 5x7's all for just $50 a savings of over $30 including taxes.
Other Items to mention: you will have the chance while on board to put down deposits on future cruises that will earn you Sail and Sign credits on your next cruise. It is nice to note that for right now these will last for at least four years and are completely refundable. But what they do not mention is because you have put down an deposit you will get the chance for many discounts many others would never hear about or will be offered to you first before the general public. So even a $50 or $100 deposit can be well worth it in the long run if you enjoyed your cruise and think you will go again in the near future on Carnival. Shops on board will put everything on sale at least once during your cruise so window shop the first day or night and note what prices are of what you want, then watch the capers and see when the items you want will be on sale. Also the last night any discontinued merchandise will be placed out at a lower cost, some items you may not have even seen in the stores during the entire cruise so be sure to check them out for any last minute souvenir you many still need.
Behind the Scenes Tour: I thought was worth the $55 price. I did not know until after I had already eaten breakfast that they provided, coffee, juice and Danish in the Piano Bar prior to when the tour leaves at 8:30. You are not allowed to take cameras or cell phones, and you must wear closed toed shoes like tennis shoes. They suggest no small children but one family on our tour did bring a 5 and a 6 year old who were very bored and distracting for most of the tour. Also even though they tell you it is three hours with lots of walking and stairs a few older folks that were slow to keep up also came in our group. The tour price includes a phamlet about the tour, a hat, a lanyard like the one you wear on the tour (without the tour tag) and a large group photo with the captain on the bridge that is delivered to your cabin later that last night. The tour I went on started in the Piano bar and first goes to the galley to meet the chef. You see all the food stations for both dinning rooms and learn how they clean all the dishes, prepare and serve all the meals each day. That morning they were getting ready for the chocolate buffet that night. Next we went to see the back stage area of the large show theater and meet with the Dance manager and stage manager. They explained all the jobs the dancers and performers have besides the shows and how full their days are. We then went down to the embarkation level 3 and down the only hallway that runs the whole length of the ship to the laundry. We were shown how the laundry works and how they get all the linens down and back up to the rooms and dinning areas. They also wash all the uniforms and any guest laundry. The crew must wash their own personal laundry in there own laundry like the ones the guests have on the other upper decks. The tour guide told us a lot about how the crew lives and spends their days. Next we where shown storage rooms and coolers where food stuffs and other items stay during the cruise. How trash is sorted, stored and or disposed of. Next we saw the crew kitchen and dinning area, and areas that sometimes is used for inside crew recreation. Next we were escorted by security down to the engine room to meet the head engineer. He showed us how everything is really controlled at their consoles and that the bridge pretty much just sets the course, steers and docks in and out of port. All the propulsion, ballast control for level sailing, air conditioning, hot water and fresh water production, waste water recycling, trash incineration, and all electrical needs all come through and from the engine room. The Elation has enough electrical power to run New York City. The bridge can do nothing until it is first given to them by the engine room. Very few people even in the crew ever get to go into the main control room. Next we came back up and waited in the crews learning center asking questions until the captain was ready for us up on the bridge. All the bridge crew have their cabins up on the bridge level just steps way from the bridge at all times. We were told they have a small conference room which can also be a dinning room if needed but most of the time they eat in the normal dinning rooms and they all eat the same food the passengers and/or crew eats. While up on the bridge the capital showed us all the duty stations, how control can be moved from side to side from the center while docking and how the isopod propulsion works, the radar, communication center, weather station, and everything else that was asked. We then got our group photo op and the tour went back down to the crew only outside recreation area just in front of and below the bridge which has a small pool and deck area to relax on and then inside to their rec. room with bar, library and computer lounge. Thus ended our three hour tour. Was only disappointed not to see the size of the average crew cabin which I have heard is very small and is shared by at least two if not three crew members each. If this sounds fun to you be sure to be the first to book it as soon as you board. Only 16 per tour can go and most cruises will have no more than two of these tours.
Elation does not have the Sail and Sign card TV feature like other Carnival ships so try to stop by guest services at least once on the third or fourth day to be sure charges are going the way you are expecting. Trying to fix something on debarkation morning can be quite challenging and a very long wait as we saw many having to do. The TV does have some fun features like repaying events and shows you may not have had time to get to or while you where off ship. You can also buy a complete cruise event DVD of all the fun they recorded while on board. So if you were in any game, dance class, or just watched a really funny show you liked you might want to purchase this DVD. We also enjoyed the channel that showed the travel of the ship, the camera view of the lido deck that we used to check on the weather and food lines, and the music channels to relax by at night.
Debarkation: since we were in no rush and wanted to get all the value we could from our cruise we put out all our large bags and even one of our original carryon's which was now full of just souvenirs out the night before, for a total now of 4 bags. We slept in until 8, went to our sit down breakfast at 8:20 and still got back to our cabin just as they were calling our level and section number a little after 9:30. They reverse the doors for debarkation so everyone filed right by our door making it very easy to just step into the line to leave. Tip: Pay for a porter once you are down at luggage pick up. They will get the bags you indicate from the pile and put all of them including your carry ons on the cart. Porters have a completely separate line to go to customs in and we left the custom counter at the same time with people we know headed down for self debarkation before we even went to breakfast over an hour earlier. We cleared the customs stand before 10 and the porter took all our bags all the way to our truck and even loaded them in to the back seat for us. Well worth the $20 tip.
I hope if you read this all the way through you found it to be useful. Have a great cruise when you go. If you have any questions you can contact me at ctsl at bellsouth dot net.