We just returned from our cruise on the Pride out of Baltimore. Our teens had the full week off school for Thanksgiving this year and we decided on this particular cruise simply because all the criteria fit...we could drive to Baltimore from our home in just about an hour, the price was right as was the length of cruise. We did not specifically look for a Carnival cruise and we did not pick this sailing for its ports of call. This was the first ever cruise for my kids and the first CCL cruise for my DH and myself (we have sailed with Princess and NCL before).
Embarkation - We had hoped we could board earlier than 1:30 since we were the first cruise post dry-dock but our TA said "regular boarding time." That being said, we wanted to avoid traffic or parking issues, or any unforeseen problems so we left a little early and ended up getting to the port just before 1:00. Parking at the port was a piece of cake and from the parking lot, we could see that passengers were already starting to board! Once we got into the terminal, there was quite a long line but it moved steadily (I hesitate to say quickly). Once through the metal detectors, we were ushered into a second line where we were issued our sign & sail cards. There must have been 14-15 counter agents working this and the line moved very quickly. We were on board before 2:00pm. We went straight to the guest services desk (which only had 2 people in line ahead of us) so we could get additional key cards for our kids' cabin. While we were there, we requested the door between our 2 balconies be opened and they sent someone the following morning who secured the door open for the duration of the cruise.
Cabin - we had 2 cabins on deck 7 (Verandah) mid-ship with extended balconies. The rooms were fine, clean, comfortable bed, sofa, small table, ample closet & shelf space. The bathroom was smaller than other ships BUT the water pressure in the shower was amazing and there was plenty of shelf space in the bathroom for toiletries etc. I loved having coffee on my balcony in the morning and also coming back there to read in the late afternoons.
We did not end up leaving Baltimore until 7:30pm even though our scheduled departure was for 4:30. I just think they didn't get everything done in dry dock that they needed to accomplish so they were probably scrambling all day in Baltimore.
Dining - We had early seating dining and were issued a booth for the 4 of us. Our waiter and assistant waiter were wonderful and remembered our names and favorite items after the first night. He had a running joke with my DS about the chocolate melting cake (and yes, it's as good as everyone raves about). The service at dinner was great and the food was quite good (better than NCL but not as good as Princess - in my opinion). Call me sappy, but I enjoyed the singing and dancing the waiters did on most nights. They did Flo Rida (Low) one night, Tally Ho, Leaving on a Jet plane the last night (with their own carnival words) and I forgot the last song. It was silly and entertaining and I just wish my kids were willing to get up and bust a move with them. We ordered coffee from room service on 2 occasions and it arrived within 20 minutes. We had buffet breakfast a few times and ate in the dining room a few times. Same food in both places. I must say the service in the MDR for breakfast was slow. In many cases they filled tables of 8 and although they took your order when you sat down, the food didn't come out until everyone at the table was seated and had ordered. I just don't think breakfast needs to be an hour long ordeal. We did not eat at the steakhouse nor did we get around to trying the sushi. If you have any specific dining questions, throw them my way...I just don't want to bore everyone with the details of what was served.
Ports - We did not book any excursions ahead of time. These ports weren't the reason we were on this cruise and we weren't terribly excited about the excursions. We were in Port Canaveral the day before Thanksgiving and were warned the Disney and Universal Parks would be a zoo so we steered clear (and we had just been to the Space Center 2 years ago). I had booked a rental car before we left for about $43 (which is less than a shuttle anywhere would have cost us as a family) and the Budget shuttle ran continuously from the port to their location and we didn't have to wait more than 10 minutes for it to pick us up. We ended up driving to Cocoa Beach where we did the obligatory surf shop shopping and spent several house at the beach.
In Nassau, be prepared to be accosted by independent taxi drivers who want to take you on a tour of the island and to Atlantis etc...it's a hard sell but if you're firm and say no, they'll move on to the next victim, er, visitor. ? We did some shopping in town and walked to the public beach (Junkaroo). I couldn't justify the cost of a day pass at any of the hotels when we had the beach right there. There was a volleyball net, some food and drink shacks (folks were drinking wonderful concoctions out of coconuts and eating jerk chicken, burgers, dogs etc). That was about it for Nassau. It was Thanksgiving day and there were 3 other ships in port with us that day so it was fairly crowded everywhere. We were happy to get back on the boat and hit the hot tub!
In Freeport I had read about snorkeling that I wanted the kids to try but I'm glad I held off booking because the water was rather rough that day. We took a cab out to our Lucaya and went to the beach there. The sand was soft, the water beautiful and the vendors came by in a steady stream but if you said "no thank you" politely but firmly, they'd move on without hassling you at all. They had a tour operator right on the beach offering various excursions (parasailing, snorkeling, dolphin watching, jet skiing and banana boat rides) so there's really no need to book ahead of time if you want to try out some of these activities. We were content to splash around in the water for a few hours before doing some souvenir shopping in the shops of Lucaya. BTW, taxi costs $5 per person each way and we were fortunate to have a driver on the way out who gave us some history and points of interests on the 15 minute drive from the ship to Lucaya.
Activities/Entertainment - There was plenty to do for those who need constant organized activities but nothing was pushed too hard. What was really nice was walking by the piano bar or any one of a number of lounges and stopping to listen to the talent on the ship. They even had some performers behind the bar at the casino...so you could watch a game, play some blackjack, get a drink and listen to someone performing all at the same time. Talk about sensory overload! ? I played several of the trivia games and that was fun. Didn't do bingo so I can't comment on that. My kids were eligible for the 2 older teen clubs (Circle C and O2). They went the first night, met others who they hung out with for the rest of the cruise, but didn't necessarily do all the scheduled activities. My DS did pizza night, movie night (they showed Date Night) and played in the basketball tournament. He was bummed it was too windy for the ping pong tourney the last night. Mostly they hung out on the 9th deck. I rarely saw my 14 year old DD. She made a million friends and they were always on the go or in a hot tub somewhere. We did go to some of the shows after dinner as a family. I can really appreciate how hard those dancers work and it was amazing to think about how many costume changes they had. My favorite show was called Vrooom and it was a journey of rock and roll from the 50s to the 80s and encompassed everything from Elvis, Diana Ross, Beatles, Stones, Pink Floyd, Culture Club, Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Elton John and about a dozen others. Very cool costumes and special effects. We also went to some of the comedy shows (the adult-only ones) and really enjoyed all of them. We hit the casino most nights...my DH won in craps but gave it back at the poker table. I was content to play slots all week. They were hot and cold but I was entertained for long chunks of time without losing too much!
Debarkation - We pulled into Baltimore around 10:30 (about 30 minutes late because Friday night we had to detour towards the coast so the coast guard could air lift someone in medical distress - it was quite something to see a helicopter hovering over the ship at 1am and they did an amazing job in windy weather). We did self-assist and were off the ship, through customs and in our car by 11am. The fastest we've ever gotten off a ship.
Misc - We thought the deal on Absolut in the ship's store was a good one (2 liters for $24.99) so we purchased that and it was delivered to our room the last night on the ship. They had many flavors and had deals on other booze as well.
As for the dEcor - it was cool to have artwork everywhere. I didn't find it dark or gloomy and my kids didn't notice one way or the other. Certainly not the reason to pick a cruise.
There were places to sit everywhere. Comfortable couches and lounge chairs placed throughout the hallways, near windows, in the lounges...and you never felt like a sardine. There was plenty of room for everyone and they worked hard to keep the ship clean.
We must have had every demographic represented on the cruise...babies through folks in their 90s and everything in between. Great group of people. I never witnessed any ridiculously bad behavior and i met many folks traveling with larger groups of family for the holidays. Most of the folks we encountered were from MD, VA, PA, and DE although there were some from NY, OH, MI and IA. Just a nice mix.
Would I sail Carnival again? You bet. They work very hard to dispel the "budget cruise" feeling and the crew was more than pleasant and helpful.