First of all, a general comment about Pride: it's an older and smaller ship in comparison to the other ships I have been on. I didn't have huge expectation to start with, and I am glad that I didn't. If somebody is used to the newer Royal Caribbean ships and comes to this one with the same expectation, they will be sorely disappointed. But if you have more of a roll-with-the-punches, just-be-glad-I-am-not-at-work attitude, you will be fine.
DEcor: I was not a big fan of the dEcor, but not for the reason you might suspect. As many other people on this board have pointed out, it did have a lot of art pieces featuring nudes, but it didn't bother me or my family at all. We go to art museums quite often and consider these classic Renaissance paintings to be quite tame. In general, I think the decorator was going for the European opulent palace look, so there were a lot of intricate moldings and scrolls and balusters, but they were made of plastic, not real metal or wood or plaster, so as they got older, you could see scratches, misalignments and fading if you looked closely enough. In other words, they looked cheap. Also, almost the entire lobby and most of the exposed interior wall and ceiling were in various shades of metallic color. A few brushed nickel door handles or matte copper faucets may look good in your house, but when the whole 9-story atrium was in those colors, everything seemed dark and oppressive. In short, it was trying to be Louvre, but ended up more like your Italian grandparents' old house.
Another thing I have noticed is that the ship was not very wide. The 2 main floors on the inside (Deck 2, where the Guest Service and Atrium is), and Deck 3 (the Casino, shops, various bars, with the middle part hollow due to the Atrium) felt tight at some spots. If I wanted to walk through these floors from one end to the other, there was only one "hallway", on the starboard side. So regardless which direction you were going, everybody shared the same "hallway" and you were constantly fighting the oncoming traffic. I have read other posts on this board talking about feeling cramped on this ship. I understand now why somebody would feel this way.
Dry dock: I couldn't see any visible improvement from the dry dock. But since I wasn't there before the dry dock, I cannot really make that comparison. Somebody on this board had said something about replacing carpets and refurbishing bathroom fixtures, but I knew for a fact that the carpet in my cabin was not new, neither was the toilet seat or shower enclosure. My guess was that they worked more on the mechanical stuff during the dry dock, i.e. things not visible to passengers.
Weather: weather for the whole week was pretty lousy. Even those days when we were in FL and Bahamas, it was at most low 70s with high winds. We did go to the beach twice, but spent most of the time building sand castles instead of swimming. I know it had nothing to do with the cruise ship per se, but for my personal reference, I will not book another cruise out of a northern port in winter.
Food: A lot of posts on this board complained about the food on Pride. I found it to be no better or worse than other mainstream cruises, and that's exactly what I expected.
Main dining room (Normandie): I am not a foodie but I have been to plenty of both high brow and middle class restaurants. If I entertain clients for work, I take them to Ruth's or Morton's or Fleming's. If I go out on my own dime, I go to Olive Garden or Red Lobster, maybe Carrabba's if I want to splurge a little. In my opinion, the main dining room's food is definitely better than Olive Garden and Applebee's and on par with Carrabba's. They want you to think it's like Ruth's, but it's not quite there. The service was adequate and the waiters tried their best to please. By the way, the Carnival waiters seemed to like singing. On other cruise ships you would get maybe just one evening when the waiters sing, but on this cruise they were singing pretty much every night. We even had 2 waiters standing on the serving table/island and danced. It was cute. Overall, I had no complaint - it's average in terms of food and service when comparing to other cruises I had been on. One thing I liked was that they highlighted a few "SPA choices", i.e. low fat and low calorie items on the dinner menu every night. I am not obsessive about eating healthy food, but I do consider the "worth-it" factor: I would rather order a steamed salmon instead of a regular grilled salmon drenched in butter, then I can feel guilt-free to splurge on the melting chocolate cake.
Buffet (Mermaid's Grill): A lot of people complained on this board about how disorganized and how crowded the buffet is. I didn't get that feeling at all. For lunch, there were 4 main stations: Asian, Rotisserie, Deli Station, and "theme of the day". There were a separate dessert station and a salad station. Deli station was like a Subway, where they would make cold or hot subs based on your request. It seemed to be very popular all the time. Asian station obviously served Asian food, i.e. what you would get at your neighborhood Chinese buffet. Rotisseries station would have something like roasted beef carving station, or fried pork chop, but it also had seafood, vegetable and starch offerings to go with the meat choice. "Theme of the day" station changed daily from Greek to Louisiana to French. Again, it had its own pairings of seafood and veggie and starch. In other words, you could get a complete meal at any of the 4 main stations - no need to go through multiple lines. The longest wait I had to endure in any line was about 5 minutes. I know it might feel a lot longer when you were actually in the line, but come on, were you afraid that the food was going to run out? I did notice an interesting phenomenon: a lot of people would passively step into the first line they saw, so the further inside the restaurant, the shorter the line would be. So I developed a system of walking around the whole area, checking out each of the stations before committing myself to one. For breakfast, these stations all served the same food, so there was even more opportunities to look for the shorter line. More than once, I would see a line of 7 or 8 people waiting for omelets, while another omelet station 20 ft away (around the corner) had no wait at all. I would get my omelet first, then go to the end of the long line to tell people about the other station, but some people would stubbornly stay in that line. I just had to shake my head.
Cabin: As I said before, the cabin wasn't in great shape and the dry dock didn't seem to help. I don't blame Carnival or the crew for this - things were 9 years old and they showed their age. But some things could have been done better. For instance, 2 of the closet doors in my cabin had no handles. I had to use a pen or knife to pry the door open every time I want to get in that closet. It made me wonder: was it always like that or did it just break from the previous week? It was finally fixed on Tuesday, which again seemed quite odd because I could tell they just screwed on a brand new handle, which would take 10 seconds max. So why waited until Tuesday? Another oddity was the hangers in the closet. In order to save space, these were specially designed with 3 hangers sharing one hook. Consequently the clothes on the nearby hangers had to be squeezed against each other, and if you want to get to the shirt on the middle hanger, you had to take off the outside hanger. I didn't like that at all, but it is what it is, we managed. We didn't have a super-friendly steward either. As a matter of fact, we didn't know it was a he or she after the whole week because we never met him/her. It might have bothered some people but it didn't really bother me - the steward's job was not to chat with me, but to clean the room. When I go to a hotel on land, I don't ever see the maid who cleans the room, so what's difference between a cruise cabin and a land-based hotel? Overall, our steward did the job right, which was all I needed. One night, he/she did make a mistake: when we came back after the show, we found half of a towel animal on the bed and no chocolate or next day's bulletin. I guess he/she must have been interrupted half way and forgot to come back and finish it. I let it slide and didn't make any complaint - everybody could have an off day, but it was funny to my son so that he wrote in his journal "today we got only the tail of a towel animal and no candy".
Shows: The shows we attended were of average quality. But I was surprised by how few there were in the week -- only 3 professional shows in the evening hours, which we went to all 3. They had only one welcome aboard show on Sunday night, but it was at 10:30 PM, too late for our kids. There was no production or comedy show on the two port days. And on the last night of the cruise the show was a talent show by passengers, again after 10. On the port days with no show, the supposedly highlight of the evening was karaoke by passengers. In order to make it nicer, they provided the Carnival Pride band to do the accompaniment instead of a CD, but that was it. So overall, I was not very satisfied with this aspect. I wonder if this was the new trend to save money or if it was specific to this itinerary due to the late hours of those 2 port days.
Fellow passengers: some posts on this board had complained about the rude behaviors of their fellow passengers. I did observe a couple, but again, whenever you had a few thousand people together, there would always be a few jerks. Comparing to other cruises I have been on, there was a disproportionally large percentage of African Americans and first time cruisers. It didn't necessary mean good or bad by itself - it's just something that I noticed. Overall, people were friendly and courteous, no different from people I would run into at supermarkets or amusement parks in my hometown.
Now I will give you a day by day account of the highlights of our experiences:
Saturday: We are from Buffalo area, so we drove down to Baltimore a day early. It turned out to be a smart move because there was a snow storm that weekend. I changed my route at the last minute to avoid the lake effect snow area. So the drive itself was uneventful. We stayed at TownePlace Suites by BWI (had lots of Marriott Reward points to use, so the two rooms were free). The hotel was ok, nothing special.
Sunday: Based on what I read on this board, this ship was notorious for getting back to Baltimore late., which would make embarking late. I didn't want to wait at the port for hours and hours, so my family chose to visit Baltimore Museum of Art in the morning. If you like this kind of things, I highly recommend BMA. It's on Johns Hopkins Univ campus. Lots of nice art work. The best part: the admission was free. The only expense was $4 to park at the adjacent underground parking. ($6 for a whole day on weekends, but $2 off for museum visitors if you got the parking ticket stamped at the museum.) We arrived at 11, left at 2. I could have stayed longer, but my kids were reaching their limit. It was less than 10-min drive from the museum to the cruise terminal. (By the way, gas price in Baltimore was a lot lower than NY or PA - so wait to fill up your tank until you are in Baltimore.)
It was 2:30 when we got to the port. There was no wait to drop off the bags or park. I was prepared to use cash as I learned on this board that the line to use credit card to pay for parking would be long, but since there was no wait, I paid by credit card and conserved cash for later use. The parking lot was outdoors and it's smaller than I expected. My town's grocery store parking lot is bigger than this. I found a parking space at the far end, and it was only a few hundred feet of walk to the terminal building. By then, it was 2:45 and the line was snaking out of the building to the curb - I guess we were late enough to avoid the rush at the parking lot but not late enough to avoid the rush for check-in. The weather that day was quite nice - sunny and low 50s, so waiting outside was not a big deal, but it could be ugly if the temp was lower. There was a covering for the curb with radiating heater at the underside, but if it's truly cold and windy, the heaters wouldn't be effective as they were too high above people. It took us about 90 minutes to go through the line for the check-in process. If I were to do this again, I would come even later, maybe 3:30 - wouldn't want to be any later than that because the official boarding time was 1:30-3:30. But I could tell as we were waiting in line, there were only 30 or 40 more people came in after us. In other words, we came at 2:30 and got on board a little after 4. If we had come at 3:30, we should still get on board at about the same time.
When we got on board, there was a long line waiting for the elevators, so I sucked it up and carried 3 suitcases from Deck 2 to Deck 6 via stairs. If we waited for the elevators, it might have taken 20, 30 minutes or even longer. We got to our room at 4:30, and before we had a chance to completely unpack, the muster drill began at 5. Right after that, we had the dinner at 6. In summary, due to the late arrival time of this itinerary, I felt the timing of everything was thrown off a bit. On previous cruises, we always would go early and had a nice lunch after boarding, walked around to explore the ship and still got to enjoy half a Sunday on board, but this time the whole Sunday was pretty much gone before we settled in.
Monday: Before I talk about Monday, I have to tell you about an odd thing happening to me on Sunday night. I don't normally wear a watch and there was no clock anywhere in the cabin, not even on the phone, so I used my cell phone (a Motorola Q smartphone) as a watch. In the middle of the night, (when the phone went on roaming and connected onto the ship's cell network), it automatically switched to Alaska time zone. At the time, I didn't know any of this. All I knew was that when I woke up and looked at the phone in the dark and it said "2:55 AM", I went back to sleep, but in reality it's 6:55. When my parents called our cabin at 8 to try to set up a meeting spot for breakfast, I was miffed as why they would call us at 4 AM. I set my phone to "automatically adjusting to local time zone", so the internal computer must have got a misleading message somewhere to make it think it's in Alaska. I set it back to Eastern time zone and disabled the "automatic adjusting" feature and it was fine for the rest of the week. I still don't know why it happened, so if anybody know something or had the same thing happening to them, I would like to hear about it.
Once we did get up, we had breakfast and sent the kids to Camp Carnival, which they loved and went back there every day. (It helped that both of our kids are in the same age bracket. Camp Carnival split the kids from 2 to 5, then 6 to 8, then 9 to 11... Other cruise lines' children's programs divide the age groups differently. Actually this was a main reason why we chose Carnival for this trip: so that our two kids can be together in the same bracket.)
While the kids were at Camp Carnival, my wife and I went to the gym to work out. It was crowded, but there were still machines open. I went back to the gym every day for the whole week and as expected, the crowd got thinner and thinner as the week went on. Interestingly, there was a Jacuzzi right in the middle of the gym, so you had sweaty people pumping iron and running on the treadmill, then 10 feet away (separated by an elevated platform and a half glass wall) were people sitting in the hot tub and drinking beer - somewhat ironic.
The rest of the day was spent walking around and orienting ourselves. We did go to the afternoon tea at the main dining room. They had a pianist playing while you drank tea and eat cake - it's nice but since we just ate lunch 2 hours earlier and would eat dinner again 2 hours later, it didn't feel quite as attractive.
Tuesday: Because of the cold weather, the first and last 2 days are inside days. It means two whole decks of the ship are totally non-useable for more than half of the trip, which means all the passengers are crammed into the inside public spaces. That's probably another reason why one would feel crowded on this trip. But by lunch time on Tuesday, the ship was south enough that we felt warm enough to wear short-sleeve shirt and even shorts, especially when in the middle part of Deck 9 (Lido), which was covered with glass ceilings, like a green house. That made a huge difference temperature wise since it blocked the wind -- It's still too cold there on Monday and Saturday, but quite comfortable on Tuesday and Friday. However, when the air was reasonably warm in that area during the middle of the week, the water in the pool was still freezing (probably no more than 70 degrees). I did take the kids into the pool (the middle one, under the glass ceiling) on Tuesday afternoon, but all of us were having purple lips after 20 minutes.
Wednesday: It was low 70s and very windy, but we still wanted to go to Cocoa Beach, after being stuck on board for 2 days. Thanks to posts on this board, I knew there was a free shuttle. When we first walked out of the terminal building, there was a lady directing crowd and telling people to go left for Cocoa Beach shuttle and go right for Walmart shuttle. Obviously she worked for the cruise line because the Cocoa Beach shuttle she pointed people to was the one charging people $16. That's the "official" Ron Jon/Cocoa Beach shuttle. To take the free shuttle, you should walk to the opposite direction (i.e. where the Walmart shuttle was), but in the farther end of the parking lot, there was the free shuttle bus (marked as Radisson hotel shuttle) that would take people to Cocoa Beach Surf Shop. There was a greeter standing by the bus to tell people about the free shuttle, so don't worry about not finding it. Cocoa Beach Surf Shop was literally next door to Ron Jon (on the same side of street and separated by a driveway, maybe 30 ft apart), so even if you really wanted to go to Ron Jon, you can still take this free shuttle. It ran every half an hour and the driver was polite and friendly. I gave him a good tip since I saved more than $80 if I had to pay for the shuttle for the 6 of us. However, I want to encourage everybody to not only tip the driver, but be sure to buy something at Cocoa Beach Surf Shop. The store sponsors the bus and if they don't get enough business by doing so, the free bus is not going to last long.
The actual beach was about ¼ mile walk from the store, and once we were on the beach, we could walk up and down for miles. As I said, it was super windy, so we played with sand and walked in the water but not full swimming. We did walk all the way along the water edge to the pier which was ½ mile north, just to kill some time. The part of the pier that was near the beach was actually a restaurant and bar. In order to walk through the bar and to the tip of the pier (into the ocean), we would have to pay $1 per person. We felt it was not worth it so didn't do that - I guess the pier was built with private money.
We took the last free shuttle back to the ship at 4 PM. (It ran every 30 minutes.) While the wife cleaned up the kids in our cabin, I went to the gym and used the shower there. It was very nice - the shower had an overhead nozzle, then 4 other horizontal jets, all with super strong pressure. I literally felt like under a water fall - totally refreshing.
Thursday: The boat didn't dock until 10 and people weren't allowed off the boat until almost 11. I felt bad for folks who bought the day pass to Atlantis because they were only getting half a day's worth. We simply walked off the boat, out of the terminal, and turned right and walked about 15 minutes to get to the public Western Espalande beach (past British Colonial Hilton). It was another cloudy and cold and windy day. To make matters worse, the beach was full of coral pieces (size of regular gravels) so that it actually hurt my feet to walk on it. If anybody had tried to swim in the water, I seriously believed he/she would have ended up with lots of cuts and abrasions to the feet and knees. There were cleaning crews digging out the corals on the beach with shovels and wheelbarrows. I asked them what was going on. They told me that the government dug trenches on the ocean floor over the summer to make the harbor deeper in order to accommodate bigger ships like Oasis and Allure, but by doing so, it loosened the ocean floor. Now, anytime they have a storm and a surge, the rocks and corals would be washed ashore. Since it was so cold and windy, we couldn't swim anyway, so it didn't matter too much. Again, my kids had a blast pretending to be archaeologists and doing excavating in the sand. If not for the rocks, the beach itself wasn't bad for a free beach. There were public restrooms with shower stalls so that you could rinse sand off your feet. There were also a bar and people offering hair braids, massages, and chairs. We sat at the farther end of the beach away from the vendors and were left alone.
We went back to the boat at around 3 and cleaned up. We ate an early dinner at the buffet, then headed out again at 5:30 to Atlantis, because I had read that the aquarium was free after 6. The official taxi rate was $4 per person to Atlantis, but since it took the driver no more effort to drive 6 people than 2 people, I thought the system wasn't very fair. So I asked the first taxi driver I saw "I know it costs $4 per person to Atlantis, but we have 6 people here, what kind of discount can you give me?" He immediately said "I won't charge you for the kids, just $16 for 4 adults." I probably could have negotiated an even better price, but I figured a couple dollars meant a lot more to him than to me. On the way, he had to pay $1 toll to go over the bridge to Atlantis. He paid it out of his own pocket and didn't even ask me for it (which a typical US cab driver would have done). I didn't know if the $4 official rate was supposed to include that already or not, but I was in a good mood, so I gave him a $20.
The Atlantis resort was indeed very impressive. I travel to Vegas almost every year for work (trade shows), so I am pretty familiar with big resorts like Bellagio and Mirage and Wynn. Atlantis's interior reminded me of those Vegas resorts. Obviously the entire compound of Atlantis was much bigger and more impressive than any hotel on the Strip, but I couldn't see much in the dark, so I could only go by the lobby and etc. The aquarium was on the ground floor (one level below the lobby). There were 3 or 4 big windows (floor to ceiling) visible in the public area. At the corner of the public area (which I almost missed) was a smallish sign for "The Dig". Sure enough, there was nobody guarding it, so we walked right in. It was definitely the coolest aquarium I had ever seen. It was basically a huge 2-story tall tank. The walkway was built around the tank, so you could look into it through those big windows at different angles. On the other wide of the walkways were smaller aquarium tanks, each holding some interesting species such as jelly fish, lobster, sea horse, etc. After we walked through the whole hallway, there was a stairway at the end leading to the garden area. Once we walked up, we realized it was actually the top of the aquarium, so now we could walk around it again but this time looking down at the fish. We took our time and 2 hours was just about right. Overall, it's very nice and certainly worth the $40 taxi fare, but I wouldn't pay the regular admission to see it.
Friday: The ship docked at Freeport at 7, but I took time through my morning routine of working out and showering and breakfast, so I didn't get off the boat until about 10. While my wife and I were getting ready in our cabin, we could smell a very strong odor of paint thinner. My guess was that somebody was doing the staining of the railing or whatever. I felt it was not a very good planning by the maintenance department.
There wasn't much to see at the port besides a bunch of stores. I was done in 30 minutes and went back to the ship. The temperature was about the same, but at least the sun was out, so it felt warmer. We took advantage of that and played a round of miniature golf after lunch, then did a few runs down the water slide. At that time, the ship started moving again. Immediately, the wind became unbearable and we had to seek shelter inside. Inexplicably, the middle pool on Lido (under the glass ceiling) was closed for maintenance at that time. It was still sunny at the time but the wind generated by the ship going 25 knots made outside pool inhabitable. So this inside pool would have been a perfect place for people, but I couldn't believe that it would be closed. Either something broke unexpectedly, which was a sign of the poor condition of the equipment; or it's a reflection of poor scheduling and management by the ship staff. Throughout the whole week, I noticed a lot of things that weren't perfect, but most of it were outside the control of the staff, with the exception of these 2 incidents on Friday (the paint smell and the closing of the pool) which could have been managed better.
Saturday: The last day of the cruise was quite boring. The debarkation talk was a waste of time for repeat cruisers, even though they made it mandatory or at least "highly encouraged" for everybody to attend. The Q&A session about life of the crew on board was done with the cruise director and the assistant cruise director. While they were funny, it didn't provide a very in-depth or realistic portrait - these guys knew what they were allowed to say and what they were not allowed to say. When I was on Independence of the Seas with RCCL in March, the same behind-the-scene talk was conducted by a sound guy, a dancer, a singer, and one of the activity staff. Their less-polished conversation was actually much more informative. In the afternoon there was a galley tour, which again turned out to be a waste of time for repeat cruisers. The tour guide repeated some tired facts about how many pounds of meat/egg/cheese were consumed every week, then rushed everybody through a small part of the galley in under 3 minutes. I was at the front of the line, and when I exited the galley, walked around to the front on my way back to my cabin, the back end of the line of the tour was still waiting to get into the galley.
Sunday: Like a lot of the passengers, we did self-assist debarkation. The ship arrived at Baltimore at 9 (maybe the dry dock did fix something in the engine and allowed the ship to travel at a higher speed), and they started to allow people off at 10. Even for self-assist, they had to call deck by deck because there were so many self-assist passengers. Our deck would have been called last according to the published schedule. I didn't think they really check, but I didn't want to break the rule in front of my kids. So we were just patiently waiting at one of the lounges and letting other people go. I happened to see a staff person directing traffic there, so I politely asked her "I know our deck hasn't been called yet, but we do have a 7-hour drive to Buffalo. Is there any way we can get off earlier?" She graciously said "no problem" and waved us into the line. Again, if we had just walked into the line, I didn't think she would have checked our cards (which didn't list cabin numbers anyway), so the result would have been the same, but this way, I was able to set a good example for my kids about doing the right thing.
That was the end of our week-long vacation, which I would give it a grade of 3.5 out of 5. Most of the "imperfections" were no big deals. I would definitely cruise with Carnival again, but probably not any time in the winter, unless the departure is from FLL or MIA.