Family of 6 traveling together - 2 adults, 1 teen boy, 3 girls (7yo 5yo, 2yo). We had 2 balcony cabins on Deck 9, 9346 and 9232. Booked 1 adult and 2 kids in each. We booked in mid-November 2010, about 6 weeks before the cruise.
We flew in to MCO, uneventfully, and transferred to the Embassy Suites - Airport for a quick overnight, then used Ace Luxury Transportation to get us to Port Canaveral. Hotel - facilities were adequate, service was exceptional! Transfer to the pier - adequate. Transfer back from the pier - pathetic; ended up being sent a subcontracted taxi after waiting nearly an hour for our "pre-arranged" transportation.
Embarkation process was a bit slow, and the lines crawled out the door for a good 400 yards. It was a bit breezy, and we were offered the chance to jump out of line, as we had a crew of kids, one of which was in a stroller. Observed some very rude treatment of other guests, by Carnival port staff (male), but it wasn't directed at my family - so it was quickly ignored. The Carnival Port staff (lady) who offered us the jump out of line, guided us to the elevator (we had a stroller), which easily moved us up 45 minutes in the boarding process. We were grateful, as the kids were getting itchy.
The showing passports, swiping credit cards, and getting our Sign&Sail cards went smoothly. After which were photographed for the Sign&Sail cards, then the line proceeded to a group of ship's photographers who wanted to scan our cards and take individual pictures in front of a green screen?!?! I am used to getting the 'family' photo upon debarkation in front of the airbrushed backdrop, but having done the 'official' Sign&Sail photo (for security & on board charges); I was rather dubious about the green screen photo, and we declined.
We boarded the ship just as rooms were ready for guests. Not being familiar with the ship's layout, we followed the path of least resistance to the nearest elevator bank - and waited an eternity for a car to take us to Deck 9. Had we been more familiar with the ship's layout, we may have had better luck walking forward or aft to other elevators. The rooms were clean, prepped and ready, bright and spacious - very much like advertised. Our cabin stewards promptly introduced themselves and quickly satisfied my request for an ashtray (for the balcony). Luggage was delivered to our rooms by 5pm, and all pieces arrived as expected.
The cabins were quite nice, except there was only ONE 110V outlet in the room. Bring a 20+ foot extension cord/power-strip if you use a bedside CPAP machine, or need to charge more than one electronic device at a time. There was another 110V outlet in the bathroom. While the layout and the cleanliness of the room were very nice, the location of cabin 9346 WAS TERRIBLE!! DO NOT BOOK THIS CABIN. The cabin sat directly beneath the Lido Deck's table & chair area, directly in front of the 24 hour pizza station. Between 11pm-3am all you hear is thundering cacophony the staff moving/stacking deck chairs to clean the deck, then hoards of drunken fools migrating from Caliente Disco to the only place that serves food at bar close.
Dinner in the dining room was adequate, at best. We had late seating, Crimson lower.... with 3 youngsters - that's tough on their schedules, but we booked late - really can't whine. Our family was segregated into the "kids dining area", a little room of about 6 tables (50 people?) off of the main dining room. If I were traveling without kids, I'd be relieved to see that my dining experience wouldn't be interrupted by tired, crying kids. But it really felt far removed from the much more lavishly decorated "adult" dining room. Again, the food and service were adequate, not stellar (especially compared to other cruise lines, and considering this was a premium priced "Holiday" journey).
The flexible dining options (buffets and specialty 'stations') were again, adequate. I agree with most other reviews, the lines are long, the layout is poor, and the customized dining choices (omelets, stir-fry, pasta, deli) were woefully understaffed. They really need to extend/expand dining times.
Entertainment - the comedians were 'cruise ship caliber', past their prime and definitely not ever going to tour clubs and theaters again. Same with the piano man-Tom, the guitar guy in the casino, the "tropical" band playing by the pool. While they were all friendly, their acts were stale and play lists weren't very deep. It's rather "low end" to use a DAT or Minidisc as a rhythm section, it shows your performance is going to be scripted and lack any vibrancy or improv ability. I'd rather listen to a CD, my iPod, or Musak. Almost all of the music acts on board could be replaced by a jukebox (with better results), except perhaps the "orchestra" and the 4 piece rock band that played near the bar, mid-ship on Deck 5. I guess cruise ships are where washed up entertainers go to die.
"Feature Entertainment" - also lacking. 12 average dancers in skimpy clothing with 2 average singers do not constitute high quality "Feature Entertainment" (the male singer looked as if he hated being on board and was simply "going through the motions" to finish the show). The cruise director boasted about the "million dollar" facility, well that's wonderful, if you have someone who knows how to use the production equipment. I would equate the performers and production caliber to something I might see at a high school or community college presentation. Less than impressed. The "Fun Force" (hip-hop dance troop??) - I am not sure how break-dancers exuding thuggish bravado adds to my vacation experience, but it may serve as a resume booster for this "crew", allowing them to skip the fry station and move right up to working the drive-thru; in their future career endeavors.
Children's programs - it looked like the kids' programs, by schedule alone, were going to be incredible. After having cruised on other cruise lines and raved about their kids programs, we were sorely saddened to find out our kids hated going to "the kids jail" - their term, not ours. Other cruise lines have staff with backgrounds/degrees in early childhood development, elementary education - and all of them spoke English as a first language. NOT THE CASE ON THE DREAM. An economics major from Eastern Europe or a former daycare employee from the Philippines are not even close to the caliber/quality of care provided on other cruise lines. Having our easy-going kids crying/protesting at drop-off; told us enough. A staff of 14 to care for an estimated 1400 children?!?! Not impressed. Perhaps a more engaging youth program would not lead to 100s of unsupervised tweens, teens, and young adults (18-20), roaming the ship at all hours with nothing to do.
Cruise sponsored excursions - the ultimate rip-off. Book your excursions independently, your activity and destination are the same, except the cruise line doesn't mark-up the price 100-200%. The only benefit of booking through the cruise line, is they will not strand you in port if one of "their" excursions experiences a delay returning to the ship. Example: 2 adults & 4 kids booking a simple "beach break" would run nearly $400 via Carnival. The same experience in Cozumel can be had for a $19 cab ride.
*Nassau - a true armpit of a port. Paradise Island/Atlantis Casino & waterpark is nice, but not when there are 6 ships and 20,000 tourists in port. There is a grocery store within walking distance of the pier, where you can grab the much needed extension cord, some cheap bottled water (compared to the 1.5L bottle available in your cabin for $4 + 15%), and munchies - for when you don't want to wait in line for 20 minutes to get a grilled cheese sandwich onboard.
*Cozumel - "safer" for tourists than mainland Mexico (especially the Pacific side). Plenty of shopping and recreation opportunities. Lots of independent excursion opportunities.
*Roatan - wonderful beach within walking distance of the pier, no need to book an excursion here.
*Belize - stay on the "tourist" path and you'll be fine. Don't stray in search of excitement. Find a bar/restaurant near the tender's pier, enjoy some relative cheap eats. Aside from that, be prepared to spend too much on an excursion (cave tubing or zip lining) - or stay onboard that day and relax poolside.
Costa Maya - if you have a hankering to see Mayan ruins, in person, book the excursion. You'll learn as much or more at your local library, and won't have to drive 90 minutes to get there - but if you have to SEE it, it's your money. Otherwise there is nothing to do in this port except shop. You have your choice of Diamonds International, Diamonds International #2 (both terrible places to buy garbage stones), T-Shirt shop #1, T-shirt shop #2, Gabby's hair braiding, or the 2 restaurants/cantinas that straddle the small pool. This is the purest definition of a tourist trap. Make sure you stop by the most depressing thing you can see on your vacation - the poorly cared for dolphins, "handled" by unqualified "trainers", in a pathetically small pool. This port is nothing but an itinerary fluffer for the cruise lines.
PARENTS - take note!
#1 - teach your kids that when an elevator door opens, let people off before charging into the elevator car. Elderly folks with walkers get to board before the throng of teens/tweens playing tag throughout the halls. I do not and will not hesitate to bulldoze your child out of my way to get off an elevator.
#2 - don't take your 17-20 year olds on a cruise. There is NOTHING for them to do after 9pm except gamble (and pester every person over 21 they encounter to get drinks for them.) If you do bring them, don't let the cruise be their drinking lesson. Make sure they know how to hold their buzz and their booze, and lock them away somewhere that they are not starting fights, acting like fools, or putting themselves in danger. Nothing is more pathetic than a drunken/coked-up 25 year old groping a unsupervised teenage girl that has had drinks poured down her throat all night.
CARNIVAL - take note!
#1 - Delivering all of the liquor purchased in port to passenger cabins, at 9pm, on New Years Eve - absolutely brilliant!!! What a perfect way to keep booze out of the hands of unsupervised, underage passengers (not to mention minimizing your primary revenue stream from legitimate drinkers on a big drinking night).
This was probably the last time we cruise Carnival as a family. I could envision doing a 3 or 4 day 'adult getaway" on Carnival, but nothing longer than 7 days again, and never paying a premium price to sail over Christmas/NYE again. The value is simply not there.