Our first MSC Cruise, very good overall.
The ship itself was nice and clean. I don't think it was much different from Costa and I might even give Costa higher marks with the additional beauty of their public areas and restaurants. The Zebra Lounge is the exception to that, and was a lot of fun. Will remember that venue for a long time.
Embarkation was superfast, no wait at all. Disembarkation was actually kind of slow, but I think it was not MSC's fault as US Customs Area only had a few people checking passports. They said we had to be out of our rooms by 7:30AM. We didn't leave until 8am. It is way more fun to wait up on the sun decks that in the lounge areas. There were many/many others doing the same thing. You can hear the announcements just fine up there. Also, make sure to top off your coffee by 9am as the shut the machines all down on disembarkation day for cleaning. We didn't get through customs until about 10:30 AM. The taxi line was really long as a Princess ship was also disembarking in the same area. It must have been 200 people long. We lucked out and caught a ride with a van-share group who randomly just picked us out of the taxi line.
Room - We had an inside stateroom like we usually get to save money. The beds in our room were not prepared correctly in advance and a light was out in the bathroom, but both problems were taken care of in short order. Our cabin steward was pleasant and did mostly a good job, but we did have to ask for ice on most days, he did not take it upon himself to just fill it up in the morning as requested.
Dining room/Food - Our seating was listed incorrectly when we checked in and we were sent on a wild goose chase trying to get that fixed. Once we found the right person it took only a few seconds. Our waiter/helper was pleasant and did a good job. Meal choices were fine and there seemed to be something we could eat just about every night. In comparison to other cruise lines, they probably did have fewer choices than most. I did miss having the chocolate signature deserts that Costa and Princess had available every night. In fact there really wasn't much chocolate at all. Some nights the only desert I could find that I wanted was gelato. The cheesecake, when offered was good. We did have lobster one night and they did a good job. They did tend to overcook steaks. We ordered 2 "Medium" and they both came back well done. Tip: If you like coffee after dinner but your spouse doesn't, have your spouse get coffee too and just drink it when you finish your 1st cup. I often wanted a refill and there was none to be had.
Food Notes - We have yet to be on a cruise that had better food than Perkins/Outback/Red Lobster or even Applebees. We really don't cruise for the food and are always surprised at how many people do. The only aspect of food that I have seen cruise lines excel at, is of course the presentation of it. Yes it looks great on the plate, very artistic, but beyond that, just like RCI, Princess, Costa, and HA, the food on MSC is just typical cruise food - mostly bland, sometimes good, and maybe on rare occasion pretty good.
Other food notes - The gelato in the dining room is not the same as the gelato on the pool deck, it is a big step down. I highly recommend daily gelato on the pool deck. The charge is minimal. I did miss not getting rack of lamb, one of my favorites from Costa. They did have it in the pay for restaurant, but we didn't go.
The coffee was good (European style/strong but not bitter) but for whatever reason, MSC only offered non-dairy creamer thimbles and did not offer real cream or half/half. That was a big disappointment. I actually bought half/half in key west and just put it in my cabin fridge for my morning coffee.
Buffet - We are not a buffet people. They kind of gross me out. That said as far as buffet dining goes MSC probably had the worst buffet of any cruise we have been on. The hours are short, the lines are long, and the choices were exceedingly unappealing. After this cruise, I really see the advantage to having the "pod" style buffet areas like on the other cruise lines, traffic moves much quicker. The midnight buffet is only offered from 11:15-12:15 and it was terrible.
Buffet Tips: They open the breakfast buffet in the back restaurant "L'Obelisco" at around 8:45-9am. The line for that buffet is usually very short as people don't even realize it is there until day 3-4. There are also very nice outside chairs on the very back of the ship(deck 13) to relax and enjoy breakfast. Also, they do not have coffee people walking around to top you off, you have to go get more yourself. While a black mark, since we don't cruise for the food, it really didn't matter to us that the buffet was terrible.
Sun deck - Once you learn how to operate their deck chairs they were our favorite of any ship we have been on. I loved having the sun shield for my face. They do have bar people walking around to take orders, but only a few. We usually had to just go to the bar as they never seemed to be around when we wanted one. Tip: Chair hogs were the worst we have seen. If you don't have your chair around the pool by about 9 am, you are probably going aren't going to get one in a "prime" area.
Shows - We enjoyed the shows. I must confess I did not read the disclaimer in the cruise program that said there were not drinks allowed in the theatre until the last day of the cruise. That said I brought one in every night. I did notice that I was only one of a few people with drinks and thought it was strange. I would encourage you to break that rule. The shows usually lasted only about 30-40 minutes which is just fine with me, I don't like long shows. The only one I didn't like was the Opera one called "Grazie Maestro", I would skip that unless you like opera singing without anything else to look at. As others have mentioned, they have to do shows that are language neutral because of the mix of passengers on board. I don't know what the mix was, but for sure there was American, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. If announcements in 5 different languages annoys you, this is NOT the cruise for you.
Animation Team - Is what they call their young energetic crew of entertainment staff. I don't know where they get their energy but they were by far the best we have seen on any cruise. They were around the pool area during the day and in the clubs at night. They were very good at getting the passengers involved and laughing. They danced with passengers for an hour or two each evening in the Zebra Bar. We are dancers and danced mostly with each other, but both danced numerous dances with Animation Team members. Bring your dancing shoes! They don't care if you know how to dance or not, they will make it fun for you. They do offer numerous dance lessons on the trip. They are all line dance routines so anyone can participate, you don't need a partner. They go appropriately slow and there was always a lot of laughing, especially at the Grease Lighting lesson. Tropical night was fun up on deck, lots of line dancing there too. Again, it didn't matter if you could dance or not, just hop around like a fool and laugh. One show that was surprising funny was the ABBA trivia show with "Showtime" skits making fun of the official shows. Go to that one a little tipsy.
Announcements - Kept to a minimum because of the language mix. Use your Daily Program to know what is going on when. We don't like announcements so we were happy not to have them.
Key West - We just walked up and down Duval street and stopped at Wallgreens and CVS to buy soda pop. We each brought a 12-pack of pop on board and security didn't care at all.
Jamaica (Ocho Rios) - Did not feel very safe so we just walked to the beach on the left side of pier (not sure what it was called). It was $2.50 USD per person to get in. Well worth it to avoid the locals and the vendors. Chairs were $5 each. There is a bar on the beach as well as security people, the beach attendants are more than happy to fetch drinks for you. Also, we asked a beach attendant about restaurants for lunch and he offered to go into town and get it for us, no money up front! He went and got us some Jerk Chicken on rice for $8 USD. We gave him a $2 tip and he seemed very happy. On a side note, there was pot everywhere. I smelled it on at least 4-5 occasions and was offered to buy some, probably 6 times. I just smiled and said no thank you. They will also try and rent you jet ski's. I just told them we went in Key West and didn't want to go again.
Grand Cayman (Georgetown) - We went out on our own and did a SCUBA shore dive. The weather was good so we went to the north shore to Lighthouse point (divetech). It was fantastic. AAA+++. No guide needed, pretty easy. If we did it again and the seas were friendly, we would just snorkel out to the outer wall and do that wall 1st, then come back along the mini-wall. It will make sense once you get there. About a ¼ mile down the road (east), there is a great restaurant called the Cracked Conch. Outside seating right on the ocean. A little expensive, but worth it. They also rent scuba equipment there and have a shore dive that starts right by the bar. We might do it next time. They were called Sundivers, not sure if they are online or not. Tip: Skip the outrageous taxi fees ($32) at the port and just walk along the main road outside of the cruise terminal. You should be able to find a cab for much less or take the city bus for $2.50. The town is seems safe around the terminal. The city buses are really just 8 passenger vans and they will honk at you. Verify the price before getting on board and that they are going to where you want to go. If the seas are rough, try Sunset House Hotel for an alternative shore dive or even eden rock.
Cozumel - Our plans were really messed up with the ship not adjusting their clocks to local time. Our 2 tank scuba dive that was originally going to be 4.5 hours now was only going to be 3.5 hours. We booked through Scubatony and really lucked out. They took care of us and still got 2 dives in without a problem and even stopped at a nice resort in between dives so we could use the restroom. We did have to limit our second dive to about 30 minutes, but it was still a blast. Mario, the dive master was knowledgable and fun. Carlos, the captain, used the on-board radio to get us a taxi for the 10-15 minute cab ride back to the ship. Verify cab ride prices before getting in. They will jack up the price if you don't. We made it back to the ship with about 15 minutes to spare.
Extra excitement: On our last day at sea the ship stopped and "rescued" 2 cubans in a little "toy" raft out in the ocean. They were certainly trying to get to Florida but were not making very good progress. The coast guard came and picked them up from the ship about an hour later.
Dancing - We like to dance after dinner in the evenings. There was plenty of opportunity for that. They tended to play a lot of rumba, chacha, swing, bachata, and Viennese Waltz. Occasionally they would slip in a Salsa, Regular waltz, tango, or Foxtrot. They were good at taking requests though. One downside is that the dance floors are marble tile, not wood. Another weird thing is that they didn't always mix the music very well. In the disco in particular, they would play 5-6 bachatas in a row, then 5-6 salsas, then 5-6 meringues. I don't know why that was, but it was strange. Again, if you went up to the DJ he would knock it off and play something different he would.
Passengers - Very diverse mix of nationalities, even more than on Costa I think. It seemed like most people were having a good time. The bulk of the complainers that we heard, seemed to be people that booked the cruise based on price (meaning cheap fares) or that had higher expectations for the food. We really recommend you book your cruise based on what you are interested in getting out of it, not price. If it is for the food, I think we might recommend you stick to a land vacation or maybe Celebrity (from what we have heard).
Drinks - Reasonable prices, but only average on quality and size. They always had a $5.50 drink of the day. I think Princess is still our favorite for drinks.
Smoking - One side of the sun deck allowed smoking and the bar next to the Zebra Bar also allowed smoking (Bar dei Poeti may have been its name). Other than that it wasn't too bad. Out of all the cruises we have taken it seemed the easiest to avoid smokers (and the casino) on this one.
We cruise for the dancing, sunshine, and the ports. All those expectations were exceeded minus the ship time issue. Would definitely cruise MSC again in the future. If both MSC and Costa were options, would probably lean towards Costa or maybe rotate between them. While the bands on MSC were a little better, the dance floors themselves were better on Costa. It is a close call.