This was our 4th cruise (first on Carnival). We have previously sailed on Disney, Royal Caribbean and Princess.
First off, we were hesitant to try Carnival as we have heard mixed reviews about it. But having recently moved to Texas, we couldn't pass up the opportunity since the port is only 1/2 hour away from us, and we received a Texas resident discount. For the most part, it seems like a lot of the negativity was pretty exaggerated. It is true that Carnival is more of a 'party' ship. When we went on Disney, it was obviously all families. When we went to Alaska on Princess (which is actually a sister company of Carnival), that cruise had a lot of older couples, less kids. I guess Royal would be the most similar cruise to Carnival. Having said that, the fellow passengers on this cruise were BY FAR the nicest out of any cruise we have been on. It could have been the demographics since it was a mixture of families and also the younger crowd. But I really think it's because almost everyone on the ship was from Texas. I'm not saying that as a bias since I live there now either, lol! We noticed how nice the people of Texas were the moment we moved here. They really are pretty laid back and polite. This was evident on the ship as well. Sure, you get the few that push past the others, wanting to be first in line at the buffet, etc. But you get that on any ship. It was minimal on this one.
I had also read reviews about the Carnival fleet needing upgrades and repairs, and about it not being on the same level as some of the other ships. This is the only ship we've been on of theirs so I can't really comment on the others, but we didn't notice it on this one (the Conquest). Ship employees were constantly cleaning various areas of the ship. It was very tidy. Also, out of the 4 cruises we have been on, it was actually the easiest (for me anyway) to navigate. Also, I think it was decorated very nicely. Unique and full of color in many places, with various murals and paintings. The different rooms had neat themes and lighting. I was having as much fun exploring different areas of the ship than I was looking at the views off the deck! They really did a great job with this ship! Disney is the only ship we've been on to out-do Carnival in the detail department. But Disney is also significantly more expensive too.
And I have also read reviews about the food being lack luster. I will admit I wasn't too big on most of the desserts the ship had to offer (at the buffet or restaurants). The soft serve ice cream was good. The souffle on the last night at the restaurant was really good as well. But they were probably the only desserts I liked. As far as the main course food, they were pretty good. It all was pretty typical as far as cruise ship food goes, pretty much on par with Princess and Royal. I guess my only complaint about the food would be the lack of variety. We would go to the restaurants at night, and they would be serving the same thing the next day for lunch at the buffet. It didn't taste bad, it just got old, ya know? And it seemed like the buffet wasn't open a lot. On the other cruises, it seemed like you could count on heading the buffet pretty much anytime. On Carnival, it was only open during the peak breakfast, lunch and dinner times, not in-between. Maybe they're all like that now due to the economy? Or maybe being in the gulf with the humidity the buffet food doesn't last as long? I'm not sure.
I didn't really care for the cigarette smoke on the ship either. The two designated smoking areas were in the casino and the main pool area. Both were central areas that you would have to walk through to get to other areas, so that was pretty gross. But no one in my family smokes. So that's probably why it bothered us more than it would bother anyone else. Also, we would often be in areas that said 'no smoking' and someone would be standing there smoking. I think they thought it was okay, since they were outside.
Also, they are very disorganized about getting off the ships at the ports. You have to go to the bottom level to get off. Problem was, we were crammed together without any kind of line because passengers were coming from not only the elevators, but the hallways and stairs too. So you have three separate ways people are coming from, but all of them are trying to get to the same place. I liked on the other cruises how they had actual lines. Also, an employee at the information desk told us we didn't need to get a ticket to tender off at Grand Cayman, and if another passenger that had already sailed with Carnival before hadn't told us that wasn't true, we would have waited in that crazy line only to be turned away once it was our turn because we didn't have a number. Everyone needs a number to tender. People with excursions through Carnival that are early get the first tender.
As far as the activities on the ship, I think it was pretty good for the most part. Like the food, pretty typical of most cruise lines. The Broadway show was a bit off on their dancing the night we went (a few of the dancers were off count from the others and it was distracting), and the 2nd family comedian wasn't funny at all. I actually think he was drunk because he started repeating some of his routine only to suddenly realize it and claim he 'zoned out'. Oh, and he stumbled off the stage as he was leaving too. The first family comedian was great though, very funny! And the magician was fun, as were the little activities like win lose or draw and the trivia games. My kids enjoyed the Camp Carnival, but spent more time doing stuff with us and hanging out at the pool. I don't think that had anything to do with the program, they're just still at the age where it's still cool to hang out with your parents. We probably won't be able to say that in a few years, lol!
As far as the ports, loved them all! May is the best time weather wise to go on a cruise in my opinion :)
Jamaica: We didn't pre-book an excursion. When we got off the ship, we noticed that Carnival was offering a bus tour called hop on/hop off that takes you to a public beach, a craft area, Margaritaville, and a public shopping market. You didn't need reservations for it, so we decided to try it. You can stay as long as you want at each stop, the bus comes every 45 minutes. We actually spent the whole time at the beach. The people bug the crud out of you to buy their services though. My husband got offered weed at least a dozen times. So there were a lot of 'no thank you'. But the sand on the beach was a beautiful white, and we snorkeled on a reef right off the shore. The water was swimming pool water clear, with a variety of fish. There was also showers, bathrooms, a bar, and out in the water a blow up slide and trampoline for the kids. From what we saw while driving on the bus though, there are definitely parts of Jamaica I would NOT want to venture into. The poverty is really sad in a lot of places.
Grand Cayman: WONDERFUL! We actually want to go back there outside of a cruise to have more time there. The water was crystal clear there as well. We booked an independent excursion to see the sting rays and snorkel (through Cpt. Marvin-great people! Small groups, very friendly! Way cheaper than through the cruise!) Those sting rays are amazing! It's right on a shallow sand bar. It was only chest deep even to my 8 year old. The rays are wild, but very friendly from constantly being fed. Grand Cayman itself is very tidy for the most part, and we felt safe walking around shopping. The people were courteous and didn't pester you to buy stuff like in Jamaica.
Cozumel: Also WONDERFUL! I think the shopping was the best here. Great deals, and lots of variety. We booked the dolphin excursion through Carnival. That was definitely the highlight of the trip. However, my only advice about this...if you bring an underwater camera, (which is allowed) don't let them trick you into not being able to use it. They have a professional photographer there, and the prices are outrageous. But they definitely do whatever they can to get you to buy their pictures. In this excursion you are in a fenced-in area off the shore shaped like a rectangle that is in 30 feet of water. A dock surrounds the fenced in area. Along one side in the water from left to right is a platform so when you stand on it, it's about waist deep. At the platform end, you got to kiss the dolphin, have it kiss you on the cheek, do a handshake with the dolphin, and have it jump up and touch your hand. On the other end in the water without the platform, you have it push you on a boogie board, you 'hold' the dolphin, and you also get to have it pull you through the water while you hold their fins. Well, it was interesting, because we were the only family with an underwater camera, and it definitely didn't go unnoticed. With all the other families, they would have one member of the family do every single activity with the dolphin before moving onto the next family member. But because they noticed we were taking pictures, they were having our family doing the various activities at the same time as each other to make taking pictures of each other impossible. When my husband was taking pictures of me doing the handshake with the dolphin at the platform, the trainer promptly told him to swim out to the other side and wait to do the boogie board. He waited until I was done doing the handshake, and handed me the camera before he swam out. They noticed this, so they told me to also swim out, but to the opposite corner as my husband to wait for my turn while they had my son interact with the dolphin on the platform. I told the trainer that I really wanted to stay where my kids were, because I wanted to be able to see them interact with the dolphin. They let me, but they sure went out of their way the entire excursion to try to ruin any picture taking opportunities we had. And after, when we got out, the photographer told us to follow her to take off our life vests. After that, she told us to follow her to the building to see the pictures. There were about 20 people at this excursion, and we didn't want to wait around to look at pictures we knew we wouldn't buy. When we started walking away, she rudely yelled, "Get back here! We're not done yet! You need to look at the pictures before you can leave!" Since the pictures are an additional fee, I didn't feel like we were required to do anything. We waited for her to turn her back and took off in the other direction. We then went to the beach nearby and snorkeled.
All in all, great vacation! I think Carnival is a great deal. It's comparable to the other cruise lines, and about the same as far as food and activities go. I hope all this helped! Happy sailing! :)