We booked this 5-day cruise as a last minute getaway. We are Diamond on RCI, but decided to give Carnival a try since Mobile is close enough to drive to and this itinerary included Calica, which would give us a chance to visit Xcaret. We were curious to see what differences there might be between Carnival and RCI.
Embarcation was pretty standard, with the glaring exception that both my husband and I left our passports at home! I can't believe we managed to do that, but Carnival was very helpful and we were able to have my bc faxed. Husband is a naturalized citizen, so he had to have his passport overnighted and we picked it up on the way back in.
The Elation is one of Carnival's older ships, and is showing her age. Overall maintenance and cleanliness was good, but we found the decor to be dark and the design of the ship felt closed-in. The traffic flow was awkward in several places, resulting in lots of bottlenecks at peak periods. Our cabin was forward, fairly near a bank of 4 of the slowest elevators ever manufactured, only 3 of which were ever in service at one time.
We found a general lack of places to chill and people watch. The only area like that is on Deck 9, off the casino area. There's a sushi bar at one end (so that part always smells like fish!), and again this area is rather dark and low-ceilinged. It opens onto the casino, so there is sometimes cigarette smoke drifting in. I missed the promenade on RCI ships!
The pool decks had plenty of chairs. There were no deck chairs on covered decks though, so if you didn't want to be in the sun or wanted to be away from the pool deck noise there were few places to sit outside. The outside decks were a little hard to figure out -- you were constantly going up and down flights of stairs to get from one area to the other. There is an area on the aft just down from the buffet called the "Serenity Deck" with really nice padded lounge chairs that is adults only. This is a really nice area, and kudos to Carnival for adding it. (Just one complaint here -- it always smells like food from the buffet area just above.)
We were pleasantly surprised by the overall food quality in the dining room. Desserts were good everywhere, and there is what might be the world's best carrot cake in the coffee bar on deck 9! However, our dining room service was the poorest I've ever encountered (our table of 6 was the last to get served and I had the wrong food brought to me twice), until the 3d night when a new waiter materialized. Marius from Hungary was personable and extremely professional and competent.
We ate in Tiffany's, the buffet, for breakfast, once for lunch and one evening. The hot entrees were really terrible looking -- think school cafeteria quality -- and there weren't many of them. Salads were good, as was the pannini station. One thing I really couldn't understand was the fact that trays and napkin/silverware bundles were ONLY available at the entrances to the 2 hot entree lines. So, if you wanted a salad and a pannini, you had to break into the buffet line to get a tray! Service in Tiffany's was slow to non-existent, and I don't recall a single server ever speaking to us.
We found there was an overall lack of things to do on this cruise during sea days. Very little in the way of entertainment was offered. There were 2 production shows but we didn't see them, so can't comment.
If you have the chance to visit Xcaret, by all means go! It's an amazing place, immaculately kept and gorgeous. The underground river tubing was fantastic! The park personnel were helpful and friendly. We bought our tickets online and took a cab ($10 each way and about 10 minutes).
A word here about the Elation staff. Our experience was that most of the staff we encountered were nowhere near as outgoing and friendly as we have come to expect on Royal Caribbean. Rarely would anyone ever speak if passed in a hallway (even when spoken to!), and even the bartenders were unfriendly. Our dining room waiters were the notable exceptions. This was across the board from ship's officers met down to maintenance guys. Don't get me wrong -- we didn't expect a lengthy conversation, but we are used to a smile, eye contact, "good morning/afternoon/evening" and the occasional "how are you enjoying your cruise" type thing.
All in all, we found nothing to tempt us into leaving RCI for Carnival. Thank goodness this cruise was priced so cheaply!