I'll start by saying that it's been 7 years since our last cruise on Carnival, and that one wasn't anything spectacular. We chose Carnival this time around based on the itinerary, and comments from friends who've recently cruised Carnival. I wasn't sure what to expect, but we came away very happy. Carnival has come a long way since we sailed on the Imagination. This time around, we wanted a longer cruise with plenty of sea days. The Freedom's 8-night Western Caribbean itinerary was perfect.
Starting with the ship: The decorum really wasn't that much different than any RCI or NCL ship we've sailed. Some cheesy stuff, some nice stuff, all in all a nice ship. Our room, 1053 (Panorama deck) was very nice for an interior (and handled all 3 of us just fine). We wanted to try something higher up, and were very glad we did. The Panorama deck was perfect, as there's little foot traffic up there since there aren't many rooms. Getting out to deck was fast, we never did hear any noise coming from Lido even though we were so close to the doors, and you also have easy access to the "secret deck" on the front of the ship (great place to hang out during departure from ports watching the people who are late running back to the ship :-) ). We'll be looking to stay on the upper decks from now on.
The staff: I've never been one to care how good or bad the CD is. It's my vacation, and it's going to be as fun as I make it. This time around, I began to understand other people's claims about how a good cruise director can absolutely make a vacation. We had Brad Calabrese, and he was outstanding. He's got the perfect personality for the job, and was always making people laugh. We couldn't say enough good stuff about him and his staff. The dining room staff was very good as well. Ashwin's team did a great job every night for us in the Posh DR. Our cabin steward did an excellent job on the room as well, although we only actually saw him 2 or 3 times. Most of the staff on the ship were quite friendly, save for a dealer or two who seemed like they'd rather be somewhere other than the casino.
The food: Of the 3 lines we've cruised, Carnival sits #2 in food for us. RCI always does a great job with the presentation of the chocolate and midnight buffets, and the food is always excellent. NCL does a great job with presentation of both specialty buffets as well, but they're a distant 3rd in actual food quality/taste (buffets and MDR, as their specialty restaurants are pretty good). Carnival's buffet and DR food was fine, but not spectacular (except for the bacon mac n cheese, which was outstanding). Presentation on the two specialty buffets mentioned was a bit lacking, too. The steakhouse, however, was outstanding. In the end, the presentation complaints are small items, and weren't a downer on the cruise in any way. Also, kudos to Carnival for changing the menu up for Thanksgiving, the pumpkin chocolate cake was excellent!
The entertainment: We would have like to see a more diverse amount of on board activities, as it seemed very trivia heavy, but we had a blast with the trivia events we attended, and Chelsea did a great job hosting them. The shows were okay, but I think my wife enjoyed them more than I did. I'm not really one for productions like these, but there was other stuff to do around the ship had I chosen to skip them. The band and dancers all did a great job, though. The comedians they brought on were hit or miss. The second two were definitely better than the first two.
Kids activities: My daughter signed up for Club O2 on the first day, and made quite a few friends on the ship. The club for the older teens was nice, and gave them a place to hang out away from adults if they chose to. My daughter's only complaint was that she felt they needed more activities going on at any given time. With one activity a time going on, any kids who weren't interested were heading off to find other stuff to do. Definitely an big improvement over the kids club on the Imagination back in '04, however.
The stops: debark and embark at each stop went fairly smoothly. Scoring a cruise without tender ports was an added bonus for us :-). The only backup getting off was in Costa Rica due to passengers incapable of following directions (a common theme on all cruises we've been on). The crew did the best they could given the ignorance on display. All 3 ports were awesome, but more to come on that later.
Having 4 sea days was perfect, too. On past cruises where we were in port almost every day, it never really felt like we got rest, but on this one, the sea days were spaced perfectly, and we really came home relaxed. It's the kind of itinerary we'll be looking for in the future.
Overall, a great cruise, maybe even our favorite to date. The food thing wasn't a big deal to us, but I did want to call it out since people do focus on stuff like that when cruising. To be honest, I'm just happy to be able to take a nice vacation these days. Carnival will certainly be getting more business from us in the future.