People consulting reviews don't want a travelogue of someone's personal life, so I'll try to make this helpful, with real evaluations and tips. So you know our perspective, we are two healthy, educated 50-somethings travelling with our 21-year-old daughter. It was our second cruise; the first was nearly a decade ago with a different line, so we knew basically what to expect but comparisons are unreliable, given how much time has passed.
Embarkation. Okay, so around 3000 people are going through security inspections and check-in in four hours. It's bound to be slow, but everyone was polite and efficient. Tip: We saved a few bucks and worked off some calories in advance by walking from the Holiday Inn Express where we'd stayed the night before. It was hardly the most pleasant walk--lots of traffic and the sidewalks aren't wildly-well maintained and switched sides of the road a couple of times, and we kept being pestered by cab drivers who thought we must be crazy or desperate--but it's doable. Another tip: It also meant we hadn't checked our luggage with Carnival, which turned out to be an advantage, as we took it to our room ourselves and didn't have to wait for it. I recommend this approach for those who travel light enough to avoid checked-baggage fees for your flight. It wouldn't work as well with several large suitcases! By dinner time the first day, two of our table mates still didn't have their luggage; we avoided that problem.
Rooms weren't ready when we first embarked, but there was a very good buffet laid out on the Lido deck, so we didn't mind waiting, though having our luggage with us was somewhat less convenient at this point.
Rooms are relatively small, which is to be expected, but our room, a balcony room with a king-size bed formed from two singles, plus a single bed formed from a "sofa" (the bolsters were tucked under the king), was snug but adequate for three. Tip: The balcony was worth the money, as it added some very pleasant space and allowed people with different sleep schedules to stay or get up while the rest of the family slept. The balcony is lighted, so people can sit on it to read or talk quietly without bothering someone inside. We had intentionally chosen a hallway with staff areas rather than guests across the hall and at some distance from elevators, but there was still plenty of traffic going by. Nevertheless, we were not bothered by noise either from the hallways or neighboring cabins.
The cabins are supplied with shampoo and shower gel and a built-in blow dryer, though our blow dryer didn't have a lot of power. If you have lot of hair, you may want to bring your own blow dryer. The one major deficiency of the room was dearth of electric outlets. There is ONE double outlet, and one of the outlets is a 220 volt for overseas visitors, a nice touch for them, but a problem for Americans. Like most Americans, we packed a variety of electric appliances--e.g., curling iron and straightener--and items that needed to be charged: camera batteries, a laptop, cell phones (not that they functioned most of the time), etc., and keeping everything charged with just one plug was a juggling act. Tip: If you've traveled overseas and have a converter, bring it with you, or--and I'm sure Carnival won't like this advice--a small travel size surge protector to give you more outlets.
Speaking of the laptop, the cruise's information site tells you there's WiFi, and tells you about the $3.95 start-up charge, but doesn't mention the $.75/minute standard charge thereafter. You can buy packages of more minutes, with the price per minute falling with the larger packages, but it falls to something like .43/min for 240 minutes. I may have the prices wrong, but you get the idea. Hardly free, especially since the satellite connection is slow, so tasks take about double the time they do on high speed internet at home. There's something to be said for being cut off from the world, but I had some important reasons to stay connected and was a bit annoyed that the $3.95 WiFi turned out to cost us closer to $100. Just know what to expect.
One rather odd feature of the room is its safe. For reasons that I can't begin to explain, the safe is locked and unlocked by your credit card, which doesn't do you a lot of good if you want to use the safe as a place to PUT your credit cards and such, since after all you don't need to carry cash or credit cards while cruising. So I guess here's a tip: bring along one useless or expired credit card for this purpose. Of course if it's stolen you're still out of luck getting at your valuables in the safe.
Dining: We opted for the early dining at dinner; we tried formal dining once each for breakfast and lunch but decided the buffet was better--more choices, and we weren't forced into small talk with strangers. The dining room menu is also more limited. At breakfast, for example, the day we went there was a choice of cheese or ham omelet, and when we asked for a veggie omelet, the waiter was just confused. My husband, who is a vegetarian, was given ham. . . . By contrast, the breakfast buffet includes an omelet station at which the omelet is made to order as you watch (and there are tomatoes, onions, peppers, and mushrooms--as well as cheese and meats--that you can request). Recommended! They also have cereals, pastries, fruit, and hot breakfast eggs, potatoes, and meats (which change somewhat from day to day).
As I mentioned, my vegetarian husband was quite satisfied with his options. The buffets, which featured a different national cuisine each day (including Italian, Caribbean, and American, among others) always offered lots of possibilities--though oddly enough the Tandoor kitchen (Indian buffet area, which is open daily) offered only one vegetarian option; all the rest are meat. In addition to the main buffets with the foods of the world theme, there are also areas that operate every day, including a fish and chips area, a pizza area, the Indian area, and a Mongolian Barbeque (you select the meats, veggies, pasta, and sauces, which are prepared in a wok in front of you). When we tried the Mongolian Barbeque we were favorably impressed by the flavor but not the long long long lines. The food is so good that adding another station or two would be a good idea. Also, and oddly, there was no rice offered. I guess if you're going for the lo mein approach, that's fine. I asked for rice and some was found for me (apparently in the dining room on a lower floor!), which was very nice and accommodating, but why not have it readily available?
Formal dining in the evenings was very satisfying. Thought had clearly been given to the seating arrangements: everyone at our table were older adults travelling with a twenty-something daughter/granddaughter; honeymooners had a table for two; etc. At the end of the day, it's pleasant to be served by attentive wait staff, as opposed to schlepping through a buffet, searching for a table, getting up again for drinks and desserts, etc.
The dining room menu has two parts: on the left, a half a dozen or so items that are available every day, a nice mix of a variety of meat and fish options, plus an Indian vegetarian option--which changed somewhat each day. The second part on the right was different each day, and featured four starters, half a dozen meat and fish entrees, a "Didja" item ("didja ever want to try frog legs/sushi/escargot/etc.?) a "comfort food" item, and a vegetarian entrÃ©e. Tip: the evening's menu, with descriptions, is available on one of the cruise channels on the television in the rooms. There are occasional last-minute changes, but most of the information is sound, and it makes for a less pressured situation as you sit at the table.
In general I found the food on this cruise VERY good (I gained five pounds), but maybe not quite as blow-me-away good as what we had on Royal Caribbean ten years ago. On the other hand, that was ten years ago, and I might have had overblown memories. On the negative side, I found the Indian food somewhat heavy--and I'm a great fan of Indian food--as was just about anything based on pasta and tomato sauce. The greens and other veggies in the salads are fresh, but we make better green salads at home. On the positive side, the gazpacho soup was astonishing (I pretty much liked all the starter soups), as was the chocolate melting cake. No doubt you'll see references to the cake in other reviews, and for a reason. That stuff is utterly incredible. I admit I can't say much about other desserts because having tried the cake on the first night, I rarely had a different dessert, and the memory of the alternatives simply fades away next to that of the chocolate melting cake. The lobster on formal night was memorably delicious, but then I hardly ever have lobster, so it was a huge treat for me. A little voice in the back of my head tells me, though, that it wasn't the best lobster ever. Most nights I selected a fish option and with the exception of one entrÃ©e that consisted of shrimp and other shellfish overwhelmed by tomato sauce and pasta, I liked them all very much. I think my favorite was the salmon from the daily side of the menu. Excellent. Carnivore table mates consistently praised beef items as "melt in your mouth."
We're not big on gambling or drinking, so I can't evaluate that aspect of the onboard entertainment. The drinks are wildly overpriced, in my opinion.
We did attend several shows of various sorts. The first one we attended, a sort of big band thing, didn't much catch our interest and we left after a few songs, but the Big Easy production (music from and about New Orleans) and the Ticket to Ride (Beatles) shows were quite impressive and entertaining. The singing was good; the dancing and choreography were great; the production values--set, costumes, and in the case of the Beatles show, computer generated effects--were outstanding. I wasn't much amused by the comedy shows. My husband and daughter enjoyed a gender battle game.
Ports of Call and Shore Excursions:
On Key West we didn't bother with a shore excursion, but instead, in the morning wandered through the main shopping area and visited the Hemingway house (which I strongly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in Hemingway or cats: the house is full of Hemingway's actual furniture and possessions--not just historical reconstructions--and home to the descendents of Hemingway's polydactyl cats). In the afternoon, we rented bikes and road around the island. Tip: renting inland saves more than half the price of renting on the dock. We found Key West charming; of the three ports of call, it's the one where I'd most like to return for several days.
George Town, Grand Cayman, was my least favorite port, though perhaps I'd have liked it better had we tried a different excursion. We just went to Seven Mile Beach. The beach was nothing extraordinary, nor was the drink that came with the excursion--basically a fruit punch--and the food for sale there is way overpriced and definitely not up to the level of the cruise. I wish Carnival had offered box lunches. Judging from our experience in town after the bus brought us back, hanging out in Georgetown without an excursion would have grown old quickly. By contrast, our table mates who went to the turtle farm were very enthusiastic about their experience. Because of rough seas, excursions to the stingray area were cancelled; our table mates who had scheduled an excursion that combined stingrays, turtles, and the town of Hell did not get additional time at the other locations as compensation for the cancellation and felt rushed. They were far less impressed by the turtles than were the family whose excursion included only the turtles. The same family again felt rushed and disappointed by a multi-location excursion in Jamaica. So a tip based on this small sample: the "sampler" style excursions are probably less satisfying than the excursions that focus on one experience.
Tubing in Ocho Rios: highly recommended. Our favorite shore excursion was tubing on the White River in Jamaica. The bus took us through a bit of Ocho Rios (generally depressing) but mostly up into rural mountainous areas and back into tropical rainforest. You stop at a headquarters where there are a restroom/changing area, lockers, and a souvenir shop, then taken further up river to a dock from which you tube back to headquarters, about a 45 minute ride down river. The tubes have plastic bases, so you don't scrape your backside on rocks. The river is alternately lazy/relaxing and fast/exciting, with a few very fast sections; the guides are very conscientious and skilled at keeping all tubers together and making sure everyone heads through the faster sections safely. There are photographers along the shore at some of the more exciting spots snapping pictures, which of course you are invited to purchase. The river and its environs are exotic and beautiful, really not to be missed if you are a nature lover. Tips: purchase water shoes and a waterproof camera before you travel, so you don't need to pay outrageous prices on the ship or at the ports of call. Wear your swimsuit under some kind of cover-up, and leave your stuff on the bus, where it IS safe; don't bother paying for a locker. Another tip: tubing, combined with a bus ride on badly-maintained roads, gave me a touch of motion sickness, so make sure to use your favorite preventative, but the problem is not severe, so don't forego the experience on that account. And speaking of tips, don't forget to bring cash for this purpose. The guides deserve it.
Everglades tour: recommended. On the day of our return, we had a late flight so we opted for the Everglades tour, which had the added advantage of ending at the airport, so we not only cut short our wait at the airport, we got "free" transportation there. We had considered exploring Fort Lauderdale on our own and taking advantage of Carnival's delivering our luggage directly to our airline, but the cost of Carnival's service plus the cost of checking our baggage was only marginally less than the price of the excursion, and since debarkation day demands early rising and we knew we'd be tired, we decided to let someone else do the navigating. The narration as you are taken from the port to the Everglades is informative, as is that of the airboat captain. Since the trip through the Everglades itself is in the real world, there are no guarantees what wildlife you'll see, and of the two boat loads from our tour bus, one boat (ours) saw two alligators, while the other saw only one. We also saw plenty of beautiful foliage and birds. One mother of two girls (maybe five and ten years old) kept saying it was the best part of the whole cruise. There's also a brief "show," which is basically a bit of information about alligator rescue and demonstrations that gators aren't as scary as their reputations. You can pay to get your picture taken with gators, with proceeds going to gator rescue efforts.
To sum up: we had a great time and definitely recommend the Carnival Freedom of the Seas 6-day Western Caribbean cruise. It seemed to us that if you're into the whole "fun ship" thing, you can party hard, and if you're not a party sort, you may be bothered a bit by the frequent reminders to "have fun," but you'll enjoy yourself quietly anyway.