As noted above, this was our first cruise with Carnival. We chose this short four-day cruise over New Year's as a good way to test the waters, and get some fun in the sun. It was myself, my wife (who celebrated a birthday on the cruise), and our 12-year-old daughter. We traveled with friends; a family of four, first-time cruisers, with two children. Having cruised on Holland America, Princess, and Norwegian multiple times, I set my expectations for Carnival -- I thought -- accordingly.
We flew in to Jacksonville, which was not a problem. It seems that the vast majority of Fascination cruisers drive to the port rather than fly. As we unfortunately learned upon our return, the small size of Jacksonville's airport and lack of frequent flights can be a problem if flights are cancelled. There certainly aren't the plethora of options that stranded fliers might find in say Orlando, Miami, or Ft. Lauderdale. Getting a van to the pier was easy and the ride for seven cost $45.
As is known, the terminal at Jacksonville is a temporary structure. That said, it serves its purpose fine, as the only ship using it is the Fascination. It is small and for reasons still unclear, the time it took for us to clear security, complete check-in, and board the ship was the longest we've ever encountered. The check-in staff were not overly efficient, and the whole process took nearly an hour. By contast, boarding the Epic -- more than twice the twice -- took 10 minutes, door-to-door.
As soon as we entered the ship, the "missing little things" started to show. There were no people waiting to greet you on board; no one handing out daily schedules or maps, or even offering to help you find someplace on board. I have to note that during the ENTIRE cruise, I did not hear one single announcement from the captain; not one. In fact, I can remember no announcements other than those from the Cruise Director, Jen, and they were always for bingo, dance parties, etc.
Being a sold-out New Year's cruise, it was crowded -- particularly as we boarded -- but we were surprised to find an available table in the Coconut Grove buffet area as we waited for rooms to be readied. From this meal, it was obvious that the food was to be substandard at best. The lines were very long and the food was high-school cafeteria quality, and that is being generous.
The ship, I must admit, is in very good shape. She does not show her advanced age and the crew does an excellent job on maintenance. We sailed on the Norwegian Spirit earlier this year, and that ship is younger, went through a more-recent renovation, and still appeared MUCH older and in worse-repair than the Fascination. Kudos to her team.
We had an oceanview cabin, category 6B, on the Main Deck. We were pleased with the overall size. The third bunk folded up against the wall and was not too intrusive when open. Princess still has the best layout we've seen (other than a sofabed), with their third and fourth berths that fold up and away into the ceilings. The bedding and mattresses were TOP NOTCH. Very nice and comfortable, so kudos again to Carnival. Bathroom was large and functional, nothing more. I never did get fully accustomed to stepping on a huge "soft spot" in the floor when you enter the bathroom; an artifact of the marine toilets, I suppose. What the room lacked was a hair dryer (though our steward was able to secure one), a fridge, a clock (hello?!), writing pad and pen, and a coffee maker. They chose to take up much of the desk area with an assortment of canned soda and bottled water, which is not complimentary. I would have prefered to use that space for a coffee maker, or just leave it open. We asked the steward to remove the sodas, but they remained there for the entire cruise. Aside from the glaring omission of a clock, what the room really needed was a thermostat. The room was very cold and when we looked for a thermostat, all we could find was a vent knob on the bottom of the air diffuser on the ceiling. It basically allows you to turn the flow of air (one temperature) on or off. As it was, we had to close it off to try and warm up the room (which didn't really help -- we ended up using extra blankets at night to stay warm. With the air off, however, it made all of the noises made in the hallway and in neighboring rooms VERY loud. I usually love sleeping on ships, as the hum of the air system is usually so loud and constant, that it drowns out all other noises. Not so the case on the Fascination. Not only were we cold, but we heard every hallway conversation. Also, a minor point, but it would be great if Carnival invested in small rubber stoppers to stick onto the insides of the closet doors. They now are bare, and whenever one of the three closet doors close, there is a loud "bang"...the sound of doors banging in other cabins was very noticable, and it seems some cheap rubber bumpers would be an easy fix.
We had the traditional fixed dining (early seating) in the Imagination dining room. Our server was good, but the table was small, with seven of us put at a table meant for six. The food in the main dining room was much better than on the buffet, but it was still of very poor quality. None of the meals we had there was more than average, and most were below standard. Biggest complaint about the dining room, however, is the noise. It was, by far, the loudest dining room we've ever had on a ship. I suspect it had to do with the relatively low ceilings, but it was impossible to hold normal-level conversation across the table and that ruined whatever ambiance the room has. The other main dining room is exactly the same configuration, only midship vice in the rear, so I'm sure the sound there is just as bad.
As noted, aside from sushi -- the times for which change daily -- there are no eating venues aside from the buffet and main dining room, and the main dining rooms only serves dinner -- no breakfast or lunch. The buffet at breakfast and lunch was very crowded and the food often inedible. The breakfast selections are very basic, and the salad bar at lunch was wholly unappetizing. Pizza is always available, but it was freezer-quality and not enjoyable. On our day in Freeport, we took a Carnival excursion but weren't returned to the ship until after 6:00pm. We thus missed our dinner (which was the captain's formal night) and had to eat in the buffet. I have to say that that meal was truly disgusting. The selection was meager and the food was of embarrassingly poor quality. Even a simple hamburger would have been nice, but the grill is only open during the afternoons.
The ship is fairly easy to navigate, given its small size, and motion was not a problem for us. Reaching some areas of the ship was frustrating, as not all elevator banks go to the higher floors, and the galley serves as a natural barrier between the two dining rooms. Still, it is easy to get around. Elevators were sometimes hard to get, but there were never too many flights of stairs to climb, so no big deal.
Despite her obvious abundance of balcony cabins, I have to give Fascination BIG points for the amount of deck space and readily available deck seating. With four+ decks with outdoor space, it was never hard to find a lounge chair or simply a place to enjoy the outdoors. The top-deck minigolf and jogging track were also quite nice, as we enjoyed the adults-only Serenity area. The pool was adequately sized. As always, the lone hot-tub open to children was often overflowing.
Activities on board were adequate. We participated in many of the trivia and game shows. The cruise director staff was plentiful and always busy, and the cruise director did a good job. Jen is definitely "unique," but she works it well, and her personality seems to match the Fascination's. That is a compliment, by the way. I liked her work. They did put on a New Year's Eve balloon drop and pool-side party, and they did a very nice job. It was fun and well organized.
Entertainment was good to average. We attended the family-friendly comedy shows, and they were fun. We didn't have an opportunity to attend any of the adult-themed shows. We attended both "Vegas-style shows," and they were classic cruise ship fare. Again, compared to our other cruises, though, they were high-school vice Vegas-level quality.
For disembarkation, we were pleased that Carnival offers the option of walking off with your bags or having them remove your luggage. We had a noon flight, which we thought would give us plenty of time. As it was, our steward left us luggage tags to put us in an earlier disembarkation group, as noon is their cutoff time for determining an "early flight." Originally we were in Group 17, but we were moved to the earlier Group 2. We toyed with the idea of taking our own bags, but decided against it -- we later regretted that choice. We were at the dock before 0700, and as we dressed for breakfast, I discovered that our flight had been cancelled. I reached the airline, only to find that the only option of getting out that day was aboard an already-overbooked 1045am flight. We rushed to let our friends know -- who were on the same flight. By the time we found them and they got through to the airline, no more seats were available and they were bumped until the next day. Hence, my comment about the lack of flights into/out of Jacksonville. We were now faced with the daunting task of getting off the ship as soon as possible, hoping to make the earlier flight. Guest Services on the ship were understanding when I explained what happened, but they confirmed that there was nothing they could do to get our bags out of Customs any earlier. They said we would have to wait on the ship until all of the "walk-off passengers" were cleared; that would not be until around 0930. Against recommendations, we did exit the ship with the walkers. When we cleared Customs -- without our bags -- a VERY helpful terminal worker pulled us aside. I explained our situation, and she had us wait in the boarding area. She explained that the bags were all in a separate area of the terminal, under Customs control, and there would be no one over there until they were done clearing all of the walkers. This is when we realized just how many people had elected to walk off -- they just kept coming and coming. While waiting, a very nice Customs agent asked about our situation, too. After about 15 minutes of waiting, the head of the terminal and a great Customs agent came and got us and escorted us to the area where all of the bags were being held. They allowed us to retrieve our bags and then did another inspection. With that, we were clear and literally ran outside to grab a waiting cab. Thanks to the outstanding help from the terminal and Customs officials, we made it to the airport with about 15 minutes to spare. We cannot thank them enough. I know all of this does not apply directly to our Fascination experience, but for what it's worth, I would recommend you walk off with your own bags if possible, and I'll vouch for the helpfulness of the crew in Jacksonville.
Overall, I'm not sure if we'll do another Carnival cruise. I know they sell on their price point, and had we not paid a huge New Year's premium for this cruise (more than three times the cost of non-holiday Fascination sailings), I might feel otherwise. That said, the dismal quality of the food and lack of alternate food options weighs quite heavily in my dismissive tone against Carnival. Barring a truly superior price advantage, I do not see us repeating the Carnival experience.