This trip was our third cruise, but we hadn't been on one in 10 years! Our first cruise (3 days) was an award trip on Norwegian Cruise Lines to the Bahamas. Our next cruise was on Disney with our son (then 6) -- Land & Sea - 3 days at sea. After that, our son started swimming competitively making our free time limited. Also, he was only interested in beaches, but not cruisin'.
Pre-trip: We decided to book our excursions in advance and through Carnival. I did research and knew that it would be cheaper going on our own, but we had a difficult year and wanted the security, ease and guarantee we would receive going through Carnival. Additionally, with the trip being over the holidays (Dec 24-31st) I knew the ship was near capacity and there would be several ships in each port. I purchased some drink coupons for my husband as gift and they were delivered to our room the first night. A friend pre-ordered us a gift cake -- which was delivered on Dec 24 at dinner - very thoughtful and yummy, but they never gave us the card. We didn't find out it was from them until we arrived home. We couldn't figure out why my husband got a whole cake for his birthday when everyone else only had a slice. I made reservations for the steakhouse two nights (both sea days -- Dec 25th and Dec 30th_ - Very worth it although dinner in the restaurant was great too -- so maybe just go one "special" night. If you do not receive an email confirmation, redo it. It means it didn't go through.
We flew to Orlando, booked transfers through Carnival and everything ran smoothly. We flew in the night before and went back to the airport to meet the transfer buses around 10am. Didn't really "time" the trip/embarking process, but we never waited in a line for very long. You make several stops for photos and etc. -- but it all went very fast. Just complete/print all the paperwork before you leave home. At your last stop - you are given a "card" that is your room key, has your charging #, dining times/table and etc. So - if you have preferences for dinner -- express them prior to your trip. For example there were 3 of us and we had our own table. Other cruises we were seated with others. It was fun getting know your group, although sitting alone this time -- was nice too.
When we first walked on the ship -- I need to be honest -- I was a little worried. Since no one could go to their cabins yet and there are people everywhere. Also, I really didn't care for Dream's decor, so looking forward to the Breeze or another theme -- but that wasn't really important. Most people were eating or at the pool. You could tell the return cruisers -- they had their swimsuits on and were ready to go. So pack your suit in your carry-on bag and your appetite. Thankfully I had my son's board shorts with me and he blended right in. My husband and I sat down to eat lunch and I said to him, "I'm not sure I'm going to like this". But as 1:30 came and people made their way to their cabins (including us) that feeling went away.
Our cabin -- an aft-extended balcony - was amazing. Spend the extra money -- loved, loved, loved it. Cruise critic and other websites warned about it being under the sunset deck and the moving of chairs, but really -- it was not an issue. I did hear some movement around 10pm once or twice (briefly), when they were stacking them at night, but who went to sleep that early? The location is perfect. Right around the corner and up just one flight of stairs and you were at the Gathering for breakfast/lunch or the sunset deck. We rarely used elevators -- which were often slow or crowded. I'm convinced we that we had the best room steward on the ship. RJ. Left him an extra tip -- he was so special.
Our cabin was spacious, plenty of closets, nice bathroom and some toiletries. Shampoo and body wash in a dispenser. Toothpaste and some other personal items were in the bath. The BEST part was the balcony. We spent lots of time there -- I ate my breakfast there every day. Doors are not magnetic, although there is a metal "pocket" at each door. We were on the holiday cruise - some people hung stocking from those or just taped decor on doors. There is a Conair 200 hairdryer in the vanity drawer -- and yes you do need to hold the "on button" on. Other posts mentioned taking hairband to hold it on while using. It's nice the vanity is outside the bathroom; so one person can get ready while another is in the shower. The lighting is very good. I would take a small power strip as I only saw one plug that was a 120V. I used it for my rollers, so I was ok. Getting ready for meals -- I usually showered before my teen came back to cabin (around 6:30 -- dinner at 8). I used the vanity for my make-up and hair -- so it went smoothly for us. Our bags, once emptied in ALL the drawers, ALL fit under our king bed. Our 6' tall teen found the sofa/bed very comfortable. It does not fold out.
Laundry -- I did have one bag of laundry done $15.00 -- mostly my workout clothes. You can try to rinse things out, there is a clothesline in the shower, but honestly -- nothing seemed to dry. Left it for RJ (our room steward) in the morning and it was folded and in our room that afternoon. There are laundry rooms on the ship, but I was on vacation.
Spa/Serenity Deck -- there is a tour and raffle the first day -- I recommend you attend both. Tour: There are numerous offerings that you really need to see/hear -- to appreciate. If I didn't have a teen -- might have paid the extra $149 for access to adults only, special spa floor/areas, but I didn't think I'd have time to lounge there all week. Raffle: I think 5 packages were given away. No I didn't win, but I did get reserve a head to toe massage on special that was 75 minutes and WONDERFUL. Did buy a Bliss facial product at the Spa and I am still enjoying it at home. Prices go down as week goes on, but really you are not on the ship that much.
Excursions: I will comment about those under each one. Carnival does a great job organizing everyone. A general suggestion -- pack snacks. Some trips -- you got off the ship early and their lunch wasn't for hours. If you need to eat every few hours -- like me - take some granola bars or nuts. Also sunscreen and insect repellent. I didn't feel "bites" but noticed some coming home. I actually packed a small bag for the trip that just had toiletries (large shampoo, creme rinse, lotion), medicines and etc - it worked great.
02 Club -- my 16-year son loved it! And don't believe your teen, not EVERYONE can stay out until 2am. His curfew was around midnight -- for the early morning excursions. He thanked me - later!
Shopping -- I'm a bargain shopper so it was hard for me to shop at ports. I wasn't sure if I was really getting a "deal". I did finally buy silver earrings. They were marked $65 -- paid $35. My son bought a wristband, but left it at the pool. I also purchased two tubes of Retin-A. There are "pharmacies" at most ports were you can buy an assortment of medicines -- Z-packs and etc. Again -- do your homework on prices.
Other hints. Avoid the floor with ship photographers - unless you want to have 20 people ask you to get your photo taken. Actually try to not let the "selling" get to you all week -- for photos, drinks, and souvenirs -- it's pretty much ongoing. The casino is very smoky and karaoke was pretty sad, but funny. Meals -- just pre-plan. If you arriving in port at 8am, the gym will be crowded at 6am and the restaurant at 7am. There are lines. I'm not a buffet person -- I often had cereal/fruit or made to order omelets or for lunch the burritos. The soft serve ice cream machines -- are a BIG hit. Days that you are coming into port -- get up early and watch the ship going into port -- spectacular! There is an on board social networking that's free I think, but we didn't use that. There are lots of computers onboard, but the connection is really, really slow. I preferred to sit on the Sunset Deck. I stayed in touch with my teen at night -- via texting. It was relatively inexpensive.
Beware -- If you have time -- check your billing BEFORE you get off the ship. We got off the ship first -- guest services gave us a pass because of our early flight. I didn't have a chance to read ours until we got home. We had an issue with our Internet billing -- my husband thought he signed up for small package to send work emails and they billed us $160. Another was an excursion change/charge. I've now called 3 times, it's been almost 2 months and it's still not resolved! Not even a callback or email.
All and all it was a great trip. Just remember -- there are 4500+ people (plus crew) on board. Preplan and don't head to the buffet or elevator - minutes before its time to disembark. There will be a line.