The more I talk to other parents about cruising, the more I find that just about every family interested in cruising would like to take a Disney cruise, but most can't afford it. A year after enjoying a wonderful Disney cruise, we found ourselves in the same situation. Although we truly wanted to sail with Disney again, it just wasn't feasible.
The best bang for my buck during the Presidents Day week was the Carnival Conquest. Since I figure that other readers are probably weighing the pro's and con's of a Disney vs Carnival experience, I figure I will outline/compare my experiences with both.
DISNEY DREAM SUPERLATIVES:
1) As anyone who has seen a Disney ship will attest, the Dream is BEAUTIFUL. It was breathtaking. Unbelievable. Every time we approached the ship, we paused for a moment to admire it and talk about how lucky we were to be boarding something so beautiful. We also joked how the passengers on the other ships docked at the port were probably jealous. Although we didn't quite feel the same way with the Conquest, it wasn't like we thought we were going slumming, either. It was nice enough.
2) The interior of the Disney ship was stunning. Perhaps it isn't a fair comparison between the Dream and the Conquest considering the Conquest is 10 years old, but the Dream was gorgeous. With that said, it wasn't like the Conquest was THAT far behind. It is also a very beautiful ship with many interesting details.
3) I liked the Disney stage shows much better. Carnival shows seemed like cheesy Las Vegas rip-offs, while the Disney shows had a much higher production value.
4) Although the dining rooms in the Disney ship were more chaotic (louder -- more waiters seeming to be frazzled), we received our food and drinks in a more timely manner. Like many other Conquest cruisers have expressed in the past, you can wait forever to get your drink refilled on the Conquest. There appeared to be a soda station 10 feet from my table, but every time I ordered another soda, I think they sent the order in to the bar -- which only delayed things even further.
5) The Disney kids club was better for our kids. My sons (ages 12 and 10) loved the pirate video game, which can be played by multiple players on the big screen. That kept them busy for hours. The boys never found anything that interested them on the Carnival ship. By the end of the cruise, I think most kids over age 10 on the Conquest abandoned the clubs and simply roamed the hallways with one another.
6) As a family, we loved the Disney movie theater. We saw a couple of movies and enjoyed it thoroughly. Carnival showed two movies pool-side each night, but several of the choices were horrible. For example, one night's 8PM movie was Amistad. We didn't know anything about the movie and arrived just in time to see women getting sexually assaulted while others were being thrown overboard a slave ship (naked). Ugh.
7) My kids really liked the Disney Mid-Ship Detective Agency. Carnival had a scavenger hunt activity for the kids, but there was no comparison.
CARNIVAL CONQUEST SUPERLATIVES
1) The first one is a big one --- price. We were able to go on a 7 day cruise for the price of a Disney 4 day cruise. On top of that, we had a balcony on the Carnival ship, as opposed to a porthole on the Disney ship. I just did a quick search to compare apples-to-apples somewhat, and a 7 day cruise with Carnival (inside stateroom) next month is approximately $2,000, while a Disney cruise the same month in an inside stateroom is approximately $5,000. Ouch.
2) After reading some people's reports online, I kept expecting the ship to be filled with unruly children and drunk adults. That wasn't the case at all. In fact, I think the kids were more wild on the Disney ship (aside from the last night, as the kids on Carnival seemed to be in party mode), and the adult consumption of alcohol was comparable. There was more smoking on Carnival, though, which stunk.
3) I loved the comedians. They had four in total. Each night featured a family-friendly show, as well as an uncensored show.
4) The ship was easier to navigate, and the main areas didn't seem as crowded. I often felt like I was running into a bottleneck on the Disney Dream, especially by the elevators. Even though the Conquest was packed, it didn't seem as packed.
EVEN STEVEN -- Areas where I felt the ships were even....
1) The room stewards on both ships were great.
2) Both ships were well-maintained throughout the trip. There were always people picking up garbage and tidying up. Disney might have had the slight manpower edge.
3) Both ships did a nice job with excursions. We took more excursions with Carnival and felt that they organized them quite well. No complaints.
4) The staff overall seemed happy/friendly on both ships.
After experiencing a Disney cruise last year, I left feeling that any other cruise company would be a major disappointment. That wasn't the case. Overall, we were very happy on the Conquest. It definitely wasn't Disney, though. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose Disney in a heartbeat. The major sticking point is price. The biggest question for me is whether Disney is worth paying 2X (or more) as much, especially when Carnival has a new ship (Magic) that has a really cool ropes course suspended above the top deck, as well as dueling water slides. While I would love to sail with Disney again, it would have to be on a shorter duration cruise at a time when the majority of the country's kids are in school (so we get lower prices).
In sum, Disney was a better cruising experience, but not necessarily THAT much better to justify the price. If you have the money great, but if you are on a budget, it will be a tough decision. I am glad that I sailed Disney and would like to sail with them again in the future, but I am happy to see that there are some appealing alternatives. For anyone with a strict budget and a desire to still have a great cruise experience, I definitely recommend the Carnival Conquest.