I find it is helpful to know a little about the reviewer so I know if I identify so I'll introduce myself first. I am a 38 year old luxury travel agent and have had the opportunity to experience many world class hotels and incredible destinations for significantly discounted rates. My expectations are higher than my budget so when traveling with the kids, I try to do things they will like. I like to drink wine in the evenings but am not a night owl or partier. Cruising isn't my first choice for a vacation b/c I like to be on the ground exploring trying new foods and experiencing the destination but in the past it worked well for my kids who are 6 years apart and if they are happy, I'm happy.
My first cruise was on Norwegian and it wasn't a good fit. They had a nice amount of kids - a lot but not too many and nightly shows were the best I've seen but the room was tiny and there was literally nothing for adults to do during the day except play bingo, drink or sit in the sun IF it was warm enough. It was also a party ship - every night there were fall down drunks in the early evening and we had to ride the tender back from cabo with a girl throwing up all over the place as her drunk friends tried to take care of her. I expected some of this on Carnival but never saw anything out of hand which is probably due to the fact that so many activities are very late at night.
Holland America was perfect for us - the kids loved it as it was easy to make friends among the 30 - 40 other children on board, the programs were flexible so kids could do more of what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it AND their times matched up perfectly with programming for adults. If you went to early dinner, there was a show at 8pm you could watch without kids and then head to get them around 10pm. During the day, you could hang out in the Crows Nest watching the world go by while playing a game of scrabble, working a puzzle or using the computers. The coffee shop was in there along with the library and at night, there was a grand piano usually with someone playing it so you could relax with wine. Throughout the days at sea there were various enrichment activities from standard trivia to scavenger hunts and cooking lessons to watching whales or hearing commentary from specialists on the ports about more than shopping. The food service in the dining room was slow but I ordered room service for breakfast every day and had dinner in the Pinnacle Grill several nights b/c the food was a lot better there.
I shouldn't have tried Carnival and my friends joked with me about it BUT the kids wanted to try the "Fun Ships". My boyfriend who happens to be my daughter's best friend's father wanted to go too and we thought we would all have a good time together with more activities for the kids. Together we have kids ages 6, 10, 12 and 12 so we figured we would endure bad rooms, poor service and food quality BUT that the girls would have a blast and the younger boys would make their own friends in their age groups.
Our expectations were backwards. The room was every bit as nice as Holland America, service from the cabin stewards and dining room staff was better,the food was just as good if not a little better AND the comedy club was a treat. The performers were hilarious and we liked that there were family friendly shows so the kids could go too.
BUT there were some HUGE disappointments....We thought the kids were going to love it, they ALL hated it. The 12 year old girls were in a 12 - 14 y/o age group and there was nothing they were interested in doing until around 9pm through 1am. The kids program for the 6 year old was ok for me b/c there were usually options to drop him off from 10 - 1, 2 - 5 and 6 - 10. This wasn't every day and he was never excited to go b/c he said it wasn't fun but at least I got a break sometimes. The reason he didn't like it was because everything had to be so regimented due to the numbers of kids and it was almost like going to school. I think they said there were 134 kids ages 6 - 8 on the ship that week. They would do activities in 30 minute blocks so nothing was flexible and I don't think they ever went to the sports deck for basketball or mini-golf which he wanted to do. The 10 year old NEVER wanted to go b/c he said the other kids were inappropriate using bad language etc. He was almost always in the room or looking for something to do. The girls didn't really have a program though there were a few things going on throughout the day. I think this REALLY could have been different as they are at an age to enjoy projects like making bracelets, fixing hair, makeup, fashion shows with fun dress up stuff then taking pictures, a scavenger hunt etc. My daughter REALLY wanted to do Karaoke but it was usually for 18 and older on the ship even if it was at 7pm. They did this for their age maybe once but everyone was too embarrassed to actually do it so she didn't either.
Because of the kids programming being this way, we were NEVER able to relax. If we went to the room to just chill and get away, someone would knock on the door every 10 minutes. If we wanted to go to an adults only event in the afternoon, we had to set the kids up with a movie on the laptop b/c they don't have DVD players in the rooms. At night, we wanted to go to sleep around 11 but our daughters were out until 1am with their program and we felt we should have them check in before retiring so they woke us up every night.
Finally, there is literally nowhere to get away from people and noise during the day UNLESS you want to sit in a room that is a bar at night. I didn't realize how much I actually used the Crows Nest on Holland America but I CRAVED that haven every single day - especially in the morning to read the paper.
We never used the workout facility. It was small, cramped and extremely overcrowded which was such a surprise. This wasn't the case on any other ship I've seen and it sort of baffled me why you would have 3800 guests without building an impressive gym. Likewise, the running track on Holland America was so much nicer because you go all the way around the ship on teak decks. On Carnival's Splendor, it only took up a small square at the back of the ship.
The spa was nice and I enjoyed a treatment there however afterward I had a HARD sale to buy products that I didn't want. She actually seemed snippy with me when I said no repeatedly so they are obviously incentivized to sell even if you've already spent a fortune on a treatment plus tip.
I'm so exhausted that I need a vacation after this cruise.
So, here's my summary...
Choose Carnival if you are a night owl, a college student, someone who doesn't mind crowds, you have younger kids over age 2, you can't afford anything else like Princess, Holland America, Disney or Celebrity and if you want to smoke, surprisingly, they allow it in their casino. YUCK.
Don't choose if you want enrichment, a relaxing quiet place to play cards, programming for kids ages 9 - 15, nice gym and maybe a little more refined crowd of other guests - for example, kids that don't use swear words who are under age 12.