I wanted to take my family on a cruise for Spring Break this year. I have 5 year old twin boys and thought a cruise would be a good way to see some sights while leaving plenty of time for relaxing, and hopefully take advantage of the included child care (so Mommy and Daddy get some vacation time too!). They took their first cruise last year, 5 days on RCI Navigator of the Seas, and did pretty well, so I thought I'd try again.
I did a lot of research online ahead of time. I obviously had to go during that week that school was out, I wanted a balcony room, and I did NOT want to go to Cozumel again (no offense to Cozumel, I've just been there a dozen times already). I had to choose from Princess (never sailed with them), Celebrity (loved the cruise I took WITHOUT kids a few years ago), Norwegian (took a weekend cruise a few years ago on the Sun to the Bahamas and wasn't impressed), and Carnival. I had cruised with Carnival almost 7 years earlier to Alaska and didn't love it at the time, but that prior experience was enough to land me a VERY good past guest rate on this cruise and the "frugal shopper" in me couldn't turn it down. After all Carnival, to me, had a reputation as being kid-friendly and since I was travelling with kids this time, I thought I'd give them another try.
We embarked from Ft. Lauderdale, which is a 3 hour drive from my house. My parents wound up booking the trip with us (my mom has been getting some cancer treatments and we thought it be nice for the boys and her to have some vacation time together). We didn't request a wheelchair (although we did drive up with a handicapped tag), but the staff took one look at my mother and immediately got her a wheelchair and personally escorted us through the boarding process. They couldn't have been nicer (and it retrospect it would have been pretty difficult for us to board without them). (Note: for those of you who have been reading the posts regarding "bringing" alcohol on board, they DO shake your water bottles here as well).
Our cabin was nice, quiet, though not as roomy as I was hoping for (on my last cruise we booked a Jr. Suite, so I guess I got a little spoiled), but very functional. Plenty of storage space. I could tell the ship had been updated recently. The balcony was supposed to be "extended", and although it was not large enough for a lounge-type chair it didn't feel cramped with its 2 chairs and side table. Our cabin steward was very nice (I don't think he ever stopped smiling). He quickly learned our names and emptied out the minibar, at our request. He had the Carnival-requisite towel animals in place each night as we returned from dinner, which my boys loved. The boys had bunk type beds; the lower was our couch converted and the upper was a pullman in the ceiling, but unlike on RCI, the pullman was a full sized bunk and it was above the couch, not above the main bed. It felt sturdy, with a rail and a ladder, and you didn't worry about a small child being up there. The pullman was down the entire cruise (as opposed to being set up every night), so that also probably contributed to the cramped feeling in our cabin.
As for dining, we choose the flexible time option which was easy, we only had to wait more than a minute or two once and we were given a pager to take to the bar area. The disadvantage was we didn't have a regular table or regular waitstaff, as I have had on cruises were you have a standard seating, and a few nights the table service was hit or miss. I found the quality of the food to be surprisingly good, and I am a self described foodie. Definitely better than Royal Caribbean last year. I only ate breakfast in the dining room on the last morning and was disappointed that the scrambled eggs were the same fake eggs as were served in the buffet. We never ate lunch in the dining room. The buffet was surprisingly good, my recollection of prior cruises was more of a food court atmosphere where quantity was emphasized over quality (by the staff and the patrons), but I really didn't feel that way this time. I only tried the sushi once, because I kept forgetting about it--it was only open 5:15pm to 8pm or so. It was decent. We did go to Nick and Nora's and I felt that was excellent, both the meal and the service. We had brought our own wine to dinner and the Sommelier chilled it down for us ahead of time and had it decanted and waiting for us when we got there. We also did the Chef's Table Dinner one night. That is a very small gathering for a 7 course prix fixe dinner that includes wine and a "backstage" tour of the spotless galley with the head chef. VERY excellent, very creative food, I've never been so stuffed in my life. Not cheap, but a really interesting and worthwhile event if you're into food.
The Kid's Club was WONDERFUL. Unlike RCI (where we couldn't get our kids to go), we couldn't get our kids away from it. They literally cried when we picked them up. They were open only from 10am on sea days (earlier on port days, but the boys went ashore with us) and then closed around 4-6, sometimes having extra fee required events during that time. Then they would open again at 6 for dinner and stayed open until 10pm. After 10 and until 3am, kids could stay for an hourly fee, but we always picked them up by 10. We were a little worried (because of last year too) because my boys' 6th birthday was one month after the cruise, making them the oldest kids in the 2-5 year group. The staff, when alerted to that concern, quickly offered to move them up to the 6 year old group (which is explicity against Carnival's website rules), but we never needed to pursue that. They had face painting, and dancing, and movies, and prizes, and visiting characters. They made art work and t-shirts, and had scavenger hunts, and the staff were all very friendly. The water slide was also a big hit.
I'm not so into shows, more of a "nice cocktail and 5 or 6 good books" girl (hence the balcony), but we did see the Beatles-inspired show that I thought was pretty good, and there were several reasonably talented guitar players performing in the bar areas or in the casino where my husband played lots of poker (he didn't care so much for the fact they didn't have real dealers at the the Hold'em tables--it was computerized, and there were never enough players wanting to join in the tournaments, so they were all cancelled).
It was pretty tough finding an empty deck chair on the sea days (we had 4 of them) after around 11am, but the adults only Serenity area on the aft of deck 9 was a nice idea. The gym was nice with lots of new equipment, but I only went once (although I did run on the jogging track one day too!)
We didn't so a lot as far as shore excursions. My parents actually left the ship in St Maarten-the first port-as my mother unfortunately wasn't doing well. The staff was EXTREMELY helpful with this process as well. We did take the pirate ship excursion in St. Lucia which my boys enjoyed. In St. Kitts we started walking around on our own only to be picked up by a helpful cabbie and informed we had a much longer walk to the beach than we had thought (he was right too).
Debarkation was easier than I had seen in the past. We got off a little later than we were called (since we only had to get into our car and drive home). We walked right up to our luggage, got it and then stood in the customs line for only about 20 minutes.
Overall, the vast majority of Carnival staff was super friendly and genuinely seemed to care that I was enjoying my vacation. The ship often felt like it had fewer than 2100 passengers as staff knew us by name. The food was much better than I had expected. The kid's facilities (at least for young children) were great, the surroundings were very pleasant and I feel the price I paid was VERY competitive. I will DEFINITELY cruise with Carnival again, especially if they keep giving me the past guest discounts!
Located on starboard side, aft of midship. This is advertised as an "extended" balcony. The balcony is about 5.5 feet deep and the width of room, 2 balconies aft of where the ship narrows (hard to explain, but look at the deck plans) so not tremendously breezy on the balcony, still your towel could have blown away. It is furnished with 2 chairs (not lounges) and a small side table. Good privacy to the sides, you'd have to really work at leaning over to see your neighbors. No obstructions to views. Never had exhaust coming in to balcony, unlike the aft balconies can. HEAVY door that had to be pushed open (as opposed to a slider) to get to balcony--hard for my 5 year olds to do. Tall latch at top of door so your kids definitely couldn't get out if you remembered to latch it (which our steward was constantly doing). More than adequate storage space although the layout of the cubboards could have been improved as they encouraged you to throw your clothes in a heap. Short walk to aft elevator bay and stairwell. Quiet. Only noise was occasional toilet flush from neighboring rooms and balcony noise (mostly scraping of chairs on neighboring balconies). Beds were firm, more like a dense upholstery cushion than a mattress, but I didn't mind. A/C worked well, no untoward odors in room. Shower was typically small but with excellent controls, plenty of hot water and good water pressure. Bathroom storage was acceptable. Hair dryer was typically insipid. Minibar, which we had emptied so we could use it as a fridge, kept drinks at only about 65 degrees. We used the extra bunks as we travelled with 2 children. The couch became a lower bunk and a pullman came down from the ceiling right above the couch to resemble bunk beds. The upper bunk was full sized and sturdy with a rail and a narrow ladder, and I didn't worry about having a 5 year old up there. Overall, very functional and comfortable, but with multiple people in the room, it did tend to get a little tight in the hallway section of the room.