The much-anticipated Carnival Celebration -- the newest mega-ship from Carnival -- has begun its maiden season of six, seven and eight night Caribbean cruises from its homeport of Miami.
We’re aboard this week for a seven-night cruise to the Western Caribbean, which is far too little time to take in all this massive ship, Carnival’s largest to date with a maximum capacity of 6,631 passengers, has to offer.
The LNG-powered Carnival Celebration is, in most ways identical to its near-twin, Mardi Gras, which came on line in July of 2021. The addition of more accommodations is what makes it larger, with a reconfigured total of balcony cabins (there are 12 additional) and 34 more inside rooms.
Both ships also share key bells and whistles like the 800-foot-long BOLT Rollercoaster, the Waterworks Waterpark, a three-deck tall combination atrium and entertainment complex, the top-of-the-ship Loft cabana area. The ship also has familiar Carnival venues like a double-deck Red Frog rum bar, the adults-only Serenity enclave and specialty eateries that range from the for-charge Fahrenheit 555 steakhouse to the complimentary Shaq’s Big Chicken.
So what, other than the shiny newness of this ship makes it so unique and not just a slightly larger copy of the Mardi Gras? Here are our first impressions.
To begin with, this ship was conceived as a celebration of Carnival’s 50-year history. In many aspects, some obvious and others more subtle, the Carnival Celebration champions Carnival’s past while also positioning the company for the future.
Like the Mardi Gras, the newer ship has six fun zones, three that are familiar and three that are fresh and unique to the Celebration.
Fans of Mardi Gras, the first of Carnival's Excel class, will feel very at home at the Ultimate Playground zone on aft Decks 18 to 20. Here you'll find the BOLT Sea Coaster ($15 per person) races guests at up to 40 miles per hour above the Sports Square basketball and games court, a trio of WaterWorks water slides and giant “dunker”, a miniature golf course and a ropes course before finishing off with a loop around the ship’s trademark whale-tail funnel.
Nearby, on Decks 16 and 17, the Lido zone contains a bevy of popular included Carnival specialty eateries like Shaquille O’Neal’s Shaq’s Big Chicken, Guy Fieri’s Guy’s Burger Joint, the BlueIguana Cantina for hand-crafted Mexican cuisine and Street Eats, which has a revolving menu of Asian and Middle Eastern snacks and fries, such as chicken won tons, Thai satays and kebabs. This is at the top of my “must try” list.
Even during peak meal times, I found the lines in the Lido Zone moved quickly, and especially at my fave, Shaq’s Big Chicken, where the offerings were fresh, tasty and sizzling hot. There is also the sprawling and more traditional Lido Marketplace buffet with its variety of action stations that include a great salad bar, desserts and gelato. The Lido Zone is also home to the for-charge Seafood Shack, the double deck RedFrog Tiki Bar and the Tides Pool and Bar at the back of the ship.
On sea days, Lido Pool can get a bit crowded but in a way, that’s part of the fun — this is the place to party in the sun with loud music, games and festive dances hosted by the entertainment staff. This is also where the Carnival Seaside Theater is located, a giant LED screen that plays movies, sporting events and music videos.
The Tides Pool at the back of the ship is a little less frantic. For those seeking a quiet time on deck, there is plenty of sunning space, along with a few shaded areas, in the adults-only Serenity on forward Deck 18. For even more tranquility and a bit of indulgence, Loft 19 (complimentary for Excel Suite guests, $150 on sea days and $50 on port days) offers up its own private pool area and cabanas that come with robes, towels, fresh fruit and concierge lunch service for an additional charge.
On aft Deck 8, the Summer Landing features the Heroes Tribute Bar, which is dedicated to veterans and their families. An especially nice touch here is a glass case where guests can bring medals and other service mementos to be displayed during the cruise to celebrate their loved ones. Like its counterpart on the Mardi Gras, Heroes has a complimentary soft serve ice cream dispenser (one of several on board) that is set up in a military truck facade.
The Patio Pool Area, directly at the back has an infinity pool overlooking the wake and is a more quiet alternative to the Lido and Tides Pools during peak hours when Deck 16 fills up with party goers and sun worshippers.
Directly across from Heroes, Guy’s Pig and Anchor Smokehouse and Brewhouse is another Guy Fieri-sponsored dining venue offering up for charge barbecue fare and specialty craft brews. When the ship is at sea, this place is packed and in the evenings, it is also a popular spot for live bands.
The next zone, located on the Celebration’s starboard Deck 8, 820 Biscayne (named for Carnival’s first address on Biscayne Boulevard) replaces the Italian-themed La Piazza on Mardi Gras. The Miami-centric space features the indoor/outdoor Bar 820, which offers up Cuban and Miami-inspired drinks, all steps away from the Deco Deli, the go-to for made-to-order sandwiches on freshly baked breads and the Miami Slice pizzeria.
These cleverly conceived eateries would be right at home on Miami Beach with their Art Deco signage and they are far away from the madding crowds of the top deck Lido Zone eateries, which was especially convenient on embark day when I really needed a quick bite after my redeye flights and couldn’t deal with crowds.
The three-deck Celebration Central is similar to the Mardi Gras’ Grand Central Atrium in that it is actually not in the center of the ship but on the starboard side, backed with a 30-foot tall, 3,000-square-foot wall of glass with striking views of the sea. Although these are often touted as the first “side atriums” on a cruise ship — those were actually conceived in the early 1990s for the long since defunct Crown Cruise Lines ships Crown Jewel and Crown Dynasty — these are certainly the most spectacular.
While the Mardi Gras’ space is dominated by a giant sundial ceiling fixture, Celebration has 1,400 fiberoptic lucite confetti elements that “explode” upwards from the proscenium into the ceiling and change color throughout the day.
On the lowest Deck 6 level of Celebration Central, there is a 1934 Rolls Royce Saloon that was recently removed from Carnival Ecstasy, which took its last sailing in October; the ship is now being scrapped in Turkey. Steps away is JavaBlue, the specialty coffee bar that offers up pastries and snacks at various times of day. The baristas here are especially friendly and work quickly but a line is almost always guaranteed, especially during morning hours, so plan accordingly.
The decor in Celebration Central offers a few subtle nods to Carnival’s roots, starting with the Tropicale Bar on Deck 6, which is named for Carnival’s first newbuild, the MV Tropicale of 1982. The bar, itself, is handsomely festooned in striking palm frond mosaics.
On Deck 7, Celebration Central gets even better with the Aquaria Bar, which is backed with a set of five stunning fiber optically enhanced panels of sea life by Venetian glass artist Luciano Vistosi that were removed from Carnival Victory during its conversion to Carnival Radiance. If his name sounds remotely familiar, Vistosi’s work has appeared on several Holland America and Costa ships in recent years.
Screens can close off Celebration Central’s giant glass wall for a few exclusive to the Carnival Celebration shows. The stage area is dazzling with its towering scale, huge LED screens and state of the art sound and lighting but if you want to get an unobstructed view or even just a seat for the primetime shows, I recommend getting there, yes, up to 45 minutes early.
Last night, during “The Most Magnificent Circus”, which features thrilling acrobatic and cirque-style performances to music from pop artists like Pink, Christina Aguilera and Ariana Grande, the place was packed to the rafters. It was actually kind of heartwarming to see guests making the most of the situation and taking turns at the railing to allow friends and family members a chance to see parts of the show.
Later this week, I plan to settle in early with a glass of something nice to get a good view of the two other shows, the Brazilian-themed “Rio Carnival” and “We Are The One”, which is dedicated to the world’s most popular festivals and is also a tribute to all the different types of people and cultures that come together on Carnival ships, and that includes both guests and crew.
As far as Carnival Celebration’s zones are concerned, I’ve saved what I feel is the best for last. Located at the back of Deck 6, the Gateway is dedicated to the past, present and future of travel, and includes the Golden Jubilee Lounge, a nod to Carnival's 50-year anniversary.
On the starboard side, there is Latitudes Bar, a wonderful space that celebrates travel by air, land and sea. Hovering over the bar, a giant clapboard reminiscent of Grand Central Station has signage with names of destinations like Sao Paolo, Tokyo and Amsterdam that alternate according to the daily theme. Twelve fiberoptic “windows” and ceiling panels change color and broadcast imagery of key travel destinations. On the first day of the cruise, I savored a 15-minute long tribute to past Carnival ships and their godmothers called “Embark On A Journey”.
Linked by a side-to-side passage lined with posters featuring Carnival imagery, some with little hidden messages, Latitudes connects with the Golden Jubilee, a bar filled with magnificent artifacts from past Carnival ships. (Full disclosure: Peter Knego sold many of the artifacts onboard Carnival Celebration, acquired from scrapyards in India, to Carnival Cruise Line).
Lining the promenade of the walkway outside the bar, there are porthole-shaped dioramas dedicated to each decade of Carnival’s existence, from the 1970s with the three original ships to the 2020s, which feature the forthcoming Carnival Jubilee, the next Excel Class ship. Brass coins representing every Carnival ship from the first Mardi Gras to the Carnival Jubilee are embedded in the floor, moving up in time as one heads forward.
The passageway also has one of the original Chadburn brass telegraphs from the bridge wing of Carnival’s second ship, the Carnivale (ex Empress of Britain), which sits outside a 20-foot etched glass, brass and mahogany wall that was originally in the first Mardi Gras (ex Empress of Canada) Casino. The telegraph is now lit up and set to full speed ahead, acknowledging not just the past but the future of Carnival Cruise Line.
Inside the Golden Jubilee are tables from the Carnival Fascination (which is currently being scrapped in Pakistan) that feature tops with Hollywood caricatures by Al Hirschfeld, the renowned artist who hid the name of his daughter Nina in each of his works. Designed by former Carnival architect Joe Farcus, these tables join seating that was replicated from Albegna chairs that once filled the Carnivale’s Riverboat Club Casino.
Hovering above the bar, there are architectural elevations of past Carnival ships and sketches of various conceptual interiors by Joe Farcus. Each of the bar stools features a different Carnival ship and the tiles on the bar floor are inlaid with brass maple leaf patterns that were inspired by the balcony railings of the Mardi Gras ballroom. Magnificent brass framed doors with glass panels featuring musical instruments from the ballroom of the former Carnivale are at the forward end of the Golden Jubilee, so when guests enter the space, they are literally stepping into another era. You don’t have to be a fan of classic ships or even Carnival to appreciate the beauty of this room and its components but all the better if you are!
Aside from restaurant names and decor and a few tweaks here and there, dining for the most part is just as it is on the Mardi Gras.
At Carnival Celebration’s christening, Godmother Cassidy Gifford and her mother Kathie were wearing jewelry designed by Carnival President Christine Duffy. Those special pieces and more of Duffy’s designs were created for the Effy line and are exclusively for sale aboard Carnival Celebration.
The ship also has a first-for-Carnival Luxury Vintage Boutique that features repurposed classic Chanel, Dior and other vintage accessories and couture.
Aside from the reconfigured balcony categories and the additional inside rooms mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Celebration’s staterooms are identical to those on Mardi Gras. I’m in an Extended Balcony, which is soothing to the eye with its blue and ash wood toned colors, ample storage spaces and compact but thoughtfully designed bathroom. The shower is tight but I love the swinging glass door and as expected, the balcony is huge, which begs me to ask why it doesn’t have full length deck chairs, versus standard chairs, to spread out in.