My very first cruise was a Carnival cruise, on the defunct Carnival Inspiration. That sailing, some 23 years ago, left from New Orleans just about the same time as this one sailed from Galveston, and both that one and my current cruise sailed through the Gulf of Mexico on a Western Caribbean itinerary.
My then boyfriend (now husband) and I booked Carnival Inspiration, not knowing a thing about cruising but ready for our first vacation together -- to somewhere warm. We were hooked from the beginning and made cruising our vacation of choice long before I started working for Cruise Critic.
Being onboard Carnival’s newest ship, Carnival Jubilee, has me thinking of that first trip and how much has changed about the cruise experience over the years.
It’s not just the size: At 183,521 gross tons and a full capacity of 6,631 guests (5,374 at double occupancy), Carnival Jubilee is the largest cruise ship in the Carnival fleet. (Compare that with Carnival Inspiration, which could hold just 2,056 passengers at double occupancy.)
Carnival Jubilee is loaded with activities and features that are on-trend with the latest travel innovations. Here’s how my 122nd cruise compares with my very first, and why Carnival Jubilee might be right for you.
In 2001, Carnival Inspiration was a pretty standard cruise ship. If you wanted to be outdoors, you went up to the lido deck, where you could hang by the pool, enjoy the sun and watch (or participate in) the various pool games and activities, from dance lessons to bellyflop contests. Balcony cabins were few and far between on that ship, with only the top-of-the-line cabins boasting one.
On Carnival Jubilee, the pool areas are still the prime spots for outdoor activity, but the ship beautifully spreads out the action, including The Patio and Summer Landing, located aft on Deck 8. Summer Landing has loungers, sunbeds and tables with chairs set up for conversation.
It also has a lovely infinity pool (the Patio Pool) that overlooks the wake as well as two large hot tubs. On our sailing, which has about 5,600 passengers onboard, this area has been much quieter than lido deck, which was crowded on our first two sea days.
Adults can visit the Serenity area, a massive kids-free venue that includes shaded and full-sun spots, along with a large hot tub and a small swimming pool. (The closest Carnival Inspiration had to an area like Serenity was a top-of-the-ship topless sun deck, lightly used but prompting much curiosity from passersby.)
Those who want to really indulge on Carnival Jubilee can shell out for a cabana at Loft 19, if one is available. (Loft 19 is exclusively available to guests staying in Excel Suites, and they get first dibs on cabanas, though bookings open for non-Excel guests closer to sailing.)
A cabana will run you $500 per day (length of cruise rates are available and run around $2,000 per week), and you’ll have access to the Loft 19 area, which includes deeply padded lounge chairs, a large warm tub and a whole lotta quiet. You’ll also get a bottle of sparkling wine, a selection of juices and delivery of food from the ship’s complimentary restaurants.
For many cruisers, the connection to the sea is the reason they want to sail, and Carnival Jubilee effectively makes that connection, blending indoors and out and giving cruisers a chance to find the right spot for them.
I’m struggling even to remember the atrium on Carnival Inspiration, which tells me it didn’t quite have the destination factor Carnival Jubilee’s Grand Central atrium does.
On this new ship, the atrium stretches from Deck 6 to Deck 8, with a Center Stage that stands in front of a bold, multilevel LED screen. On Deck 6, you’ll find tables and chairs along with a bar and busy dance floor, and stadium seating is available on decks 7 and 8.
On New Year’s Eve, our cruise director, Kyndall Fire, took the stage, dancing, singing and getting the audience involved in the fun until the ball dropped. Other activities that take place here include Build-A-Bear sessions, variety shows, auditions for game shows like Family Feud and photos with Dr. Seuss characters. Something’s always happening in or near Grand Central. (Find out more on what’s unique about this area by reading our exclusive-access preview of Carnival Jubilee.)
I’m struck by how similar Grand Central is to what’s offered on AIDA, a German cruise line (owned by Carnival Corporation) that appeals to families. I sailed AIDAperla in 2018 and was impressed with the interactive way the space was used, from kids clubs activities to karaoke. I see the same on Jubilee, where the atrium is truly a destination that is continuously changing, surprising guests with its versatility.
In 2001, the food options on Carnival Inspiration were limited. My husband and I ate dinner every night in the ship’s main dining room, sharing a table with the same three couples. (We all connected pretty quickly and enjoyed each other’s company; it’s one of the things I adore about cruising). During the day, it was buffet all the way.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of any specialty dining options, and, at 25 years old and still early in my professional career, I would have struggled to afford anything beyond the cost of the cruise itself.
By contrast, Carnival Jubilee has more than 20 options for food, and many of them are included in your cruise fare. (This inclusiveness is one of the reasons Cruise Critic named Carnival Cruise Line the best for value in its 2023 Editors’ Picks awards.)
I had been particularly looking forward to trying Rudi’s Seagrill, a for-fee ($49 for adults; $13 for kids) seafood restaurant from Carnival Corporation’s ubiquitous master chef Rudi Sodamin – a name that might be more familiar to Holland America cruisers, as Sodamin heads that cruise line’s Culinary Council. This is a new-to-me restaurant, and I’m a fan of Rudi’s.
We tried out Rudi’s Seagrill and thoroughly enjoyed our meal there, especially the starters, which included a savory, hearty cioppino and fresh tuna slices. The restaurant is a nice addition to the Carnival fleet.
But you don’t have to pay extra for options when it comes to dining on Carnival Jubilee. The ship offers plenty of included food, from great chicken sandwiches and burgers at Big Chicken (in partnership with Shaquille O’Neal) and Guy Fieri’s Guy’s Burger Joint. The lido deck area also features the Street Eats options of Time Fries, Mad Sizzle and Steam Dream alongside favorite Seafood Shack; Mexican is available at the Blue Iguana Cantina.
Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse anchors the social hub that is the back of Deck 8. People line up for the lunchtime barbecue, which is cooked in an actual smoker. In fact, people line up everywhere, which is one of the little annoyances of the ship – if you want something, you’ll probably wait in a queue for it. In most cases, the lines move quickly, though some will take more time. (We waited in what looked like a huge line for a chicken sandwich and were through in less than five minutes; to get barbecue, we stood for 20 minutes.)
Some of the ship’s restaurants – Chibang! and Cucina del Capitano – will cost you extra at night but offer a complimentary modified menu on certain days. The wait times to get into these restaurants is short, though we discovered at Chibang! that it took a long time to get food – nearly 30 minutes for a simple noodle dish and burrito bowl order. Waitstaff seemed overwhelmed and didn’t look to have time for more than taking an order or dropping off a dish.
One of the things we do miss from that first cruise is the midnight dessert buffet. This was a spectacle, with fruit and ice sculptures, along with incredible desserts. It’s not surprising this option has disappeared, as food waste was rampant – my husband left with a half a cake and about 12 other items as waiters piled his plate – but it was something to be seen and enjoyed. (Learn about other fun things that have disappeared from cruise ships over the years.)
On my first cruise, I stayed in an inside cabin, which fit our budget and lifestyle at the time. We loved it and slept well, with no natural daylight to wake us. These days, we prefer to book balcony cabins, so we can enjoy some quiet time breathing in the sea air. (Not sure what kind of cruise ship cabin to book? Our guide to cabins can help you pick.)
On our Carnival Jubilee cruise, hosted by Carnival Cruise Line, we’re in a balcony cabin that overlooks the ship’s Havana Experience, an exclusive area that comes with a host of perks. The cruise line first introduced this concept on its Vista Class, and the approach is a smart one for the company that builds its cruises on fun.
Passengers who stay in the Havana Experience access the private area via keycard and have their own personal lounge, which feels similar to the Havana Bar. They also have a private pool area and bar, with exclusive entertainment.
Similarly, the ship offers a Family Harbor area (not separated by key access) where family cabins are concentrated. This includes a Family Harbor Lounge, which offers a continental breakfast and snacks throughout the day, large-screen TVs for family movies (plus popcorn!) and video game consoles.
The ship-within-a-ship concept isn’t new – several lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises offer high-end suite complexes in the same vein – but Carnival makes it its own, with options that appeal to its guests: families and those who want little splurges with a whole lot of fun.
Much of my time on Carnival Inspiration was spent poolside. The ship had a tiny fitness center – more like a closet – that I remember visiting a couple of times, but otherwise, onboard time was split between soaking up sun, eating or watching the shows in the theater.
This was probably because the ship didn’t actually offer a whole lot more, in terms of showstoppers to keep us busy. On Carnival Jubilee, the sheer number of activity options are astounding. In fact, a whole section of the ship – dubbed the Ultimate Playground – could keep you busy for the duration of your cruise. The Ultimate Playground encompasses an aqua park and the ship’s Sports Square.
The biggest wow-factor is probably the BOLT roller coaster. (You can also find the roller coaster on sister ships Carnival Mardi Gras and Carnival Celebration.) This ride is an adrenaline-filled two laps around, with some fun twists and turns that got my heart pumping. It’s worth the upcharge to try once.
We also saw a lot of people enjoying the ropes course (we skipped this one this time around), which puts passengers on a course high above the water, with plenty of opportunities to squeal as views and obstacles get more fear-inducing.
SportsSquare is a Carnival standard now, and it includes a sports court, mini golf, Ping-Pong and more. The WaterWorks includes a 265-foot-long waterslide, a tube slide and a drop slide. (Kids have their own SplashZone and slides.)
Interestingly, I don’t ever remember feeling bored or thinking there weren’t enough options on Carnival Inspiration when I sailed all those years ago. Rather, I felt pampered – spoiled! – on my first real “adult” vacation, and I couldn’t wait to book my next cruise.
Yet the innovation present on Carnival Jubilee shows just how far Carnival – and the cruise industry overall – has come in the intervening years. And I still can’t wait to book my next cruise.