When Carnival first announced it would be building a new ship to debut in spring 2018, the cruise line quickly affixed to it the cute moniker Vista's Sista, a nod to identical fleetmate Carnival Vista. That ship eventually got a name -- Carnival Horizon -- and it's no longer just the sibling to the most innovative ship in Carnival's fleet. It is the new standard-bearer for the line, with bold features and inventive technology, alongside a whole lot of fun. We're onboard the new 3,960-passenger ship, which is on its second sailing, in the Mediterranean. Here are our first impressions of Carnival Horizon.
Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse | Brewhouse Is A Hit
Carnival Cruise Line has had a long partnership with bleached-blond chef/TV personality Guy Fieri, and passengers flock to his Burger Joint onboard most Carnival ships. But the cruise line kicked it up a notch on Horizon, adding standalone restaurant Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse | Brewhouse. (His Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que is on select other Carnival ships, but minus the brewhouse.) On sea days, the restaurant serves a handful of Southern specialties, designed by Barbecue Hall of Famer Fieri, for free. (Hint: Head here for lunch on embarkation day, before anyone finds out about the place.) At night, the menu expands with additions like baby back ribs and cedar-plank smoked salmon. The a la carte prices are reasonable, and the barbecue is seriously good. Reservations aren't required, but the place has been jamming every evening of our cruise.
The smokehouse is only half the equation though, as the space includes a brewery, serving up four distinct craft beers. The favorite on the previous sailing to ours was the nutty ParchedPig Toasted Amber Ale, but Eddie Allen, Carnival's vice president of beverage operations, suggested that might change when Carnival Horizon sails in mid-May to the U.S., where IPA is a big seller. (Our favorite of the four varieties is indeed the ParchedPig West Coast IPA.)
In addition to the beer, there's a big selection of bourbons, with specialty cocktails brilliantly mixed by the honky-tonk joint's bartenders. Live music -- with a classic rock and country-western slant -- is played here throughout the day and into the evening. It also hosts adult games, like beer pong.
Technology is Improving
Like every cruise line, Carnival is constantly trying to improve technology as it relates to passenger experience. With Horizon, the most notable spot is the elevators, which employ a smart system designed to improve passenger flow. Color us impressed. While the concept is growing more common on land, it's the first we've seen of it at sea. The system requires passengers to choose their floor from outside the elevator. You are then assigned an elevator based on the selection. Inside, there are no buttons, but you can see which floors your lift will stop at. We found this especially helpful on embarkation day, when several elevators were reserved for hitting dining floors only. It sped up the process and kept passengers heading to their cabins separate from those who were off to lunch.
We also are fans of the technology used for Horizon's Carnival Hub App. The app is fleetwide, but on Carnival Horizon, the line is doing a test that allows passengers to book dining reservations via their mobile devices onboard, and cruise line President Christine Duffy says more upgrades are on their way, which will eventually roll out fleetwide.
Our only "meh" tech experience has been the Wi-Fi, which has been hit and miss during our journey. Our premium internet package loses signal strength intermittently, and it hasn't been fast enough to support major surfing or regular photo and video uploads. We expect speeds will improve as additional satellites are added and bugs are worked out.
Embarkation Day Delivers.
Carnival just opened a beautiful terminal in Barcelona, and our sailing was the first one to embark through the 135,000-square-foot facility. While clearly there were some first-day issues to work through, the facility was comfortable and efficient, and check-in lines were rarely long. What really got us excited, though, was Carnival's mBark process, which employs mobile technology to get passengers onboard more quickly (30 percent faster, according to Duffy). Once passengers were checked in, they were moved, in zones, through queues where port staff waited to allow people to get on the ship. A half-dozen specialists in the terminal, armed with tablets, scanned boarding cards and sent passengers along the gangway. The time-savings comes from not having to line up at a security podium onboard to get scanned one by one. (This is pretty typical on cruise ships.) Passengers then grab their room cards from their cabins once onboard. What makes this notable is that the same technology will soon start to roll out to other ports Carnival visits; Manhattan is next.
Making It Easy to Choose Fun
Choose Fun isn't just a slogan for Carnival; it's a promise of what to expect onboard its ships. Horizon certainly delivers on the vow. What we like is that the cruise line understands that not everyone has the same idea of fun, yet there really is something for everyone. Carnival Horizon hits a home run with its colorful Dr. Seuss-themed water park, which features a bright, character-filled splash zone, with sprayers and dump buckets galore for the kiddies. (Yes, adults can play there, too.) It also has two age-agnostic waterslides, that are appropriate for adults and children (42 inches and taller). Then, there's the two ropes courses, along with a SkyRide that has passengers pedaling on a suspended track high up on the ship.
But those looking for something a little tamer -- or quieter -- have spaces like Serenity, a sun deck reserved for those 21 and older. There's also the Ocean Plaza for daily trivia, Limelight Lounge for comedy, Liquid Lounge for theatrical performances, more than a dozen restaurants and plenty of bar space. The ship and its amenities are playful yet still tasteful, and it would take far more than a week to enjoy everything Carnival Horizon has to offer.
-- By Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor