Carnival Imagination exceeds expectations. Not because expectations are particularly low, but because Carnival reminds us that cruising can still come close to being an affordable, mostly all-inclusive vacation. What does less than $100 per person, per night (sometimes even as low as $75) buy you? Surprisingly, a lot: made-to-order breakfast burritos, an adults-only sun deck, fantastic kids programming, family activities like a live-action game show, access to the sauna and steam room, full gym, mini-golf, live music, comedy, theater performances, a nightly three-course dinner (or a greasy burger!) and towel animals to spare.
The trade-off is that the luxury of choice leaves something to be desired. For staterooms, the lack of cabin categories could be a hindrance for those used to a veranda. There's a low ratio of suites and no standard balcony cabins -- less than 3 percent of cabins have balconies -- so booking one could be tricky. While much of the ship has been refreshed, cabins are difficult to retrofit. Luckily, the inside and outside cabins that make up the majority of the rooms are spacious and comfortable.
The advantage of fewer options is you might end up spending less money. When pretty much everything is included in your cruise fare, you don't need to budget a ton for specialty restaurants or dinner theater shows. Sure, you could order off the small Steakhouse Selections menu each evening in the main dining room and spend $20 per entree on lobster and filet mignon, or book a pricy Chef's Table experience -- but those are the absolute exceptions when it comes to dining. Deli and pizza stations in the buffet fill in the gaps during mealtimes, while BlueIguana Cantina and Guy's Burger Joint on the pool deck are always fun alternative lunch options in a pinch. The ability to just show up at a designated time for dinner and pick from the rotating menu was actually freeing from having to make a million choices about where and when to dine -- and the food is good, to boot.
Where Imagination does have lots of options is its entertainment and activities. Musical acts could be found in most public spaces throughout the four days of our sailing, and -- we're not sure if it's because the cruise leaves from LA -- the talent was superb. A male/female duo, two singer/songwriters with guitar, another duo with a Latino bent, a full band and two DJs mean you're never far from music. Song covers were artistic and well executed, not cheesy and one key off as cruise ship entertainment can sometimes be guilty of. We were impressed by the theater troupe and comedians as well -- even the towel animal puppet show was fun.
The same applies to multigenerational activities. Carnival makes an effort to provide age-appropriate as well as family activities onboard. There is a dedicated kids' clubs with three age groups and two teen clubs that keep current with what 21st-century youth is into these days. On the rare occasions you do see your kids (cruises make for fast friends), it might be at Hasbro, The Game Show or a dancing jamboree to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The line's partnership with Dr. Seuss is also great for families, incorporating character fun at photo ops, a parade and a dedicated breakfast, along with literacy at Story Time, into their fun-for-all programming.
Fun is a key component of sailing on Carnival Imagination, not just in the onboard activities but in the decor as well, which some might call tacky -- think lots of women's heads with wings situated around the ship, Egyptian sphinx busts glowing gold around the Deck 10 atrium and large chrome angels with wide wingspans overlooking the Xanadu Lounge. Yet, the tackiness works when you're trying to spend a few days not taking anything too seriously.
The main takeaway from a Carnival Imagination cruise is its value. For the money, service on Imagination is paramount, and the crew is always encouraging passengers to take things less seriously and have a genuinely good time.