Carnival Cruise Lines
The Line in a Nutshell
When you're hankering for an utterly unpretentious and totally laid-back cruise, Carnival's colorful, jumbo-size resort ships deliver plenty of bang for the buck. If you like the flash of Vegas and a serious party vibe, you'll love Carnival's brand of flamboyant fun. Sails to: Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, Alaska, Canada/New England, Hawaii (plus Europe, transatlantic).
The McDonald's of cruising, Carnival's got the most recognized name in the biz and serves up a very casual, down-to-earth, middle-American Caribbean vacation. Food and service are pretty decent considering the huge numbers served, and Carnival gets points for trying to offer a higher-quality vacation than in years past, with upgraded cabin bedding, classier dishware in the buffet restaurants, and Wi-Fi access throughout each ship.
On most ships in the fleet, you'll find a sushi bar, supper club, wine bar, coffee bar, and great amenities for children. Like the frat boy who graduated to a button-down shirt and an office job, Carnival has definitely moved up and on to some extent. But like that reformed frat boy who still likes to meet his old pals for happy hour every week, Carnival hasn't lost touch with its past. Sure, the line's decor, like its clientele, has mellowed to some degree since its riotous, party-hearty beginnings, but each ship is still an exciting, bordering-on-nutty collage of textures, shapes, and images. Where else but on these floating playlands would you find a giant octopus-like chandelier with lights that change color, bar stools designed to look like baseball bats, or real oyster-shell wallpaper? The outrageousness of the decor is part of the fun. Evolved, yes; dull, no.
In the old days, Carnival was basically a floating college frat house: our coauthor Heidi sailed in 1996 when more than 500 graduating high-school seniors practically took over (and ruined) a cruise on the old Celebration. She still gets nightmares. However, guidelines implemented in early 1997 put a stop to all of that, mandating that no one age 20 and under can sail unless sharing a cabin with an adult 26 and over, with exceptions made for married couples and young people traveling with their parents in separate cabins. So, while you'll still find teen groups on board (especially Mar-June), things are not what they were.
A Carnival cruise is a huge melting pot -- couples, singles, and families; young, old, and lots in between. We've met doctors on Carnival cruises as well as truck drivers. And no matter what their profession, you'll see people wearing everything from Ralph Lauren shirts and Gucci sunglasses to Harley-Davidson tank tops and eyebrow studs. Carnival estimates about 30% of passengers are under age 35, another 40% are between 35 and 55, and 30% are over age 55. A high percentage of all passengers are first-time cruisers. Although it's one of the best lines to choose if you're single, Carnival's ships certainly aren't overrun by singles -- families and couples are definitely in the majority. The line's 3-, 4-, and 5-night cruises tend to attract the most families with kids and the highest number of 20- and 30-something single friends traveling together in groups.
Regardless of their age, passengers tend to be young at heart, ready to party, and keyed up for nonstop fun and games. Many have visited the casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City and the resorts of Cancún and Jamaica, and are no strangers to soaking in sardine-can hot tubs, sunbathing, hitting the piña coladas and beer before lunch, and dancing late into the night.
The typical Carnival passenger likes to dress casual, even at dinner, with sweat suits, jeans, and T-shirts just as prevalent as Dockers, sundresses, and Hush Puppies on all but formal nights -- and even on formal nights, it's not uncommon for some passengers to run back to their cabins to change out of their dressier duds and put on shorts or jeans before heading out to the discos and bars. Tuxedos are in the minority here. A few don't even bother with dressing up at all, even on formal nights. A hotel director on the Carnival Liberty told Heidi about the restaurant dress codes. "We're very flexible on this," he said, adding that they draw the line only at bathing suits, and T-shirts or hats with "bad words." Otherwise, just about anything goes.
Carnival has enjoyed an extended run as big cheese of the cruise world. The assets of its parent company, Carnival Corporation & plc are enormous and growing: In addition to the 22 ships of its Carnival brand, Carnival Corporation also owns Princess, Holland America, Costa, Cunard, and Seabourn, as well as several European and Australian lines. In total, Carnival Corporation operates a combined fleet of 93 ships, with another 13 scheduled for delivery through June 2012.
The origins of the Miami-based company were as precarious as they were accidental. Company patriarch Ted Arison, a somewhat reclusive billionaire who passed away in 1999, had sold an airfreight business in New York in 1966 and intended to retire to his native Israel to enjoy the fruits of his labor -- after a few more little ventures. After he negotiated terms for chartering a ship, he assembled a group of paying passengers and then discovered that the ship's owner could no longer guarantee the vessel's availability. According to latter-day legend, a deal was hastily struck whereby Arison's passengers would be carried aboard a laid-up ship owned by Knut Kloster, a prominent Norwegian shipping magnate. The ship was brought to Miami from Europe, and the combination of Arison's marketing skill and Kloster's hardware created an all-new entity that, in 1966, became the corporate forerunner of Norwegian Cruise Line.
After a bitter parting of ways with Kloster, Carnival got its start in 1972 when Arison bought Empress of Canada, known for its formal and somewhat stuffy administration, and reconfigured it into Carnival's first ship, the anything-but-stuffy Mardi Gras. After a shaky start -- the brightly painted ship, carrying hundreds of travel agents, ran aground just off the coast of Miami on her first cruise -- Arison managed to pick up the pieces and create a company that, under the guidance of astute and tough-as-nails company president Bob Dickinson (now retired) and chairman Micky Arison (Ted's son), eventually evolved into the most influential trendsetter in the cruise ship industry. The rest is history, as they say.
Today, Carnival's fleet includes 22 ships, most of which cruise the Caribbean and The Bahamas year-round. The 110,000-ton, 2,974-passenger Carnival Freedom, sister to Liberty, Valor, Conquest, and Glory, is among Carnival's newest, having debuted in March 2007. In summer 2008, a new class of ship debuted. Based on the Conquest-class ships, the 113,000-ton, 3,006-passenger Carnival Splendor sports some new features, including a water park and the line's largest and most elaborate spa and kids' facilities to date . . . that is, until the 130,000-ton Carnival Dream was introduced in September 2009. They are both Carnival's largest vessels so far. The Carnival Magic will follow in 2011 and a third unnamed sibling in 2012.
Carnival's newest Dream-, Conquest-, and Spirit-class ships offer about as many dining venues as you'll really need, and the rest of the fleet only has two choices: a buffet venue and a main dining room.
Traditional -- In its two-story "formal" dining rooms (and take formal with a grain of salt -- some Carnival passengers don't seem to think it means anything but T-shirts and jeans), Carnival's food quality and presentation, plus its wine selection, are much improved from its early days, and for the most part on par with Royal Caribbean, Princess, and NCL. You'll find more exotic options such as chicken satay with peanut sauce and Indian-themed meals that include lamb chops, basmati rice, lentils (dal), and potatoes (aloo); as well as all-American favorites such as lobster and prime rib, plus pasta dishes, grilled salmon, and Thanksgiving-style turkey served with all the trimmings. Unfortunately, the preparation is uneven (as is true on many of the mainstream lines); one night your entree is great, the other it's blah. On a recent Victory cruise, top tastes included a yummy roasted pumpkin soup and a New England lobster-and-crab-cake dish. There are some 50 healthier Spa Carnival dishes (which include calorie, fat, sodium, and cholesterol stats), and vegetarian options are also on each menu.
Despite the hectic pace and ambience, dining service is usually friendly if not always the most efficient, and is somewhat classier than in earlier years (to a point; Carnival still has its waiters handle all wine service, rather than employing sommeliers). The staff still presents dessert-time song-and-dance routines, at times quite elaborate, and passengers seem to love it.
In summer 2010, the entire Carnival fleet started offering a new flexible anytime dining option in the main restaurants, enabling guests to dine anytime between 5:45pm and 9:30pm nightly. More tradition-minded guests can still opt for the old-fashioned early (6pm) and late (8:15pm) assigned seatings.
Specialty -- Carnival Spirit, which debuted in spring 2001, was the line's first ship to have a reservations-only restaurant, a two-level steakhouse serving entrees for a $30-per-person cover charge (plus tip and not including wine). Subsequent Spirit-class and Conquest-class ships -- and all future Carnival ships -- have this intimate alternative venue. Here, service is more gracious, and dedicated sommeliers are on hand to take your wine order. Menus are leather-bound, and elegant table settings feature beautiful Versace show plates and Rosenthal, Fortessa, and Revol china. Tables for two and four are available. Like in a traditional steakhouse, the menu includes starters, salads, and side dishes such as creamed spinach and mashed potatoes. The steaks range from New York strip to porterhouse and filet mignon, and other options include grilled lamb chops, as well as fish and chicken dishes. The experience is intentionally designed to be slow and lingering, so don't go if you're looking for a fast meal. The food and service are the most doting you'll find on Carnival.
Casual -- At the opposite end of the alternative-dining spectrum, guests aboard all Carnival ships can opt to have any meal in the buffet-style Lido restaurants at no extra charge. For an unstructured and casual dinner, walk in anytime between about 6 and 9:30pm for serve-yourself entrees such as chicken, pasta, stir-fry, and carved meats. At lunch, buffets in the Lido feature the usual suspects -- salads, meats, cheeses, pastas, grilled burgers, and chicken filets, and several hot choices such as fish and chips, roast turkey, and stir-fry. The lunchtime buffets also feature specialty stations, serving up things such as pasta or Chinese food, fish and chips, and rotisserie meat. All ships have a deli station for sandwiches; a pizza station open 24 hours, where you can also get a Caesar salad; and an outlet for grilled chicken sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, and fries -- just be prepared for a l-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong line at lunchtime, as the Carnival crowd loves burgers and fries. In general, the various buffet sections can get very backed up at times as passengers wait for bins to be restocked and servers scramble to fill them. Though the food is not memorable, upgrades to tableware are: Kudos to Carnival for bringing in colorful ceramic sugar bowls, salt and pepper shakers, and dinnerware in place of the old white plastic stuff.
Snacks & Extras -- But wait, there's more: Carnival ships give you 24-hour pizza (with as many as 500 pies flipped a day!), calzones that are surprisingly tasty, Caesar salad with or without chicken, and self-serve soft ice cream and frozen yogurt, as well as a complimentary sushi bar along the promenade and a deli on all ships. There are late-night eats in the buffet restaurant daily and there are also specialty (read: not free) coffee and pastry bars, some with milkshakes and banana splits, too.
All ships provide 24-hour room service, with a menu including such items as panini and a focaccia sandwich with grilled zucchini, fresh mozzarella, and portobello mushrooms, plus the standard tuna salad, cookies, fruit, and so on. Kids can select from children's menus in the main dining rooms. Kids and adults can buy the Funship Fountain Card for unlimited fountain sodas throughout the cruise; a nifty plastic cup with a lid is usually part of the deal.
All in all, a Carnival ship is a well-oiled machine, and you'll certainly get what you need -- but not much more. When you board, for instance, you're welcomed by polite and well-meaning staff at the gangway, given a diagram of the ship's layout, and then pointed in the right direction to find your cabin on your own, carry-on luggage in tow. Chalk it all up to the size of the line's ships. It's a fact of life that service aboard all megaliners is simply not as attentive as that aboard smaller vessels -- with thousands of guests to help, your dining-room waiter and cabin steward have a lot of work ahead of them and little time for chitchat. Lines can get long at the breakfast and lunch buffets and, at certain times, at the pizza counter, though there always seem to be plenty of drink servers roaming the Pool Decks, looking to score drink orders.
Service certainly doesn't benefit from Carnival's automatic tipping policy. Like most of the major lines these days, gratuities for the crew are automatically added to your account at the end of your cruise to the tune of $10 per person per day fleetwide, and they're divvied up among the staff automatically. You can adjust the amount -- or eliminate it completely and hand out cash in envelopes -- by visiting the purser's desk. On Carnival and the other lines with automatic tipping policies, we've found waiters and cabin stewards don't seem as eager to please as they did when the tip carrot was hanging directly over them.
There is a laundry service aboard each ship for washing and pressing only (with per-piece charges), as well as a handful of self-service laundry rooms with irons and coin-operated washers and dryers. There's a pleasant-smelling liquid soap and shampoo dispenser in cabin bathrooms fleetwide, plus a small basket of trial-size toiletries (refilled only upon request).
Spa treatments can now be prebooked online at www.carnival.com, assuming your cruise booking is paid in full.
Carnival is all about lounging by the pool, drink in hand (or bucket of beers at foot), and soaking up the sun and some loud music or whatever goofy contests may be taking place. On sea days, you can get a hoot out of watching (or joining, if you're not the wallflower type) the men's hairy chest contest or similar tomfoolery, participate in a trivia contest, or sign up for some group dancing lessons. A blaring band will play a few sets by the pool, and on nearly half the fleet (including all newbuilds going forward), a giant video screen smack-dab in the center of the pool area broadcasts movies, concerts, and various shipboard activities at eardrum-shattering decibels (and do we mean loud -- don't expect to have a conversation without shouting). Currently, there's one on the Carnival Dream, Splendor, Liberty, Freedom, Conquest, Glory, Valor, Victory, Destiny, and Triumph.
There's a quieter pool and sunbathing area at the stern called Serenity; the adults-only retreat is found aboard all eight Fantasy-class ships as well as the Carnival Dream, Carnival Splendor, and Carnival Glory. Spirit-class vessels have a second midships pool separated from the main action by a bar and solid dividers that keep most of the noise out and provide a more serene lounging space; one of the four pools on the Conquest-class ships is quieter and covered by a retractable glass roof.
Slot machines begin clanging by 8 or 9am in the casinos when the ships are at sea (tables open at 11am), and servers start tempting passengers with trays of fruity theme cocktails long before the lunch hour. Expect to hear the ubiquitous art auctioneer shouting into a microphone about some Peter Max masterpiece. There are line-dancing and ballroom classes, trivia contests, facial and hairdo demonstrations (intended to entice passengers to sign up for expensive treatments), singles and newlywed parties, game shows, shuffleboard, bingo, art auctions, and movies. Overall, though, there's not as much variety of activities as aboard lines such as Norwegian, Holland America, and Celebrity (read: absolutely no enrichment lectures on history or other cerebral topics).
You can spend some time in the roomy gyms on the Fantasy-, Destiny-, Spirit-, and Conquest-class ships (and take the handful of free aerobics classes or the ones that cost $10, such as Pilates, yoga, and spinning) or playing volleyball on the top deck, or treat yourself to one of dozens of relaxing (and expensive) treatments in the Steiner-managed spas. All ships have covered and lighted golf driving nets, with golf pros sailing on board to give lessons with video analysis starting at $25 for a 15-minute session and $80 for an hour. Pros also accompany guests on golf excursions on shore, and clubs, golf shoes, balls, gloves, and other paraphernalia are available for rent.
If you want to escape it all and find a truly quiet nook for awhile, retire to the subdued libraries/card/game rooms and 24-hour Internet centers on each ship; you'll find Wi-Fi service fleetwide as well. You can also now use your cellphone while at sea or in port. The Funhub on the Carnival Dream is the fleet's updated version of an Internet center. It's got a funky decor and Internet access, and passengers can also surf for shore-excursion information and ship announcements, news and weather, as well as view all the ship's daily activities.
Aboard its newer megaships, Carnival has spent millions on stage sets, choreography, and sound equipment. The theaters on the Conquest-class, Spirit-class, and Destiny-class ships are spectacular three-deck extravaganzas, and the casinos are so large that you'll think you've died and gone to Vegas; but even aboard its smaller, older ships, Carnival consistently has some of the most lavish entertainment extravaganzas afloat.
Carnival megaships each carry about 8 to 16 flamboyantly costumed dancers (fewer on Celebration and Holiday) for twice- or thrice-weekly Vegas-style musicals. One or two live soloists carry the musical part of the show, while dancers lip-sync the chorus. A 5- to 10-piece orchestra of traditional and digital instruments deftly accompanies the acts each night, sometimes enhanced by synchronized recorded music. You'll also find comedians, jugglers, acrobats, rock-'n'-roll bands, country-and-western bands, classical string trios, pianists, and Tommy Dorsey- or Glenn Miller-style big bands, all performing during the same cruise, and sometimes on the same night. Special entertainment may include a local mariachi band when a ship's in port late in Cozumel.
Besides the main theater, most entertainment happens somewhere along the indoor Main Street-like promenade (except on the Spirit-class ships, which are more spread out). Many are called the "Something-or-other Boulevard" or "Something-or-other Way." This area stretches along one entire side of each ship and is lined with just about the entire repertoire of the ship's nightclubs, bars, lounges, and patisseries, as well as its disco and casino. One bar on all the Fantasy-, Destiny-, Spirit-, and Conquest-class ships welcomes cigar smoking, and fleetwide, cigars are sold at the pool bar and during midnight buffets.
By day, entertainment includes an ultraloud Caribbean-style calypso or steel-drum band performing Bob Marley tunes and other pop songs on a deck poolside, and a pianist, guitarist, or string trio playing in the atria of the line's newest ships. The Dream, Splendor, Liberty, Freedom, Conquest, Glory, Valor, Victory, Destiny, and Triumph all sport a giant video screen up on the Pool Deck (and all newbuilds will get one) and it tends to monopolize much of the day by loudly (and we mean loudly) broadcasting concerts, movies, and shipboard activities. Personally, we don't like 'em. Sure, a couple of movies in the late afternoon and evening are nice, but who needs the thing screeching away all day long?
Carnival is right up there with the best ships for families -- the line estimates that about 625,000 kids sail aboard its ships annually. Some 600 to 800 children per cruise is pretty normal, and there can be in the neighborhood of 1,000 on holiday cruises and during the summer months, when it'll be difficult to find a kid-free hot tub. The child facilities are fairly extensive, with the newest and biggest Dream- and Conquest-class ships boasting the biggest and brightest playrooms in the fleet, with arts and crafts, oodles of toys and games, video screens and televisions showing movies and cartoons, and computer stations loaded with the latest educational and entertainment software.
The Camp Carnival program has complimentary supervised kids' activities on sea days nearly nonstop from 9am to 10pm, and on port days, from 8am (or earlier, if there are shore excursions departing earlier) for ages 2 through 14 in four age groups: toddlers 2 to 5, juniors 6 to 8, intermediates 9 to 11, and teens 12 to 14. The latter are part of a teen program called Circle C. The 10 to 16 counselors (all of whom are trained in CPR and first aid) organize the fun and games on each ship, which include face painting, computer games, puzzles, fun with Play-Doh, picture bingo, pirate hat making, and pizza parties for toddlers. For juniors, there's PlayStation, computer games, ice-cream parties, story time and library visits, T-shirt coloring, and swimming. For intermediates, there are scavenger hunts, trivia and bingo, Ping-Pong, video-game competitions, arts and crafts, computer games, dance classes, and talent shows.
Across all age groups, activities with a somewhat educational bent may include art projects with papier-mâché, oil paintings, and watercolors; music appreciation, which gets kids acquainted with different musical instruments; science projects where kids can make their own ice cream and create mini-helicopters; and a fitness program that encourages today's couch-potato computer-head kids to actually get up and run around. Club 02 teen centers are geared to the 15- to 17-year-old set and are quite elaborate on the newest ships. Besides karaoke parties, computer games, scavenger hunts, talent shows, card and trivia games, and Ping-Pong, teens can watch movies at the centers and go to dance parties. Some ships are also equipped with iMacs, but there is no Internet center specifically for teens as on some ships. Of course, teens can also hang out in the video arcades -- the newest ships have virtual-reality games and air-hockey tables. For something more refined, Carnival now provides a collection of spa treatments geared to teens (along with their parents).
The Carnival Dream has the line's most impressive water features, with her WaterWorks aqua-park comprising a pair of twin 80-foot-long racing slides; a 104-foot-long enclosed spiral slide called the DrainPipe; and squirting fountains, splash zones, and dump buckets. Carnival Splendor, Fantasy, Imagination, Inspiration, Sensation, Ecstasy, and Fascination also have the WaterWorks aqua-park (sans the Dream's DrainPipe). The rest of the Carnival ships all have two- or three-deck-high Twister slides adjacent to the main Lido Deck pools or aft of the funnel, ranging in length from 72 feet on the Spirit class to 214 feet on the Conquest-class ships.
Parents desiring a kid-free evening can make use of the supervised children's activities, offered from 7 to 10pm nightly free of charge, after which time group slumber-party-style babysitting kicks in for ages 6 months through 11 years until 3am in the playroom, at $6 per hour for the first child, $4 per hour for each additional child. No private babysitting is available. Infants between 6 and 23 months can also be cared for on port days between 8am and noon, but it's considered babysitting and the hourly fee mentioned above will apply. On sea days between noon and 2pm, you can also drop off children ages 1 and under at the rate above, or parents may use the playroom with their babies for these 2 hours at no charge. And, yes, counselors will change diapers (though parents are asked to provide them, along with wipes)! Parents with kids ages 8 and under who are checked into the children's program get free use of cellphones on most ships, in case their kids need to contact them. A handful of strollers are available for rent fleetwide for $25 for 7- and 8-night cruises (less for shorter cruises), and a limited number of bouncy seats, travel swings, and Game Boys are for rent.
Mom and Dad can get an earlier start on their kid-free evening, when the counselors supervise kids' mealtime in the Lido restaurant between about 6 and 7pm in a special section reserved for kids; it's offered nightly except the first night of the cruise. The children's dining room menu, printed on the back of a fun coloring/activity book (crayons are provided), has the usual favorites -- hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, chicken nuggets, pepperoni pizza, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, banana splits, Jell-O, and a daily special.
Cribs are available if you request them when making your reservations. When you first board, head for the kids' playroom to get a schedule for the week and to sign up your child for the program. Children must be at least 6 months old to sail on board.