Throughout my 24 years of life, I have had the privilege of taking over a dozen cruises, the majority with Royal Caribbean. Despite being in my mid-20s, I have never found the party-like atmosphere of Carnival Cruise Line appealing.
I knew their ships did not have the Broadway-style musicals that I am used to on Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class ships, and I had always heard that the food was mediocre at best.
After 6 Royal Caribbean cruises this year alone, I decided it was finally time to give Carnival a try. While there were things that I liked and disliked, I was shocked by just how much I enjoyed my first-ever Carnival cruise onboard Carnival Celebration.
I liked the number of fast-casual dining options
One of my major complaints with Royal Caribbean is that they don't have a lot of complimentary fast-casual dining options, especially on older ships. MSC, however, is worse. Aside from the main dining room and buffet, I found that there wasn't anything else to really snack on during the day while I was on MSC Seashore.
While newer Royal Caribbean vessels have options like El Loco Fresh, Park Cafe, and the Dog House, I found the quality of Carnival Celebration's fast-casual dining venues to be much better.
At BlueIguana Cantina, the salsa bar has different fresh salsas ranging in heat, rather than just bottles that can be purchased at the grocery store.
The habanero one was pretty spicy, and I appreciated that the labeling was not misleading. The only thing that could have made BlueIguana better would be if they had chips like El Loco Fresh does.
Both burgers I got from Guy's were equally juicy, and I loved the crispy chicken and fries from Big Chicken.
I wish I had tried Big Chicken's breakfast to compare it to their lunch offerings because I was not as impressed with BlueIguana's breakfast options. The breakfast burrito I got wasn't anything special. In fact, I thought the eggs were pretty bland. I also wasn't a fan of the pizza from Miami Slice, as the texture of the Quattro Formaggi pizza was off-putting to me.
I disliked the in-person muster requirement
When sailing with Royal Caribbean, I can watch safety videos while in the rideshare to the port. As soon as I get on the ship, I make a point to visit my muster station as soon as I can. It takes no time at all, and I am quickly able to get back to other embarkation day activities.
While Carnival's in-person safety demonstration did not take long, it was rather annoying to hear someone ramble on about how to put on a life jacket.
I also had an issue locating my muster station. The HUB app told me that it was inside the Punchliner Comedy Club; however, I guess it was moved to Piano Bar 88.
I liked the midnight buffet
Every night at 11:30pm, there was a midnight buffet open at Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse. It only stayed open until 1:00am, but I loved how there was another late-night option instead of just pizza.
In addition to Chicago-style pizza, there was buffalo cauliflower, hot dogs, sandwiches, coleslaw, chips & salsa, potato salad, black forest cake, and cookies.
While not as over-the-top as the old-school midnight buffets, it was a nice nod to this nostalgic cruising tradition, and it is something I wish Royal Caribbean would bring back, even if just for one night and on a smaller scale.
I disliked how I had to print my boarding pass
Carnival requires that all embarking passengers print their boarding passes. I encountered this when I sailed on MSC Seashore, too; however, Royal Caribbean simply lets you download the pass to your mobile device.
Since I do not own a printer, I had to pay $5 to use the one at my apartment complex the morning I flew from North Carolina to Miami.
While I kept the pass secure in an envelope in my backpack, I was worried that something would accidentally happen to it. I appreciate the peace of mind I get when cruising with Royal Caribbean since I don't have to worry about this!
Speaking of embarkation, I was surprised by the fact that they had a K9 narcotics dog present and sniffing everyone's carry-on luggage before we were allowed to go through security.
I liked the entertainment
I'll be very honest-- While I thought the entertainment onboard Carnival Celebration was good, it was not as high-quality as the productions I've seen on Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean. I was saddened by the fact that there wasn't a Broadway-style musical; however, the abundance of comedy shows made up for it!
The Punchliner Comedy Club is something I think makes Carnival Cruise Line stand out. It is found onboard even their oldest ships, including Carnival Elation and Paradise. Older Royal Caribbean ships, such as Enchantment of the Seas, do not have entertainment offerings that appeal to me.
If I ever consider going on an older ship, I think I'd opt for Carnival simply because they've been updated to include many venues found on newer ships.
I found myself laughing out loud until my stomach hurt at each show! Some comedians rivaled those I have seen at comedy clubs in New York City.
While I did not see any Playlist Production shows, I was able to catch the first showing of "The Most Magnificent Circus." This hour-long production featured dancers, singers, and aerialists.
Personally, I think the show could be shortened, as some parts were not the most entertaining. That being said, the singers were phenomenal and made it worth a watch.
One night, I decided to play Deal or No Deal. The audience's participation is what made this activity so much fun; however, it was not worth the $25 I paid for a single card.
Since this was my first Carnival cruise, I thought that I needed a card to watch the live audience member play onstage. While going is a must-do on my next Carnival cruise, I'll definitely pass on buying a card.
I disliked the long line for Guy's Burger Joint on embarkation day
Typically, cruise ship buffets are chaos on embarkation day. While exploring the ship, I quickly stumbled upon Guy's Burger Joint. I did not intend on getting a burger the first day; however, I could not resist the smell of fresh patties cooking on the grill.
While there was a line, I figured it would move much faster than it did. Plus, I assumed that if the line for Guy's was so long, the buffet would be a madhouse! What I should have done was finish scoping out the dining options before deciding, as I ended up waiting over an hour for a burger.
I know that I could have left the line at any point, but I got to a point where I felt that I had to stay committed to my decision.
I liked the selection of television stations in my stateroom
Cruise ship cabins tend to have fewer channels than hotel rooms. However, I was impressed that Carnival has HGTV and Food Network! I loved being able to watch House Hunters while falling asleep at night.
I have never been a fan of the channels on Royal Caribbean ships and always make sure that I have a few episodes of my current fixation downloaded on my phone to play at night or when I am getting dressed in the morning.
It was nice to be able to actually utilize my television while on my Carnival cruise, as it is something that I am not used to doing.
I disliked Amber Cove
While Amber Cove isn't a private island like Carnival's Half Moon Cay or Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay, I was expecting it to somewhat resemble one since it is a private destination built by Carnival Corporation.
Upon arrival, I found that the only complimentary activity was a large pool and splash zone for children. There was not a free beach to relax on. Additionally, food was not included. I was not interested in paying $18 for a chicken cobb salad or $13 for a hot dog.
I heard that the Puerto Plata region was beautiful by other guests who ventured outside of the port area. I quickly learned from my mistake and booked a tour to visit the waterfalls of Damajagua through Viator for my second Carnival cruise onboard Carnival Vista.
I liked getting a different towel animal each night of my cruise
When I returned to my stateroom each evening during my 7-night cruise, I was greeted by a new towel friend! Other cruise lines have begun to thin out this cruising tradition.
Royal Caribbean, for instance, usually only does towel animals every other day for those in standard cabins. I don't recall getting a single towel animal while onboard MSC Seashore, either.
The biggest disappointment about this was that I did not get a hanging towel animal, as those are my favorite.
I disliked how cramped the casino felt
While I am not a huge gambler, I usually put aside $50-$100 on each cruise to use at a slot machine. There were some nights when I struggled to find an open machine on the non-smoking side, as it was so crowded. For a ship with a capacity of 5,374 passengers at double occupancy and over 6,000 at maximum capacity, I expected the casino to be larger.
Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class ships have a similar capacity and measure over 40,000 gross registered tons more. While any ship can feel crowded, I definitely felt like Carnival Celebration was more crowded than other mega-ships I have been on due to the less available space and similar capacity.
In comparison, however, the casino onboard Carnival Vista was significantly smaller and never felt crowded.
I liked BOLT
If you had asked me two years ago if I ever saw myself riding a roller coaster at sea, I would have said no! Even though BOLT is not included in Carnival's base fare, I think it is worth the $15.
I chose to ride it on the last sea day, and the views of the ocean from the ride were breathtaking! It is not something I would pay to do twice on the same trip; however, if I ever cruise onboard an Excel Class ship again, I'll definitely splurge on BOLT again!
My only regret is saving this must-do activity until the last day. The ride was scheduled to open at 9:00am; however, ride operators deemed it unsafe due to the high winds. Thankfully, it ended up opening around 2:00pm. Those who tried to book last-minute time slots couldn't because Carnival closed bookings to allow those who missed their morning times a chance to ride.
I disliked Serenity, the adults-only retreat
I was not impressed with Carnival's adults-only retreat. Don't get me wrong, the upgraded plush seating is a step up from the lido deck; however, the pool was extremely small. I also felt so isolated from all the action. Onboard Royal Caribbean ships, I appreciate how the Solarium is connecting to the pool deck. The adults-only area on Carnival Celebration is located Deck 18 Forward, with the pools two decks below on Deck 16.
Truthfully, I preferred sitting on Deck 17 and looking down on the lido deck. It was a great place to hang out and be away from children while still getting to enjoy the activities, including the pumpkin carving contest and the "Legends of Lido" competition.
I liked the ability to select your own luggage tags
On every other cruise I have ever been on, I have been assigned a disembarkation group, with my cabin steward leaving luggage tags the day before the cruise ends.
I was surprised to read that Carnival requires guests to get their own. This, however, means that passengers have the ability to select exactly what group they want, rather than have to go to Guest Services if they're unhappy with the one they are assigned.
On this sailing, I chose express disembarkation because I was trying to rush to the Fort Lauderdale airport to see if I would be able to make an earlier flight; I wasn't really interested in a 4:30pm flight that afternoon!
Express disembarkation works by muster station, meaning that all A stations were supposed to be called, followed by B, etc. I was let in line before an official announcement was even made and was off the ship by 7:35am!
I disliked Sea Day brunch
As the name implies, Carnival's sea day brunch is only offered on sea days. I was told that this was a must-do while onboard; however, I was shocked the first sea day to see a 100-minute wait on the HUB app. I was too hungry to wait, so I decided to try again another day earlier in the morning. With a wait that long, I figured that the sea day brunch had to be worth it!
On the last morning, I woke up at 8:30am to see that there was no wait. While I did not want to push it too long and end up waiting over an hour, I wasn't quite ready for breakfast. I checked in at 9:45am when the estimated wait time was 60-70 minutes. At 10:06am, however, I was assigned a table!
Not only was the service the slowest I experienced while dining on Carnival Celebration, but the food was not as good as I thought it was going to be. The French toast was not nearly as good as the bananas foster crepes I had at Emeril's Bistro the morning prior.
The hash browns, cheese grits, and bacon were pretty average, too.
I liked the aft pools
The lido deck pool was always filled with children, so I kept my distance. I wish I had taken advantage of the aft pools on Decks 8 and 16. While still crowded, the sea day wake views were mesmerizing. Plus, both pools are conveniently located to some fast-casual dining options, making it easy to hop out of the water and get a quick bite to eat.
Big Chicken is close to the Tides Pool on Deck 16, while Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse, which served lunch on sea days, was steps away from the Patio Pool on Deck 8.
The aft pool on MSC Seashore was something I enjoyed on my sea day after exploring various cities in Europe, so checking out the Tides Pool when I sail on Carnival Vista is a must-do for me.
I disliked that the Sail & Sign cards are colored according to your rank
The first night I went to The Punchliner Comedy Club, I was asked by another passenger how I was liking my first Carnival cruise. At first, I was confused as to how she knew. I realized that everyone's cruise card, which Carnival calls "Sail & Sign" cards, are colored according to your rank in their VIFP loyalty program.
On your first Carnival cruise, you are given a blue card, and on your second sailing, you are given a red card. After you accumulate 25 cruise points, you'll get a gold card. Platinum VIFP members have a grayish-white card, while those in their top-tier, Diamond, get a Sail & Sign card that's closer to white.
I noticed very few blue Sail & Sign cards during my sailing, which made me feel out of place in a sea of devoted Carnival enthusiasts.