Carnival Cruises Company Overview: Carnival Cruises was created in 1972 as a mom-and-pop operation working out of Ted Arison's kitchen with one vessel to its name -- and not a sleek, bells-and-whistles-laden one at that. But like many children of that era, Carnival outgrew its humble beginnings. Today it is not only the biggest, but arguably the most successful passenger shipping company ever; powerful enough to form the foundation for a behemothic parent corporation, Carnival Corp, which carries one in four cruise passengers worldwide today on more than 100 ships.
The namesake Carnival Cruise Lines is just one of the brands within Carnival Corp. - this article is just about Carnival, thje line famous for "Fun Ships." Never forsaking its "Fun-ship" trademark, Carnival boasts the youngest median passenger age at sea -- but today it is largely due to the great number of families cruising together and younger couples. It is not the "singles party cruise line" many cruise novices envision.
At the bottom of the pyramid that forms the Carnival Cruise Lines fleet the eight nearly identical, 70,367-ton circa 1990s-model Fantasy-class vessels including sister ships Ecstasy, Fascination, Imagination, Inspiration, Paradise, Elation, and Sensation. The Fantasy-class ships each carry 2,044 passengers, in large but utilitarian cabins lacking balconies. Each offers a unique decor by famous Carnival ship interior designer Joe Farcus that puts the accent on great nightlife, good food, excitement and relaxation.
Six of these Fantasy-class vessels completed a four-year upgrade campaign to even more fun in the sun. The top decks received the most attention with the installation of family-oriented water parks including a 300 foot water slide, miniature golf, an adults-only area with cushioned lounge chairs new teak decks and tile. Inside is a new coffee café, art gallery and atrium bar. Staterooms are getting upgrades with flat-panel televisions and refurbished décor. The two that were not improved are Imagination and Inspiration.
1996, with the introduction of what was then the largest cruise ship in world, the 101,351-ton Carnival Destiny, marked the year that the company truly hit its stride for the 21st century. This was the first ship to enter service that was larger than 100,000-gross tons. In 2013 Destinay will be refurbished and re-introduced as Carnival Sunshine. It will receive Funship 2.0 upgrades but also about 100 new staterooms without adding much more space, making it a more crowded ship.
With Destiny, Carnival began offering an abundance of the now uber-popular balcony cabins in a big way, with sister ships Carnival Triumph (1999) and Carnival Victory (2000) soon to follow. These 2,642 passenger vessels (3,360 total if the upper berths are full) feature three-deck show lounges, 15,000-square-foot spas, four swimming pools with water slides, and plenty of on board shopping. All balcony cabins on Carnival ships built since 1996 have with mini refrigerators, toiletries, hair dryers and bathrobes.
In November 2002, as an improvement to the Destiny-class, Carnival launched Carnival Conquest, the first of five 110,000-ton Conquest-class ships similar in design to the Destiny class, but slightly bigger and able to carry 2974 voyagers. Carnival Glory followed in July 2003, Carnival Valor (the first ship with bow-to-stern wireless Internet access) in December 2004 and Carnival Liberty in July 2005. Carnival Freedom, entered service in spring 2007 and Carnival Splendor followed in July 2008.
Somewhere in the seemingly never-ending quest for size (other cruise lines also jumped on the bandwagon to make bigger & bigger ships starting in 1998) Carnival did something different, and very right, by introducing an additional and relatively smaller class of vessel known as the Spirit-class. These 88,500-ton ships carry 2,124 passengers each, and are the longest in the fleet at 963 feet, yet narrow enough to fit through the Panama Canal. These sisters (Spirit, Legend, and Pride) have a very inviting space-per-passenger ratio, and the technologically advanced Azipod propulsion system. Eighty percent of cabins on these ships have ocean views, and 80 percent of those have private balconies. In a stroke of genius to accommodate all these balcony cabins, the public rooms were repositioned to the lower decks three and four. You'll find two consecutive decks of bars, lounges and public areas, the upper with a wrap-around promenade. It's aboard these ships that you'll find Carnival's first reservations-only, specialty restaurants, offering prime beef, seafood and the famous stone crabs from Joe's Stone Crab restaurant in Miami.
Many cruisers seem to prefer the Spirit Class, the namesake of which was launched April 29, 2001. Carnival Pride followed on December 30, 2001, Carnival Legend in August 2002, and Carnival Miracle in February 2004.
The largest Carnival ship yet debuted in September of 2009. Carnival Dream is 130,000-tons and carries 3600 passengers. It is home-ported in Port Canaveral, something of a surprise move since most mega-ships sail out of Southern Florida. It just goes to show you the ingenuity of Carnival that just when its competitorss chose to put their biggest ships; Royal Caribean's Oasis and NCL's Norwegian Epic, in Fort Lauderdale and Mimai respectively, Carnival moved their biggest ship 300 miles away, essentially catering to a much larger drive market rather than the fly-in market.
Sister ships to Dream; Carnival Magic and Carnival Breeze were introduced in 2011 and 2012 respectively. They are the same size and have the same basic floorplan, but the Breeze is a departure in terms of onboard decor, much more subdued. Please refer to the individual Breeze ship review for more detail.
Since the economic downturn of 2009, Carnival now home-ports more ships throughout various U.S. port cities including Baltimore, Charleston SC, Galveston, New York and Los Angeles.
In 2011 Carnival announced an initiative called "Funship 2.0" which is a new apporach to the onboard experience under the guidance of new CEO Gerry Cahill. This brings new restaurant/lounges where people can gather for drinks before dinner, eat diner and then linger on through the night with live music and dancing.
The Funship 2.0 entertainment has the focus on family fun. The traditional "Las Vegas-style" stage show has been cut down from 50 minutes to 30. There are four different musical productions: "Divas," "Latin Nights," The Brits" and "Motown". These shows play throughout the cruise for more opportunities to see them. The old formula of having a nighttime show to follow dinner night after night been replaced by a more "modular" approach to entertainment where various shows will show during the day or on more than one night.
In addition to the musical productions Carnival has added stage-based "Family Game Night" based on the Hasbro Game channel on television. Games like "Sorry," "Yahtzee," etc have been adapted to a large stage with an audience. Winners get "Carnival Dollars" which they can then spend on various prizes.
With this focus on family Carnival completes it transformation from its "party ship" reputation to a full-fledged fun ship for families environment.
The Carnival Experience:
Bring some heavy-duty sunglasses; thanks to the boundless imaginative (some would say hallucinogenic) designs of inventive designer Joe Farcus, Carnival ships are fervently garish. So much so that we feel compelled to coin a word to describe them; Farcusian. You can be munching a slice of pizza on Imagination's Lido deck, for instance, minding your own business, and suddenly realize you've been mesmerized by the bright purple and green neon tubing on the ceiling. Bring a sense of humor along with the sunglasses, and be ready to dispel all preconceived notions of acceptable color combinations.
Think Mardi Gras at sea. By day, young adults sip little-umbrella-laden cocktails by the pool, and then dance on deck to a live band. But it's by night that the action really goes into overdrive, with several of venues offering everything from lavish production shows to R-rated comics. There's a piano bar where patrons are urged to sing along. Or you can hear funky blues or enjoy some torrid disco action. And both the casino and disco stay open very late, while the library, just for comparison, is open 60 minutes per day!
You'll encounter a very wide range of passengers, from young singles to retired couples, but mostly it is multi-kid young families, especially during the summer and school vacation periods. When you want to get away from it all, you'll do so in some of the largest cabins at sea. The food's mostly delicious, and you'll marvel at how well managed everything is, especially considering how many passengers are apt to be aboard.
The price you pay for the never-ending fun on these ships is that you begin to feel as though you're never more than a few seconds from an announcement of another zany activity -- belly-flopping or hairiest chest, anyone? Of course there is no mandatory attendance, but if you plan on using your cruise to catch up on some much needed rest and a trashy novel, a set of eyeblinders and ear plugs won't hurt.
That said, Carnival can be one of the best deals around offering surprising quality and value at a price point that is hard to beat. Once again, put aside your pre-conceived notions of a state-fair crowd. Carnival is a quality cruise line without a low pretentiousness factor and may well offer the most bang for the cruiser's buck.
Dining: The flexible dining program, Total Choice Dining, comprises four seatings for dinner in the main dining rooms, alternative Bistro dining every evening, and an increased number of service staff. Passengers are assigned a table for dinner at one of four seatings; 5:45 p.m. or 6:15 p.m., 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. Between six and nine each evening the poolside Lido eateries turn into Seaview Bistros, offering "Nation of the Day" specialty cuisine buffets, with neither reservations, formal dress nor advance notice required. In addition, they also offer pure anytime dining with no pre-assigned dining times, waiters or tables.
There are now alternative restaurant's on all of the non-Fantasy-class Carnival's ships (see individual reviews) with specialty menus at a premium price. This started with Carnival Spirit's reservations-only Joe's Stone Crab alternative restaurants charging $20 per person. All specialty grills offer USDA choice meats, combo music and dancing.
Noting its great popularity with younger passengers, Carnival now offers its "Fountain Fun Card" to adults as well as youngsters. Priced from $14.95 for a three-day cruise to $29.95 for seven-day voyages, it's valid at any bar, restaurant or lounge for unlimited soft drinks throughout the cruise.
Cabins: Carnival's cabins are among the most spacious afloat, and a big draw for families, especially those holding three and four passengers. Outside standard cabins are an ample 220 square feet and include a sofa and coffee table, while inside cabins measure 195 square feet. Many have pulldown berths to accommodate third and fourth passengers, and are consequently popular with families and groups of singles. There are also 230 square-foot "family" cabins with connecting doors near the children's center.
Considering the Farcusian flights of fancy in the public areas, cabin decor is often surprisingly understated and utilitarian by comparison. Count on a color TV with CNN, ESPN, plus movies. The bathrooms are nice and roomy, with shower, hair dryer and a basket of complimentary toiletries. Oceanview staterooms and suites offer a minibar and bathrobes. The spirit-class ships offer some of the most pleasing-to-the-eye cabins with plenty of wood shelves and drawers.
A small caveat: The soundproofing between staterooms is such that you're likely to get a better idea than you'd prefer of your neighbors' television-viewing preferences.
Fellow Passengers: Carnival carries a wide cross-section of salt-of-the-earth Americans: high-rolling, single twenty-somethings, young parents with toddlers, baby boomers, and empty-nesters. During the summer and school breaks, Caribbean, Mexico and Bahamas cruises can carry up to 700 children each. Carnival has now lived down its reputation as a "party-ship," but unfortunately, there are apt to still be a few people who haven't gotten the message. So, if you have a neighbor who feels its appropriate to continue drinking until 2:00 am with the cabin door open, be sure and call the front office - anonymously.
Shore Excursions: Carnival's shore tours, geared toward the up-and-at-'em type who loves water sports, party boats, and general sightseeing, tend to be a bit costlier than on other lines. Read the descriptions and book online at www.carnival.com, or arrange your own excursions after doing some research of your own.
Taking The Kids: The exemplary "Camp Carnival" is available on all ships year-round for Toddlers (2-5) Juniors (6-8) Intermediate (9-11). The 'tweens get their own club called "Circle C" while for the teens (15-17) it's the "Club 02". Each level offers supervised activities in facilities open from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Group babysitting is available in the playroom between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. and, 8 a.m. to noon on port days for a fee. There is no in-cabin babysitting. Cribs are available upon request, but bring your own stroller.
The recreational fitness program "ExerSeas" aims to get the next generation of couch potatoes up and burning off some calories. "A-B-Seas" is a reading and writing program that a lot of little ones seem to relish, while H2Ocean features a wide variety of enjoyable-looking hands-on science projects. The line's popular EduCruise program has also been expanded to include even more interactive projects focusing on the cultures, landmarks, history and geography of the destinations to which Carnival sails.
The youth spa program, recently introduced on Carnival Miracle, allows kids ages 12-14 and their parents to indulge in luxurious body and beauty treatments together on port days in the ship's health and fitness center at a discount. Offered to mother/daughter and father/son combinations, packages include hair and nail treatments, health evaluations, and foot and scalp massages.
Fantasy, Spirit and Conquest-class ships all have dedicated teen areas, including a club/coffee bar and a high-tech game room.
Past Passenger Program: You become a gold member after your first cruise, and you reach platinum status with your 10th. This is not too many cruises to reach the top tier, the problem is we feel like cruisers who do more (like 15 or 20 ) cruises should get more benefits.
Your status is signified by a matching color for your keycard -- gold for Gold members and platinum for Platinum. This provides instant recognition every time you use your card. If there are any special benefits available to you just flash your card to prove it. Don't expect much attention from the gold card, but platinum will get you places after 10 Carnival cruises.
Basic gold members do not get much beyond a subscription to a free magazine, "Carnival Currents," and an invitation to a free cocktail reception on every cruise of five days or longer. Most cruise lines start giving more than this with just five cruises. With Carnival the benefits begin with cruise number 10 - the top tier Platinum club:
Special Programs: The Wedding Program, available fleetwide, offers soon-to-tie-the-knotters an affordable and convenient alternative to land-based ceremonies. They can elect to do the deep either aboard the ship or in a romantic setting ashore. For more information, call 1-800-933-4968.
Managed by Sunrise, Fla.-based Elite Golf Cruises LLC, Carnival's golf program includes professional instruction both aboard ship and during excursions ashore. Thirty- and 60-minute shipboard lessons are conducted in a covered, lighted "practice range" that shields students from the elements and allows for both daytime and evening instruction by a golf pro armed with state-of-the-art V1 teaching computers; golfers can continue their lessons at home with a take-home video, available for purchase onboard. All-inclusive golf excursions include professional golf escort, priority tee times, round-trip transportation between ship and course, and cart and green fees. Carnival will rent you some very good clubs.
Theme Cruises: Carnival organizes cruises with themes as diverse as NASCAR racing and psychic healing.
Attire: The attire on cruises became decidedly less formal at the end of the 2000's, and now even formal nights are merely suggestions. Most men wear dark jackets and ties are optional. While jeans aren't technically allowed in the dining room no one is going to stop you from entering. Daytime wear is strictly casual.
Tipping: Carnival's automatic gratuities arrangement adds $10.00 per person (except children under two) per day to your Sail & Sign card. This includes $3.60 for the stateroom steward; $5.50 for the dining room team. and $.90 for service in the alternative dining rooms, amounts that can be raised or lowered at the purser's desk. You may also prepay gratuities for all service personnel at a rate of $10.00 per person per day. On Cruises-to-Nowhere, such prepayment is compulsory.