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Taralee Brady

Age: 30

Occupation:Human Resources

Number of Cruises: 1

Cruise Line: Carnival

Ship: Carnival Elation

Sailing Date: April 6th, 2003

Itinerary: Mexican Riviera

The reviews I read were so helpful in planning for our first cruise, I just had to write one of my own. We took this cruise for our 10th wedding anniversary; my husband and I originally were going to go on our own, but then when his parents wanted to join us, we talked about turning it into a family vacation. Due to the great things I read about the kids’ program on Carnival, as well as how little our youngest one was (I just couldn’t bear to leave him with my parents, even though they offered), we took all the kids with us. Our kids are ages 9, 7, and 1 (he turned 1 the week of the cruise).

Overall we had a fabulous time, just as I knew we would. Like many of the other reviewers, our family is pretty easy to please, doesn’t let little things bother us, and we were bound and determined to have a great time – so we did. I would highly recommend reading the other reviews; like I said, they were enormously helpful. Most of the things I could say would just be repeating what others have said, so I’ll just make this a fairly brief review with some of the “surprises” I encountered that either weren’t covered in other reviews, or were different from what I expected:

Embarkation
I had read all about what a horrible, patience-testing process this is, especially with kids. Maybe it was because I went in with the mindset that it would be awful, but it wasn’t that bad. I guess I was wondering who the reviewers are who wrote about what a terrible experience it is – have you never been to Disneyland? I mean, there are over 2000 people trying to get through one door; what did you expect, that you wouldn’t have to wait in line? Where do you go where you don’t have to wait your turn? Basically there are 3 lines – 1 to check your bags, 1 to get into the building, and one to go through immigration or whatever it is. We showed up at 11:30 and I waited with my kids and mother-in-law while my husband & his father went to park the car (we live in the LA-area, so drove right to the terminal). It took them about 20 minutes to do that, after which we went through the lines. We got into the building by about 12:30. The last line was the only one that was pretty slow-moving. It’s sort of like waiting in line at a bank – there are a bunch of Carnival employees waiting in a long line of desks with computers, who call the next person in line up as they can. Everyone we encountered was very friendly and helpful, so I’m not sure what could have been done to speed up the process. In any case we got through it and took our first boarding picture at exactly 1:30 (they have a clock right in the backdrop) and then boarded the ship.

Cabin
I was mentally prepared for a tiny cabin, so again maybe it was the mindset, but I found the setup to be very nicely done. We were in an inside cabin on the Main Deck, which is the second from the bottom (level 5), and it was a great room. The bathroom was a good size, and there was plenty of closet and shelf space. There was a bureau with a large mirror over it that almost all of my kids’ clothes fit into, and then my husband’s and my clothes were mostly hung up with the shelf space in the closet left for shoes, souvenirs, etc. We had a hanging toiletries bag (there were several hooks and racks in the bathroom for hanging things, which was helpful). I had brought a large black mesh bag that I hung on a hook in the room and used for a dirty clothes hamper all week – I highly recommend this, it was so helpful for keeping the room clean and made packing easy too. We had a bed against the wall straight ahead (underneath what would have been the window if we were in an outside cabin) and one against the left wall, so we pushed the one from the left together with the one straight ahead for my husband and me. Then there were two Pullman beds, one against the right wall and one against the left, which pulled down for my two oldest kids. There was a crib in the room when we arrived, which we set up (just unfolded it and put in the mattress, very easy) and there was room for it underneath the Pullman bed, where the larger bed used to be. This left us with actual floor space in the middle of the room. My youngest daughter (age 7) bumped her head several times during the week on one of the Pullman beds, but other than that, it was a great setup.

Food
I had arranged for early seating (5:45) for dinner. I was concerned about the late dinner being during my son’s bedtime, plus a big consideration was that I didn’t want to infringe upon others’ romantic late dinners. I actually didn’t think we would be able to eat in the dining room every night; I thought my kids would get bored with it, or it would infringe upon other activities. But we actually made it every single night to the Inspiration dining room – it was a great experience, and like other reviewers, I highly recommend doing this. We were seated at a window table for 8, which left 2 empty chairs since my son was in a high chair, but our dinner companions never showed up. Although it would have been nice to meet others on the cruise, it was kind of nice having the whole table to ourselves. My daughters sat by the window every evening and watched the sun set over the water, and they loved it! There was never anything wrong at all with the service, and our server, Michael, was very pleasant, but after shelling out all the money for the cruise, plus with my experience in the service industry (upscale hotel training experience, for 7 years) I guess I really have high expectations for service. At least twice during the cruise my daughters ordered steak, and Michael did cut their steaks for them, but he wasn’t all that personable – he just provided extremely efficient service. His assistant, Medea, was from Hungary, and she was much more personable – she brought yogurt to the table every night for my son, and after the first night when she discovered my daughters loved having hot chocolate, she brought it every night. So I definitely can’t fault them.

In the dining room, yes you can order whatever you want, which was great. I generally ordered one thing from every section – starters, salads, entrees, and of course I had dessert every night. (I had joined Weight Watchers about 3 months before the cruise and lost 20 pounds, so I gave myself license to eat whatever I wanted during the cruise! Even with all that, I only gained two pounds – not too bad, I guess.) The portions are fairly small, so it was okay to eat all of that and still have dessert. The only night I felt overly full was when I had filet mignon – usually I had fish or shrimp. The food was always delicious. I highly recommend trying different things than you would normally eat at home. My husband is normally a creature of habit, but he got really into the spirit of things, and one night he even ordered escargot! (They weren’t too bad – tasted like mushrooms.) But hey, when else would we do that but on a cruise?

As others have said, Tiffany’s was fine for breakfast and lunch. One thing that did surprise me about Tiffany’s is that the selection is pretty limited. I guess I was expecting a Las Vegas-style buffet, but it’s not like that – for lunch. there are maybe two entrée choices, plus 2-3 hot “sides” – i.e. mashed potatoes, etc. For breakfast it was almost the same thing every day – eggs, sausage, bacon, and then daily change with French Toast, or pancakes. But how much variety do you need in breakfast anyway? Plus, our dinner was so early that at lunchtime all I ever ate was salad. The salad bar was very fresh, again limited in selection, but not a big deal. The salad bar turned into a fruit bar with fresh fruit and yogurt at breakfast (the peeled, quartered grapefruit was a big treat). At the end of the salad bar, they had chefs making something – sometimes grilling salmon for the salad; sometimes making crepes. They also had lots of desserts, but other than at dinner, all I had was the ice cream. My girls especially loved this – they got quite spoiled with going to the ice cream machine whenever they wanted. We occasionally ate outside at the pool deck, but there isn’t a salad bar outside – just a few cold salad selections (i.e. potato salad) alongside the hot dogs, hamburgers, and French fries.

Soda Card
I am a big Diet Coke drinker, so I bought a soda card the first day. I figured $32 was no problem to spend for a week of drinks. But this was a bit of a disappointment. First of all, I could only order the drinks directly from a bar. Even in the dining room, the waiter had to bring over the bar lady to get me my drink. When I showed my card and ordered a Diet Coke, I always got just a vaguely disappointed look from whomever was taking the order – from the dining room woman, the look was downright cold. I’m sure this is because they knew they wouldn’t get a tip (there is a 15% gratuity automatically added to Sail & Sign card drink orders) but it was still mildly irritating. The drink consisted of them pouring a warm Diet Coke from a can into a fairly small cup filled all the way up with ice – resulting in less than ½ the can going into the cup. I could drink the entire thing by the time I walked from the pool bar to my lounge seat, and they wouldn’t give me the can, so I had to go back to get a refill. The entire cruise I probably drank maybe two six-packs, and probably ½ of that was the last day, when the cocktail waitress in the Mikado Lounge was super nice. She actually approached me twice to ask if I wanted more! This never happened the rest of the cruise. If I do Carnival again, I would bring a couple six-packs or 2-liter bottles and keep them in my cabin.

Tipping
We had a notice enclosed with our first “Carnival Capers” (the daily newsletter, slipped under the door) that “due to popular demand,” tips would be included on our bill rather than giving tips in cash at the end of the week. There was a breakdown of who would get what, which was about what I was expecting (it amounted to $9.75 per person per day, but they didn’t charge for the infant) I was surprised by this, but found it very convenient – we didn’t have to worry about having enough cash at the end of the week. I am very much a proponent of tipping for good service and not tipping when it is not appropriate, and even though the service was not over the top, it was very good. Plus I felt kind of bad for our room steward (Lawrence) who again was not incredibly personable, but he did have to empty the trash with my son’s dirty diapers. Plus he decorated the cabin (at my in-laws’ request) for my son’s birthday.

My in-laws were very impressed with the service and so they gave our server and his assistant an additional $40 each (Medea for her personality, Michael for his efficiency) at the end of the week, plus left $20 for Lawrence and $20 for the maitre d’ (who was not included in the automatic tipping – good thing, because I would have had that adjusted off. I heard his voice over the loudspeaker in the dining room, announcing the singing and whatnot, but never even saw his face the whole week).

Pools/hot tubs
A couple of times we did go to the aft pool, which is a deck up from the Lido deck, where the main central pool is. But mostly my kids wanted to hang out at the Lido deck pool because that’s where the water slide is. I was pleasantly surprised that the pools were warm – at least by the time I got in, which was usually in the afternoon. The disappointment was that they were almost as warm as the “hot” tubs. I don’t think the hot tubs ever got above medium warm, even the one in the gym. They also closed at 10pm, which was a big disappointment because after we got the kids to bed (they were very worn out and were ready to sleep by 10-11 every night), it would have been nice to hit the hot tubs for relaxing conversation with my in-laws – or with other passengers, for that matter. I’m sure this was done because of the alcohol factor – I know hot tubs aren’t good for people who are drinking. But again, this was a disappointment. Other than this, the pools were fine and the kids had a really good time. In fact, they didn’t want to go to Camp Carnival a lot of the time because they just wanted to hang out at the pool. I guess they’re like me – they go on a vacation to relax. Which leads me to…

Camp Carnival
Like everyone else has said, this is a good program with fun activities; my kids really enjoyed it when they went. I was a little surprised that the 9-11-year-olds are allowed to sign themselves in & out, without an adult, but it worked out really well with my daughter, who is pretty responsible. She could go by herself (sometimes she left right after dinner) and then meet us later at the pool, or the cabin, or whatever. The layout of the ship and the location of our cabin was pretty convenient and made it easy to get around; by the end of the week we could even rely on our 7-year-old to go down to the cabin on her own to change clothes or whatever, and then meet back at the main pool.

Activities
My husband and I don’t drink or smoke, so automatically about ½ the activities didn’t appeal to us. I think I walked through the casino once, but it was so smoky I wouldn’t have even sat at the poker slot machines, which I occasionally do in Vegas. (By the way – the Mikado lounge, as well as all restaurants on ship, are non-smoking, so the only area of the ship that was at all smoky was the area of Elation’s way that immediately borders the casino. Everywhere else was perfectly fine.) Also, we go on vacations to relax, plus we were blessed with warm sunny weather almost the entire trip, so it was very nice to just sit by the pool. The poolside games were a little hokey, but fun. I was picked to play in “Shipboard Survivor,” which was a silly and fun way to pass an hour or so. The shows in the Mikado were fine. The last day of the cruise was cool and cloudy and so we did more indoor activities, and I’m really glad that didn’t last more than a day – everything seemed more like just a way to pass time than something that was supposed to be entertaining. The comedian the last night was hilarious, but the one earlier in the week (I think his name was Lowell Thomas) was just okay. The singer the last night was too funny – he was a great singer, but he just tried so hard to be Wayne Newton, or Englebert Humperdinck. Sorry if you like those singers but I just think it was pretty cheesy. But he did have a great voice.

One thing about the poles in the Mikado lounge. I didn’t have any problem with them – I had more issues with heads in front of me than the poles. The Vegas-style shows we went to involved constant movement around the stage anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal at all. I am glad I chose the early seating, though, because that probably helped a lot in getting good seats.

I’m really glad I didn’t choose a cold-weather cruise, like Alaska, because if I couldn’t sit in the sun and just relax, or read, I would have been hard up for entertainment. But for what we used it for, it was fine.

Debarkation
Refer to comments about Embarkation. Are other people not accustomed to waiting their turn? There are actually two waiting periods – one for going through customs, and the other to get off the ship. We were mentally prepared for this, plus our waiting area was in Tiffany’s, which was convenient, so we had a deck of cards and sat and played while waiting for our luggage tag color to be called. It really wasn’t a big deal at all, and we were off the ship by about 11am – almost exactly one week after we had first boarded.

Overall
I wholeheartedly agree with the reviewer who said that Carnival is like Target – it’s a good value. Yes, there were minor irritations; a few people I know who cruise mentioned other cruise lines where these things are not an issue. But overall, we had a wonderful time. I was glad to see other families with kids, and almost everyone we talked to was a first-time cruiser and very pleasant. It was very sad to be going home – we all wondered how we were going to adjust to sitting at a table with no ice-cream machine nearby. We’re already talking about our next cruise – maybe to the Bahamas!

Please feel free to email me if you have any additional questions!

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