Admittedly, I used to write off Carnival Cruise Line as nothing more than a booze cruise. That was until I actually sailed with them for the first time and my eyes were opened to the truth. The “Fun Ship” brand is indeed just that – fun – and in a variety of wonderful, unexpected ways.
Carnival, winner of Best Ocean Cruise Line in the 2019 Readers' Choice Awards, has come a long way since its wilder days. They've swapped out older ships with a decidedly 1980's Vegas aesthetic – gaudy decor, garish colors, dated lighting and endlessly repeating fixtures – for remodeled or brand-new ships that are pleasantly subdued.
Take, for instance, the line’s latest Carnival Horizon. Like its Carnival Vista sister ship, a fresh beach resort aesthetic offers a welcoming setting for cruisers of all ages. Guy’s Burger Joint from celebrity chef Guy Fieri grills up some of the best gourmet burgers with sides of fries at sea, while kids can spiral down speedy themed water slides with the Cat in the Hat and friends. Best of all, both are entirely free.
The playful Dr. Seuss WaterWorks water park on Carnival Horizon — Photo courtesy of Jason Leppert
Such brand partnerships bolster festive programming that is remarkably consistent across a fleet of over two dozen vessels. Some hardware features like the SkyRide – a suspended cycling course perched high on the outer decks – are available only on the newest ships, but most of the software is familiar from one to the next as they are continually upgraded.
Even the act of drinking has been elevated thanks to the Alchemy Bar. The popular watering hole is staffed by apothecaries who "prescribe" elixirs to suit each patron’s mood. Molecular techniques mix exotic ingredients into delicious beverages, whether alcoholic on non-alcoholic.
Also going beyond a mere bucket of beers are full-scale onboard breweries as found on the aforementioned Vista and Horizon – the RedFrog Pub & Brewery and Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse | Brewhouse respectively.
Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse | Brewhouse elevates beer on Carnival Horizon with craft varieties — Photo courtesy of Jason Leppert
Since Carnival’s core concept has always centered around fun, the playful persona begins with its crew. From the cruise director to your wait staff, everyone is friendly and upbeat, and the aura extends to shipboard performances. The Punchliner Comedy Club is a hilarious rotating showcase of world-class stand-up comics, and Playlist Productions puts on creative stage shows with high-energy singing and dancing. Horizon has even reintroduced the backing of an ace live band.
Passengers are a diverse cross-section of Americans simply looking to have a good time. It’s where single friends, married couples and family reunions can all come together and find something for everyone, including accommodations. Staterooms run the gamut from budget interiors to palatial suites with options for connecting cabins, accessible staterooms and additional bathrooms for larger groups.
Public spaces cater to this diverse crowd, with venues like exclusive clubs for kids (Camp Ocean), tweens (Circle C) and teens (Club O2), an area for those 21 and over (Serenity Adult Only Retreat) and plenty of spots for everyone to mingle. Regular cruisers will find at-sea staples as well, such as trivia contests for the chance to win a "ship on a stick," and the sublime Cloud 9 Spa for relaxing onboard. My personal favorite activity is taking in a first-run movie at the IMAX Theatre (for a reasonable fee).
Carnival Vista's spacious IMAX Theatre — Photo courtesy of Jason Leppert
Celebrating vacation can mean enjoying alcoholic beverages in healthy moderation. But for those concerned with the potential of any boisterous behavior coming from it, consider the specific cruise itinerary. Generally, sailings longer than a quick weekend getaway will be quieter and more appealing to families.
Still, dining extends well past drinks as Carnival cuisine excels. You'll find comfort foods like Guy’s, certainly, but also finer foods. The line is already looking ahead to its upcoming new Mardi Gras vessel setting sail in 2020 with Emeril Lagasse’s first restaurant at sea serving New Orleans-style po-boys and gumbo.
What it's like to run a restaurant on a cruise
What it's like to run a restaurant on a cruise
Until then, favorites include the line’s exceptional signature steakhouses, specialty JiJi Asian Kitchen, BlueIguana Cantina (picture a complimentary Chipotle), The Chef’s Table and much more.
Mardi Gras will further kick it up a notch with BOLT: Ultimate Sea Coaster. The first-ever roller coaster on a cruise ship will launch riders on motorcycle-like vehicles zipping around the ship’s iconic smokestack while approaching speeds of 40 miles per hour.
All of this is to say that Carnival Cruise Line is no slouch, but actually an exceptional vacation value. It turns out this once-perceived drunk uncle is actually a shining superstar. Check it out yourself to see why.