Pros: Dining Room Service and Staff Camp Carnival Availability Not a Lot of Port Calls
Cons: Stuck Up Spa Experience Cramped Camp Carnival Facilities Nickel and Dime-ing at Every Turn
I'll start off with saying that I got a ton of information from this website that made this trip much more enjoyable (and less stressful). This is my first cruise, my wife's second, and the first for our two children, 5 and 2 1/2.
Boarding: I went a little overboard (no pun intended) on this aspect. Based on reviews I had read elsewhere I tried to get to the port as early as possible in order to minimize the amount of time my very impatient kids had to sit around. Well, we got there so early the police kept waving us past the turn-in and telling us to come back. So we parked the car and dragged our bags ourselves. Not a big deal since we're used to traveling and pack light. We were at the terminal by 1030 after all was said and done. No organization at this point, just a bunch of folks gaggled in clusters near the door. We got into the building at roughly 1100 after standing in line for a little bit. No problems with security.
We ended up in the First Group and were on the ship by 1200. Sounds good, but we beat our steward to our cabin (M80) and it still required cleaning. We didn't feel like carrying around our carry-on bag, so we just dropped our stuff, closed the door and started exploring. Unfortunately, the crew was still cleaning up from the last cruise so there was a lot of standing around and crew not ready for passengers quite yet. We were early but I'd have thought they wouldn't have boarded until the place was ready for the new passengers.
Appearance of ship: I would echo other reviewers in saying the decor seemed a little dated. However, I think the style harkens back to the old Vegas days of the Strip and you get used to it quickly. Workers on the ship were constantly cleaning, polishing and sweeping, but the public restrooms were pretty soiled sometimes. One thing I noticed more than once was a gurgling sound coming from the drain in the floor, which I found disconcerting. I had read of people smelling sewage, but I only experienced it once in an Empress deck hallway. The cabin area hallways do show signs of water staining and age.
Cabin M80: Our cabin seemed a little more cramped since we had the foldaway beds on both walls, two kids and two adults living there. The fixtures and cabinets are definitely showing age, but there are enough for most luggage needs. The room was kept quite clean and the beds were turned down nightly. We only got towel animals twice, which bummed me out since I was excited for the kids to see them. The cabin did feel...moist sometimes, like a cold humidity was in the air. And if you get an inside cabin, BRING A NIGHT LIGHT. We couldn't see our hands in front of our faces once the lights were out, so we slept with the bathroom light on all night.
Organization/Crew: It is evident that this is one of the areas that Carnival spends a lot of time on. The crew was generally friendly and smiling. I did feel during the first day like I was being given the "hard sell" on everything the cruise had to offer at an extra price, especially the spa. The daily "Carnival Capers" is very extensive with what to expect that day down to 15-minute time slots. One down side to the precision scheduling was it seemed like the crew/entertainment/bands, etc. were always watching the clock. I almost expected a speaker or band singer to stop mid-sentence at 1244:59 if the schedule said they worked from 1030 - 1245.
Food: Lots of it and all over. The 24/7 pizza was a nice option. Drinks are expensive so if you like soft drinks, buy the "Fountain Fun Card" on Day 1. It's about $21 for bottomless sodas the rest of the cruise ($13 or $17 for young kids). My wife and I were amazed at how expensive alcohol was, although that didn't seem to bother a bunch of people. We decided to go very easy on that end and just bought a bottle of wine in the Dining Room to drink over a couple days.
Dinner Service: Our Waiter (Gener) and Asst. Waiter (Maximo) were awesome. We were on the Early Dining in the Fantasy Dining Room. We got lucky, in certain aspects, and got a booth all to ourselves. It kept us from meeting new people at the big tables, but it also kept the kids from bothering anyone trying to eat quietly. We definitely took advantage of the menus and order some of everything each night. Gener and Maximo would accommodate us without a gripe and smiled at every turn. We got more napkin animals there than towel animals in our cabin! This is the dream dining experience for those of us with picky eaters...if they didn't like it or want it, we'd just order something else with no hassles. The best part of this cruise, by far!
Entertainment: We didn't experience more than the Deck band and the two main shows: "Party Time" and "Hey Mambo". The deck band was fun, but played very similar stuff each set each day...there is such a thing as too much Bob Marley. And it seemed like the time between songs was in direct relation to how soon they got a tip in their jar. The main shows were fun and high energy. The featured dancers were amazing and the female singer did a great job. The male singer could have been better and the lip-synching was obvious from the other dancers. One note: the down stairs provides a better view, but the time we sat down there we kept getting dripped on by some water from the ceiling...another disconcerting thing when you're on a ship!
The Spa: This was/is a bone of contention between the wife and I. During the port call day, we decided to get some sort of massage. The Scalp and Foot Massage was the best available since we'd fried ourselves the day prior and a shoulder or full body massage probably would've hurt. Anyway, for various reasons, my wife went first and I came in about 20 minutes later. They give a complimentary eye treatment to you and then cover your eyes with some paper thing. Well, according to my wife, she was able to peak out from under the paper thing and see the attendants making comments and facial gestures about the work they were doing.... to go as far as mock biting my wife's toe and debating how long to actually rub. Now I didn't see any of this and to be perfectly honest, if I got my money's worth, they could've done all sorts of stuff and it wouldn't have bothered me. Just something to think about before nodding off on the massage table.
Camp Carnival: This was one of the original selling points to us about Carnival cruises, the fact that they have activities for the little ones so the parents can relax. Overall the program worked out for us and we were able to enjoy some alone time on the ship. However, it isn't all that we had expected. The area they keep the kids is pretty small, nothing more than a couple of rooms. There is a kid pool and netted in area for lawn play equipment like little houses and such, but the counselors do not take them to said locations. The schedule is pretty extensive but the area closes during two-hour periods around the meal times. The only exception to that is the Formal Night and during port call day (although if you are on the ship, they expect you to come and take the little ones to lunch.) We're glad the program was there since we couldn't have gone otherwise, but don't expect a dawn to late night, large play area camp (read: Disney).
Etcetera: We didn't have the smoke-out that others have complained about and everyone I saw obeyed the non-smoking areas. Disembarking the ship took FOREVER and our group was called last (Carnival uses color coded groups). It was almost as if they'd forgotten about us. Besides the length of time, though, getting off the boat, getting bags, and getting to our vehicle was no problem. I have come to realize that Carnival reels you in with cheaper per person fares and then tries to nickel and dime you to death for the rest of the trip. We were very conservative on the trip and still paid over $500 in Sign and Sail card bills. And we didn't even pay for any excursions!
Final Word: Next time we cruise, it'll be a different ship, probably a different cruise line, and without the chitlens. Not because specifically anything bad Carnival or Sensation did or didn't do, but just to mix it up. We had a good time, but if you want the most modern cruise, pick a different ship. Overall B score.