Pros: Enthusiastic dining room staff.
Cons: Condition of ship, poor debarkation coordination, inconsistent professionalism of staff.
This was our second cruise, we took the Sensation on her Western Caribbean itinerary and disembarked today. Last May, we took the Celebrity Cruise Line's Zenith to Bermuda, and have some interesting comparisons.
We booked both cruises through the same travel agent, and arranged air travel through Carnival for this cruise. We were a bit dismayed to learn that we were unable to check our luggage directly to the ship (some cruise lines will transport your luggage directly to the ship). We had to retrieve our luggage at the baggage claim, and haul it to the buses that Carnival had chartered to transfer us to the ship.
However, once we reached the port and placed our bags outside the terminal, Carnival delivered our luggage within approximately two hours (which was faster than Celebrity's service).
Don't plan on taking a cruise without seeing a lot of photographers. The Sensation had more photographers than the Zenith, but I can't say that the quality was any better. About one-fourth of the embarkation pictures in Tampa were lost because of difficulties with one of the cameras, and while the Sensation offered unique photo locations (like the curved stairways in the atrium), the pictures seemed rushed and in some cases, folks didn't seem to have enough time to prepare for the camera.
The disembarkation briefing spoke highly of the Tampa facility, but did little to prepare us for the confusing scene that we encountered after retrieving our luggage. We had an early flight, and found our luggage staged in a large open area. However, we were a party of eight, and three of our family members were told (by three different Carnival representatives) that they'd have to wait outside since they already had their luggage. As a result, they were unable to check their baggage directly into US Airways at the port terminal. If you sail Carnival from Tampa, keep your party away from the main exit doors until everyone's together - the Carnival crew is so focused on herding the departing guests that they don't really seem to care whether your party is.
On our cruise on both ships, we had an outside cabin on the third passenger deck (called the Upper deck on Sensation and the Caribbean deck on the Zenith). The cabins were practically the same size, but the cabin on the Zenith offered significantly more drawer and hanging space. Both staterooms had a safe and comparably sized bathrooms. The Zenith was slightly more elegantly appointed, especially in the bathroom. We heard occasional machinery noises, especially when the ship was cruising against the current in the Mississippi. Two of the river's bends apparently had strong currents, because the ship turned sharply under full power twice that I noticed. I heard several folks in some of the lower cabins complained of constant pounding and banging from the engineering spaces.
I don't recommend cabins on the aft third of the lowest passenger deck because you'll be subjected to more vibration and noise than most of the other cabins. Of course, if you are prone to seasickness, avoid cabins that are well forward or high, because you'll feel more of the ship's motion in those locations.
During my first shower, my wife noticed that I was flooding the bathroom - fortunately, the coaming contained the water and prevented it from flooding the rest of the cabin. After sponging the water with a towel, I investigated and determined that the shower drain was evidently clogged, because after running the shower for a few seconds, water would run out of the bathroom drain. I told my cabin steward about this condition on Monday morning, but the plumber didn't show up until Thursday. As a result, we took Navy showers and spent a lot of quality time on the floor with our towels, trying to dry the bathroom.
It's not fair to compare the physical condition of the Sensation on this cruise with the Zenith, because when we rode the Zenith to Bermuda last year, she was just starting her first cruise season after a major refit, and she was absolutely gorgeous inside and out. The Sensation had a lot of wear on the carpets and bulkheads, which is to be expected. However, I also noticed a lot of stains, which surprised me. I'd have expected a Motel 6 to have the sort of wear on the carpets that I saw on the Sensation, but not a resort hotel, or even a Holiday Inn. I noticed quite a bit of corrosion on the Zenith, especially around our stateroom windows. I expect that outside cabins on the lower decks will start having problems with water leakage within 24 months on this ship.
The Zenith was built in 1992, the Sensation was built in 1993. While the Sensation is a larger ship than Zenith by 173 feet (855 feet long vs. 682 feet long), we felt that the Zenith actually had a greater variety of activities and amenities. As an example, the Zenith has an excellent interactive system that permits guests to access their cabin accounts, watch pay-per-view movies, and even gamble from their staterooms. Another nice touch is a camera mounted forward of the superstructure that always shows the view ahead of the ship. Apparently, an interactive system is being implemented on the Sensation on the aux channel, but it only displayed error messages all week.
We were a group of eight with four cabins, and had inconsistent channel coverage among the cabins. One of our cabins was never able to pick up the ship's movie channel. The purser's office told them that they would be able to watch the channel when a movie was playing, but the television wouldn't even tune to the channel.
We encountered a storm the first night out of Bermuda on the Zenith which subjected us to more substantial swells than we saw on our cruise on the Sensation. I was surprised to notice that despite the good weather, the Sensation didn't seem to ride as smoothly as the Zenith. It felt as though the Sensation had stabilizers that weren't functioning properly. The ship's motion wasn't as smooth as I expected from a vessel this large, especially since the Zenith is only 47,255 tons and the Sensation is 70,367 tons.
Carnival ships have a guest laundry. That was a good thing, because our cabin had absolutely no information about the ship's laundry services, and I didn't even know that this was available until the fourth night. However, I'd have gladly paid a few bucks for clean underwear if I'd known what an ordeal it would be to use the laundry. At embarkation, we were given deck plans that clearly identified three laundry facilities onboard Sensation. One was fairly near our cabin but was busy, so we looked for the other two. In reality, the Sensation only had two guest laundry facilities, and neither was in the location indicated on the deck plans. I asked the purser's office about this when I purchased soap (the soap dispenser was also out of order) and was told that plans "must have been old". The washers and dryers cost $1 per load.
When it was finally my turn to lay claim to a washer (two entrepreneurial young ladies were apparently washing clothes for other folks; they had several plastic bags with just a few clothes in each one and were washing numerous small loads), I found that the washing process was not as painful as the drying process. The guest laundries onboard Sensation have small washers with dryers mounted directly above them. The lint filters on the dryers are mounted in the perfect position to capture socks and underwear, but not lint. They did work pretty well, if you could remember to open the door every five minutes and fish the socks from the lint filter, then restart the dryer.
The guest laundry is the dirtiest part of the ship that a guest will ever see (unless they find themselves in the bilges by mistake); they apparently don't receive regular attention by the ship's cleaning crew.
The Sensation's decor was par for the Carnival cruise line: snazzy and splashy, sometimes bordering on bizarre. The Zenith was more classy and understated. However, this reflects the style of the cruise lines, and we expected this style. The atrium was impressive and had interesting lighting. However, I felt that the statue in the center of the atrium was a bit tacky. The Promenade deck is also a very interesting walk, and like the atrium, has a distinctly different feeling when lit by sunlight from outside than it has at night.
The Sensation has a well-appointed gymnasium, and the running track is first-rate. The Zenith's gym was smaller, less well-appointed, and the running track was a nonskid surface on a steel deck.
The Sensation had a number of shops, and more square footage of shops than the Zenith, but I don't think that the presentation was as good on the Sensation.
The entertainment in the Fantasia Lounge was generally good, the cruise director was funny - but so many references were made to feeding the passengers, and so many "mooing" sounds were made from the stage that I started to feel that the ship's crew viewed us as cattle. Herd 'em on the ship, herd 'em to the dining room, herd 'em to the tenders, herd 'em off the ship. Bring on the next 2000 cattle.
The Sensation carried several hundred kids of all ages. The Zenith requested that children not use the ship's elevators without adult supervision; no such request was made on the Sensation. While the Sensation had more elevators than the Zenith, this advantage was somewhat mitigated by the number of elevators that were out of service (for most of the cruise, only 3 of 4 elevators on the aft and midships elevator banks seemed to work. On numerous occasions, an elevator would arrive and disgorge a number of laughing kids. Of course, the button for every level on the ship would be pressed when we boarded.
Numerous references were made to the fact that the Sensation carried 2600 guests, this was sort of interesting in light of the fact that Carnival's website shows a capacity of 2052 guests (based on double occupancy). The Destiny class has a double occupancy capacity of 2642, based on Carnival's figures.
If you're looking for a good place to buy drinks onboard Sensation, try the casino. That's where I found the strongest drinks (go figure).
Our dining room staff was extremely personable, and added greatly to our cruise experience. Our cabin steward did a good job (with the exception of addressing our only real problem, the shower drain, in a timely fashion).
Our joint impression was that overall, Carnival personnel are not as professional as Celebrity personnel. This includes the embarkation staff, the ship's crew, and the debarkation staff. In Cozumel, the Sensation was moored adjacent to the Fascination. My wife and daughter were preparing for dinner and noticed a Fascination crewman, in the anchor equipment room on the starboard side, staring into Sensation staterooms with binoculars.
Both the Zenith and Sensation offer special "end-of-cruise" deals on logo items on the last full day. This is good if you don't mind spending a few bucks to advertise for the cruise line. I recommend that you look at the offerings in the ship's stores early on, compare prices for similar offerings ashore, and remember that a lot of the ship's prices will be reduced later in the cruise.
The Zenith's itinerary to Bermuda was nice because it provided a lot of time ashore... Bermuda remains my favorite destination.
The Sensation's itinerary doesn't provide much time in Grand Cayman, and you must ride a tender to the port because cruise ships can't dock there. The stay in Cozumel is also short (which is probably a good thing). The most interesting part of the cruise, for me, was to cruise the Mississippi River to New Orleans. It's an interesting trip, and the Sensation docked adjacent to the River Walk, which is probably the best place for concentrated shopping in downtown New Orleans. The River Walk is next to the Aquarium of the Americas, which is also worth the price of admission, and a short walk from the Jackson Brewery, which has a number of shops, and a Pat O'Brien's on the river.
On a personal note, I worked in New Orleans a number of years ago, and at times, would watch a cruise ship pass by as I crossed the river on a ferry. I've fulfilled a personal goal, to watch the ferrys from a cruise ship!
Despite the warts, it was an enjoyable cruise, and it's not going to be easy to go to work in the morning. Look here for an more sophomoric sort of cruise. Don't look for elegance or refinement and your expectations should be met.
We are already planning our next cruise, a trans-Atlantic crossing on Celebrity's Millennium. After all, work is just something that you do to pass the time until you can cruise again!