Carnival Cruisin’: A Cruise Virgin’s Review

The Pro Portrait Studio was clearly money well spent.

I have never been on a cruise. This is mostly, I think, because I grew up with parents who – based on literally zero first-hand experience – were absolutely positive that cruises were terrible in every way. And so I, too, spent more than three decades believing in the depths of my soul that cruises were, indeed, terrible, and swore that I would never waste my hard-earned money on one. And then one day a few months ago, a friend of mine explained cruises to me in the following way:

“They’re like Club Med,” she said. “But on a boat.”


I LOVE Club Med. And I love boats! And, if we’re being honest, I am A-OK with mediocre (even bad) food and small rooms if there is also free childcare and a general atmosphere that permits and/or encourages Pina colada consumption at 10AM, and if you want to throw a waterslide in there I’m baaaaaasically in heaven.

So my friend Erin and I decided to book a seven-day Carnival cruise to Mexico for our families. Here’s how it went.

We arrived at what felt (and looked) like the love child of Epcot Center and Miami International Airport, alongside thousands of other people toting sunhats and children. The first thing that happened was that Kendrick went to park the car while I sat by the entrance listening to a DJ play “Gangnam Style.” This was decidedly inauspicious, but things went up from there, starting with our first bullet-point:

Efficiency. Considering how many people were on that boat, I have virtually no idea how it ran so smoothly. There were no lines during the check-in process (none). Or during seated dinners, which arrived speedily, carried aloft by waiters who knew all of our names by the end of the first meal. Even disembarkation, which involved all of the people on the ship and their assorted luggage going through customs, of all things, was just…kind of fine. Like, not my favorite part of the journey, but fine.

carnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small children carnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small children

That bunk bed pulls down out of the ceiling. Cool.

Rooms. Hooooooly tiny – but that was to be expected. I was really glad that we went for a stateroom with a balcony both because it significantly cut down on the claustrophobia, and let us lay in bed at night with the door propped open, listening to the waves. I think people who were less tired than Kendrick and I are in their regular lives would have found the bed uncomfortable, but I slept like a BABY, despite the fact that both of our children rejected their designated sleeping spots and chose instead to sleep on our heads and occasionally pee on us (thanks, travel-related potty issues!).

carnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small children

She totally got the memo.

Decor. YOU GUYS. It was an insane retro explosion with rainbow lights and salmon-colored tufted leather couches, and I am certain that very few people on this planet would love it quite as much as I did. Or at all. But I loved it to pieces. I loved the faux midcentury bedside sconces. I loved the random portraits of ’50s stars painted on the hallway walls. I even took inspiration photos of the Spectacular Spectacular! Ballroom (real name) so that I would be able to DIY my own epoxy glitter tables.

‘Twas not for everyone. Most certainly ’twas for me.

Cleanliness. Probably the number-one thing on the planet that gives me the icks is a wet surface that I must share with other people. I know; that sounds snobby. Sue me. I pictured the ship basically as a damp floating mattress, and cabins with various unwanted forms of flora growing in the corners. Not only was this very fortunately not the case (otherwise I might have found myself swimming back to California), but I ended up being fairly blown away by the attention that the staff paid to keeping the ship both clean and impeccably neat. Used cups and dishes were whisked away immediately, floors were mopped constantly, and rooms were tidied twice a day.

Obviously we did end up all getting sick (I myself currently have a missing voice, blocked-up ears, and, just for kicks, a stye in my left eye, despite the fact that I toted around an economy-sized bag of Clorox disinfecting wipes and was extremely weird about sanitizing every surface I touched), but whatever: we were on a cruise. Everyone gets sick on cruises (or so I hear).

carnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small children

Us, except a relaxed version.

Spa. This spa – featuring Elemis products, which I’ve written about here before and am a big fan of – was not among the most luxurious I’ve ever been to. You had to pay to use the amenities (the Thalassotherapy room, etc) even if you’d paid for a service, the decor was pretty bare-bones, and the towels the acupuncturist gave me to cover myself could actually be described as “threadbare” – but the massage I got was among the top three I’ve had in my life, so much so that I went back for a repeat visit with the same therapist (and Erin reported a nearly identical experience with a different therapist on board). The staff is seriously talented.

On-Board Activities. The big downside of this trip: it was cloudy and windy or rainy for practically all of the time that we spent at sea, which meant that there wasn’t a whole lot of hanging out by the pool or using the on-board water park (and the jacuzzis were chilly, which was weird). Oh, and three out of four of us didn’t bring anything warm to wear, which meant Kendrick’s dorky eBay fleece jacket got a whoooooole lot of mileage.

There were a ton of indoor activities offered, but most of them involved spending money (like the arcade, where Kendrick and our son spent an amount of money that I seriously don’t want to talk about ever again) or just not really our thing (karaoke competitions, omg no). There were some great options for kids – the kids’ camp was free until dinnertime, and apparently super fun for all ages, and a Dr. Seuss-themed story time that Goldie loved – but many of the family activities – chess competitions, Cranium games, Lip Synch Battles, etc – were tailored towards slightly older kids than our own. Tl;dr: We spent a lot of time wandering around the decks looking for somewhere warm that contained something to do besides eat ice cream (not that that’s a bad option).

carnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small children

Safe to say it was a good day when you fall asleep in the middle of putting on your pants.

Food. I can’t believe I’m about to write this…but I really liked the food. The buffet for lunch and breakfast was as good as I think a cruise-ship buffet probably gets (which is to say, probably a B), but the 24-hour options included thin-crust, made-to-order pizza, and the sit-down dinner included appetizers like miniature rabbit pies (I didn’t like these, but Erin swore they were delicious) and super-fresh caprese salads, as well as entrees that ran the gamut from classic (prime rib) to local-cuisine inspired (steak tacos with fresh guacamole). There were also a ton of kids’ options, and desserts included Baked Alaska (!) and BANANA SPLITS.

Have I mentioned that there are few things I love more on this planet than banana splits?

Have I also mentioned that in addition to eating banana splits at dinner, I had room service deliver them to my room every night?

carnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small childrencarnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small childrencarnival cruise to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo a review for families with small children

Excursions. “Excursions,” for the cruise virgins among you, are basically day trips that you can sign up for during the days you spend docked somewhere or another (in our case, we had two days in Cabo, and one day in Puerto Vallarta; the other days we spent at sea). Most of the excursions weren’t open to us (because we were traveling with small children) or not of particular interest to us, so we spent both Cabo days exploring on our own, but in Puerto Vallarta we went on a day-long trip that involved snorkeling (which was sub-par, but that’s less the trip’s fault than a consequence of our rapidly disappearing reefs), a trip to a tiny, spectacularly beautiful island only accessible by boat, and a full-on ‘80s dance party/performance by the boat’s crew that should have been horrifying, but was, to the contrary, WONDERFUL.

So would I go on a cruise again? Probably not this particular one, simply because the indoor activities weren’t really my jam (or my kids’), which made it hard to figure out what to do when the weather wasn’t cooperating, but with a little research I’m pretty sure I’d be able to find a ship that would suit us perfectly – and in that case, you better believe I would. I’d just maybe remember to check the weather beforehand next time.

carnival cruise review for families with small children

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