Taking a Short Cruise, Part II
by Deb Wills, ALL EARS® Editor in Chief
This article appeared in the October 11, 2005, Issue #316 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
This is the second of a two-part series on short cruises to the Bahamas. In the first installment (ALL EARS® Issue #307, August 9, 2005 — http://allears.net/cruise/issue307.htm), author Deb Wills discussed the importance of research and the points to consider when deciding on the length of the cruise that is right for you. This installment compares and contrasts three-night cruises to the Bahamas aboard the Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruises.
For the record, the ships I sailed on and evaluate in this article are the Disney Cruise Line's (DCL) Wonder, Royal Caribbean International's (RCI) Sovereign of the Seas, and Carnival's Fantasy. My travel companion and I are in our early 50s with no children. We enjoy good food, good wine (and an occasional martini), relaxing and having fun.
CHECK-IN AT THE PORT
Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line share the same area at Port Canaveral. In fact, you can usually see the Royal Caribbean ship docked next to the Disney ship during sailaway. Both offer very systematic drop-off and parking procedures (although we found the Royal Caribbean garage very confusing when we were trying to exit). Both lines charged $30 for parking during the three-night cruise, with Royal Caribbean guests parking in a garage and Disney guests in a lot. Our Carnival cruise sailed out of Miami and we didn't park a car, but I understand that the cost is also $30.
Of the three, Disney has the nicest port. It is large, bright, clean and, well… Disney. There is a huge model of the ship, occasional appearances by Disney characters, places to sit, TVs with videos, and huge mouse ears to walk through as you board. Royal Caribbean's port was nothing special — your basic clean and functional port. On the other hand, Carnival's port was old and dark, and, although clean, felt almost dingy. Carnival is building a new port in Miami, though.
Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival take your photo and tie it to your "key card" — Disney does not. Royal Caribbean and Disney have similar personal screening; however, it seemed as though Royal Caribbean asked for photo IDs many more times than Disney did prior to boarding the ship. Carnival asked for ID more times than both combined. Some of this is the way the cruise lines set up security. At Disney's terminal, you go through security before going upstairs to the check-in area. At the other two lines, security is just before you board the ship.
Check-in for DCL is fairly straightforward — enter the line and wait to be called. DCL and RCI lines have separate queues for repeat cruisers, but it was hard to tell if this was also true with Carnival. For Disney you either get in the "Castaway Cay Club" line (for repeat cruisers), the international citizen line, or the "all other" line. For RCI, you line up by the deck your stateroom is on. Each cruise line has its own version of "concierge" service, which provides you with preferred check-in and boarding, and all lines have employees checking your documentation before you get in line. I have to say I was very impressed with Royal Caribbean. We booked the day before (yes, I said the day before) on Expedia for the cruise, and within a couple hours of booking we could fill in our pre-boarding information online. Once we arrived at the port, everything was in order. We were amazed at how smooth it was.
The Carnival check-in process, on the other hand, was very antiquated. There were numerous stations to visit and you literally did one step at each stop. In fact, after getting all signed in, we had to go to yet another area to pick up our cabin keys. It was not only strange, but having two cards to carry around on Carnival, one for the door key and one for charging, was a nuisance. Since cash is not accepted on board, you always had to have both cards with you. Plus, the key card was an unusual size and didn't fit nicely in any wallet.
Another check-in difference among the cruise lines was that of the energy level. At Royal Caribbean's and Carnival's ports, everyone was very low-key, almost blase. At Disney, there was a high energy, a buzz people are excited! They want to board early and can't wait to get on the ship, and so they are standing in line for an hour or more waiting to do so. At RCI and Carnival, people wandered in throughout the afternoon. It seemed like some folks were just going to the movies instead of embarking on a cruise.
Check-in: Big advantage to Disney!
Prior to leaving the port, all ships have a mandatory safety drill, also known as a muster drill. Each person starts in their cabin, dons a life jacket, and proceeds to their designated location. Most locations are on the outer decks, but you also may find yourself in a theater or restaurant. Upon arrival at your designated location, you check in with a crew member (giving your cabin number and number of persons), and after a period of time are released back to your cabin. This gives everyone a chance to return their life jackets and head outside for the sailaway. Of the three lines, the Disney safety drill is the most organized and structured, perhaps because Disney is the master at moving large numbers of people. I found RCI's muster drill to be very confusing, very crowded and not taken at all seriously by the passengers (and the crew did nothing to get anyone's attention). Everyone seemed to be traveling the same stairwells and heading to the same designated locations. It was a sea of humanity and made me hope that we wouldn't have to put this poor practice into play. As we waited for everyone to get checked in for the drill, people kept moving around, talking on cell phones, drinking. On the other hand, huge kudos to Carnival for being the most comprehensive of the three drills. They continually asked folks to refrain from talking, drinking and eating. After going over the safety information, we were then instructed to practice, departing from the theater and moving to our lifeboat location on an outer deck. It took longer than the other two drills, but was taken VERY seriously.
Muster/Safety Drill: Carnival edges out Disney.
The sailaway was one of the areas where I noticed a huge difference among the cruise lines. The ships all leave their Florida ports (Port Canaveral for DCL and RCI, Miami for Carnival) between 5 and 6 p.m., but Disney offers the most energizing and celebratory sailaway party by far. Besides the live music, Disney characters and dancing, there's a countdown that ends with the ship's horn blasting "When You Wish Upon A Star," as confetti streamers and squeals of delight fill the air. It really is a fun part of the cruise and an excellent way to begin your voyage. On both the Royal Caribbean and Carnival ships, a live band played, but it was more a "make your own sailaway." Not many folks were on deck and it seemed like just another day at the beach.
Sailaway: Huge advantage to Disney!
CABINS AND STEWARDS
The Royal Caribbean cabin was the smallest of the three lines, perhaps partly due to the age of the ship. In fact, it was difficult for us to move in the room without bumping into each other. Our window was a small rectangle, about 2' by 3'. There was no in-room safe, though you could get one for free at the front desk, but the lines were always so long, you'd have spent all your time waiting for access. The bathroom was in poor condition, with grout missing from the tile in many places, and the shower often flooded into the rest of the bathroom. We called maintenance about it, but there wasn't much they could do given the design of the bathroom. Our Royal Caribbean room steward introduced herself shortly after we arrived in the cabin and took care of our minimal needs. She responded to any requests we had in a reasonable time frame. Room service was prompt and they would call in the morning before delivering our coffee tray. (Disney also began this service recently.)
Carnival's room was a little larger with a round porthole. We were concerned it would be smoky since this ship has all smoking-optional staterooms. (In fact, we found people smoking everywhere onboard, even in the elevator.) However, we were very happy to find that there was no odor. The bathroom wasn't great, but it was better than Royal Caribbean's. Our Carnival cabin steward, however, was poor at best. It's the only ship of the three where the steward was NOT on duty during arrival afternoon. We had been left a gift bottle of champagne, but no ice to chill it, so we tried to figure out how to contact the steward. Following the instructions next to the phone, we called, but got no answer. We called a little while later — again, no answer. When we looked out in the hallway, it appeared as though no stewards were working. We called the "after hours" number, which pages the steward, and about 20 minutes later we got a lackluster call back, informing us that the steward was off duty. When we asked for an ice bucket, we were told, "If I get around to it." Unfortunately, this level of customer service was consistent throughout the entire cruise.
The Disney cabins were the largest, brightest and most user-friendly staterooms of the three ships. Their split bathrooms (available in most cabin categories) can't be beat, especially when trying to get ready to head out for the day or for dinner! They are starting to show a bit of age, but are in great shape compared to the other two ships. The service on the DCL was far superior to what we experienced on RCI and Carnival — the steward was extremely attentive and tried to accommodate any request we made.
Cabin and Steward: Decidedly Disney.
PORTS OF CALL
On the three-night Bahamian cruises, the ports of call for each cruise line include Nassau, Bahamas. Nassau is a busy port — we counted six ships in port during one of our stays. DCL arrives around 9 a.m. and all aboard is at 7 p.m. Royal Caribbean arrives at noon and departs around 1 a.m. the next morning. Carnival arrives at 8 a.m. and departs 5:30 a.m. the next morning.
For your second full day on the ship, Disney visits its own island called Castaway Cay (pronounced "key"). Not only is the island beautiful and pristine, but Disney built a dock so that ships could let passengers off right onto the island. It is a great island with plenty of activities, and has a section for families, teens and even adults only.
RCI's second day is at its island called Coco Cay (pronounced "kay"), and tendering is necessary. (When a ship cannot dock right at the port, it must anchor out in the water. Small boats, called tenders, ferry you back and forth.) When the weather is bad, though (rough seas or high winds), tendering is not safe. This happened on our RCI cruise and we spent the day at sea instead of visiting the island. From reading some of the cruise message boards, we learned that this was not uncommon. The Carnival ship stayed in Port Nassau until early the next morning and we spent the remainder of the day at sea.
Ports of Call: Decidedly Disney
The food on Royal Caribbean was a notch above the other two ships. For the most part, I was very happy with my selections and enjoyed the food. The evening menu included special recommendations for "low fat" and "low carb" diners, and offered creativity in the foods. They even offered some fantastic sugar-free and no-sugar-added desserts which I really enjoyed. RCI also had a Johnny Rocket's and Haagen Dazs area, where you paid a nominal fee for anything on the menu. Carnival food was the worst, both in the main dining room and at the buffet. We sometimes felt we were back in the school cafeteria, trying to decide what today's "mystery meat" would be. One night we had very rubbery lobster, another we had filet mignon that was overcooked and tough. We ended up eating pizza and salad for most of the cruise. Even the desserts were only fair. Thankfully, the breakfast buffet had made-to-order omelets — it takes a lot to ruin an egg!
Disney has made great strides at upgrading their food since my first cruise with them in 2000, and I feel they are striving to excel. The servers all wanted to know if you were not happy with any food item or felt it could have been prepared better. Disney also has Palo, the Italian, adults-only restaurant, with awesome cuisine that rivals Walt Disney World's best restaurants. In fact, they make the best chocolate souffle' I've ever had.
Royal Caribbean and Carnival assign diners to a table in a specific dining room for the duration of the cruise. You have the same servers every night at the exact same table. The Disney ships, on the other hand, offer rotational dining that is themed. You are scheduled into each of the three dining rooms and your server team follows you, too. We prefer Disney's rotational dining system, and Disney outdid both ships when it came to dining entertainment.
Each dining room has 2-3 head servers (overseeing all staff) and each table has a server and assistant server. At Disney, the head server came by several times each night to check on things. We were also very impressed with our head server on Royal Caribbean and felt he'd fit well on a Disney ship. We never saw the head server on Carnival.
Our dining teams on both Royal Caribbean and Disney were above average, with Disney edging out Royal Caribbean. The Carnival servers were like robots. In fact, there were three servers for our table at Carnival — the server who took the food orders, the beverage server who took non-alcoholic beverage orders, and the cocktail server (alcoholic beverages). Shame on you if you asked the wrong person for something. We were admonished on more than one occasion. We saw so little of the beverage servers on Carnival, we never could figure out who was who.
In addition, seating in the main dining room on Carnival was very cramped, with servers repeatedly bumping into diners. One person at our table complained and was told to move his chair in. At breakfast one morning, I was seated next to the server station. After five minutes I had been jostled more than I cared to be and requested to be moved. I was told, "No, it's not possible." When I explained that servers were bumping into me, I, too, was told to pull my chair in more. One person at the table said, "This sure isn't 'have it your way' service, is it?"
Food Quality: Edge to Royal Caribbean.
Servers: Disney provides exceptional service; Carnival's is sub-par.
One of the extras not included in the price you pay for your cruise are the gratuities for your dining room team and your cabin steward. Gratuities at lounges, clubs and bars are automatically added onto your bill. Both Disney and RCI offer suggestions as to standard amounts for your Head Server, Server, Assistant Server and Cabin Steward. It is up to you to decide how much you want to leave. On the other hand, Carnival automatically includes their suggested amounts to your stateroom bill. To change it (either lower or higher) you must go to Guest Services to request a change. I think this was one of the reasons the crew on Carnival was very poor, especially compared to the good-to-excellent service we received from the other lines. Again, Disney service can't be beat.
Each cruise line has its own version of a daily activity flyer. Disney's is called the Navigator, RCI's is the Compass and Carnival's is the Capers. One nice feature on RCI is that the flyer had a tear off, take-with-you listing of all activities, so you didn't have to have the entire brochure with you.
I have never felt "wanting" for something to do on the DCL, but I have to admit that it was nice to have some different offerings on RCI. Yes, there is a casino on board, but they also have art auctions, something only recently added to Disney's longer cruises. The RCI staff is very informative and friendly so that novices and experienced art lovers can have a good time and bring home a treasure.
I was very disappointed with the lack and quality of the Carnival onboard activites. Drinking and gambling seemed to be the main events. I have heard that Carnival was trying to change its image to a more "family friendly" cruise line, but this was not the case on this three-night cruise to the Bahamas. During our at-sea day, the activities included things like "Mens' Hairy Chest Competition." I have to admit I wasn't inclined to read further. We made a point to try to avoid the pool area on Carnival. And while we don't consider ourselves prudes, we didn't care for the topless pool on the Carnival ship!
Kids' Clubs: As I mentioned at the start, we do not have children, but many friends and readers have told me that Disney's clubs are first-rate. According to others, kids, especially the younger ones, love the activities and end up not wanting to hang with Mom and Dad very often. I've visited the kids' clubs on Disney cruises and have read about their activities, and sometimes wish I could take part in the fun. We didn't visit the RCI kids' clubs, but heard from other cruisers that their kids were enjoying themselves. Camp Carnival on the other hand, had minimal offerings. I ventured up to the kids' area to find some activities going on in what appeared to be 2-3 cabins with the walls knocked out. It was our day at sea, and there were only a few kids playing. I also saw several signs indicating activities were cancelled due to lack of participation. Disney has a huge advantage in this arena.
Movies: I missed Disney's Buena Vista Theatre, which shows several first-run movies each day. All three cruise lines have movies on your stateroom TV, but Carnival did an odd thing and ran the same movie over and over for hours on end.
Excursions: All three cruise lines offer basically the same types of excursions for roughly the same costs. (You generally pay more for an excursion booked through the ship, but if you book an excursion on your own, be aware that the cruise lines may not wait for you if you're delayed.) Disney seemed much better organized in this area, though. With the DCL, you are given a time and location to meet onboard the ship, a sticker for your shirt to identify you, and then a Cast Member escorts you to the off-ship location where the experience begins. At RCI, we were simply told to meet on the dock near where we got off the ship. We had to figure out who the tour guide was and it seemed rather disjointed.
Spa: Contracted out to the same company, with the same products and services on all three lines. The staff on RCI was MUCH more friendly and personable than any of the DCL spa staffs I have experienced, but the Carnival spa staff was horrible — or at least my massage therapist was. After my stone massage, she gave me the hard sell on products. Even after I told her nicely twice that I wasn't interested, she pushed, telling me that if I didn't buy the special oil I would have totally wasted the money I spent on the massage. At that point, I got up to leave. The Disney spa staff have always been professional, helpful, and efficient at the least, and outstanding at best. While you might get a sales pitch, they back off once you say you aren't interested.
Each of the ships had nightly entertainment, with RCI and Carnival both having casinos. Royal Caribbean's casino had a much friendlier atmosphere than Carnival's, which seemed to be filled mostly with people who had way too much to drink. Unfortunately, we weren't able to attend any of the shows on Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Based on reports from others we cruised with, the Carnival shows were "eh," and Royal Caribbean's were just "OK." We deem the Disney shows excellent!
Activies and entertainment: Disney has a strong, strong advantage.
The DCL ships are impeccable. I don't think I have ever been onboard when some area of the ship wasn't being scrubbed, repainted, varnished or cleaned. When trash is left behind, it doesn't seem to stay around long on DCL. The Carnival crew seemed out and about cleaning much of the time, but the Royal Caribbean ship, on the other hand, was showing its age and the attention to cleanliness just wasn't there.
On DCL there is an adult-only pool, coffee bar, clubs and even a separate area on Castaway Cay. The Cast Members do a good job enforcing the age restrictions, which I really appreciated. Although Royal Caribbean did not allow kids in the casino, there was an arcade directly adjacent (I guess so parents gambling could keep a watch on their children). I felt that it was inappropriate to have the kids so close to the gambling. Carnival, despite being billed as "family friendly," had the definite feel of a party ship.
Disney Cruise Line wins in this category, hands down. It seems like every crew member has a smile for you, says hello, and goes out of their way to make you feel "special." I didn't get that feeling once on the other two cruise lines.
Once back in the United States, all ships must clear customs before anyone can get off. Also, if you go over your "duty free" allotment, you are required to go to the customs officers and pay tax on the overage. Be sure to have cash, because customs does not accept credit cards or travelers checks.
You have several options when it comes to exiting a Disney cruise ship. You can debark once the ship has been cleared (usually around 8 a.m.). You can have breakfast in the dining room at which you had dinner the night before and exit after breakfast, or you can eat at the Topsider Buffet at your leisure, making sure you are off the ship by 9 a.m. On the Royal Caribbean, each cabin gets luggage tags that are color-coded and you disembark based on your color. Even with roped off areas, the fourth floor was a complete zoo with everyone trying to leave at the same time.
As you can see, taking a three-night cruise to the Bahamas can be a totally different experience on each of these three different cruise lines.
So, who reigns supreme? You won't be surprised if I say that, for my money, unless you absolutely must sail with a casino onboard and are really on a tight budget, your choice should clearly be Disney, Disney, Disney! The other two cruises were less expensive, but dollar for dollar, the best value is on the Disney Cruise Line. And they're not paying me to say that! I don't plan to get on another Carnival ship ever again, but would consider one of the newer Royal Caribbean ships. Some may say the sky's the limit, but in my opinion, when Disney is behind the cruise ship wheel, the sea is the place for me!
For more information about the Disney Cruise Line, be sure to check out The Magical Disney Cruise Guide: http://allears.nets/cruise/cruise.htm
By the way, we have the Disney Cruise Line's Palo Chocolate Souffle recipe here: http://allears.net/din/rec_cs.htm