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Carnival Cruise Review – (Food, Ship, Entertainment and More)

Every year, 2.5 million people take a Carnival cruise and for years I’ve wanted to try it for myself. 

Most of the news about Carnival cruises sounds like something like: ‘Carnival cruise fight’ ‘Carnival cruise brawl’ ‘Violent outbreak’ but we all know how one-sided the news can be.

I’ve heard lots of good experiences about Carnival cruises too. I knew it was a gamble, but I hoped that it would pay off. 

Carnival describes themselves as being the ‘fun ships’ and I like fun. When I saw a very cheap cruise sailing out of New York City, I knew that I had to give it a go.

Why Did I Book This Cruise?

The cruise was 7 nights long, visited Canada, and I booked the cheapest cabin on the entire ship.

I didn’t know how I’d find cruising out of New York, and I didn’t know how it would be being an English person on a very American cruise.

I’d heard bad things about Carnival’s food in the past and heard that the ships were outdated, not all of that was wrong, but more about that later. 

The ship that I had booked my cruise on was the Carnival Magic. Built in 2011, her maximum passenger capacity is a little over 4.5 thousand.

Me with the Carnival Magic
Me With The Carnival Magic

As far as Carnival ships go, she’s not one of the oldest, but not one of the newest either, so I hoped that this would give me the best overview of Carnival. 

How Was Embarkation?

Once we arrived at the Manhattan cruise terminal, embarkation was incredibly easy.

We had entered most of our information into the Carnival Hub app before the cruise and so all we had to do at the terminal was show this barcode and go through security.

We also had to show our ArriveCan apps which we needed to enter Canada, and we needed to show Covid tests, but these aren’t required anymore.

Your travel agent and cruise line will let you know anything you need to know before the cruise, just make sure that you check your emails and your spam folder! 

As soon as we checked in, we had our first photo taken in front of the backdrops that they have set up. There were quite a few things on this cruise that I was used to on other cruise lines, but Carnival took them much further. They definitely don’t do anything by halves – it’s all or nothing, and photography was one of those things. 

The Ship Was SO Colourful

Walking into the Carnival Magic we were instantly in the middle of the atrium. I saw a comment from Paul saying that I looked like I was in a pinball machine and I couldn’t agree more, especially with the lampshades on the ceiling.

The atrium was so bright and so colourful. It’s definitely not to everybody’s taste, and it isn’t really to mine, but it absolutely set the scene for our Carnival cruise. 

Carnival Magic Atrium

I Took a Similar Cruise With Costa in 2018

A couple of years ago, I took a cruise with the Italian cruise line, Costa. Costa is owned by Carnival and, as a result, the ships are very similar.

In fact, the Costa cruise ship that I sailed on, the Costa Luminosa has now been transferred to Carnival and will be sailing for Carnival soon.

I’m not sure if they’ll be keeping the big statue that the Costa Luminosa has in the atrium though, so many people had touched the bum and the nose of the statue that the colour had changed. I did it too, of course. 

Costa Luminosa Statue Women in Lobby

I did wonder if this cruise would be like my Costa cruise, but with Americans instead of Italian guests. I enjoyed my Costa cruise but there were definitely some disappointments like the buffet food was by far the worst food I’ve ever had on a cruise before but I hoped this Carnival cruise would be better than that. 

We Had to do a Safety Drill

We embarked around 12.30 and were sent to our muster stations to complete a short safety drill. It’s the law that a safety drill must be done before the ship sails away, or shortly after.

It took at most 10 minutes and they just explained to us how to put on a lifejacket and where to go in an emergency.

It was much better than the muster drill I had on my Costa cruise way back in 2018 where we all had to stand on the promenade deck in lines, most cruise lines did require you to do something like this in the past but luckily the pandemic has changed this on most cruise lines for the better.

carnival magic restaurant

I hope cruise lines never go back to the big ‘everybody-at-once’ safety drills. 

Our cabins weren’t available until 1.30 so we went out onto the top deck. I was instantly impressed by how much outside space there was.

I find that a lot of the newer cruise ships have lost a lot of outside space in favour of ‘STUFF’ and stuff that usually costs extra, but really all I want on a cruise is enough space to sit, a ship that’s clean, and service that is good.

Our Cabin Was on Deck 7

When the announcement was made that our cabin was ready we headed to our room on deck 7. Our Cruise Director was called Ryan and he started every announcement by calling us his Carnival Magic Family.

I had no idea at this point just how big a part of a Carnival cruise the Cruise Director would be and I also had no idea how much of a big part the casino, bingo, and cookies would be on the cruise but it was fun to find out. 

Our cabin was comfortable and clean. If you compare this cabin to newer cabins on cruise lines like MSC or P&O, I definitely think the style is outdated. It was very similar to my Costa cruise cabin, so I was prepared for that.

Comparison of the Carnival Magic and MSC Seaview Cabins
Comparison of the Carnival Magic and MSC Seaview Cabins

Sailing Out of New York Was Fantastic

As we sailed away from New York I had my first taste of a Carnival deck party, these happened quite a lot during our cruise, and more than on any other cruise line I’ve cruised with.

It wasn’t necessarily that the parties were bigger or crazier than other cruise lines, but there seemed to be some sort of big-themed party every day.

If you haven’t sailed out of New York, you’ve got to put it on your bucket list right now! I couldn’t believe I was there and seeing these views, all in glorious sunshine too, it was a dream come true.

In lots of destinations around the world, like Norway, there are regulations that say that cruise ships can’t play music out loud when sailing away, but that didn’t seem to be a problem on this cruise.

I suppose New York is so loud anyway, what harm can one more source of noise make?

I thought that the entertainment on the ship would be reserved for the deck parties and the theatre entertainment but I couldn’t have been more wrong, as I found out when we went to our first dinner onboard.

We Selected My Time Dining – It Worked Well!

We had selected My Time dining which meant that we could eat in the main dining room whenever we wanted to, rather than just at fixed times like you’ll find on some more traditional cruise lines.

The My Time dining worked amazingly, we just had to press a button in the app and then we would get a notification when our table was ready – this never took more than ten minutes and we were seated straight away on the top level.

Screenshot of the dining confirmation in the Carnival Hub app
Screenshot of the dining confirmation in the Carnival Hub app

I Had Low Expectations

I didn’t come on this cruise expecting the food quality to be particularly good. For the price I paid for the cruise it was amazing that any food was included at all but, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food in the main dining room.

I had a vegetarian Indian selection which definitely rivalled speciality vegetarian Indian meals I’ve had on other cruise lines.

However, as the cruise went on, I did find being a vegetarian onboard trickier than other cruise lines.

During this first dinner, I discovered the always-available chocolate cake, it was amazing and warm and gooey and I had it multiple times during our cruise. 

Carnival Melting Chocolate Cake
Carnival Melting Chocolate Cake

Every Dinner There’s a Show

Just as we were finishing up our main course, a voice came over the overhead speakers (or the Tannoy as we say in the UK) and said ‘showtime’.

At this point, some of the waiters disappeared and came back wearing colourful jackets and dancing between the tables.

The voice on the speaker said that they put on a show for us every night and that it was just about to begin. With this, a song started playing and a few of the waiters who were downstairs jumped up onto the tables.

This happened every night of our cruise. I imagine being a waiter on a cruise ship is an incredibly hard job as it is, and adding a dance into the middle of dinner must make it more difficult, but it was good fun and the waiters went all in with the dancing.

I hope they are able to pick who dances and who doesn’t. Imagine just being given your job assignment for the day and being told you’ll have to dance on that table mid way through dinner.

In fact, I’m pretty sure they did it more than once per evening – once for the people that had picked fixed seating and early dining, and once for the later diners. 

What Was Tipping Like Onboard?

I did see quite a few guests tipping their waiters in cash during this cruise, which isn’t something I’m used to. We do tip here in the UK if the service is particularly good, but it’s never expected and is just an extra for good service.

Carnival provide ‘automatic gratuities’, which means that you pay an amount per person per night to go towards the tips. I always recommend leaving these on so that you don’t have to think about tips again.

Most British cruise lines include tips in the cruise fare because we don’t have a tipping culture here in the UK.

To learn more about what auto gratuities are, check out this post: Cruise Gratuities: A Simple Step by Step Guide For First Time Cruisers

We Started With a Sea Day

Our first full day onboard was a sea day. I always like a sea day at the start of a cruise because it gives you the chance to properly explore and start to learn your way around.

I quickly learnt which way I could go to avoid as many photographers as I could, I’ve never seen so many photography stations set up each night and never have I been asked if I want a photo taken so many times on a cruise.

I did feel bad for the photographers who make a commission on the photos that they sell, but I didn’t want any photos taken and I’d have to decline having photos taken multiple times within a few metres if I walked down deck 5 in the evenings. 

I tried to just politely say no thank you and move on.

Were The Crew Nice?

The staff were always incredibly polite and friendly, there were plenty of crew members around and our cabin steward was really amazing. The waiters in the restaurants knew our names somehow and the service was always quick.

Quite often you’ll find that on budget cruise lines they’ve cut costs by cutting staff, but it didn’t feel like that. I think Carnival are so cheap because they charge for things that other cruise lines don’t.

For example, if you’re on a Princess cruise and go to watch a movie under the stars, you just pick up a bag of popcorn whereas, on Carnival, it was something like $5 for popcorn. It’s not a big difference, but just a different business model and it does add up. 

Deck 5 had the pub on it so it was an area I walked by a lot. Classic British person I know, always hanging out in the pub. 

I Bought a Soda Package

I had bought a soda package before the cruise for $8 a day and I definitely got my moneys worth out of it. I was so happy to see that soda was available in cans even on the drinks package.

On some cruise lines, there will be a soda package that lets you have fountain soda, but soda from cans still costs extra.

I did get my bill at the end of the cruise that listed every soda I had, I definitely got my money’s worth out of the soda package. 

I did find it a bit strange that every time we ordered a drink we had to sign for the drink. On most cruise lines it’s all done electronically or through wearable tech like Princesses ocean medallion. I haven’t signed for a drink in years and years.

It wasn’t a problem at all, and I see why they do it – in the hope that guests will add something to the tip line.

It did seem like an unnecessary complication, especially for the crew who had to press lots of buttons and print a receipt to get signed when, really, I could have just been handed a can. Despite this, the bar service was always good and we never had any problems. 

The Ship Has a Large Promenade Deck

Outside of the Pub was a lovely big promenade deck with lots of different types of seating and a BBQ joint, sadly there was nothing vegetarian on the BBQ menu so we didn’t eat here. I could have just eaten sides, but I didn’t come on a cruise just to eat sides. 

There Were Less Vegetarian Options Than on Other Cruise Lines

There was usually one vegetarian main in the main dining room, and then the always-available vegetarian Indian dish. The vegetarian food that I had was always very good, I just wish that there was more of it.

I always say ‘oh well it’s because it’s an American cruise line, they don’t have as many vegetarians in America’ but some American cruise lines like Virgin do an amazing job at Veggie and Vegan dining, so I think I’ll stop saying that. 

I never went hungry on the cruise and the staff were always happy to make me something off menu.

I spent the first 5 days of my 7-day cruise thinking there was no vegetarian option at Guy’s Burger Joint because it wasn’t on the menu, but I asked when it was quiet and they made me a veggie burger which was amazing. 

Carnival Has a Burger Restaurant Called Guy’s Burger Joint (Included in Cruise Fare)

Guy’s Burger Joint is a poolside grill restaurant created by Guy Fieri. Interestingly here it says established in 1968 so I assumed the restaurant was created then, it wasn’t. Guy’s Burger Joint was created in collaboration with Carnival in 2011 and 1968 is actually the year that Guy was born.

Off-The-Menu Vegetarian Burger from Guy’s Burger Joint

I loved the big promenade deck on the ship it felt as though almost nobody realised that the promenade deck was here, it was like having our own big private balcony where we could sit and enjoy a can of Pepsi, it was awesome. 

It’s important to remember that regardless of the cabin type you book you still have access to the same ship. Some cruise lines have private areas for suites or other things but, generally speaking, if you book an inside or an ocean view or a balcony, you still have the same places. When I have an inside cabin I just spend more time out and about on the ship, rather than in my cabin. 

On our cruise, the promenade deck was closed off at one end so we couldn’t walk all the way around but it was still a nice space. 

Guests Danced to Win Trivia

We did have a go at trivia but didn’t do particularly well, I’m honestly glad that we didn’t do very well because one day when there was a tiebreaker the two guests were invited on the stage to do a dance-off for the prize.

I would 10000% give up my prize if I had to dance for it, even if it was a huge amount of money you wouldn’t get me on the stage dancing. 

This was one of the differences I noticed on this cruise compared to cruising with British cruise lines or cruising on American cruise lines in Europe, the guests on this Carnival cruise were just so much more enthusiastic about audience participation. 

If you went on a British cruise and asked the guests to dance off to win trivia, you’d probably hear some not-very-nice words, but it was so much fun to watch and the excitement of everybody onboard was infectious.

We Hadn’t Seen Any Fights… Yet

Carnival call themselves the fun ships and they definitely were living up to that at this point. I hadn’t seen any bad guest behaviour or any fights yet but I knew that there was still lots of potential time. 

At this point I hadn’t stayed up particularly late because I was knackered from time walking around New York, we walked over 64km in two days. Knackered being thing we say in Britain for tired.

The drama and the fights always seem to happen around 5am though, so I knew I’d have to stay awake at some point. To be honest I think if you went to any club at 5am you’ll find some people fighting, it’s just that more people are there on a Carnival cruise than a cruise line like Princess where the nightclub is dead at 9pm. 

Visiting Saint John and The Pulp Mill

Our first stop was Saint John in New Brunswick and we went to see a fort and then onto what is called the Reversing falls. It’s basically an area where every day the water changes direction, or that’s what I’ve been told.

Walking up to the viewpoint I honestly was quite confused why everybody was taking a photo with this big scary building which I have since learnt is a pulp mill.

The Pulp Mill in Saint John, New Brunswick

It was around now that we started to hear mention of a hurricane that could affect our cruise, hurricane Fiona.

Carnival added a hurricane update channel to the TV so that we could track the route and speed of the hurricane. 

It was lovely to be in such a big open green place after spending time in New York, we walked around the residential streets and I could quite happily live somewhere like this, I love Canada and Canadians are just the best.

We Had Lots of Rain in Halifax and Sydney

We were incredibly lucky with the weather in Saint John but the same cannot be said for our next stops of Halifax and Sydney.

We did our best to see as much of the ports as possible but it was very much from under our hoods and through the rain.

Some people did buy Carnival cruise line ponchos which I loved, they looked like ghosts floating around. 

Me in Halifax, Nova Scotia

The Theatre Entertainment Wasn’t my Favourite (But May Not Have Been Typical)

Heading back to the ship we went to see the evening entertainment in the theatre. Every night of our cruise there was a different theatre show which was great, the type of shows weren’t my favourite but I’ve found out since that this might not be normal for a Carnival cruise.

On our cruise the shows were basically like compilations of songs sung by a group, they were great singers and great performers but I usually prefer more to be going on in theatre shows.

I have quite a short attention span and people standing and singing doesn’t really do it for me. I personally like costume changes and choreographed dancing and changing sets. 

Entertainment like this is very subjective though and a lot of the audience seemed to really enjoy the shows. They did have lasers so that was cool.

Since coming back from the cruise I’ve been told that there was a problem with the backdrop and set on our cruise so nobody could dance.

Whether that’s true or not I have no idea but I thought it was worth a mention, my entertainment experience might not have been a normal Carnival experience. 

I Loved The Theatre Design

The theatre was split over two levels and I loved the way that there were little tables on the lower level, being able to get out without making everybody else stand up is something I value very highly in a theatre.

There were quite a few seats with obstructed views, definitely up on the top level but we were always able to get a good seat if we arrived 15 or so minutes before the show.

Carnival Magic’s Showtime Theatre

It wasn’t just the regular theatre shows we saw here, we also watched Deal Or No Deal and we watched the Mr and Mrs game show.

Both were great fun and again as I mentioned earlier, the audience were very happy to participate which was great, everybody they had on stage were so funny and this was what I had expected from Carnival.

There Were No Covid Restrictions (September 2022)

I was also expecting things like the Mr Sexy Legs competitions or belly flop contests, but I didn’t see anything like that during our cruise. Some say those things went away because of covid but haven’t come back yet, which seems odd because everything else is completely back to normal.

There were no masks needed and no social distancing, the ship was back to full capacity, it was just like a pre-pandemic cruise.

The only difference really was that I would get more annoyed when people coughed out repeatedly into the open and I was much more aware of the lack of hand washing and sanitising than I would have been before.

The Lack of Hand Sanitising Did Make me Nervous

Usually, when you go on a cruise there are hand sanitisers and sinks everywhere.

Most cruise lines won’t let you into the buffet until you’ve washed your hands at the sink and they will stand there and watch you do it. There was nothing like that on the Carnival cruise, I was never told to sanitise or wash my hands and the sanitising machines weren’t where I expected them to be, like at the doors to the buffet there weren’t any there.

It wasn’t a big problem but because the buffet is back to self-serve, and everybody is sharing tongs again, I was just aware of it.

I would usually get my food, touching the tongs and everything and then sanitise my hands before sitting down to eat, sometimes I’d have to go quite far out my way to find a dispenser that actually had sanitiser in it but, in my opinion, it was well worth it.

I Loved The Deli Section of The Buffet

It might just have been because of the weird buffet layout that there weren’t many machines there. The buffet was split into two sections and one part by the deli has a speciality restaurant above it.

I ate from the deli quite often because it was here that you could order a sandwich or a wrap. They had a couple of vegetarian choices and it was nice to have something made to order.

Carnival Deli

They did the same with omelettes here in the morning and they always had LOTS of cake.

They had multiple bowls of cookies in the buffet and I thought I was a person addicted to cookies but my goodness, I saw people empty the big cookie bowl right in front of me! They would pile their bowls so high, I’ve never seen so many cookies being consumed on a cruise, but I loved it of course.

We would often take a plate of cookies back to our cabin in the evening and we would stop off at the pizza restaurant at the back and pick up a pizza. You could either order by the slice or the whole pizza, it was freshly made there and it was really close to my cabin which was helpful. 

Did Carnival Have Cookies?

They did have extra bigger cookies available to buy in a cafe onboard but I didn’t ever feel the need to buy any, sure the cookies in the buffet were kinda small but they were really tasty and i’d just take a couple each time.

I did buy a doughnut in the cafe at one point, which I think probably had my yearly recommended sugar intake in it, but it was good.

Apart from that the only extra money I spent on the cruise was $20 that I spent in the casino in cash. I actually won $30 which was amazing. I took out the money and went on with my life, I’m not much of a gambler.

The Casino Was Busy Day and Night

As for the rest of the passengers onboard though, I’ve never seen such a popular casino on a cruise ever! The casino was actually expanded in the last refit and is now split over two decks. Despite that though almost every machine and table was being used all of the time.

Guests could smoke in the casino and, because of the location, you do have to walk through it quite often to get to other places. That may have been why it seemed so much busier to me than on other cruises – if the casino is at the end of the ship I’ll rarely see or hear it, but here it was the most popular place on the ship. They even served breakfast here, which I think says a lot. 

Whenever the ship was quiet I’d think ‘hmm, I wonder where everybody is?’ and they’d either be in the casino or they’d be playing bingo. They seemed like the two most popular pastimes on the sea day.

Thankfully we JUST missed the hurricane and got back to New York in time so we didn’t experience any bad weather, a lot of the top deck areas were closed off because they were wet, but no more so than a normal rainy cruise. 

How Much Did I Pay For This Cruise?

Including my tips and drinks package, I paid $532 for this cruise, based on two sharing the cheapest guaranteed inside cabin, which I think is an amazing price.

It would be hard to find a hotel on land for that even if you didn’t include the food, drinks and entertainment. I never felt unsafe on the cruise and never saw any bad behaviour, in fact I think I’ve seen worst behaviour on almost every other cruise line.

The cruise that I took with Costa, which is basically the Italian version of Carnival was even cheaper than this one but it also was the worst-rated cruise on Cruise Critic. To find out how that cruise went, and why many of the reviews warned Americans to stay away, check out this video next. 

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