After 15 cruises on 6 other cruise lines, we took our first Carnival cruise on the brand new Mardi Gras. We've always looked at Carnival from afar and weren't sure if we would enjoy sailing them. But a family cruise brought us to Mardi Gras giving us the chance to compare the Carnival experience to Princess, Disney, Celebrity, Holland America, NCL, and Royal Caribbean. How did this ship compare to the others and more importantly, would we book with Carnival again?
Surprisingly smooth for the largest ship we've ever sailed, we heard 5500-5900 passengers onboard during the week. We had a 10:30am check-in time and arrived at the parking deck around 10:10am. There was the expected small traffic backup getting in, but staff directed me to a bag drop off quickly. I then proceeded to the parking, you will be charged when you park the car, it was about $130 for the week when we were there. The parking garage is supposedly big enough to support three ships during the course of one week so Carnival is obviously planning to use Terminal 3 for more ships in the future. It's an easy walk over to the terminal where we found dozens of check in tables. We used the VeriFLY app and literally had our information checked in less than 5 seconds. By 10:25-10:30 ish we were in the big waiting area with Boarding Zone B7 or B8 and the boarding was scheduled to begin at 11:00am. While it was definitely crowded in there, we had plenty of seating for everyone. They called the first boarding zone at 11:00am and we were walking onto the ship at about 11:20am. The boarding was that fast, it was wonderful.
I'm putting this here first because I know a lot of folks need to use them. Avoid the midship elevators as much as possible, they are always crowded. The elevators in the very front are the least crowded with the ones in the aft second best. My wife has to use the elevators due to bad knees and she never had any issues getting elevators in the very front or the very back of the ship.
We were in Cabin 12371 which is an extended balcony cabin on deck 12. While slightly narrower than other cabins we've had on other ships, it was well appointed, we really liked the efficient design and the bed was much more comfortable than we've had on other ships. The bathroom is a bit tight, but efficient and does have a glass door so no shower curtains snagging you. The lighting was really sharp, especially the lighting around the mirror and the lighting behind the bed. The real winner of this cabin was the extended balcony that could easily hold two lounge chairs and 10 of our best friends. We had adjoining cabins with other family members and opened up the three balconies together. We used those balconies more than just about any cruise as it was just like hanging out on the front porch.
AFT CABIN NOTE:
We typically LOVE aft balconies on cruise ships as we really enjoy sitting out and listening to the prop wash and ship wake. However on the Mardi Gras, the aft cabins are not actually on the very aft of the ship, they are on full display to the pool and 'boardwalk' area on Deck 8. There is zero privacy out there and with the pool open until at least 10pm each evening, you may not have a quiet area out there in the evenings. Additionally, there is live music playin in the Pig and Anchor Smokehouse that you might hear coming up to your balcony. If you are considering the aft balconies, take a good look at the pictures of the aft of the ship and know that you will not have a quiet retreat to get away from people back there, you will be part of the main action with the folks on Deck 8.
You can watch this cabin tour to see more about Cabin 12371
Mardi Gras has the most included dining of any ship we've ever sailed. Food was a real mixed bag with one of the best meals we've ever had on a ship to one of the worst. I will say it looked like F&B was understaffed as the buffet was often full of dirty dishes on tables and some of the dining venues suffered from poor service.
First the app and reservations. The app was FANTASTIC, we never had to wait in line, just let the restaurant know we were ready and the app told us when the table was ready. We had 10 minutes from the time we were notified to get to the restaurant. We had Your Time Dining which gave us the flexibility to have dinner any time. It also gave us a VERY important advantage to eating at Cucina del Capitano and ChiBang! At 5:30 each evening the restaurants popped up on the Carnival App and if you have Your Time Dining this included Cucina and ChiBang! along with the MDR. We had no issues at all getting tables when we wanted at any of those venues, usually within 15-20 minutes.
If you have Fixed Time Dining, you cannot request a table from Cucina del Capitano or ChiBang! until 7:00 or 7:30pm. They won't activate on your app until that time. We heard from some folks they could not get a table because by the time the app opened for them, seating was either full or no tables until after 9:00pm. Guy's Pig and Anchor Smokehouse was also supposed to be on the app, but that was just a standard "line up and wait."
I have a full dining review on my YouTube channel but here's the basics:
Shaq's Big Chicken: One of the best chicken sandwiches I've ever had, better than Chick-Fil-A. I could have survived the entire week on these alone, I really enjoyed the Big Aristotle. Skip the breakfast sandwiches though, they're meh.
Blue Iguana: Loved this place for breakfast, highly recommend.
Street Eats: Fries were meh, Dumplings were meh, the Sizzled Meats were excellent.
Seafood Shack: I had the crab cake sandwiches, they were ok, I don't think this is worth the upcharge.
Buffet: Smallest and most uninspired buffet of any cruise line we've sailed. We had one lunch here, not much to say about it other than the fact that nobody was washing their hands or using sanitizer before using the tongs, and folks were walking through the lines in their bare feet and wet bathing suits. Note that Gelato, Shwarma and Hot Dogs/sausage station is closed for dinner.
Guy's Burgers: I never ate here, but our family members did and said it was an "ok" burger and based on that, I never tried it, I just stuck to Shaq's Chicken.
Guy's Pig and Anchor Smokehouse: If you're going to eat here, go the very first night when they have the BBQ Filet Mignon. That was a fun dinner. We went back a few nights later and it was one of the worst meals we've ever had on a cruise ship. Poor service, cold food, poorly prepared food and to top it all off, ice cold apple cobbler. 🙂
Cucina del Capitano: Highly recommend the lunch on sea days as they have a bruschetta appetizer they don't serve at night. It's not the best Italian food at sea, but it's good and we had lunch and two dinners here because it was a fun place to have dinner. The staff was awesome and I recommend the pistachio pesto pasta.
Pizza del Capitano: Our second favorite pizza at sea, it was really good. Badly understaffed so there could be times you'll be waiting 20-40 minutes for a pizza because there might only be one person working there, but it's really good pizza.
Piazza Panini: First off, these are not paninis. They're just warmed up sandwiches and while they're included with the dining, they're just not that great. You can probably make a better sandwich yourself in the buffet.
ChiBang!: It was disappointing if I'm being honest. Stick to the Asian side of the menu, it's much better than the Mexican side. We did it one night and planned to return before the cruise, but it was a one and done for us.
Rudi's Seagrill: The best restaurant on the ship, and the second best meal we've ever had at sea. Top to bottom, absolutely amazing meal and service. Highly recommend the sizzling shrimp appetizer, the crab stuffed lobster tail main course or the crab cake main course. At $42/pp it's a steal.
Farenheit 555: We did not eat there but family members did and said it was really good, second behind Rudi's but really good.
Bonsai Sushi: If you really like sushi, avoid this restaurant. You'll get much better sushi on other ships and land based restaurants and the ramen bowl was terrible. I had one spoonful of bland, watery broth and sent the entire thing back.
Bonsai Teppenyaki: Only has three tables, we were not able to get a reservation. If you want to try this, book it the moment dining reservations open up.
Emeril's Bistro: Our mother-in-law got a shrimp omelette for breakfast one morning and really enjoyed it.
Fresh Creations Salad Bar: An awesome hidden treasure in the Serenity Adult Retreat up front, next to the bar. Highly recommend this for an awesome lunch salad vs. dealing with the buffet.
In short, you won't go hungry on the Carnival Mardi Gras.
You can also watch an overview of our dining experiences.
Cocktails & Coffee
Usually a ship has one really good bar that gets jammed up every evening, but Mardi Gras has four really good bars and while some can get busy for stretches, they really spread the folks out at night and I never had a problem getting a drink from my bar of choice. Of the four main bars, Alchemy, Fortune Teller, Brass Magnolia and Havana Bar, the Fortune Teller was surprisingly my favorite. I honestly thought it was just going to be a bunch of gimmicky drinks based on the vlogs I saw prior to sailing. But Fortune Teller served outstanding drinks with awesome bartenders with the New Moon being the standout drink for me on the entire ship. If you are a fan of Mezcal, I highly recommend this drink, if you don't like mezcal, avoid it. 🙂 The Brass Magnolia was my second favorite bar onboard as it has a great jazz vibe. I never did get to the Red Frog because it was always so packed during the day.
For your daily coffee, go to Bar Della Rosa, not Java Blue. Far better coffees there. And if you want the best coffee on the ship. go to the Havana Bar and get one of the three Cuban Coffee selections. Oh man I was in heaven having access to Cuban Coffee all week, it was simply the best coffee I've had on any cruise ship.
Pools, Serenity and Activities
Mardi Gras has a really nice selection of pools with two infinity pools on Decks 8 and 16 at the aft which are quite nice. The main Beach Pool was the main happening spot with a lot of music and the big screens. If you're looking for shade near a pool, in general there seemed to be more at the aft pools than the main beach pool.
The Serenity Adult Retreat was lovely, and huge. It has a really nice pool up front, awesome daybeds and loungers and quite a lot of shade for those looking for shade. Set yourself up on the opposite side of the ship from the sunrise and you should be able to have shade for quite some time. The pool is lovely and as I mentioned previously, they have an awesome salad bar for lunch each day that so many people don't know about.
Trivia in the Limelight Lounge each day was a lot of fun, some of the better trivia games we've played at sea along with NCL and the Fun Crew were absolutely hysterical. We really enjoyed the wide range of trivia games on this ship.
The Bolt is the first roller coaster at sea and it will be interesting to see how long it remains in operation. Roller coasters break down more than any other attractions at land based theme parks, so add in the corrosive nature of the ocean salt water and I'm not sure it was the wisest idea to put a roller coaster on a ship. It was down the week before our sailing, but it did operate most of our week, albeit with issues. When my sister in law and nephew did it, her car was running much slower than his and they both had the throttles wide open. Her car had broken down just before her timeslot and it was clear it still wasn't running right. It's $15 per person, per ride. In my opinion, not worth it.
The mini golf is a lot of fun, though they have something more akin to wiffle balls for the golf balls, they're not regulation weight golf balls like most other cruise lines. That takes getting used to but otherwise fun. Water slides are awesome and the Sports Court was packed all day long.
It was interesting because it felt like the Theater shows were the "B" shows and the Grand Central shows were the "A" shows on the ship. The theater shows were ok, not the best original entertainment, but not the worst. We made it through Rock Revolution but bailed on the Broadway Beats show. The Grand Central shows were really interesting, though we only got to watch one of them because you have to be there about an hour early if you want a seat where you can see everything. They do a lot of stage extensions that are not visible from the upper level seating so you end up missing a lot of what's going on. We never got there early enough to be in a seat where we could see everything. If standing is ok for you, the bridge area on Deck 8 coming from the casino is a great place to stand and watch the shows. Beyond those two areas, there were a lot of great folks throughout the ship from acoustic guitar to violin trios to full bands. Entertainment was definitely fun on board. We never went to the comedy club because, again, you have to be there really early to line up because it's a small venue.
This was a cluster. We were told to be out of our rooms by 8:00am and we could wait on decks 8 or 16. We were NOT to be on Deck 6 because that's where the disembarkation was happening. We did Self Disembark meaning we had all of our luggage with us and were simply going to walk off the ship, no need to claim any bags. On every other cruise we've done this, we're the first ones off the ship with the Suite guests, and sometimes before the suite guests. This gets us out of the way because we walk off with our luggage and go.
My first piece of advice is to go up to Deck 16, have breakfast at the Blue Iguana and wait there for your disembarkation to be called. By doing this, you're assured to get onto an elevator because you will be among the first getting into it.
The way disembarkation was supposed to work was they would release the self-disembark guests by Muster Station. One hour into the process and they still had not called our Muster Station. They had called three others and 10 baggage zones, but we were still on the ship waiting for the Muster Station to be called. By this point, friends on a Facebook forum who sail Carnival all the time said to just leave, they would not check us on the way out. So that's what we did. Elevator down to Deck 6 and off the ship.
And then it is a LONG walk to get to the parking garage. Much longer than the walk into the terminal. But I will say it's all ramps and sidewalks, no stairs anywhere so that was really good design and planning by Carnival. Since we were well over an hour into disembarkation, there were at least 100 people waiting to get into one of three elevators in the parking garage. As we were parked on level 2, I simply carried the luggage up to level 2. BUT you don't have to. If you walk PAST the elevator area with your luggage, you will see the ramp where cars come down from the parking garage. Simply roll your luggage to the side there and you can load your luggage into the car, instead of taking the luggage up to the parking level.
For our first Carnival cruise, we enjoyed it. I would compare this favorably with the Royal Caribbean Voyager and Freedom Class and the NCL Breakaway class. NCL specialty restaurants are better, but the overall vibe and feel of the ship compared favorably with those two. I hope they get the F&B staff up to full strength because those folks are working really hard and could use some more help. The cabin was a lovely surprise, we knew it would be pretty nice, but it's one of our favorite cabin designs of the ships we've sailed. The cocktails were surprisingly good and I would put them up there with most any ship except Celebrity. Celebrity makes the best cocktails. We would definitely sail Mardi Gras and her sisters again and we'd like to try out the Vista class as well. If you enjoy Royal Caribbean and NCL, you'll probably find a lot to like about the Mardi Gras.
Here's an overview from our YouTube channel and you can find individual episodes on the Mardi Gras and many cruise tips on our TikTok Channel.