Carnival Cruise Lines
These time-tested favorites are the line's original megas, and their whimsical decor and endless entertainment and activities spell excitement from the get-go -- though they do feel outdated compared to Carnival's newer classes.
Typical Per Diems: $50-$110
Ecstasy sails the Caribbean from Galveston (year-round).
Elation sails the Caribbean from Mobile, AL (year-round).
Fantasy sails the Bahamas & Key West from Charleston (year-round).
Fascination sails the Bahamas & Key West from Jacksonville, FL (year-round).
Imagination sails the Caribbean from Miami (year-round).
Inspiration sails the Caribbean from Tampa (year-round).
Paradise sails Ensenada, Mexico & Catalina Island from Long Beach, CA (year-round).
Sensation sails the Bahamas from Port Canaveral (year-round).
These Fun Ships and their risqué names offer a successful combination of hands-on fun and a glamorous, fantasyland decor, with acres of teak decking plus all the diversions and entertainment choices for which Carnival is famous. They really are fun! (Or are they cheesy? It's such a fine line.) Each was built on the same cookie-cutter design at Finland's Kvaerner Masa shipyard (at a cost of $225 million-$300 million each . . . a bargain compared to the $600-million-plus price tag of a new ship today), and they are nearly identical in size, profile, and onboard amenities, with different decorative themes. These ships have been run hard and they look a bit worn out compared to their newer fleetmates, but you won't notice a thing after a couple of Carnival Fun Ship drink specials!
From the first ship of the series (Fantasy) to the last (Paradise), the ships' decor evolved toward a relatively mellow state (note: relatively). Fantasy features a Roman-themed entertainment promenade inspired (loosely, of course) by the ancient city of Pompeii, with a faux-stone floor, terra-cotta urns, Doric columns, and electric torches -- but where's the flowing lava? In late 2003, the ship underwent her first major refurbishment, which included a brand-new atrium bar (like the ones on the Elation and all newer ships), completely overhauled cabins, a redesigned promenade, and new carpeting and wall coverings throughout much of the other areas.
Ecstasy follows a city-at-sea theme, with no shortage of neon-metallic skyscraper imagery. Fascination is big on flashy fantasy, with a retina-shattering chrome atrium and a heavy Broadway and Hollywood theme, while Sensation avoids obvious razzle-dazzle in favor of artwork enhanced with ultraviolet lighting, sound, and color. Aboard Imagination, miles of fiber-optic cable make the mythical and classical artwork glow in ways the Greek, Roman, and Assyrian designers of the originals never would have imagined. Inspiration was reportedly inspired by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Fabergé, and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright -- though in a . . . brighter style. You'll find a Greek mythology theme on the Elation that's all about Carnival-style "classic" columns, flutes, and harps, while the Paradise pays tribute to classic ocean liners. The newest of the Fantasy-class ships -- the Paradise and the Elation -- sport a few improvements over their sisters, including an expanded kids' playroom and the hublike atrium bar. Atrium bars are now standard features on Fantasy-class ships. By the way, the Paradise, touted as the line's only completely nonsmoking ship when she debuted in 1998, changed its policies in late 2004; you can now light up in designated areas, just like on the rest of the fleet.
The Fantasy-class ships are in the midst of a multimillion-dollar face-lift that has added, or will soon add, an expanded children's water park, the creation of the Serenity adults-only deck area, flatscreen televisions in staterooms, 98 more cabin balconies, a new Circle C facility for the 12- to 14-year-olds, a new atrium lobby bar and a new coffee bar, and a 9-hole miniature golf course. By early 2010, Sensation, Imagination, Inspiration, Fantasy, Ecstasy, and Fascination had received the upgrades, while Elation and Paradise both have many of the new features except for the water park and redesigned main pool.
Accommodations range from lower-deck inside cabins with upper and lower berths to large suites with verandas, king-size beds, sitting areas, and balconies. Standard cabins are roomy (at least 185 sq. ft.) and minimalist in design, with stained-oak trim accents and conventional, monochromatic colors such as salmon red -- subdued compared to the flamboyance of the public areas. The cabins are not big on personality, but are functional and well laid out. There are 26 demisuites and 28 suites, all with private verandas. Each of the 28 330-square-foot suites has a whirlpool tub and shower, an L-shaped sofa that converts into a foldaway bed, a safe, a minibar, a walk-in closet, and sliding-glass doors leading to a 70-square-foot private balcony; they are positioned midway between stern and bow, on a middle deck subject to the least tossing and rocking during rough weather.
All cabins, even the least expensive inside ones, have enough storage space to accommodate a reasonably diverse wardrobe, and feature a safe, TV, desk and stool, chair, reading lights for each bed, and a bathroom with a roomy shower and generous-size mirrored cabinet to store your toiletries (only suites have hair dryers and minifridges). Over the past few years, all cabins were spruced up and given new extrathick mattresses, duvets, linens, and pillows, along with fluffy towels and bathrobes.
About 20 cabins on each ship are suitable for passengers with disabilities.
In addition to a pair of big one-story dining rooms with windows, there's a large indoor/outdoor casual buffet restaurant (which was recently spruced up on the Ecstasy). You'll also find specialty coffee bars and patisseries selling gourmet goodies for a couple of bucks a pop. There's a complimentary sushi bar serving fresh, tasty sushi in late afternoons on all ships, with sake available for an extra charge.
Each ship boasts the same configuration of decks, public lounges, and entertainment venues, including a six-story atrium flanked by glass-sided elevators, casinos, Internet centers, and at least eight bars, plus several (usually packed) hot tubs. The cluster of disappointing shops on each ship is surprisingly cramped and won't be winning any design awards; it's much better on the newer ships.
All Fantasy ships have new 9-hole miniature golf courses and new children's play areas for all ages through teens.
Pool, Fitness & Spa Facilities
Although totally blah in the decor department, the 12,000-square-foot spas and fitness areas are well-enough equipped. Each has a roomy, mirrored aerobics room and a large, windowed gym with more than a dozen workout machines plus free weights. Each has men's and women's locker rooms and massage rooms (both areas surprisingly drab and institutional feeling), as well as a sauna and steam room, whirlpools, and two or three swimming pools, one of which has either a three-deck-high spiraling water slide or an even more elaborate Waterworks slide and splash zone. The Sun Deck of each ship has an unobstructed 1/8-mile jogging track covered with a rubberized surface. Both the spas and the gyms aboard the Imagination, Inspiration, and Sensation were updated in the last 5 or 6 years.