I’m sitting — well all right, slouching — in a honky tonk bar where the piano man is playing on a stage that revolves and customers put dollar bills in his Mason jar when they request a tune. It’s probably not the kind of place I’d be hanging out in after midnight if I was at home.
But here on the Carnival Dream, it seems like just the right place to be, as the pianist drawls out a boozy rendition of Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar.
Maybe it was the tequila or the somewhat surreal scene, but I started reflecting on the advantages of sailing aboard a big ship like this. There was not only this bar, but a whole entertainment district. All I’d have to do was walk out the door to check out an uncensored adult comedy club, a bluesy jazz bar or a disco. Don’t try this at home, or on a small cruise ship, where one auditorium fits all.
Carrying 3,650 passengers — nearly 700 more passengers than Carnival Cruise Lines’ previous ships — the Dream and sister ship Carnival Magic (as well as the coming Carnival Breeze, which will start sailing in June, 2012) are the biggest in the Carnival’s fleet of more than 20 ships.
For years, I’d been drawn more to a smaller ship, believing you can’t get personalized service in a floating city. But in a discussion with Carnival’s master of showy design, Joe Farcus, I discovered wasn’t alone in being pleasantly surprised by the choice and personal service I found aboard Dream.
Let’s look at what happens when you go big:
More choices, busy or quiet
A ship on large scale is not what people would choose intuitively, says Farcus, who is chief ship architect for Carnival. “If you gave people who have never been on a ship a choice and asked them whether they’d like to sail with 3,000 passengers, 2,000 passengers or 500 passengers, most people would say 500,” he says. “But if you show them that by going on a 3,000-passenger ship you get an exponential number of features and entertainment options, it changes the whole equation.”
Carnival’s ships have been gaining size because “People don’t want to feel forced to either do one thing or nothing. They want to be able to choose between column A, B and C, and big is the only way to do that,” Farcus says.
People do spread around. I never felt that I was in a crowd anywhere on the Dream. even on normally busy areas like the pool decks, and outdoor theater, there always seemed to be free lounge chairs.
There are multiple choices for fun, including a water slide and four whirlpools on the outer edge of the deck, with a view straight down to the ocean.
If you prefer to do nothing by day, there’s the Serenity area available only to guests over 21. Much larger on Dream than on previsous Carnival ships, the two-level area has sun, chairs with umbrellas or shade areas and its own whirlpools.
Food with a personal touch
Carnival has moved far away from the concept of the long buffet you have to stand in line for, to food stations scattered around the lido area. Because of that, there were many opportunities to get food cooked to order.
There may have been a bit of a wait to put together your own custom blend of meat, veggies and spices to be stir fried at the wok station, but the queue moved quickly because the chefs use the latest magnetic induction cooking surface, where heat is only generated at the bottom of the pan, avoiding a lot of heat as well as smoke.
One of my favorite lunch buffet choices was the Indian curry bar that’s tucked away at the stern of the ship and was never crowded at all, which meant I could even ask for a fresh cooked flatbread and get it straight from the oven. A fair number of crew in the kitchen are Indian, so the daily offerings were authentic.
And a real innovation is the Cucina del Capitano, a sit-down Italian trattoria, with a big staff making fresh-made pasta to order.
More family options
The big ship has added appeal for families, catering to a wide diversity of ages and cultures, Farcus says. The fastest growth in cruising has been in multigenerational family vacations and the attraction goes beyond just having multiple choices.
“While it’s virtually impossible to keep track of teenagers staying at a resort in Mexico, the enclosed world of a ship is different: They can go their separate ways and you know they’ll not only have fun but won’t come home drunk and broke,” he says.
On Dream, there’s a whole district on one deck devoted to kids programs with trained counsellor for each age group. Popular additions for the normally jaded teen-age set were the two separate disco-like retreats, one devoted to ages 12 to 14, the other to those aged 15 to 17.
The Dream class ships also feature unique cabin layouts that have special appeal for families, including the deluxe ocean view stateroom has two separate washroom facilities. “Family quint” suites with outside view but no balcony can sleep a family of five comfortably.
Too many evening choices?
Back to my reverie: I do love this old bar, called Sam’s. With its circular bar surrounding the stage so you can interact with the pianist and sing along. But other nights I made the rounds, at the karaoke club, the disco, the jazz lounge and casino.
The comedy club drew me back several times, with its changing roster of comedians who have appeared on television comedy and improv shows. When I was on board, the host and warm-up act was Jeff the Dude, a well known Miami stand-up comic. Then each show featured full routines by two different comedians, so you could go several times and not repeat routines.
They don’t dumb the comedy down, either. Earlier shows are more family friendly and the jokes get raunchier and restricted to adults later in the evening.
Another advantage that turns many mega-ship passengers into repeat cruisers is the smooth ride. Big ships can cut through waves better than smaller ships, so you don’t feel the motion of the ocean to the same extent. Even though we hit a rain storm overnight on our way to Cancun, I didn’t even realize it had rained until I opened the drapes the next morning and saw my balcony was wet.
My verdict on Carnival Dream: More really can be better.