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Carnival Dream - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

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First Impressions

The 130,000-ton, 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream is Carnival Cruise Lines' largest cruise ship to date, representing a brand-new class for a line that has been otherwise preoccupied with improving and expanding older classes of vessels. We'll invoke a favorite phrase -- "evolutionary, not revolutionary" -- to describe Carnival Dream, which, despite its largess, offers few genuinely innovative features and facilities beyond the line’s traditional favorites.

With this ship, Carnival has notably upped the ante for families, introducing several new cabin styles; one features dual bathrooms (just like Disney), and another can accommodate up to five guests, an anomaly on cruise ships whose staterooms tend to limit guests to four. There's nearly 20,000 square feet of space just for kids, including some nifty new features in the WaterWorks aqua park, like a 303-foot-long, four-deck-high corkscrew water slide -- the longest at sea -- and another 104-foot spiral slide that leads into a giant funnel.

Adults, meanwhile, get an expanded version of the line's Serenity area; new entertainment options including a dedicated comedy club, lively music-and-dance productions and laser-light shows; and fresh public spaces including an indoor/outdoor piazza on the promenade with cantilevered whirlpools.

Design-wise, Carnival Dream feels almost understated compared to its predecessors. That's not to say there's an inch of the ship that's not dripping with Vegas glitz -- when you enter the atrium with its flashing, multi-colored LED lights, you're still going to say "wow" -- it's just a little bit easier on the eyes. And that's not a coincidence -- interior designer Joe Farcus, who's worked with Carnival for 30 years and is also responsible for Italian-line Costa's outlandish interiors, tells us that that the design was "less 'high concept'" (read: "toned down") and more about creating an overall atmosphere.

It works -- this ship just screams "fun."

That said, one important thing to be aware of is that Carnival Dream -- and the Carnival cruise experience -- is at its best when passengers are utilizing both indoor and outdoor spaces, with a great many choosing to spend daylight hours sunning by the pool, playing mini-golf, tempting fate on the waterslides, strolling the promenade or escaping from it all in the adults-only Serenity area.

With the ship sailing seven-night alternating Western and Eastern Caribbean cruises from Port Canaveral -- featuring two and three sea days, respectively -- you better hope that you get good weather because the daily activities during our rainy preview cruise weren't enough to keep passengers occupied and dispersed ("Thriller" dance lessons? Fun! Bean bag toss … we'd have rather they added a matinee to the main theater).

Lines were a major issue everywhere onboard, particularly at the buffet and other dining areas, and at the ships bars and lounges.

The takeaway is, if you've got a damp day or, heaven forbid, a week of inclement weather, you will have to wait (and wait, and wait) for a slice of pizza and might have trouble finding something to do that doesn't involve sharing space with hundreds and hundreds of other cruise travelers. Still, despite the logistical challenges -- and the fact that they should have been better handled by the crew -- most of the folks we met onboard had fun. And, in a way, that's really what Carnival is all about.

Bedtime

Carnival Dream has introduced two new cabin categories of interest. One is category 7A, the "cove balconies" (185 square feet plus a 35-square-foot balcony). These cabins within the hull on Deck 2 feature verandahs close to the waterline; watertight doors keep out sea spray. I'd book one just for the added privacy -- they are partially enclosed, with metal rather than Plexiglas barriers, and lifeboats directly above prohibit others from looking down on you. Added bonus: They are less expensive than regular balconies.

The idea is not entirely new in the industry -- Cunard's Queen Mary 2 offers something similar -- but it is a fresh option from Carnival, and the cabins already have a bit of a cult following. A Cruise Critic member we met onboard turned down an upgrade to a higher level balcony cabin just so she could keep her cozy cove.

The second new style of cabin we like onboard Carnival Dream is its new deluxe oceanview staterooms (185-230 square feet). These cabins -- there are 193 of them -- have two bathrooms: one full, with a shower; and one with a "junior" tub (about the right size for kids), plus a shower and sink. Some can accommodate five (two twins that can convert into a king, two Pullmans and a sofa bed) -- an unusual head count, and a perfect choice for bigger families who don't want to book two cabins.

Beyond that, cabins run the gamut from small and standard insides at 160 and 185 square feet, respectively, to 345-square-foot Penthouse Suites with 85-square-foot balconies, private whirlpool tubs, dressing areas with vanities and special pillow menus. There are also spa-dedicated cabins that offer direct access to the Cloud 9 spa, spa amenities and priority treatment reservations. All staterooms include flat-screen TV's, a safe and minibar, and a really poor excuse for a hair dryer (pack your own). Peachy fabrics and light woods make up the rather muted decor.

A nice touch: All cabins feature bathrobes to wear during your cruise.

Editor's note: We were surprised to find a generously sized desk ... with only one 110 volt outlet. Be prepared to split charge time among your cameras, phones and other gadgets (or pack your own power strip)! Also, sound proofing is an issue, particularly in cabins with connecting doors (like ours) and directly under the lido (like ours). We might as well have had a slumber party with our neighbors, because we could hear them all night. Plan accordingly.

Mealtime

There are two main restaurants -- Scarlet and Crimson -- and it won't surprise you to learn that both are designed to suit their monikers with red hot lighting fixtures and fabrics. One or the other will offer an open seating breakfast and lunch daily (check your Carnival Capers for specifics), with both open nightly for dinner service.

Fairly new for Carnival is an open seating option for dinner; it is currently being rolled out fleetwide and is already available on Carnival Dream. The upper level of the dining rooms is dedicated to folks who choose this option at booking; guests can arrive anytime between 5:45 and 9:30 p.m. and will be given a pager if there's a wait. Otherwise, passengers are assigned a table on the lower levels for traditional early (6 p.m.) or late (8:15 p.m.) seating. You'll be asked to choose your preferred dining style at booking; it's first come, first served, but there is a waitlist that's cleared prior to sailing.

Service at dinner was generally friendly but painfully slow. Dishes were hit or miss, a disappointment as we've long considered Carnival's cuisine to lead the mainstream pack. My chateaubriand, ordered medium-rare, was beyond well done (ironic, as the only temperature choices available were medium-rare and medium-well) and had a strange, smoky flavor. On the other hand, a lobster tail ordered the previous night was tender and fresh, with lots of warm drawn butter and well-seasoned mashed potatoes.

The best and most consistent food onboard -- both in quality and variety -- can be found at the ship's lido buffet, the Gathering, particularly at lunch. One downside is that, despite an industry-wide move toward action stations, which enable diners to pick and choose from dedicated areas for salad bars, hot food and desserts, the buffet here is cafeteria-style. That means you'll still need to line up and wait for the main items -- the salad bar, desserts and daily selections.

Don’t miss, however, the handful of stand-alone counters scattered throughout that offer stand-out international eats. You can create your own Asian stir fry at the Mongolian Wok, or pile a tortilla a mile high with meat, cheese, vegetables, spicy salsa and guacamole at the Burrito Bar. Flavorful (and authentic) meat and fish curries, biryanis, warm naan breads and chutneys are on offer at the Indian Tandoor. Tucked up above it all is a Pasta Bar, where dishes are made to order -- you check off on an order form what combination of noodles, sauce and toppings you'd like, and a waiter delivers your hot Italian meal to the table.

These options are so fantastic, in fact, that we're stumped as to why the hours are so limited. The wok, burrito builder, tandoori oven and pasta place are all open during lunch hours only -- noon until 2:30 p.m. on our cruise. Extended afternoon hours at some or all would take pressure off the always-crowded 24-hour pizzeria -- not to mention the deli counter, open 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., and the grill, available from lunchtime through 6 p.m. The Pasta Bar space isn't even utilized beyond lunchtime and we'd frankly love it for a casual dinner -- all it needs is some white linen on the tables and a premade tiramisu for dessert.

Breakfast is also available buffet-style at the Gathering. Dishes available pretty much fall in the usual suspects category -- omelet station, cereals, breakfast meats, but we were intrigued by the egg quesadilla. Beware watery, flavorless coffee here ... actually, everywhere but the pay-per-drink cafe.

Carnival is going in a slightly new direction with its specialty restaurants, keeping the steakhouse cuisine but doing away with the Supper Club dinner-and-dancing concept. On Dream, this venue is called the Chef's Art Steakhouse. Frankly, we miss the cozy bar and dance floor of Supper Clubs past, but the food is as excellent as we remembered -- prime cuts of beef, fresh seafood and hefty, decadent desserts are well worth the $30 cover charge.

If you need a pre-dinner appetizer, swing by Wasabi, on Deck 5, for free-of-charge sushi.

A final option, available gratis around the clock, is room service. There's a variety of sandwiches on offer that are fairly creative -- thinly sliced rare beef and brie, mozzarella and roasted vegetables on herby focaccia -- plus, salads and sweets. Don't expect huge portions, though (our side of potato salad? Literally five little chunks). Continental in-cabin breakfast (pastries and breads, cereal, fruit, juice, coffee, tea) can be ordered by hanging a filled-out card on your doorknob before 5 a.m.

Editor's note: Carnival Dream has recently added an exclusive dining event for just 12 guests, called the Chef's Table. Reservations are available through the ship's information desk. For $75, diners can attend a multi-course dinner hosted by one Carnival's master chefs. The evening begins with a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley led by the chef, and concludes with a sumptuous dinner in a non-traditional dining venue, such as the galley or the library.

Grand Old Favorites

Serenity, Carnival's adults-only area that debuted on the line's Fantasy-class vessels, is back -- and bigger. Carnival Dream features the line's largest and first-ever two-level retreat for up to 200 grownups, spanning the forward sections of Decks 14 and 15. There's no charge to use the area (some lines, such as Princess, do charge for access to their adults-only retreats); the area features several seating options, including plush lounges, roomy wicker chairs with sunshades and hammocks; a full bar; and two private whirlpools. Serenity is protected by windscreens and accessible from the Cloud 9 spa via the glass elevator as well as two staircases.

Also back is the Times Square-style Seaside Theater screen, which displays concerts and movies throughout the cruise ("Star Trek 2009" drew a crowd, even though we were sailing through a nor'easter! Warm blankets were provided, a nice touch). Here's where you'll also get to experience Carnival's new laser light shows, synchronized to rock music by artists such as Pink Floyd, Rush, Styx and Van Halen while the bands' music videos play on the mega-screen.

New & Nifty

Our favorite new space onboard Carnival Dream is its Ocean Plaza, an indoor/outdoor piazza. It's a nautically themed gathering spot midship that spans port to starboard. On either side, floor-to-ceiling glass doors slide open to the ship's half-mile promenade completely encircling the ship. Off the Ocean Plaza you'll find what's called the Lanai -- al fresco seating and four cantilevered whirlpools, two port and two starboard. (There's also an outside extension of the Caliente nightclub.)

The Ocean Plaza is secondary to the atrium in that it acts as one of the ship's nerve centers and main meeting points, hosting games and activities by day and live entertainment by night; there's a coffee and ice cream shop here, open until midnight -- expect to pay about $2 for a cappuccino or pastry -- as well as a full-service bar that offers complimentary snacks at various times throughout the day.

Carnival has also introduced several new shows, including "Dancin' in the Street," excellent for the caliber of its dancers and the variety of music, from the Rolling Stones to Gwen Stefani. There's an increased focus on comedic performances onboard Carnival Dream, with the Burgundy Lounge serving as a comedy club for five nightly shows -- three of which are kosher for the kids (no cussing or suggestive commentary) -- several times a week.

Huh?

The jury's still out on the new Fun Hubs concept, which is Carnival Dream's answer to the traditional Internet cafe. Rather than cluster the Web-connected computers in one space, Carnival has instead spread 36 "Fun Hubs" across Decks 3, 4 and 5 (one dozen straddle the Ocean Plaza and Jackpot Casino; there are also a bunch in the atrium and the tween and teen spaces). These computer portals offer Internet access -- the painfully slow and expensive kind -- as well as a free-to-use ship intranet.

With the intranet, the line is hyping its own ship-wide social network, called Funville. Guests create their own profile, send and receive messages, post "status updates" (similar to that of Facebook or Twitter), and invite others to events based on interests ("meet up for Scrabble in the library at 2 p.m."). Intriguing ... but will it catch on? On our two-night cruise, booked way beyond double occupancy, very few passengers seemed to have gotten the hang of Funville -- chatter was at a minimum, and the poll on the main Funville page had less than 20 votes.

Beyond Funville, the free intranet does serve a quite useful purpose, and that's by providing a digital list of what's going on, where and when. You can easily sort activities by type (music, games) and location (atrium, Ocean Plaza) -- handy if you've left your daily Carnival Capers newsletter behind in the stateroom.

Kid-Friendly Factor

Carnival Dream is a family friendly ship, with 19,000 square feet of space onboard for kids -- 5,000 square feet in Camp Carnival alone, which encompasses special spaces and programs for kids aged 2 to 11 (crafts toys and games for the 2- to 5-year-olds, video games for the 6- to 9-year-olds, karaoke and foosball for the 10- and 11-year-olds). This is all located midship on Deck 11.

Meanwhile, tweens and teens get their own hangouts close enough to (and yet far enough away from) the adult spaces to be "cool." Circle C, for 12- to 14-year-olds, and Club 02, for 15- to 17-year-olds, are both located on Deck 4, just below the dance club and other main nightlife areas. Circle C offers tweens the best of the teen club -- Wii, a dance floor, movie screenings -- without lumping them in with actual teens who don't want to be bothered with younger kids. Club 02, meanwhile, gives picky teens their own dance club with a dedicated DJ and soda bar. This space borders the Warehouse, the ship's video arcade.

Teens can also participate in Carnival's unique Y Spa program, with treatments especially for young passengers.

Most exciting though, at least for the big kid in me, is the Water Works area with its delightful assortment of sky-high slides and chutes. First, there's the 303-foot corkscrew slide -- the longest at sea. Then, for the less adventurous, there's something called the Drainpipe; essentially, it's a giant funnel at the end of a smaller spiral slide that spins you around and around before depositing you back on deck. Finally, there are side-by-side racing slides (80 feet each), a mini slide especially for small fry and a number of other water features from sprayers to dumping buckets.

Bottom Line

Despite the crowding challenges, the ship is bright, bold and fun. Just before dinner one night, we noticed a young, very curvy woman in a revealing dress draped over a couch in a formal portrait pose. At the same time, an elderly woman glided by in her wheelchair hooting "Hey, sexy!" It put a smile on my face for the whole rest of the night and drives home the fact that Carnival's ships really do appeal to a wide swath of the cruising public, young and old, from first-timers to families.

--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor

--Photos are courtesy of Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines.

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