The most common question I get from all cruisers, new and experienced, is "Carnival or Royal Caribbean?" Sometimes people come to me knowing which line they want. Others either want my opinion or need help choosing. I've cruised on both lines, and I have graduated both of their education programs for travel agents (Diamond Level Graduate for Carnival and Master of Adventure for Royal Caribbean). So today, I'm going to take some time to answer that question.
Most of the ships on both lines have your standard things we have come to expect from cruise lines: staterooms, production shows, main dining rooms, buffets, mini golf, shopping, pools, hot tubs, ice cream, outdoor movie screens, adults only areas, and kids clubs. On any ship, you can do everything, or you can do nothing. There's no shortage of activities or relaxation. But what sets them apart is the atmosphere and extras that they offer. And each line offers something different, so which line you prefer will totally depend on your cruising personality.
Carnival is best known as the Fun Ship. That has been their brand campaign since I started cruising in 2013. "Fun Ship" definitely does not translate into "Party Boat". Granted, partiers will have a great time on the fun ships, but I feel like most of their activities are geared towards the social aspect of cruising and not necessarily the drinking rave party most people think of. There are more deck parties, interactive shows, and live music. Royal Caribbean is an adventure ship. If you are into adrenaline surges, unique perspectives, and being active on your vacation, this is the line for you!
As I said, Carnival has the fun. Within laws and reason, anything goes. It is a little more of a relaxed atmosphere than Royal Caribbean, and yes, I would have to say party atmosphere to an extent. One of my favorite things to do on a Carnival cruise is find the live music. Whether it's the band playing on the Promenade or a deck party by the pool, you'll find people dancing. Sometimes I dance, sometimes I people watch. But that is something that I didn't see a lot of on Independence of the Seas. Yes, there was music, and some of it was live. But most people were not dancing.
There are also interactive game shows on the Carnival ships. Hasbro the Game Show pulls contestants from the audience and has them compete in modified forms of Hasbro branded games. This interactive format automatically relaxes the atmosphere of the show and gives it a "party games" vibe. They also have the first roller coaster at sea on the Mardi Gras, so there's that. :)
Adventure: Royal Caribbean
With it's flowriders, zip lines, and 10 deck tall water slide, adventure is the name of the game for Royal Caribbean. And that's just one the ships! On the private island, Perfect Day at Coco Cay, you'll find the tallest water slide in North America, 1600 feet of zip line, a 450 foot high hot air balloon, and the largest fresh water pool in the Bahamas.
Both lines have really great kids programs. Full disclosure: We only took our son on Royal Caribbean, and we didn't use the children's program because he wasn't potty trained yet (the program is not complimentary if they are under 3 and/or not potty trained). We walked passed the kids area several times both on Carnival and Royal Caribbean and the kids were being well supervised and looked like they were having fun. On Independence of the Seas, the area is actually all windows so they can see the ocean and parents can look in. Friends have used the children's programs with their kids and again, it's a personality preference. Some kids like meeting new kids and making friends. Some kids would rather hang with their parents. I was more impressed with the water slide area for the kids on Independence of the Seas than on the Carnival ships that I've been on. We were allowed one small slide and splash pad since our son was not potty trained, and when it was overrun with older kids who had the rest of the water park area, a crew member came to enforce the age limit. This impressed me, because patrolling and enforcement is something I have never seen on the Carnival cruises. However, Carnival has Seuss at Sea and all that it entails for kids. There's the Green Eggs and Ham Character breakfast, a character parade, interactive story time, and more. The Carnival Horizon also has the Dr. Seuss themed Waterworks. The site says that the Horizon is the first of the ships to have this, so I'm hoping as more ships receive updates that they will get this water park.
I'll admit, with a toddler, I didn't get to spend much time in the adult-only area for Royal Caribbean. But to me, it wins out over Carnival. Why? It's larger, harder to get to (you have to be looking for it, you won't just stumble upon it), and felt more secluded. We have had experiences on Carnival that were less than stellar in the adults only areas (both with adults trying to disturb the peace in the area and with kids running around). Royal Caribbean just seemed to be more patrolled all around. Walking through the adult only area on Independence of the Seas was an immediate quiet and calm.
Both cruise lines have some really great ports. I love Carnival's Grand Turk, it's probably my favorite port to date. Royal Caribbean's Labadee comes in a close second for me. If you're looking at a short cruise leaving from a port close to home, you'll almost always wind up in the Bahamas. If you're willing to drive a little further (to Ft. Lauderdale or Miami), or take a longer 7 or 8 day cruise, more unique ports will open up to you. With few exceptions, the cruise lines will stop at the same ports. What I have noticed is that each line offers a different combination of ports on thier itineraries. For instance, if you are looking for a cruise with stops at both St. Kitts and St. Thomas, you'll want to book Royal Caribbean.
So, now that we've established the different personalities that each line may cater to, I realize I haven't answered what most people really want to know: Which line do I prefer? I honestly don't like to answer this question because it is a matter of preference and personality, and I don't want to skew anyone's decision based on my own vacation preferences. But, I've decided that just this once, I will give you guys an answer. :) Let me preface my answer to say that I LOVE CRUISING. If offered a free cruise from either line, I would not hesitate to take it. If I want to go back to Grand Turk, I will hop on a Carnival ship in a heart beat. If I want to relax at Labadee or check out the zip lines at Coco Cay? Book me on a Royal Caribbean ship! So, I don't hate either line. But, as a matter of preference, I like Royal Caribbean. I'm getting old, y'all. I'm to the point where I want to relax on vacation, with options for adventure. I liked the calm, relaxed atmosphere of Royal Caribbean. That's not to say that if I wanted to find a social gathering or party I couldn't have found one, or that there is no peace and quiet on Carnival ships. But I feel like it was a lot easier to come by on Independence of the Seas.
So what about you? Are you a loyal Royal or Fun Ship Fan?
Tales of a travel agent. Reviews, lists, and anything in between. *Opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of any travel companies mentioned. There may be affiliate links in these posts. If you use these links to make a purchase, I will receive a small commission.