Boat owners tell us that renaming a ship is not something to be taken lightly. It’s said that Neptune, God of the Seas, keeps a ledger of all ship names. A detailed ceremony is prescribed for any boat owner who dares to ask Neptune to purge a vessel from his records.
We’re not big on superstitions. But when the inaugural cruise of a ship newly named Sunshine inches away from the dock in Venice and rain begins to fall, can you help us for wondering if proper homage to the gods might have been overlooked?
Of course, it wasn’t the brief bout of rain we were really concerned about. No, we just wanted our cabin to have air circulation, running water, and a toilet that flushed. We weren’t the only ones.
When Carnival Destiny first arrived on the scene in 1996, it was the largest passenger ship ever built, a true pacesetter for both Carnival Cruise Lines and the cruise industry overall. But since its debut, Destiny has been overshadowed by newer, flashier ships from Carnival and its competitors. Although periodic renovations added various amenities, Destiny was increasingly in need of a major upgrade to bring it more in line with the newest members of the Carnival fleet. So when a $155 million project was announced to radically overhaul Destiny inside and out, we took notice.
The makeover plans would transform the vessel, adding new decks, 182 new cabins, new restaurants and bars, and a new water park with three speed slides. Destiny would also emerge with a new name: Carnival Sunshine. An unusually long 49-day dry dock in Trieste, Italy was scheduled for the work, with Sunshine’s first sailing set for April 12, 2013.
The project became an increasingly important one to get right. Carnival Cruises has recently had a rough few months, the worst part of which was the now-infamous Carnival Triumph fiasco in February 2013. That ship suffered an engine room fire and lost power at sea; with 4,229 guests and crew aboard Triumph limped back to port under tow, lacking such basic services such as power and plumbing. In March Carnival announced it was making a significant investment fleet-wide in improved operating redundancies; in the services availed when running on generator power; and to fire prevention, detection, and suppression. The first ship to undergo these improvements would be Destiny, and to complete the work, the ship’s initial two sailings were cancelled, barely a month before sailing.
Unexpectedly, our booking for the May 5 cruise out of Venice turned out to be Sunshine’s inaugural voyage.
What Went Wrong on Carnival Sunshine’s First Cruise
Although a press junket to show off the renovated Sunshine is just around the corner, you won’t find us aboard. Instead, at Reviewed.com we travel anonymously and pay market rates for our trips to ensure that our experience is just like that of any other paying passenger.
When we checked in for our cruise, we were handed a letter that said our cabin would not be ready until 5 p.m. “We still have a few finishing touches to add,” the letter stated. For the inconvenience, we were told, Carnival had already applied a credit of $114 per person to cabin accounts.
In fact, we were not able to enter our cabin until almost 8 p.m.—and this only following a 2-hour, 10-minute wait in line at Guest Services after our key card wouldn’t open the cabin door (there were no batteries in the electronic lock). But this was just the start of our fun. Other issues with our inside cabin included a toilet that wouldn’t flush, no air conditioning or ventilation, noxious smells from welding and other aspects of ongoing construction, and no functioning phone, TV, or safe. Most of the problems were addressed, one-by-one, over the next 24 hours but as our cabin temperature approached 80 degrees that first night, our nostrils filled with fumes.
Aboard Sunshine we heard of many other types of cabin issues, some worse than ours. These included cabins with no power, lack of curtains, leaks, flooded carpets and soaked luggage, ceilings exposed leaving ductwork and wires hanging, and more. Guests who lacked hot water in their cabins made a trip to the spa for showers. We feel confident saying that not all cabins were impacted at the outset, perhaps not even a majority of Sunshine’s accommodations. But there were dozens if not hundreds of cabins that were not ready for occupation on May 5. The vast majority of these appeared to be on Deck 9 and above; cabins on lower decks seemed to be reporting few defects.
Troubles were hardly limited to accommodations. Among the annoyances we encountered in the public areas of the ship during our cruise:
• The main pool was empty and closed; there was no visible evidence of what was being done to address this essential feature.
• The WaterWorks area—featuring three towering water slides—was closed off through the ninth day of the cruise.
• SportsSquare—including the jogging track, the mini-golf course, and SkyTrack (an elevated ropes course)—was also closed off.
• An outdoor children’s play area for Camp Carnival was unfinished.
• Construction and repairs were ongoing throughout the ship, handled by a temporary crew of workers.
• Finicky or non-functioning elevators.
• Water leaks and flooded carpets.
• Ceiling lights in the main dining room and elsewhere that fluctuated up and down every minute or so.
• Dirty, rusty or worn areas of the top decks at midship that were not refurbished during dry dock.
• Because the main pool and WaterWorks weren’t open, kids were allowed to use the Serenity Adults-Only Retreat (not that anyone complained, considering the circumstances).
It’s no surprise that a certain number of undetected issues can be exposed on an inaugural sailing, but the sheer quantity and degree of problems and the number of passengers impacted on Carnival Sunshine was inexcusable. While most of the issues related to guest comfort or amenities and features promised by Carnival, we also had safety concerns. For instance, at embarkation, at two outdoor staircases leading from Deck 10 down to Deck 9 an essential wooden plank was missing at the top step, causing a one-inch metal lip to be exposed. We observed multiple able-bodied guests stumble here, catching themselves before a fall; a temporary fix was not fashioned for this hazard until the third day of our cruise.
And some of the fiascos involve what we can only call poor planning. We said we’re not suspicious types, but we do love Stevie Wonder’s classic hit “Superstition,” and Carnival Sunshine’s new nightclub—Liquid Lounge—has the kind of sound system the song’s whomping bass line deserves. Unfortunately, the nightclub’s ad hoc space, located in the main venue for stage shows, was not designed to be a pounding disco and lacks proper sound insulation. Guests lodged on Deck 6 immediately above Liquid Lounge—roughly 40 cabins worth—could hear every thump of the nightclub, hallway walls rattling with every beat (this may also be a problem for cabins on Deck 3, underneath the lounge, but we did not personally confirm this). If we were in one of these accommodations and wanted to get to sleep by midnight, we’d be furious.
Between various loud, relentless plugs for shore excursions, Sunshine’s cruise director never seemed to find time to acknowledge that not everyone was having “fun,” Carnival’s mantra. But on the fourth day of the cruise, at noon, there was an announcement from the Captain, who said: “I apologize for the closure of WaterWorks, SportsSquare and the main pool. My team is doing everything possible to open these areas as quickly as we can.” The full statement seemed sincere and heartfelt, and it was followed up with a letter to everyone offering another $150 credit, per cabin, for the inconveniences. Guest relations staff also provided additional credits—a percentage of the original cruise fare paid—on a case-by-case basis to those who experienced more extensive headaches.
What Carnival Got Right
The old Carnival Destiny has been upgraded with some solid features. We’ll address all aspects soon, in a detailed review with photos, but until then, standouts include:
• Ji Ji Asian Kitchen—This is a new restaurant concept for Carnival, and it’s a winner, along the lines of the PF Chang’s chain, but better. There’s a $12 surcharge to dine here, but the food and presentations are right on, with an emphasis on fresh. Warning for those sensitive to spicy food: The menu doesn’t indicate which dishes are hottest, and some are sizzling.
• Other food venues were generally operating well, especially Carnival’s trademark steakhouse, Fahrenheit 555, and the main dining room. We particularly liked the variety of locations and items available at breakfast, a big improvement over Carnival options only a few years ago.
• Alchemy Bar—Sunshine is the fourth Carnival ship to receive this venue, where bartenders in doctor’s jackets prepare tasty elixirs. We tipped back a couple of their recommendations and found them to be just the right prescription. The Havana Bar, perched behind the Lido buffet area, was overlooked by most during the day, but late-night this became a relaxing nightclub with enjoyable live salsa music.
• Epic Rock—Though interrupted with technical glitches during the third performance, this entertaining stage production is a fist-pumping tribute to late 1970s and 1980s arena rock, with all the expected glam costumes and posing. BYO hair extensions.
• Serenity Adults-Only Retreat—Covering three decks and with a waterfall spilling into a circular pool, this is perhaps Sunshine’s defining aspect. Visually it’s great. But we have one complaint: The area is short on quiet space. Whatever’s on the sound system at the main pool is audible, sometimes blasted towards Serenity (which has its own music track playing, quietly); worse, the forward section of Serenity’s top deck is close to noisy exhaust vents that roar 24 hours a day.
• WaterWorks—Opened only towards the end of our cruise, we think this area promises to be one of the most popular water parks at sea.
• Cabin interiors and common areas have been brightened and freshened, in a style that will be familiar to guests who have sailed on Carnival Breeze. Gone are the brash design elements and tacky neon and day-glo color schemes.
A standout of the Carnival operation overall is professional ship crews that are upbeat, helpful and solution oriented. The frontline crew on Sunshine was no exception and they brought a good measure of grace and understanding to work every day—no small task considering the trying circumstances during this cruise. If only Carnival’s upper management was as customer oriented.
We anticipated that, when Carnival added 182 guest rooms, increasing the ship’s capacity by almost 400 bodies, crowding might be an issue. It wasn’t. We were told there were approximately 2900 guests aboard (a figure that might have included temporary workers as well as guests that disembarked early), but the ship’s common areas didn’t feel jammed. We found seats for shows in the Liquid Lounge as late as showtime nightly. We’re not sure if this was due to a different type of crowd from the usual Carnival cruise (many guests were European, and slightly older), but other than embarkation day we did not experience crowd control issues aboard Sunshine.
Still, these aspects aside, it was hard not to feel that Carnival execs were using guests on Sunshine’s inaugural cruise as guinea pigs to iron out problems that should have been identified and resolved before we boarded.
So, is it time for the “I survived Carnival Sunshine” T-shirts?
Of course not. We don’t have numbers, but we’d guess that a majority of Sunshine cabins had no defects, or only minor ones, and that most (though not all) of the problem cabins were resolved by the time we disembarked. After the sloppy departure from Venice, many passengers were able to focus on this itinerary’s superb Mediterranean ports of call and seemed to be having a great time. But this does not excuse Carnival: Their “new” ship was clearly not ready for passengers, with many cabins flawed or uninhabitable along with a number of promised upgrades incomplete. If we had the ear of Carnival’s executives, here are the questions we’d want some straight answers to:
• How did Carnival Cruise Lines plan so badly that they initially thought 7 weeks in dry dock would be sufficient for completing the massive upgrades? As it turned out, not even 10 weeks was enough.
• On March 19, when Carnival announced it was canceling Sunshine’s first two cruises (April 12 and 24), why weren’t guests who were booked on the May 5 sailing—some of whom were anxious about problems on a ship fresh out of dry dock—allowed to change their plans without penalty?
• Carnival had to have known that Sunshine would not be 100-percent ready for its May 5 sailing—days, if not weeks beforehand. Why weren’t guests contacted before departure and given the option to change their travel plans, or at least alerted to probable issues? The WaterWorks area was a particular selling point for some—why weren’t families with children notified?
• Who signed off on finished cabins, indicating accommodations were ready for guests when, obviously, many were not?
• Why didn’t Carnival bring aboard a more manpower just to deal with front desk issues as they cropped up, so that impacted guests didn’t have to wait in two-hour lines?
• Since Carnival misfired so badly with Sunshine’s inaugural cruise, will guests currently booked on the initial sailing of the renovated Carnival Triumph on June 13 be allowed to change or cancel their bookings without penalty?
In many ways, we like the product Carnival Cruise Lines offers. True, the ships are often noisy and boisterous, and sometimes much of the crowd seems to be more focused on drinks and tans than on the beautiful ports we call on. But when one looks at the quality of accommodations and meals provided, and the prices charged, Carnival is the closest thing to a good value product in the cruise industry. We like the fact that Carnival doesn’t sell itself as something it’s not—there’s plenty of room in the market for vacations that aren’t pitched to the luxury sector.
But when we board a ship—whether it’s a brand new vessel or one well past its prime—there are certain basic functions we expect to receive in our cabin, and heavily promoted amenities should be available. Instead, our experience aboard Carnival Sunshine seemed indicative of a parent company that suffers from poor planning, is inept at public relations, and has been cutting corners, presumably in the interest of the bottom line.