(11 a.m. EDT) -- It's perhaps the most-anticipated cruise ship of the past few years, and it's finally here: Carnival's Mardi Gras pulled out of Port Canaveral this weekend on its first revenue sailing.
The build-up for the 6,465 full capacity-passenger ship has been intense, with a lot of firsts -- not only for the line but for the industry. A roller coaster at sea! The first cruise ship in North America powered by liquified natural gas!
(We're not sure if it's technically the first ship with an atrium built on the side of the vessel rather than in the center -- even the Carnival architects couldn't answer that -- but it sure is different.)
For the Carnival, Mardi Gras represents a big step forward. The ship has a decidedly more upscale vibe, while still keeping all of the factors that keep Carnival fun and familiar. The first ship in Carnival's Excel Class, Mardi Gras is also much larger than previous ship classes; it's a full 35 percent bigger than the ships in the Vista Class.
After having a few days onboard -- and taking part in a question-and-answer session with two Carnival executives -- Glenn Aprile, director of new builds, product development, and Petu Kummala, senior director of interior design and architecture -- here are our first impressions of this ground-breaking ship.
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The Bolt Roller Coaster Is Awesome
Any discussion of Mardi Gras is bound to start with Bolt, the first roller coaster at sea. It's an impressive attraction that is executed well. If you're looking for a genuine shot of adrenaline, you're going to get it.
Carnival architects had wanted to do a roller coaster for a long time, Kummala said, but it wasn't until Mardi Gras where everything came together. "Everybody knows what a roller coaster looks like. We sketched it, but then to make it happen ..." he said, his voice trailing off.
Mardi Gras was built at the Meyer Turku shipyard in Finland, but the Bolt component was actually developed and created in Munich, Germany. The track is 800 feet long and rises 187 feet high. If you take a look, the track starts at the back of the ship and winds all around the funnel.
Unlike a typical roller coaster, where you're sitting in a car, the Bolt vehicle is similar to a motorcycle, where you straddle the center. No dresses or bathing suits are allowed when you ride, and you have to wear closed-toe shoes. (This code is enforced; we saw people being turned away for wearing the wrong thing. And don't try showing up with a GoPro; you're absolutely forbidden from having anything on you that might drop or fall, including sunglasses.)
You might look vulnerable sitting on the Bolt coaster, but trust me, you are strapped in tight. The handlebars can turn to accelerate, and there's a boost button too, getting you up to 40 mph.
But you might forget to accelerate when the car starts up with a jolt. It feels faster than it is, and the track is also fairly twisty. I'm not ashamed to admit that I screamed like a banshee as I went around the turns. The views from the track are undoubtedly fabulous but I was concentrating on holding on as I hurtled around the funnel.
And then just like that, the ride is over. It probably takes about 15 seconds or so to do a loop; the $15 fee gets you one round. The rush is real -- I came off the ride laughing out of exhilaration -- and ready to do it again.
The Cabins Have Smart Design
On a ship that goes for all the thrills -- besides Bolt, you'll also find a ropes course and five waterslides -- the designers wanted your cabin to feel like a sanctuary. "We wanted to create a calm yet fresh atmosphere," Kummala said. "Mardi Gras is very energetic. When you go to your cabin, you can decompress and relax."
Almost anyone with a smart phone -- and you need one on this ship, where all the menus require you to scan QR codes -- will immediately notice the USB plugs right near the bed. Less apparent is the cool design of the leather ottoman which not only opens up for more storage, the top turns over into a tray for your room service breakfast.
Storage in the wardrobes is also modern, with shelves that can flip up and move out of the way, if you need more room for hanging clothes. No more dumping your shoes in the corner; there's a shelf just for them.
Even the small nightstands are designed specifically for modern habits; the top shelf is exactly the size for a phone, while the bottom shelf fits a bottle of water. We like it, a lot. A standard veranda cabin also has a sofa that pulls out into a bed.
The bathrooms do feel tight, but the folder glass doors on the shower make a huge difference and are an upgrade from the clingy curtains that came before. There's also a shaving bar for your legs.
A Side Atrium Works (For the Most Part)
When asked what feature they were proudest of, Aprile and Kummala mentioned the Grand Central atrium. Forget what you think about other Carnival main atriums; the one on Mardi Gras is definitely different.
For one thing, it's on the side of the ship, as opposed to the middle. A 3,000 square-foot wall of windows provides a backdrop to the three-story Center Stage space, but there's also a screen that can come down, changing it into a secondary performance venue. (Which is necessary, because the main Mardi Gras theater only has one floor, seating 900 guests.)
"We can offer incredible productions in this space," Aprile said. "We didn't want it to feel like an empty theater. We wanted people to feel connected to the sea."
Having multiple venues for entertainment and dining were crucial for Mardi Gras, Aprile said, so guests could spread out and avoid logjams. (We still saw a few, but it's early in the cruise.) Center Stage is self-contained on the left side of the ship, meaning passengers can continue to walk through the area when the lights are dimmed without disturbing the performance.
The Center Stage area spans decks 6, 7 and 8, with varying seating options. On the first floor, there's a bar, and a mixture of seating, with tables and bleacher-style banquettes. (You're also close to JavaBlue, the ship's premium coffee bar, but be warned, this is a place where lines are always a given.) The Deck 7 seating is cantilevered with more comfy banquettes facing the stage. And, finally, on Deck 8, there are still sofas, tables and chairs facing the stage, with good sightlines.
We watched a performance on Center Stage, right after seeing one in the Mardi Gras theater. While the Mardi Gras theater has the ability to handle the lights and lasers of the line's Playlist Productions, we actually preferred the sightlines and airiness of the atrium area.
Save for the lines at JavaBlue, Grand Central never felt crowded. Because the massive Mardi Gras casino takes up the left side of the ship on Deck 7, though, I did find that I was winding my way through the banquettes to avoid going through it. There are still parts in the casino where smoking is allowed, and no one wants that odor stuck in their hair. (The other option is simply to cross the ship on Deck 6 or Deck 8.)
One thing I did appreciate about set up was being able to walk through a ship atrium without having to get entangled on whatever is happening on the stage. Sometimes you just want to get from here to there, especially if you're late for "Friends" trivia.
Spacing Out Lido Deck Dining and Drinking Is a Good Idea
The same concept of directing people to multiple smaller venues, as opposed to just the buffet and the main dining rooms, was also behind the design of the Lido Deck food venues. Instead of grouping them solely around the pool, venues are placed throughout Deck 16, as well as Deck 17.
New is Street Eats, a trio of counters meant to mimic food trucks. Steam Dream offers Asian-inspired buns and dumplings; Mad Sizzle has kebabs, satays and pad Thai, and Time Fries has French fries loaded with toppings. All are complimentary, although the Seafood Shack next door is not. And all are tasty and just the right size for a poolside lunch. (The popular BlueIguana rounds out venues immediately off the pool.)
Lido diners might wonder whether perennial favorite Guy's Burgers has disappeared. No worries; it's just been relocated to Deck 17 and greatly expanded. The new location is much more spacious, and does draw crowds away from the main pool. It's also closer to the children's area and sports complex.
Turning RedFrog into a two-story tiki bar that spans decks 16 and 17 was also an inspired way to reduce crowding. "Our guests and people love the Red Frog," Aprile said. "It's an example of how we're able to offer something familiar in a new and exciting way."
Finally, if you're looking for Shaq's new restaurant Big Chicken, you'll find it all the way at the back of the buffet, near the aft pool. We were rightfully excited about this addition to Carnival's free options, and the sandwiches deliver, in taste and choice.
The French Quarter Neighborhood Has the Best Bars
Having a New Orleans themed area -- and all of the six neighborhoods onboard the ship, Aprile said -- was always in the plans for Mardi Gras. The architects showed us early mood boards for the area's two bars, the Brass Magnolia and the Fortune Teller Bar, that look exactly like the finished product.
As a former NOLA resident, I am partial to anything that pays homage to the Crescent City that is done well -- and happily, the French Quarter is. It's a natural place to gravitate in the evenings.
Brass Magnolia has New Orleans-jazz, as well as well-executed hurricanes and sazeracs. Aprile referenced the Garden District as inspiration, but the space reminded me more of the bars in New Orleans' grand hotels (where you better know how to make an excellent cocktail). Even the white jackets and black bow ties worn by the bartenders were on point.
The Fortune Teller Bar challenges more of that kooky, spooky energy that you find in a New Orleans cocktail bar. With velvet sofas and a mirror-lined wall, the faux bordello vibe encourages you to linger. If it's quiet, the bartender might read your palm.
But it's really the creative drinks that are the stars here. The Abracadabra changes colors, once you add in pineapple juice. The Bayou Smoke does literally that, adding a backwoods taste to a cognac cocktail. The combo of atmosphere and cool drinks has made the Fortune Teller my go-to evening -- Happy Hour? Late afternoon? -- bar.
The Patio at Summer Landing Is a Less-Crowded Daytime Option
If I'm at the French Quarter at night, then my daytime hang seems to be the new Summer Landing and the outdoor patio area that surrounds it on Deck 8.
The pool here is larger than the aft pool up on Deck 16, and it never seems to be as crowded. The closest bar, The Watering Hole on the right side of the ship, has a cocktail menu centered solely on refreshment. You have seating here, both in and out of the sun, that's super comfy.
If you're hungry, an expanded version of Guy Fieri's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse is just inside. The Heroes Tribute Lounge no longer features a bar on Mardi Gras, but even better, there's soft serve ice cream and frozen yogurt served out of a military truck.
Pool, bar, loungers, ice cream -- and fewer crowds. Really, what else do you need?