When Carnival Magic appeared on the scene in 2011, the cruise industry sat up and took notice. Although the 3,690-passenger ship wasn't first in its class -- that honor fell to Carnival Dream -- the vessel boasted several firsts for the Fun Ship line, including Cucina del Capitano Italian specialty restaurant, the RedFrog Pub and its signature Thirsty Frog Red Ale, the SportSquare outdoor recreation area and the first ropes course at sea.
Years later, Carnival Magic may no longer be the fleet's most innovative, yet it holds up as a floating destination that offers something for everyone. A wide range of cabin types, including family "quints" that fit five people, make it perfect for the packs of friends and family we saw onboard (in matching T-shirts, natch). Dining may not be fancy, but you can choose from the key cruise food groups: burgers, burrito, brats and barbecue, as well as Asian, Indian, deli and pizza -- at least at lunch. The number of choices falls significantly at dinner.
Activities, too, are designed for a wide range of interests. If you like games, Carnival Magic has you covered; besides group participation favorites like Hasbro the Game Show and Liars Club, the daily program was packed with options like Yahtzee, Scattergories, Clue and a Jenga-type tower game in the lobby (plus shuffleboard in the RedFrog Pub and pickup pool, Ping-Pong, beanbag and mini-golf options around the ship). Dance lessons, casino tournaments, spa specials, a robust kids club program -- Carnival Magic throws it all at the wall -- and passengers respond with enthusiasm.
All this stuff, though, comes with a price -- and that's lines. On our summer sailing, with the ship at well more than double occupancy, the queues were persistent, to the point where the crush cut into our enjoyment. Thirty minute waits (or more!) for popular eateries, like Guy's Burgers and Mongolian Wok, were the norm, not the exception. Tickets for Punchliner Comedy performances were gone hours before the show. Serenity Deck clamshells were claimed by 8:30 a.m. Getting off in port for excursions felt like a blood sport. Even trivia sessions were jam-packed, with teams of eight monopolizing the tables, forcing smaller groups to stand or even sit on the floor.
So where did we find our Zen? Attending the daily RedFrog Pub trivia quiz -- it's cumulative, so you play with the same people for the entire cruise for a more intimate experience. Sticking to off-hours for dining and getting up early for morning coffee helped, as did making Deck 5, with its four hot tubs and relatively underutilized lounge chairs, our sunning headquarters. Despite the sheer number of people onboard, we found the vast majority spent money on drinks instead of for-fee offerings so opening up the wallet a bit for specialty restaurants and the wonderfully expansive Cloud 9 spa also put the crowds at a distance. The cheer of the crew also kept us going; with a room steward that brought us copious amounts of ice and towel animals, as well as an outgoing entertainment staff, it was hard to stay irritated for too long.
Do we believe in Magic? After a week onboard, we'd answer with a quantified yes. As long as you pack your patience and are prepared to shift your routine slightly -- or conversely, see beating the lines as a game in its own right -- you'll emerge rested and relaxed, with plenty of Fun Ship memories. And really, what else can you ask for?
Carnival Cruise Line is mandating a fully vaccinated policy for those 12 and older on Vista sailings from Galveston. Within the limits of the CDC's definition of a "vaccinated" cruise consisting of 95 percent all passengers and crew, vaccination exemptions are possible with preapproval, including for children.
Carnival ships are sailing with reduced overall capacity, currently around 70 percent.
Off the ship
Carnival Magic draws a diverse base, with passengers from all over the United States and even a few foreign countries (mostly Canadian, English and German tourists tacking on a cruise to their Florida vacation). You'll see plenty of families and friends traveling together, most wearing matching cruise shirts. English is the sole language onboard.
Daytime:During the day, beachwear reigns, with most people wearing swimsuits and cover-ups, or T-shirts and shorts.
Evening: Carnival Magic has two styles of dress at night: Cruise Casual and Cruise Elegant. On the latter nights -- usually two per seven-night cruise -- the style can vary greatly, from families dressed in their fanciest get-ups (for the photo ops available throughout the ship) to those who simply put on khakis and a sundress. Essentially, it's anything goes, except shorts in the main dining room: If you decided to downplay the formal wear, you won't be the only one and if you want to put on the Ritz, go ahead and do that too. When the ship's this big, no one style stands out.
Not permitted: Shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops, bathing suits, caps and men's tank tops are not permitted in the main dining room or specialty restaurants during dinner, but few people are turned away for wearing them.
For more information, visit Cruise Line Dress Codes: Carnival.
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The service was brilliant, entertainment was good, ship was okay, but the destinations were subpar.