The 8 classes of Carnival Cruise Line ships, explained
Thinking about a cruise on a Carnival Cruise Line ship? You’ve got a lot of options.
Carnival operates 24 vessels, with one more scheduled to join its fleet in 2022. That’s more vessels than any other major cruise line except Royal Caribbean, which also has 24 vessels.
In general, Carnival’s 24 ships are big ships. But with one exception, they’re not giants by today’s standards. Carnival just took delivery of its first truly giant ship in years, the 181,808-ton, 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras. It’s currently scheduled to start sailing in June. But other than Mardi Gras, Carnival’s biggest vessel, the 4,008-passenger Carnival Panorama, measures just 135,000 tons. That’s about 40% smaller than the biggest ships operated by Royal Caribbean.
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Eight of Carnival’s 24 vessels measure less than 100,000 tons, which makes them almost midsize by today’s cruise ship standards.
This is a notable change for the brand from just a couple decades ago. There was a time when Carnival operated some of the biggest cruise ships in the world. But for many years, it has held back from following rivals such as Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises in building ever-bigger ships. Mardi Gras is now the only Carnival ship on the list of the world’s 40 biggest cruise ships.
The arrival of Mardi Gras marks a major turning point for the line. At 181,808 tons, it’s the eighth-largest cruise ship in the world and 35% bigger than the line’s next-biggest ship. A second ship in the series — Carnival Celebration — will arrive in 2022.
The good news for those of you trying to get a handle on all the options within the Carnival fleet is that the line’s 24 ships can easily be bunched into just eight groups of vessels that have similar amenities. If you know one member of the group, you know them all.
Each of these groups — known as “classes” in cruise industry lingo — is made up of ships that were constructed around the same time to the same basic design.
An introduction to Carnival Cruise Line ships
As mentioned above, Carnival’s 24 ships can be broken down into eight distinct groups, or classes. But a key thing to know about Carnival ships is that there are a lot of similarities from class to class within the Carnival fleet.
Unlike some lines such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival doesn’t always drastically change the design of its ships from class to class.
Instead, Carnival usually takes an incremental approach to design changes for its new classes of ships. You’ll find a lot in common between the Vista Class and Dream Class, for instance. And these two classes aren’t all that different in feel than the earlier Splendor and Conquest classes of ships, though they are a bit bigger.
That said, Carnival is in the midst of a major change in its philosophy on ship design. It’s new Excel Class vessels, which are just debuting this year, are far bigger than its earlier ships and have a lot of new features and amenities (including the first-ever roller coaster on a cruise ship — and, no, we’re not making that up!).
For many years, Carnival steered clear of the trend to bigger ships in the industry. Executives thought the ever-bigger vessels being deployed by such lines as Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises were too big to make for an enjoyable cruise experience. But Carnival is now switching gears and joining in on the race to ever-bigger ships — no doubt because the giant ships that have been unveiled by some other lines have been enormously popular with cruisers.
At Carnival, as at other lines, the biggest ships in the fleet have the most amenities, with more eateries, lounges, bars and deck-top attractions than the smaller ships. This can be a big plus if you’re the kind of person who likes a lot of options when vacationing. But Carnival’s biggest ships also sail with more passengers, which can be a turn-off if you’re the kind of traveler who likes a more intimate experience.
In general, Carnival’s biggest and most amenity-packed ships are its newest ships. If you’re looking for a cruise experience with the most possible onboard activities and venues, you’ll want to steer towards the vessels in Carnival’s new Excel Class and its relatively young Vista and Dream classes.
If cruising in a more intimate environment is your preference, you’ll want to look at some of Carnival’s older classes of ships including the Spirit Class and the Fantasy Class.
Ships in class: Mardi Gras (2021); Carnival Celebration (coming in 2022)
Size: 181,808 tons
If you’re in the “bigger is better” camp when it comes to cruise ships, this is the Carnival class for you.
At around 181,000 tons, Carnival’s two new Excel Class vessels — Mardi Gras and Celebration — are 35% bigger than the line’s next biggest ships and offer more eateries, lounges, bars and deck-top attractions than any other ship in the Carnival fleet by far.
Designed to take Carnival’s “fun ship” shtick to a new level, the ships are so big that, as noted above, they’ll have room for roller coasters on their top decks — a cruise industry first. They’ll also have a far broader array of suites than earlier Carnival vessels.
Among new dining venues on Mardi Gras will be the first Emeril Lagasse restaurant at sea as well as the first Big Chicken eatery at sea. Big Chicken is a chain created by basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, who also serves as a Carnival spokesperson.
For the record, neither Mardi Gras or Carnival Celebration has sailed yet with paying passengers. Construction of Mardi Gras finished several months ago, but its debut — initially scheduled for 2020 — has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s now scheduled to begin sailing with paying customers in May. The second ship in the series, Celebration, is still under construction and expected to debut in 2022.
Sailings on both vessels now are open for bookings.
In addition to featuring roller coasters, Mardi Gras and Celebration will be notable as the first ship from a North America-based line designed to operate on liquified natural gas. The fuel is touted as being cleaner than traditional ship fuel.
One caveat to keep in mind if you’re thinking of booking an Excel Class ship: They will sail with a very large number of people. If being around crowds bother you, these may not be the ships for you. The vessels are designed to hold a whopping 5,282 passengers at double occupancy. With every pull-out sofa and pull-down bunk filled, they can hold up to 6,630 passengers.
Ships in class: Carnival Panorama (2019); Carnival Horizon (2018); Carnival Vista (2016)
Size: 135,000 tons
With the arrival of Mardi Gras, the Vista Class ships no longer are the biggest and most amenity-packed ships in the Carnival fleet. But they still offer a lot of options when it comes to eateries, bars, lounges and deck-top attractions — more than you’ll find on most other Carnival vessels.
All three have big waterparks with waterslides on their top decks as well as miniature golf courses, ropes courses and multiple pool areas. They’re also known for their pedal-powered, suspended-in-the-sky SkyRide attractions.
Carnival Vista and Carnival Horizon also have IMAX Theaters — the first in the cruise industry. Carnival Panorama, meanwhile, has the first trampoline park ever put on a cruise ship, a partnership with Sky Zone.
There’s also a smorgasbord of restaurants, bars and lounges. Among the many offerings on these ships are Carnival’s first breweries at sea. On Carnival Panorama and Carnival Horizon, Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse | Brewhouse offers beer brewed on site along with barbecue dishes designed by the Food Network’s Guy Fieri.
On Carnival Vista, there’s a standalone brewery and a separate barbecue venue.
Other eateries on the ships include casual, Guy Fieri-designed Guy’s Burger Joints, Chipotle-like burrito spots called BlueIguana Cantina, sushi outlets and steakhouses. There also are Italian eateries called Cucina Del Capitano and Asian venues called JiJi Asian Kitchen. Carnival Horizon and Carnival Panorama also have Teppanyaki restaurants, and all three Vista Class ships have dedicated chef’s tables that are located within their galleys.
The Vista Class ships were, notably, the first ships in the Carnival fleet to boast exclusive, keycard-restricted cabin areas — a trend that has been growing at many mass-market lines. There are two such areas on each of the Vista Class ships, Havana Cabanas and Family Harbor — the latter specifically geared to families.
Note that the waterpark area on Carnival Horizon is particularly alluring if you’re a Dr. Seuss fan. Unique among the waterparks in the Carnival fleet, it has a Dr. Seuss theme.
The ships hold about 4,000 passengers each, based on double occupancy.
Ships in class: Carnival Breeze (2012); Carnival Magic (2011); Carnival Dream (2009)
Size: 130,000 tons
Carnival’s Dream Class ships are roughly the same size as its Vista Class ships, and the two classes have a lot in common. But there are few key differences.
For starters, the Dream Class ships don’t have IMAX Theaters or trampoline parks. Those both were innovations that debuted with the Vista Class ships. They also lack exclusive, keycard-restricted cabin areas and some of the eateries found on Vista Class ships.
Still, for the most part, if you’ve been on a Vista Class ship, you’ll immediately feel at home on a Dream Class ship.
Like the Vista Class ships, some of the Dream Class ships have ropes courses on their top decks and, in one case, a 4D “thrill theater” — both innovations that first debuted on Dream Class ships. Ropes courses are found on Carnival Dream and Carnival Magic. Carnival Breeze has a thrill theater.
Dream Class ships also offer waterparks with waterslides on their top decks, miniature golf courses, sports courts with basketball and volleyball and multiple pools.
Interior venues on Dream Class ships include Punchliner comedy clubs, piano bars, casinos and showrooms for big production shows. The array of dining is similar to what you’ll find on Vista Class ships with Guy’s Burger Joints, BlueIguana Cantinas, steakhouses and the Italian eatery Cucina Del Capitano on all three vessels.
Two of the three ships — Carnival Breeze and Carnival Dream — also have sushi eateries, and Carnival Breeze and Carnival Magic have Carnival’s Caribbean-inspired watering hole, RedFrog Pub.
The ships in the class hold 3,646 to 3,690 passengers, based on double occupancy.
Ships in class: Carnival Splendor (2008)
Size: 113,300 tons
Carnival Splendor is an outlier in the Carnival fleet — a ship that makes up a class all its own. That said, it has a lot in common with the ships of Carnival’s Conquest Class ships (see below).
Originally designed and ordered for Italy-based Costa Cruises — a sister brand to Carnival — the ship is actually a sister vessel to Costa’s four Concordia Class ships. But it will be familiar to anyone who knows Carnival ships. That’s because the design of Costa’s Concordia Class was based upon the design of Carnival’s Conquest Class, and the two classes are very similar.
The main difference between Carnival Splendor and its Conquest Class cousins is that the former has an enlarged and redesigned top deck area. The structure around the main pool of the ship is noticeably different, with a retractable, glass-topped magrodome that you won’t find on the Conquest Class ships, as well as a water play area for kids. The ship also has a bigger spa area.
Other than that, though, Carnival Splendor is basically a variation of the Conquest Class ships. Size-wise, it’s just a few thousand tons bigger. It holds 3,012 passengers, based on double occupancy.
Ships in class: Carnival Freedom (2007); Carnival Liberty (2005); Carnival Valor (2004); Carnival Glory (2003); Carnival Conquest (2002)
Size: 110,000 tons
At 111,000 tons, the Conquest Class ships (and Carnival Splendor, noted above) are about 20% smaller than the newer Vista Class and Dream Class ships. As a result, they have somewhat fewer amenities.
Still, you’ll find a lot of the classic Carnival “fun ship” attractions on these vessels including water play areas with waterslides, miniature golf courses and adults-only Serenity deck-top retreat areas.
You’ll also find a solid array of eateries on each of the ships including a Guy’s Burger Joint, BlueIguana Cantina, burrito outlets and steakhouses.
In addition to being smaller than Vista Class and Dream Class ships, Conquest Class also sail with fewer passengers. All of the Conquest Class vessels hold just shy of 3,000 passengers at double occupancy — about 1,000 fewer passengers than the Vista Class ships.
That’s a noticeable difference if you’re the kind of vacationer who doesn’t like to be around giant crowds. For some Carnival fans, the smaller size of the Conquest Class and Splendor Class makes these ships appealing. Others prefer the added amenities that come with the bigger ships.
Ships in class: Carnival Miracle (2004); Carnival Legend (2002); Carnival Pride (2002); Carnival Spirit (2001)
Size: 88,500 tons
Carnival Spirit Class ships are the adventurers of the line’s fleet.
Built for “all-weather” cruising with a pool that can be covered by a retractable dome when its cold and stormy, these are the ships that Carnival sends to places like Alaska, where even in the summer it can be too chilly for sunning on an open pool deck.
These also are the ships that Carnival uses for winter sailings to the Caribbean from Baltimore, which can involve a day or two of cold and stormy sailing in the Atlantic.
In recent years, Carnival also has deployed one of its Spirit Class ships across the Pacific to Australia — the most far-flung destination that it offers on its schedule.
In addition to having a weather-proof main pool area, the Spirit Class ships are great for far-flung destinations because of their relatively small size, which allows them to access smaller ports. At just 88,500 tons, they’re among the smallest ships in the Carnival fleet — less than half the size of Carnival’s new Excel Class vessels.
The Spirit Class ships are notably lower and sleeker than most other vessels in the Carnival fleet. Getting under even relatively small bridges is not a problem for them. Unlike a lot of recently built cruise vessels, they also are thin enough in the middle that they can squeeze through the old locks of the Panama Canal.
The Spirit Class vessels also boast the largest percentage of balcony and ocean-view cabins in the Carnival fleet, which makes them perfect for a destination such as Alaska where being able to watch the scenery from one’s cabin is a big plus.
They’re also relatively intimate ships, holding just 2,124 passengers at double occupancy. By modern-day cruise ship standards, that makes them “mid-size” vessels.
Still, you can expect to find many of the same fun-focused features on Spirit Class ships that you’ll find on the line’s bigger vessels, including waterparks with waterslides and miniature golf courses. Spirit Class ships also have one of the most unique features in all of cruising — special date-night restaurants that are incorporated into their funnels and feature translucent glass-dome ceilings.
Ships in class: Carnival Radiance (2000/2021); Carnival Sunrise (1999/2019); Carnival Sunshine (1996/2013)
Size: 102,000 tons
The Sunshine Class (once known as the Destiny Class) may be the most unusual class of ships in the Carnival fleet. On paper, the ships in this class are among the oldest vessels that Carnival operates. But you also can make an argument that they are among the newest vessels at the line.
This is because each of the ships in this series has been (or soon will be) almost completely gutted and rebuilt from the waterline up.
The makeovers of the ships, which began in 2013, have been so massive that Carnival has given each of the vessels a new name. Carnival Sunshine is what old-time Carnival fans will remember as the Carnival Destiny. Carnival Sunrise is the former Carnival Triumph. Carnival Radiance is the ship that began life as Carnival Victory.
Carnival spent $200 million alone in 2019 overhauling Carnival Sunrise, the most recent of the ships to be transformed. In addition to sprucing up just about every space on the ship, the money paid to add a laundry list of classic Carnival attractions that the ship lacked, including a full-blown waterpark, which replaced a single waterslide on one of its top decks.
Carnival Sunrise also received a SportSquare area on its top deck like the ones that are found on newer Carnival vessels. It has a ropes course, basketball court, miniature golf, and outdoor pool and ping pong tables. And Carnival didn’t end the deck-top changes there. It also found space for another signature Carnival offering that had been lacking: An adults-only Serenity outdoor lounge area with padded loungers, day beds, a hot tub and a full bar.
In addition, Carnival Sunrise now has half a dozen new food and beverage venues including a version of Carnival’s signature steakhouse, Fahrenheit 555, Carnival’s signature Italian eatery Cucina del Capitano and a Bonsai Express sushi outlet.
The overhaul of Carnival Sunshine, which took place in 2013, brought similar changes, plus a complete renovation of the ship’s pool area that incorporated a multi-deck waterfall.
Carnival Radiance, for its part, was scheduled to undergo a similar makeover in early 2020. But the work was postponed due to the coronavirus-caused industrywide shutdown. It’s now scheduled to undergo the work later this year and reenter service in November.
Note that even after the makeovers, the ships still don’t have all the bells and whistles of Carnival’s truly new ships, such as Carnival Panorama. As noted above, Carnival’s newest ships are bigger than its older ships, allowing for more and bigger attractions, restaurants and lounges.
At around 102,000 tons, the Sunshine Class ships are more than 20% smaller than Carnival Panorama and more than 40% smaller than Mardi Gras.
The ships holds from 2,984 to 3,002 passengers, based on double occupancy.
Of note, these weren’t always considered smaller vessels. In fact, when Carnival Sunshine was first unveiled in 1996 (back when it was called Carnival Destiny), it was the biggest cruise ship in the world. It also was the first cruise to surpass 100,000 tons.
It now doesn’t even crack the list of the 50 biggest cruise vessels.
Ships in class: Carnival Paradise (1998); Carnival Elation (1998); Carnival Sensation (1993); Carnival Ecstasy (1991)
Size: 70,000 tons
Built in the 1990s, the Fantasy Class ships are Carnival’s oldest and smallest ships, and they’re beginning to be phased out. Going into 2020, the line had eight of the vessel. But it has since removed four of them from its fleet.
The four Fantasy Class ships that are left are mostly used in secondary ports such as Jacksonville, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama, that might not be able to support a bigger vessel.
While still much-beloved by Carnival fans, in part for their intimate size, they notably lack a large number of balcony cabins — the cabin type that everyone wants these days. Most of the cabins on these ships are “ocean-view” cabins that only offer a window or a porthole, or windowless “inside” cabins.
That said, all of the four remaining Fantasy Class ships have undergone overhauls over the years that have added more balcony cabins that the vessels of the class originally had. Depending on the ship, there were between 98 and 150 new balconies added, including new suites.
The ships also have relatively fewer amenities and venues than the newer and bigger Carnival ships. You won’t find giant waterparks on these vessels like you do on newer Carnival ships, though you will find multiple slides and a spray park for the kids. And the dining options are limited.
Still, for a lot of Carnival fans, they’re fun ships.
Each of the vessels holds from 2,052 to 2,124 passengers, based on double occupancy.
Carnival has quite a few different classes of ships, but the differences between many of them aren’t as big as the differences between classes at some lines. You’ll find a lot of consistency from ship to ship in the Carnival fleet in the type of venues that you find on board. Indeed, Carnival has spent $2 billion in recent years overhauling many of its ships to create more consistency in onboard venues and amenities.
For vacationers looking for a big resort experience with a lot of options, Carnival’s newest ships, which are bigger and have more amenities, are probably the best bet. If you’re looking for more intimacy in a cruise ship, some of the older classes of ships such as the Spirit Class might be just right.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
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- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Featured image of courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line
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