We got an early look at Carnival’s first new ship in nearly two years
This is a heady week for cruise fans on the West Coast.
In a rare development, the region is becoming the year-round home to the newest, snazziest vessel from cruise giant Carnival, the world’s biggest cruise line by number of ships.
Christened on Wednesday in the Los Angeles area by Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White, the 4,008-passenger Carnival Panorama is the first new Carnival ship to be based on the West Coast in two decades. It’ll sail weekly to the Mexican Riviera out the Port of Long Beach through at least 2021.
Typically, big North American cruise lines such as Carnival initially base their newest ships at the giant cruise hubs on the East Coast — Miami, for instance, or Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. The West Coast traditionally has drawn older vessels. But things are changing.
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Carnival Panorama’s deployment comes as Norwegian Cruise Line’s second-newest ship, the two-year-old Norwegian Joy, begins sailing to Mexico out of the Los Angeles area, too. That said, Norwegian Joy only will remain in the city for a few months during the winter before moving to Seattle to sail to Alaska.
But with the Carnival Panorama's year-round deployment to the Los Angeles area, cruise fans on the West Coast now will be able to experience one of the cruise world’s latest and greatest vessels at any time of the year, without getting on a cross-country flight.
For Carnival regulars, Carnival Panorama will look familiar. As I saw during a short “shakedown” cruise over the weekend in advance of its first regular week-long sailing, Carnival Panorama has roughly the same footprint as the line’s last two vessels: Carnival Horizon and Carnival Vista. All three of the ships are part of the same Vista Class-series that began rolling out in 2016.
Still, Carnival Panorama has a few new twists, including the first Sky Zone trampoline park on a cruise ship and Carnival’s first onboard cooking classroom. Here’s what to expect if you book a voyage.
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The first Sky Zone at sea
Yes, you now can add a trampoline park to the list of things you can find on a Carnival ship. Filling a two-deck-high interior space in the middle of the vessel, Carnival Panorama’s Sky Zone is an at-sea version of the 200-plus Sky Zone parks found across the United States, Canada, Mexico and nine other countries.
Located near the ship’s tween- and teen-clubrooms, it has two padded trampoline areas where you can jump around, and also take part in games like jousting on a balance beam or shooting baskets while bouncing. There’s even trampoline dodgeball and, on one end of the room, a climbing wall augmented with interactive game elements.
On first sight, I was a little underwhelmed by the space, which is relatively modest in size at about 3,000 square feet. But after tumbling around a bit during a test session with other cruise writers, I was sold. This place is a hoot, in large part because it offers all sorts of interactive silliness like a tug-of-war game where the loser goes flying into a big padded cushion (as I learned the hard way in a faceoff with the guy from CruiseRadio.net; I did beat the writer from CruiseCritic.com).
Of course, I’m not the target market for this. Sky Zone clearly is a feature aimed at kids, including the littlest ones. Some of the bouncy attractions aren’t super hard core, and that’s the point. You can have a wonderful afternoon here playing around with your four-year-old, who will absolutely love it.
In a nod to the youngest Carnival cruisers, Sky Zone offers one-hour “toddler time” sessions exclusively for children ages six months to 5 years, accompanied by an adult. The fee is $5 per child and $5 per adult. There also are exclusive sessions for children ages six to 14, as well as passengers 15 and older. The latter two sessions are priced at $12 per person, including a pair of Sky Zone socks.
If jumping with the lights on is too ho-hum for you, the space also hosts nighttime, all-ages “blacklight glow parties” where you wear a custom glowing T-shirt as you bounce around. (These sessions cost $18, including the shirt, which you can keep.)
Carnival regulars, take note: The trampoline park fills the space that houses the Imax Theatre on Carnival Horizon and Carnival Vista. So, no Imax film-watching on this ship.
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A familiar array of deck-top attractions
Sky Zone isn’t the only kid-friendly play area on Carnival Panorama. As is typical for Carnival ships, the top decks of the vessel are covered in family-focused attractions including one of the WaterWorks waterparks that are now standard on Carnival vessels and one of the line’s signature SportSquare areas.
The WaterWorks waterpark plays to the family market with two massive waterslides called Kaleido-o-Slide and Twister, and a kiddie splash zone dominated by a 300-gallon dump bucket known as the PowerDrencher. While not quite as over-the-top as the recently unveiled Blaster waterslide on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas (now the longest waterslide on a cruise ship), the 455-foot-long Kaleido-o-Slide definitely ranks among the top waterslides at sea.
Like the WaterWorks area, the SportSquare on Carnival Panorama will be familiar to Carnival aficionados. It’s home to a suspended-in-the-air, pedal-powered SkyRide (something that first debuted in 2016 on Carnival Vista and is now on three ships), a suspended-in-the-air ropes course, a basketball court, miniature golf, miniature bowling, ping pong tables and other outdoor games.
The top decks of Carnival Panorama also have two pool areas and an adults-only Serenity retreat area with padded loungers, day beds, hot tubs and a full bar. In short, there’s a ton to do up top and, unlike on some lines, it’s all open to passengers at no extra charge. Carnival has (thankfully, in my opinion) resisted the trend of big-ship operators carving out whole sections of deck-top areas for the exclusive use of passengers staying in suites or willing to pay hefty access fees.
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Lively, engaging entertainment
If you’ve booked Carnival Panorama for a quiet getaway, you’ve made a terrible mistake. There’s nothing quiet about this ship, as is the Carnival way. The overall vibe is “loud and lively,” with an interior area that revolves around a bustling bar zone and casino; live musicians seemingly playing around every corner; and lots of interactive (and noisy) activities.
Audience participation is a big part of the Carnival shtick, and silliness reigns. On my short shakedown cruise, the lounge entertainment included such audience-engaging inanity as an embarrass-your-wife-on-stage "Love and Marriage Show" and often hilarious karaoke sessions.
Up by the pool, the interactive hijinks got even wilder with prime sunning hours interrupted by such larks as a raucous poolside dance-a-thon and a hairy chest contest. Yes, Carnival is that line. Both drew standing-room-only, hooting-and-hollering crowds.
This is all par for the course at Carnival. If the above sounds like your worst cruising nightmare, Carnival is not the line for you. On the flipside, many vacationers love this, and it isn’t by accident that Carnival now carries one out of every five cruisers worldwide.
Of note, Carnival Panorama’s main theater, the 930-seat Liquid Lounge, houses two new-for-Carnival production shows, Broadway Beats and Rock Revolution. Both are old school cruise ship shows involving a dozen or more performers dancing around to a continuous blast of ever-changing tunes, with no storyline to speak of. They’re a far cry from the more sophisticated production shows rolling out in recent years in main showrooms on Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ships.
Carnival’s first cooking classroom
The cooking-class craze that began taking off a few years ago on high-end ships finally has spread to the most mass-market of lines – and in no small way.
Located on Deck 4 not far from Carnival Panorama’s main restaurants, Carnival’s first-ever cooking classroom, dubbed Carnival Kitchen, is a seriously tricked out venue complete with nine state-of-the-art, marbled granite cooking stations for two and a dedicated dining area.
The space will be home to more than a dozen distinct classes where you can learn to make such classic Carnival dishes as a warm chocolate melting cake. There also will be courses in sushi rolling, pizza making and pie baking. Classes will last one to two hours and cost $30 to $59 per person.
I got to sit in on the very first class to be held in the room, a lesson in apple pie making, and even helped with a little stirring. I found the instruction simple enough, so even the most cooking-challenged traveler can keep up. The flipside is that serious amateur chefs may find it a bit basic (usually the case with cruise ship cooking classrooms).
The new Carnival Kitchen’s dining area will be used in the evenings for demonstration classes that include a themed dinner. This effectively gives Carnival Panorama one more restaurant than exists on the other ships in the Vista Class — and a very exclusive and intimate one at that. As with regular classes during the day, the evening class-and-dinner experience will be limited to 18 people at a time.
Signature Carnival restaurants
Other than the addition of Carnival Kitchen, the array of dining options on Carnival Panorama is identical to what's found on the line’s last new ship, Carnival Horizon.
That includes two large main restaurants and a casual buffet that are included in the fare, as well as versions of Carnival’s signature extra-charge steakhouse, Fahrenheit 555, and Italian-serving Cucina del Capitano (if you’re a Carnival fan, you know this as the place where waiters sing and dance between courses). The latter two venues have flat fees of $38 and $15 per person, respectively.
The ship also has one of Carnival’s a la carte Bonsai sushi restaurants (now on 10 ships) and the line’s fourth Ji Ji Asian Kitchen ($15 per person). Other extra-charge locations include two venues that are only making their second appearance on Carnival ships: Bonsai Teppanyaki (priced at a flat $32 per person) and the a la carte Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse, a venue created in partnership with The Food Network’s Guy Fieri. Both outlets debuted in 2018 on Carnival Horizon.
The Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse, notably, has its very own in-house brewery you can see behind glass walls — something still relatively rare on cruise ships. It makes Carnival’s house beers including Parched Pig West Coast IPA and Parched Pig Toasted Amber, not just for the Pig & Anchor but for several other drinking venues around the ship.
The quality of the food (and drink) on Carnival ships always surprises me, given the budget pricing of the brand, and Carnival Panorama is no exception. Despite being one of the industry’s lowest-cost operators, Carnival manages to pull off one of the best steakhouses at sea in Fahrenheit 555, and even the no-extra-charge main restaurants get the basics right.
Carnival ships, including Carnival Panorama, also have what may be the two best quick-serve poolside dining venues at sea: The BlueIguana Cantina and Guy’s Burger Joint. BlueIguana is a Carnival knock-off of Chipotle with yummy made-to-order burritos and tacos. Created in partnership with Guy Fieri, Guy’s Burger Joint offers burgers that beat anything you’ll find around the pool on other mass-market ships and even most luxury vessels. Why can’t other cruise lines get this sort of stuff right?
A crowded ship
As is typical for Carnival ships, Carnival Panorama has a bit of a cramped feel — at least compared to other big new ships operated by the likes of Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean.
Carnival has packed 2,004 cabins onto the vessel, which measures about 133,500 gross register tons (a measurement of interior space). That’s 37 more cabins than the first vessel in the Vista Class series and far more cabins per gross register ton than you’ll see on other big new vessels such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore and Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas.
Indeed, the “space ratio” of Carnival Panorama (a measure of the amount of interior space available per passenger) only is around 33. The space ratio of Norwegian Encore, by contrast, is around 42. The space ratio of Symphony of the Seas is around 41.
One of the ways Carnival keeps its prices low (and they truly are low; Carnival is a top choice for budget-conscious cruisers) is by jamming a lot of people on its ships. So, at one level, it’s hard to complain about this. But I definitely noticed the crowds on the shakedown sailing.
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With its straight-out-of-the-shipyard newness, wide array of fun-focused deck-top attractions and many interior restaurants, bars and showrooms, Carnival Panorama is the new ship-to-beat in the year-round cruise market in Southern California — at least for those who like big, bustling megaships.
While a few other relatively new megaships (such as Norwegian Joy) make an appearance in the area each year, they typically only stay for a few weeks or months while on their way to other destinations such as Alaska.
That said, Carnival Panorama still is a Carnival ship. If you haven’t liked Carnival vessels in the past, you’re not going to suddenly fall in love with this one, even if you’re a West Coaster looking for something new and snazzy out of the Los Angeles area.
The self-described “Fun Ship” line has a huge following, but it’s not for everyone. This is a line that is all about fun in a very brash way, with entertainment that at times is as low brow as the line is low-cost.
What it costs
In general, Carnival ships are among the most affordable at sea, and Carnival Panorama is no exception. The vessel will be operating seven-night voyages to the Mexican Riviera out of Long Beach that start at $474 per person, not including taxes and fees of $116.64. That works out to just $84 per night per person with taxes and fees for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals.
Carnival Panorama also will operate a single six-night sailing and a single eight-night sailing to Mexico out of Long Beach over the 2021 holiday period that start at $609 and $1,039 per person, respectively.
Keep in mind that, as is typical for cruises, the starting fares above are “based on double occupancy,” which means pricing is based on two people staying in a cabin, each paying their own fare. A single traveler occupying a cabin will pay more.
The fares above also are for the least-expensive, windowless “interior” cabins. There are quite a few cabin categories on Carnival ships, including bigger balcony cabins and suites, at a range of price points. In addition, pricing for cruises fluctuates week-by-week depending on demand, just as it does with flights. The lowest fares are available during off-season months such as September. You’ll pay more for more popular times of the year.
Fares also don’t include extra charges you ring up on board. While meals at several onboard restaurants are included in the fare, some higher-end venues on Carnival Panorama come with an extra charge. Just like at most land resorts, you’ll also pay extra for drinks. Most beers at Carnival Panorama bars run from $6.25 to $6.75, while wine starts at $8 per glass ($28 for the least expensive bottle).
One other thing for which you’ll need to budget is the automatic gratuity charge that Carnival adds to bills, which runs $13.99 per person, per day for most cabins. Suite passengers pay more.
(Editor’s note: TPG always tries to pay full price for travel its staff takes and usually doesn’t inform companies in advance of our plans to review. But there are times when — especially with cruise lines — we need to work with travel providers to gain early access to products before they go into regular service. To attend this three-night “shakedown” sailing of Carnival Panorama, which came in advance of the ship beginning its regular weekly schedule of seven-night trips, TPG paid a negotiated $199 rate to be on board. This is roughly in line with the starting rates of the ship on a per person, per day basis. TPG also paid all costs to get to and from the vessel.)
Feature photo courtesy of Carnival.