We sailed on Carnival's newest ship, Conquest, to find out. And we learned that the company's "fun" concept is more than just talk: it's a formula Carnival has been perfecting for years. Fun doesn't just happen; it takes a lot of hard work and planning. Carnival creates fun by keeping passengers entertained -- not just in the show rooms, but throughout the cruise in everything they do.
The Conquest Concept
Conquest is the largest Carnival ship to date -- a stretched version of its Destiny-class vessels (about 60 feet longer and 8,000 tons greater). The physical differences from the other ships aren't easy to spot, but when it comes to aesthetics, Conquest stands out.
Conquest is a "concept ship," with decor and entertainment chosen to reflect the heritage of its homeport, New Orleans. Public rooms carry French names and references, like Henri's Dance Club and the Toulouse Lautrec Theater. The latter houses the production show "Les Formidables," specially created for Conquest.
How do you define a "Fun Ship?" Carnival president Bob Dickinson once identified Carnival's target market as "everyone but curmudgeons." Indeed, the best way to enjoy a Carnival cruise is to let your hair down. Shipboard entertainment is more than what happens in the main theater after dinner. It's the totality of activity on the ship -- day and night, seven days a week. Carnival's philosophy is that all the ship's a stage and all the crew its players.
From the captain, officers and waiters to bartenders, busboys and room stewards, no one is "just doing his job" -- workers smile, chat, laugh, and occasionally break out in songs and conga lines. In their minds, they are playing supporting roles for the star of the show -- you.
I doubt a singing audition is required to work in a Carnival dining room (based on some "Happy Birthday" renditions I heard), but the waiters are always ready to bust out in song. Something happens every night at dinner - from "spontaneous" juggling of salt and peppershakers to busboys in Elvis wigs dancing on tables.
Can a room steward be entertaining? Entering my cabin after dinner and seeing my bath towel twisted into the shape of a monkey and wearing my sunglasses had me in stitches.
Everything about the Carnival experience steers you out of your cabin toward some kind of activity with the staff. You can go to the fitness center, but to get there you have to walk past the spa counter with all the masseuses beckoning to you. The library is only open for an hour a day, and only on sea days. There's no movie theater. You can watch a video in your cabin, but to see a flick with more than two stars you have to pony up for pay-per-view.
Don't try to fight it. Do what the staff does - get out, get involved and have fun!
Conquest's entertainment begins with Cruise Director Corey Schmidt, who came to Carnival as a performer 12 years ago. He has been with the company ever since. Not only is he in charge of all the entertainment on Conquest, he is a talented performer in his own right. Corey is perfect for Carnival -- he likes to "walk the edge of the comedy envelope," but a genuine regard for his passengers keeps him just inside the bounds of good taste.
With every new load of passengers settling in on a Sunday night, the first order of business is the "Meet the Staff" introductory show. Many cruise directors turn the stage over to a comedian when introductions are over, but Corey does the whole night himself.
"I can tell how much fun a cruise is going to be by how much the passengers get involved on that first night," he says. "I start off by playing a game with them. If it's a good crowd, by the end of the show they're creating the fun for themselves."
The second night is a tradition on most ships - the captain's cocktail party followed by a Las Vegas-style production show. Conquest's show, "Les Formidables," spotlights vocalists Kathey Vepley and Jason French and a supporting cast of 12 singer/dancers.
Bigger ships generally have better stage shows, and unlike the other cruise lines, Carnival creates its shows "in-house" so the budget goes into the finished product instead of a producer's pocket.
I would rate Carnival's production shows as the best in the business. My personal favorite is "Wonderful World," which opened on Carnival Triumph nearly four years ago. But compared to production shows on competing mega-ships, Les Formidables is one of the best. With a theme of "Vive le France," it's a medley of everything French that has permeated our consciousness -- a "can-can" a la Moulin Rouge, a Maurice Chevalier look-alike singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and breaking into a soft-shoe... You get the picture. The show has an abundance of laser lighting effects, video projections, pyrotechnics and countless costume changes. It got a standing ovation the night we saw it.
[Despite all the effort put into these big shows, I have some qualms about them. After working backstage for several years, including two years on cruise ships, I know these shows aspire to be "spectacular," but I find them long on sizzle and short on concept.] See my opinion piece on cruise ship entertainment.
On night three, Corey brings out the act he performed and perfected in Las Vegas and Atlantic City years before working on ships - his own trained exotic birds. It involves a lot of audience participation. By the time he removes the hat he placed on the hapless volunteer's head -- to reveal a plumber's helper has been stuck there all along -- you will be rolling in the aisles.
Night four features "Deja, the Diva of Deception," a female illusionist almost as good as David Copperfield. This elaborate and expensive show -- the best magic show I've ever seen on a ship -- is slated to appear on every Conquest cruise for the foreseeable future. Men vanish into thin air; women are sawed in half. One image still haunts me: Deja, standing behind a male assistant, appears to put her hand right through his torso, emerging just below his sternum. She grabs an object on a table in front of him and pulls it back through him!
There are two late-night R-rated comedy shows from two different comedians during this cruise. There's also a comedy matinee suitable for kids, something I haven't seen on a ship before. These extra shows are possible because Corey fills entertainment slots with his own act.
Conquest's other Las Vegas-style production show is "Point and Click," a story of two Manhattanites who meet on the Internet and start a romance. The premise is different but the formula is the same: costume changes, dance steps, short song segments. There's no dialogue; the story is told via lyrics from old popular songs - a difficult thing to do. There was no standing ovation this night.
There are other entertainment venues on Conquest, and live music is a constant activity.
Blues is a small club with two singer/guitarists. On Carnival Destiny, this room is a jazz club called The Downbeat, but Conquest's jazz happens in Alfred's Bar, the room below Henri's Dance Club (the disco). The Eric Slaughter Trio plays there most nights before dinner.
The Degas Lounge features comedy shows and pre-show dance music played by a Filipino dance band, Music Unlimited. The band is exceptionally talented, but I was unimpressed with their tribute "Beatlemania." These handsome Filipino gentlemen looked silly dressed in Sergeant Pepper costumes, and like the production shows, their songs never lasted more than 30 seconds. I love those old Beatle songs and would prefer to hear at least a verse AND a chorus.
Vincent's is the sing-along piano bar, and Henri's Dance Club has a DJ spinning the latest dance music until the wee hours. Up on the pool deck, a four-piece rock band plays dance music under the stars every night. Daytime activities include a poolside reggae band. And of course there's bingo, horse racing, the casino, art auctions and the usual cruise ship activities.
Good Clean Fun?
Carnival strives to live up to the title "Fun Ships," although some critics think of it as something to live down to. I would disagree.
Aside from a few souvenirs and photos, memories are all you have when a cruise is over. Carnival's goal is to give you memories of the ship through its people. Given the great range and variety of interaction with passengers, it's not always easy to stay within the bounds of good taste, but after years of experience, Carnival has perfected the art.
Fun isn't the only thing Carnival is about - the food, accommodations and service are certainly on par with other cruise lines, and better in many cases. Carnival's ace in the hole is its years of experience. Carnival staffers tend to stay with company for several years, affording them the opportunity to work together and perfect the shipboard experience. It is a tight team with a winning formula.