Carnival Cruise Lines Carnival Sunshine Review
Following a $155 million overhaul, Carnival Sunshine is marketed as a “new” ship, with a new name. But our inaugural sailing revealed a ship that was not ready for guests.
When Carnival Destiny originally launched in 1996, it was the first passenger ship to top 100,000 tons. More than that, it was a prototype for an entire generation of ships that followed. The debut made waves as the first modern cruise liner that was too wide to transit the Panama Canal. But of course it didn’t take long for other ships to overtake the vessel in the bigger and flashier departments, and soon Destiny settled into a comfortable life as one of Carnival’s aging midsized options. When a $155 million project was announced to radically overhaul the ship at age 17, we booked a cabin.
The 2013 renovation plans were designed to transform the vessel, adding new decks, 182 new cabins, new restaurants and bars, and a new water park with three speed slides. Destiny would also emerge with a new name, Carnival Sunshine. An unusually long 49-day dry dock in Trieste, Italy was scheduled for the work, with Sunshine’s first sailing set for April 12. Alas, not quite everything went according to plan.
New ships don’t come around often, and renovations as extensive as the one planned for Destiny/Sunshine are even more rare. The ship went under the knife just after the infamous Carnival Triumph fiasco unfolded, and Carnival executives announced extensive plans for improved operating redundancies and safety features, fleet-wide, starting with Destiny/Sunshine. In order to complete the work, the ship’s initial two sailings were cancelled, meaning the third scheduled cruise that we had booked became the “inaugural” voyage for Sunshine.
This is an awkward review for us to assemble. It was not our preference to test Sunshine the first day out of dry dock, but Carnival refused to move our booking to a later date without imposing substantial penalties. The many problems we encountered during the May 5, 2013 sailing are reported here, and we’ll do our best to avoid re-hashing them in this review, but suffice it to say when we boarded, Carnival Sunshine was definitely not ready for the spotlight.
About Our Cruise
First, the good news: the revitalized Carnival Sunshine represents a truly transformed cruise ship. Those who sailed on Carnival Destiny will be hard-pressed to find evidence of the old ship—almost no area went untouched. Parts of the ship that were not structurally altered, such as cabins and hallways have been brightened and freshened with palm-and-sea backdrops, a style familiar to guests who’ve sailed on Carnival Breeze. The gaudy design style of the Joe Farcus era has been scrubbed in favor of a clean, modern ambience.
A key component of the makeover was to increase the ship’s capacity; 182 guest rooms were added throughout the ship. This was accomplished by adding a new forward deck, by reconfiguring a few cabin areas to better utilize precious real estate, and by downsizing some back-of-house areas (including, apparently, the main galley). The main showroom was reduced from three decks to two—the showroom's original lower deck now holds 41 cabins.
But to our surprise, increasing the ship’s capacity by several hundred bodies did not lead to increased crowding as we might have expected. This isn’t to say that sun decks and the buffet weren’t busy—they were, but they didn’t seem any more so than on a typical Carnival cruise. We found seats for shows in the Liquid Lounge as late as showtime; the redesigned buffet venue never seemed jammed. We’re not sure if this was in part due to sailing with a different clientele from the usual Carnival voyage (on our Mediterranean cruise, many guests were European, and somewhat older), but other than embarkation day we did not experience crowd control issues aboard Sunshine. For comparison we'll note that, at 102,853 tons, Sunshine is still quite a bit smaller than the three vessels that comprise Carnival's 128,000-ton Dream class (Sunshine carries 3,006 passengers at double occupancy, versus Carnival Breeze, which tops out at 3,690 guests).
Food was better than we’ve experienced on most Carnival ships, and there were plenty of options. We had a fine meal in Fahrenheit 555, the ship’s steakhouse, while Ji Ji Asian Kitchen is a tasty new Asian dining concept for Carnival that we hope will be introduced on other ships. Though Liquid Lounge, the ship’s showroom, has been downsized, we enjoyed the entertainment staged here, which hews to Carnival’s new emphasis on shorter shows. The handsome, adults-only Serenity area, replete with waterfall, is a great addition to the ship, sprawling across three forward decks.
A Carnival cruise is not for everyone, with any number of loud or boisterous events taking place on a daily basis on every ship in the fleet. Count on the cruise director to be on the speaker system often—do we really need pitches for shore excursions bellowed two or three times a day? These were loud enough to be heard clearly within our cabin, drowning out the sound on our TV (Carnival’s cabin design suffers from a door vent that allows hallway noise to be annoyingly audible).
But there were also a few noise issues unique to Sunshine. Most of the Serenity area faces the speakers for the main pool, so the Hairy Chest Competition, deejay music and other events were heard loud and clear. And the forward section of the top Serenity area is exposed to loud exhaust fans, making us wonder if “serenity” was a misnomer. Worse, when the main showroom was redesigned to convert into a pumping disco late at night, someone overlooked tamping down potential sound leak issues during dry dock. Cabins on decks 3 and 6, immediately below and above the lounge, could feel and hear the blaring disco, a beat that carried on past midnight on our cruise; guests on subsequent cruises say this issue has not been fixed. While we love a spin on the dance floor, you couldn’t pay us to stay in these cabins.
The $155 million transformation from Destiny to Sunshine was originally scheduled for 7 weeks. The time in dry dock was extended to 10 weeks and Carnival executives later estimated final costs at closer to $200 million for the trouble-plagued project, beset by lousy weather and vandalism at the Trieste, Italy shipyard. While Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill later said the line would have pulled the plug on our sailing had they known sooner how extensive the problems were, why didn’t they know? Was Carnival using guests on the inaugural cruise as guinea pigs?
These were issues that impacted our particular sailing, and we think Carnival headquarters bears the responsibility for mismanaging this project and for allowing the ship to sail when it did. So, let our experience serve as a cautionary caveat—to both undelivered marketing hype and the danger of booking a cruise on a ship fresh out of dry dock.
Still, Destiny's bones proved durable enough to withstand a wholesale makeover and deliver a blueprint for future Carnival conversions (see a gallery of photos from the old Carnival Destiny here). Not long after Sunshine set sail, the line announced that such radical surgery would not be applied to future ship renovations. We're not the bean-counters, but we consider the Destiny/Sunshine overhaul a success, bringing new life to an aging member of the Carnival fleet. In coming months we'll be watching to see what types of upgrades are planned for other, even older ships in the family.
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