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Ocean cruise versus theme park - let the best tourist trap win!

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In my adventures as an enter-tainment critic, I’ve traveled across America, Europe, Asia and Africa – all within the confines of Orlando’s theme parks. But until last week, there was one form of Floridian fantasy I hadn’t explored – the floating kind. Last Friday, I returned from four days aboard Carnival’s Imagination, sailing from Miami to Key West and Cozumel. So what did a self-proclaimed theme park expert, but cruise virgin, think of his first vacation on the high seas? In the interest of journalistic investigation (not to mention legitimizing a healthy tax write-off) here is my head-to-head comparison of a visit to Central Florida’s attractions versus the cruise ship experience. Let the best tourist trap win!

Organization: Orlando might be the queue capital of the universe, but we could learn a lesson or two from Carnival’s people-moving procedures. Perhaps I just got lucky, but I sailed through the security screening and check-in procedures, going from dockside to deck in under 20 minutes. Disembarkation, which I’d heard nightmare stories about, was also a snap, even allowing time for a final breakfast in bed. With 2,000-plus passengers crammed aboard, you’d expect big crowds, but aside from the make-your-own-stir-fry station, I never saw a serious wait all week.

Aesthetics: Theme park resorts get goofed on for their gaudy decor, but they’ve got nothing on Carnival, which seems to have taken design cues from a Las Vegas casino circa 1980. The atrium is a riot of blue and red neon squiggles (retrofitted with LEDs), while the promenade features pseudo-Egyptian statuary with perversely perky nipples. Just wandering from one end of the boat to the other was optically exhausting, and the army of photographers constantly urging us to pose in front of awful backdrops only added to the overstimulation. At least I could identify my stateroom’s corridor by the terrible wall art.

Accommodations: While it was no suite at Universal’s Portofino Bay – cabins are about 185 square feet – said stateroom’s subdued decor was a welcome respite from the public areas, and much more restful than Disney’s wretched All-Star budget hotels. The bedding was soft, the shower hot and strong (like the 24-hour room-service coffee), and the service exceptional: Our super-attentive steward even turned our towels into adorable animals, including a bunny, an elephant and what I’m pretty sure was an albino vagina.

Attractions: Though cruises are frequently dubbed “theme parks on water,” no one’s managed to build a sea-bound Space Mountain (yet). But the Imagination’s twisting 300-foot water slide wouldn’t be out of place at Wet & Wild, and easily exceeds the overhyped new slides at Disneyland Hotel. Epcot may offer fake foreign lands, but a cruise’s real attraction is actual exotic experiences. Cozumel was rainy and overrun, but at Key West’s Hemingway House I happily paid $12.50 to pet Papa’s polydactyl pusses – worth every penny.

Entertainment: I’m certain talented cruise line entertainers exist, but they must have missed my boat. While we sometimes stumbled across a good acoustic guitarist or Latin trio in the lounges, the main stage offered the worst productions I’ve seen outside a middle school, and the theater’s awful sightlines barely allowed me to see them. All three shows I suffered through showcased sloppy choreography, a main vocalist with no sense of pitch and music that was current around my bar mitzvah. As God is my witness, I’ll never make fun of Fantasmic! again.

Edibles: I went aboard anticipating excessive quantities of food, but was pleasantly surprised by its quality. The buffet bested any I’ve had at Disney, with the exception of Animal Kingdom Lodge’s exceptional Boma, and with the evening sushi bar and late-night pizza, there was plenty of variety. Sit-down dining wasn’t up to Emeril’s standards, but was as good as anything served inside an area theme park. Escargot, gazpacho, broiled lobster and prime rib were all perfectly prepared and presented by the personable Filipino and Serbian staff.

Overall: I booked a bargain-basement vacation (under $100 per person per day, after taxes and tips) fully anticipating a Walmart-style experience; instead I got something closer to Tarjay. I’m not about to abandon my Orlando park annual passes, especially with Avatar and Harry Potter expansions on the way. But now I understand why cruise veterans joke that your first cruise is the most expensive trip you’ll ever take: It inevitably leads to others.

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