Carnival? More like theme park at sea
Park fans would find lots to love aboard Carnival’s Mardi Gras
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Launched in 2021, Carnival Cruise Line’s massive Mardi Gras packs a lot of fun into the latest “Fun Ship.” The Excel-class vessel, which boasts 20 decks and can accommodate over 6,000 guests, is the largest in the company’s fleet and among the biggest in the world. It is named for the cruise line’s first ship, the TSS Mardi Gras, which set sail 50 years ago.
“We showed what cruising could and should be,” says Christine Duffy, the cruise line’s president. By challenging the stuffy status quo and making cruising affordable and accessible to the masses, Carnival changed the industry. “We moved away from being formal and having different classes to an experience that was a vacation for everyone–for most Americans,” she adds.
Yes, the original Mardi Gras introduced a more relaxed experience. But it placed an even higher premium on making the experience fun–hence the company’s “Fun Ships” tagline. In the five decades since Carnival grew into the world’s largest cruise vacation company, the nature of fun aboard its ships has evolved dramatically. The new Mardi Gras draws a great deal of inspiration from parks and attractions. I’d go so far as to characterize it as a theme park at sea for all that it offers–not the least of which is an actual, kick-ass roller coaster.
Park fans (and since you are here at About Theme Parks, I’m guessing that includes you) would feel right at home aboard the ship. Let’s explore some of the many ways in which Mardi Gras is like a floating theme park.
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Yes, there is a wonderful coaster bolted to the ship
Asked how the company arrived at the bold decision to introduce the first roller coaster on a cruise ship, Duffy says that it is always looking for ways to make its onboard experience even more enticing for kids and families. (Fun fact: Carnival sails more children than any other cruise line, welcoming more than one million of them annually pre-pandemic.) “We thought, what could we do to take it up a notch?”
Lest you think Bolt: Ultimate Sea Coaster is an off-the-shelf kiddie model, rest assured that the custom-made ride definitely kicks it up a notch. Because of space and other practical constraints, it’s not all that tall or long. While its top speed of 40 mph may not come close to breaking any records, it is nonetheless an exhilarating experience. It is also an unusual experience–and not just because passengers find themselves screaming on the high seas.
A traditional roller coaster, which incorporates a lift hill and uses gravity to deliver its thrills, would be difficult to pull off on a ship that’s constantly moving. Bolt, which is designed by Maurer Rides, overcomes the challenge by using a powered rack and pinion system that propels its cars along a single-rail track. The unique, interactive system also includes motorcycle-like throttles and boost buttons that allow passengers to control the speed and acceleration of the ride vehicles. You can read more about Maurer’s innovative Spike line of coasters in my Funworld column.
Each car gets to take two laps around Mardi Gras’ top deck, soaring up and down small hills, circumnavigating the ship’s iconic funnel, and hitting a long straightaway where passengers can put the pedal to the metal. It is a wild and wooly ride. I wrote an in-depth review of Bolt in Paste Magazine.
These water slides doesn’t skimp on the thrills
It’s not a full-fledged water park per se, but WaterWorks, which is adjacent to Bolt, has some mighty impressive slides. Orange Thunder features a launch chamber in which passengers enter, cross their arms and legs, and nervously await a “3…2…1” countdown before the floor suddenly unlatches to release them into a near vertical drop. It’s surprisingly intense.
Likewise, Blue Lightning, which guests navigate by lying prone on mats, is so potent, I flipped over about halfway through its course. Rounding out WaterWorks is a twisty body slide, a huge dump bucket that unleashes a torrent of water every few minutes, and some smaller slides and water features for tykes.
For Caribbean itineraries that include a stop at Carnival’s Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, the private port includes a water slide as well as a splash zone for little kids. For an additional fee, it also offers a zipline that sends guests soaring above Amber Cove’s huge pool.
Speaking of a zipline, there is one embedded in the ropes course on Mardi Gras’ upper deck. It’s not especially long or fast, but it is positioned just over the edge of the ship. Guests, therefore, careen 19 decks above the ocean. I’m a bit chagrined to admit that I–Mr. I’ve Never Met a Roller Coaster I Wouldn’t Ride–chickened out and took the bypass route on the ropes course to avoid the zipline. Even though I knew I was safely harnessed to the track, it freaked me out to step off the ledge and zip along on a moving ship while dangling some 200 feet in the air. (Mind you, I’ve braved some pretty wild ziplines, including one quite high in the mountains at Big Sky Montana. I can’t explain why I met my match aboard the Mardi Gras.)
Themed lands and scrumptious food
It wouldn’t be a theme park without themed lands. It also wouldn’t be a theme park without great things to eat. The Carnival ship boasts a number of whimsical zones, many of which feature dining options that support their themes.
Befitting its name, Mardi Gras offers a French Quarter neighborhood anchored by Emeril’s Bistro 1396. Developed by New Orleans celebrity chef, Emeril Lagasse, the eatery serves delicious, adventurous fare such as Citrus Pain Perdu, a take on French toast that bathes brioche in grand marnier, vanilla cream, strawberry compote, and a subtle orange zest. Yum! Sweet Potato Waffles are also a great choice. Emeril’s is not included in the dining plan, but breakfast entrees are well worth the additional $5 surcharge.
The Summer Landing zone is where Guy’s [as in celeb chef Guy Fieri] Pig & Anchor Smokehouse and Brewhouse is located, while La Piazza features the casual Italian restaurant, Cucina del Capitano. If you want to splurge during a Mardi Gras cruise and perhaps celebrate a special occasion, I’d highly recommend the elegant restaurant, Rudi’s Seagrill, presided over by noted chef, Rudi Sodamin. As something of a cioppino fanatic, I was blown away by Rudi‘s take on the Italian fisherman’s stew. Beautifully presented, it was loaded with seafood in a delicate and supremely tasty tomato broth.
There are plenty of dishes commonly associated with theme parks available throughout the ship. With wood-fired ovens, flour, and olive oil all imported from Italy, the perfectly charred, Neapolitan pies served at Pizzeria del Capitano are slices of heaven. No kidding, this place would be a huge hit in Brooklyn. Fieri does double duty on Mardi Gras, by serving sinfully delicious burgers slathered in “donkey sauce” at Guy’s Burger Joint. If fried chicken is more your thing, Shaq O’Neal, who serves as Carnival’s “chief fun officer,” introduced his Big Chicken eatery aboard the ship. Its flavorful fare is a cut above Popeye’s and KFC.
The BlueIguana Cantina offers made-to-order tacos and burritos that are superb. Consider getting a tasty breakfast burrito at the taqueria. Carnival introduced a new concept, Street Eats, on the Mardi Gras. Drawing inspiration from food trucks (and perhaps food carts at theme parks?), a rotating menu of items sourced from around the world is served daily at the walk-up counters. I couldn't get enough of intoxicating dishes such as sesame chicken wontons, spicy beef bao buns, and utappam, an Indian lentil and rice pancake that was to die for.
As is the case on all Carnival ships, there are Swirls, where passengers can serve themselves as much frozen yogurt as their hearts desire (and their stomachs can tolerate) 24 hours a day. Even better, the Lido buffet makes different flavors of creamy, delicious gelato, such as coconut, hazelnut, and tiramisu, fresh daily.
On with the shows
Theme parks and cruise ships are known for their shows, and Mardi Gras does not disappoint. Ambitious productions, complete with digital projections, hydraulic lifts, rigging that takes performers overhead above the audience, and other state-of-the-art enhancements, are staged in both its main theater and its multi-purpose Grand Central Atrium. There are music venues throughout the ship with a wide array of styles represented.
You want costumed characters? How about the Cat in the Hat, Thing 1 and Thing 2, and other Dr. Seuss favorites? They are featured in children’s programming aboard the ship and can also be found at the Green Eggs and Ham character breakfast.
There is mini-golf, an arcade, and other fun available. Of course, it’s not all theme parks all the time (as much as that might sound appealing to park nerds like us). There is plenty more to recommend Mardi Gras, including nicely appointed and thoughtfully laid-out staterooms, the first eco-friendly, liquefied natural gas-powered cruise ship in North America, and, of course, a large casino and lots of places to get adult beverages. And when folks want to chill out from all the activity, there are quiet spots with hot tubs, cushy lounge chairs, and ultra-comfortable beds–where park nerds like us can dream about taking another ride on the first roller coaster at sea.
The cruise line is planning to launch its second Excel-class ship, Carnival Celebration, later this year. It will also feature an onboard Bolt roller coaster.
Might you be interested in booking a cruise on Carnival’s Mardi Gras? What do you think about the trend of cruise lines borrowing liberally from theme parks?