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Dr. Seuss, Guy Fieri, custom lunch and bargain fares: A trip on Carnival’s newest ship

In a crowded corner of Carnival Horizon’s pool deck, I ate my first lunch of the day at BlueIguana Cantina’s burrito bar. My made-to-order burrito contained lime-cilantro rice, black beans, charred corn, grilled chicken and a medium-spicy pico de gallo — no refried beans, thank you very much.

At the Pasta Bar, I ordered farfalle topped with garlic shrimp, mushrooms and pomodoro sauce for my second lunch. At Mongolian Wok, I chose mussels and clams over lo mein noodles with black bean sauce and half a dozen vegetables. Only my fourth lunch — at the Seafood Shack — wasn’t customized, simply fried clams and french fries.

My goal on this two-day preview cruise of Carnival’s newest ship was to sample lunch in every eatery. I didn’t quite succeed, but it was enough to get a fair sense of the ship’s cuisine.

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Lunches on Carnival Horizon, left to right, from the Mongolian Wok, Seafood Shack and the Pasta Bar. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

Lunch may be an afterthought for cruisers, who often are off the ship on a shore excursion or settling in for a combination of poolside snooze, hairy chest contest and a mound of something from the buffet, so a cruise line could get away with serving its most lackluster cuisine at lunch. That most of Carnival’s restaurants don’t — my conclusion after dining in seven of the ship’s nine lunch venues — is an indication of the line’s efforts to provide quality at a bargain price.

What I like best about Carnival ships is that they’re a good deal. Fares are frequently cheaper than Caribbean cruises on the other lines in what the industry calls the mainstream category. A check of prices from two online travel agencies for a cruise from Miami in February 2019 found fares on Carnival Horizon cheaper than on Norwegian’s and Royal Caribbean’s newest ships and about the same as MSC Seaside (Carnival Horizon and MSC Seaside starting around $80 per day per person double occupancy; Norwegian Bliss starting at $102; Symphony of the Seas from $126 eastern Caribbean, $149 western Caribbean). Prices for Carnival’s older ships usually rank lowest in relation to other lines’ older ships as well.

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The new Carnival Horizon, shown here departing Dubrovnik, Croatia, on an inaugural cruise in April, is now sailing Caribbean voyages year-round from PortMiami. Andy Newman Carnival Cruise Line

To keep prices low, Carnival ships don’t have bumper cars, sky-diving, surf pools. Their suites are not as luxe, the ship not as roomy for the number of passengers, the entertainment not quite as elaborate, the percentage of balcony staterooms not as high, and the soft-serve ice cream lacks evidence of actual cream. But for first-time cruisers, young adults, big families and those on a particularly tight budget, a Carnival cruise offers value.

Carnival Horizon, which was delivered in March and arrived in Miami after sailing in Europe and then from New York, is the line’s 26th ship currently in service. It is the second ship in the Vista class, Carnival’s largest, with a tonnage of 133,500 and a length of 1,062 feet. The ship holds 3,954 guests at two per stateroom, up to 4,980 guests with upper bunks, cribs and rollaway beds. At PortMiami, the ship’s home port, it sails six- and eight-day cruises to the Caribbean.

It is the second of five ships joining the South Florida fleet in 2018. Norwegian Bliss was the first, sailing from PortMiami, while Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas and Celebrity Edge arrived this month — Symphony in Miami and Celebrity Edge at Port Everglades. Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam is due to arrive at Port Everglades just before Christmas.

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Of the five, Carnival Horizon is right in the middle — smaller than Symphony of the Seas and Norwegian Bliss, larger than the Celebrity and Holland America ships.

The ship is already familiar to cruise fans because it is essentially a clone of Carnival Vista (launched in 2015 and redeployed from Miami to Galveston on the day Horizon arrived in Miami), with a few minor variations:

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The water works on Carnival Horizon are Dr. Seuss themed, with the Cat in the Hat slide, the Fun Things slide and a huge tipping barrel. Marjie Lambert / mlambert@miamih

Its water park, although architecturally the same as the one on Carnival Vista, is the first to be Dr. Seuss themed.

It has “smart” elevators. In the elevator lobby, push a button to indicate which deck you’re going to and the system will tell you which elevator to board. The purpose is to group people according to where they’re going so each elevator doesn’t stop at every floor. Supposedly it will get you to your destination faster. It’s a good concept, but it has a downside: You can’t change your mind. There are no buttons inside the elevator. If you forget that you were going to buy a T-shirt on Deck 5 before going to the pool on Deck 10, you have to get off the elevator and start over.

There are more of the popular Havana staterooms, tropically themed cabins and suites with exclusive daytime access to the Havana pool complex at the rear of deck 5, that debuted on Carnival Vista.

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Bonsai Teppanyaki, which is only on Carnival Horizon, offers dishes from the Far East prepared by chefs on custom-built stations that form the center of the venue’s two eight-seat tables. Andy Newman Carnival Cruise Line

Inside the Bonsai Sushi restaurant, Carnival Horizon has added Bonsai Teppanyaki, two eight-person tables with a hibachi grill and a chef who entertains as he prepares your meal in the center (both restaurants carry an extra fee).

Also exclusively on the new ship, Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que (by Food Network host Guy Fieri) — a poolside counter service food stop on four other ships — has been moved to Deck 5 and expanded to be a standalone restaurant on the Promenade. Guy’s serves dinner for an extra fee and free lunch on embarkation and sea days. It took the space where RedFrog Pub sits on other ships, but it kept RedFrog’s brewery, where four craft beers are made.

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Dinner entrees on the Carnival Horizon at Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse|Brewhouse. The venue serves up barbecue favorites created by Food Network star Guy Fieri, as well as four new craft beers brewed on board. Andy Newman Carnival Cruise Line

DINING

With food such an important element of any cruise, lunch is an indicator of quality, especially since Carnival has been upgrading its dining options in recent years. In place of the traditional poolside grill, most of its ships now have Guy’s Burger Joints (Guy Fieri again) and BlueIguana Cantina, with made-to-order burritos and tacos, and tortillas made on the spot. There’s also a 24-hour pizzeria.

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The pizzeria on the pool deck of Carnival Horizon is open 24 hours. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

In addition to Carnival Horizon’s exclusive ParchedPig brews in Guy’s, you can draw your own beer in the buffet and pay by the ounce. The Serenity area — the adults-only retreat on the top deck — has a salad bar open for lunch on sea days.

Two extra-fee dinner restaurants serve no-fee lunches where you build your own entree. Mongolian Wok is inside JiJi Asian Kitchen, and the Pasta Bar is in Cucina del Capitano.

In my lunch marathon, which stretched over two days, the only alternatives I missed were the buffet (although I did sample the serve-yourself beer there) and Serenity’s made-to-order salad bar, which wasn’t open. To take them all in, I skipped bread, salad and dessert; ordered half portions when available; and walked away with more than a bite or two remaining on my plate.

After seven lunches in two days, here’s my conclusion: If you go with the custom lunches, the food is really good. The best example is the made-to-order burrito. I don’t like refried beans. I like my food spicy but not scorching. BlueIguana has a condiment bar, so I could adjust the spiciness to my taste. Likewise with the Pasta Bar, Mongolian Wok and Guy’s Burger Bar, which has a condiment bar with unexpected options like shoestring potatoes and sauteed mushrooms. Seafood Shack has some custom options, including a fresh local catch “prepared fresh and served anywhere, any time, any style, any sauce.”

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The condiment bar at BlueIguana Cantina lets customers further customize their tacos and burritos. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

But the fish served in the main dining room at lunch, the pool deck pizza, and the fried clams — although not poorly cooked, all lacked flavor.

Only Guy’s BBQ was good without customizing the main dish.

Of course, when you’re cooking for 4,000-plus guests, you want to make food that everyone can eat, and bland is a logical starting point. But sometimes a buffet with a salad bar and a selection of wok or pasta ingredients is the only place where you can build a dish to suit your own taste. What’s great about lunch on Carnival is the number of places where you can go beyond bland.

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A chef positions a spiny lobster in a display case at Carnival Horizon’s Seafood Shack. Andy Newman Carnival Cruise Line

Dinner is when cruise lines want to showcase their finest fare. Carnival Horizon offers the usual — main dining room, buffet, pizza, room service — plus several alternatives for an extra fee.

The two main dining rooms, Meridian and Reflections, have the same menu. At Reflections, diners are seated at the same table and the same time every night. Meridian offers flexible “Your Time” dining between 5:45 and 9:30 p.m.

Lido Marketplace is the buffet and includes the Carnival Deli. The 24-hour Pizzeria del Capitano is nearby.

Room service: From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the menu includes continental breakfast, salads and sandwiches at no extra charge, plus a la carte items for an extra charge. Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the menu is longer but there’s a fee for any room service order during those hours.

Dining rooms with an extra charge: Bonsai Sushi, Bonsai Teppanyaki, Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse, JiJi Asian Kitchen, Cucina del Capitano, Seafood Shack, Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que, and Chef’s Table.

STATEROOMS

Almost all staterooms on Vista-class ships have interior space of 185 or 275 square feet. The major difference between staterooms is the size of the balcony — if there is a balcony. More than a third of all staterooms are inside cabins; not quite half of all staterooms have balconies, a lower percentage than other lines’ newer ships.

The largest category of stateroom is the Grand Suite. Carnival Horizon has eight of them, with 345 square feet plus an 85-square-foot balcony. You’re not going to find the luxury suites the size of a small apartment that some competing cruise lines offer.

The ship has several themed varieties of cabins. There are 30 nautically themed Family Harbor Suites and staterooms on Deck 2 with access to a private lounge with games, movies and other kid-friendly amenities. There are 104 cabins and suites with special spa access and perks. And the tropical-themed Havana Cabanas and staterooms, which are not open to children under age 12, have exclusive access until 7 p.m. to the pool and two whirlpools in the Havana pool complex at the rear of the ship.

RECREATION

If you were looking at a fleet of Carnival ships, you’d be able to pick out Horizon by its Dr. Seuss WaterWorks with its giant Cat’s Hat water slide painted in red and white stripes and blue Fun Things slide. About two-thirds of Carnival ships have water parks with slides, and Carnival Vista has slides that are architecturally identical except for the decor.

Carnival already had a Dr. Seuss tie-in — several of the ships, including Horizon, have a Dr. Seuss Bookville reading area for kids with a character parade, character breakfast and story time — but Horizon is the first to have a Seuss-themed water park.

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Guests aboard the Carnival Horizon pedal SkyRide vehicles around much of the 133,500-ton cruise liner. Andy Newman Carnival Cruise Line

Exclusive to the Vista-class ships is SkyRide, a sort of suspended bicycle that guests can pedal along a course above the ship and way above the water. (SkyRide was closed for maintenance when I was aboard.) There’s no extra cost.

In the same area, Carnival Horizon has a ropes course elevated above the sports deck where passengers strapped into a harness make their way around a networks of ropes, rails and plastic stepping stones in different shapes. Some people moved without hesitation from one platform to the next. One unhappy girl of about 8 or 9 got to the second platform, wrapped her arms about the post and refused to move. “This is a very bad idea,” she told her parents.

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Some people had no qualms about the ropes course, high above the water on Carnival Horizon. Others hugged the nearest pole and refused to try to balance on the ropes. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

Other recreational facilities: mini-bowling and pool in the clubhouse; soccer, volleyball, basketball, ping-pong and mini-golf, outdoor gym, three swimming pools and six jacuzzis. Camp Ocean is for kids 2 to 11; Circle C 12-14; and Club 02 is a hangout for teens 15+.

ENTERTAINMENT

The Carnival Multiplex consists of two movie theaters next to each other, an IMAX Theatre (which debuted on Carnival Vista) plus the Thrill Theater, which like some theme park rides enhances 3-D video with experiences for the other senses such as wind and mist. Both theaters cost extra.

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Carnival Horizon cruise director Mike Pack, center, declares the blue team the winner in a Hasbro: The Game show competition played onboard the ship. Andy Newman Carnival Cruise Line

The ship also has Lip Sync Battle: Carnival, the cruise line’s stage version of the TV competition; live, on-stage competition in Hasbro games; a 24-hour video games arcade; outdoor movies on the pool deck; the Havana Bar, which becomes a dance club at night; a piano bar, comedy club and other lounges; plus the usual cruise-ship fare of bingo, dance lessons, trivia competitions and karaoke.

Playlist Productions stage shows in the Liquid Lounge feature different musical themes (country, soul, show tunes, disco, ‘80s pop and others) with LED and other high-tech special effects. On my cruise, the show was “Celestial Strings,” with a string trio playing a mix of classical and modern pop in an enchanted garden.

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On a landing above the Atrium Bar, musician give passengers on the Carnival Horizon a preview of their stage show, “Celestial Strings.” Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

OTHER FEATURES

One of my favorite spots on the ship is the three-deck Dreamscape funnel sculpture in the atrium bar. It’s a dramatic visual element. From a distance, the artsy designs on the 24-foot-high funnel-shaped screen look like Murano glass, but up close you can see the pixels of LED lighting that produce constantly changing imagery, some of it designed by patients of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of Carnival’s charitable partners. The elegant and colorful funnel is the centerpiece of a bar that offers live music afternoons and evenings, but try the view from the middle deck, too.

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Carnival Horizon’s main atrium is highlighted by the Dreamscapes LED sculpture that is three decks high. Andy Newman Carnival Cruise Line

The casino offers 180 slot machines and the usual table games including several varieties of poker. I was happy to find a blackjack table with a $5 minimum. The casino bar has a smaller version of the Dreamscape funnel.

The Cloud 9 Spa offers traditional treatments including massages, body wraps, scrubs and facials. Passengers can buy day or week passes for the thermal suite (inspired by Turkish baths) with its steam and sauna rooms and heated loungers, and the therapeutic thalassotherapy saltwater pool.

THE SHIP

Launched: March 2018

Builder: Fincantieri, Marghera, Italy

Staterooms: 1,977; capacity 4,980 guests

Decks: 15

Length: 1,062 feet

Beam: 122 feet

Tonnage: 133,500

Other Vista-class ships: Carnival Vista was delivered in April 2016 and is home ported in Galveston, Texas, doing Caribbean cruises; Carnival Panorama is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles in December 2019 and make Mexico cruises.

Itineraries: Carnival Horizon is home ported at PortMiami at least until spring 2021, cruising the Caribbean.

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