"Choose Fun" says the sign held up by the smiley check-in staff of Carnival Horizon, the 26th – and newest – ship in a fleet that takes having a good time pretty seriously. Indeed, as we step on board, into an atrium lobby that soars three decks, with a buzzy bar wrapped around a giant whirlwind-shaped LED screen, surrounded by cocktail-sipping guests (from twenty-somethings to pensioners) shaking their hips to pumping dance music, my other half whispers in my ear: "Can you feel the fun?" You certainly should when cruising with Carnival. This, after all, is a company that has appointed basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal as its CFO (that's Chief Fun Officer). It's Shaq's job to spread the word, in adverts and media appearances, about the joys of a Carnival cruise, where the daily on-board newsletter is The Fun Times, the entertainment team the "Fun Squad" and countless activities and shows – from Harry Potter quizzes and Dr Seuss-inspired water slides to Lip Sync Battles and hairy chest contests – are designed to raise a smile from even the biggest Grinch. So, just how "fun" is Carnival Horizon? And is it possible to escape the merriment every now and then for a bit of peace and quiet?
Like its same-same but slightly different sister (or "sista") ship, Vista, which launched in 2016, Horizon can carry 3936 guests at double occupancy, plus 1450 crew. Most passengers – and some senior staff – are from the USA, but there's a genuine international flavour, with couples, families and groups of mates from across Europe, Asia and Australia on our seven-night Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona. There are also seven crew members from Down Under, an Italian captain, chefs, waiters and stateroom attendants from nations as varied as Serbia, St Lucia, Thailand and Colombia, and a British cruise director, Mike Pack. A bundle of energy, Mike directs many of Horizon's fun and games and as we depart Barcelona, with Sardinia, Naples and Civitavecchia (Rome) among the ports of call on our itinerary, he's orchestrating a sail-away party on the wide, tenth-floor Lido deck as a DJ spins a string of singalong tunes. Preferring to observe rather than participate, we enjoy the rather surreal spectacle of (mostly adult) passengers conga line dancing with costumed staff dressed as Dr Seuss characters as the sun-kissed Mediterranean Sea twinkles in the distance. It's a vivid reminder that, while Carnival's ships are famously family-friendly – 800,000 kids sail annually on them, more than on any other cruise line, apparently – you're never too old to join in the party.
The activities themed on the whimsical stories of Dr Seuss – the late American author Theodor Seuss Geisel – entertain both the young, and young at heart. As well as Dr Seuss Bookville – a brightly-painted, quirkily-furnished indoor children's play zone – Horizon has Dr Seuss WaterWorks, a splishy-splashy outdoor area where you'll get soaked by huge, tipping hat-shaped buckets of water and ride serpentine waterslides. The "funnest" ones – open to those more than 42 inches tall (106 centimetres) – are the red-and-white-striped Cat in The Hat, which sends you down on an inflatable doughnut tube, and my favourite, the faster blue one, Fun Things. Lay on your back, arms folded behind your head and legs crossed at the ankles, and you'll bullet down in what feels like five seconds (but is probably double that), emerging at the bottom with a fast-beating heart, a silly grin and hopefully with your drenched swimwear still intact. Also on the ship's upper decks is SportSquare, which provides plenty of "dry" entertainment during our cruise (particularly on our day at sea). We play nine-hole mini-golf, fussball, ping-pong, Poly Pong (a specially-designed table for four players) and SkyBilliards (a cross between soccer and pool). There's also Twister, shuffleboard, a basketball court and a jogging circuit (one kilometre is about five laps). If you fancy "cycling" above the sea, join the queue for SkyRide. It's a pedal-powered pod trip on an elevated track suspended above the top deck, and at times, it twists and dips like an old-fashioned fairground ride. Another attraction likely to stir butterflies in your stomach is SkyCourse. You're safely strapped in with a harness, but your legs still wobble as you teeter across planks and ropes perched several metres above the deck. Things get hairier – and more exciting, we find – when the sea breeze picks up.
Horizon has its fair share of relaxation-first retreats. Serenity, on deck 15, is adults-only, with whirlpool, loungers and shaded beds, while the outer promenades on deck five are usually fairly quiet, too. Indoors, in the lounge-like Library Bar, you can play board games on the chessboard tables, pluck books from the glass cabinets and, for a nominal fee (under US$5), pour a glass of wine from the DIY drinks cabinet. Boasting a public gym groaning with cardio and weights equipment, the Cloud 9 Spa also has tucked-away treatment areas and private aromatic steam rooms that require a special pass. This can be purchased on a daily basis, but is included, along with other spa privileges, if you stay in one of the 104 Cloud 9 staterooms, which range from snug interior cabins to spacious suites. The 79 tropical-inspired Havana staterooms are another standout sleeping option, again spanning various sizes, with the Havana Cabana ones having hammock-adorned balconies. Havana "residents" have a members-only pool by day, though from sunset to midnight, it's open to everyone and you'll see folks drinking daiquiris and mojitos and bopping to live Latino music from the adjoining, beautifully-decorated Havana Bar. A decent compromise, we find, are the Balcony staterooms, which have a retro feel with green, blue, yellow and brown hues, a sofa, desk, TV and king-size bed. Located near mid-ship on deck seven, our room (7823) is nicely positioned away from the main action, but a few minutes' walk to most stuff.
FOOD AND DRINK
On a ship that tempts you with everything from fruit salads and avocado toast to 24-hour pizza and ice cream, you can be as healthy or as gluttonous as you like. Included in your cruise fare is an array of sit-down and serve-yourself options (not to mention burger, taco and burrito stands). One lunch, at the Lido Marketplace buffet, we have maple-glazed salmon steak, and mussels in tomato and chorizo sauce, before feasting later on creamy, spicy lamb and chicken dishes – a forte of the Indian chef – at dinner in Meridian, a restaurant that also serves special meals depending on that day's port of call. For example, after bidding au revoir to Marseille, we eat Bouillabaisse (a traditional Provencal seafood stew). Horizon's for-fee eateries include Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse, whose carnivore-pleasing dishes complement the craft beers brewed on site. If you want to just booze, try the pub's Parched Pig Beer Sampler, which includes three diverse ales and a smoked porter. Cocktail fans might prefer the bacon-infused Manhattan. Arguably the best-value dining option – from US$15 – is JiJi Asian, where we tuck into Nanjing-style duck and Singapore chilli shrimp. Pricier alternatives are Japanese at Bonsai Teppanyaki (US$25-30), the first of its type on Carnival ships, and Fahrenheit 555 (US$35), where, as tunes drift in from the adjoining Piano Bar, we devour prime American beef and lobster, then Art At Your Table (where, before our eyes, a chef decorates a giant dessert board with ice cream, sweets and chocolate). Wherever you eat, don't be surprised to see waiters occasionally breaking out into song and dance. At Cucina del Capitano, a rustic-chic Italian joint in which we dine after visiting the gorgeous island of Sardinia, we're serenaded with a light-hearted rendition of Volare (Nel blu dipinto di blu). On our final night, sailing back to Barcelona, the Meridian restaurant bounces to the theme tune of Rocky, before a waiter croons John Denver's Leaving On a Jet Plane. Amid the schmaltz, it's an opportune time to reflect on the past week's thrills, spills and more chilled-out moments. And if we had to choose one word to sum up our Carnival Horizon cruise, it would be, quite simply: "fun".
After debuting in the Mediterranean, Carnival Horizon will sail across the Atlantic and begin cruises between New York, Bermuda and the Caribbean from late May, priced from around US$755 (AU$993). In late September, the ship will relocate to Miami for Caribbean voyages. See carnival.com
FIVE MORE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CARNIVAL HORIZON
1. Designed to "maximise your fun on-board", the handy Carnival Hub app provides deck plans, information on activities and allows reservations for restaurants and shore excursions. You don't have to sign up for the internet packages to use the app.
2. Horizon has new "smart lifts" that assign certain lifts to passengers depending on which deck they're going to. It means you'll spend less time both waiting for lifts and stuck inside them.
3. Horizon's godmother is American hip-hop icon and actress Queen Latifah. She'll officially christen the ship in New York on May 23.
4. Evening entertainment is wide and varied, including bands, stand-up comedy, a casino, live TV sports and stage shows like Love and Marriage, where couples chosen from the audience answer a series of amusing – and potentially awkward – questions. For an extra fee, there's also an IMAX and a "5D" Thrill Theater.
5. Horizon's "Fun Shops" sell everything from candy sushi and models of the ship to designer brands like Michael Kors, Breitling and Victoria's Secret.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Carnival.