Royal Caribbean International (RCL) Carnival Cruise Line (CCL) and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) It dominates the mid-level family-friendly cruise market. Walt Disney (dis) It has, of course, made its mark in that space, but overall it’s a higher price point and a relatively small itinerary.
In the Florida market, sailing mostly to the Caribbean, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian are big players, with the Royal Caribbean – specifically the largest of the Oasis class vessels – being my personal favorite. MSC, the cruise line founded in Italy that has made its mark in Europe, has boosted its offerings outside of Florida.
MSC has sailed in the US since the 1990s and now uses both Miami and Port Canaveral as home comparisons. The MSC Divina, a mid-size vessel that holds just over 4,300 passengers at full capacity, sails Caribbean routes from Port Canaveral.
Essentially, the Divina compares in size/passenger numbers to the Royal Caribbean Voyager and Freedom-class ships plying the Caribbean routes from multiple Florida ports. In fact, the MSC Divina is often seated near the Mariner of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship sailing similar itineraries.
MSC vs. Royal Caribbean: Getting Onboard
Royal Caribbean has a more polished pre-cruise system than MSC. Divina passengers, for example, cannot attach a credit card to their accounts until they are on board. However, the MSC website doesn’t say that and has a sport where you seem to be able to add a card, but you can’t actually do that.
This creates a bit of a crowd at the booths on the plane where you can link a card to your account. Regardless, however, the MSC boarding process flows very smoothly with a nearby army of people willing to check you and make sure you have a negative covid vaccination card or test.
Apart from that, both cruise lines have people who sell and provide technical assistance for their internet packages. There are also plenty of opportunities to buy a drink package (and plenty of bars are open where you can use said package).
MSC vs. Royal Caribbean: Ships
Divina has more of a closed feel with no large open central area like the Royal Promenade (a long chain of shops, bars and restaurants on the fifth floor of Voyager and Freedom-class ships). Alternatively, the Divina has a central area with winding staircases spanning several floors as the central area, a design similar to some of the older Caribbean royal ships.
Instead of an open road full of places, Divina often asks you to go through one place to get to another. In some ways, this makes the MSC ship feel more intimate than many of the larger Royal ships, and creates a more relaxed atmosphere.
However, this kind of Divina’s introverted nature has been a positive when it comes to making friends on board. Since you’re wandering around to get to other places, you stand a better chance of meeting friends than if you’re in a crowded, wide-open area like the Royal Caribbean’s Promenade.
Divina shines on its upper decks as it offers a covered pool area with a retractable roof, a main pool, and a hidden gem of an adults-only pool tucked away in the aft of the ship (with a stunning view on its heels). The main pool has the requisite movie screen (although no movies are shown during my sailing) and hot tubs are seemingly ubiquitous on the first 3 decks.
There is no shortage of pool chairs although the main pool can get very crowded on both lines. Divina has a fourth-passenger swimming pool in the yacht club (suites), a feature that Royal Caribbean offers only on its newest and largest ships.
The pool decks at Royal Caribbean generally have brighter designs and all ages areas often have lots of kids. MSC seems to attract fewer families (but the sailing was Sunday through Thursday during the school year, so it may not be entirely representative.
MSC vs. Royal Caribbean: The Food
Royal Caribbean has a variety of free dining options, a buffet with more options, and much larger dinner menus. It also offers more specialty restaurants (enough so you can skip the main dining room entirely on a 4-night cruise).
Divina’s main dining room dinners were adequate, but really adequate, while Royal Caribbean varies from adequate to very good. The best choices seem to be the stock menu items (salmon, chicken, and steak) served nightly, and for the cruise line with Italian heritage, the pasta bordered on subpar.
This does not mean that MSC has failed in all its dining options. The free buffet pizza is much better than the ‘Sorrento’ pizza on board the Royal Caribbean. The slightly charged pizza was very good while the two onboard gelato shops served up interesting flavors for just a few dollars. Divina also had excellent coffee and pastries (at an extra charge) that outperformed similar Royal Caribbean offerings.
Divina also has a steakhouse at an extra charge and a Japanese restaurant that may have been a small step lower than their Royal Caribbean counterparts.
MSC vs. Royal Caribbean: The Onboard Experience
The cabin on the Divina felt a lot like the cabin on a Royal Caribbean Freedom or Voyager-class ship. The design touches were a little different, and aside from offering small TVs (with very few channels), in the Divina, the cabin experience was very similar.
Both the MSC ship and its Caribbean counterparts of similar size make it very easy to get a drink. However, Divina’s various bars generally lacked the distinct concepts offered by Royal Caribbean bars. Schooner’s Bar in Mariner of the Seas has a different menu and line-up entertainment (piano bar vs acoustic guitarist).
The Mariner, and its sister ships, usually have nearly every bar concept with a unique menu and theme. In Divina every bar offers the same selection (more or less) and although the place may have a name or a theme, there is a similarity in all places except for the direct name “Sports Bar”, which had a lot of TVs and Small bowling alley.
The Royal Caribbean “Playmakers” sports bar tends to be in more central locations (varies by ship) and has a more premium drink menu, but both cruise lines offer a good way to watch whatever game you might be.
Both cruise lines offer fairly similar casinos with a mix of slots and table games. It seems that Royal Caribbean offers more promotions every night, but the differences are slight. MSC and Royal Caribbean also offer somewhat similar stage shows on this sized ship with a mix of musicals, comedians, singers, and variety acts.
Divina spins a pianist and acoustic guitarist in the central area (where customer service is primarily located). Both qualified but were more background music than the lively, packed crowds of pianists at Royal Caribbean Schooner Bar and the dedicated followers of British pub guitarists that tend to be on most sailing.
All Royal Caribbean ships are in the process of updating, Starlink Internet. Currently, the Freedom and Voyager ships offer internet service that varies from acceptable to barely acceptable. The MSC Divina has similar packages and prices to its competition, but the onboard internet ranges from barely working to not working even in areas where the help desk said it has the best signal.
However, Divina has a clear advantage in packaging for alcoholic beverages. Royal Caribbean sells a one-price, all-inclusive package that can exceed $75 per day. MSC offers three tiers based on beverage prices that allow passengers to decide whether they want a good, medium or high-shelf liquor along with the extensive beer and wine options on the higher levels.
MSC vs. Royal Caribbean: The Private Island
Royal Caribbean’s “Perfect Day at CocoCay” offers a little bit of everything as it has quiet beaches, a huge pool that starts cool and turns festive, an extra water park, and a beach club for an extra fee. It’s basically an island choose your own adventure.
Ocean Cay from MSC offers a quieter beach experience with a huge serene beach, and nothing else. It’s not a festive scene (although alcohol flows freely), but if you want relaxation, clear water and plenty of sun, Ocean Cay makes for a great experience.
In addition, some of the MSC Divina cruises feature a night in Ocean Cay complete with a party night and a laser show. The rain aborted those plans (mostly) on my trip, but getting to the island overnight was a bonus.
Both companies offer similar free BBQ options on the islands with Royal Caribbean offering a few free “Snack Shacks” that serve up burgers and mozzarella sticks while Ocean Cay offers some surcharge food trucks that offer higher fare.
MSC vs Royal Caribbean: Loyalty
As a Diamond-plus member of Royal Caribbean, I get a number of meaningful perks. First, I get access to a dedicated lounge with a fancy coffee maker, a concierge who can make dinner/show reservations, a light breakfast in the morning, and an early evening appetizer. Instead of the previous ‘happy hour’, which offered unlimited drinks in the lounge for a few hours each night, Diamond members now get four ‘tickets’ for drinks each day that can be used at any time of the day and anywhere on the plane, while members get Diamond + on five.
MSC matched my status to an equivalent, so I was “golden” in their system. This is a positive, on paper, but it seems that getting the gold position means very little. In addition, MSC does not appear to have an official casino loyalty program while Royal Caribbean’s offers me free drinks in the casino and a variety of gifts which are sent to my room most nights.