I'll try to address as much as I can... I know what you mean about all the complainers. We were on the Carnival Jubilee in August and from the reviews I read on that ship, you would have thought it was the worst ship on the ocean! Since it was my first cruise, I had nothing to compare it to but I thought it was nice and well kept for an older ship and we had a blast on our cruise. I know things can go wrong sometimes but ultimately I think your cruise is what you make it.
Whatever excursions you book, book as early as you can. You might check the "destinations" message boards for more info on excursions.
For attire other than formal nights Steve should be just fine in Dockers and a nice shirt . No tie necessary on the "other than formal" nights. They mainly frown on jeans, t-shirts, and shorts. When you get your cruise documents it will have information telling you what the dress code is for dining.
I don't know anything on the alcohol card or soda card since we just drank tea, coffee and water.
Sorry I couldn't be of more help to you, but I hope I helped you out some. What a great ship for a first cruise. I hope you both have a wonderful time!