Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids (2015)
In 1996 Disney stepped into the cruising industry, and a family cruise has never been the same since. World-class entertainment, fine dining, the Disney characters—everything you expect to find at Walt Disney World can now be discovered on the high seas. And with its growing fleet of ships, Disney is prepared to sail its guests to every corner of the globe.
Disney has four ships. The original two, the Magic and the Wonder, handle the longer sailings, which at present include Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico, Europe, and Canada. The even bigger and better Dream and Fantasy make the popular three-, four-, and seven-night sailings to the Bahamas and Disney’s own island, Castaway Cay. With this fleet at its disposal, Disney has a wide variety of itineraries and ports of call. Check out all the offerings at www.disneycruise.com.
No matter where you sail, the key thing about the Disney cruises is that the activities and the attitude are decidedly geared toward families. There are no casinos on board, entertainment is wholesome, drinking and carousing are de-emphasized, shore excursions tend toward kid-friendly pursuits like snorkeling and dolphin swims, and there are excellent (in fact, award-winning) child-care centers. Disney cruises are perfect for the family that needs a bit of everything in the course of a vacation: time for the adults to relax alone and time with everyone together. Families whose kids vary in age are especially sold on the cruises. Because there are so many kids on board and the age categories in the youth programs are tight, it’s likely that your 3-year-old and 13-year-old will each have found a friend by the end of the first day. Let’s face it—nothing beats a vacation where everyone is happy.
Cruising with Disney
Pre- and Post-Cruise Packages
Many Disney visitors combine a stay at Walt Disney World with a three-, four-, or five-day cruise. To call this a “package” is a bit of a misnomer, as Disney allows families to customize their vacation totally. In other words, you treat the Orlando segment as an add-on before or after your cruise, choosing any resort you like and staying as long as you decide. It’s a good way to get the best of both worlds.
Although it’s possible to reverse the order, most families like touring first and cruising last. That way the relaxing cruise segment follows the more exhausting theme-park segment of the week.
You’re met at the Orlando airport and escorted directly to your resort, where you can find all the documentation you need for the week. After the theme-park segment of the trip is over, you’re transported by a special Disney Cruise Line (DCL) bus to the ship, which waits in Port Canaveral harbor, approximately an hour from Orlando.
Disney does everything possible to make the transition seamless; the same charging privileges established in Orlando are extended to your onboard account. Your bags are picked up from your hotel room and transferred directly to your room on the ship. In short, the logistics of checking in and checking out, arranging transportation, and lugging baggage are all handled for you.
Families leaving from California or Europe on their cruises also have hotel options, which are detailed on the website.
When shopping for discounts, leave no stone unturned—and make no assumptions. Although some families report that travel agents found them the best deals, others say that agents quoted higher rates than those given when they called Disney directly.
Calculating the exact cost of your cruise depends on several factors: the time of year, the size of your family, the itinerary, and the level of cabin or stateroom you choose. It’s probably a little too late to do anything about the size of your family, but the other three factors are within your control.
Time of year has a huge impact on price. If you’re going in the middle of summer, spring break, or Christmas week, you’ll pay top dollar. If you’re traveling during the off-season, say the third week of October, the rates will automatically drop about 30%. Most of the specials and discounts you’ll find through AAA and independent websites like www.mousesavers.com are for the off-season.
Lodging also affects the bottom line. All staterooms are nicely appointed, designed for families, and therefore 25% larger than standard cruise-ship cabins, so it’s really just a matter of how much space you’re willing to pay for.
And then there’s the issue of itinerary. Obviously, it costs considerably more to cruise to Hawaii for 14 nights than it does to take a three-day run to the Bahamas.
Let’s see how all this shakes out with some examples. For instance, a family of four taking the basic four-day Bahamas cruise on the Dream in July might pay $5,000-$6,000. If that makes you gulp, consider that the same trip in February comes in at about $3,000. The type of stateroom is also a factor. If you want a private veranda and full stateroom for your seven-day cruise to Alaska in July, the cost for a family of four is $8,000-$9,000. Swap to an inside stateroom, and the cost drops to $5,000-$6,000. The length of the cruise and distance covered is the other big variable. The 14-day cruise from Los Angeles to Hawaii in April will cost that same family of four about $10,000. (Note: These quoted prices do not include airfare. Adding it on is always an option, and the price rises accordingly, depending on where your flight originates.)
Get the picture? Costs can vary dramatically. To estimate the price of your cruise, start by going to www.disneycruise.com and typing in the destination you wish to visit, the month you wish to travel, the preferred length of the cruise, and the number of people in your party. This will direct you to a page that shows all of your options, from highest to lowest. You can fine-tune from there, and once you have a ballpark price you can more intelligently comparison shop. The website is also a great source of information on ports of call, shore excursions, and the layout of staterooms.
Money-Saving Tip The ship is going to sail no matter how many people are aboard, so cruise lines offer significant discounts as the time of departure approaches and staterooms remain unbooked. Disney is no exception to this rule, but be aware that the cheaper stateroom levels sell out first, so discounts are more likely to be available on the unsold concierge-level (premium) staterooms. Last-minute travelers might not find lower prices, but they may get more bang for their buck.
One of the beauties of cruising is that most of your expenses are included in your package price. Here’s a list of what isn’t included.
Child care for children under three
Merchandise bought on board or at ports of call
Palo, the adults-only restaurant on all four ships, which charges a $25 per person cover; Remy, the even-more-upscale adults-only restaurant on the Dream and the Fantasy, has an upcharge of $75 per person.
Parking fees, if you drive to the port you’re sailing from
Ship-to-shore phone calls
Tipping (Based on industry suggestions, this will be about $12-$15 per person per day. This cost, along with any other purchases made aboard the ship, can be added to your general bill, so don’t worry about bringing a lot of cash.)
On the Ships
The Disney Cruise Line website contains renderings of all the staterooms, from the basic inside stateroom designed for three to a two-bedroom suite that can sleep as many as seven. Most staterooms are in the deluxe ocean-view category, many of them with verandas, and most about 200-250 square feet. (Most of the cabins are outside staterooms, so if you’re planning to save a few bucks by booking an inside stateroom, call early.)
“The general rule is, the longer you’ll be on the ship, the more important the size of your stateroom is,” reported a mom of three from Florida, who describes herself as a “grizzled cruise veteran.” She added: “For a three-day cruise we’re okay with being piled on top of each other, and we go for the cheapest option we can find. On these short runs, you’re hardly ever in the cabin anyway. But if you’re on a longer cruise that includes multiple days at sea, the size and comfort of your stateroom matters a lot more.”
One other innovation to note: The Dream and the Fantasy alleviate cabin fever by putting “virtual portholes” in the inside staterooms. High-definition cameras placed on the exterior of the ship feed live video to your screen. Keep an eye out—sometimes a character pops by as well. These portholes have been such a hit that Disney reports quite a few families now prefer the inside cabins. “We booked late and were initially disappointed we didn’t have a veranda,” reported one mom. “But our 3- and 4-year-old were so entranced by the portholes that it didn’t matter. They kept screaming out the name of whatever character was drifting by.”
Disney makes onboard dining very special. For starters, you don’t dine in the same restaurant every night. “We figured that a family on vacation wouldn’t ordinarily eat at the same restaurant three nights in a row,” said Amy Foley of the DCL. “So why would a family on a cruise ship want to eat in the same dining room every night?”
Instead, you experience “rotation dining,” trying a different onboard restaurant each evening of your cruise. (Your server and tablemates rotate along with you.) There’s one “formal” restaurant in the mix. On the Magic, there’s Lumiere’s, with a theme based on Beauty and the Beast. On the Wonder, your fine-dining option is Triton’s, named for the Little Mermaid’s father. On the Dream it’s the Royal Palace, and on the Fantasy it’s the Royal Court; both are home to Cinderella and her princess pals.
Other nights are more casual. On the Magic there’s the Brazil-themed Carioca’s, and on the Wonder there’s Parrot Cay, where the mood and the food is Bahamian. On the Dream and the Fantasy there’s the Enchanted Garden, inspired by the gardens of Versailles and featuring an environment that changes from day to night in the course of your meal.
But Animator’s Palate—which is available on all ships—is the real showstopper, an interactive dining experience in which the restaurant transforms itself as you dine. The meal begins in a room that is utterly black and white, right down to the framed animation sketches on the wall and the servers’ somber attire. With each course, more color is added to the artwork, the walls, the table settings, and the servers’ costumes. By dessert the whole room is glowing.
On the Dream and the Fantasy, the restaurant has one more wonderful touch. Crush, the surfer-dude turtle from Finding Nemo, appears and interacts with diners, using the same type of technology found in the popular Turtle Talk with Crush attraction at Epcot. “Having Crush greet him by name and interact with him was the highlight of the whole cruise for my 4-year-old son,” said one father. “When he found out about the restaurant rotation—in other words that we wouldn’t be going back to Animator’s Palate the next night—he was, excuse the expression, completely crushed.”
On all four ships, adults have a fourth dining option, Palo, an Italian restaurant perched high atop the ship, offering a sweeping view of the ocean. Palo serves wonderful food and is so popular that if you want to book a table, you need to do so either before you leave home or immediately upon boarding the ship. There’s a well-worth-it $25 surcharge for dinner or brunch. Excellent wine-tasting classes are held there as well.
On the Dream and the Fantasy you’ll find a second adults-only option called Remy’s, with an opulent setting and a French-inspired menu that’s a nod to the film Ratatouille. Scott Hummel, the executive chef at Victoria & Albert’s at the Grand Floridian, was one of the consulting chefs, and many of his dishes are on the menu; in other words, while a meal at Palo’s is on par with California Grill, Cítricos, Flying Fish, or Jiko, Remy’s takes it a step further, offering cuisine and service more like you’d find at Victoria & Albert’s. Note that there’s a $75 per person upcharge for dining at Remy’s. If you go with the six-course tasting menu and add a wine pairing with each course, the price goes up an additional $99. Certainly not a cheap night out, but it’s a meal to remember, with many little surprise touches designed to elevate your experience. If you’d like the Remy’s experience for a little less, consider the champagne brunch, which is offered for $50, $75 with champagne pairings.
When you book your cruise, you’ll have to choose your meal times: either early or late. The main seating means you have dinner as early as 6, depending on the ship, and the second seating is often as late as 8:30. If you have young kids the early seating works best, although it does mean a crack-of-dawn breakfast time. But I’ve seen preschoolers literally fall asleep at the table at late seatings—active days bring about early bedtimes. Besides, if you want to sleep in, you can always skip the full breakfast and grab breakfast at the buffet.
In fact, if you’re not into spending a lot of time in restaurants, the buffets are a good, fast option for both breakfast and lunch. A breakfast buffet is available daily on the pool level for families who want to get an early start. You can also find a casual buffet lunch daily, and, in case you don’t want to take even a minute out of your fun, pizza, burgers, salad, sandwiches, and ice cream are served all afternoon out by the pools.
Making a Good Thing Better
Walt Disney once famously said “our goal is to take things that are wonderful and make them better,” and thus Disney is continually looking for ways to improve its family cruises. The original ship, the Magic, underwent a major renovation in 2013, and the Wonder will follow suit in a few years.
The biggest change to the Magic is the addition of the AquaDunk thrill ride, which was undoubtedly prompted by the popularity of the AquaDuck on the Dream and Fantasy. But while the AquaDuck is a coaster-style ride that flows all around the deck, the Dunk is just what its name implies—one dramatic drop. Riders enter a glass chute three stories in the air, and then the bottom drops out, sending them plunging through a huge loop extending over the side of the ship before they come to rest at the bottom.
The kiddie pool area is also freshened up, with the Mickey Pool slide being replaced with the zippy, curved, but still kid-friendly Twist’n’Spout. Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie host a special “splash zone” with fountains and water play areas for the preschool set.
As for restaurants, the casual Parrot Cay has been re-themed as Carioca’s, named after Jose Carioca of Three Cabelleros fame. Animator’s Palate has had a brush-up in technology, and the casual buffet eatery Cabanas now has food stations and a Finding Nemo theme.
The Oceaneer’s Lab boasts a new multiplayer pirate game, while the Oceaneer Club offers four new themed play areas, ranging from Pixie Hollow to the Avengers. And parents get some new toys, too. The adults-only entertainment zone, After Hours, has three new bars: Fathoms, which has club and cabaret acts as well as a dance floor; O’Gill’s Irish Pub; and the Keys Piano Bar.
Kids’ Programs On Board
Flounder’s Reef is the nursery on the Wonder, while on the Dream, the Magic, and the Fantasy you’ll find the It’s A Small World Nursery. No matter what it’s called, the baby center has plenty of cribs, high chairs, swings, and changing tables, along with play areas for children between three months and three years of age. The nurseries don’t have the extensive hours of the other children’s programs, but are open daily to give the parents of infants and toddlers time to relax together or play with their older kids. This is the only child-care option on the ship that charges a fee ($6 per hour); they are open from 9 am to 11 pm.
Is Bigger Better?
The Dream and the Fantasy, which cover the shorter Bahamian cruises, have some real bonus features. They’re 40% larger than the Magic or Wonder, and Disney used that extra space for expanded entertainment areas. Innovations include the virtual portholes for inside cabins, art that comes “to life,” a ship-wide detective game, and separate areas for teens and tweens. But the star of the bigger ships, hands down, is the AquaDuck, a full-fledged water coaster. The AquaDuck is essentially a 765-foot Plexiglas tube stretching high above the top deck. Jets propel you along, and the track features a “swing out” loop that (briefly) shoots you over the side of the ship. The ocean—if you dare to look—is 150 feet below. The height requirement is 48 inches, and two family members can ride together.
Disney’s Oceaneer Club for kids ages three to seven occupies a huge play area complete with a re-creation of Captain Hook’s pirate ship. The well-trained and upbeat counselors lead the kids in games and crafts. On the first evening aboard the ship counselors meet with the parents to explain the program and help ease in the kids.
Kids ages 8 to 11 hang out in the Oceaneer Lab, where they have their own crafts and games such as learning how to make flubber, draw animation cels, or carve race cars from soap. There’s also plenty of outdoor action, from games on the sports deck to water activities in the sports pool.
The activities at Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab run throughout the day and night. Whenever you drop your kids off, a pager ensures you can be reached in case of an emergency. But the most likely “emergency” is that your kids are having so much fun they refuse to leave.
Young children, already overwhelmed by the size of the ship, often suffer separation anxiety the first time they’re dropped off at one of the programs. Try to persuade them to join the activities the first evening, when everyone is new and fast friendships are made. The counselors are trained to look out for shy children and help them make a smooth transition into the group activities.
As you’re probably already only too aware, the 11 to 13 “tween” years are tough, with these “neither here nor there” kids often nearly impossible to entertain. Not to worry. Disney breaks out this age group and gives them their own spaces. Edge, the appropriately named lounge for tweens, offers high-tech entertainment such as video karaoke and separate sporting events. It works well, since they’re neither forced into kiddie activities nor given as much freedom as the teenagers.
Teens ages 13 to 17 have their own spaces: a private haven called Vibe. The spaces look like a combination coffeehouse-dorm room. Teens are pretty much given the run of the ship—counselors lead them in ship-wide scavenger hunts, video-game tournaments, and pool parties.
There are three pools on board: one with a pint-size tube slide for little kids; a second “sports pool” for games and the rowdier activities of older children; and a third “quiet pool” for adults, complete with large, elevated hot tubs. In addition, the ship has a sports deck, a full-service spa, an exercise room, and several shops. The Dream and the Fantasy have the AquaDuck water coaster. The Magic has the AquaDunk thrill ride.
The cornerstone of onboard entertainment is the 975-seat Walt Disney Theater, one of the most technologically advanced theaters in the world and certainly the most remarkable on any cruise ship. Here DCL showcases Broadway-style shows, some of them new and some based on Disney classics. All the productions are great, but the finale show is the stunning Believe, which always seems to bring half the audience to tears.
More and more, large families are meeting up on cruises, where everyone can be together but still go off and do their own thing. Consider this report from a mother of three from Michigan: “My sisters and I have a family reunion at Disney World every other year. When we get all the kids and spouses together, there are 14 of us, with a wide range of ages. Last year for the first time we took the cruise and found that worked great. Those with babies could go back to their cabins whenever someone got cranky or tired, those with school-age kids could just keep going, and those with older kids could let them go to the pools and arcades on their own.”
A family lounge—Studio Sea on the Magic and the Wonder and Studio D on the Dream and the Fantasy—provides dance music, parties, and participatory game shows starring the audience. The Mickey Mania trivia game is a real blast. The Buena Vista Theater shows a variety of Disney movies daily, and, come nightfall, a jumbo screen allows you to watch movies outdoors on the deck, a good way to coax wound-up kids to calm down and give way to sleep.
Of course, the characters are sailing right along with you. They turn out for deck parties—including the welcome-aboard and farewell bashes—and also appear around the ship. Check your daily onboard newsletter, the Personal Navigator, for times and locations.
After the shows wind down, adults can congregate in the entertainment districts, dubbed After Hours on the Magic and Route 66 on the Wonder. Expect a cabaret-dance club, a sports pub, and a piano bar. The District is the expanded adult area on the Dream and the Fantasy. It has five clubs: a live-music venue, a dance club, a sports bar, an upscale champagne lounge, and the Skyline Bar, where the sun sets over a different city every 15 minutes with artwork, music, and globally themed drinks to match each new destination. What will these people think of next?
The older ships, the Magic and the Wonder, sail from a variety of ports of embarkation and explore more exotic ports of call. For details on upcoming voyages, visit www.disneycruise.com.
The onboard spa offers a range of services, including some designed exclusively for couples. Just hanging out in the beautiful sauna and steam area is a great way to kill an afternoon. If you want to book a massage or facial, especially on a day when the ship is at sea, go immediately to the spa after boarding the ship to make an appointment. The best times get snatched up early. The Dream, the Magic, and the Fantasy also offer Chill, a separate spa area for tweens and teens.
One of the definite highlights of the island cruises is the Pirates in the Caribbean deck party. Passengers dress like buccaneers and convene for a rollicking deck party with the characters. Smee and Captain Hook show up and try to cause trouble, but not to worry, Captain Mickey prevails, and a good time is had by all. The evening rounds out with fireworks, music, and dancing.
Off the Ships
Ports of Call
The three- and four-day cruises spend one day in Nassau, giving you a chance to shop, sightsee, or visit a casino. There are shore excursions designed for families (and kids of all ages are apt to enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride), but, frankly, the Nassau stop exists mostly to placate the adults on board who miss the presence of a casino. If you do want to try your luck at the slots, or if your children are too young to take along comfortably on a shopping trip to the straw market, you can always leave them on board in the kids’ programs.
The seven-day cruises offer family-friendly shore excursions at every stop such as sailing lessons, snorkeling, and submarine trips. The Alaskan, Hawaiian, and longer Caribbean-Mexican cruises also offer shore excursions at every port of call, and the list of possibilities is staggering. A complete list of all shore excursions for every port of call can be found at www.disneycruise.com.
Once you book your cruise, reserve shore excursions online Reserving early guarantees you can get everything you want and saves you from having to stand in line at the shore-excursion desk on the first day of your cruise.
All the Caribbean and Bahamas cruises stop at Castaway Cay, Disney’s own private island and a true little piece of paradise. You disembark at the pier (cutting out the time-consuming tendering process often required when a large ship stops at a small island) and stroll or take a shuttle to a beautiful beach. Once there you can hike, bike, play volleyball, take a Jet Ski ride, rent sailboats or sea kayaks, or simply sun yourself. Organized excursions for families include a stingray swim and snorkeling tours. Lunch is cooked right on the island, and there are small shops in case you find yourself in need of beach toys, towels, or sunscreen.
The children’s programs go full force on the island, so after you’ve played a while as a family, you can drop the kids off and have a little adult time. Counselors lead youngsters on scavenger hunts, “whale excavations,” and sand castle-building contests; older kids participate in boat races or bike trips around the island with the counselors; teens have their own beach Olympics and Survivor-style games.
Meanwhile, adults can escape to the separate mile-long quiet beach called Serenity Bay, where they can sip a piña colada or have an open-air massage in a private cabana.
Castaway Cay is so popular that some itineraries stop there twice. If you’d like a lot of beach time on your cruise, consider one of those sailings.