It must be January, because I am sooooo itching for a tropical paradise right about now.
Now that my Milana Grace has reached the magic cruising age of 6 months old, I have Disney Cruise Line on my mind. Cruising might not generally be the ideal vacation for very young kids, but a Disney cruise is a different beast. The intention of my review isn’t to provide you a top to bottom review of everything on the cruise or each experience, but to give you some things to consider if you’re a family with young kids and contemplating whether this experience might be for you! I hope you find it helpful!
Make sure to check out my KNOW BEFORE YOU GO at the bottom of the post!
Now that I’m no longer pregnant (DCL does not allow women to cruise if beyond 24 weeks pregnant) and the babe is of safe cruising age, mama just wants to go cruising so bad! Disney cruising, to be specific! Even better if with friends! I’m talking to you, Krystina and Simon!
The last time I was able to cruise was on the Disney Dream in August of 2018. Gabriella was just six months old at the time, some ten days after reaching “cruising age.’ Disney offers fantastic military discounts on last minute cruises if you can manage to wait to book until 60 days out or so, and that’s exactly what we did in booking one of the “last minute military” deals.
Two adults and two kids (under 3, the magical Disney “of age” age) ran us $2189, with an additional $750 spent on board for onboard incidentals, drinks, the photo package, and gifts. Our stateroom was room 9650, a Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom with verandah on the Castaway Cay side of the ship. Originally we had booked an inside stateroom with porthole, but was able to upgrade to the verandah room for about $200 two weeks out from sail date (pro tip: upgrades get cheaper the closer you are to sail date, and are even cheaper on the day of sailing if you can wait that long!).
Disney cruises are more expensive than comparable cruises on other lines. They are also definitively directed towards families, although there are plenty of things to enjoy if you’re traveling without kids. In fact, my first Disney cruise was in 2010 and it was four adults – we had an absolutely wonderful time!
However, this time I was able to take my family and really see what it was like sailing with the best family entertainment enterprise in the world.
I should note- I still think an ideal cruising age for families would be when kids are at least 3. Of course that means you have to pay for them at that point, but I get why, and I’ll try to explain in this post.
Port Canaveral / Arrival
For this vacation, my family arrived into Orlando International Airport the night before our cruise. Even though we would have had enough time to make the cruise if we flew in the same day, I don’t like to risk delays or cancellations or make the embarkation day any longer than it has to be.
We stayed at the in-airport hotel, a Hyatt, the night before the cruise. We were able to check our cruise luggage there at the hotel and it would magically appear all the way on the ship the next day. That meant we only had to keep one bag on us for our overnight.
The morning of the cruise we went to the ground floor of Terminal B where the DCL and Magical Express busses are, and checked in for the cruise. We made the first bus that day, which left for port at 9am! It’s about an hour ride from the airport to the terminal.
You can also take Disney transportation if you stay the night before at a Disney resort or if you are arriving into the airport the day of the cruise. Unlike regular Magical Express transportation from the airport to Disney resorts, however, there is a fee for transportation to the cruise terminal. A round trip ticket will cost you $78/person, with again there being no charge for children under age 3.
For parents contemplating Disney cruising with young kids, I would suggest being in the Orlando area and accessible to Disney transportation the night before your cruise.
When you arrive at the cruise terminal, currently terminal 8 at Port Canaveral, you already feel like you are stepping into magic.
The cruise terminal opens at 10:30am for passengers, and if your bus arrives any earlier, you won’t be allowed to enter the terminal just yet.
While waiting to board your Disney cruise can seem agonizingly long, Disney does it’s best job to entertain you while waiting. From character appearances to kids activity areas to a beautiful outdoor patio with a view of the ship, there’s enough to explore if you arrive at the beginning of check in.
But why arrive at the beginning of the check in window? Well, because the sooner you check in, the sooner you get to board. Because my kids usually nap in the 12-3 time frame, I was really hoping to get on the ship early and get in a nap before sail away in the afternoon. Of course, that didn’t happen but that’s neither here nor there.
The Ship Itself
Once you step foot onto the ship, you are warmly greeted by staff who announce the name of your party as you enter (“Welcome, the Thompson Party!”). It’s a great way to customize the start of vacation for every party and one of my favorite moments on any cruise.
This most recent cruise was on the Disney Dream, which entered service in 2011 with her sister ship the Fantasy following in 2012. The Dream and Fantasy are about 40% larger than the two older ships in the DCL family, the Wonder and the Magic, with 1250 staterooms that carries up to 4000 passengers and a crew of approximately 1450.
With 14 passenger decks, three main dining restaurants, two adults-only specialty restaurants along with several casual dining options, and three themed pools, the Disney Dream has plenty of amenities for the family. One of my favorite parts of the dining on the Disney ships is the rotation- you don’t just move through the three main dining rooms during the duration of your cruise, allowing you to more fully experience the ship, but your serving team joins you! This really makes for great opportunities to bond with your team and feel like you are at home. Your team will know about and plan in advance for your daughter’s severe peanut allergy, your husband’s favorite drink, and possibly even add a few touches of magic that only comes with extended time together over the course of a cruise. It’s a really special touch and as I said, one of my favorite parts of a cruise.
Photographers make their way through the dining rooms each night, giving your family a chance to capture the magic.
Speaking of photos, I highly suggest purchasing the photo pass, booked through Our Cruise Photos up to two days prior to sailing (you can also purchase onboard for a higher cost). For our four day cruise, it was $189.00 for rights to all digital photos. I believe it was an additional $100 for print copies of the photos as well, but I didn’t really have any need for that.
Even on a short 4 day cruise, there are tons of opportunities to take photos. The only down side of buying the photo package on such a short cruise was that I didn’t want to waste a lot of time waiting in line for pictures, so I tried to get photo spots in whenever the lines were shorter. Of course, traveling with #2Under2, that didn’t always go according to plan.
Missing from Disney cruises, notably, are casinos. Instead, Disney uses that otherwise dedicated ship space for children’s activity areas such as the Nursery (kids under 3), Oceaneer Club and Lab (3-12), Edge Activity Center (11-14) and Vibe Youth Club (14-17). These gifts to parents are worth the price of cruising alone. You can take your kids to these age appropriate areas where they have high quality care, food and drink, character meet and greets, dance parties, karaoke, and tons of other activities.
Because mine were so young at the time of cruising, with Nico having just turned 2 and Gabriella just six months, of course they were only in the nursery- so my review will be limited to our experience there.
Prior to sailing, you can pre-book up to 10 hours’ time in the nursery for your children. The nursery is the only part of the kids activities that isn’t free (because you don’t pay for them to sail, just taxes), and runs at $9/hour ($8/hour for an additional children).
My tip here would be to pre-book the expected busy times- generally around dinner or right after, because those are the slots that tend to fill up fastest. You could then add additional hours (unlimited) once you get on board.
For this trip, I had pre-booked two hours after dinner for each of my kids, as well as some time the morning of Castaway Cay for my youngest.
Castaway Cay is Disney’s private island, and truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. Castaway Cay broke the standard for cruise line’s private islands — Castaway Cay was the first private island where ships docked right on the island, eliminating the need for guests to be tendered to land.
When you wake up on the ship on Castaway Cay day, and look out your window or balcony to the beauty that is the island (pro tip: get a room that faces the Castaway Cay side), it’s pretty overwhelming. I’ve honestly seen few places on Earth that have the breadth and depth of color that Castaway Cay does.
It’s no surprise that Disney’s private island destination is regularly Cruise Critic’s annual Cruisers’ Choice winner.
Once you get off the ship, here is my suggested plan of action: head off towards the tram that takes guests to various parts of the island. Possible destinations include Serenity Bay, the adults-only beach area, Snorkeling Lagoon, and Pelican Point – the Family Beach.
Heading straight to the beaches ensures that you will get the best spot. Because Disney is Disney, and they never mess anything up, there are plenty of chairs for guests on the island but it gets really busy as the day goes on and you might be a ways away from your chosen spot.
At the family beach is the in-ocean Pelican Plunge fixture, which has two waterslides, one dark-tunnel and one open-top. Guests have to be 38″ to ride (and must wear a life jacket if under 48″). This is a favorite of kids and adults alike, and always busy! There’s also a massive splash pad which, in the times I’ve been, has never been busy. It’s a mix of shade and sun, and for me- perfect because I don’t feel like I have to be as “on guard” when my kids are playing in a splash pad as I do in the ocean.
After hanging on the beach for awhile, you’ll probably have worked up an appetite for lunch. Air Bar BBQ is the outdoor restaurant by Serenity Bay, with Cookie’s BBQ next to the Family Beach. A full bbq lunch is provided for guests (although you can also remain onboard and eat on the ship!) and it really is to die for. I mean, I might not LOVE eating a full bbq meal in a bikini, but Castaway Cay is a judgment-free zone 🙂
The island has plenty of shopping, activites (snorkeling, para-sailing, banana boats and paddle boarding, or riding bikes), and character photo spots. My kids were able to get photos with Donald, Goofy, and Mickey and Minnie.
One of my favorite things to do on Castaway Cay is to go to the post office – yes, the island has its own post office! I always like to buy some post cards and send them from the island; makes for great souvenirs in the future.
Rather than taking the tram back to the ship, I personally enjoy a stroll on the walking path right along the waterside. It’s not a long walk, maybe 10-15 minutes depending on your speed, but it’s just a wonderful way to enjoy the beauty of the island. DCL provides wagons when you disembark the ship that you can take around the island, which is a nice alternative to taking a stroller.
As a parent traveling with young kids, especially on a beach day, I am always carrying a lot of stuff. Kid friendly snacks, sippy cups, sunscreen, hats, change of clothes, diapers, wipes, portable toilet (yay post-potty training vacations), and a plethora of other things. The wagon made it easy for me to put my stuff in as well as one of my kids 🙂
The Disney Door
I will not lie, Disney fans are die hards about the Disney brand, and they like to compete to show off just how Disney they are! DIE HARDS. Disney cruise liners are a special brand of Disney die hard. Two particular areas come to mind, and they both center around the Disney door.
Disney cabin doors are metal, which means that magnets stick to them 🙂
And Disney friends take decorating those doors to a whole new level! To demonstrate what kind of audience we’re talking about, a search of “Disney Cruise Line Door Magnets” on Etsy has 1175 bestseller options. Looking at doors on disney cruises is an entire two days’ event in and of itself!
Disney magnets come in LITERALLY all shapes and sizes- our door on this trip had our family name across the top, Mickey ears, a birthday magnet (celebrating Nico’s second birthday), our names and a magnet that resembled the cast member id tag that had the dates and location of our sailing.
And what is that hanging over to the left our our door?
That, my friends, is the famous Disney fish extender.
A who and a what now? Fish extender? What in the WORLD are you talking about lady?
I have to admit, until about 18 months ago, I had no idea what a fish extender was or what the fish extender gift exchange was. I’m going to do a full post on it at some future point, but what would be helpful to know for purposes of this is a fish extender is basically a hanging decoration that others can put gifts in. Guests register online on facebook (not managed by Disney itself, just other cruises) and join groups of 8-10 other families and they leave gifts for each other in their fish extenders throughout the cruise!
These are just some of the personalized touches that aren’t managed by Disney, but that the enterprise has inspired. It’s absolutely beautiful and special to be a part of.
Know Before You Go
- Do not – NOT – bring anything bigger than a single stroller. If you have five kids, and they’re all little (read: under 5), I’d suggest you have an adult for every kid and 5 umbrella strollers. The hallways are narrow. The doorways are narrower. Hallways get crowded, and having a double stroller makes navigating to wherever you want to go ALMOST impossible.
- The best character meets aren’t at the photo spots. Dance parties, on-board shows, random moments on the ship. That’s where the real magic happens.
- Cabin provided wave phones allow you to call and text other adults on the ship. When you don’t have wifi on board, this is a life saver.
- You can also use messaging in the Disney Navigator app, the DCL app specific for pre-and during sailings.
- Secret ship navigation tricks. If the carpets where you’re walking have the ship funnels pointing forward- you’re heading towards the front of the ship. You can always tell if you’re on the right or left of the ship by looking at the stateroom numbers — Starboard (right side) staterooms have starfish clips by the door numbers; port (left side) rooms have fish clips.
- Have your camera on hand- magic moments happen at times you’d never expect!
- BYOB. Guests are allowed to bring their own alcohol! You’re allowed up to 2 bottles of wine or a 6 pack of beer; you do have to carry it on yourself though – it can’t be checked.
- Castaway Cay always has a drink of the day for $5 – and it’s always delicious!
- See the shows. On the Dream, we were able to see Beauty & the Beast and it was among the most incredible Broadway-like productions I’ve ever seen.
- Placeholder cruise. For just $250, you can “hold” a spot on a future Disney cruise for a 10% discount. You don’t have to have a location or a date, just know that you want to go. Great way to get a discount!
I hope that you consider booking a Disney Cruise in the future- I can’t wait to get my kids back on one! Who wants to go with me?