Disney cruising: Highs, lows, and dolphins

I spent last week on a Disney cruise through the Caribbean with my three older children and my mother-in-law (who is a very good sport). The kids adored the cruise and are demanding to go on another one soon. My eldest actually wishes to combine it with a Disney World trip, which… oh my goodness. I’m not sure I could handle that much magic. I was not quite as taken with the pixie dust, but I am probably not the target demographic. I managed to have a few good experiences and got enough solo reading time (thanks to my very-good-sport mother-in-law) to feel relatively relaxed at the end.

We flew to Orlando from Philadelphia on Sunday, and took an Uber out to Cocoa Beach. We stayed at an ocean front hotel, and I squeezed in a quick run on the beach on Monday morning.

We then headed to the cruise terminal. This was a fairly comical scene. Long time readers know that I belong to the “light” school of packing. We had no checked bags, and so could walk everything on the ship ourselves. I’m just going to tell myself that some of the other passengers had weeklong trips to Disney planned before and after the cruise because wow, that was a lot of luggage for four days.

We showed our passports, dealt with the zoo of the waiting area (with woefully inadequate seating), and then went on board and immediately to lunch. This was my introduction to cruise cuisine. I had never been on a cruise before, and I have since learned that food is one of the major draws of cruising — but not in the sense of amazing quality. People get into the quantity. It’s all included, so hey, order an appetizer — or two! — and a main course and a dessert for every meal! But because the quantity is the selling point, quality is an easy point for compromise for any cruise line trying to make their numbers. Most of my meals were decidedly meh. Even the kids’ meals were not that good. The breakfast buffets were generally better than the lunch and dinner options, but that’s partly because I just ate the same thing I do at home (scrambled eggs and fruit). My mother-in-law and I did go to (and enjoyed) the two “better” restaurants on two nights, where you pay a supplement. Palo, the Italian, was decent; I liked my tomato and mozzarella salad. Remy was somewhat closer to an actual high-end restaurant with a tasting menu and such, though it was still humorously Disney-fied. Every course required the waiter to pour a sauce on the dish after serving it, I guess in case people require theater with their food.

The kids loved being able to see movies onboard and my mother-in-law took them to two (!) of them. There was a movie screen playing Disney movies continuously by the kids’ pools and waterslides. I found this unbearably grating — supervising the kids meant being forced to watch/listen — but I can see how some people would see it as a plus. The kids’ club was fairly large and well-run; I appreciated that it never filled up while we were there (unlike Disney’s Aulani kids’ club), and the band system meant they could actually tell me where in that vast place my kids were playing when I picked them up. My 9-year-old liked the full video game suite and is clamoring for us to purchase one of the games.

We mostly enjoyed our add-on experiences. I bought the “swimming with Dolphins” experience at Atlantis in Nassau (where our boat docked on our first full day out). The dolphins (rescued after a storm, if I remember correctly) were amazing — we got in our wet suits and swam out and around them in the deep water. Being so close to such fascinating creatures could definitely be a bucket list type experience. My kids loved playing with them. Alas, getting to Atlantis, and dealing with the crowds at Atlantis, was a nightmare. We gathered at our spot on the boat at 9 a.m. and did not get to Atlantis until about 10:45. This was probably more disorganization from the Atlantis tour people than Disney, but wow. Unpleasant in the Bahamas heat. Also, the resort was mobbed (because hey, why not empty four full cruise boats there at the same time?) and we wound up putting a towel on the sidewalk to eat lunch because literally every lounge chair and table was taken.

On our next day, we docked at Castaway Cay, which is Disney’s private island. I had signed up to run the 5k, and experienced another disorganized getting-on-shore experience. They were handing out bibs individually to everyone, which amounted to all the runners basically re-registering (not sure why they didn’t get delivered to people’s rooms, or handed out when we actually registered). Four people had to process a few hundred runners. We were told to gather at 8 a.m., but didn’t start running until after 9. Since this was the Caribbean, that extra hour of heat mattered. It was brutal at the start, though it got better when a huge storm brewed up and dropped the temperature about ten degrees. I managed to cross the finish line right before it started pouring.

I went back to the boat and got everyone else and we spent some time on the beach before doing the stingray adventure. This was definitely a trip highlight. We fed the stingrays, and then snorkeled in an enclosed area with 69 of those lovely creatures. We could follow individual rays around and really observe them. Looking right into a stingray’s eyes from a few feet away was quite moving. Unlike my 4-year-old at the Atlantic City Aquarium two weeks ago, none of us got barbed (Disney may be more thorough on trimming…).

Our final day was at sea, so the kids did the water slides, the pool, and then the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. The prices were eye-watering there, but my daughter loved being made over as Elsa, complete with blond hair extensions, a flowing blue dress, and make-up (see @lvanderkam on Instagram). Because I am an equal gender opportunity parent, I had my boys do boutique makeovers too. I wound up with two knights with swords and shields and sparkly Mickeys in their hair. I think they liked it, after some initial grumbling (this was a seriously princess-themed salon). I appreciated that their stylists had at least thought about what to do with little boys, having them pull their swords out of “stones” and learning some dragon-fighting moves and the like. But I will warn parents that the experience is probably more for princesses than princes — maybe send any non-princess-obsessed boys to a movie or the water slide or for the “free” ice cream on deck 11.

Getting off the boat on the last day was less horrible than I was bracing myself for. They did serve us breakfast. We waited in line for a bit, but the customs line at the terminal was better than the general security line at the Orlando airport (Thank goodness for TSA PreCheck. We walked right through security in five minutes; the line for non-PreCheck was at least an hour, snaking around the terminal and almost out the door. If you are reading this, and are even thinking of flying at some point in the next two years, and don’t have TSA PreCheck, please, please go get it.) We got an Uber easily enough at the port terminal, which on some level made me appreciate the surge pricing phenomenon. This was about double the price of our trip out to Cocoa Beach from MCO, but it also meant I could get a car for the five of us…I think without the surge incentive, drivers might not wish to swarm over a returning ship.

As for our sleeping quarters: We had two adjoining staterooms, which really did connect, so this would be a nice option for bigger families. Each stateroom had a queen bed and a set of bunkbeds that disappeared during the day; it’s a nifty way to pack in sleeping space for four. Also, if you don’t have really little kids, I’d definitely recommend the rooms with the verandahs. Some of my favorite parts of the cruise involved sitting out there reading. Watching the waves can be quite peaceful in a way that, say, waiting in the heat to get on a bus to Atlantis with a driver who then decides he’s got a captive audience and is going to practice his tour guide routine is not. I finished Lincoln in the Bardo; more on that when I do my monthly book round-up.

One final note: the cruise ship gym was really nice! Two mornings I ran my streak-preserving miles on the treadmills while looking out at the deep blue sea. They had a decent number of weight machines and free weights, much like a good hotel gym. But unlike a hotel gym during a conference, I had my choice of treadmills! I’m not sure why this was the one place on the ship that was totally undersubscribed, but hey, I’ll take it.

Now it’s back home and back to the normal routine for a week before we head off again on another trip. If you’ve been on cruises, let me know your favorite and least favorite parts. I’m trying to convince Jasper (12) to write a review from his perspective. Stay tuned for that!

11 thoughts on “Disney cruising: Highs, lows, and dolphins

  1. Yay! Happy to hear there were fun moments!! Next time I want to do the dolphin experience too!! I am leaving a link to my review here in case anyone wants a perspective from a toddler parent. My current life standards for “leisure” are fairly low right now so I enjoyed the cruise a fair bit. i really do think it was more fun to do it bc we went with our close friends – became an extended play date and kept the kids entertained too. I’d definitely go on another one (we may even do Alaska in 2021). https://theshubox.com/2019/04/disney-cruise-experience-on-the-disney-magic.html

  2. Never been on a cruise, never will, but have to chime in: please read David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again.” It is FANTASTIC.

    1. I’m not sure you are a “glass half full” person? No mention of the hard working cruise staff- one of the aspects that I enjoy about cruising is the consistent effort at customer service- I hope you had the opportunity to experience some of that.

  3. Happy to read that at least some of it was fun! The buffets are never my favorite but I’m glad you enjoyed Palo and Remy and the kids had fun!! It is definitely kid-focused!

    I hope the little bit of pixie dust I sent arrived and made you smile!

  4. I loved this brutally honest review! You are very obviously not sponsored by Disney haha. Sounds quite stressful overall and surprisingly disorganized compared to the “Disney experience” in the parks. Thanks for sharing!

    1. @Sarah K – I didn’t think the review was that negative! Yes, some negatives, but the kids loved it, and I had some good times too.

      1. No I didn’t mean that it was all negative. I just liked how you described it. Like many vacations with children, it sounded like hassle mixed with fun. I have done a cruise with a different cruise line and there are many similarities. Especially with the food being so-so unless you pay extra for the premium restaurants.

  5. I have never been on a cruise, and this review makes me want to avoid them in the future. All the crowds and lines and disorganization… ugh.

  6. I have 2x been on cruises with the family and enjoyed them. A distinction was that in both cases they were ports we really wanted to go to. For ex, we really wanted to see the ruins at Olympia and Ephesus. We found a 1 way 5-day cruise from Venice to Istanbul that stopped at ports where we could view these sites. We were off the ship from 7 or 8 AM to 5 or 6pm every day. We really enjoyed the ship as a way to recharge and get to our next stop. I think if you are thinking of the boat as an alternative to a long drive or overnight train, it seems *really* great. Come back from a long day in port, shower, glass of wine, meal, maybe kids do an activity or see show, sleep, wake up, hearty breakfast before your day. The 2 places where I wanted to spend more time (rather than see a particular site) were where we started and ended so we spent a few days at each. I dont think I would enjoy a cruise where I was not enthusiastic about the ports. And honestly when I added it up, both times we did it, this seemed like a cost effective way to get where we were going.

  7. My son and I are diehard Disney fans and we’ve spent a lot of time in the U. S. parks but never a Disney cruise. At this point I don’t think it will happen. He’s 21. My husband is absolutely not interested in the grown-ups just doing the Disney cruise. They are expensive compared to a lot of other cruise lines like Celebrity. We have sailed transatlantic, Alaska, Europe and the Mediterranean for fantastic prices with Celebrity and the food is quite good.
    As a former vet tech with both wild and domesticated animals I would caution anyone from doing any animal interactive entertainment. It’s a terrible stress on the animals, we transfer germs to them which can be life-threatening, they can transfer germs to us, and injuries to both the animals and people do happen often because the animals get really tired of being entertainment and people get excited and careless. Plus, many of them get substandard care when out of the public eye. Observing them is one thing (and very enjoyable) wanting to touch them is another. I know it’s big in the Bahamas for tourism. It’s not a good idea unless you are going to India or Thailand, or somewhere like that, to work and volunteer on a preserve. Just my input from years of world travel. Enjoyed your take!

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