We first set sail with Disney Cruise Line on the Fantasy, spring break of 2012. Before you ask, no, I don't get kickbacks from Disney to talk about my experiences--I'm just obsessed. I talk about DCL all the time. I'm sure they can thank me for at least two dozen new customers this year alone. What began as an annual family vacation is now bi-annual, and if we could find the time, we'd make it quarterly. DCL is the one place we can truly sit back and relax: no worries, no internet (there is access, of course, but not all the time), no one fighting over doing the dishes ... just fun.
Besides our family of five, we also brought along my mom and my best friend and her immediate family. We chose Disney because at the time Babyspawn was only seven months old, and after recently taking a ten day trip to Europe that could be described as miserable, we wanted a 100% kid-friendly environment.
The first leg of our trip to Port Canaveral, Florida began rocky, as the airline overbooked our friends' seats and we had to leave them behind for a few days. We learned quickly what kind of service Disney offers, because the moment they learned of our hiccup, they worked to make things right, flying my friend and her family to Grand Cayman and putting them in a great hotel for the night while they waited for the ship to arrive the next day. They missed the first two days of the cruise, but Disney more than made up for it when they held a big welcome party upon their arrival.
Meanwhile, my family boarded a bus at the airport that took us to port. After a quick and easy security process, we stood in line to register while the kids hugged various Disney characters that stopped by to say hi. We boarded the ship on time, and to our surprise they announced our name and a handful of cast members cheered our arrival. I'll never forget the looks on my kids' faces when that happened. We danced together at the Set Sail Deck Party , and then ran up to the top deck to wave at everyone dining, fishing, and just hanging out on the canal shores that lead out to the ocean from port. We were scheduled for early dining at 5:45, so we went to our rooms, dressed ("cruise casual" which we found is pretty lax, with some wearing summer dresses or polo shirts and khakis, or swim trunks and T-shirts with flip flops), and found one of the three dining venues on the ship. Disney is unique in that you'll be scheduled for rotated dining every night. We had the same table number every night, but we rotated between the three (super fun!) dining areas. Our servers, Harry and Rolando, were with us every night and got to know our preferences. We had a perfect vacation, so much that I booked another cruise on the ship (at a discount!)--that is until it was time to go home, when the airline dropped the ball once again and we were forced to drive 16 hours from Atlanta to Oklahoma.
This past week, I set sail on my fourth Disney cruise, this time on the Dream. There are four ships in the Disney fleet, including two smaller ships, the Magic and Wonder, and two ships 40% larger, the Dream and it's newest ship, the Fantasy. I've sailed three times on the Fantasy. We didn't know it at the time, but our first trip set the bar high. Our next two cruises were lackluster, with our servers either not personable (couldn't tell you our servers' names from our 2nd cruise), or downright angry (3rd sailing, our server yelled and cussed at other servers and got pissed at my kids! Yikes!) But still I stuck with Disney, because where one aspect might have been less than impressive, every other aspect was amazing. It was the only vacation we could take where all three of my children (currently 16, 10, and 2) could all have the time of their lives. My teenager has made friends she still keeps in touch with, and they make attempts to sail together again (but it hasn't happened--yet). Middlespawn goes to the Oceaneer's Club. If we left it up to them, they'd do their own thing for seven days. I've actually had to make a rule for my teen that she can run around all day, but she must attend dinner with the family--otherwise we wouldn't see her. She loves the independence she experiences on the ship.
We've struggled with the nursery. The first cruise, we left Babyspawn for a few hours, and we were very happy (legit UK nannies!). The second time wasn't satisfactory at all. We dropped him off and watched through the one-way glass as he was helped into one of those Flintstones cars they can push around with their feet, and then witnessed nannies ignore his attempts and requests for help to get out until he freaked out and cried so hard he threw up (throwing up gets you kicked out fast). Our third cruise he wasn't comfortable at all being left with strangers and he utilized the throw up trick again. Under two years of age is still somewhat difficult on a Disney cruise if you want adult time, especially if your baby is not used to being dumped in an unfamiliar setting. Babyspawn doesn't daycare, so he wasn't having it when he was old enough to protest. Another thing we weren't thrilled about is the rule that until they're are potty trained, toddlers are not allowed in any of the pools. That might be okay if the toddler area wasn't small and busy. Babyspawn will turn three soon, and will get to go to the Oceaneer's Club with sister, so we are looking forward to that.
One thing I'm consistently amazed about is the fact that there are 4,000 people on the ship and you'll never know it until the day you stop at Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas. Look out a window onto the island to comprehend the true population you've been sharing space with. Everyone filling that island is on the ship! It's unbelievable! Because of the flow and scheduling, we never felt crowded. There is one exception: we thought taking a Halloween cruise would be fun. It wasn't. The only trick-or-treating was in the lobby and it was shoulder-to-shoulder and miserable. I don't recommend this cruise if you're interested in a fun trick-or-treating experience. Otherwise, it was a regular DCL fun-filled cruise, and the decorations and pirate night (more on that later) were exceptional.
I've always told my girls that when they turned sixteen, they had the choice of a big sweet sixteen party, or they could travel somewhere (anywhere) with mom and a couple of friends. My teenager, Eden, chose a Disney cruise if that tells you anything! Wanting a bit of a change, we chose a four day (instead of seven), to the Bahamas on the Dream. We also chose concierge. This was our second time to do this, and although concierge is pricier (on top of Disney's already higher-end prices), it is worth every penny for two reasons: easy, early check-in and escort onto the ship, and easy disembarkation, being escorted off the ship. Otherwise you are waiting hours in lines. If you can, concierge is the way to go! More perks include an exclusive club room with a hot chocolate/cappuccino machine and appetizers, private deck, exclusive character meet and greets, and you can book everything (and many times earlier) with the concierge staff.
Eden and I, with a new friend from our new town of Steamboat Springs, flew out of Denver to Orlando, and met another friend in Florida. American Airlines somehow sent our bags to Boston, but miraculously we ended up with them right before we left on the Disney bus from the airport. We waited anxiously for the bags to plop onto the carousel in baggage claim, and when they did, we screamed in delight, scaring the holy living shit out of everyone around us. Disney made this slight deviation in the plans very easy, and accepted our bags onto the bus.
We watched cartoons and answered Disney trivia that played on the televisions overhead during the 50 minute, air conditioned bus ride to port. Once there, we glided through security and after checking into concierge, were immediately escorted onto the ship. After that, I was alone. Eden was excited to show the girls The Vibe, the 15-18 club on the ship. She couldn't wait to make new friends and meet the counselors like she had before. I'm not sure if it was because Eden had brought friends, but new friends didn't happen. The girls were back within a few hours, reporting that the counselors weren't engaging and the other kids weren't very social. I thought I was going to be bored for most of the cruise hanging out alone and possibly getting some writing in, but the girls spent most of the cruise with me!
Every night at dinner, the girls squealed about seeing our servers, shy but sweet Andre, and equally shy Fannie. The girls loved making them blush, and Andre learned we like to color, so he brought us color pages and crayons to the table every night to work on while we waited for our appetizers. We forgot our pirate garb for pirate night, but I think we had the best pirate night to-date. To my surprise, my teens wanted to participate in everything. They danced with the little kids at the deck party, and sat on the front row for the pirate show and fireworks. The pirates danced with the girls and interacted with them during the show, it was fantastic! Watching Eden get giddy over the fireworks she'd seen so many times before, I got a little emotional. She is sixteen, but she is still my baby, and I love that she feels she can still relish being a kid on the Disney cruise.
On the last night, Andre met us at the door of our final dinner venue, and offered his arm. I took it and the other servers cheered and clapped. I felt like Cinderella. The girls colored pages and wrote sweet notes to Andre and Fannie, and begged me to see them in the morning before we left the ship. We sang karaoke, we danced, we stayed out late the last night on the top front deck with new friends to watch the meteor shower, and more and more people showed up. Our impromptu gathering ended up being a private 2 am deck party. I was the oldest person there, but I digress...
Eden said it best: Disney ships are our happy place. Everyone always asks me about our experience when we go, so I thought I would write it out here and let you decide. Nine out of ten people I've asked on a Disney ship about other cruise lines say that Disney is the best. Ten out of ten say it's the best with children. My children prefer it over any other vacation, even Disney World. Disney ships are the one place kids of every age can have a good time, you don't have to worry about a thing (not even keeping track of them!), and both parents can adult beverage the heck out of dinner (or all day)! We don't do the excursions anymore because we enjoy our time on the ship so much. The girls wish we could find a cruise that didn't have any stops. We're going to try to catch the Hawaiian 7 day with no stops next year if it's still available. Maybe we'll see you there. :)