It’s official! Our family cruised for the first time and now we are officially Castaway Club (silver) members. I don’t count that first cruise I did over 16 years ago in the Mediterranean on a small Greek cruise liner, but I was the only one in the family who had ever cruised before. And if you know Disney, you know that no matter what you did before with any other company, they will completely give you a different experience and generally, they hold nothing back.
Whether you cruise for 3 nights or 7, or anything in between or longer, Disney is fantastic – it’s like a 5-star hotel/restaurant on the ocean. You pay a premium up front, and you will wonder why, but once you get on board, you totally get it. I have not cruised Norwegian yet, or Princess, or Royal Caribbean. I probably will NOT sail Carnival now that I have young kids, but I can only tell you what we experienced on our cruise, Disney Dream, from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas (Nassau) and Castaway Cay (pronounced “key”), for 3-nights. In our party, we were celebrating the birthday of two 70 year-olds, we had a couple in their 60s, a 6-month old cutie pie baby, two girls, ages 6 and 7, 30- something couple, a 20 something male, and a 40 something couple. Almost every generation was represented and each person, except the 6-month old who couldn’t really give his opinion but he smiled and laughed alot, had an absolute phenomenal experience! Here are our top tips from first time family cruisers:
Pre-Embarkation & Embarkation
1. Check out the Disney Cruise Line Website and Cruise Critic BEFORE you sail. After you book your cruise, get on the Disney website here and register and under planning center, find your cruise by your confirmation number. Then you can do everything on-line from checking in to seeing what you need to pack. The website is awesome, and you can pick your excursions and add-ons too. You can add a credit card for your file, and register the kids for the oceaneer club too. I highly recommend doing this right away after you book. We picked first seating for dinner, but you can change it later if you want. Seems like first seating (main seating) is always packed more than second seating. I even used the website check-in process to register the kids to get a call from Mickey and Minnie the night before we flew out. They loved it!
But, before you even book a cruise, you may want to check out my favorite website on all things cruise and excursions – cruisecritic.com. I learned about this site courtesy of my friends who cruise a lot! I wrote a very extensive review on our 3-night Disney Dream Bahama cruise and you can read all about it here.
2. Do Board as soon as you can! You can pick your boarding time on the website above. I recommend to board as soon as you can – the port opens at 11 am for parking. Parking in the garage is $60 for your entire cruise time and parking in an uncovered lot within walking distance of the port is $80. Either one is fine. When you leave, enough people take shuttles or leave staggered, so there is not much traffic in either lot. Right before you board, keep in mind that the ship probably just dropped off 4000 passengers, so be ready for a little wait, but get on as soon as you can with your swimsuit and personal items that you will need (one bag only). I recommend boarding in your swim suits but with proper clothing on to board. You cannot go to your state-room until 1:30 pm so take your small carry on and eat one of the on-board restaurants- Enchanted Garden or Cabanas, and then, hit the pool. They are not super crowded when you first board, so get to the Aqua Duck (Water slide) and kids’ pools or do the pool first, and then go eat. You will each be given a room key and it is your ID card, and serves as your photo pass. Do not lose them, but if you do, they will issue you a new one. And remember, unlike photo pass available to you after you leave Disney Parks, the pictures taken on board are sold on board and no longer available to you after you leave.
Passes to see the Characters
3. Do get your passes right away. Make sure to grab a couple of paper navigators when you check in and make sure you get the passes you need right away too! While you are waiting to get to your room, head to deck 5 where you can get your passes to see the characters next to the excursions area. Get those as soon as you get on board, or get in line. They don’t distribute these until around Noon. You can get two passes per family. You can pick Sophia/Jake or a Princess Meet ‘n Greet where your little princesses can see Belle, Cinderella, and Snow White all at once (characters subject to change). You can also get passes to see the Frozen princesses, which will probably run out first. So, go immediately when the pass office opens. We had guaranteed “fast pass” equivalents with a time to show up and where for frozen and the princesses. It was quite a treat for the girls, and unlike the theme parks, no long waits at all.
Dining, Room Service, and Beverages
4. Ask for special requests for food in your party, and DO eat everything you can – you can literally order anything! We had a large party and special dietary requests galore, so once on board make sure you go meet with the dietary experts. They are generally in a dining room, and you can meet with them and give them your requests. Bring your ID card with you. The Card has your dining rooms for each night. You generally eat breakfast at the same place you eat dinner at, but first seating is at 7 am which is too early for us Mountain Timers, so you can eat at Cabanas restaurant, and it is a gigantic buffet. I absolutely loved Cabanas – for lunch and dinner. I highly recommend eating lunch there when you board, as you hit the pool. Dining is amazing with Disney, and there are two beverage stations near the pools on Deck 11. Our every dietary need was met from baby food for the 6 month old, to Indian Vegetarian for my parents and uncle/aunt. The food was amazing, delicious, and fresh. Your servers each night for dinner will remain constant, and the service is spectacular! Whether they whip up a three course curry Indian vegetarian meal, or gourmet appetizers, and soup/salad, Disney does a great job. We loved their desserts too and there is a sugar free option each night too! If you do main seating, it is the first dinner, and then the show. If you do second seating, you eat around 8pm and do the show at 545pm. Dinner does take 2 hours for large parties, so main seating may be best with kids. I learned that they serve the kids first so you can take them to Oceaneer Club and have a nice dinner and relax a bit. So, keep that option in mind (see below for information on Oceaneer Club).
On your last morning of the cruise, you can eat breakfast at your designated dining room or go to Cabana’s where you can enjoy a final buffet meal before it’s time to get back to reality, dishes, and cooking your own meals. Enjoy and savor every minute because Disney doesn’t hold anything back with food, unlimited soda, tea and coffee, and desserts. There is a soft serve/cone machine on the pool deck, Deck 11, and a small snack shop near the pool too. Their food is okay but fits the bill for poolside snacks, and greasy burgers and pizzas. Perfect for kids and adults!
5. Do order room service- it’s all included. Okay, on to room service! We had no idea so we thank the family who flew to Orlando with us for the tips on ordering room service. It’s all included! I kid you not, so if you are in a rush one morning or just want a quick snack at night or early in the morning, call up room service with your order, and they are there within minutes- it’s super fast! It certainly can help you control the calories if you are eating too much all over the ship or don’t like the limitless buffets. We loved the chocolate chip cookies and milk at night too!
6. Do bring water bottles for all and drink a lot of water and all non-alcoholic beverages are free! Some tips on food and water. Leave food at home -you will not go hungry on this cruise. Bring a water bottle with you for each person so you can fill up on water or carry on water bottles. Also, bring a larger 7-11 type container if you want to take sodas to your room and keep them there. You will have a mini fridge in your room and you can store snacks and milks in there. It is so handy. You can (in your carry on only please) bring alcohol and no one really checks anything as you board, so bring whatever you want- I brought some plastic bottles and cans to prevent breaking, and we didn’t drink them all. Anyway, you cannot bring them with you to dinner but you can drink on your balcony or room. Or, bring it discreetly to the pool and enjoy it poolside. Disney sells reasonably priced drins – their drink of the day is the best deal around and you can charge it to your room. They sell cool disne cooler packs and it has alcohol in it for you. You can bring this to Castaway Cay too!
Rooms and phones
7. Do get the right size room and the right location but bring dramamine and ear plugs. The rooms are category-based. Depending on the category of the room, you will have more square feet or less, and you pay more for a larger room. Check out what category you are in. Keep in mind, you will not spend that much time in your rooms, except sleeping and the rest of the decks are open for you to roam. If you do get sick, get a room with a window or balcony, and that will help you. Fresh air really helped me the first night when the ship was really rocking and I was feeling particularly sick. Bring your dramamine with you- it really helps the first night and helps you sleep too! Our room slept 3 to 4 and the guy came twice a day to make up our room. He left cute little towel animals for the kiddos, and chocolates. What fun! He will come back while you are at dinner/show and create bunk beds out of the sofa area. The balcony makes the room feel bigger than it is. It is tight, so be ready for that but you can store your suit case under the bed, and there is plenty of room for everything. It can get tricky in the bathroom area, with the entrance and closets all there too! Very tight, so if you want room pay more and get a bigger room. The rooms are also very loud – be prepared for a lot of sounds of kids running up and down the hallways, doors closing and people banging their wardrobe doors. I found it very loud and am very noise sensitive, so it is tough to get a good night’s rest. I would recommend port-side room for sure- the view at Castaway Cay is amazing, but I recommend a room away from the elevator/stairwell to avoid all that traffic. Look at a deck/ship map and get away from the exits as much as possible. Either way, it is loud so bring the ear plugs and ambien.
8. Do use the “wave” phones in the rooms but they don’t work at Castaway Cay for us. The phones they provide really do work great, and if something doesn’t work, they replace them for you on Deck 3 at customer service. We had to get one replaced. I think it is good to have walkie talkies for the first day before you get to your room, and set it to a frequency no one else has…everyone is using them right away, but then they stop after day 1. You will need walkie-talkies on Castaway Cay because the room phones do not work there. You can also connect to the App and chat that way but there are no notifications. On day 1, you can connect to free wi-fi (trial) and text/chat that way too, but that does not last, and you do not want to be connected in international waters anyway. You have to get the Navigator App – all activities and ship activities, etc., are on here and it is helpful to have if you do not like paper to guide you.
Ship Activities, Oceaneer Club and Pools
9. Do the musicals, skip the little parties, and enjoy all you can. The ship and deck parties are okay, so don’t rush to get there. The bon voyage party is okay – it’s basically Disney World parades/shows on water with all the characters running out and performing. It is fun once or twice, but do not miss the shows. If you do main seating, then you eat first and then do the show afterward. The shows were spectacular and they show all movies that are out in theaters but we did not have time to see movies because there was so much to do! So, between a movie and a show, I choose shows. These are Broadway-like productions with amazing talent, and song and dance. The kids love them and adult humor is included too!
10. Do enjoy the pools and water slides when it is quieter on the boat. The pools are crowded. Disney, you need more kids’ pools. The reviews are right. The first day there was no room to swim – but standing room only. It thins out as people get off the ship at Nassau and Castaway Cay, and the Aqua Duck lines are insane! So, when people are disembarking for Nassau and Castaway Cay, get your Aqua Duck on! I was so scared of the water slide for some odd reason but it was awesome! Loved it! Definitely do this at less peak hours, and you can even do it at night – I bet the Aqua Duck is super cool at night on the ocean. Oh, and the big screen TV over the kids’ pools is obnoxiously loud- I mean obnoxious. It’s fine if you do not expect to think, talk or want to hear the kids screaming, but honestly it’s a bit over the top because nothing stops the kids from screaming so it is the movie plus screaming plus talking super loud. Come on, Disney -turn the volume down or keep it muted. By the way, I hear the adult pool like the adult beach on Castaway Cay is not crowded, so parents drop off your kids (ages 4-14) at the Oceaneer Club and head up to Deck 12 for adults only pool and hot tub area. Lost and Found post-script: We could not find our daughter’s swim goggles when we returned. She thinks she left them at one of the pools or took them off at the pools. They are a decent pair, so we called up lost and found and emailed them a description. Within hours she responded she found them and asked them for our address and a few days they arrived at the house- Disney really is amazing. I can’t believe it!
11. For kids ages 4 and up do the Oceaneer Club. What is the Oceaneer Club? On day 1, enroll the kids there, so they can go and it is basically souped up babysitting for older kids with so much fun stuff going on and computers, and labs and cooking experiments, etc. Our 7-year old loved it and our 6-year-old was leery but enjoyed herself too! It is also nice on the last day when you need to pack that tiny room up into 2 suitcases to drop them off and get some work done. Plus, they have fun while you do too! I noticed at check-in that they have an Adventure Club for teens too – older kids, so you can enroll them in that too.
12. Take a nap but do NOT miss the firework show after Nassau. Amazing! The firework show is spectacular and quite cool. Port side is where they show the fireworks, so get on the top Deck – Deck 12 and Port side is best for the view. There is nothing like this, so definitely stay awake for it. There is a dance party afterwards but my kids passed out on our shoulders. Also, the Pirate Show is okay… reminded me of the show at Treasure Island in Vegas, but nothing spectacular.
13. Do some character meet and greets- the lines are short. Character meet and greets are going on all over the ship or at Castaway Cay – you can either pop in line when you see one, or get the passes as I discussed above, but definitely less waiting than at the parks, and if you have the app on your phone or the navigator hard copy, you can see the list, and take your kids to see characters and get autographs.
14. Do go shop at the port in Nassau or do Atlantis, but better to enjoy the ship and the pools. First stop on this two-day cruise is Nassau, Bahamas. We went ahead and did an excursion through Costco to get a quick tour. Since we had varying capabilities in our group of walking/hiking, etc., we just did a bus tour, and walked around Atlantis, but didn’t get to do much there because everything required payment. If you are going back to Bahamas for a second time, I recommend just walking off the boat, buying some souvenirs at the port and then go enjoy the ship. The cruise time is too short as it is, so enjoy the pools and shows during this time. Watch a movie, and take in some fun things for the kids. Other than Atlantis, I am not sure there is much to do here, and I think the water slides on the boat are fun enough. A lot of cruise ships were docked here so you can also check out the other ships. When we got back, we had passes to meet the Frozen princesses. It was a fun afternoon and we had enough time to get back and enjoy the ship. My husband did an excursion through Disney of scuba diving and they almost didn’t make it back in time. Thankfully they are connected with Disney and Disney is amazing about calling and making sure all passengers are on board before leaving. They are really good about accountability and some of their crew members were diving with my husband too!
15. The night of Nassau was the pirates party on board and the fireworks and it was super cool but everyone was exhausted and passed out before the dance party. We were off to Castaway Cay (pronounced “key”) next, and we were excited for some beach. If you can, come back from the excursions and take a nap. Oh and do not forget your room key and your passport. You do go through control exiting and entering the port at Nassau. They make you remove your sunglasses and are pretty serious about this. Makes you wonder about stowaways.
16. Don’t miss Disney’s Private Island but enjoy lunch on the ship, bring water shoes, and leave your gear at home! The second port is Castaway Cay (Key), and this is a Disney-owned island. Why couldn’t Disney own an Island with all your money? It’s simply amazing, and one of the most unique things about a Disney cruise in the Carribbean – no one cruiseline can stop there. The beach is a private beach with umbrellas, chairs, palm trees, a private adult beach, food stalls, a water park for kids, tubes, boats, and the works. We enjoyed our time there but got a lot of sun… I mean, a lot of sun. I still have the tan lines 7 weeks later. Our time here and on the cruise was second only to our time on Hawaii.
17. Bring your water shoes, the rocks hurt in some areas. You need water shoes for you and the kids. You can rent tubes but don’t – people usually abandon them by 1pm and then you can use them. Honestly, the best thing to do is to enjoy the boat until about lunch time. Eat lunch on the boat. The BBQ and eats on the island, in my humble opinion, suck and the food on board is so darn good. Why waste a good meal? Plus, the pools are totally not crowded because everyone rushed to get off the boat to do yoga, the 5K run on the island, etc., so you have the boat to enjoy. But do get off after lunch and enjoy 4 hours on the island. Everyone pretty much re-boards by 2pm and the island is completely empty for you to enjoy, but for some reason they wrap up the soda machines and ice cream by then too so bring your own cooler of drink, etc., and enjoy the beaches in peace.
18. You do not need to bring snorkeling gear and can rent it here if you want but the water is so clear you can see fish and coral and such. We rented the kayak but the waves were too much so we had a tough time maneuvering. My husband ended up taking the girls out and back and then repeating. We went and checked out the water park and slide but it was scary for the girls. You can leave all your gear at home, because the pools on board plus the beach areas have preservers for the kids. In fact, you cannot have your own. You have to use theirs for safety reasons. Just come here with a beach bag (they give you towels as you get off), and your water shoes, sunblock and hat. Everything else is available on the island. Oh, bring your walkie talkies because the phone rooms will not work here. No cash required, everything is all-inclusive. That is one thing that completely rocks about Disney. You don’t need cash and you need your room key to charge things. We had a blast and whoever said you cannot bring sea shells and sand with you made it up. You can collect some sea shells and sand and bring it back on board. They don’t check a thing when you return on board, so just pack it in your beach bag.
19. Do make memories that will last a lifetime and enjoy your family! The final night of the cruise is crazy and super busy with packing, and getting ready to leave your suitcases for pick up. Make sure you plan ahead and keep out what you need for disembarkation and don’t forget to settle up tips and your tab – the most depressing part of the cruise is not settling your tips and tab but actually getting off the boat. The happiest part was handing the envelopes with gratuity and extras to your crew and staff that waited hand and foot on you, cleaned your room and made it up twice a day, served you drinks and dinner, and treated you like royalty. Disney staff really make this cruise special. And for this, a special occasion for us as we celebrated our parents’ 70th anniversary, we really got the royal treatment. They came out and sang happy birthday to them on the final night. Disney is truly magical, but we still had a few hours to enjoy the boat. The morning of disembarkation the pools are closed and everything is shut down except for the breakfast dining, so be prepared to enjoy that, some family time, and head off… til we meet again.
20. Do buy photos before you disembark, and enjoy your final morning on the most magical cruise llne ever! On the last morning of your cruise, the best place to eat is Cabana’s especially if 7 am is too early to eat for you, but you have to get off the cruise pretty early in the morning, and your bags have to be packed and sent off the night before. Keep a small bag with what you need for the next morning- toiletries, and such and change of clothes to disembark. The tags you get have a character on them. That is the area you will go to retrieve the bags the next day, and go through customs. You cannot bring fruit from the cruise ship with you or food so be ready to surrender all bananas and apples. Oh and one final tip – go visit Shutters to see your pictures before the final night. It was a mad house. Get your pictures as soon as you can and unlike PHOTOPASS at the parks, cruise pics are not available once you get off the ship (sad face), so you have one chance to buy them and drop off even more money to Disney, but the memories are so worth it! We went and bought them the morning of disembarkation after breakfast when the mad rush was over and it was more relaxing to do that.
What a great trip! We cherished every moment, and looking back, I wish we had more time. The treatment we received from the staff, crew, and really everyone makes us want to sail Disney again, and not only sail them, but buy Disney Vacation Club too. I know the girls felt like princesses and we loved it. We would sail Disney again in a heartbeat. Why can’t Disney own and operate an airline? Sadly we had to return home on Frontier. After getting the royal treatment, we really felt like we took a step back in time and class. Disney Cruise Lines, you rock!
P.S. I was not paid for this post …. not kidding. No disclaimer needed. Disney speaks for itself.