Disney Cruises In The Caribbean
But I do have to say it. We just got back from a Disney Cruise over New Years, and it was great fun for the whole family.
The Cruise Package
Disney's Caribbean cruises come in two basic varieties-the four-night and the seven-night. We opted for the four-night package, and I would recommend that over the seven for a number of reasons.
First of all, if you don't live in Florida, you will probably want to take advantage of your visit and give the kids at least a day or two at the theme parks (for more on those see my related article on the Magic kingdom, below). I would think that a weeklong cruise plus a couple days at the parks would be risking serious Disney overkill. On a more practical level, you can only eat unlimited cruise food for so long. Four days was just about right. I think I would have been ready to burst like Mr. Creosote if we had been on the ship for seven days. After dinner mint anyone? They're wafer thin. (Monty Python, people-Monty Python)
Anyway, whichever package you choose also comes with the option of a land and sea package. As you might surmise, this sets you up for a few days at the parks before or after your cruise. Depending on your time table, this a good way to get an all-inclusive package. As we were a little pressed for time since we didn't want to spend Christmas itself at Disney, we opted to arrange our Disney portion of the trip separately. Even if you go this route, though, you still can take advantage of Disney's door to dock bus service so you don't have to worry about transporting yourself from Orlando to Cape Canaveral (bus service direct from the airport to the dock is also available if the parks aren't on your itinerary before you depart on the ship).
One thing to think about when making plane reservations to get to Orlando, FL is that some airlines (most of the major carriers) let you check in directly when you get off the ship upon your return (that's disembarking for the initiated among us). While seemingly trivial, this can save you the immense aggravation of carrying your bags around the Orlando airport for 5 hours and having to carry them to the security check-in yourself AFTER you check in with your airline. Yes-that would be me you may have seen huffing through the Orlando terminal on January 2nd. We had the misfortune of flying Frontier, which, in addition to the almost obligatory delay I've encountered every time I've flown Frontier, means you can't check in dockside. Since Frontier doesn't have any flights leaving before 5:00 p.m., that means they don't open for check-in until 3:00 p.m., and you get to keep your luggage company in the airport after the bus from the ship drops you off at 10:00 a.m. In other words, I wouldn't recommend flying Frontier if you are headed for a Disney Cruise out of Cape Canaveral.
Anyway, once you're on board the ship, you can forget all about the travel, transfer, and bus business and just relax. The luxury on board the ship is not quite Sultan of Brunei decadent-OK, not by a long shot-but it's enough to let anyone forget about their mundane troubles for a while and simply enjoy things as they come. The first place you'll see this is in your stateroom. We had what Disney calls a deluxe ocean view stateroom, which means we had a porthole. The inside rooms with no porthole are a little smaller and would definitely make me claustrophobic. I would suggest springing for the extra couple hundred bucks and getting a window. It adds to the experience.
From my wife's experience, I can report that the Disney staterooms are a bit bigger than she has had on other ships. They also sport a separate shower and toilet, which comes in quite handy when you are traveling with kids. Note to all of you who might be thinking of taking a Disney Cruise sans kids: you might want to consider a different cruise. Just about everybody is in some way part of a group with kids, and the whole cruise is designed around the whole family experience. There is, to be sure, plenty of stuff for adults to do, but there's also a lot that is aimed at the kids. My group included my mother and her husband, and my brother and his family-4 kids and 6 adults all together. These three-generation families are more the rule than the exception, and Disney structures the experience accordingly.
The stateroom is big enough for a queen-sized bed and a couch that converts into a passable twin bed. To accommodate 4, another twin bed folds out of the wall above the couch, turning half the room into a bunk bed style dormitory for the kids. The room even has a divider curtain to give you a little bit of privacy. In addition to a decent amount of closet and drawer space, the room boasts a sit-down vanity, and closed satellite TV, featuring, among other things a constant array of Disney programming for the kids to watch between activities or when winding down after a long day.
The decadence part starts to come in when you meet your steward. He or she not only cleans the room for you daily, but they also provide turn down service (and fold down service for the wall bed) every night, complete with some sort of chocolates (mints on the first night, progressing up to a box of truffles on New Year's Eve). They top it off with a special touch that the kids will love: folded towel animals. Yes, I know this sounds a bit cheesy, but the towel elephant, monkey, rabbit (and something else that I can't recall) were a big hit with the kids (and if you really love these towel creations you can even take a free class to learn how to make them yourself, but that seems to be a little overboard if you'll pardon the pun).
There are other stateroom options (at more expense, of course) that include everything from a simple veranda (one step up from our room) to a multi-room suite. Even though a private deck would be nice for things like leaving and entering the ports, I really don't think I'd opt for a more expensive room. We didn't spend enough time in the room doing anything other than sleeping to make upgrading worthwhile. We were almost always either eating, going to a show, on a shore excursion, or out at a night spot (on all but one of the nights my mother graciously agreed to watch the kids while my wife, brother, sister-in-law, and I went out to some of the bars and parties). I would think that anyone traveling with kids would have a similar experience. It's also surprisingly chilly outside at night-at least in January, so I don't know how much deck time we would have logged in any case.
The one thing I knew about cruises was that they are big on food. You can eat all day, every day, as much as you want. The Disney cruise is no exception to this rule. There are, of course, specified times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but you can eat lighter fare throughout the day at any of several food counters that serve up everything from burgers to ice cream. There is also the famous midnight buffet if somehow you haven't managed to stuff yourself through a full day's eating (as much as I like to eat, I never managed to work up an appetite for anything after dinner).
The food itself, while plentiful and varied, falls just short of really good. It's certainly passable and generally solid, but on some levels it's what you expect out of a kitchen that is whipping up 2700 plates at each meal. The individual touches you will find at finer restaurants (and at my house, of course), aren't there. For example, if you get filet mignon, it's quite a good piece of meat, and it's cooked to the proper level, but it's not grilled. To me, things like that are what make a meal great rather than good. The food is also hampered by, for lack of a better term, its lack of risk. I know, here's the food snob in me coming out, but when I'm in the Caribbean, I want curry, and jerk pork, and certainly some interesting seafood dishes. Disney, though, seems to be playing to the least common denominator here and sticks with more safe choices that will appeal across the board to more palates. Again, it's hard to fault them for this, as they do have to produce meals en masse, it's just something worth noting. It's also worth noting that the ship does boast a fine dining restaurant where you can eat in a quieter, more gourmet atmosphere for $10 extra per person. Since we had kids ranging from 1 and a half to 9 with us, we opted out of that, but we did hear good things about it from other guests.
It's also worth mentioning that our waiter did his best to accommodate our palates. He was from India, and we talked to him a little about Indian food (primarily about wishing that we had some) so he brought us vegetable curry as a side dish every night. He even had the kitchen whip us up a little saag on the side. They were both naturally on the mild side, but we appreciated the effort.
Being a Disney enterprise the cruise is, not surprisingly, all about the Disney experience. There are always Disney characters running around the ship and posing for pictures (especially at dinner time). You can also see current first run Disney movies in the free theater (Narnia was playing when we were on board). The best entertainment on board, though, is the nightly show. We watched a magic show, and two live action shows featuring Disney characters. They were all very well produced, and great fun for the kids. The shows are something you want to make sure not to miss.