This is a review of my first Disney cruise experience traveling with my grandchildren Jake, age 9; and Hannah, age 6. I have taken several cruises, both alone and traveling with family members; therefore, I could not help but compare this cruise with others.
THE FLIGHT FROM CALIFORNIA
I had paid $1686 for the air add on to get from California to the cruise. This is the highest air portion I have ever paid so that I was surprised to find they had booked us on TWA, the worst airline for service that I have ever flown. Disney does not tell you about your airline arrangements until too late to make any changes so we were stuck. Although the tickets said 'snack' on both legs of the flight, we were served a total of one overly sweet muffin and a very small portion of applesauce on the first leg; then only a tiny bag of pretzels on the second leg. This was the only food served for a nine hour flight time beginning at 5:30 AM required check in with arrival in Orlando at about 5:30 PM including a short stop in St. Louis. I assume this is legal treatment of passengers, but it surely is not a good way to treat small children. They were both extremely hungry by the time we arrived in Orlando, even though I had brought a few snacks in my carry on. I am not an especially experienced traveler. If I know that TWA gives such poor service, surely the Disney air travel department must know the same thing. I do not know why they would want the first impression of our Disney adventure to be so bad when it could be avoided by using a different airline.
When we arrived at the Orlando airport I had to file a claim for the damage to my new suitcase before we could leave the baggage area. I was told there was nothing they could do there and to turn the suitcase in for repairs after we got back home. After stopping to eat we went looking for a van to take us to the hotel. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the hotel itself is right in the airport. The room was one of the nicest I have ever had. It had a large furnished balcony, bath with double sinks, and every conceivable amenity. The kids were enchanted with the fountains and aviary in the large hallway outside our room. Unfortunately, I had promised them that they could swim when we got to the hotel, to make them feel better when hungry and tired on the plane. The fact that it was raining had no bearing on the situation in their minds, so off we went to find the pool. There were many people playing in the pool in spite of the rain. Both children had a great time and met several of their fellow cruisers while playing for over an hour in an extremely deluxe area with fountains shooting water into the pool. Luckily the weather was warm and there was no wind so that we just got wet, not cold. Since the hotel was located in the airport there were many choices for breakfast the next morning in addition to the hotel restaurant. There were also several shops in the airport area by the hotel so we bought a few last minute items before going to the lobby for our bus to the port.
On all of my other Florida based cruises we checked in for the cruise right at the hotel so that we just walked onto the ship when we got to the pier. While we were at the hotel Disney just gave us bus passes for the fifty minute ride to Port Canaveral; so that we had to go through the whole check in at the pier. Although not as convenient as hotel check in, the process was easy so that we were on the ship within half an hour after our arrival at the port.
After we were on the ship we were told that it would be an hour before we would be allowed to put our bags into our cabin We were to carry them with us to the buffet. We decided to wait until we could get rid of our bags to eat.
THE MUG SITUATION
I went to the guest services area to get the charge privileges removed from the children's room keys, and to buy the soft drink stickers I had read about in the literature sent by Disney with the cruise tickets. I had read that there would be a sticker for $28 that would allow unlimited sodas for children under twelve at any bar the whole week. This was $10 more than I had ever paid before, but I had told the kids that I would do it. When I tried to buy the sticker for their room cards, I was told that the program had changed. Now it was $35 to purchase a gaudy plastic Disney Magic mug. This mug was to be carried with the person any time he or she might want a drink. The mug would be filled free of charge all week at any bar. I found this program to be very inconvenient. With the old program the child had to feel thirsty and then initiate action to get a soda. Carrying the mug around with them reminded them to want a soda, which I feel increased the quantity of sodas that they drank. Hannah set her mug on a bench during the time we were leaving port and it was gone when she turned around to pick it up. It had been in her possession for less than two hours. Guest services were very courteous when they replaced it free of charge since I had the receipt. They had indelible markers to put the names on the mugs to help avoid a repeat of the problem. There was no access to sodas from the children's area on deck 5 so Hannah quit carrying her mug around with her and usually did not have it with her when she wanted a soda. We spent quite a bit of time in the afternoon going down to the cabin to get Hannah's mug when she wanted a soda. The only positive aspect of the new program, that I can see, is that adults can also have the mugs. Since sodas are free at meals and our week was generally overcast and cool, it would have been less expensive and much more convenient to just buy a couple of sodas each day as they wanted them. Maybe if the weather had been hot I would have felt the mugs were a better value, but they would have remained an inconvenient nuisance.
At 1:30 PM we were finally allowed to go to our stateroom and put down our carry ons. Our larger cases were waiting for us at the door. Our stateroom was far forward on deck 2 (number 2015) in the lowest cost category. Although the travel agent had informed Disney that we were three traveling together and that I wanted twin beds, it was set up with towels for two people and had a king size bed. One drawer was put in wrong and kept another from working. After two requests, finally, after 10:00 PM, the drawer was fixed, another towel delivered, and the bed configuration changed to twins. After these modifications the main cabin area was adequate for three with a sofa that converted to a bed at night. What we thought was a small refrigerator turned out to be a built in ice chest. As there is no supply of ice directly available to passengers, this was too much trouble to bother with. The television was small, but had a good picture and a nice selection of channels. The bath was a reasonable size for a cruise ship, but has no bar or space for the third set of towels, except inside the shower. There is no medicine cabinet; just a small shelf over the sink. This makes the bath a bit inconvenient for three persons. An unusual amenity for this cabin category is a small tub with a continental shower. There is also a well lighted make up mirror and a hair dryer. As the week went on we found the sound control to be excellent; we seldom heard any noise when inside the cabin except from the hallway, not even running water. The beds were very soft and uncomfortable with no back support. I always felt like I was falling out because the bed was slightly slanted away from the wall. Although we kept the air conditioning dial set at the coldest setting, the cabin was always warm and usually quite stuffy so that sleeping was not pleasant and it was hard to wake the children in the morning. We did not notice this problem during the day, maybe because we were in the cabin for only short periods at a time, except when sleeping. The hallways, even on the lowest passenger deck, were adequately wide, well lit, and gave no feeling of claustrophobia. I have never been on a ship with a cabin in the lowest category as nicely appointed or as uncomfortable as this one was.
After eating at the Topsider Buffet where the food was adequate, but nothing special, we took our own tour of the ship. The overall impression of the ship is that of a classic liner. The decor is beautiful without being overdone. Since it was raining we did not spend a lot of time up on the deck with the pools, but it looked inviting with lots of white plastic deck chairs and a few tables. Deck 5 had the Oceaneer children's programs so we registered the kids and picked up the pager that would have cost me $150 if I had lost or damaged it. I was required to sign in and pick Hannah up personally with a password, but Jake could sign himself in and out since I gave him permission to do so. The facilities in both areas looked very inviting and the counselors were friendly. Hannah was anxious to come back and check it out more thoroughly. Deck 4 has a beautiful outside teak promenade, covered, but open to the sea on the rail side. On the promenade there are lots of wonderful, old fashioned, wooden deck chairs with thick blue fabric pads on them. The Walt Disney theater is also on deck 4 all the way forward. It is an old time theater, beautifully decorated, but no banquettes, overstuffed chairs, or drink tables. Just rows of comfortable seats, each with a drink holder and good sight lines to the stage. A second, smaller theater is on deck 5. Most of the public areas are on decks 3 and 4 including guest services, the restaurants, and the adult area, Beat Street. I loved the fun and funky decor of Beat Street. It was done by someone with a good imagination, but not overdone.
During our tour of the ship it was time for the safety drill. The drill was uncomfortable mostly because of the humidity. We gathered in our assembly station with our life jackets on. Instructions about what to do in an emergency were announced over the public address system and we were dismissed without going to the actual lifeboat area. I think it was the shortest safety drill in which I have ever participated. After the drill we finished our tour of the ship and gathered on deck 4 to watch the ship pull away from the dock. It was overcast and raining so I guess the cruise staff decided to forego the departure celebration that had been mentioned over the PA system. There were lots of passengers at the appointed place, but no sign of the cruise staff or any celebration.
The Disney line is unusual in that the show for the late dinner seating passengers is before dinner, rather than after. One advantage of this arrangement is that early seating passengers do not fill up the good seats to see the show a second time since they are at dinner. You also do not have to rush through dinner to get to the show in time to get a good seat. The kids enjoyed the variety show with bits from shows to come later in the week. The show was more a preview of coming attractions and introduction of the staff and captain than a show for entertainment. Jake particularly enjoyed the juggler. It was a pleasant forty minutes. All of the main, before dinner, shows during the week were designed to appeal more to the children in the audience than to adult tastes. I found them to be pleasant diversions that the kids enjoyed, but with a sort of amateur feel. One night there was just a showing of the new Disney movie, Atlantis, the Lost Empire. The Disney Dreams show featuring various Disney characters was the most polished production.
After the preview show we went down to the 'Off Beat' lounge on Beat Street to catch the dueling pianos act. It was well done. Hannah joined other children on stage for a couple of audience participation numbers. Paul and Tamara were accomplished on the piano and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Their enjoyment was transmitted to the audience.
In our stateroom was a card telling us that we would dine at table 32 every night. The restaurant; however, changed each night. The first night our restaurant was Parrots Cay where the decor and the menu had a tropical theme. Our servers in every restaurant were Nadege from France and Gurkan from Turkey. They gave unfailingly excellent service and were always friendly and willing to do anything they could to make the dining experience more enjoyable. It was not their fault that the quality of the food ranged from mediocre to very good with an occasional burst of excellence. Dinners were more to the good side with breakfast being barely edible. The scrambled eggs in the sit down restaurant were mixed with so much water that it was leaching out onto the plate and I could not eat them. The omelet was better. Our dining companions were the Rafferty family from outside of Philadelphia who had three children of similar ages to Jake and Hannah. The youngest four became good friends both at mealtime and out and about the ship. The first night Jake and Hannah were given children's menus with very limited stereotypical kid selections, but there was no objection when Jake ordered a full meal from the adult menu which he fully enjoyed. Every night he was given the children's menu and every night he ordered off of my menu. I guess the servers had been told that children get the children's menu. The gumbo soup was very good and the steak cooked rare as I had ordered. Unfortunately the steak tasted as though it had been marinated in grapefruit juice. I did not try Palo, the adult restaurant, as I had come on this cruise to be with my grandchildren. Hannah often had lunch with the children of the Oceaneer club up at Topsider on deck 9. Jake and I ate in Lumiere's for a sit down lunch. If Hannah ate with us, we would first go up to Pluto's doghouse and get a hot dog which we took into the restaurant. There was never any objection from the staff. Service at lunch was always excellent, but the food was just OK except for the soups, which were generally delicious.
After dinner we headed for the cabin to settle two excited kids for the night. It was after 10:00 PM, but our cabin had still not been configured as twin beds as I had requested at about 2:00 PM. I called guest services again and they sent a man to change the room from king size bed to twins. After he left, the kids got into bed, but Jake said his sheets on the converted sofa smelled awful and he could not sleep in the bed. He put his pillow on the floor and was planning to sleep there when I remembered a trick I had read about. We took a fresh bar of bath soap and rubbed it very lightly over all surfaces of the pillow and sheets. It smelled good enough that he could sleep in the bed. Of course, Hannah then had to have the same treatment for her bed. I just hoped they wouldn't get a rash from the soap. Luckily there was no problem. I suspect that the sheets had been folded into the sofa unused for too long. He did not have the problem again.
Sunday morning the kids did not open a single eye until well after 10:00 AM so we had a leisurely morning in the cabin followed by BBQ ribs at Lumiere's. They were tougher and chewier than I expected them to be, but had good flavor. The tablespoon of coleslaw on the plate was very good.
The Oceaneer program for the children was excellent. We were given a list of the activities for the week for each age group when they registered. The facilities for them were extensive. Any time we were not swimming or at dinner Hannah was in the Oceaneer club in the 5-7 group, by her own choice. She liked the counselors, the other kids, and the activities, especially the slide. If you wished, you could leave kids in there all day from 9:00 AM until midnight. They even took them to meals up at Topsider. They ate in a separate room at little tables with multi-section trays. There was a little of several bit of several foods that a kid favorites already on their trays when they arrived, and they could have more of anything they liked. To get from the children's area to the Topsider the children marched single file through the stair ways form deck 5 to deck 9 singing a marching song. Counselors were on every landing to keep the line of well over 100 three to seven year olds moving along. I happened to be on the stair way one day while they were on their way to lunch. They looked happy, adorable, and well supervised. When it was not raining we took Hannah out of Oceaneer's club for swimming in the afternoon, the daily show, and dinner with the family. After dinner she often wanted to go back to the club for the evening activity. If you have a 5-7 year old be sure to go to the pajama party. They got to color and keep a small pillow that Hannah really values even though we are home from the cruise. Jake was more selective about which activities he did with the Oceaneer's lab for 8-9 year olds. He enjoyed the computer games, playing Pictionary, and the secret spy party. One day he had checked himself out of the lab, but could not find Hannah and me. He went over to Hannah's club and had the counselors page me to find out where we were. Very handy! I also found it delightfully peaceful to take my shower and relax after lunch each day while they were in their respective areas for a couple of hours.
It was cold and windy on Sunday afternoon, but the kids were determined to swim and go on the twisty slide into Mickey's pool. They played for over an hour until the foul smelling fumes from the funnel just over the pool for small children were so bad that I could not stand it any more. After the swim we took Hannah back to the Oceaneer's club to have dinner with the kids at her request. Then Jake and I dressed for the Captain's welcome evening and Hercules the Muse-kal. The performance was quite corny to me, but Jake laughed a lot so it must depend on your age and taste. Dinner at Lumiere's was pleasant; our table companions added to our mealtime enjoyment. Jake and I had well prepared rack of lamb with an unusual, but tasty, mix of tomato, green pepper, and zucchini. The meals had a nice balance of meat and vegetable. Hannah was still not ready to leave when we picked her up after 10:00 PM to go back to the cabin for bedtime.
INPUT FROM THE YOUNGER SET
Each day I asked the kids to help me write this review by telling me what they thought was good and not so good about the cruise. On the first day Hannah said the best part was looking around the ship by ourselves and that all of the people were very nice, both passengers and crew members. Today her favorites were the slide at Mickey's pool and doing experiments in the Oceaneer's lab. They used goggles and studied gasses using Jell-O and balloons and other things. She also liked the Spy Kids movie that they saw. She did not like losing her mug and too much rain. Jake's high points were the food, which he called awesome; playing Pictionary with the kids in the lab; and Hercules, the Muse-kal, especially the actor who played Hades. He did not like the safety drill that he found too uncomfortable in the humidity and he thought Mickey's pool too shallow for a nine year old. In his opinion it is only for really little kids.
MONDAY AND TUESDAY
Monday was more rain and substantially the same activities. Because few people were outside, all of the indoor activities were extremely overcrowded. Disney needs to have a plan B for rainy days. There were not enough indoor activities to keep even most of the people occupied. We finally got a seat at the 2:00 PM Island Magic show by coming a half an hour early. It was a production involving seven large Disney characters and a cruise staff person who tied the show together. It was cute, the children in the audience loved it. After the show Jake and I went up to 'Scoops' where there is free ice cream and fruit most of the day. We had sundaes made to order. Next Jake was off to the lab to build a wacky racer with the 8-9 year olds. I spent my free time relaxing on the promenade in one of the comfortable wooden deck chairs until 'family time' in the lab when Hannah and I could play the computer games too. The kids really enjoyed the magic show before dinner. I also found it to be one of the better shows of the week. Unfortunately the ship was really rocking and Jake got seasick at dinner so that he and I missed the display of colors in the animator's palette restaurant. (Although you eat in the restaurant twice, they only do the color show once.) Hannah spent the evening with the Rafferty family while I stayed with Jake out on deck until his stomach settled down. The nurse in the medical facility gave me instructions for making him feel better. Within an hour after taking the recommended pill he was feeling good enough to want something to eat.
Tuesday morning the kids slept late again. We had not eaten breakfast on the ship yet. We docked in St. Maartin. I went ashore to call my daughter, but the phones on St. Maartin will not accept prepaid cards except those purchased on St. Maartin. Lila will have to wait until tomorrow to hear that the kids are fine. Both kids stayed in their lab and club most of the day. It warmed up in the afternoon for the first time so I collected them to swim in Goofy's pool. It is very poorly designed. The high walls to contain sloshing due to the rocking of the ship are so close to the pool that a parent cannot see in to be sure that the kids are all right unless sitting on the edge of the pool. Most ships have the higher walls set back a few feet from the pool with tiles between the pool and the slosh walls so that you can see the people down in the pool from a chair on deck. by the end of the week the teenagers had pretty well taken over Goofy's pool so that it was not really safe for Hannah to swim there even though she is a pretty good swimmer. After swimming we watched the movie Atlantis, the Lost Empire and ate dinner in Parrots Cay again. The pork tenderloin and mashed potatoes were good, but nothing special.
INPUT FROM JAKE AND HANNAH
Jake's favorite activities have been those in the lab including the bride tour, Bingo, and making the wacky racers. He also like the Atlantis movie. He did not like being seasick and losing his lunch in the restaurant. (I do not think the servers or people at nearby tables were thrilled with it either.) Hannah liked playing with the kids at the pool and going on the pool slide. She reported that it was faster and better today than when it was cold. The also liked the PJ party in the club. She did not like getting up so late that she missed going to lunch with the kids nor missing dinner dessert to go to the PJ party.
WEDNESDAY AND ST. THOMAS
We started with a continental breakfast ordered from room service. They brought the food as ordered at the requested time. Although our order card said three persons, we received only one napkin and neither straws nor glasses for the cartons of milk.
The open air taxi to get to town from the pier was $3.00 per person for a ride of about two miles. It was drizzly while we shopped then came a downpour while we were in the open sided taxi returning to the ship. I did not explore the beach since it was raining off and on. When we got back on the ship we had dinner in Lumiere's. The roast breast of duck with orange sauce was very good. Jake and I had to skip dessert to get to his family party with the oceaneers. The time frames for the children's activities assume the early dinner sitting. We had to rush dinner and/or skip dessert on two occasions in order to make it to the activities that the kids had chosen. Even then we were a little late arriving.
THURSDAY AND THE CHARACTER BREAKFAST
On the first day each family was given a ticket for a particular day to attend the character breakfast. Our assigned day was Thursday. The food was the worst I have ever been served at breakfast. In fact, it was so bad that none of us ate what we had ordered, not even the rubbery pancakes. There were about six costumed Disney characters going from table to table. They were very patient about signing autographs and posing for pictures with the kids. I was pleasantly surprised on this ship that there were no professional photographers intruding on mealtimes with gimmicks for pictures. The daily navigator stated where the photographers would be and the passengers went to them is they wanted pictures taken. The lines for pictures with the Disney characters in the atrium were very long each time they were scheduled. After breakfast Hannah went to her club to make gooey flubber while Jake participated in the activities with his group on the sports deck. He won a medal for jumping rope the longest time. After this Jake and I went to the seafood buffet while Hannah had lunch with the Oceaneers. The seafood buffet had a nice variety of offerings.
Thursday evening was the talent show for which Jake had signed up to do an Irish step dance. He had practiced earlier in the week and arranged for the technician to play his CD at the appropriate band at the rehearsal earlier in the day. This was not a contest, but a show, so that all of the performers could feel good about their contribution. All of the children were enthusiastic with varying degrees of skill. I have never been on a ship where participation in a show, game, or contest was not acknowledged in some fashion, usually with a small souvenir. Disney gave the children nothing to commemorate the occasion, not even a computer printed certificate.
Dinner was semi-formal. The menu had excellent choices including lobster tails. The lobster was delicious as was the cherries jubilee. After dinner Jake and I played shuffleboard while Hannah 'hung out' with the Rafferty children until bedtime.
A serious negative aspect today was that Mrs. Rafferty received word that her grandmother had died. She went to guest services to get help getting the number of the hotel where her family was staying. They would give her no assistance at all, even though she knew the name of the hotel and the city it was in. She was quite distressed at dinner that she could not contact her family. I was very surprised to hear this as guest services had been so helpful to me when I needed a place for the kids to practice their dancing as I had told their mother that they would. They had even gone to some trouble to find me a portable CD player. They had also been very helpful in putting me through to the nurse when nobody was answering the phone in the medical center when Jake was seasick and I was unsure what to do for a young child.
Friday morning I let the kids sleep until 10:00 AM then we dressed in our swimsuits and put on lots of sun screen for the day on Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas. Departure from the ship was quick and easy since most of the passengers had already left the ship. The tram to all main areas was waiting so we hopped on and rode to the BBQ lunch. The food was not especially tasty, but it was fun having a picnic in such a beautiful setting. After lunch I checked Hannah into Scuttles Cove with the oceaneers after which Jake went to try snorkeling. Since he was using my fins, he had a little trouble at first. He got it mastered soon enough to swim for over two hours before I made him get out of the water. We had our own equipment so we did not have to pay the expensive rental fee. Jake was required to wear a floatation vest while in the snorkeling area, but did not have to pay any rental fee to use it. I also had to wear a vest, for no charge, while I was teaching him how to use the fins and when I swam out to have him come back in closer to shore. There were plenty of lifeguards all along the beach and out in the water.
After Jake was doing fine on his own, I rested for awhile in a hammock provided on the beach then went to get Hannah so she could have her turn swimming. The family beach was beautiful with plenty of chairs and loungers, but because there were so many people the water was somewhat crowded and cloudy. I did not get a chance to see if the adult beach was more pristine. Jake saw many fish and was thrilled. At the end of the week both kids agreed that Castaway Cay was the very best part of the week. Luckily it did not rain on that day.
When we returned to the ship the first thing they wanted to do was to swim in Goofy's pool until I made them get out so we could pack our main cases for putting in the hall after dinner. Dinner was international night. Good, but nothing special. Tips for all we tipped came to $230 for the three of us.
Debarkation was the easiest it has been on any cruise that I have taken. Late sitting passengers were required to bring their carry ons to breakfast at 8:00 AM. After breakfast we just walked off the ship, picked up our luggage from the customs area, and proceeded to our bus to the airport. The kids spent some time figuring out how we might get from our departing bus to one of the ones arriving for embarkation. They had had a wonderful time and wanted to start over again.
My overall evaluation is that the cruise is overpriced for the cruise quality provided for adults. The children's program is excellent in all respects. Most members of the staff and crew were friendly and helpful. The food is not as consistently good as it should be on a cruise advertised to be of high quality and the bed was uncomfortable. Castaway Cay was well planned and a wonderful way to spend a day. All cruised nickel and dime the passengers for extras to increase their 'on board revenue.' Disney quarter and dollars them. Many items cost more for comparable purchases on the Disney ship and there seemed to be more of them. The only places I noticed that Disney was not more expensive was that the sods at meals were without extra charge and the swim vests, if you own you own equipment for snorkeling, were free. I did not allow my grandchildren to play the arcade games or to buy the expensive nonalcoholic drinks with souvenir glass, and they still had a great time.