My family of four booked the Disney Land/Sea Vacation in April. We chose the option with three days in Disney World and four on the ship. After speaking to my travel agent, I found that guests usually spend the first day of their Disney World parks pass flying in -- which means that unless you live close to Florida, you'll lose a whole day of paid vacation on a plane. So we flew in two days early and booked an additional two nights in an off-site hotel. My husband and I have cruised once before with Princess, but my daughters have never been on a cruise nor seen the ocean (we're from Colorado).
We visited Sea World on Wednesday, and then on Thursday we checked out and drove to Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort (CBR) for our first long day at the Magic Kingdom. Anyone is welcome to check in to the Disney Resort after 6 a.m. and leave their bags with the bell captain or in their rental car until later in the day when their room is ready. Leave plenty of time for check-in because you are also checking in for your cruise, and they will go through all the cruise documentation.
Have all of your cruise docs completely filled out (there's a checklist inside the little treasure chest packing envelope that your documents come in). An Extra Hour of Magic is available to resort guests only -- one park per day opens an hour early. We used the bus from the CBR to get to the Magic Kingdom and weren't particularly impressed with the service, maybe because our resort is the farthest from the Magic Kingdom, or because they weren't running as many buses during the off season. It was better just to drive the rental car -- as an onsite guest you receive free parking. We had a great time at Disney World; the timing couldn't have been better, we never a line, had beautiful weather and loved the rides and activities.
We left Orlando early Sunday morning to drive to Port Canaveral; we didn't purchase transfers and wanted to board the ship as early as possible. We took the extra morning time to visit the Kennedy Space Center, which is just a hop, skip and jump from the cruise terminal.
At about 12:30 we pulled up to Disney's Terminal 8. The ship is enormous and magnificent. It was raining, so we checked in at the gate for passenger drop-off, and left the luggage and everyone but my husband out front. He parked the car in the lot across from the ship. The porter took our tagged luggage, and because we already had our cruise cards from the resort, we were able to go through the metal detector and walk directly onto the ship. They announced our names in the atrium and various staff applauded us, then one crew member escorted us on a quick tour of Deck 3.
Because none of the cabins were ready, we made our reservation for Palo (the specialty restaurant) and an appointment for a beach massage at Castaway Cay. They also ask that you check your children into the Oceaneers Program that first afternoon. You'll have to fill out a questionnaire, including whether your child will be allowed to check themselves in and out, then meet with one of the counselors for questions and to receive your parental pager.
We had the lifeboat drill at 4 p.m., and the ship embarked at 5:30. Our cabin was wonderful; we initially booked an outside cabin, category 8, on Deck 6, but were upgraded to a veranda cabin on Deck 7, category 5. It was a little tight for a family of four, but thanks to Disney's larger-than-industry-standard cabins and split bathrooms, it worked out just fine.
Our dining rotation was Triton's, Animator's Palate, Parrot Cay, and Triton's again. The rotation is listed on your dining tickets, which are in your cabin when you arrive. Unfortunately, we didn't have that information earlier when we booked a reservation for Palo, but if you reserve Palo for your last night on the ship, you'll get the duplicate dining room night (on a four- night cruise). Be warned that the last-evening reservations are at a premium and you'll need to go to WaveBands that first afternoon to get them. In all dining rooms, we had the best serving team -- Nikola from Serbia and Steph from the U.K. They knew the kids' names before we arrived and treated us like royalty.
The shows were all terrific; I especially enjoyed Hercules. We didn't do much of the nightlife -- our days were just too full and we were tired. We really liked the dueling pianos show in Barrel of Laughs; they included children and it was fun. My 13-year-old enjoyed the teen group at Common Grounds. She did both of the teen-only shore excursions and found friends, but spent the majority of time with us. My 8-year-old liked the kids' program at Oceaneers' Lab but would get uncomfortable if left for long stretches of time. I was surprised because I expected both kids to spend most of their time away from the family. I bought walkie-talkies at the recommendation of some folks on the DisBoards and it was a great suggestion. We used them quite a bit, from dividing the family on certain rides at Disney World to finding each other in the morning when we woke at different times on the ship.
On Nassau, we didn't book a shore excursion, so we ran the gamut of hair braiders and taxi drivers to walk into town and do some shopping. We found some nice things at decent prices. Then we found a water ferry to Paradise Island to see the Atlantis resort and find a beach. The water taxi was $4 apiece; it provided a man who gave a running commentary with tourist information, and he asked to be tipped on the way off of the boat. We toured the Atlantis casino, which looked like any other casino, but the impressive resort has its own aquarium and lagoon/swimming area. However, they allow only their own guests into most of the resort; we got run off of the back patio when we were trying to find our way out.
We walked a block or so and entered the public beach area just past the Sheraton. The surf was pretty high and almost scary; my youngest got knocked down and had a hard time getting back up. We used the Sheraton showers to clean off most of the sand and sea water, then caught a taxi back to the ship from the front of the hotel. My 13-year-old wanted to add the evening shore excursion, the Teen Junkaroo, and we were able to sign her up at Common Grounds. They met and left the ship at 7 p.m. to take a party boat on a sail around Paradise Island, and she had a blast.
The next day was in Freeport. I'd read some reviewers who said they wished Disney had treated Freeport as an "at sea" day instead of getting off of the ship. So we just stayed on ship with a quick trip to the Straw Market on the dock. The port area is very industrial, with huge petroleum tanks and cargo docks. The cruise director Teresa recommended not allowing first impressions to keep you on the ship; she said the island was wonderful. The family at the next table took a taxi to the other side of the island and had a great day on the beach. We lounged by the pool, had the girls in their programs and caught one of the movies in the Buena Vista Theater. I was surprised, and shouldn't have been, that they had brand new Disney movies just barely out in the theater, like Brother Bear and the Haunted Mansion.
The last stop was our favorite, Castaway Cay. What a terrific island! I'd booked a cabana massage on the beach first thing that morning, and what a treat! The adults-only beach is on the other side of the island; you can catch a tram to get over or just walk. The cabanas have most of the ocean side propped open to get the full effect of the view. They sit a little above the beach so they are private; it was the best part of the whole cruise.
My husband took our youngest right to the family beach; they were the first in the water and were able to see a ray and a couple of hermit crabs before the crowds formed. He had one of the hammocks staked out, but because he put his gear on the sand beside the hammock and not "in" the hammock, someone else took over while he was in the water. Oh well; there were plenty of lounge chairs.
Our oldest daughter did the teen excursion "Wild Side" with bicycling, sea kayaking and snorkeling. She befriended another girl from Guatemala and had a great time. Lunch at Cookies BBQ was fabulous. Disney does a great job of staffing the island from the ship and it was well done. Our afternoon shore excursion was canceled because the wind came up, which wasn't good for the catamaran "Sea Horse Snorkel." I heard that the morning snorkel adventure was great.
We got back on the ship at about 2 p.m. and sat by the pool. A few rain showers came in and it got a little stormy about 4 p.m. The captain decided to delay our departure because of the squall. Hubby and I had reservations for Palo that night, so the girls chose to go to the dining room without us, since they liked our wait staff so much and the servers promised to take good care of them. Palo is magnificent; the food is tremendous and the service is impeccable. Once we embarked, the seas were a little rough, but in a fun way. No one got sick or was bothered, but we bounced around pretty good all night.
We got a late start from Castaway Cay, so debarkation was delayed the next morning at Port Canaveral. We ate breakfast in our designated dining room and carried our hand luggage. It was the first time that we had breakfast anywhere other than the Beach Blanket Buffet. Then we found a table in the Promenade Lounge to wait. The Promenade Lounge is on Deck 3, just past the atrium and close to the exit from the ship. A crew member entertained us with trivia and gave out trading pins for the answers to some tough questions. Then the people in the lounge were released to exit the ship; the rest went really smoothly. There weren't enough porters but we were able to gather and cart our luggage. We had our own car and were on our way to the airport within minutes. I was glad that our 1:15 p.m. flight wasn't any earlier because with the ship getting in late, it would've been really difficult to catch an earlier flight.
I loved the Disney vacation and the ship was so beautiful. I wouldn't choose this line for a vacation without kids, and was glad that my youngest was 8 years old. We witnessed many, many toddler meltdowns in the theaters, dining rooms and pool areas just because the poor little things were exhausted and overwhelmed. And quite honestly, even with my older, self-sufficient children, I still spent a great deal of time mothering so it was less of a vacation for me. I look forward to another cruise with only me and my husband on a different line, and possibly a Disney seven-day with my kids again in a couple of years.