Monday, July 14, 2014

My Unpaid and Totally Cheesy Endorsement for the Disney Dream Cruise

Sam stealing a nap at Castaway Cay.

A rare family portrait starring everyone's favorite canines.

Attention to detail: our wonderful waiter made Stella's ketchup into a Mickey every night. 

Ready for Pirate Night.

Dave and I used to be true travelers. We backpacked. We hiked. We camped. We spent our honey moon traipsing all over Ireland and Scotland, meeting the people, eating the food, drinking the brews, experiencing that culture - not just watching it all from a tour bus.

And like most people before they have kids of their own, we made fun of other parents for doing things differently than we thought they should. Like taking their families on cruises. We rolled our eyes and talked about how our kids would really EXPERIENCE things. Our kids, and we, would be cool.

Well, we were wrong. It is wonderful for kids to hike and backpack and camp - I won't disagree with that at all. And we save money to travel somewhere every year, because exposing our kids to different cultures is a huge part of what we believe will make them intelligent, worldly, compassionate, well-rounded folks.

But there's a problem. When you pack up your one or more kid and travel to, say, a beachhouse (like we did last summer), it's true that the kid gets an amazing experience. Unstructured time in the ocean, hiking through nature, chasing crabs on the beach, building castles. But what are you - the parent - doing? Reminding them not to track in sand into the rental. Making breakfast in the morning, lunch in the afternoon, and keeping them behaved in a restaurant at dinner. You're slathering on sunscreen and watching them like a hawk when the tide comes in and sitting in the beach house at night, exhausted and bored because the kids need to be in bed by 9 or else they'll be a wreck the next day. You get back from vacation as tired and cranky as you were before you left, but you spent all your money so you can't hire a sitter so you can take a nap.

This year, with the addition of ten-month-old Sam, I knew we needed a different vacation. One where we could do things as a couple as well as a family. A vacation where I could hand my children over to trained professionals who'd take excellent care of them while I did something grown-uppy. Something that might remind me of a me before I used words like "grown-uppy."

So, I talked Dave into considering a Disney cruise - a short, three-night excursion to the Bahamas on the epic ship The Disney Dream. Once he realized this meant we'd do no cooking, no cleaning, and would have time to ourselves, he agreed.

So now, without further ado, let me answer the question I know is burning through your brain: Was the Disney cruise all it's cracked up to be?

The short answer is yes, absolutely. The long answer is yes, absolutely, and here are some reasons why:

1.  The Childcare. I know the sanctimommies of the world will faint when I say this, but it was so incredibly awesome to have time alone as a couple on this trip. And it made it even more enjoyable that the childcare was so fantastic that even a neurotic worry-wart like me felt 100% confident in it. Stella's childcare was included in the price of her cruise admission. That meant she could come and go as often as she wanted from the time they opened in the morning until the time they closed - midnight. Since she's six, she was part of the Oceaneer's Club - a series of rooms as cool as Andy's Bedroom from Toy Story (complete with toys bigger than you) and Pixie Hollow. The counselors are compassionate and well-trained, even knowing how to handle Stella's sensory issues with ease (and yes - that actively came up). Characters like Minnie and Mickey come to the club, meaning the kids get tons of face-time that they don't necessarily get at Walt Disney World itself. It was so good that Dave and I often found ourselves talking Stella OUT of going there, because we wanted her to do something with us. Remember how I said we thought we'd be cool parents? Well begging your six year old to spend time with you pretty much cancels that out, doesn't it?

But what about Sam? Well, there's a nursery on board fashioned after the "It's a Small World" ride. It costs extra, but at $9/hour, that's pretty darn cheap (and worth it). It was impeccably clean and had a wonderful staff. They were breast-feeding friendly (which I know they should be, but if you know anything about this current climate, you know that's not always true). They had a separate, quiet room for sleepers, meaning we could put Sam in there every night while we painted the town - er ship - red. They even snapped photos of him playing and made a sweet art project for us using his footprints. You have to trust me when I say I have a great instinct for how well a childcare facility is run, and this one was top notch.

Also - both clubs will feed your kids lunch and dinner. They'll even chop up your baby's food into tiny bits for you. So YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO A DAMN THING TO GET YOUR KIDS FED. Do you hear me????

And, to top it all off, their security was amazing. Each kid gets a bracelet with a computer chip in it that stays on them. When you sign the kid in, the bracelet is scanned, along with your Key to the World card - a credit-card-type-thingy that is also your room key and charge card. That Key to the World has a photo that pops up on their computer of you and your kid, so even if the card is taken, ain't nobody getting your baby. And finally, when you come back to pick up your kid, all the scanning and whatnot is repeated, but this time you need to give them a SECRET CODE WORD. Seriously - I had no anxiety that some nefarious character would take my kid. And if you know me, you know that's nearly impossible.

Finally, if you have older kids, they have clubs for them, too. From what I could tell, and mind you this is coming from a middle school teacher who knows her stuff, it seemed those clubs treated the kids like the young adults they are, not like overgrown children. So you could let your tween or teen run off with similarly-aged kids, knowing they're getting supervision and not getting into crazy on-board shenanigans.

2. The Ship. I'd been on two cruises over twenty years ago - one on Royal Caribbean and one one Norwegian - both to the Bahamas (the most reasonably-priced option). Hands-down the Disney Dream is the coolest ship I've ever seen. The theater was as beautiful as the Broadway theaters I've been to, and nearly as large. The atrium is gorgeous, with a chandelier that Stella swears is Elsa's from Frozen. The three on-board formal restaurants are each very different in decor, one more delightful than the next. There was a regular pool, a shallow pool for littles, a spash area for toddlers, and - possibly best of all - a pool area only for people 18 and over (which is nice when you're tired of screaming kids jumping in next to your head). There were hot tubs and lovely places for strolls. Window seats in the portholes and Italian-style cafes. And, for this family at least, the piece de resistance was the AquaDuck - the world's first cruise ship water roller coaster. It is clear and 14 stories in the air and SO MUCH FUN. We loved it so much that, after riding it once each with Stella, Dave and I might have put both our kids in childcare just so we could ride it together. (Did I mention that we used to think we'd remain cool? It gets funnier every time I write it.) We loved the ship so much that we didn't even debark the day it landed in Nassau. We weighed the pros and cons, and decided that schlepping a not-yet-walking baby around the island to do some over-priced, second-party excursion just wasn't worth it. And we made the right choice, baby.

3. All-Inclusive/Food. It is so nice when you're on a budget not to have to worry about where you'll eat or what you'll order. It's even nicer when the food you eat is fantastic. The only thing we paid for out of pocket was Sam's childcare, our rummy cocktails, and some souvenirs. Otherwise, we didn't worry about a thing - even when we ordered four different appetizers and four different deserts - for three of us. They even had sushi at the lunch buffet one day. (The sushi guy and I became friends after I visited him several times). You can even indulge in room service - no extra charge.

4. Disney's Private Island, Castaway Cay. It's OK that we didn't debark on the Nassau day, because we more than made up for it the next day at Castaway Cay. You simply walk off the boat and walk onto a pristine, lovely beach. The water was gentle and crystal clear. There were ample umbrellas and seating. You could rent flotation devices and snorkeling gear. There was a delicious (included) barbecue lunch on the island. There was a character dance party. We even saw a stingray! This was my favorite day, by far. Oh, and there's a special beach called Serenity Bay for folks 18 and over. We could have put the kids in childcare and traipsed off with the child-free folks, but we decided to be good parents this one day. But I love that name - Serenity Bay. Doesn't every parent wish to visit Serenity Bay at least once a day?

5. You can be as busy or as relaxed as you want to be. I love Disney World, I won't lie, but you don't feel like you're earning your money's worth unless you GO GO GO all day and all night. The cruise felt different. There are character appearances every day, and we partook, but unless your kid is a diehard fan who needs to see Mickey 100 times in three days (thankfully ours isn't), it's not that big a deal. There are wonderful shows day and night that we loved, but you could skip them if that's not your thing. There are night clubs for every taste, as well as lounges to just sit and talk. There are even on-board 3D movies (great if the weather's bad, which we didn't have to deal with) and Shabbat services for us Jews (that we didn't attend because we're bad Jews). So, if you want to run constantly, you won't run out of things to do. But if, like Dave and me, you want to sit comatose in the hot tub for an hour and a half, you can do that, too.

6. It's Disney. Disney does everything better. They just do. Their attention to detail is insane, and this is coming from an annoyingly detail-oriented person (just ask my husband). For example - they have a "Pirates IN the Caribbean" theme night where everyone can dress up as pirates. I was able to get my daughter a costume, but I couldn't find the time to get one for the rest of us. No worries - Disney provides you with adorable bandanas so you can still dress as a pirate. There are hidden Mickeys all over the ship - which is helpful when you're in line and you need something to distract your kids. Interior rooms for us poor folks have no windows; but on Disney you get a "virtual porthole," which has a tv screen with a live feed to what's going on outside. Disney characters from Finding Nemo and other films even come by to say hello. And, Stella's favorite part, the chocolates on the pillow each night that are, of course, actually good quality.

That's all I can think of for now. We're going to start saving ASAP for next summer, and I'd love to go for a longer cruise if possible. If you plan to book a cruise, I recommend working with Small World Vacations. They're authorized through Disney, cost nothing extra, will find you the best deals, are quick and courteous, and will even get you on on-board credit. (I don't know how there's no down side, but there really isn't.) And if you're looking for tips and tricks, go to Mousesavers. Their advice helped us get the most out of an already wonderful vacation.

Have a wonderful summer! Oh, and if anyone from Disney is reading this and wants to reward me for this free advertising, that Disney Magic trans-Atlantic cruise planned for May 2015 looks great.

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