Disney Magic offers one of the best cruises for kids possible
We are no strangers to Disney Cruise Line -- we sailed on the two- and three-day inaugural cruises for both the Disney Magic and Wonder a few years ago. For those cruises, my daughter Alex was four and five years old, respectively -- perfect ages to cruise with Disney, since she was enamored with all the Disney princesses.
Before our latest seven-day sailing on the Disney Magic this past April, I wondered if Alex would still like the Disney product now that she is a mature eight years old and no longer in awe of the Disney characters. Much to my pleasure, Alex embraced the Disney youth program even more than on our earlier short cruises, thanks to the fun and energetic youth counselors, the varied kids-only and family activities, and the freedom she was allowed on the ship. (This was the first time she was allowed to sign herself in and out of a cruise ship youth program.) I also am a firm believer that no matter which cruise line is involved, most kids do better on a seven day cruise than a three- or four-day sailing since the longer cruises give them ample time to make friends and form bonds with the youth counselors.
On our first two Disney cruises, Alex was in the three- to seven-year-old group in the Oceaneer Club; this time she was with eight- to 12-year-old children in the Oceaneer Lab. (Disney ships have 15,000 square feet of space devoted solely to children's facilities.) The seven-day cruise allowed her to get to know the counselors more, and she really enjoyed their lively and sometimes "goofy" nature! For example, when the kids made Flubber, one of the counselors dressed up as an absent-minded professor and then taught the children how to make this green and gooey substance.
This past year, more than 15 new age-specific activities have been added to the children's program. Some of the unique activities for the three- to five-year-old group are dancing with Snow White; story time with Belle; bubble blowing; dressing up with a variety of Disney character costumes; and pajama parties. Note that children must be fully potty trained (no pull-up diapers) to participate in youth activities. Those who are three but not potty trained can only attend the Flounder's Reef Nursery. Activities for five- to seven-year-olds include: making picture frames; hearing stories told by Captain Hook; making 3-D glasses; and playing Disney trivia, among many others.
Some of Alex's favorite things to do in the Oceaneer Lab (eight- to nine-year-olds) were: making videotaped commercials for parents to see; playing guessing and relay games at Studio Sea; making Flubber; learning how to make a digital postcard on the computer; taking an animation lesson from a professional animator; and stargazing/telling scary stories at night on deck. Highlights of the activities for 10- to 12-year-olds (who also share the Oceaneer Lab) are: scavenger hunts; karaoke singing; making radio commercials; and "Boyz and Girlz Chill" whereby the boys challenge each other at the PlayStation 2 games while the girls get their nails done, etc.
The teen program is mostly held in the Common Grounds teen room but also at other spots around the ship. There is a teens-only excursion in Nassau (three- and four-day itinerary), which is a harbor dance cruise; and on Castaway Cay there's a teen challenge of water sports and land activities, called the Wildside. Aboard ship, organized teen activities include: learning how to dance hip-hop; d.j. training; aloha pool party; and dance parties at the ESPN skybox. Lisa Broschart, who oversees the Oceaneer Lab and Teen program on the Magic, said counselors recently held a teen focus group to see what would interest this hard-to-please group the most. Some of the favorites were teen discos; team games; and "Gotcha," a murder mystery-type game that lasts an entire day.
Family Friendly Facilities and Activities
You can't get any more family friendly than on a Disney ship. >From personnel who try to do all they can to make traveling with little ones as smooth as possible, to great kid-friendly hardware, the Disney Magic fit our needs perfectly. All staterooms have split bathrooms; one room has a bathtub -- a rarity on most cruise ships except in the highest category cabins. Bathtubs are a must when traveling with an infant. Staterooms also have a privacy curtain, which helped Alex sleep even when her baby brother Ethan was crying on the other side!
Disney is one of the few cruise lines to allow children in swim diapers to go in the splash pool. Ethan enjoyed the splash pool while Alex frequented the adjacent water slide. Also, Alex joined the crowd (literally) in the larger Goofy's pool. I found that on sea days, however, the Goofy's pool was so full of kids that it could potentially be a hazard.
Since there were so many kids on board -- about 750 were on our cruise -- and the dining rooms were naturally a bit noisy, no one seemed to notice Ethan crying during most dinners, much to our relief.
Disney is the only cruise line with a fleet-wide nursery facility for infants and toddlers. Flounder's Reef Nursery has a staff of competent and loving counselors. Ethan stayed there on three separate occasions and seemed to bond with the caregivers. (See article "Disney's Magical Nursery" for more details.)
Children's needs are also kept in mind on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay, where parents can rent strollers or kid-sized bikes, and even drop their children off at Scuttle's Cove. Castaway Cay is the only private Bahamian island owned by a cruise line to which you don't have to tender. This simplifies life greatly when you are dealing with a stroller. Scuttle's Cove -- an extension of the on-board youth program -- has a tented area for activities and a number of water mister to keep kids cool. There is a roster of beach activities at Scuttle's Cove, but counselors cannot take the children in the water-only parents can do that.
I was happy to see that since the Magic's inaugural, the line has really beefed up the roster of family activities. I believe that parents should get some down time when their kids are in youth programs, but I still feel that family cruising is also about having fun as a family together. Our whole family participated in the free character breakfast, Tea with Wendy Darling, the Dueling Pianos sing-a-long and dance-along; Discover the Magic parade on the last day; and the Disney Dreams stage production show.
One of the ways my husband and I treated ourselves was by attending brunch at the Palo alternative restaurant. We reserved space for Ethan at Flounder's Reef Nursery and Alex attended youth activities at that time. This not-to-be missed feature was the best brunch I have ever had.
Safety of all the kids in the Disney youth program is paramount, much to parents' comfort. Parents must fill out a form for each child and list any allergies or medical concerns. This information is entered into the computer and a counselor takes the list to dinner or any special public places the children go outside of the youth rooms. Children are also issued wristbands with their name, age, pager number and assembly station in case of a ship emergency. All parents with children under the age of 13 are given a beeper for the duration of the cruise.
For children eight years and older, parents can sign a form that allows their kids to check themselves in and out of the program. Eight-year-old Alex had never been allowed this freedom before. While I was a bit dubious about how she would handle the responsibility, it worked out beautifully. We gave Alex a watch and room key to take to the kids' program and told her what time she had to be back in our room. She loved being treated like a big kid and handled it beautifully. Since then, a rash of on-land kidnappings has been in the news. This made me wonder whether I should have let Alex leave the youth program on her own, but I still feel that cruise ships (and the Disney product in particular) tend to be relatively safe environments where you can give youngsters a little more freedom than you would at home.
Seamless Land/Sea Packages
There are clear advantages to opting for a Disney land and sea package. The night before our cruise, we put our suitcases outside our door at the Disney resort, The Beach Club, and didn't have to deal with them until they arrived at our stateroom the next afternoon. Transfers from our hotel were very smooth and fast, via a 60 to 90-minute bus ride from Disney World to Port Canaveral. For Disney resort guests who visit Walt Disney World prior to their cruise, as we did, there is a Disney Cruise Line desk at participating Disney resorts. The personnel there do a pre-boarding check-in right at the hotel, eliminating the need to check in at the terminal. Due to new security screening, however, once we got to the cruise terminal, the line to get aboard ship was long and slow.
Many people are picked up by Disney buses at their Disney hotel around noon on embarkation day, but you can also be picked up at Disney's Animal Kingdom at 12:45 p.m. While we did not opt for this since we needed to stay at the hotel for Ethan's nap, it is a great way to spend the morning prior to your cruise.
Disembarkation was very smooth and fast, with Disney buses waiting outside the terminal to take passengers to the airport or back to Disney World hotels. The only disembarkation problem we experienced was Alex lamenting about leaving the Magic and wondering when her next Disney Cruise Line voyage would be.