It’s safe to say we are diehard Disney World fans. As much as we love exploring new destinations, there’s something so comforting and nostalgic about making an annual pilgrimage to Walt Disney World — For me, it’s a chance to relive some of my favorite memories of visiting Disney World as a kid while making lots of magical new memories with my own children.
I had heard from many, many friends over the years that Disney cruises were every bit as spectacular as the park experience, and so a Disney cruise has been on my family travel bucket list for nearly a decade. Fortunately, I FINALLY got an opportunity this year at the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration. On this particular trip, I took my daughter and two grown stepdaughters along for four days at Walt Disney World (we went a couple of days before the conference started to maximize our park time), followed by a three-night cruise to Castaway Cay aboard the Disney Wonder. Now that cruise season is approaching (weather-wise, December through April is the best time for a Caribbean cruise), I wanted to share my experience with those of you who’ve been thinking of trying a Disney cruise for yourselves.
First off, I’ve gotten lots of questions from readers about whether they should plan a Walt Disney World vacation or a Disney cruise. If you can swing it, I recommend that you do BOTH — and consider making the cruise a total surprise for your family. My girls and I spent four days exploring the parks before taking a Disney shuttle to Port Canaveral for the cruise portion of our trip. The two experiences are radically different and I do recommend that you schedule a cruise after visiting the parks if you’re planning a land and sea vacation. If you’re like our family, you’ll go hard at the parks (We kept track of our steps this year and realized we walked between 10 and 12 miles a day!), and by the end of your park experience, you’ll definitely be ready to relax. This is a PERFECT state to be in for a Disney cruise. Although there’s plenty to do aboard the ship, the warm sun, cool breeze, and peaceful Caribbean sea will definitely make you want to spend some serious time zoning out on a balcony or beside the pool. Trust me when I tell you that a few days of relaxation feels AMAZING after the hustle and bustle of the parks!
Disney Wonder Staterooms
When it comes to choosing a room for your cruise, the Disney Wonder includes Inside rooms (with no windows), Oceanview rooms (with one or two portholes) and Verandah rooms (with private balconies). I highly recommend springing for a Verandah stateroom. After two cruises this year, I became 100% convinced that it’s totally worth the extra money for a room with a private balcony, simply because we all spent a LOT of time on our balcony on both cruises. The views at sea are spectacular and change constantly with the clouds, the sun, and nearby islands, and I loved being able to go outside at any hour of the day or night to enjoy the views. My balcony time was a tremendous part of why I loved the cruise experience so much.
Beyond the balcony, if you’ve been on other cruise lines, I can tell you that you will be very impressed with Disney’s staterooms — They are definitely designed with families in mind. The rooms’ decor has a very peaceful and luxurious feel that will make you want to spend a lot of time hanging out in your room. Beyond that, there were several features that make Disney staterooms stand out:
- I LOVE the split bathroom concept of Disney staterooms — One bathroom has a sink, tub and shower, while another has a sink and toilet. With four girls in one room on our cruise, having two separate bathrooms was an absolute lifesaver.
- Walt Disney World is master of the privacy curtain in its hotels and its staterooms are no different. They feature a privacy curtain that extends halfway across the room, separating the sitting and sleeping areas. Not only is this wonderful for changing clothes, it’s also great at night or in the mornings, when some want to sleep and others want to read or watch television.
- I mentioned the bunk bed — It’s a true design miracle! Each night while you’re at dinner, your steward can transform the sofa in your room into two very comfortable bunk beds that fold out of the wall. The next morning when you leave your room, he’ll put the beds away and you’ll have a sofa again for daytime use. Brilliant!
- You’ll find lots of drawers and cabinets in every possible location in your room. We were able to find plenty of space for our clothing, toiletries, and everything else we had brought along. That said, it’s a very good idea to take time at the very beginning of any cruise to carefully unpack and organize your belongings — You’ll be thanking yourself later when you’re able to find everything and put it away when not in use.
- Another small detail, but one that will allay your concerns about all your luggage, is that Disney beds are a little higher so that you can store your luggage beneath them. In close quarters, it’s great to have a place to put all those space-sucking suitcases!
Dining Aboard the Disney Wonder
Most food on your Disney Cruise is included in the cost of your fare. This includes a casual buffet restaurant, quick service dining options on deck, kids club dining, late-night snacks in the adult lounges, 24-hour room service, soft-serve ice cream, soda, tea, and coffee on deck and in the dining rooms, and Disney Wonder’s three main dining restaurants.
When you board the ship, you’ll be given your main restaurant assignment for each evening of your cruise. Each night, you’ll rotate to a different restaurant along with your servers, who quickly develop a working knowledge of your family’s likes, dislikes, and allergies.
Animator’s Palate features a fusion of Pacific Island foods, Asian cooking and fresh California fare. A state-of-the-art cartoon show on screens around the restaurant will keep the kids entertained while you enjoy your meal.
At Tiana’s Place, you’ll dine on Cajun and Creole recipes and enjoy a rollicking, interactive live jazz show starring the princess herself.
And at Triton’s, you’ll enjoy a four-course French-American dinner.
A few things to note:
-If you choose late seating, you can take advantage of Disney’s Dine and Play program for kids ages 3-12. Your kids will get their dinner right away and 45 minutes later, youth counselors will come and take them to the Oceaneers Club for games and activities, allowing parents some alone time. Just let your server know when you arrive at the restaurant that your kids will be participating in the Dine and Play program that night.
-If you’d prefer to dine at a private table with your family, be sure and let your travel agent or Disney representative know when you’re booking your cruise reservation — Otherwise, you’re likely to be seated at a table with others.
-Want a night alone with your partner? Make reservations at Palo, Disney Wonder’s highly-regarded adults-only restaurant — But make reservations well in advance. Seats fill up quickly, especially for Palo’s popular brunch. Palo costs an extra $30 per person for brunch or dinner.
-One of the most decadent aspects of a Disney cruise is that you’re not limited to one appetizer or main course on the menu. Choose whatever you want, whether it’s three appetizers, two entrees, or a selection of desserts! Your kids are also welcome to order off the adult menu if they can’t find anything they like on the kids’ menu.
Disney Wonder Onboard Activities
One of the best things about a Disney cruise is that there are lots of opportunities for parents to have some guilt-free alone time! All kinds of activities are planned just for kids each day; the Personal Navigator newsletter you’ll receive onboard each day will have a full schedule of events.
The Oceaneer Club on Disney Wonder will keep your age 3-12 kids busy while you and your partner enjoy lunch, dinner, or just some time on your own at the adults-only pool. There, they’ll enjoy performances, storytelling sessions, a Toy Story-themed playground, dress-up, and interactive games, as well as an open seating area for arts and crafts. Hey, it’s Disney — You know it’s going to be awesome.
One of my favorite aspects of the Oceaneer Club is that activities are separated by interest, not age, which means siblings can stay together. This is a big deal in my family — My kids are three years apart, but they like to do activities together on vacations.
Your tweens (ages 11-14) will want to check out Edge, an activity center designed just for them with computers, video games, and flat-screen TVs, arts and crafts, and karaoke machines, as well as scheduled activities throughout the day and into the night. Edge is open each day from 10am until 1am.
And for teens ages 14-17, there’s Vibe, a hangout space just for them with video games, music listening stations, board games, televisions, and plenty of scheduled activities specially designed for their age group.
The Disney Wonder also has MARVEL’s Super Hero Academy just for kids. Here, your children can do arts and crafts, play computer games, and meet some of their favorite MARVEL super heroes.
The It’s a Small World! Nursery is available for younger children for $9 per hour ($8 per hour for additional siblings), but you’ll need to make reservations early — Space is extremely limited. You can reserve a spot up to 75 days before the beginning of your cruise.
If you’re cruising the Caribbean aboard the Disney Wonder, you’ll get to enjoy Pirate Night — a really fun evening that includes a themed dinner (and late night Pirate buffet), a deck party and pirate show, and fireworks on deck to cap off the event. Many families bring their own pirate gear to dress up for the party, so keep that in mind when you’re planning for your cruise. You might even opt to treat your kids to a stop at the Disney Wonder’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique before the big party — They’ll be dressing kids as pirates for the big occasion.
Spectacular live stage shows are a big part of your Disney cruise experience — The high-tech Walt Disney Theatre is the place to go for Broadway-style performances and 3-D movies. Live shows and screenings take place two times every evening and the show schedule will be included in your Personal Navigator newsletter. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase at the theater, but to save money, bring snacks and drinks with you from other parts of the ship — They are allowed inside!
The Buena Vista Theatre offers showings throughout the day and evening of some of Disney’s most popular new releases. The late-night movie was a favorite with my girls on our cruise.
Character greetings and photo ops are plentiful on the Disney Wonder. Your daily newsletter will have scheduled appearances for each day of your cruise.
You’ll find three swimming pools aboard the Disney Wonder, two for families and one for adults only , as well as an Aqua Lab play area, an elaborate water slide, and Dory’s Reef, designed especially for toddlers. Poolside games and activities are scheduled throughout the day and the big screen over the Goofy Pool shows movies and cartoons all day long.
The Wide World of Sports deck has ping pong tables, basketball courts, soccer nets, shuffleboard, and a running track, as well as panoramic views of the ocean.
Since my daughter never wanted to be away from her 20-something sisters, we spent several evenings at the D Lounge, a family friendly lounge with nightly Karaoke performances. I’d show you the video of our rendition of “Part of Your World,” but my stepdaughters would probably kill me!
And for an adults-only experience while the kids are otherwise engaged, there are six adults-only bars and lounges onboard the Disney Wonder, including the Crown & Fin Pub.
As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about a Disney cruise in the Caribbean is its immaculate private island, Castaway Cay. A month before we took our Disney cruise, we went on a ten-day cruise to five different Caribbean islands. I can tell you without hesitation that when it comes to spending a day relaxing on the beach, Castaway Cay was far and away the best experience of them all.
For me, the privacy was key. On other islands, there were constant warnings about crime and theft and shady street vendors. On Castaway Cay, the only people on the island are cast members and your fellow cruise passengers- so you only need to be as careful with your belongings as you would be aboard the ship in a public area. When you’re in a Caribbean paradise, this aspect is incredibly relaxing.
Food on the island is buffet-style, plentiful, and included in the cost of your cruise fare. Don’t wait until the end of the day to eat, though — The food is cleared away well before it’s time to go back to the boat. There are also four bars on the island featuring beachy frozen drinks.
Typically, we’d schedule a shore excursion for an island stop on a cruise — but while shore excursions are available on Castaway Cay and would be great for those of you on Disney cruises that stop on Castaway Cay for more than one day, I was told by multiple people that there was plenty to do on the island without scheduling any extra activities. They were right.
It’s a short walk from the ship to Castaway Cay’s family beach, where we spent most of our day. This is the ‘most crowded’ beach on the island, but it’s vast and there’s PLENTY of sand and water. With ample seating and space, we didn’t find it crowded at all. We went in February and the water was bracing, but not too cold for swimming and snorkeling.
My absolute favorite thing about Castaway Cay was the snorkeling. We rented gear (snorkeling vests and swim vests are free) and spent much of our day snorkeling in the vast expanse of water. Disney has netted off a large area so that snorkelers can swim all over the place without worrying about sharks. Lifeguards also keep watch over the area. You’ll see lots of interesting fish and sea creatures — My stepdaughter even swam alongside a loggerhead sea turtle!
It is important to monitor your kids closely and make sure they don’t get too tired out while snorkeling — Although Disney requires snorkelers to wear vests, they are small inflatable snorkeling vests, designed more to make long term swimming easier and less to keep snorkelers afloat without doing any of the work themselves. While we were snorkeling, I watched the lifeguards rescue children from two different families who’d gone out too far and gotten too tired to make the 10 minute swim back to shore.
The good news is that you don’t have to swim far at all to see fun things — Disney has made the snorkeling very kid-friendly and put plenty of interesting underwater objects (which attract fish!) close to shore.
Just beyond the family beach, you’ll find Pelican Plunge, a fun water play area kids and adults can enjoy. Life vests are required here and kids need to be able to swim out to the floating platform in order to enjoy it.
There’s also a 2,400 square-foot water play area for kids called Spring-a-Leak, as well as a Teen Hideout designed especially for your teenagers. A shaded structure has table tennis, foosball, billiards, and basketball, while Sports Beach has beach volleyball and tetherball courts.
Adults ages 18 and up will want to take the island tram out to Serenity Bay, a secluded, adults-only beach with its own BBQ restaurant and open-air massage area.
For little ones, there’s Scuttle’s Cove, a play area supervised by Disney counselors where children can stay busy while you explore all the island has to offer.
In addition to snorkeling gear, you can also rent bikes on Castaway Cay, as well as kayaks, paddle boats, aqua trikes and floats. No need to reserve in advance — You can always make the decision on whether or not you want to rent once you get there.
You will have to plan shore excursions on Castaway Cay in advance and there are plenty to choose from, including snorkeling adventures, deep sea fishing, guided kayak tours, parasailing, watercraft and ski adventures and more.
Is a Disney Cruise right for your family?
I get this question all the time, and the answer totally depends on your family! A Disney cruise is very different from other cruise lines in that at its core, it’s really all about the kids. If you are looking for a magical family experience and you’re a big Disney fan, this is definitely the cruise for you. If you have small children, this is a fantastic cruise option. And I TOTALLY recommend taking at least a three-day cruise at the end of your Walt Disney World Resort vacation — It’s like the cherry on top of your ice cream sundae, and it’s a great way to try a cruise for the first time without having to commit to a longer cruise vacation.
Got questions? Leave them in the comments and I’m happy to answer them!
Thanks to Disney for inviting my family to the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration! Although we paid to attend the celebration, I did receive discounts and complimentary items from Disney and its sponsors.