Our cast of characters: me, DH, DD who turned 9 months while we were on the cruise. Hopefully this will help someone out who's going on a cruise with an infant for the first time...or just going on a Disney cruise for the first time! We were in both categories for this trip!
A few months ago, I decided I wanted a vacation, specifically a cruise vacation to someplace warm. The only other cruise I've been on was with Royal Caribbean in the Mediterranean about six years ago, so I kind of figured we'd go Royal Caribbean again. They have a new ship that sounded awesome: Oasis of the Seas.
Just for a laugh, I thought I'd research how much more a cruise on a Disney ship would be. Disney also has two new ships: the Dream and the Fantasy. To my surprise, all told, the Disney cruise wasn't really that much more expensive than Royal Caribbean. Since we never use the casino, that wasn't a big loss, and there were some extra amenities on the Disney ship that would make travel with a 9-month-old a little easier (a great nursery, larger staterooms that would help accommodate a pack-n-play, bathtubs in the rooms to make bathing our princess much easier).
DH agreed, and we booked a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean on the Disney Fantasy, which is not even a year old. We went the first week in December, so we got the relatively new itinerary with San Juan, Puerto Rico as one of the ports of call.
We flew in the day the cruise left rather than spend an extra night in a hotel. Thoughts of dragging our tremendous amounts of luggage, and our daughter, from the airport to a hotel, then pack everything back up to drag it all back to the airport does not appeal to me. Disney's transportation option from the airport to the cruise terminal in Port Canaveral seemed like the easy option: we wouldn't have to lug our baggage around once we arrived in Orlando or worry with a one-way rental car or a car seat.
After snaking through a long line to check-in for the transportation, we then ended up waiting over half an hour to get on a bus to take us to the port. About the time we were waiting to load the bus we thought the rental car might have been a better idea. However, once we arrived at the cruise terminal, we didn't have to wait at all in any lines because we had checked-in for the cruise at the airport before getting on the bus. If we do this again, I'd be willing to shell out the money for Disney transportation just because we didn't have to deal with all of our luggage. Of course, the more kids in your party, the more expensive the Disney shuttle gets, so a one-way rental car may end up being cheaper in that case.
The ship is fabulous! I think much of it has to be because it's so new, but everything is clean and bright and beautiful. We were so happy with our stateroom. What a great idea to divide the bathrooms up into a shower/tub/sink room and a toilet/sink room!
Before we had our daughter, we would got a cheaper inside stateroom and would have always done that. We're the kind of people who spend all our waking moments out and about, enjoying the views and the activities. Now that we have a 9-month-old, I can say that having a room with a veranda was the way to go. Not only did DD enjoy being out on the veranda (always with our supervision, of course), but we also enjoyed having the view and outdoor space since we spent much more time in the stateroom with our child than we would have otherwise (naps, nursing, taking longer for everybody to get ready in the morning or before dinner).
Guests are free to smoke on their verandas and whether you have a smoker near your stateroom is luck (or unluck) of the draw. Our neighbors were apparently chain smokers and there were very few times when we went outside that they weren't also out there smoking. However, we knew we were taking this chance when we booked a room with a veranda, and there were still several times that DD could go out and crawl around on the veranda without the smoke.
Disney provided a pack-n-play, a diaper genie, and distilled water for DD's bottles. There is so much storage space in the stateroom on this ship! We were so surprised. Even with a 9-month-old, we didn't use every drawer. I can see how there would easily be enough space for storage in this room even with two or three kiddos. It definitely helps that the bed is high enough to store luggage, snorkel gear, or any other bigger items you might have.
I read so many people's criticisms of the food on Disney ships, including the Fantasy, that I really lowered my expectations before we left on this cruise. I love to cook and am often disappointed in restaurant food anyway, so I figured as long as it was edible and I didn't have to cook it or clean it up I was going to be extremely grateful.
The food was fabulous! It helped that we had a head server who really told us the best things to order for each course. One night, one of our tablemates ordered an appetizer and he told her he wouldn't order that and offered her another suggestion. Every time I asked him which entree I should get, I was very pleased it. Even the lunch buffet at Cabanas had at least one really tasty selection every day.
Another thing I heard about the dining on the Fantasy was that dinner takes forever. While it is longer than we usually spend eating, it definitely wouldn't have made us late to any of the evening shows. We had main seating, which worked so well with a 9-month-old! We usually made it to dinner a bit after 5:45 and were done by 7:15 or 7:30. Our DD takes a bottle before she eats her baby food, so I would feed her the bottle while looking over the menu and ordering. Sometimes DH and I had to take turns eating our appetizers while giving her the bottle. Then for the rest of the meal, she would sit in her high chair and eat with us.
The first night at dinner, our server had the kitchen puree veggies for DD and asked if we'd like him to do that every night. We took him up on it, although some nights DD like the puree better than other nights. (You could have them puree anything you want from the menu.) I brought along baby food that I knew she'd eat, so there was always a back-up. They provide a lot of puree, so I brought some take-n-toss containers to keep the leftovers in and use for lunch the following day.
We had the best tablemates ever! It was our little family and another family of three whose little girl was a few months older than our DD. They actually were in a stateroom just a few doors down from us! We got along so well that our conversation and feeding the girls is probably what made dinner seem to pass at a good pace.
DD is not as good away from us in the evening, so almost every evening she just ate dinner with us and was fine either taking her bottle or sitting/eating in her high chair. Both the girls at the table seemed to be ready to go about the same time, but it was usually just about the time we were finishing up dessert anyway.
Eating with her at the buffets for lunch worked out well as long as DH and I just took turns getting our food, eating, and feeding DD. We mostly utilized the "It's a Small World Nursery" during the day. On sea days, DD went to the nursery as soon as it opened for a few hours so most of our breakfasts were just us two adults unless DH got ready early and brought up a plate of food for us to eat in the stateroom while we got ready. Both ways, it all worked out nicely.
One morning we ate at the Royal Court, which I do not recommend if you have young kids. It seemed that all the hot food was taking forever to get out to the tables. It took way longer to eat breakfast than we would have liked. The coconut muffins they have for breakfast there are amazing, but I would skip the pancakes/waffles/French toast. A couple times we ate at the Enchanted Garden buffet, which is much less crowded than going up to Cabanas for breakfast. The buffets are adequate, and you can find good things to eat.
We got reservations the last evening of the cruise for dinner at Palo. The nursery workers really do a great job at not interrupting you if they know you're eating at Palo or Remy. When we went to pick DD up after dinner, we were pleasantly surprised that, although she hadn't eaten anything, they were able to get her to sleep. They even looked to see if there was room for her to stay longer since she was sleeping, but it turned out they were booked the rest of the evening.
Back to Palo. The food is amazing. As I said before, I really thought almost all the food on the cruise was fantastic, so this was just a notch above. We didn't have a choice when I booked our reservations, but I would not recommend leaving Palo (or Remy) for the last evening. By the end of the week, we were both kind of full and just tired of eating. Even though our meal was great, I did not finish anything. We also kind of missed our last evening eating with our tablemates since we really had made friends with them by then. I think night 2 or 3 would be ideal for dinner at Palo.
ST THOMAS/ST JOHN:
My DH is the kind of guy who refuses to pay for an excursion. It's kind of a game to him to figure out how we can do things on our own for cheaper. Since we've traveled plenty, I have confidence in him by now! Plus, the excursion options if you want to take your infant with you are pretty limited.
I think I mentioned this earlier, but we did not bring a car seat with us. Honestly, most of the taxis readily available in St. Thomas and St. John do not even have the means to attach a car seat in them. San Juan has regular car/minivan taxis, so if you wanted to haul a car seat with you, I'm sure some drivers would wait for you to install it for your taxi ride. We just put DD in an Ergo carrier when we were on the buses/open air taxis/taxis...and prayed for her safety. It was all fine.
On the advice of my parents and some friends, we decided to spend our St. Thomas day on St. John. I wanted to go to the beach (DD's first beach experience!), and DH figured out how to make it happen. Trunk Bay on St. John is the most popular beach, so it could be crowded, however it is also the beach with bathroom and shower facilities, a food stand, and umbrellas for rent. We thought all those amenities might be helpful with a 9-month-old.
We were some of the first off the ship. Somehow we made our way off with a group of people who were all lining up along the pier (we assumed to get through the customs officials). Then DH noticed Disney cast members taking papers from everybody in line ahead of us. We pulled another cast member over to ask what we were in line for: the champagne catamaran tour. Um. Yeah, guess that's not one of the excursions we're allowed on with a 9-month-old!
So, that only set us back a few minutes. The taxis are all right there by the dock, and lots of people are generally going to the Red Hook ferry to go to St. John, so we hardly waited at all before our full taxi was headed to the ferry. I think since DD was in a carrier the entire time, none of the taxi drivers charged us anything for her ride. The ferry over to St. John and back does require a ticket for everyone, but I'm pretty sure DD's ticket was a reduced price.
I'm not sure how long the ferry ride is since DD spent the entire trip screaming her head off...I think she had gotten sunscreen in her little eyes. Anyway, the screaming made it seem about eight hours, but I'm pretty sure it's closer to 25 or 30 minutes.
Once in St. John, the taxis are, again, right there by the dock. So, you just ask for a taxi going to Trunk Bay. We were lucky to be the last to fill our taxi, so we didn't have to wait at all. The taxi drivers will stop at an overlook of Trunk Bay for a photo op. The ride is probably 20 minutes.
Getting off the ship early was not a problem for us since DD wakes up so early, and really it wasn't crowded at all when we got to Trunk Bay! We stayed from about 10 to 2, took turns doing some snorkeling, had fun watching DD play in the sand, got some food at the food stand (I brought a bottle and baby food in our bag for DD), played some more, then rinsed off and got a taxi in the parking lot back to the ferry. DD took several naps during our cruise up on DH's shoulders! It's so funny how she just slumps over and can sleep up there for half an hour! This happened while we walked up and down the beach at Trunk Bay.
Unfortunately, our taxi driver must have thought we were leaving with some Holland America excursion group or something and took us to a ferry dock that was going back to a different place on St. Thomas. Just be sure you specify you need a ferry going back to Red Hook. Even though we got dropped off at the wrong dock, we only had to walk 5 minutes down the road to get to the correct ferry.
St. John is absolutely beautiful, and we had a really fun time at Trunk Bay, so I don't feel any regret about missing St. Thomas. And to sum up the transportation: taxi to Red Hook ferry, ferry ride, taxi to Trunk Bay, then back again. It does take time to do the transportation, but you also get to see some beautiful scenery. I say do it if you can enjoy the ride!
Since we did the beach in St. John and knew we were going to do the beach again on Castaway Cay, we decided to spend our day in Puerto Rico in El Yunque, the rainforest. We rented a car from Charlie Car Rental, which worked out pretty well even though we couldn't get them to come pick us up at the port like they had promised. When we called in the morning, they asked at which pier we were docked. We didn't know, so told them we'd find out and call back, but when we tried to call back (repeatedly for 20 minutes) no one answered the phone! We had the address for Charlie's and ended up taking a taxi to their office. This must be a somewhat regular occurrence because they reimbursed us for our taxi with no problem. They had car seats available for the rental cars, so that was a plus. We rented a small SUV (a Jeep), and having the back area was great for diaper changes and letting DD crawl around a little bit.
It's about a 45 minute drive to El Yunque from San Juan, and the rainforest is beautiful!!! We made a few scenic stops (Yokahu Tower and La Coca Falls) and went on one hike (Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls). The U.S. National Forest website has info on all the hiking trails in El Yunque. Appropriately for a rain forest, it rained while we were on Big Tree Trail, so it's a good idea to bring a rain coat if you're planning to hike around in El Yunque. DD was strapped into her Ergo carrier, which has a little sun shade/rain cover that snaps over her. She stayed dry and got a nice nap on the way back to the parking lot from the falls. A bit further up the road from the Big Tree Trail trailhead is a little restaurant called Yuquiyu that has great hamburgers, quesadillas, and several authentic Puerto Rican items on the menu. I believe there's an ad for Yuquiyu in the Big Tree Trail parking lot. We stopped there for lunch and had some nice conversations with other visitors while eating on their covered patio.
Originally we thought we might stop at Luquillo Beach on the way back, but we were all tired after getting in and out of the car and hiking a little bit in the rain, so we just headed back to the rental car place. They took us back to the pier right where the ship was, which is probably less than a ten-minute drive.
Renting a car is also great if you happen to need anything from a Walgreens or Walmart (especially with kids, you never know what you may run out of or lose by mid-week of the cruise). A GPS would come in handy if you're looking for a specific store. We made a quick Walgreens stop on our way to El Yunque because we happened to notice one on the road we were traveling. I really loved the beauty of El Yunque, but I know there is so much to do and see in San Juan as well. Puerto Rico is definitely a place where we could vacation for a week; maybe someday we will!
We didn't want to leave DD in the nursery all day, so we just put her in for a few hours in the morning. That gave us time to have some breakfast and then go to the adult beach on the island for a little while. It was hard to think of the last time I sat in a chair in the sun and did absolutely nothing! After we picked DD up from the nursery, DH and I took turns riding the Aquaduck several times since there was absolutely no one up there! Then we headed onto the island to have lunch at Cookie's. I actually thought the chicken and ribs were great!
There's a splash park on Castaway Cay, but I thought the water was a little cold, so after lunch we just headed to the family beach where we ran into our tablemates and spent an hour or so hanging out with them, watching our girls play in the sand. It was just enough sand, sun and water for DD before she reached her exhaustion point. She actually fell asleep on DH's shoulders on the way back to the ship and he just continued walking around the ship with her while I got cleaned up so she could just finish her nap.
HOW TO SEE A SHOW WITH AN INFANT:
Two of the sea days, the big evening show was performed an extra time during the afternoon at 3:00. This was fantastic for us! We never made it to an evening show, but we got to see those two afternoon shows ("Aladdin" and "Believe"). Disney sure has the best ship entertainment out there!
We took DD in because she loves music and dancing, and she did pretty well. We sat right near the front, but over to one of the sides where not many others were sitting. If she got too squirmy, I let her crawl around in the empty side aisle or one of us would walk up and down the side aisle or up to the back of the theater with her. I read that some people would take their infants and let them fall asleep during the shows, or take a nursing cover to nurse them if it was time for that. Unfortunately, our DD is too squirmy to stay under a nursing cover anymore and has an extremely hard time falling asleep if anything more exciting is going on. If you get to the theater five or ten minutes late, that is actually right about when the show will start and it seems like they'll let you in the theater at any time.
TO BRING (OR NOT TO BRING):
I read some helpful tips on these boards and others before we left. Someone mentioned bringing little Ziploc bags of candy to give to the people who work in the kids clubs and guest services. We had a ton of leftover Halloween candy, so I brought a bunch of that and gave a bagful of it to the nursery workers every time we picked DD up from the nursery. They loved it! I imagine being stuck on the ship for so many months, with not much away time, they don't get much "outside" food...definitely not regular candy.
I brought one of those hanging shoe racks with about ten different compartments to hang in one of the closets. It was great for some of our clothes, DD's things, sunscreen, sunhats, etc. It really made use of the space well. I also brought along some clothespins , which came in handy a few times. We used them on the clotheslines in the bathroom, to pin things to the chairs on the verandah to dry quicker, and to keep the curtains closed completely since we all like it pitch dark when we sleep.
We brought all of our own diapers with us. There is a service you can order diapers and wipes from to have delivered directly to your stateroom: http://www.babiestravellite.com/ct01-diapers.html
I just brought a few large size flannel lap pads to use for a changing pad.
We did not bring a stroller. I think most strollers would actually fold up and fit under the bed in the staterooms, but then you also will want to put your luggage under there so whether everything would fit depends on how many bags you travel with! With just our DD, we did not ever have a need for a stroller. I read that you can borrow a stroller from Guest Services on port days. On the ship, with all the steps and other people moving around, I think it might be hard to maneuver a stroller. Most of the time, we just carried DD around the ship, and I don't really remember noticing many strollers. I saw a few umbrella strollers.
SHIPBOARD ACTIVITIES FOR INFANTS:
I didn't expect there to really be any shipboard activities suitable for infants, but leave it to Disney to think of something for everyone.
OK. Well, maybe the Diaper Dash they held on a couple of the sea days was more for the entertainment of mom and dad and other adults, but it was an activity only infants would be eligible for! The Diaper Dash is a crawling "race" held in the main lobby. DD was definitely the underdog the day we took part since the other babies who entered were like three to five months older than she was! She lost, but it was fun and all the babies who took part got a free Disney Cruise Line bib (free souvenir!). Plus, for the rest of the cruise we had random people coming up to talk to us because they had seen DD in the Diaper Dash!
Also, you can look in your navigator for the little Disney Kids dance party in the D Lounge that takes place some mornings. (I forget what the real name of it is.) DD was always already in the nursery when that went on, but if your child likes music and is available at that time I think it looks like a fun thing to go do.