First, a little about our family. I am 38, my wife is 35, and our boys are 6, 4, and 3. I am a veteran of six cruises with four different cruise lines, and my wife has been on even more (she is not a details person and they occurred before we met, so I am not sure how many or on what lines). We have taken our last 4 cruises with at least one child, and on the past two (this one and our voyage on the Carnival Fascination this past September) all of our kids have been able to make full use of the kids' clubs. Also, know this about me -- I am not of fan of lines or waiting, so I try to search for and use as many tips, ticks, and hints as possible to avoid the lines onboard, and maximize the fun. On the Disney Dream, we experienced both success and failure with this.
We drove into Port Canaveral from the Atlanta area the day prior to embarkation and checked into the Country Inn and Suites (closest hotel to the port). We booked a family suite -- the kids loved that they each had their own bed and the big map of the world on the wall in their room. Also, the hotel had a nice pool area, with a children's pool with a mushroom, a nice sized hot tub with a waterfall, and big main pool with depths from 3 to 5 feet. The pool was heated, and the water temperature was a little on the cool side, but the boys and I were fine with it (it was a little too cold for my wife.) Also, the free breakfast in the morning was pretty good, with the Belgian waffles being the highlight. We spent the pre-cruise evening dining on the waterfront at Fishlips, and watched the Carnival Pride sail out of port - it was a very nice experience.
So Disney has you choose a port arrival time when you do your online check-in. I am not sure when this becomes available, but I completed it as soon as I booked the cruise (72 days out from sailing), and chose the first available time - 11am to 11:30am. We pulled into the port at 10:45am, and it was already bustling with activity. After dropping off our luggage with the porter, and parking the car, we quickly entered the terminal, and checked-in with no line. We were given a boarding number of 4, and were told that boarding would begin soon. We then took the opportunity to get a picture with Minnie Mouse in front of a model of the ship, and get the boys the bands required to check in and out of the kids club. By the time we had done this, our boarding number had already been called. We entered the mouse ears, get our picture taken again, and were then introduced to the ship. It was by far the quickest, easiest boarding that we have ever had!
We booked last minute (as a Christmas present to our children who had really enjoyed our last cruise) when I spotted what I thought was a pretty good deal for Disney. Our booking was two interior guarantee cabins (I don't like the idea of 5 people in one cabin), and we hit the jackpot as we were assigned cabins 9111 and 9611, which were midship connecting cabins. The magical portholes were pretty cool, and even my 3 year old would get really excited when he saw the pixie dust, to see which character would be stopping by for a brief visit (we saw Aladdin and Jasmine, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey, Donald and Goofy in a band, and a few other minor Disney characters). The cabins had plenty of storage, although one cabin has a closet with shelves, but the same closet in the other cabin did not have shelves - strange. The couches converted to beds, and since the main bed did not split into twins, we ask the steward to convert both couches, so that each child could have his own bed (none of us like to sleep with the 3 year old - he takes up more space than is humanly possible). Also, the TV had on demand Disney movies and shows (free of charge and a large selection), which was really nice to relax the kids before naps and bedtime. The only thing that I did not like about our cabins was that I had to duck down to get a shower (I am 6'5").
We really enjoyed Disney's rotational dining system, and our wait staff very nicely anticipated our dining preferences with the children. For example, on the first night (in the Royal Palace), our server got the children fed quickly, and they finished dessert as the adults finished the main course, so we took the kids to Oceaneers Club, and returned to a nice, leisurely dessert. On the second night in Animator's Palette, however, the children were served at the same pace as the adults, so they could enjoy the show. Our final night, our boys wanted to eat in the Oceaneers Club, so we enjoyed a nice, relaxing dinner in the Enchanted Garden. Overall, the Royal Palace had the best food (the tenderloin steak was very, very good), but the Animator's Palette stole the show (so to speak), with such an imaginative, interactive experience. It was definitely Disney Magic at its best. My wife thought it was great seeing all the Finding Nemo characters on screen, but was blown away when Crush actually started talking to people. My favorite moment was when Crush was asking our family a question, and my 3 year old started babbling nonsense loudly, and Crushed responded "Whoa! That little dude is totally speaking dolphin!" - we were in hysterics. As for breakfast and lunch, Flo's V-8 Cafe was quick and pretty good - the panini's were the best offering, in my opinion. Cabana's was good for a buffet at lunch, but tended to be really crowded at breakfast (we should have gone to Enchanted Garden for a smaller buffet). We really enjoyed our lunch at Serenity Bay on Castaway Cay - good selection of burger, dogs, brats, chicken, ribs,and rib eye steaks. The only bad meal was debarkation breakfast (I am not a fan of sit down breakfasts on cruise ships, but it was very efficient - the food just wasn't very good.) The best buffet item that I had was definitely the jelly filled doughnuts at breakfast - better than Krispy Kreme's. One last thing about dining - our server was spot on with his meal suggestions, and our head server spotted us as we walked in the dining room on our second night and knew what table we were without even asking. As for our assistant server, his English was very limited, so we found it best to keep our requests simple.
One of the main attractions for the Dream is the Aquaduck, the only water coaster at sea. It is 6 year olds dream, and he wanted to get as many rides in as he could. Our strategy to accomplish this was to carry on our swimwear, eat quickly at the buffet, change in the bathroom, and get in line. We did this, and had a wait of about 5 minutes on our first ride (which was great by the way - a few thrills, but not scary). We got back in line and waited 25 minutes to ride again. After that ride, the waited looked to be about 45 minutes, so we headed for the pool. We figured that we would have the run of the ship the next day (we were not getting of to go into Nassau), and could ride as much as we wanted. It seems that a lot of other people had the same idea, as the next morning the pools were very crowded, and the line for the Aquaduck started at about 25 minutes and just looked to get longer. We thought we could do some riding that night, but the ride shut down early for the fireworks. So, I decided that we would come back early the next day from Castaway Cay to get our Aquaduck fix. Again, everyone on board seemed to have the same idea, and there was a 30+ minute wait for the ride. Distraught and defeated, I devised a last ditch plan - we rushed to get the kids from the club after dinner the last night - quickly changed into our bathing suits, and went up to the pool deck where we found - not a single person in line for the Aquaduck!!!! Success!!!! We rode 5 or 6 times in a row, hurried back to our room, and quickly changed and got ready for the show. I love it when a plan comes together. My 6 year old was very happy -- the 4 year old, however, after two months of talking about the ride, would not go on it. He did, however ride the Mickey slide a bunch of times, and loved the family hot tubs. And the 3 year old absolutely loved Nemo's Reef - we couldn't get him out of there. He and the 4 year old slid down the little slide in there about 100 times, and cried the night we went to ride the Aquaduck because it was closed. The Mickey and Donald pools tended to be really crowded when we were there. I glanced at the Quiet Cove pool, and it didn't seemed to be crowded. On the last afternoon, I inadvertently started a cannonball competition among the kids in the Donald pool, simply by telling one kid that his cannonballs was really good, and daring him to splash me in the face. Next thing I know, there are upwards of 8 kids jumping in the pool, which was not good because it was very crowded. A similar thing happened on our last cruise, as my brother and I led a group of 20+ kids doing cannonballs in the pool at the same time -- I have to stop encouraging these kids!
As far as non-water family activities went, we enjoyed the Goofy golf (very nice theme), and playing foosball on the Sports Deck. My 6 year old and I solved two mysteries playing the Midship Detective Agency, which was both great exercise (you had to find the enchanted artwork scattered about the ship), and a great interactive experience. You search for clues, and have to use deductive reasoning to solve the crime, and then apprehend the thief. It was another great piece of Disney magic. My kids also played shuffleboard on the Promenade Deck (I also enjoyed a nice, peaceful, breezy early morning jog on this deck -- it was a great way to exercise).
In contrast to the crowded family activities we encountered, the adult activities that we did were not very well attended. My wife and I played a couple trivia games, and watched the Match Your Mate game show. All of these activities took place in The District, the adults only area of the ship, which contained a lounge with live music, a few themed bars (Sports Pub, champagne bar, and a martini bar featuring an ever changing skyline), as well as a nightclub.
Here is another area where Disney shines. We saw 3 production shows, which were by far the best we have ever seen on a cruise. It was very easy to see that a lot of money went into the productions, with great costumes, special effects, and a large cast including many of your favorite Disney characters. My favorite of the 3 was Villains Tonight, featuring Hades trying to maintain his position as lord of the Underworld. It was a comedy, and I laughed out loud many times. My wife and kids' favorite was Believe, which is more of a traditional Disney story about a father connecting with his daughter through magic. The lead actors in both productions were very talented. The running times were a bit long for the 3 year old, so we took him to Oceaneer's club when his attention span waned (though he loved the singing and dancing).
We also loved the Buccaneer Blast Fireworks show featuring Captain Jack Sparrow repelling down the funnel and battling a group of rogue pirates. My wife thought the fireworks were amazing. Not as strong was the pirate adventure featuring Mickey battling Captain Hook, or the sailaway show featuring Mickey and friends.
My children really enjoyed their time in the clubs. The older ones loved the Super Sloppy Science activity with Professor Make-a-Mess, where they did things like make Flubber, make snow in the Bahamas, and see what happens when you drop 11 Mentos into a bottle full of Coke. The 3 year old was enamored with Andy's Room, a replica of the Toy Story movie. They also loved playing on the Magic playfloor, and playing the various video games in the Oceaneer's Lab. There were 70 youth counselors onboard, so we felt that they were well equipped to take care of our children. I would look at the count of children every time I signed the kids out, and at any one time, there were between 130 to 240 kids in between both areas, and it never looked too crowded or overrun. I did have to remind my boys to tell the counselors if there was an activity that they wanted to do, as they can get distracted easily. Only one time did we have to wait more than 5 minutes to sign the kids in or out, and they had a pretty good system with tracking bracelets, and secret words to keep the kids safe. I was a bit worried heading in that my 3 year old would get lost in the shuffle since the area was open to 3-12 year olds (and not the break down as it is on other cruise lines), but the counselors did a good job of engaging and looking after the little ones.
Another thing I wanted to mention was the lack of teenagers lurking about the boat. We were exploring the ship the first day and found their club (Vibe), and it was definitely a nice place to hang out. It was an indoor/outdoor space with their own pool and hot tubs, a basketball hoop, smoothie bar, large video screen, and porthole seats with an ipod hookup. The last night of the cruise my wife saw a group of six teenage boys, and noted that it was the first time all cruise she noticed any teenagers.
We didn't get off the ship in Nassau, as we had a bad experience with our 4 year old on our last trip there (we tried to go to the Pirates Museum, but he got scared and took off at full speed the other through traffic into the heart of Nassau).
Castaway Cay was a very nice island, and I especially liked the fact that they maintained the children's club on the island at Scuttles Cove. This let my wife and I have a nice, peaceful lunch, and time to enjoy Serenity Bay, the adults only area. Also, we enjoyed riding the waterslides at Pelican Plunge, and seeing all of the fish right around you in the clear water. There was also an area with water sprayers called Spring-a-Leak which my kids liked. There was so much to do on the island that you would need a few days to do it all. Also, we did our one character interaction (they always seemed to have lines) with Mr. Smee and Captain Hook, who is the 3 year old's favorite. Overall, the island was not as nice looking as Half Moon Cay (which is the most beautiful place that I have ever seen), but it was definitely a fun day.
We chose to carry our own luggage off (we didn't have that much), and Disney has open disembarkation, so 10 minutes after they announced the ship was clear, we walked off, went straight through customs without waiting, and directly to our car. We were on the road by 7:30am (we had school and work the next day, so my wife wanted an early start). It was amazingly easy, and not one single line.
Odds and Ends
Places we didn't explore (not enough time or lack of interest): Gym, Spa, Buena Vista Theater, Cove Cafe, Quiet Cove Pool, Outlook
Biggest Surprise: The amount of Cast Members who spoke English and were from the United States. One of our cruise pet peeves is crew members who just can't understand you being in customer service positions. This was definitely not the case on the Dream.
Biggest Disappointment: How crowded a lot of spaces were - breakfast and the pools, especially. I could not imagine what a sea day would be like on the Dream.
Service: I was pleased with the level of service we received - we are pretty easy people to please, and don't require pampering. I think it also helps when you know what to expect. I saw some unhappy cruisers, but it was mostly because their level of expectation was beyond absurd.
Differences Between other Lines: This mainly applies the last cruise we took on the Carnival Fascination -- I liked that we did not have to check out clubs and balls to play mini golf, or check out towels for the pool, or take towels from our room to the private island. Also, I liked the soda stations on the pool deck, and that it was included in the price. The one thing I though would make a difference but didn't was the ability to bring your own alcohol onboard. I brought a bottle of vodka with me, but only had 5 or 6 drinks from it.
Overall Impression: We had a great time, but not sure if we would cruise with Disney again. It was an overall better experience than our last cruise, but I don't thing that the overall value is there (we are not Disneyholics). We will however, be taking a 7 day cruise (next up for us is the Carnival Dream in September). 3 days is way too short for a cruise.