A little background: I've been on 25+ cruises(Disney, Celebrity, RCI, Princess, Costa, Carnival, Big Red Boat, Cunard), my husband has been on 8 cruises, and our 4 year old daughter has been on 7 cruises. Our only other Disney cruise was the Magic out of NYC in June 2012.
Our cruise on the Fantasy, was absolutely fantastic! Let me say right off, I wasn't that impressed with the Magic. We paid top dollar, the ship was small (I don't like the small ships) and she was showing her age a bit. We booked the Fantasy while on the Magic and I knew I was going to love this ship!
We flew Newark to Orlando a week before the cruise and stayed at the Art of Animation (which was nothing fancy, but decent value for money)....We went to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and the Candlelight Processional, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, had breakfast with Jake (of the Neverland Pirates), and had breakfast at the Crystal Palace with Winnie the Pooh and friends. It was an absolutely fantastic week....and exhausting! We were looking forward to relaxing on the cruise.
We left Orlando Friday morning after breakfast and spent the day at Kennedy Space Center, which we thoroughly enjoyed. I had tried to get the "free" tickets from my NJ congressman but they never materialized. Instead we spent A LOT of money on admission, the extra tour of the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building), and some NASA souvenirs. We'll visit again but skip the extra tour since there was enough to do without it.
We checked into the Country Inn and Suites....hotel was fine and very convenient to the terminal. I had pre-booked parking but once we arrived at the terminal we decided to park there since it was close to our 10:30 check-in time. As it turned out, this was unnecessary since they do not let you in the cruise terminal 1 minute before 10:30! Check-in was extremely smooth. We were given boarding group #2. I had pre-registered my daughter online for the kid's club so we went to the counter to get her bracelet. While waiting to board my daughter had her picture taken with both Minnie and Mickey and we walked a bit around the terminal. At 11:30 we boarded the ship. Having your family announced as you step on the ship is one of the nice little Disney touches.
Immediately we went to guest services to book the Gingerbread House making class (limited availability) and to book the Princess Tea. At almost $300 for 1 adult and 1 child, I was undecided about booking the tea but decided to do it. I couldn't believe when I was told that it was only offered 1 time during a PORT day. Since we already had plans for the day, we passed on the tea. Stupid decision by Disney! A few minutes later we were up on deck 11 and my daughter was waiting for Nemo's Reef to open. This was the first cruise that she had worn her bathing suit to board (will ALWAYS do that!).
Once our stateroom was open we went to drop off our few carry-ons. Wow, our stateroom was wonderful!! We had a verandah - which after using it almost NEVER convinced me not to get one again. But what was so surprising was the space - it was a big room, split bathroom was not really a big point for us, but the storage - about 7-8 drawers, and 2 closets with lots of hangers...!! This stateroom put our same category Magic stateroom to shame!
We went up to Cabanas for lunch. Food was good. We then headed to the D Lounge where we met our group. I would highly recommend joining your cruise meet-up group as soon as one is formed. You'll likely get a lot of information there - especially for first time cruisers. I learned about the gingerbread house class through them and also about requesting a specific dining rotation. They also put together the FE exchange, a lot of meetings, some excursions, etc. It was very nice to meet the people I'd been interacting with for months before the cruise.
After that we went back to our stateroom and met our stateroom host, Leon, who had all (3) our suitcases delivered to us pretty quickly. We unpacked, I hung up our magnets on our door, and our FE (our first time participating). Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. We had first seating, which at 5:45 is really too early, but the second seating is just too late. On our previous Disney cruise we had a table to ourselves (on other cruises we rarely ate in the dining room). It's our vacation-family time and I'm not much of a "small" talker but I thought it would be nice for my daughter to have some other kids to talk to. It was a good decision. We were paired with a nice family who had a boy (8) and twin girls who were a month older than my daughter. The girls did become very good friends even sitting together at a couple of the shows.
Loved our assistant server. He anticipated what we needed and each night had our drinks waiting for us. The food ranged from not good to pretty good to the occasionally very good. I know food is subjective - my husband didn't think the food was good but most nights out of 3-4 courses, I was happy if 2 were good. On one occasion, I had 3 that were very good. Desserts rarely live up to my expectation on any cruise. I'm a chocolate lover and rarely is there any good chocolate dessert. There were a couple of nights that there was nothing that appealed to me so I had a Mickey bar - for the first time. I'm hooked. :-) I do like the trio option for desert - a little taste of a few different desserts.
The biggest issue I had in the dining room was the number of times our waiter brought up the "excellent" on the comment cards. Not once, not twice, but FOUR times. (Our waiter on the Magic brought it up as well.) He told us about it on the first night (Saturday). He brought it up on Wednesday to make sure that he was giving us "excellent" service/food and asking if there was anything he could change. He brought it up on Thursday to tell us that we would be getting the comment cards "tomorrow". And he brought it up on Friday to tell us how important that we rate everything "excellent". In all fairness he was a good waiter (had Indian food specially made for my husband one night, did magic tricks with the kids, etc.) but that was just such a turnoff.
The rest of my review by category:
DINING: In addition to my comments above...We skipped dinner one night and had room service, which was good. Chocolate chip cookies were definitely good. Cabanas had a very good choice of breakfast items. The made-to-order eggs/omelettes better than the ones sitting under the lights. Worst thing: bacon. I have never had anything so tasteless! We only ate lunch in Cabanas the day we boarded. Lots to choose from then as well. Loved the shrimp (crab okay). Mostly we skipped lunch or had a late afternoon soft ice cream (addictive!) - or ate in port. Overall I thought the food was good.
ENTERTAINMENT: The welcome aboard show is very lame - the characters were the highlight. I liked Aladdin and Believe, Wishes not so much. The farewell show was only saved by the woman ventriloquist and the characters. Frozen was shown in the Walt Disney Theater and we enjoyed that. (We found out the movies that would be shown on board from our FB group so didn't go see it before the cruise.) Overall the shows are good - I would not go so far to say they are Broadway quality (as some people do). I personally feel that I "have to see the shows" so I don't miss anything. :-) We did see Believe at a 3:00 p.m. matinee, which I loved having the flexibility of doing - the theater was packed.
Liked the couple in the atrium who provided music nightly. Saw Monsters University in the movie theater (on the night we went to the matinee of Believe) but did not have enough time to see any of the other movies.
KID'S CLUB: My daughter turned 3 on the Magic and would not go to the kid's club. On our next cruises 6 months later (NCL Epic, Carnival Breeze) and our cruise the this past June (NCL Breakaway) she went in those clubs and loved each of them. So I figured she would go on the Fantasy. She wouldn't. Supposedly the best kids club at sea and I can't get her in! Will try again in June 2015!
ON BOARD BOOKING: We did a dummy booking - with the intention of booking June 2015 on the Fantasy for my daughter's 6th birthday. Current itineraries are only out through April of 2015. I'm definitely going to re-think the verandah thing....
PORTS: I've done the Western Carib before and didn't enjoy the Mexican ports so much. This time I loved them. And what a nice change from the Eastern Carib!! I only booked one excursion and we winged the rest (I'm a planner so I never do that!). In Grand Cayman we got an island tour for the 3 of us (total $40) that went to the turtle farm (one of my daughter's favorites), Hell (brief stop), and 7 Mile Beach where we had an excellent lunch at Calico Jack's and spent some time on the beach. Our driver/guide was really good and informative.
In Costa Maya, we booked the Chacchoben Mayan Ruin tour with Native Choice. I NEVER book the overpriced and crowded ship's excursions but was really tempted in Costa Maya because we were only in port for 4 1/2 hours. My emails back and forth with Native Choice made me comfortable enough to go with them. It was an excellent choice and an excellent tour! We were 3 couples and 3 girls in a very comfortable van. The native guide was extremely knowledgeable. We arrived at the ruins ahead of the Disney buses and went to the farthest ruins starting in the back. We had the ruins all to ourselves. It was amazing. We made our way forward passing the throngs of people on the Disney tour. So glad we weren't part of that! (Our table mates DID go with Disney and paid A LOT for the 5 of them! We paid for $110 for the 3 of us, which was less than what they paid for just the 2 adults.) Oh...and one of the highlights for us was stopping at a stall at the side of the road where women were selling pineapples. Whole pineapples, juice, and pineapple slices and chili powder are available. We got the slices with the chili powder on the side. The pineapples were SO sweet and juicy and the combination of the sweet and the spicy from the chili powder caused a delicious explosion in my mouth!!
We realized we had little cash for Cozumel, so went to guest services to ask where the ATM was on the ship. There wasn't one! I have never been on a ship that didn't have an ATM. The cast member told us (incorrectly) where we could get US$ from an ATM. Off the ship, we walked and walked and walked to that ATM, which didn't dispense US$. We walked and walked and walked back....and saw a sign at Senior Frogs that said they had an ATM with US$....which was broken! However, next door near the post office, we did find one and several other people in line in need of US$. We got a taxi and headed to Paradise Beach. There was a $2 per adult fee to use their facilities (beach/pool) and adults needed to spend an additional $10 each on food/drinks. The beach was really nice and we had a great time. When it started to rain we headed to the bar area near the pool. Once the rain stopped we went into the pool. It was a huge pool (I loved the loungers in the water). After swimming for a while we decided to stay for lunch. I had the Mexican platter which was an assortment of Mexican food (some I did not recognize), which was delicious. Too soon it was time to head back to town. We were able to do a little shopping before getting back on the ship.
Castaway Cay was fun. We got off the ship as soon as we could. Beautiful Christmas tree was on the pier. Snapped a couple of photos with Donald Duck and a couple of family photos in front of Dumbo on the back of the ship. Boarded the tram to the family beach, Pelican Point. Got some loungers and headed down to the water. It wasn't very hot (mid 70's expected for the day) and the water was cold...! Beautiful, clear water with big fish swimming by. Best to just dive right in! We had a great time on the beach. BBQ lunch at Cookie's (or was it Cookie's Too?) was good. I love the day at Castaway Cay because for me it's "forced" relaxation!
I really enjoyed the Western Caribbean ports. The only disappointment was the amount of time we had in Grand Cayman (5 1/2 hours) and Costa Maya (4 1/2) hours. Oh...and I forgot about the nightmare experience of tendering in Grand Cayman!! It took us over an hour to get off the ship once they got the tour groups off. If you're pre-booking your own excursion, be sure to take that into account!
ACTIVITIES: There are enough activities for children on board IF your children participate. My daughter loved Nemo's Reef and the pools. As on our Magic cruise we spent a lot of time in line for photos with the princesses and characters. If you try to see most/all of them, it does interfere with the timings for other activities. (We never made the gingerbread house making class because we were on line for the princesses or somebody!) The activities for adults seemed to be mostly tastings (alcoholic with a fee). Of course, if I was sailing childless, I'd be fine to sit by the pool and read all day. :-)
CHARACTERS/PRINCESSES: There is ample opportunity to interact with the characters and princesses. They had the princess gathering 3 times during the week. You meet 4 princesses at one time. The lines for this get VERY long and the princesses were there for almost 2 hours the first time! I recommend getting on line at least 30 minutes early. For all the other characters, we usually got on line 15 minutes before the scheduled time. My daughter loved doing this... I purchased princess dresses from the Disney store's semi-annual sale - great deal and my daughter loved dressing up. I loved the different outfits the characters wore at different times - Christmasy sweaters, formal for formal nights (although I was disappointed that Mickey was dressed in his captain's uniform and not the tux he had on the Magic). We didn't have any issues with people getting nasty on line nor did we have any issues with the lines being cut-off before everyone got to see the character they wanted. The cast members were VERY good about this. If the timing was 11:00 for 15 minutes, they didn't cut the line off until 11:15. Several times the characters went over the allotted time. I do have a thing about those autograph books though...just don't get it. Takes so much time and then....my daughter saw everyone else doing it and after we got a journal as an FE gift, she was hooked. Ugh! I was now one of "those" parents with the kid with the stupid autograph book. :-)
FIRST TIME EXPERIENCES: FE: we loved participating in the Fish Extender gift exchange. My daughter loved coming back to our stateroom to see what was waiting for her. She even came all around the ship with me to distribute our gifts. A tip I'll remember for next trip is to save some gifts for the last couple of days. You get so much in the first few days that it was so nice to get some things towards the end of the cruise. Aquaduck: My daughter was tall enough to go but the cast member gave us such a hard time. He literally spent 5 minutes measuring her only to declare that she was too short. A piece of paper could not have fit between her and the bar. In the end, I went alone and really wasn't so impressed. It was quite claustrophobic and not something I'd do again. Pelican Plunge: Now THIS was cool! My daughter WAS tall enough to go. The cast member at the top was so nice and helpful to all the kids who went up with one parent. Parents went down first and he took care of sending the younger kids down. My daughter declared it "awesome" and wanted to do it again and again. Room Service: We were so tired one night - it can be difficult getting back from port and getting to dinner by 5:45 - that we decided to order room service. Service was prompt, food was good, and chocolate chip cookies were very good! Mickey Bars: How come I never had these before??
CROWDS: I'm sure the ship was completely booked. We never once had an issue getting a table at Cabanas or a seat in the theater. The lines for the characters and princesses did get long but we just allowed enough time to get to see them.
MISC: I specifically booked this vacation so that we would see all the Christmas decorations at the parks and on the ship. We were not disappointed! The tree lighting ceremony on the ship was nice and all the decorations were great. I would definitely recommend a cruise and/or a trip to WDW during the holiday season! On the Magic we left a large Vinylmation and a Winnie the Pooh plate at guest services for signatures. This time I left a photo mat that turned out really well. As usual we over packed. With the new relaxed dress code in the dining room, I'm going to pack a lot less next cruise! Disney knows how to do it. The cast members are all genuinely nice, the ship is beautiful, and there are just so many extra "Disney touches" that distinguish DCL from other cruise lines. Our cruise was really not that much more expensive than going on the Oasis/Allure or a similar ship.
DISEMBARKATION: Wonderful and so efficient! We were going to have something to eat at Cabanas but were cleared to disembark. We left the ship, got our luggage, went through immigration/customs, and were in our car by 8:30 a.m.! I'd definitely book an earlier flight home next time.