This was our first cruise with Disney, first cruise to the Caribbean, and our second cruise overall, traveling as a party of 10 with 4 adults, 2 grandparents, and 4 children, ages 3, 6, 9, and 12.
Embarkation day went okay, riding from Disney Saratoga Springs. It was just a bit busy and difficult to figure out the location of the boarding line versus character photo line.
We had cabin 8020, adjoining my sister's room 8018, which were identical, but opposite floor plans for an ocean view without balcony. We purposely chose a room without a balcony on the 8th floor with no immediate access to the outside of the ship, due to our son, who has autism. The only problem with the room was that there was no upper maid lock to the door, and therefore, our son, who is autistic, would repeatedly open the door partially, and I was afraid he would get his fingers injured in the hydraulic door. Our room was kept neat and tidy with the exact amount of toiletries that were needed. Every night, there were cute towel animals, and my son especially loved the monkey towel animal hanging from a hanger. Also, it was nice to be able to do our own laundry, BUT signs were in Spanish for the dryer, and it was confusing to figure out how to use them. I had to ask several times for assistance.
Overall deck floor plans were a little confusing at first. I don't recall having this issue when we were on the Holland America Zuiderdam. Cabins were quieter, though, and the ship waves were not felt as much as on our Holland America trip to Alaska.
Public areas and dining areas felt a lot more crowded than on the Zuiderdam with dining tables close together. We were "Table 34," and dining staff waiter was brand new, and our son needed a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. I think every night, there was a mistake made and service was slower than the other tables. For instance, out of 10 of us, dinner entrees would get mixed up, they'd forget to leave out onions as requested, and our son's dinner rolls, which were gluten free, would come later than everyone else's regular dinner rolls. Our Holland America trip was in 2006, and it was just my husband and I, but the wait staff was clearly more attentive on Holland; one would pull out the chair and another wait person would set a napkin on our laps, and help us scoot in; crumbs were swept away, and they would watch attentively from a short distance away. Disney had a good selection of food, but it seemed quite "Americanized," despite having sushi on the ship, with mostly salt-pepper seasoning. I think Holland America used more seasonings and stronger flavors.Disney, however, had much better decor that matched the Disney theme throughout the ship with the special magic of Disney in dining areas. Lines were long for the characters, but still faster than Disney World character lines, and Shutter photographers did a good job of capturing memories. On Holland America, there were a few 'characters,' which were generic.
Also, with regard to photos and an autistic child: Photographers would touch him to try to position him for photos, then would shout his name to have him look at the camera. But, the more they touched him and the more they shouted, the more he got scared and turned away. Not their fault, though. They tried really hard, and our son is 'impossible.' Still, we managed to have enough nice photos to buy a $149 photo book and 10 digital photos for an additional $149. The software that is used for photo books is not good. You can't zoom in closely enough to see faces; often one of us blinked in the photos and the zoom and clarity of the zoom were too poor to allow us to see if our eyes were closed. We just had to guess and hope that it came out right. There is also no editing function and no cropping function. It took several hours to do the photo book because of poor software.
The Oceaneer Club was a disappointment for our son. Being autistic, at first, he loved the lights on the Magic Play Floor at open house. But. they frequently turned them off for organized activity, and being autistic, he could not cope and did not understand why the lights could not be kept onto their original settings. The staff tried really hard to work with him, but he could not function and the nursery was already full because they give priority to past customers. In addition, they wanted him to wear an ID security armband, and he refused and freaked out, so I had to pin it to the back of his shirt. He was supposed to be fully potty trained to be at Oceaneer Club; he will go potty if you take him, but due to autism, he can't manage his clothing, etc.. My daughter, niece, and nephew enjoyed kids' club. My daughter, age 12, though, could also participate in The Edge club, but it didn't seem nearly as interested as the Oceaneer club.
Pools were naturally crowded, but the AquaDuck is one-of-a-kind and worth waiting in line. Our son was toilet trained well enough to not need the swim diaper, so he could go in the pool. I took him frequently to the potty and he was good about it. But, I really wonder how many little children can make it to the potty on time. Women's restroom lines were quite long with many women bringing in school-aged boys into the restroom adding to wait times in the women's room instead of sending their boys with their dad's to the men's room. They really need a 'small kids' restroom consisting of many little potties with open doors, unattractive for adult use, and made strictly for very young children to get to the potty on time. I would not be surprised if many little newly potty-trained kids were peeing in the pools. Diapered children can only use Nemo's Reef sprinklers, and I liked how older kids are simply not allowed in the area to keep things safe for the little ones. The Donald "family" pool really is not exactly safe for families with short people like myself. I think the water depth is at least 5 ft or 5 ft 3, so unless you are at least 5 ft 6, you can't stand up. This worries me because, while I can swim and tread water, it is so crowded, that it can be hard for people to get to the side of the pool to hold on. In addition, if someone gets tired of treading water or panics, I could get pulled under in theory.
Shows on Disney were superior to Holland America, as one would expect, and we saw "Maleficent," 'for free' in their theater. My daughter and niece loved going to the Character Animation time at the D-Lounge where they were shown how to draw Disney Characters. Pirate night was festive, and had the best entertainment; fireworks show was impressive, better than anything we'd seen on Holland America. It would have been better, though, to have this on a "Sea Day," instead of on an excursion day because we were all quite tired after having spent the day in St. Maarten.
Port Stops: St. Maarten was not so nice. It was so hot and had a bunch of tacky shops when you first walk off the ship, so although we had a shore excursion in the afternoon, we needed to find something to do in the morning. I highly suggest taking the $7 water taxi to Philpsburg, renting a $6 beach chair and just enjoying the calm beach in Philipsburg, which was picturesque. Just make sure you pay in cash. The men renting the beach chairs are deceptive and make you feel as though you can't step foot on the beach unless you 'buy' a spot with a chair. I don't know if the beaches are public or privately owned by the city or island. One man came and said, "For $6/person, you can each have a beach chair, and I will bring you 6 cold drinks, which could have included beer, which we don't drink." Our son didn't really need a chair; he didn't even use it, and remained in his stroller. My husband gave him $40, and we thought we'd get $16 change. The man said, "Don't worry. I'll take good care of you!" He came back with $6 change, and when questioned, he said, "Actually, the drinks cost $10 total." So, we were ripped off or deceived of the $10. But, with all we spent on the cruise, what's $10? And the people, by American standards, are so poor. Even the 'resort area,' at Orient Bay looked run down. All around, there were 'houses,' with boarded up windows, discarded furniture and appliances in the front yards, etc. We took the Afternoon Beach Bash tour excursion arranged through Disney to Orient Bay. It was a nice beach, but it was filled with scratchy seaweed that was irritating my daughter's skin. I actually preferred the Philipsburg beach that we did on our own. I didn't like being constantly approached by local women, asking us if we wanted our hair braided and/or massages, or to buy beach towels. My husband actually ended up buying a towel, though. I have to say that I think Hawaii beaches are much lovelier.
St. Thomas was much fancier than St. Maarten. I wish we'd stayed just a little longer there. Disney Port stops just aren't long enough. We did Coral World by Land and Sea. Typically, I would have much preferred snorkeling, but we needed an excursion that 'everyone' could do. My son, being 3, can't snorkel, and my parents are timid about the ocean. My son enjoyed the submarine ride, and it was one of the few things that made him smile. I liked seeing the free-range iguanas at Coral World, and enjoyed the humor of the submarine tour guide. The coral that we saw during the submarine ride appeared healthier than what we see in Hawaii, but if you are able-bodied and without a special needs child, other excursions would be much preferable.
Castaway Cay was fun,and again, I wish there was more time there. Snorkeling was not as good as Hawaii, or perhaps I didn't find the right snorkeling spot. Also, my mom and daughter said that there was something in the water that was stinging their skin, and we never have had that problem in the ocean in Hawaii. We rented floats and tubes, but we had to carry these heavy, bulky items to 'our' beach area.
I didn't see as much cleaning occurring on this cruise than on Holland, but the Disney staff meticulously gave us sanitation wipes for our hands at meal times and there were additional wipes at every food station. Just don't know why they are wasting wipes instead of squiring the liquid into our hands to avoid extra paper waste. There was even a sign in the bathrooms that advises us to use a clean paper towel to open the door when exiting the bathroom. I was concerned about Noro virus, and fortunately we did not get sick.
Disembarkation charges were a little confusing, divided into two charges to our credit cards, later to be noted as "Shipboard Charges from Celebration, Florida," which made it seem on our credit card statements that there was some fraud, and initially confusing. However, all charges were correct.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience to have all 10 of us, ranging from age 3 to 74, able to enjoy the trip together with varied activities. Staff was always friendly, Disney spirit surrounded us, truly a 'fantasy,' as the ship names implies.