There is a distinctly different feel to the last day at sea over the first. The passengers are no longer strangers but familiar faces. The ship has become a neighborhood of sorts.
We walked by the pool and saw Frank and Jen from Arizona; we'd sipped beers with them at a cafe in Lerici. Frank is a pilot, and he and Jen were on this sailing with their own two kids. Colin spotted Everett, a fellow five-year-old from Florida and the son of another couple we met while on the tender to Lerici. We've stopped to chat and waved to people we've met as we pass them on the decks for days now.
As for Cameron, he and I searched out Sam, the barrister at the ship's Cove Cafe (I spent a lot of time there, writing). Sam is from Australia, but sounds quite British. I had told him about Cameron, who loves to speak in his own "Australian accent" (thanks to the Geico commercial and his Australian art teacher at school). Sam asked me to bring him up so he could have a listen. Cameron couldn't wait to try out his accent's authenticity with Sam. Sam told him, "Cameron you sound more Australian than me!" Cameron beamed ... and then asked if there were any cruises that go to Australia.
These are the sweet and simple experiences of a cruise that have nothing to do with the itinerary, but more with your length of stay onboard. Ten days has afforded us a chance to get to know people a bit, as well as this ship.
Now instead of exploring the Magic, we were looking to savor our favorite parts -- breakfast on the balcony, swimming at the pools, grabbing chocolate chip cookies from Topsider's Buffet, playing basketball, staying up for the show, and then visiting the stuffed animals (or at least those we haven't bought) in Mickey's Mates shop on our way "home" to our stateroom.
As for our fellow passengers, they could partake in Final Jackpot Bingo to win $4,000 (which was packed when I passed by, perhaps because Disney ships have no casino), participate in or simply watch a guest talent show, take in a showing of "Pirates of the Caribbean" in the Walt Disney Theatre (an area of the ship we never had time to enjoy), or learn to make one of Disney's signature entrees at the Art of Entertaining shindig (part of the ship's food-oriented enrichment offerings). There was also a Character Brunch in Parrot Cay (offered on each sea day and based on your dining rotation). We signed up to attend and met lots of them -- Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Lilo, Stitch, and Chip and Dale, among them.
Cameron explains this quite well below from the kid's perspective. However, for parents I'll add a caveat: this event is not like the Character breakfasts (or lunches) at Disney World where the characters go from table to table for a hug, photo op and autograph. While you might be able to get some of these things during the ship's brunch, this is more mini-dance-party (while you're trying to eat I might add) than relaxed visit with the characters. Cameron and Colin still loved it, but I met another mother whose children were very disappointed that they couldn't get the autographs they expected.
We've actually managed to squeeze in almost all of what we had envisioned for this trip, with the exception of a few of those beers in the pub. So on this final night, Tim and I snuck down to Diversions (Disney's sports-themed pub in the adult-only Beat Street area) after packing. It was here that we discovered something we never expected to see on a Disney ship.
Diversions was hosting a Pub Night, billed to include skits from the entertainment staff. Okay, nothing unusual there -- that is until we arrived midway through the show and gazed up at the Monty Pythonish skit that included a guy dressed as a girl (actually a ballerina complete with tights, tutu and blond wig), a girl in a yellow trench coat flashing her bikini-clad body to a cue in the song they were all singing, just as the guy in the toga was spreading his arms wide to supposedly "bump" said bikini girl in the breasts. Since we came in late, I'm not exactly sure what the story line was, but the place was packed, and it was howl-out-loud funny.
This from Disney? And here I had once thought their nighttime (adults-only) entertainment lacked panache.
We've packed a lot of amazing places and fun activities into these last 11 days. And in the process, we've discovered that those folks who advised us to treat this journey as a European sampler were absolutely correct. Like a box of chocolates, you're tempted to try them all, and yet, as anyone who's ever devoured them all in one sitting, after more than a few they all start to taste the same -- and give you indigestion.
That's how we felt in Monaco, on our final stop, in this final port of our trip. We had overindulged on places, history, Roman ruins and beautiful vistas, to the point where we just couldn't digest one more piece of information on a place. All we wanted was to take the break we needed and just hang out in the park and cafe. Pacing has everything to do with savoring.
As Tim said to me when we were on our way home, "this trip was a unique experience, and one that I'll continue to feel the messages and impact from after we're home, in much the way a good movie leaves you thinking about it for some time afterwards."
Words of Advice
Which leads me to a few final thoughts and recommendations on cruising the Mediterranean with kids:
Arrive at least a day early if possible. Not only will this help immensely in re-adjusting your (and your children's) body clocks, but also because Barcelona has so much to offer. In fact, we wish we had two days to enjoy the city.
Pack books or activities that pertain to the itinerary to keep the kids engaged. Inquire about what types of material is available for kids related to the itinerary. As I mentioned, Disney's journals were a huge hit with all the kids (and parents). If your cruise line doesn't offer this, I've included a list of some of the books we read and/or were recommended by Cameron's school librarian.
Be open to the little-known shore tours! You never know what you might discover, whether it's a jeep ride through the Sardinian countryside or a gem of town like Lerici along the Ligourian Coast. These were the tours you heard people raving about more than the "all of Rome in a day" experience, which we barely survived.
If you cruise on Disney, be sure to incorporate the show schedule into your overall planning for the cruise. The first night you'll receive the show schedule for the entire voyage. We looked to see where The Golden Mickeys, Pirates in the Caribbean Deck Party, and When Mickey Dreams would be on the schedule and then adjusted shore tours and/or rest times accordingly so the kids would have enough energy to make these.
One caveat: Along with 90 percent of our fellow family passengers, we took our kids ashore with us in ports. But if we were to do it again, Tim and I would occasionally have left the boys in the childrens' program. That's especially true of places like Marseilles and Sardinia, which could have been perfect adult-only sightseeing days because we could take a three- to four-hour tour -- and yet not be gone too long from the kids. Even parents need a relaxing mini-break.
Suggestions for Disney (in addition to adding that zip line tour): Despite the detailed information on shore excursions on the website (i.e. you'll spend this many hours on a bus, climb this many stairs, have this much time on your own, walk this many miles, etc.), most people really don't read the fine print (or simply didn't see it). If shore excursion staffers had reminded folks when booking their tours about the various challenges on them, it could have alleviated the many unhappy tour-goers whose difficulties resulted in a poor experience. While we knew what we were in for each day, I realized not everyone is a geek like me and reads the fine print.
Less is more. We learned this the hard way. Try not to feel guilty about skipping something or just sitting in a park and missing a landmark. Trust me, you'll remember the park more. We sure did -- our interlude in Monaco's Saint Martin Garden, when the boys sat around dreaming of owning their own yachts some day, was more memorable than the umpteenth castle. So, too, was our shore tour to Lerici, when we abandoned the walking tour and simply headed to the beach for a swim.
Great tip from Tim on private guides: If you have a private guide, set expectations upfront (and do not think you're being rude). They know an incredible amount of interesting facts, all of which you'll forget (unless your wife is taking notes) if they're coming at you at 100 mph over a few hours. Tell the guide you want to understand the culture from their perspective, what they see as challenging etc. That way it will be more impactful and you'll understand the relationship between the history and current society.
Ultimately, despite a few jam-packed days, this trip brought history and language alive for us all, as well as expanded our ideas on how people live, especially for Cameron. And now we have our list of favorites to hopefully explore in depth on a future trip (Tim grabbed a few hotel brochures in Lerici, and we'd love to go back to Naples to see Sorrento and Capri as well). Plus, surprisingly, this trip has left us longing to reacquaint ourselves with American history, so that we know it as intimately as those we met in Italy and France. We won't try to do that all in a day though!
From Cameron's Journal
A 10-year-old's perspective (excerpted from Cameron's journal, with permission):