Well, it finally happened! For many years, I had researched Disney Cruise Lines. I'd read about them, looked at itineraries, activities, staterooms and deck plans, but I would stop short of booking a sailing once I got to the pricing page. I just couldn't get myself to book a cruise on Disney and pay what I perceived to be over inflated fares for a product that I wasn't even sure I cared much for. But now, raising a young family and always looking for a new cruise line to sail on, the time to do a Disney cruise seemed right. I pulled the trigger and booked a 7 night Very Merrytime Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Disney Fantasy during Thanksgiving week.
I will digress a bit and start by stating that, even though we love to travel, and our 8 and 5 year old children have already visited 10 countries at such a young age, we had never been on ANY Disney vacation. I will admit it; we were not Disney enthusiasts. Our kids couldn't even tell the difference between a Disney cartoon or a PBS cartoon! But after some encouragement from friends who take multiple Disney vacations every year, we took our first vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando with them a month before sailing on the Disney Fantasy.
We had a fantastic time on that land vacation and it provided a much needed warm up for our upcoming cruise, but I quickly realized what Disney rookies we were when my son was asked by Disney staff at a pool game what his favorite Disney character was. He blankly stared at her, and then chose the Yeti from Expedition Everest which he had ridden on earlier that day.
We booked this cruise almost a year and half in advance, probably the earliest I've ever booked a cruise. Yet, I had my first taste of what a strong fan base this cruise line has when, even that far in advance, we had a hard time finding two connecting balcony staterooms and settled for the only ones available all the way aft on deck 7. Also, 1st seating dining was already full so we had to take 2nd seating. No matter how many times I checked, even after we boarded the ship and placed our name on a wait list, we weren't able to change it.
But the most painful thing about this pre planning process was realizing that, even booking this far in advance, the price was almost 2 times more expensive than our inaugural season sailing on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, 3 times more expensive than our Alaska cruise on Holland America's Westerdam, and 5 times more expensive than our last Caribbean cruise on the MSC Divina! Based on that, I set my expectations very high for this Disney cruise.
Originally, we were scheduled to sail to the Eastern Caribbean visiting Tortola, St Thomas and Castaway Cay. Unfortunately those islands were badly hurt by hurricanes Irma and Maria so we were switched to a western itinerary visiting Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Costa Maya and Castaway Cay.
THE DAY FINALLY ARRIVED!
After a torturously long year and a half wait, cruise day finally arrived for what would be my 30th cruise. We drove from our home in Atlanta to Port Canaveral the day before the cruise, but we decided to spend the night in Jacksonville, FL and drive the remaining 2 hours on the morning of the cruise. We spent the night at Hotel Indigo in Tapestry Park which was ranked #1 on Trip Advisor. Great hotel, with wonderful rooms in a terrific location, which provided a perfect place to spend the night.
During our online check-in, we were assigned a boarding time of 1:30-1:45pm. Even though some may have considered this late time slot less than desirable, this was ideal for us. In all of my years of cruising, I've always preferred to check in later for many reasons. First, we don't need to rush to be first in line or wait for our boarding number to be called. Second, check in lines have usually died down closer to sailaway time. Third, we prefer to eat lunch before getting on the ship, and fourth, because staterooms are ready by then so we can proceed straight to ours instead of wandering around the ship waiting.
This time was no exception. We arrived in Port Canaveral around 11am and had a very enjoyable and relaxing lunch at Grill's Restaurant overlooking the cruise ships. Shortly before 1:30pm we proceeded to our cruise terminal. Even though there are considerably cheaper parking options in the area, we always choose to park right at the terminal. We pre-paid online a few days prior to the cruise.
We entered the cruise terminal and found zero lines at the security checkpoint, followed by zero lines at the check in counter, followed by zero lines to board the ship! The entire process was so fast and efficient that it seemed like a blur. I didn't even have time to appreciate any of the little details that Disney is known for.
Before we knew it, our family name was announced as we entered the beautiful ship's atrium. I turned around and realized that my wife, who rarely shows any emotion about vacations, had tears in her eyes. Maybe there's something truly magical about a Disney cruise or maybe the effect of pixie dust is something real!
Disney did an absolutely fantastic job designing the Fantasy. Even though it's a 129,000 ton ship, and this was our first time sailing on this cruise line, we quickly learned our way around the ship. And even though we thought that being all the way aft would be a negative, we were close to the third bank of elevators which made getting to the kids club and the buffet restaurant a breeze.
Needless to say, the ship has Disney touches everywhere, but it's all done in a subtle and classic way. The Art Deco inspired decor makes the ship feel more like an upscale cruise ship or hotel than a Disney park.
It took us a few days to realize that we hadn't smelled cigarette smoke since the cruise began. And it dawned on us that the ship doesn't have a casino, which is normally where the worst smoke smells emanate from. Also, the smoking areas are very limited which helps maintain most of the ship blissfully smoke free. We just saw one smoking area near an outdoor bar in the adults area. Needless to say, we are not smokers or gamblers when we hadn't even noticed the casino's absence, but it's something that first time Disney cruisers (and smokers) should be aware of.
We booked 2 connecting deluxe verandah staterooms, one for my parents, and one for my family of 4, which included our 2 children aged 8 and 5 years old. These are the "smaller" balcony staterooms offered on this ship, but square footage was still larger than what we've experienced on other cruise lines for similar types of accommodations.
However, the layout felt tighter. Part of it may be because these staterooms have a split bathroom which may occupy more square footage, and also because the bed is closer to the door and closet disrupting flow as one enters the stateroom (I prefer to have the sitting are closer to the door and the bed closer to the balcony). Also the coffee table, which doubles as storage space, feels like a large block oddly placed in the middle of the sitting area.
Nonetheless, it was a fantastic stateroom, tastefully decorated and with plenty of storage space for our entire family on a 7 day cruise. As it's customary on most cruise lines we've sailed on, beds are raised enough to provide a place to store large suitcases. The split bathroom, with toilet in one side and shower in the other, may occupy more square footage but it was a welcome feature which came in handy more than once.
The provided wave phones which can be used all over the ship as well as on Castaway Cay were a nice touch although we never used them. The sliding balcony glass door was one of the best designed we've seen and it also minimized the possibility of locking oneself outside as we had experienced on other cruise lines in the past.
Needless to say, The TV system offered a lot of Disney content, including tons of free Disney movies. Non-Disney content was much more limited than what we've experienced on other cruise lines but thankfully we barely watch TV on vacation anyway. We did miss having the ability to do more things interactively from our stateroom, like making and changing reservations for shore excursions, specialty dining reservations, or simply checking and reviewing our onboard account as is now customary on other cruise lines like Royal Caribbean.
I don't know if the reason is because this was a Thanksgiving sailing, when most schools across the USA are on break, or because this is how Disney normally is, but this group of passengers was one of the most homogeneous and less diverse I've experienced on a cruise in years. Maybe great for some, but not so great for those who consider meeting people from other countries, cultures, or ethnicities a highlight and an integral part of cruising.
We also realized that many, if not most fellow passengers, were repeat Disney cruisers. It seemed that, every time that a staff member asked how many repeat Disney cruisers were onboard, majority of people would raise their hands and cheer. It always seemed that us Disney first timers were a very small minority. We also saw tons of passengers wearing their Castaway Club lanyards.
One thing that I always enjoy is watching other fellow passengers wearing shirts or hats identifying cruise lines that they've sailed on in the past. I can say that, on this particular sailing, I literally didn't see one during the entire week. The only cruise wear that I saw was for Disney Cruise Lines. I almost felt as if I was breaking some secret dress code by wearing my Princess Cruise Lines baseball cap.
Nonetheless, fellow passengers were in the most part a pleasure to sail with and the vast majority were courteous, polite, and happy. One negative that I saw was that it seems like Disney has a bad case of "chogs" (chair hogs). Even though there are clear signs everywhere reminding people not to reserve chairs with towels or personal items for extended periods of time, I saw a large amount of loungers already hogged as early as 6:30am which is when I would go for an early morning walk around the upper decks. Vastly more than I've ever soon on any other cruise line and in far more creative ways. So not even Disney's magic can make the chogs disappear on this cruise line!
One things is for sure. Disney cruisers are rabidly enthusiastic about the Disney product. I got my first taste of it walking down the hallway to my stateroom and seeing so many doors, not only decorated, but in such creative and painstaking ways, many with professionally made personalized items. A lot of thought and time probably went into many of these door decoration displays.
Although I have seen cabin decor before on other cruise lines, specially on Carnival, I have NEVER seen anything close to what I witnessed on Disney in terms of quantity and creativity. Our stateroom doors stood out because they were so bare. Amusingly, someone anonymously decorated our door with all sorts of Disney magnets on day two. A day or two later, we had even more personally made magnets wishing us a Happy Thanksgiving from another family onboard. It made us smile and brightened our cruise even more.
Our sailing was a Very Merrytime cruise, which meant that the ship was decorated for Christmas. We have sailed during the Christmas season before, but nothing that we've experienced has ever come close to what we saw on this Disney sailing. Decoration throughout the ship was absolutely beautiful and tasteful, specially in the atrium. The list of Christmas themed activities was extensive which allowed people to really immerse themselves in the Christmas spirit.
Participation in most Disney themed activities is very high. There are always long lines any time that there's a Disney character nearby. Even though having photos taken with any character was nowhere in our must do list, we ended posing with Mickey, Pluto and Stitch and our daughter participated in a Princess gathering.
Pirate Night seemed like the highlight of the cruise for most passengers. I was advised by our friends back home to bring pirate wear (which we didn't do, thinking that it would be silly and unnecessarily occupy space in our suitcases) but nothing could prepare me for, not only the fact that most people did bring pirate wear on this cruise, but also for how elaborate some of these costumes were. I saw several families in movie quality, custom made, matching outfits that looked like something straight out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It almost made me feel like a bad parent for not going out of my way for this night! Thankfully our children seemed perfectly happy to just wear the cruise line provided pirate bandanas and have a pirate Mickey painted on their cheeks.
I was obviously expecting plenty of Disney entertainment on this cruise, and I was not let down. Disney movies and character appearances dominated the daily activities with a sprinkling of other activities throughout the day.
However, what I wasn't quite prepared for is how limited non-Disney activities would be. Granted, most people sailing on Disney adore Disney themed entertainment, but for those who would prefer a more diverse selection of activities, the options were a bit slim. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed most activities onboard, but I would lie if I said that there weren't times when I just wanted something different.
On deck during the day, Disney movies on funnel vision (Disney's version of the outdoor big screen) dominated daily pool activities. No pool games or silly competitions that are the norm on other cruise lines.
The Aquaduck was a unique feature which we used almost on a daily basis. Lines did tend to get long, sometimes requiring a 45 minute wait, but we learned to go either very early in the day as soon as it opened or in the early evening when most people would retire to participate in other activities or to get ready for dinner.
Stage entertainment was a definite highlight on this cruise. The Walt Disney Theater is a wonderful venue rivaling some great theaters on land. Aladdin was fantastic and earned a standing ovation from the audience. We also enjoyed Believe on our last night onboard although not as much as Aladdin.
We also had the opportunity of watching the premiere of Pixar's newest movie Coco which opened on Thanksgiving day.
Disney uses the rotating dining room concept with an assigned table and time but at a different restaurant every night. You get to dine at each one of the 3 main dining rooms at least twice during a 7 night cruise. For us, Animator's Palate provided the most entertaining dining. We enjoyed Enchanted Forest and Royal Court as well. However, the consensus about the food was inconsistent. Some courses, specially at the beginning of the cruise, were memorable. Others were mediocre at best. One night (our 2nd night at Animator's Palate) was downright awful.
Although the rotating dining room is a great concept that breaks the monotony of eating at the same dining room every night, we sorely missed the flexibility that any time dining provides on other cruise lines. We hate having to eat at the same time and table every night. And having an 8:15pm dinner time absolutely sucked for our kids that normally eat closer to 6:00pm back home. They powered through it, but most nights ended with one or both kids either asleep at the table or having a melt down.
We enjoyed dinner at Palo, one of two specialty restaurants onboard, one night. We thoroughly enjoyed having an adults only dinner. The facilities where these two restaurants are located are very adult oriented and provide a quiet and enjoyable haven away from the high energy, kid friendly rest of the ship. The execution was wonderful, however the quality of the main courses fell short of expectations. I ordered the rack of lamb, and honestly it wasn't as good as the rack of lamb that I had at the Royal Court on a different night. We've enjoyed better quality and taste on Carnival's specialty restaurants. However we've learned that specialty restaurants are in big part about the ambiance, which Palo delivered extremely well.
One negative that soured the beginning of our time at Palo a bit was our waiter. Although he did a fantastic job, his introduction centered on how good Disney is because the other cruise lines aren't. He was aware that we were first time Disney cruisers, but I don't believe he knew that we are seasoned cruisers who've sailed on pretty much every other mainstream cruise line. On that particular day, there were two Freedom class Royal Caribbean ships in Port with us, and our waiter spent part of his introduction telling us how dirty those ships are and how inferior their product is (which in our experience, they are not). In my humble opinion, you don't uplift once cruise line by looking down at the others. It's tacky and unprofessional.
Cabana's is the buffet restaurant, and the experience here is at par with what we've experienced on other cruise lines. Nothing that would set them apart, either above or below. I personally prefer the "islands" layout where one can go from one station to the next without having to stand in long lines and which feels less cluttered, but overall, Cabana's was pleasant enough to enjoy a casual breakfast or lunch.
The free ice cream stations were great and offer more variety than what we've experienced before, but they are not open 24 hours a day like on Carnival. Probably a good thing, otherwise I would've indulged much more than I did.
Overall, this is where Disney truly shines and is leaps and bounds superior to what we've experienced before. We didn't come across one crew member who didn't smile or was eager to please. No matter what we asked for, we never heard the word "no". Instead, they would courteously and patiently tell us what they could do for us. Little details, like knowing our names and delivering our drinks of choice before asking at dinner time left a memorable and positive mark. Disney does an exemplary job training their employees.
We also had a maintenance issue with our stateroom's toilet, and they responded and solved the problem within 15 minutes of placing the call. Not only that, but the following day we had 4 Mickey shaped Rice Krispies bars delivered to our stateroom with a personalized note apologizing for the inconvenience. We were already beyond satisfied with the way the Disney had responded to our issue, but this token of their appreciation took their customer service to an even higher level.
The Oceaneer's Club and Lab are the kids areas on this ship. In a nutshell, they are fantastic. They are large, high tech areas, divided into different themed rooms with tons of activities for the kids. The check-in process is excellent. Kids are given magic bands which they wear the entire week. The kids location can then electronically be tracked. Staff could tell us exactly where in the kids club our kids were located.
But as wonderful as the facilities were, our kids surprisingly told us that they preferred the kids club on Royal Caribbean and most recently on MSC. Why? Because Disney keeps kids confined in the kids club most of the time. On other cruise lines, several activities are held on other venues around the ship which allows the kids to be escorted around and not feel so confined.
The other reason why my kids preferred other programs is because, on Disney, when they ate a meal at the club, they said that what was offered was horrible and repetitive (cheese sandwiches were common). On other cruise lines, the kids are taken to the buffet as a group where they can select what they want to eat. On MSC, they even have an entire section of the buffet decorated and devoted to children and that's where they are taken.
For some reason which still is beyond my understanding, my kids fell in love with MSC's mascot, Doremi, who also had his own theme song (which they kept singing over and over, even weeks after we returned from that cruise). But they didn't develop the same obsession for any character or song on Disney. Go figure.
As mentioned before, our Eastern Caribbean itinerary was swapped to a Western Caribbean itinerary due to the damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We had been in Cozumel and Costa Maya several times, but it had been years since I'd been to Grand Cayman by cruise ship, and obviously we'd never been to Castaway Cay.
- Cozumel: We'd booked a Dolphin Swim Adventure in Tortola directly from Dolphin Discovery months in advance. They offered a discount which brought the cost per person to only $59 (vs. $139 if we'd booked it directly through Disney's Port Adventures). Once our schedule was changed to Cozumel, Dolphin Discovery graciously changed our reservation and honored the original price.
Although we enjoyed this experience, it's not something that we will want to do again. After we finished, we returned to the Punta Langosta Pier where we checked out the stores for a few minutes before returning to the ship.
- Grand Cayman: This is the one Port that I had been looking forward to. The last time I'd been here on a cruise was before our kids were born. Although the ship made it there on our last visit, we had to anchor off Spots Bay, far from Georgetown due to high winds and choppy seas. That also meant that all water excursions were canceled. This time, we booked a 2:15pm Shipwreck & Reef excursion through Disney's Port Adventures and crossed our fingers.
We made it to Grand Cayman and anchored off Georgetown, but shortly after that, it started storming, and it wouldn't stop. We took an early tender to explore Georgetown before the excursion but ended at the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch to kill time and to take shelter from the heavy rain. Thankfully, the skies cleared and by the time the excursion began, we were blessed with a spectacular, clear skies afternoon. This excursion proved to be one of the highlights of this cruise. Exploring the Cali's shipwreck was fantastic. The water in the Caymans is one of the clearest I've ever seen. The reef was also wonderful, with tons of fish everywhere. Our excursion was over just in time to take the last tender back to the ship at 530pm. This is one island that I'd love to visit again with more time.
- Costa Maya: Our stop here was short, only 5 hours. On previous visits we'd been to the Chachobben Mayan Ruins and explored the village of Mahahual. This time, due to the short visit, we decided to stay in the welcome center and just check things out. It has considerably changed since our last visit in 2011. It has received a major facelift and an enormous water park has been built. It's still as chaotic as the last time I visited though. Too many stores and attractions jammed into one place . Many stores sell the usual junky, touristy trinkets that aren't even made in Mexico, but there are several interesting stores that sell authentic, Mexican made crafts and other items. We purchased a few things and returned to the ship.
- Castaway Cay: Disney's private island. From the ship, it looks like any other private island that we've visited on other cruise lines, but it has the advantage of having a pier. It's also much better developed, in true Disney fashion. Activities are similar to what other cruise lines offer though, down to the BBQ lunch on land. We enjoyed the water park at Pelican Point which was unique because it floats on the ocean and the only way to get there is by swimming to it. We also explored by foot the more desolate parts of the island and made it to the observation tower.
It didn't rain, but the weather didn't cooperate, with overcast skies and gusty winds, which meant that most water related excursions and activities were canceled. Still, we enjoyed our time here tremendously.
We enjoyed breakfast at the Royal Court on the last morning at 8:00am. We said goodbye to our fantastic dining room staff and proceeded to disembark. No calls for group numbers or assigned times. Yet, debarkation was painless and leisurely. We were in our car, driving home by 9:30am.
OVERALL IMPRESSION AND FINAL THOUGHTS
So, the big question is, was Disney worth what they charge? Although I still consider that the prices that they charge are overinflated, after experiencing a week on the Disney Fantasy I believe that they are not as overinflated as I thought prior to our cruise and there are several factors that justify the higher prices.
Disney does a great job and provides a very memorable and unique experience, like nothing out there. There are several superlatives, most notably the unparalleled service, the quality of nightly entertainment, the small details throughout, and the great kids facilities. But on the same token, there are many things that other cruise lines do just as well or better at a fraction of the cost. You do pay a premium for the Disney experience, but looking at many of our very loyal to Disney fellow cruisers, it's worth it to them.
Will I ever take another Disney cruise? Perhaps, but I won't be rushing to sail on them again immediately. Not because there's anything wrong with Disney, but because we are the kind of people that prefer to try new things rather than to stay loyal to one cruise line or product. We would look at Disney again if they provide an itinerary which we haven't done before and if the price is right. But overall, we are extremely glad and grateful that we had the opportunity of sailing on Disney, and I can now see more clearly why they have such a loyal following. Read Less