We just returned from our "reward" vacation following the longest year ever. Hubby, the Agents, and I spent two days in Walt Disney World and then boarded the Disney Magic for seven nights. This was our third Disney cruise (our fourth overall).
During our travels lots of little ideas kept popping into my head that I thought I could share with others . . . planning pointers to make things run more smoothly as well as just fun tidbits. Many of these could apply to cruise travel in general, but I specifically had Disney Cruise Line in mind when composing the list. They are in no particular order.
Each night you will receive a paper "newsletter" of sorts telling you all about the next day's events, including a one-page timetable. Take a highlighter to mark things you'd like to do (more than one color if you have a mixed-age group that will be heading off in different directions).
Make sure you read the one you will find in your room on boarding day. We learned about a special meet-and-greet (tickets required) that way and immediately went downstairs to secure a reservation. You will want to refer to this particular newsletter throughout the week because it has a general overview of what theater shows and movies are playing when as well as the dinner attire each night.
There is also an app you can download for free and access on board that includes all of the same information plus deck plans, but we found that in the case of a discrepancy (time or place) it's best to default to the paper copy.
The stateroom doors are magnetic. Take magnets to decorate it or to hang up any drawings your little ones make during the voyage. You could also put up a dry erase board to write notes or draw pictures. Once we even had a family who put random magnets on the doors of all the staterooms in their hallway. (Ours was a dinosaur, and we still have it hanging on the fridge.)
Pack light. Confession: I fail miserably at this every. single. time. But I have found that starting to pack at least 48 hours in advance helps tremendously. If you can avoid it, don't pack the morning of or the night before. Lay everything out that you think you want to take and leave it there for at least a full day. Then start imagining when and where you will use these items. Keep in mind that you will likely have more to pack on the return trip and will probably not be as neat about it. Be especially conservative with the number of outfits you include, because . . .
You need less clothing than you think. (Wait. Didn't I just write a post about all the clothing taking up space in my suitcase?) But, seriously, I thought I packed pretty well and one thing I brought I didn't even wear at all and and several other pieces I wore only once. Bring one light sweater in a neutral color; it's cool in the restaurants and up on the deck in the evening. Only pack clothes you can mix together. For example, I brought one skirt that only matches a black shirt and couldn't be paired with anything else. Not smart. I would have been better off eliminating that piece even if it meant doing laundry one more time. Which brings me to . . .
Plan to do laundry at some point. It can add up quickly ($2.00 each to wash and dry plus $1.00 for a one-use detergent packet), but I find it necessary on a longer trip. Especially if you are traveling with small children, it's worth it. Tip: Don't try to use the laundry room on a sea day. Wash clothes first thing in the morning when you pull into port. Everyone else will be getting ready to get off the ship and it won't be as crowded.
Depending on what you are doing on or off the ship, at different times you may want to carry a tote bag, a small purse, or simply a lanyard with your room key, so plan accordingly. I personally ended up using all three in various combinations throughout the week.
I almost feel silly adding this next one, but I'm going to. Do not, I repeat do not worry about what swimwear to pack, how it looks on you, what other folks will think, should I wear this in public, etc. You will see every type of pool garb from extremely modest to speedo and a hundred different body types flaunting it all and no one will care. But for heaven sakes pack sunscreen; you don't want to be glowing at dinner.
Have a smaller suitcase or bag to use on the last night. Cast members will move your big luggage to the terminal for you if you leave it outside your door on the final night. However, you will still need to keep out anything you need that evening and the last morning and transport it downstairs yourself on debarkation day. If you travel with a pretty full toiletry bag, bring along a few extra ziploc bags so you can put most of your toiletries in the suitcase and just leave out the essentials to toss in your overnight bag in the morning.
Dinner will take long. Figure on an hour and a half minimum, usually more. Luckily, the servers are really good about bringing drinks right away (they will know what everyone likes after day one) and kids' meals come out first. However, it can still seem like an eternity with wiggly ones. Also, the restrooms are outside of the restaurant, so stop before you go in. The food is beyond awesome and the waitstaff wonderful (you will see the same people each night regardless of where you dine) but keep realistic expectations for dinner with small children.
Unless you are traveling with a large party, you will be seated with other folks at dinner (most tables seat about eight people). If you have children you will likely be sharing a table with another family whose kids are of similar ages. Encourage them to become pen pals if they hit it off. (The Agents are looking forward to keeping in touch with their new friend from Australia.)
If you choose to eat breakfast or lunch at the buffet, for the love of holy chipmunks do it right. Do not expect a young child to navigate the buffet line, even if you are standing right there. Look, I'm all for teaching children to hold a plate and use tongs and scoop out appropriate amounts of food independently. But this is probably not the greatest venue for doing so. Your best bet is to leave one adult at the table while the other quickly grabs drinks and a plate of food for the kids to share. Then the adults can take turns going through the line themselves. (We use this method at the table service/character meals in the parks as well.)
You will need to be off the ship ridiculously early on debarkation day. You will have an assigned restaurant and time for breakfast but it's just an option, not a requirement. We decided to skip breakfast (we ate later that morning at the airport) and sleep in an extra hour. Make sure to say goodbye to your servers and table mates the night before if you go this route.
At least once a day, go through your camera/phone and delete any photos you don't want. You are guaranteed to take way too many, and not all of them will turn out, so make it easier and delete unwanted pictures along the way to save yourself the hassle of sorting through all of them when you download them later.
On a related note, stop by the ship's photography location to look at the photos they've taken each day as well. If you intend to order a book or prints, it will be way more simple to narrow down choices this way rather than waiting until the last day. Tip: this area tends to get really crowded after dinner. Go in the middle of the day instead.
There will be tons of organized tours to choose from. But you can also explore independently. On our first cruise we felt compelled to book something at each stop. By the second cruise, we booked one or two and then were on our own for the others. This time, we decided to wing it the whole week. Granted, if you want to do something really specific (e.g., swim with dolphins, horseback riding, a cooking class) you are better off sticking with an inclusive plan. However, if you simply want to walk around and shop and maybe catch a few sights close to the port, there's no reason you can't do it on your own.
Google the ports you will be pulling into and print out a map of the immediate area to take with you. They will give you a map of each port, but it will mostly include shopping venues and won't always list all the streets clearly. Map the walking distance for any nearby attractions you may want to visit.
Want to have the pools all to yourself? Go first thing in the morning after pulling into Castaway Cay. Sometimes they will be doing maintenance (the slide was closed on our visit) but in general all the pools are open, lifeguards are on duty, and no one is there. There will be a movie playing on the big screen, your choice of lounge chairs and tables, and relative calm.
Accept the fact that there is simply too much to do for one trip. Like a visit to the parks, you will need to prioritize. Peruse the website beforehand for an idea of the types of activities your particular party would enjoy. Consider your assigned dinner time (typically either 5:45 or 8:15) as well as your normal sleeping/waking times. Don't think you will suddenly turn into a morning person because there are cool things to do and places to see. Likewise, if your kids are used to going to sleep early in the evening, keeping them up and out past their usual crashing time could lead to meltdowns.
You will be on a ship. On the water. Which is not always calm. Be prepared if you are prone to motion sickness. Don't go too long without eating, and drink plenty of water. Most of our journeys have been pretty steady, but we did have one Agent on our most recent trip who got sick one night when the ship was rocking more than usual. Probably a combination of the motion, plus too much time in the sun, plus being slightly dehydrated. Luckily it was a one-time thing.
If you plan to buy souvenirs on board, do it on the first sea day, not the last. You will have a better selection, time to think about what you really want without feeling rushed, and the store won't be as crowded. (Note that the ship stores are only open while at sea; they all close while in port.) You can also order several of the items available on board before or after your cruise online instead. Like the amenities you find in your stateroom? Find them online as well.
Show up 10-15 minutes early for the character meet and greets and you'll be at the front of the line. Show up at the scheduled time and you'll be, um, not at the front of the line. Tip: Lines are shorter the first couple of days because folks still think they have all the time in the world to see each character. Try to see Mickey on the last day and you'll be waiting a lot longer. Overall, however, the characters are able to take more time with each group than at the parks. Take advantage of this and have fun with it. Try taking short videos instead of posed pictures.
If you have more than one child, and they tend to play off each other (not in a good way), you may want to take them to see the characters separately. We have several adorable photos of just Agent A with characters. We also have several lovely pictures of just the Senior Agents with characters. Photos with all three together? Always a disaster. I don't know why this is, and maybe it's just my kids, but even though we previously hadn't contemplated this method it did the trick for us.
Consider divide and conquer as a strategy. I know for most folks this is a family vacation and I'm all about keeping the whole family of all ages together, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Shortly before this trip, Hubby was away for 12 weeks. Agent A (age 4) was, let's just say, super attached to Daddy on this particular vacation. In addition, his sisters were old enough that they wanted to do other things that he simply does not have the desire to do, nor the patience for. So, there were plenty of times where Hubby and son were off doing one thing and Momma and daughters were off doing another. It seemed weird at first, but it just kind of worked.
My favorite of all these times was when the girls and I would go up to the pool deck after the theater show (9:30-10:00 at night) while Hubby took the little guy back to the room to get ready for bed and cuddle watching a movie. Agent J declared this "girl time" and kept saying over and over how much she loved it. She really cracked me up when she would suggest "let's go get drinks" (meaning lemonade for the girls and hot tea for me). I couldn't help but chuckle at how that phrase will be completely different in about 15 years.