Friday, March 25, 2016

Our First Disney Cruise Was Not So Magical

I'm conflicted about writing this post. I know that our experience is not the one most people have while cruising with Disney, and our family has some special needs that contributed to making our cruise what it was; but I am a huge proponent of honesty in parenting (and in living, really) and as such I feel this post must be written.

Let me start by telling you about our family's vacation style:

We are a high maintenance family (and we know it) with a strong love for all things Disney. We are DVC owners. We've been to WDW over 40 times. We have food allergies, as well as food and skin sensitivities. Our younger kids typically spend their days with a nanny or at preschool and are used to having personal attention and structure throughout the day; we also have a very independent, confident teenager. We consider ourselves free-range parents and like our kids to try new things and solve their own problems whenever possible. What we love about Walt Disney World and Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort is that the cast members are never surprised by our requests or how to care for all of our needs. They often go above and beyond to accommodate us, which is what makes Disney destinations so enjoyable. We usually stay at villas so we have all the comforts of home. (My packing mantra is: if we left it at home we can always get it when we get there. Or as my aunt likes to say, all you need are your pills and money.) We don’t mind lots of walking and our kids often spend long hours in the car traveling to our various vacation destinations. One of us (the 3 year old) is very demanding and wants her needs met immediately and without exception; the rest of us can be relaxed and go with the flow. Staying well fed and rested is a key to our family happiness.

My expectations for this cruise were as follows:
  • Our free range style would be an asset to cruising. 
  • Our kids would adore the kids club. 
  • Our servers and the chef at each dining location would meet my high expectations for eating with food allergies and sensitivities as they concistently do at WDW. 
  • There would be plenty for us to find to do at our own pace (as there is in the parks). 
  • We would adore cruising in the same way we adore all our other Disney experiences. 
  • Dining at Remy would be out of this world. 
  • Renting a cabana would enhance our Castaway Cay day. 
  • We would be able to have down time in our room the same way we do at WDW for nap time.
  • Disney magic would find us everywhere.
This was our reality:
  • Our free range style was hard to maintain with such a strict schedule on such a short cruise. When I say strict schedule, I mean that unlike the parks, you can't choose from 12 dinner ADRs; there are two seatings. Take the time you want or don't eat in the dining room that night. If you want to see the show, there are not 4 times to see it, there are two. You will want to make sure you get there on time to find a good seat. We are not very good at that sort of thing as a family. We tend to get there when we get there. It was hard for us to adhere to a schedule we did not set for ourselves.
  • Our kids loved the kids club at open house times, but hated the kids club when we were not there with them; they cried the entire time they were there. And even 30 minutes of them being in there alone (and crying) was not enough to convince them to stay. The counselors called us on the wave phone and requested we come get them.
  • Our dining experience was exceptionally disappointing in the main dining rooms and with room service. Our food allergies and sensitivities made me feel like we were a burden. This has never happened to me with Disney before this experience. And my understanding is that it doesn't happen this way for most. I think our experience was abnormal, and my failure to research ahead hurt us, but still, it happened and our vacation was definitely worse off for it.
  • There was plenty for us to do but not at our own pace; we found we needed to be much more regulated than we usually are, which contributed to our overall frustration with one another. There was a lot of hurry up going on with our family or deciding too late to try an activity.
  • We do not adore cruising with toddlers. Especially our toddlers, who need lots of individual attention, cannot express their desires adequately, and require special food. 
  • Dining at Remy was out of this world and I loved every single moment. I would book that experience over and over again. Everyone from the sommelier, to our server, to the cheese master made our evening sublime.
  • Renting the cabana on Castaway Cay saved our vacation. It was far and away the most wonderful thing we did. We finally felt like we were a part of something Disney. And we were finally pampered in every way imaginable. Even the little ones were happy to be independently playing in the water and able to spread out.
  • Our children never napped. No not once. And trying to nap in the stateroom is a fools errand to begin with. The 5 of us maxed out the space in the room. While it was very nice for everything else, trying to rest midday was a total misfire.
  • Disney magic was sparse on this trip. And that was the most disappointing thing of all. We certainly had some magical moments, and the concierge staff when above and beyond to make our stay as lovely as possible, but the overall tone of this trip was definitely in a minor key.
Here's the long and the short of why this was a dreadful trip for us:
  • We should have booked a longer cruise. This felt like a such a compact cruise with barely enough time to see and do the standard cruise things. We really needed AT LEAST another day to fully enjoy all there was to see and do, and to get there on our own timetable.
  • Our toddlers are just not fit for cruise travel. They are slow moving, and they were tired and cranky for most of the time we were on board. Imagine having a 30-pound howler monkey tied to your hip for 3 days. That was us. The little ones simply would not spend any time on their own. I was actually in tears our third morning at the prospect of having to literally drag my family around the ship one more day. Fortunately, Castaway Cay saved me.
  • Our food allergies and sensitivities made it VERY DIFFICULT to find food in any reasonable amount of time and our head server seemed very new to the Disney way. This was a huge disappointment for us. I'll do a whole write up on that later but suffice it to say, this was sorely disappointing next to the stellar service and quality we receive in the parks. In fact, it was the #2 reason our trip was so trying.
  • We simply could not get what we had forgotten to bring with us. The ship's shops were closed every time we were in port (which on a 3-day cruise is every day); we would have purchased the things we forgot to pack (hoodies, sunglasses, packaged snacks and sunscreen) had we had the opportunity.
  • I failed to do any substantial research for our cruise. I cannot emphasize this enough. I didn't even know about debarkation. THAT was a spectacular fail. I'll tell you all about it in a separate post. It's comical how badly we failed that; you would have to try very hard to do it worse than we did! I wish I had researched what to expect in the dining room, with food allergies, at the pool, and traveling with toddlers. All of that would have gone a very long way to make our vacation more enjoyable. If we hadn't had the concierges to guide us I think our entire family might have been reduced to bloody stumps of people.
In all, I think we are a poor fit for cruising right now due to the age and temperament of our little ones. If you are a family who always enjoys being together, who generally finds parenting to be rewarding and you can't understand how other people find parenting so difficult, or you find living in tight quarters fine, you would probably love cruising. If you don't have little kids, you would might love cruising. If you have little ones with special needs (of any kind) I would not consider the 3-day cruise at all, as it will be frustrating. I would certainly think that at 4-day cruise or longer would be a much better experience.

Will we try it again? Probably. We would either wait a couple years for the little ones to be a bit more self reliant, or we would consider going just as the adults and leaving the little ones with the grandparents. And we would definitely book a longer cruise. Three days was just too short. And now that I know what I need to know more about, it can only help us to plan better and be more proactive about making sure our travel meets our expectations.

I'd love to hear about your cruise experiences here! If it was great and you love to cruise, share what makes it so marvelous for you. If you have grizzly stories, well, misery loves company! Bring them on. I'd love to hear about them too! Until next time, fellow Disney travelers, may all your days be filled with fairy dust!


  1. I'm sorry you and your family didn't enjoy your cruise as much as you perhaps could have. It has been a number of years now since we did our DCL cruise and at the time, we left the ship with a "Well, we've been there and done that" kind of attitude...after just 4 days.

    It wasn't that the cruise wasn't nice, but I wouldn't say we were wowed. I "blame" part of that on the same things that you found...not researching enough ahead and not booking a long enough cruise in order to take our time and explore more. Never having been on a cruise before, we wanted to hit all of the main dining rooms. We also wanted to see all of the shows. We did an excursion (which wasn't all that great at all) and had an okay time on Castaway Cay. We originally booked the cruise because it had child care, but then found we actually wanted to experience a lot of these things with our kids, so ended up using it very rarely. When we got the note saying that we could book a future cruise for 10% off, my husband looked at me and said, "Would you want to do this again or try something different?"

    But, as I said, that was a number of years ago. More recently, I have been reading and researching DCL on the Disboards Cruise forum and am almost convinced that I would like to try again with our youngest. I would definitely select a longer cruise so that we can experience all of the shows and dining options while still having some flexibility. I look forward to reading your reviews on the other parts of your cruise...especially the debarkation part...that sounds like a story to be heard! (Grin!)

  2. As much as y'all love Disney, I think there are different cruise lines that would suit your vacation style a bit better. Maybe with the introduction of the two new ships to the fleet in 5 years, hopefully Disney will be able to adopt a less rigid style of cruising and it might be a better time frame for your children. The freedom that y'all expressed as lacking was exactly what my aunt didn't like about cruising. She's traveled the world, but never done a cruise. She was it definitely wasn't for her. She runs on her on time frame and can't be held to the rigidity of a cruising time frame.

    We did the 3 night for our first one and didn't do a lot of things because you had to be places at certain times and there were other things we wanted to do more. We both agreed that the day at sea would've been a nice addition. Also, while it wasn't a big deal for me to wait for food, I can see how waiting with toddlers for special diet food would be a pain and in some instances, too long. I went up to get QS one time and waited a good 15 minutes for them to bring me my food. While it wasn't a huge deal for one person to wait, I can see 15 minutes feeling like 15 hours with a cranky, hungry child.

  3. Meghan,
    I think we felt much like your aunt. It's just too hard for us to meet the schedule of others. I'm really glad we did it, but I think the kids will need to be a lot more self reliant before we can do it with them again.

  4. I am so sorry your cruise experience was not as magical as anticipated! I have cruised twice in my life....once with Princess in 1999 and secondly this past summer, July 2015 with Disney. Both were 7 days long and both went to the Caribbean and both were fabulous. In both cases I booked using a travel agent. For my Disney cruise I used a AAA agent that I have used in the past for other needs. For the Disney cruise I did do quite a bit of research. Also, my agent was very knowledgeable about cruising with Disney (we sailed on the Fantasy). My husband and I have a 14 year old daughter (only child). For this cruise we took along my 16 year old nephew so she would have a buddy. We booked a stateroom with a balcony and one that slept up to 5 (so a little extra room there). We took this trip to celebrate my 50th birthday and our 20th wedding anniversary. I went into it with no expectations (which is totally unlike me. LOL!). I was so excited to finally be cruising with Disney I felt no matter what I was living my trip of a lifetime! I was not disappointed at all! Our teens were too busy with the teen club, The Vibe, to spend time with us. Our table mates at dinner were nice people and the wait staff was wonderful. I am a picky eater so I tended to order the same bland meal every night. LOL The rest of them tried all foods. You mentioned in your post for us to share what made our cruise marvelous for us. Here is what did it for me: #1..I booked through a knowledgeable agent that I had a relationship with already. #2. We went for 7 days. (flew out two days prior to sailing) I think a cruise is a lot of work to get ready for. A lot of prepping....shore excursions, transfers. clothes, get it. So, anything less that 7 days I would feel like I never got to relax and enjoy all the prep work I put into it. #3. We booked a larger room than necessary and got a balcony. #4. We bought the spa package. It was a great deal and it gave us an extra place to shower. AND the shower was big!! On nights we all needed to get ready fast my hubby showered at the spa. So awesome!! #5. We had self- sufficient age kids. We knew once they found the fun on board we would be good to go. #6. I had no expectations. Number 6 was probably my best thing. I tend to put a lot into family vacations and sometimes the family is not as excited about things as I am. ha-ha This trip we all raved about (Oh! I have to mention my hubby is no where near into Disney as I am...he was a trooper on this one). I have to say, I really hope that you give Disney cruising another try when your kids are older and definitely do the 7 day one. I did not have any food allergies to navigate or little ones and I definitely can see where that would be challenging with a staff that was not helpful. Also, I agree with you that the "schedule" aspect is tough on any cruise. So much to do and so little time. Also, not much time in between returning from shore excursions to get ready to see the show and then dinner. This summer we will cruise with Royal Caribbean. We now have Cruise fever after this last one. LOL!! Something tells me we will have fun but it may just not hold the magic sailing on the Fantasy did :-)