Disney Cruises for Families | An Inside Look

By Jamie Garrett, Freelance Writer

Part I of a 3-part-series packed with cruise ship tips and tricks from my family’s own Disney Magic voyage.

Read Part IIRead Part III

The name Disney is synonymous with magic. If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World or Disneyland, you’ve experienced the magic firsthand. However, the magic doesn’t stop when you leave the theme parks. Last month / In January 2018, my family and I discovered that the magic reaches all the way to Disney cruise ships.

We took our first Disney cruise as a family on the aptly named Disney Magic, the flagship of Disney Cruise Line. My wife, a travel agent who specializes in all things Disney, had previously taken a Disney cruise. Yet for me and my two daughters, this was our first time on a Disney ship.

Although it was our first Disney cruise, it wasn’t our first family cruise. In January 2017, we took a 3-night cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas from Miami. We all had fun, but being a weekend cruise (Friday PM to Monday AM), it was not geared towards families. So when deciding on our next cruise, we picked Disney. Overall, this cruise was better than last year’s cruise.

Starting at the Port of Miami, our 5-night cruise landed in Key West, Nassau, Bahamas and Castaway Cay (Disney’s private Caribbean island) then spent a full day at sea before returning to Miami.

Walt Disney once said,

“We believed in our idea – a family park where parents and children could have fun – together.”

When traveling with kids, my wife and I always want everyone to have fun. Thankfully Disney Cruise Line extends Walt’s philosophy to the high seas. Disney cruises offer exceptional service, fabulous dining options along with a plethora of recreation, entertainment, and activities for the entire family.

In this article series, you’ll find day-by-day highlights of our cruise. Also, I’ll offer some tips and tricks for those who are planning on taking a Disney Cruise. Hopefully, by the end, some of the Disney cruise magic will rub off on you!

Driving to Miami

Having stayed in Orlando for two nights before our cruise, we saved some cash by renting a car and driving to Miami. In Orlando, we’d spent one day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. Why only one day? Why at Animal Kingdom?

This past spring, an Avatar-themed section opened in Animal Kingdom called the Pandora: The World of Avatar based on the James Cameron’s 2009 film, which everyone in my family loves, especially my older daughter.

After our stay in Orlando, we headed south.

Tip: The trip is easy and straightforward, especially on Florida’s Turnpike. NOTE: You’ll spend about $20 in tolls during the trip

On our 2017 cruise, we went to Orlando for a couple of days after our cruise. We rode the Orlando Eye, visited Madame Toussaud’s and spent a day at Sea World. So we had already done the trip in reverse (Miami to Orlando).

About four hours after we left Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside, we arrived at Miami International Airport at about 11:30 to drop off our rental car. Rather than return the car to a location closer to the port and ride a shuttle, we dropped off at the Miami airport Alamo location. Unbeknownst to us, this was a very good decision.

The Port of Miami is less than 10 miles from the airport, but is slightly further than some downtown car rental drop-off locations. However, when booking our rental car a few weeks earlier, dropping a 2-day rental off in downtown Miami would’ve cost $400! Instead, we dropped off at the airport and only paid about $100.

Here’s where this turned out to be a better decision than we thought: We planned to take a taxi or Uber to the port for about $30, but upon exiting the terminal towards the taxis and Ground Transportation, we came directly to an Alamo/ Enterprise bus.

Standing at the curb was the bus driver who asked where we were headed. When I told him the port, he asked if we had dropped off a rental car. Upon showing him our Alamo receipt, he said this was a free shuttle to the cruise terminal, something we didn’t know beforehand. It was more than a pleasant surprise because it saved us about $30. Feeling generous after saving some cash, I tipped him and his helper a few bucks each.

TIP: If renting a car, inquire whether or not the company offers a shuttle to the port. Also, no matter which port you sail from, if you are flying into the port city for your cruise, transfers to the cruise terminal are easy to arrange before your arrival. Or you can just grab a transfer shuttle, taxi or rideshare service (Uber or Lyft) at the airport.

Day 1 – Boarding the Ship

Boarding a cruise ship is easier and faster than boarding a plane. At the cruise terminal, curbside porters check your bags which are then put on board and arrive at your stateroom later in the afternoon. With carry-ons in hand, you go through passport control and a security checkpoint before checking in for your cruise and boarding the ship.

At the Disney check-in desk, each traveler is issued a Key to the World card, Disney’s name for the multi-purpose card which:

  • Opens your stateroom door
  • Serves as your ID to get off and on the ship at ports of call (along with a valid driver’s license or passport)
  • Is used for charging extra purchases to your onboard account (gift shop purchases, alcohol, and others miscellaneous things)

TIP: To keep track of our Key to the World cards more easily without having to shuffle through our pockets, purse, or fanny pack (like I own one. No really, I don’t!), we use lanyards with clear plastic pockets. Although lanyards are sold in some cruise departure halls, you’ll save money by buying them beforehand. Oriental Trading sells them by the dozen, in sets or in singles with a plastic badge holder.

From entering the departure hall to boarding the ship, our entire boarding process took about half an hour. Disney had given us a boarding time of 11:00 am, but we didn’t get to the port until close to noon. But this meant that after check-in, we walked right onto the ship.

All passengers enter the Disney Magic on Deck 4, at which point crew members greet you, ask your name and announce your arrival over the ship’s PA (my wife says this happens on all Disney ships).

Even though the Magic would be leaving port around 5:00 pm, we boarded as early as possible. Mainly to take advantage of the food.

When we boarded, the lunch buffet at Cabana’s on Deck 9 was ready. We headed in that direction but were surprisingly sidetracked by Minnie Mouse who was taking photos with guests in the atrium. After our girls took photos with Minnie, we ate lunch. At 1:30, our stateroom was ready, so we went to check it out and drop off our carry-ons so we could explore the ship unhindered.

On last year’s cruise, we had a veranda room, which was nice. But since we didn’t actually use the veranda much, we chose an exterior oceanview stateroom with a large portal. Situated on Deck 2, this room had a queen bed for my wife and I, a sofa/ twin bed, and another twin which pulled down from the ceiling. This was an ideal setup for us, especially with two girls who don’t enjoy sharing a bed.

Also, one of the greatest things about this room is a feature which is exclusive to Disney ships—split bathrooms. One has a toilet and sink and the other has a shower and sink. It is perfect when multiple people are getting ready in the morning or for dinner each evening. One person can shower while another can be in the other bathroom.

By 2:45 pm, all four of our checked bags had arrived at our room. Our girls wanted to get in the pool, so changed into swimsuits. But when we arrived at the main pool on Deck 9, the crew were closing it for the Launch Party featuring some of the activities crew, but also Mickey, Minnie, Chip & Dale, Goofy, and other classic Disney characters.

Before the party, a mandatory safety briefing or muster was held around the ship at 4:15. Our muster station was on Deck 4. On every cruise ship, every passenger must attend these sessions. During muster, the crew takes roll then reviews emergency procedures including information on lifeboats, life vests, and other instructions.

One of the most fun features of Disney ships is that instead of sounding a regular horn, the ships play a few bars from the classic Disney song When You Wish Upon a Star. Shortly before 5:00 pm, the Launch Party started. Then the ship blew its melodic horn and the Magic set sail!

Our First Evening Meal at Animator’s Palate

For our first evening meal, we dined in Animator’s Palate, one of three restaurants on the ship for evening dining. On Disney Cruise Line ships, guests are assigned a dining rotation, another unique feature of Disney ships. Every night, you dine at a different restaurant, each with its own cuisine and atmosphere.

With Disney’s dinner rotation, your wait staff moves with you from restaurant to restaurant. Our waiters were Marko from Montenegro and his assistant Diego from Peru, a fabulous pair who offered terrific service every night.

Animator’s Palate is themed around Disney animation. According to my wife, there are variations of this restaurant on each Disney ship. Covering the walls of the Magic’s version are black and white sketches of Disney characters with large screens also displaying sketches. The waiters even wear matching black and white vests printed with character sketches from the walls.

Throughout this first meal, the sketches on the monitors were replaced with new ones which appeared, shape by shape, line by line, before our eyes, as if watching a Disney animator at work. We had fun guessing which characters would materialize. As the meal progressed through the four courses, some of the sketches began moving. Then, all of them moved. Eventually, black and white illustrations transformed into full color.

When we first sat down, Marko had told us that there would be a show and a special guest. At one point during the meal, the wait staff disappeared, the lights dimmed and dramatic music heralded the arrival of the guest—Sorcerer Mickey from Fantasia!

Mickey paraded through the dining room, greeting people at their tables and giving high fives. After Mickey departed, the waiters all returned, only now their black and white vests had been exchanged for full-color vests.

Disney always has great food, but this night, the experience took center stage. With the animation, the music, and the atmosphere, this was one of our favorite Disney dining experiences. We’ve had great experiences at places like Ragland Road in Disney Springs, an Irish-themed eatery complete with Irish music and dancing and Akershus in Epcot where my daughters met almost all of the Disney princesses at one meal. However, Animator’s Palate tops them all.

Be Our Guest

Every Disney ship has family-friendly Broadway-style entertainment based on Disney films and characters. So after dinner, we acquainted ourselves with the ship, then saw our first show, Be Our Guest. The show offers snippets from each of the performances we would see throughout the cruise. Later, we all slept soundly in our stateroom, happy to be aboard and excited for the next day in Key West.

End of Disney Cruises For Families Part I

Jamie Garrett

Jamie Garrett

Freelance Writer

Jamie has been writing professionally for five years. He has lived in China, France, and Morocco. He has also traveled to 47 of the 50 US states and has visited over 25 countries. Jamie loves going to new places and revisiting favorite ones. When at home, he loves being with his wife and two daughters, reading, watching movies and watching soccer.

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