April 18, 2012
Expedia Road Trip: Disney Fantasy Sailing with Amy Whitley from Pitstops For Kids
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Reader's Tips for Amy Whitley's Disney Fantasy Cruise
April 21, 2012 7:00 AM PT
Pit Stops for Kids’ Amy Whitley explores Castaway Cay
April 21, 2012 7:00 AM PT
I was worried that Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas, would feel unauthentic, like a theme park at sea…and in a way it did, but we were having too much fun to care. After all, for a day at the beach, why wouldn't you want your surroundings to consist of pristine white sand, near-translucent water, and quaint rental shacks, bars, and restaurants? We decided to save the cultural lessons for other vacations and hit the beach. Afterward, we all decided our day here was the highlight of our cruise.
A few tips for Castaway Cay:
1. Disembark early for prime beach chairs and loungers.
Unless you want to take advantage of the rapidly emptying ship to ride the AquaDuck line-free or splash in the pool solo (noble pursuits, both), disembark as soon as you're able (in our case, 9 am). Head straight to the family beach to secure a centralized home base. Towels will be handed out as soon as you're off the ship.
2. Rent snorkel gear first.
Since your rental is for the whole day, pick it up early if you plan to snorkel. My kids only lasted about twenty minutes, but they returned to the activity later on. Plus, they used their masks for swimming and around the water play structure in the family beach all day long.
3. Rent bikes!
Bike rentals are a great value on Castaway Cay (only $6/hour) and you can easily explore all the bike paths in your allotted time. Plus, its a great way to see more of the island. The paths take you to a fun lookout tower for a great view of the ship and the island, and if you continue down the central landing strip (a throwback from the island's sordid drug running days--true story), another path detours away from adult-only Serenity Bay around a point for another great view.
4. Give yourself time to shop.
We're not big shoppers, so we overlooked the souvenir potential on the island until it was almost too late. The shops close up well before embarkation time, so plan to peruse the wares after lunch or any time you need to get out of the sun. There's the typical Disney souvenir type stuff, like t-shirts, mugs, and stuffed animals (most of which can only be purchased here), but a few Bahamian shops are present as well. No need for cash: your Key to the World card is the only 'currency' accepted, with one exception: if you want to send a postcard from the Castaway Cay post office, you'll need cash (US currency is fine) for a Bahamian stamp.
5. Don't pass up the huge chocolate chip cookies at Cookies BBQ.
Just don't. You won't be sorry.
We stayed on-island from 9 am to final call, and were so glad we took advantage of our whole day here. In fact, when we were asked for feedback by a Disney Cast Member upon leaving the Fantasy, our only suggestion was: more time at Castaway Cay!
School-aged kids impression of Disney Fantasy Kid Clubs
April 19, 2012 9:30 AM PT
Much like its sister ships, the Disney Fantasy houses five separate kids' club for four age categories: It's a Small World Nursery for infants and toddlers (ages 3 months-3 years), Oceaneer's Lab and Oceaneer's Club for kids (ages 3-10), Edge for tweens (ages 11-13), and Vibe for teens (ages 14-18). As I was the only adult traveling with my kids (ages 7, 10, and 12), I was heavily anticipating (ie, depending upon) these clubs being Disney-great.
To up the ante, my kids generally do not like hotel or resort kids' clubs. They'd much rather explore or play on their own, and usually find them boring or, now that I have a tween, 'lame'. So how did the Fantasy clubs measure up? During the course of our cruise, the boys deemed their clubs 'awesome', 'sweet', and 'epic.' Only…not at first.
First impressions…both theirs and mine.
Our first evening onboard, I dropped my seven and 10 year olds off at the Oceaneer's Club, then deposited the 12-year-old at Edge. When I arrived to pick them up an hour later, I hovered for a bit, just watching, and I was really impressed. The clubs had enough child care staff in each section that no child was ever left alone…in a good way. There was always a lively group activity or game going on on the interactive, light up play floor, and when any one child wandered away from it, a kids' club Cast Member instantly noticed and joined him or her at whatever pursuit he or she was, well…pursuing. My seven-year-old, Toby, gravitated toward the myriad of video game options (all with fun Disney shorelines and theming) instead of the group game, and every time he detoured, someone came with him, engaging him and laughing with him.
When I sprung them and we debriefed, however, I found out that Toby had felt bored and Calvin (age 10) felt the club was too babyish. Nate (age 12) had decided there weren't many things to do in Edge. Oh no! I spoke to the Cast Members at the Oceaneer's Club, who, already getting to know my son, told me that Toby would probably be happier in the Oceaneer's Lab, which is connected to the Club, but has another entrance (which we had missed). The games there are for the older age group of the 3-10-year-olds, and has fewer 'event' style activities ongoing. Once he knew the Lab was an option, he went back happily.
Nate returned to give Edge another try the next day, and found many more kids his age and more activities to his liking. There's a schedule of events always posted by the door (and in the daily Navigator) so you can see what's coming (which gave him some sense of control). I asked whether Calvin (age 10) could move 'up' to Edge to join his brother, and in under 10 minutes, his wristband had been returned to the Oceaneer's Club, his name was on the Edge roster, and he was joining in the fun. I barely saw either of them for the next 2-plus days!
What made the Fantasy kids' clubs great for me:
The Cast Members. They were professional: the sign in and out procedure was efficient and thorough. They were attentive: as I said, no child slipped through the cracks. And they were fun: their energy seemed to know no bounds. I was able to drop the kids off after dinner every night and grab drinks with friends in Europa (the adults' only system of European-themed bars and night clubs on Deck 4), which only made me love these enthusiastic and dedicated people all the more.
What made the Fantasy kids' clubs great for my kids:
The Cast Members. You thought I was going to say the games, right? Or the play spaces? The toys? Nope…even though all five youth spaces are loaded floor-to-ceiling with technologically advanced, industry-leading entertainment, it was the Cast Members my kids noticed. (I think Toby had a crush on his favorite 'teacher' in the Lab, and Nate and Calvin loved how 'grown up' they were treated in Edge.) These are the things they remember about their clubs. When I toured the spaces as a member of the media, I was told all about the 'features' in each of the kids' clubs, but the people running them outshine it all.
Our advice? Give the clubs a try, and then, even if you're unsure, try again! Disney goes to every measure to make sure every kid feels at home on the Fantasy!
Food on the Fantasy
April 18, 2012 7:00 AM PT
Oy the food! I'll come right out and say it: we're not big eaters (we're actually kind of health nuts), and the lure of food has never been an incentive for us to cruise. So how did we feel about the constant food offerings on the Disney Fantasy? Well, it was fantastic. And frustrating. And fantastic. Here's why:
All-inclusive food offerings mean NO food stress.
If you're a family who has to watch their vacation budget at every meal (as we are), you can imagine how welcome it was to sit down to meal after meal on the Disney Fantasy and not worry about who was ordering what and how much it cost and whether they'd waste it and if they'd like it. Truly, it brought us closer together as a family. (And yes, I recognize how sad this is.)
All-inclusive soda and ice cream offerings mean DEFINITE food stress.
If you want to limit your child's dessert and sugar intake even while on vacation (yes, we're strict like that), good luck on the Fantasy. With a self-serve ice cream machine always on, and a drink refill station with soda, iced tea, water, and coffee, and at least one counter-service style snack spot always serving pizza, chicken strips, and the like, it's a true challenge to keep kids from over-doing it. I thought I was doing ok until our final night, when Nate (age 12) couldn't eat a bite of dinner. Turns out, he had eaten four ice cream cones that afternoon.
The dinner meal is an event.
And this was a very welcome addition to our cruising experience. At first, the kids weren't so keen: four courses at dinner, which require over an hour of sitting at the table with their mom? Boring! Except…it wasn't. It was fun for everyone, and a great time to reconnect as a family unit. Diners on the Fantasy are assigned one of two dining times (5:45 pm or 8:15 pm) and follow a rotational schedule of the three main dining restaurants (so you experience all of them). Best of all, your servers follow you from restaurant to restaurant, so you get to know them (and vice versa). Our server, Mircea, and his assistant, Yadi, always entertained the kids with card tricks and mind puzzles table side. And since dinner is all-inclusive too (except for alcohol), anyone, no matter what age, can order off the adult menu (or kids' menu), order as many appetizers as they'd like, or request something not even offered in print. (Hint: Mickey bars are available at all of the restaurants.)
Breakfast and lunch are on your schedule.
I never felt hungry once on the Fantasy, which was both awesome and icky. (Good thing I put the Senses exercise space to good use…though not often enough.) One thing we loved, however, was eating at Cabanas for breakfast and lunch. A buffet with a myriad of offerings (mostly healthy), Cabanas is open early for a continental breakfast and later for a full hot breakfast, and again during the lunch rush. And because we were up later than normal during our vacation, it was really nice to be able to order the kids a pre-bedtime snack from room service. The fruit and cheese plate comes highly recommended.
Cruising Newbie and Pit Stops for Kids editor Amy Whitley embarks on the Disney Fantasy
April 17, 2012 2:00 PM PT
As editor (and guinea pigs) of Pit Stops for Kids, my family and I cover adventure travel, outdoor travel, and cultural travel. Because we don't like crowds and strive to be in control of our itinerary and stops, we'd never tried a cruise. We do enjoy Disney theme parks however, so the question was, would we like a Disney cruise? Expedia sent us on the newest ship in the Disney Cruise Line fleet, the Disney Fantasy, where we learned just how fun and (are you listening, parents?) completely carefree a Disney cruise could be.
My kids are school-aged at 12, 10, and 7, which most cruisers we met agreed were the perfect ages to experience all the ship and our port of call had to offer. We spent three and a half busy days running port to stern (or port to aft?…I never did get that straight) trying to experience it all. We failed: despite being some of the most active people you'd ever meet, we simply couldn't do it all on this mega-ship. But that just means we'll have to go back, right?
As complete cruising novices, we were unsure what to imagine at Port Canaveral. Would boarding the Fantasy feel like waiting in an airline terminal? Would we have all the paperwork we needed? What would we do with our luggage? This was the first of many instances in which we'd experience firsthand what Disney likes to call the 'Disney Difference'. Upon being picked up in a Disney Cruise Line bus at our pre-cruise resort on Monday morning, we handed over our luggage, and didn't have to deal with it again until it appeared in our stateroom. In fact, because we utilized Magical Express (free with a pre or post-cruise stay at a DisneyWorld resort), we didn't have to worry about transporting our bags or ourselves from the moment we stepped off our plane. The port terminal was a little chaotic, but if Disney's mastered anything, it's crowd control. We found ourselves walking through the Mickey ear gangplank tunnel with very little fuss.
A few tips to make the process even more worry-free:
1. Fill out all your pre-cruise paperwork online. It will be available to you on the Disney Cruise Line site as soon as you've made your reservation. Excursion, spa appointments, and specialty dining reservations will be available pre-cruise, too: if you want one, be sure to snag it early online!
2. Make sure you've brought the ID you need. For US residents, that means a photo ID (at very least…a passport is recommended) for all adults, and birth certificates for all kids under 18. They really, really, really won't let your board without it!
3. If you have kids 3-10, register them for the kids' clubs online, then get their wristbands activated at the desk at the terminal. Then there's no need to check in at the Oceaneer's Club or Lab upon embarking; they'll be good to go!
4. Place a credit card on file for charging purposes, then put your wallet away. You won't need it until you disembark. (Good luck even trying to pay for extras with anything other than your Key to the World card!)
Once onboard, we were directed toward lunch downstairs in the Enchanted Garden. I'm really glad I listened to veteran advice and declined the busy dining room in favor of exploring the upper decks. Next to the pool on Deck 11, Cabanas buffet is also open, and much less crowded. Plus, we could eat lunch with a nice view of the sea.
I was also glad I packed our swimsuits in our carry-on bag, because everyone wanted to swim after lunch, and our stateroom wasn't ready until 1:30. By the time we'd tried out the Mickey Pool (shallow and warm), the Donald Pool (deeper and colder), and the hot tubs (just right!) it was past 2 pm, and we walked down a floor to check out our room. (When you can, take the stairs. The elevators get crowded and wait times are long!)
We're pretty savvy travelers, hardly newbies to hotel rooms, but stateroom categories are confusing! We were assigned a Deluxe Family Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah, which is a Category 4 and sleeps 4-5. Families can save a bundle by opting out of a verandah, but I've got to say, it was awesome to have one. Still, Disney makes even inside staterooms fun, with 'magical portholes' showing real-time ocean views. Our deluxe family stateroom included a queen bed, convertible couch single bed, upper berth pull-down bed, and wall pull-down bed. Even with all the beds open, it truly didn't feel cramped. Best of all, Disney Cruise Line features split bathrooms, in which families get a sink and shower in one bathroom, and a sink and toilet in the other. Oh, and the shower converts to a bathtub, which is golden for families with young kids.
Before our Fantasy voyage could depart at 5 pm, every guest was required to take part in the muster drill. (Think of a fire drill at school, and then double the people and add a lot of Mickey ears.) It really wasn't too bad: you just walk to your appointed muster station on Deck 4 (where the big yellow lifeboats are stowed), line up, listen to a short spiel on safety procedures, then let a cast member swipe your Key to the World card. We were in and out in about 15 minutes.
Learning the Ropes
Our first afternoon and evening onboard, we walked in a few circles, hunted for the light switch for ten minutes until we remembered someone's key card has to be placed in the appointed slot by the door to activate the lights, and were late to dinner because Toby, age 7, was distracted by every character who ambled by (be sure to leave 15 minutes early so you're not rushed!).
We're annoying health nuts, so the constant availability of food and beverages on the ship truly took some getting used to. I was subjected to a chorus of 'can I have…' from the kids until we set some ground rules (which I gave up on by Day 3). If your kids drink a lot of water (and really, everyone should, as it's easy to get dehydrated on the ship), bring water bottles to refill at the drink stations. And remember that while water and soda are included (an industry first), you're card will be charged for all alcohol.
Lastly, this ship is a beast and once on open sea, we couldn't feel it moving at all. But as it departed from (and returned to) Port Canaveral, we could feel it rolling a bit. Since my ten-year-old is prone to airsickness and carsickness, we didn't take any chances with seasickness. He wore a SeaBand and had no problems (even as we rocked out to sea right at dinner time).