A review of our cruise on the Disney Wonder

One of the unusual things about California that we’ve had to adapt to is the presence of two school vacation breaks: one in the usual April timeframe and one in mid-February. The kids call it “ski week” because lots of folks use it to go to Yosemite, Tahoe, or other places. For instance, our Scout troop traditionally goes snow camping at Yosemite during this time.

This year, we took advantage of the off week to give my mom a Christmas present: we took her on a four-day Disney cruise, followed by three days at Walt Disney World, with four of her five grandsons. (The fifth is only 17 months old, so he wasn’t really invited.) Ski week was the perfect time for us to combine the two, so we started making plans just after Thanksgiving and had everything squared away by early January. This was no small feat, given that we had to coordinate travel and activities for people from California, Vermont, and Louisiana.

Logistics I started by contacting Vacations to Go, the cruise agency we used for our previous Princess cruise. They do an excellent job of handholding, which in this case was warranted by the complexity of our plan. Their agents are all home-based, and the one we drew (Judy Hastings) did a terrific job. They’re like Amazon in that you get mostly-automated communications from them at major milestones, telling you what to do (or what’s ben done.) We reserved category 12 staterooms, the least expensive (and least fancy) kind– but more on that in a minute.

Disney offers web-based booking for all the shore activities. We used their booking system for a couple of activities and found others by using the web. Our particular cruise stopped for a day in Nassau, a day at Disney’s Castaway Cay, and spent the final day at sea.

For air travel, we were pretty much stuck. We wanted to leave the 13th, so we’d have a day of buffer in case of travel delays. Julie and Mom both had much shorter travel legs than we did, so to maximize our time with them we wanted early flights. That left us stuck with US Airways, which I hadn’t flown in at least 12 years. Service was perfunctory; everything except soda costs extra (want a blanket? that’ll be $7), and we spent an extra hour in Phoenix because one of our FMS computers needed replacement. The fare was outrageous, but at least we got the times and dates we wanted. Enough said about that.

When we arrived, we took the shuttle to the Embassy Suites near MCO. This enabled us to gather and have a little together time before heading to the ship the next morning. We had considered staying at the Hyatt at MCO itself, which would have made the process of getting to the ship a little simpler. However, they were full. Oops. The Embassy Suites was plenty nice for a one-night stay, and we all love their breakfasts.

The next morning, Tiffany Town Cars picked us up exactly on schedule and drove us from Orlando to Port Canaveral. They came recommended on one of the Disney-themed forums I’d been haunting. For $125 for a party of 8, it was a pretty good deal. Disney offers transport too ($35/person each way), but only from MCO to the port.

When we arrived at the port, things were in a bit of a rumpus. The Disney Magic was late in arriving due to high seas during its prior-day stop at Castaway Cay. Our area was filled with frazzled people who had just gotten off the Magic, plus frazzled people who wanted to get on it but didn’t realize they were in the wrong place. We arrived at about 9:30 am. Disney usually opens the terminal for arrivals at about 10am, so we didn’t have too long to wait– it just seemed like a long time because of the unseasonably cold weather.

The check-in process was smooth, as you’d expect. We showed our passports to the nice trainee behind the counter, turned in our cruise contracts, got our pictures taken for our “Key to the World” cards, and settled down to wait for boarding to begin. Arlene spent nearly 90 minutes in line to register Matt and Charlie for the kids’ activities aboard, but some kind of computer problem kept registration from working until later when we were aboard.

All aboard! Protip: get on the ship as early as possible on your departure day. You can swim, play on the sports courts, eat, and explore (all of which we did… well, except for the swimming; it was about 50* and windy.) We boarded as soon as they’d let us and went to Parrot Cay, one of the four onboard restaurants, for lunch. (There are also several places to get fast food, but I don’t count those as restaurants.)

The lunch buffet was a solid “OK”– I thought the quality and range of choices were better on Princess, but this was by no means bad stuff. Arlene got a piece of truly vile gluten-free cheesecake– we’re not sure, but we think it might have been made lactose-, sugar-, and gluten-free, meaning it was probably made with goat’s milk and Windex.

We spent time ranging around the ship and discovered our staterooms a little after 1:30p, the time when Disney releases them from housekeeping. Despite their small size, the rooms we had were nicely appointed with a queen bed, a fold-out futon-style sofa, a (very) small desk, and a 27″ flatscreen TV showing unlimited Disney programming. (Boo hiss: no Olympics, as they’re carried this year on rival network NBC.) Our bags arrived later, as did some terrific cruise gift baskets that Julie had ordered for us.

Our first night’s dinner was at Animator’s Palette. You can probably guess the décor theme; if not, this might help. Our dinner was superb, and our table staff (Faisal and Kevin) did a great job of taking care of us. On Disney, you dine in a different restaurant each night, but you keep the same table staff. We filled a table for eight all by ourselves. The ship had several kinds of gluten-free bread for Arlene (though they would always bring her at least three pieces of it at each meal, more than she could eat), and they were always able to adapt entrées for her without any difficulty.

There are lots of odd angles in this particular restaurant, which I think contributed to Matt and Tom both complaining of seasickness during dinner. They ended up going to bed semi-early while the rest of us went to see the “Golden Mickeys” musical. As you would expect, this was superbly produced and performed, and those of us who saw it loved it. We put some anti-nausea wristbands on the kids and that (along with a good night’s sleep) helped a lot. The two anti-nausea drugs they sell aboard ship aren’t safe for asthma sufferers, so keep that in mind if you’re going to sea.

Nassau We got into Nassau about 9am and promptly split up: Mom, David, Tom and I hit the port while Julie, Charlie, Matt, and Arlene went on a dolphin visit. I’ll leave it to Arlene to describe that (and show off the tons of pictures she took). As for the port: meh. It was pleasant to walk around in the sun, but other than that it was pretty bland. Mom and Tom went off to their snorkeling outing, so David and I had time for a quick lunch together before our own snorkel trip. Mom and Tom got the better end of the deal; their expedition went to an area with a crashed Cessna, and they baited the water to attract fish instead of selling little baggies of fish food. I took a ton of pictures and video using the underwater camera case that Julie and Paul gave me for Christmas, but the results were a bit disappointing (I’ll upload them once I have more bandwidth than this airport offers); the camera’s autofocus system had a hard time coping with fast-moving fish.

Everyone made it back to the ship with stories to tell, so we had a lively dinner at Parrot Cay. This dinner featured their “island menu”, which was uniformly excellent. Everyone loved everything, which might be a first. Either we were all unusually hungry or the food was unusually good.

Castaway Cay The next morning we arrived early at Castaway Cay. The weather was poor: 25-30 kt winds, rain, and low clouds. Disney cancelled most of the shore-based activities; Julie and I had Jet Ski time booked, and Arlene and Charlie were headed for the glass-bottomed boat tour. Too bad! The weather did eventually improve, and we were able to spend some time on the actual beach in the sun. Stingrays cruise very close in to shore, which was fun for the kids. There’s also a simulated fossil dig located in and around a real whale skeleton; this was very popular with Matt and Charlie. David spent the whole day with a pack of teens in a structured group activity and delighted in being away from his family (OK, maybe not, but he did have lots of fun!)

Lunch was a barbecue buffet that was pretty good. We spent time doing nothing much in particular; although we would have all preferred to be able to enjoy our scheduled activities, having a day off wasn’t so bad either! We sailed early, about 5pm, to get ready for the “Pirates IN the Caribbean” theme of the evening. Mom had laid on pirate clothes for all of us, so I was sporting a do rag, an earring, and an eyepatch when we went to dinner, which was again excellent.

The party itself was clearly oriented at the 5- to 12-year-old set: it was noisy, featuring a non-stop stream of Disney hits [sic]. The redeeming part in my mind was the shipboard fireworks. Disney makes much of the fact that they’re the only cruise line that can launch fireworks at sea, and these were beautiful (although nothing compared to the displays at WDW.)

A day at sea The weather was nicer on our last day than it had been on the preceding days, so we all got some sun, and the kids got to swim. Apart from that, it was a low-stress day, capped off by a French dinner at Triton’s, the poshest of the onboard restaurants. Arlene had duck; several of us had an excellent duck confit appetizer, and David and Tom both had (and loved!) escargot. I was really pleased by how well we all did at trying new foods, something that’s easy when you know the wait staff will just bring you something else if you dislike whatever you ordered. (Kids: don’t try that it home. It won’t work.)

A side note on kids’ programs Our day at sea good segue for me to talk about the onboard programs. We had kids aged 5, 8, 11, and 15, so we covered all the bases except the nursery. The 5- and 8-year-olds spent time in the Oceaneer Lab and Oceaneer Club, a big open space located on deck 5. Each kid gets a wristband with a small RFID tag, and each parent gets a pager. That way it’s easy for each party to keep track of, or contact, the other. The Oceaneer activities tended to be science-themed. Matt made Flubber, researched sharks, and so on. Charlie’s program was more activity-themed, and Tom’s (aptly named the “Out and About” club) was a nice mix. For example, one day they played dodgeball, then had a big trivia contest, then made their own pizzas for lunch.

David spent as much time as we’d let him in “Aloft”, the teen club on deck 11. Here the main attraction was the presence of other teens, plus lots and lots of food and games.

There was enough adult supervision for all of the programs that we felt comfortable letting the kids spend time there, and they enjoyed it immensely. This made it possible for us to have quiet adult time when we needed it. This is one of the major distinctions that Disney offers, and they deliver exactly what they promised. The kids clamored for more time in the programs, and we were happy to be able to mix that in with our other family activities.

Debarkation Disney wants the ship unloaded as fast as possible, so you pack your luggage and put it out in the hall the night before you arrive and they put it ashore for you. This worked quite well for us because we’d done it before, but in the morning I heard other families complaining about things they’d forgotten or mispacked. We had a sit-down breakfast at Triton’s, then a few minutes later we were off the ship, through customs, and ready to take the bus to Walt Disney World… but more on that another time.

Table scraps A few miscellaneous notes and observations:

  • There’s cell phone connectivity aboard, but it’s crazy expensive. Don’t plan on roaming in the Bahamas, either: $2.99/minute for voice and an extortionate $19.99/Mb for data. (The shipboard rates are lower but I was too afraid to turn on my phone to find out what they were.)
  • Shipboard Internet service is slow and high-latency. Disney blocks outbound VPN connections, too. At least it’s expensive! I bought a 100-minute block for $40 and used about 75% of it checking mail and dispatching work on Wednesday, so that means I went two whole days without e-mail. Sigh.
  • Attention Anita: unlike Princess, Disney ships have ice cream from 0800-2300.
  • Julie recommended packing a power strip of some kind because each stateroom has only two outlets. I grabbed two of these and they were splendid– just what we needed.
  • Don’t bother taking your own snacks aboard. You’ll have plenty to eat.
  • I think the four adults, combined, read maybe 50 pages during the entire voyage. There were just too many other things to do to spend time reading.
  • Our stateroom was on deck 2, just below the dance club. We never heard a thing; the interior soundproofing is excellent, although you can hear hallway noise. We could also hear the ship’s thrusters loud and clear because we were so far forward. However, Disney doesn’t schedule port arrivals at 0700 like Princess does, so no one’s sleep was disturbed.
  • Don’t let the small square footage of the cheapest staterooms fool you– it was fine for three people.
  • The Disney cruise message boards talk about upgrades a lot. In theory, you can buy them before you board; you can ask for them at check-in, or you can attempt to buy one after setting sail. In reality, at most time periods Disney sells out. The purser told us that the only time they’ve recently had cabins available for upgrades was during the recent East Coast snowstorms.

Bottom line: a great trip, one we would definitely consider doing again.

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