From 3:00 in the afternoon on March 29 until about 10:30 in the morning on April 3, with the exception of one dinner, every single penny my wife and I spent in that stretch went to Disney. Hotels, park passes, in-park meals and drinks, gift shop stuff, a three-day Disney cruise, and the shuttle bus we took to get from hotel to boat and back to the airport (which we will discuss in detail later, using unkind language), all Disney’s now. They have organized their properties in a manner that highly discourages their customers from doing anything outside of the Disney universe, like a group of interconnected black holes. And I would gladly pay for the privilege to do it again. No, I am not suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
In order to set up the cruise experience, I should begin with the two days prior to boarding our ship. My son Garrett’s birthday was the day before the cruise (Thursday), and we decided to hit Epcot and stay at the Port Orleans: French Quarter. On Wednesday, we met up with my stepmother and took the boat that travels down the river behind the hotel to Disney Springs. The plan was to hit Disney Quest, until we found out it would set us back $230 for the five of us, at which point we decided to just walk the strip. We ate at T. Rex, which is the one non-Disney expense. T. Rex is basically a Rainforest Cafe with dinosaurs, and it is massive. We liked the food, but not the 45-minute wait for the food to arrive.
Those tentacles? They move. Even creepier? So does the eye.
We already had our Fast Passes booked, thanks to Disney’s convenient-if-slightly-creepy Magic Bands system, a waterproof wristband which serves as your room key, park admission, Fast Pass distributor, and method of payment for all transactions, yikes. (I didn’t have to keep track of paper passes, so that’s good, though I found out later that apparently there is someone in front of the more popular attractions who has a book of paper Fast Passes. Will look for them next time.) Hopped on the bus to the park, fired up the Disney Parks app (extremely helpful, download it), and discovered that Baymax was posing for pics, with Joy and Sadness right nearby, so we hit them first. Whoever was wearing the Joy costume is very funny. When Garrett told her he was 10, she immediately bent over at the waist like some feeble older person. She also kissed him repeatedly, thoroughly embarrassing him and in turn giving me much, um, joy.
Epcot is great, but one thing that will never be said about it is that there is far too much to do in one day. Under the best of circumstances, there is slightly more than one can do in one day. Case in point: the one thing we didn’t do that was on our list was Test Track. Disney has (sensibly) set it up so that when it comes to booking Fast Passes in advance, you can book either Soarin’, or Test Track, but not both. Knowing my kids, I chose Soarin’, and it was absolutely the right call. Even my heights-averse daughter Amy loved it, and it didn’t hurt that the pre-ride instructions were delivered by Patrick Warburton, whom my kids knew at the time as Lemony Snicket (they’re big fans of the Netflix series, as am I), but now also know as Kronk (we have since shown them “The Emperor’s New Groove,” holler). Test Track, meanwhile, had a wait of 80 minutes from the moment we arrived, and we arrived about 80 minutes after early bird guests could get in. I’m still not sure how that is possible.
If you haven’t done Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure at Epcot, you should. The kids loved being able to trigger the window displays to come to life, and we drew the attention of a nearby group, who saw us trigger a building to move and said, “Hey, what are you guys doing?” We did China and France, and would have done more if my phone (you access the game through a web site) weren’t about to die.
Fun fact: Grey Goose appears to have bought the rights to supply all Epcot street carts with booze. We stopped at an Italian cart to get something for the kids, and we settled on a virgin version of what sounded like an amazing grown-up drink, some lemon-raspberry-vodka thing. Later, in France, my lovely wife Deb and I, on the advice of a fellow hotel guest we met the night before, got a slushie drink with Grand Marnier and orange vodka provided by, yep, Grey Goose. We found some shade (it was almost 90 degrees) and drank them there. It was a ‘life is good’ moment, to be sure.
Later, I had another ‘life is good’ moment when I discovered that Disney has commissioned their own, 120-proof version of Knob Creek bourbon, which is for sale at their hotel bars. Cost: thirteen bucks and change, but as a guy who loves bourbon and can hold his liquor, I can attest that one drink is all you’ll need.
The Disney Dream
But back to my original point: nothing about our day at Epcot prepared us for the embarrassment of riches that we would have at our disposal on the Disney Dream. It’s a BOAT, for crying out loud, yet from the very beginning, we were faced with some seriously difficult decisions in terms of which activity to do, and which one to fit in later, if possible. Say, for example, that someone decided to hold a three-day music festival, and these were their headliners.
Those who know me are laughing their heads off, because I am a massive fan of all six of those bands. However, since the bands in the second row will be performing at the same time as one of the bands in the top row, I can only see three of them, which means I have a musical Sophie’s choice, as it were. The boat was this times ten.
Take, for example, this 30-minute block on one of the days of our cruise.
– Toy Story (poolside screen)
– Beauty and the Beast (yes, the 2017 live-action version currently in theaters, in 3D no less)
– Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple (character meet)
– Chip It Golf
– Disney Animation: Creating a Character
– CoolSculpting: A Slimmer You (adults)
– Video Game Challenge (14-17 years)
– Ice Cream Social (11-14 years)
– Super Sloppy Science (3-12 years, more on this later)
– Cruisin’ with Crush (3-12 years)
Again, those were all happening within one 30-minute stretch. And here’s the punch line: we did none of those things, as we were off the boat doing a dolphin encounter (more on this later as well). Oh, and this was between 1:00 and 1:30, so a lot of people were eating lunch. And there was the Goofy Golf on the top deck.
And that wasn’t it! There are the pools (smaller than you would expect from a Disney boat – we didn’t set foot in any of them during the entire trip), and the Aqua Duck, the Disney Dream’s water rollercoaster, which actually goes out over the ocean for a stretch. Despite all of these other things to do, the Aqua Duck tended to have a 45-minute wait at all times, though we learned a secret on the first night, and used it to our advantage on the last one.
Once you’re on the ship, you may not see your checked bags for a few hours, so if you want to swim, pack your swimsuit in your carry-on bag or wear it under your clothes.
Never mind the “activities” and “excursions,” you’re saying. If I’m going to survive the weekend on a boat surrounded by the children of strangers, I’m going to need booze. I get it, and that brings us back to the beginning of our story.
As I have mentioned, we didn’t rent a car, which means they only way that we would be able to pick up some sangria for the cruise is if we rented a cab (um, no), so I asked my stepmother if she would get some for us. And she did…but she bought the forbidden size, the monster double bottles that Disney’s web site explicitly forbids. We drank most of one of them while we were at the French Quarter, so that left three monster bottles that we had to explain to security as we arrived at Port Canaveral.
I was fully prepared to negotiate a settlement. We had three big bottles, each one only slightly more than the two 750ml bottles that each adult was allowed to bring on board. Knowing that we were never going to drink all three of those bottles in three days, I had my argument ready that, if you let us bring one bottle on the ship, that is far less than the overall amount of alcohol that two adults are allowed to bring. So keep the other two bottles, or give them to guests who didn’t know the rules, and brought nothing. You’d be paying it forward. It made sense to me, anyway.
And then the craziest thing happened: no one batted an eye at our sangria. We walked on the ship with all three bottles. We felt like the luckiest people on earth. And, true to my prediction, we only drank one of them. We gifted the other two to our State Room Host. Don’t you love those titles? He’s the guy with the undesirable job of making our room look awesome, which he did with military precision, and that is not a joke. The sheets were so tight that it reminded me of the story “Who Will Tuck Me In Tonight?” where the farm animals try to put a lamb to bed, but don’t do it in the manner to which he’s accustomed. Mrs. Cow tries to tuck him in, and it looks like this.
This is surely a Disney policy that the bedding be bounce-a-quarter tight, but it still made us laugh each night that we had to do a fair amount of calisthenics in order to get into bed. On the plus side, our guy was good with presentation, because on Pirate Night (once again, more on that later), he turned our blanket into Davy Jones.
So we left him our two remaining bottles of sangria. I hope he was able to keep them and share with his friends like we intended. And Disney, if for some ridiculous reason you’re reading this (and you probably are, because Google Alerts), reading this might make you want to come down on the security people and discipline them for letting us through with too much contraband, but please, resist the urge. Everything turned out just fine.
The beds were really comfy, too. We all slept far better on the boat than we did at the French Quarter. Gotta say, I didn’t see that coming.
They have a very low ceiling. I’m 6’4″, and I had to wash my hair on my knees. It also took us a while to figure out the hot and cold water knobs, which was rather humbling. You went to college, right? I asked myself at one point.
Didn’t need them, as it turned out, but we were glad to have them in case the waters were rough. (We definitely felt the boat shift when we were in the lower decks for dinner, but not in a nauseating way.) If anything, the purr of the engine lulled us to sleep at night, like a white noise generator that also offered a light massage to the entire ship.
The room doors are metal, and they encourage people to hang magnets on the doors in order to make it easier for people to find their room. We bought some blank magnet canvas so our kids could draw whatever they wanted. Garrett and Amy both made their own versions of this.
Unlike them, however, you are always welcome to threaten me with a good time. *Rock Lobster riff*
The Oceaneer Club/Lab
If you have children between the ages of 3 and 12, you will want permanent access to the Oceaneer Club at your disposal, wherever on earth you go, for the next 10 years. When our kids first saw the Friday schedule, they both focused on “Rogue One” playing on one of the big screens. We were obviously not excited about this, as we had already seen it, and there were so many things to do on the boat that you can’t do at home, unlike, say, watching “Rogue One.” But we went along as we took them to the Oceaneer Club/Lab before the movie was supposed to start, hoping they would change their minds.
They didn’t want to leave. Ever.
It wasn’t until around midnight that we were able to get them out of the lab, and that was only because they were closing for the night. They loved this place, and for good reason; they had a ridiculous amount of things to do, including an interactive dancing game with a CGI Stitch that they couldn’t stop talking about. This gave me and Deb four hours to explore the boat and get our bearings, which came in handy over the next couple of days. We also happened upon the pool deck while they were showing “Big Hero 6.”
The “I’m satisfied with my care” scene in that movie gets me every time.
I didn’t know this was a thing until the person we used to book the trip asked if we would be doing it. So I did some digging and asked some coworkers, and learned that you can get 50 trading pins for about $20 on eBay (each pin normally goes for $8 to $14 apiece). So I went the eBay route. and I was amazed at how many of them we wanted to keep. For a bunch of random eBay pins, they sent us some really cool ones. We kept 30, and designated 20 for trade. We had them on us our entire time at Epcot, but didn’t trade until we were about to leave. And even on the boat, we didn’t trade much until the Captain’s Trading circle on the last night of the cruise, and we still made a killing. With minimal effort, we turned a bunch of Mickey, Minnie, Daisy, and Donald pins into the Medsker Show.
Top row: Agent P, Figment, Stitch, Kanga and Roo, another Stitch, Bambi, the Siamese Cats, Tigger, Tiana, Chewbacca. Bottom row: Star Wars, Dug, Remy, Scar with hyenas, Disney Mediterranean pin, Bing Bong, Boo, the one skull pin we didn’t trade, and a Puffle.
There was a young girl in front of me making a trade with a captain as I was eyeing his Bing Bong pin, and I can’t believe she didn’t take that one. Who’s your friend who likes to play? Who laughs and screams and yells hooray? HOW DID SHE NOT STEAL THAT FROM ME? Don’t care – it’s ours, and I didn’t have to maim a small child to get it. The one pin we saw that we all decided was our great white buffalo was the Ellie Badge, the Grape Soda pin that Carl Fredrickson gives to Russell at the end of “Up.”
We never saw it in the open (as in, where it wasn’t for sale), but I bought it at the Disney store at the Orlando airport and gave it to Amy for her birthday, and she was much, much more excited about it than she would have been if we hadn’t introduced them to the pin trading thing beforehand. It’s official: we’re now hooked. On the down side, we no longer have any pins that we’re willing to trade. Might have to buy another set from eBay.
I loved being able to hop on a bus at the Orlando airport and go straight to the hotel, without waiting for our checked bags (they send you luggage tags so Disney employees can identify your bags and pick them up). I also loved being able to take a bus to and from Epcot, and barely had to wait for them to arrive. What I didn’t like is how much Disney charges for transportation to and from Port Canaveral.
It’s $70 per person, round trip, so for us that’s an additional $280. I found that price to be excessive enough that I researched the cost of renting a car for the same time period, and learned that Disney’s rate is slightly less than what the rental companies were asking. Given the number of people that they can fit on one bus, and how much everyone on board was already spending to take the cruise, that shuttle should cost a lot less. Even if it were half what they are currently charging, they would STILL make a ton of money. The fact that it’s just barely less expensive than the rental car rates reeks of price gouging. What are your feelings about that, Mr. Horse?
This is a big deal. Guests are encouraged to dress like pirates for dinner on the second night of the cruise. There’s a huge show on the pool deck with Jack Sparrow avoiding a bunch of pirates. There are fireworks, and then the pool deck is turned into a giant dance floor. There is a CGI skull that pops up on the big screen that scared the hell out of my daughter. Dressing up in garish clothing is normally not my style, but my sister-in-law shipped us some gear they brought to their own Disney cruise, so I wore just about everything except the dreadlocks, because I think we all agree that that would just look ridiculous.
We did get this photo at dinner. Amy’s face for the win.
On a related note, clip-on earrings are a pain.
The Dolphin Encounter at Blue Lagoon
If you can afford to do this, do this.
There are two options. There is the dolphin encounter, and the dolphin swim. The encounter includes everything in the swim, except for the swim. You will get to:
– Pose for a family picture, with one family member getting a kiss from the dolphin (this will surely be the cover of our Christmas card this year)
– Hug the dolphin
– Kiss the dolphin
– Pet the dolphin on both sides as it slowly swims by
– Feed the dolphin
– Dance with the dolphin (it propels itself up by its tail so you can grab its flippers)
Those who opt for the swim will also get dragged around by a dolphin for about 10 seconds. The cost of those 10 seconds is an additional $89. That is not a typo.
The dolphin, named Salvador, was amazing, and our guide/trainer was Randy. Try to be in his group if you do this, because he was a great trainer. He’s very funny, and he’s taught Salvador some fun tricks. For example, after I fed the dolphin, Randy said, “No, you held it too high, man, too high,” at which point the dolphin started chirping and splashing me with water. It was a neat setup too, because the dolphins basically came and went during the encounter, knowing that eventually they’d have to return and finish the show.
If you want pictures of your encounter, though, you’ll have to pay for them. They will not take pics from your own devices, and the pictures aren’t cheap, but it’s hard to argue with the results. That shot of Garrett with the dolphin will definitely be part of his wedding weekend highlight reel.
Even better, we were able to sweet talk the guy who did the sea lion encounter, which was already finished, into taking some pics of Deb and the kids with a sea lion just before the boat back to the ship arrived, so win-win.
Met a really nice and fun couple in our group at the dolphin encounter, with two girls a little younger than Amy. Spent time doing the Midship Detective Agency with them (think MagiQuest, with interactive paintings by the elevator banks). We never solved the crime, though. It was either Jafar or Captain Hook. Yet another example of how much there is to do, and how little time there is to do it.
Speaking of the elevator banks: take the nearby stairs as often as you can. It will almost always be the fastest way to go, and you’ll get some steps in at the same time.
Single People Take Disney Cruises, Too
There were a slew of activities specifically designed for single guests, which I didn’t think about before getting on the boat but it makes sense now that I think about it. After all, if I’m single and looking for a match, then a Disney cruise would be the one I would lean towards for a couple of reasons: fewer woo girls and bros than your typical cruise (because that is just not what I’m looking for at this point in my life, if ever), and Disney and Pixar films would serve as a great conversation starter. I wonder if any matches were made on our boat.
Also, as Deb wisely pointed out, we hope their drinks were comped as well as their food. If part of our overall cost went towards covering the drinks of the single people on board, I would be totally okay with that.
The Disney Cruise App
Download this, and set your phone to airplane mode, otherwise your phone bill next month will be unpayable.
The app won’t work until you’re on the ship and connected to Disney’s Wi-Fi, but once you are, you can text the members of your party, and even other guests, which we did with our new friends. (I did tend to get bounced off the Wi-Fi a lot, but those are some seriously first world problems.) It was nice to have the day’s schedule in our pocket wherever we went, and you can even look up the dinner menu for that night.
Which reminds me, I haven’t even talked about the food yet. We should do that.
For a cruise, where breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, the food was shockingly good. They served the best buffet eggs I’ve ever had (I’d use a certain word to describe them, which rhymes with boist, but I don’t want to freak out my niece or daughter), and whatever you do, do not pass on the Mexican hot pockets. They only served them one morning, and I don’t know what’s in them, but they were fabulous. With the kids serving themselves, Garrett took the opportunity to assemble his fantasy breakfast, complete with a side bowl of syrup.
The pancake in the picture above was submerged in the syrup pool seconds later. THAT is how you vacation, people. Kids understand this concept much better than adults do.
There are three dining rooms on these boats. Our first night was at the Animator’s Palate, which has a bunch of screens where Crush the turtle from the Nemo/Dory films can come and chat with the diners. And when I say that he chats with the diners, I mean that he jumps from screen to screen – because the dining rooms are gigantic – and talks to everyone lucky enough to be in front of him, calling them out by name and everything. We had just watched Crush do this when we were at Epcot, and to Disney’s great credit, whoever is doing this interactive thing with the Disney Dream guests can’t be the same person who’s talking to the people at Epcot, but they sound exactly the same. Clearly, consistency across all brands is a priority, as it should be.
We had the same wait staff every night. (You will tip them, and your State Room Host, a base rate for every night of the cruise.) As they get to know you, they will anticipate your requests. Bowls of pickles awaited the kids on our last night, and the assistant server Lenix kept teaching the kids magic tricks and giving them puzzles to solve, which they loved. And the dinners were fabulous. The seared tuna and avocado tower appetizer was a highlight, as were the lamb chops on the final night. You will not be hungry while on the boat. Ever.
Oh, and room service is free. FREE. We ordered cheese and crackers and fruit because FREE. First time I’ve ordered room service since 1994.
On the way back from Blue Lagoon, I was speaking with a woman who was traveling on another cruise ship. I don’t want to mention them by name, but they share their name with a classic video game, and it looked like this.
She didn’t like their food at all, and when I told her we were on a Disney cruise, she had this excited but wistful expression. I felt so sorry for her. To spend that kind of money for a top-notch experience, and not like the food? You people have failed everyone on your boat, even the ones who liked the food.
Here are some interesting stats: when a Disney cruise ship is at full capacity (which ours was), there are 4,500 guests, and 1,500 employees on board. A veritable floating city.
Oh man, I haven’t even talked about the best part.
Half of the Disney employees called it Castaway Key. I have been told that to people in that area, ‘cay’ and ‘key’ are interchangeable, which makes sense since you have the Florida Keys so close to the Bahamian Cays, but from the standpoint of this Midwesterner born in Florida, the letters ‘C-A-Y’ sound like the letter K. Wait, shoot, I now see how potentially confusing this is. Ugh.
This is Disney’s private island. It’s small, but it’s exactly the right size for a half-day excursion. Guests have a maximum of eight hours to spend off the boat – there’s even a 5K island run if you’re one of those people who truly don’t know how to take a vacation – and we opted to exit with enough time to get a photo with Stitch. He was the only character the kids (and I, if we’re being honest) cared about meeting.
We purchased the Getaway Package, which included snorkel gear, bike rental, and inner tubes. I knew going in that we wouldn’t use the tubes much (and we didn’t), but the snorkeling and the biking were superb. We talked to people who saw baby stingrays and a four-foot eel. We, on the other hand, merely saw dozens of beautiful fish, and they seem to have grown accustomed to swimming near people to the point that they would at times swim within reach of your hands. They’re too fast for you to touch them, but still, the intimacy was nice.
The bikes are one-speed, casual numbers. Speed is not the point with these – you’re on vacation, so take your time and enjoy the experience. You even spend some time biking on the island’s runway, which is a bit surreal. The biking reminded me of how truly lucky I was as a kid, because my father had an airplane and would fly us to another island in the Bahamas (Cat Island), where we would ride around on mini dirt bikes and explore the island unsupervised. (Think about that for a second.) I saw more stars in those night skies than I have ever seen in my life. We could even see the Milky Way.
The biking also reminded me of a fundamental truth about the Bahamas: the islands are godforsaken, uninhabitable wastelands. Look at this.
That brush is growing in defiance of nature, not because of it. There is a second-story observation deck about two-fifths into the bike ride, and all I could think of while overlooking the landscape was Sam Kinison’s routine about bringing the hungry people to where the food is. “Come here, look at this. This is sand, yes, sand. You know what it’s gonna be a hundred years from now? IT’S GONNA BE SAND!” That is the Bahamas in a nutshell. The ocean views may be gorgeous, but there is no living on an island like Castaway Cay without supplies from the mainland.
Final Castaway Cay thought: definitely hit the water slides. The enclosed one is really fast.
Just before dinner on the last night, Deb and I are having some sangria on the verandah, and holy cow, Disney even controls the weather. Does anyone else see Ariel in this cloud?
So, what’s the secret to the Aqua Duck? Go late. It’s open until 10:00 at night, but if you hit it in the last hour, the line is down to next to nothing. Our kids were able to do two rides in the last half hour.
I’ve written about 4,200 words at this point, and I still haven’t talked about several other events and attractions: the grown-up clubs and bars (mainly because we didn’t spend much time in them, but we did discover another nice late-night buffet at Pub 687 on the last night), the trivia contests (there was an ‘80s Music Challenge, but it was at 10:45 on Sunday night, so you fellow cruisegoers were spared…this time), and the multiple karaoke events, to name but a few. We saw one of the theatrical productions, the “Villains” show, which was campy but fun. Mad props to the woman who played Yzma, though. She was perfect.
We did pop in on the bands in the atrium, and while those acts are there to play the hits (it is a Disney cruise, after all), they do it really well. The female singer in The Vitos had a great voice, and violinist Olga Altukhova, who’s like Disney’s own personal Lindsey Stirling, is not to be missed. Armed with a laptop filled with electronic instrumentals of Disney songs, she killed it.
The Last Night
There is a huge production number on the final night in the lobby atrium. Several characters, including princesses and people in costumes, sing a big lip synched number, and when Mickey walked off into the sunset with Minnie, I watched a toddler girl bawl her eyes out. It was the cutest thing I saw on the trip.
Disney offers a service where they will take your large bags and move them off the ship if you have them packed and sitting outside your door by 10:30 on the last night. As inconvenient as this is, take advantage of it. The last thing you want to do is drag all of your stuff around as they push you off the boat at zero dark thirty in the morning (only a slight exaggeration). We were supposed to do breakfast at 6:45, but HA HA HA HA HA HA LOLZ THEY THINK WE’RE GETTING UP TO EAT BEFORE 7:00 ON VACATION. We got up an hour later and ate at the buffet on the pool deck, as did a lot of other people.
I asked some restaurant workers during breakfast, “So, what do you do once we leave?” “We go right out for another trip,” they said, and that’s when I understood. The four-day cruises go from Monday afternoon to Friday morning, and the three-day cruises go from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. It is never-ending for the cast members; they get, at best, a few hours a week on the boat without guests. Moral of the story: be nice to the cast members. They might seem like fun jobs, and I’m sure it has some great perks, but at the same time, they have to be some of the hardest jobs there are. Treat these people kindly.
We learned that the last buses to the airport left at 9:30, and they left every 30 minutes, so we planned on making the 9:00 bus, which we did. We found our bags in seconds upon leaving the ship, and going through Customs is the fastest trip through Customs you will ever experience. Since we didn’t know when we would arrive at the airport, we didn’t know which flight home to book, so of course we booked a 5:50 PM flight, which meant hanging out in the Orlando airport for over six hours. Luckily, I had a good book to read, a YA fantasy book called “The Girl Who Drank the Moon.“ It’s very Neil Gaiman-esque, and something I will be putting in Amy’s hands when she’s about to go into middle school. Many pre-teen survival skills to learn in this book. Also, talking dragons.
So, the big takeaways from this trip are:
– Book an earlier flight home
– Do a four-day cruise
– Trade more pins
– Do all of the above as soon as it’s financially viable
It’s fun to take jabs at the Mouse House, but this is as well-oiled a machine as I’ve ever seen. If your experience on one of their cruise ships is anything less than spectacular, sorry, but that’s on you. Goodness knows they held up their end of the deal.
I’d like to leave you with this: there were 65 nations represented by the crew of the Disney Dream. There seemed to be about as many nations represented by the guests on board. I didn’t see a single argument or fight take place the entire weekend. There’s a statement in here somewhere about the good that comes from being a decent human being to everyone, but I will leave it to someone much smarter than I am to make it.