Making Your Disney Cruise Magical

If you are thinking about taking your first Disney cruise, then this post is for you.  If princesses and talking mice are not in your future, well, this IMG_5171post just may not be YOUR cup of tea.

Before you leave home:

  1. As soon as you start contemplating a Disney cruise, be sure to check out the MouseSavers web site.  It is FULL of great information. including ways to save money.
  2. Download the Disney Navigator App.  This is what it looks like:
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    If you don’t, you will have to download from the internet when you are aboard and accessing the internet can be costly.  Better to plan ahead to get it for free while at home.
    The app is about the only thing that works on Disney’s free wifi.  Why is it such a great thing to have?  Well, the app allows you to text — an easy way to find other members of your group.  If you drop kids off at the Oceaneer’s Club (more on that later), staff will text YOU when/if your kid wants to be picked up.  To me, it was much easier to use the app to text from my iPhone than to have to learn how to use the “WAVE” phones in our cabin (there are two), remember to carry one more thing with me, and remember to charge it every night.
    Another great feature of the Navigator App is the daily events schedule can be accessed right from your phone, and trust me–there is always LOTS going on.  You  DO receive a paper schedule of the next day’s events every evening, but like my sunglasses and keys, it was never where I remembered putting it.
  3. After booking, you will be told the earliest date that you will be allowed to make reservations for spa appointments, character meetings and specialty restaurants.  Pay attention to it, and don’t dilly dally.  Things DO get booked up.  The web site instructs you to visit the customer service desk on your first day, if you want to make changes or additional reservations.  What do you think THAT line looks like?  LOOONG doesn’t begin to describe it.
  4. Depending on your status, (and as a lowly first time Disney cruiser in a non-suite, we had NO status), you will be allowed to book a certain number of dinner reservations in the specialty restaurant.  Disney Magic, the oldest and smallest ship, has only one specialty restaurant–the larger ships have two.  For our four night cruise, we were allowed to book one night, plus a second night if we were willing to dine there on the first night.
  5. I had thought that we would each receive lanyards to keep our room keys up close and personal.  Nope.  First time cruisers are the only ones that don’t get lanyards.  Had I known that, I would have brought one from trips I had taken with other travel companies. Does Disney think lanyards are an effective inducement to book future trips?  And can you tell from my distress at not having a lanyard that I have a tendency to misplace things?
  6. Be sure you have all of the necessary legal documents for EVERY member of the party.   See my earlier post for more on this topic.

Which Cruise to Choose?

Living in new Jersey, with family members coming from Massachusetts made the choice easy for us.   IMG_5110Departing from New York meant that we didn’t have to worry about flight arrangements, security screening, potential delays, missing baggage — all those things that can go wrong when you fly, especially when traveling with 3 and 4 year olds.

We also opted for the shorter cruise.  Not only was it less expensive, but we also weren’t sure how well the girls would adjust to sleeping on a ship.  (They were fine).

The length of the cruise turned out to be just right for us: one day getting aboard, three full days on the ship, and one morning getting off.

We chose an October cruise, figuring it would be less crowded (it was) because kids would be in school (many weren’t).  Another bonus–all October cruises are considered “Halloween on the High Seas”, giving some an opportunity to don costumes.IMG_5179IMG_5201

The down side of an October cruise?  You probably won’t be able to take advantage of all the water attractions.  The water wasn’t even turned on for these outdoor showers.

Cabin Choice
This is obviously a matter of personal preference and budget.   Rather than struggle with deck plans to try to figure out where we might be happiest, we had Lauren at Small World Vacations offer guidance.

IMG_5173She got us connecting ocean view cabins on the 7th deck, in the front of the ship.  This worked out really well for us–we were close, but not too close to the elevators and stairs.

The pools and spa are on the 9th deck,  and best of all, THIS section is also in the front of the ship–just two flights up.

Our cabin was surprisingly quiet, considering the number of children aboard.  Another plus for being in the front—we didn’t feel any vibration from the propeller.

The Cabin Layout

This ship was definitely designed with families in mind.  The upper bunk drops down at night, so 4 can comfortably sleep in one cabin.

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There is a curtain separating the bunk area from the king sized bed, so privacy is somewhat possible.   Unlike other cruises, the king sized bed can not be reconfigured into two twins.  Not a problem; it was not the first time my sister and I have shared a bed.

There was sufficient storage space, especially if one chooses to pack light–something I highly recommend.

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Oceanview staterooms have nice big windows.

The bathroom is split in two–with a tub/shower combo and sink in one  and a toilet sink combo in the other area.  Great idea!  The toilet/sink combo has a crappy wall hair dryer but there is also a regular dryer in the desk.

Our connecting ocean view rooms worked great.  A balcony wasn’t important to us, because there was so much going on, we were rarely in our cabins.  We also didn’t have to worry about the younger one, who is a climber, trying to balance on the balcony’s railing.

For those that aren’t claustrophobic, an interior cabin would be kind to your budget.

 

Dining

Disney DOES do a wonderful job getting everyone aboard with a minimum of hassle, however it still is a lot of stimulation for young kids.  For the first night, my niece wisely opted for room service.  I never cracked open the room service menu, so I’m no authority on its contents, but knowing the culinary preferences of the young ladies in question, I can say with confidence that hamburgers, pizza and mac & cheese were most definitely available.

IMG_5225I, on the other hand, along with my sister (the REAL grandmother–I’m just pretending) opted to spend our first night dining in the specialty restaurant, which allowed us to dine there a second time.  For our “bonus” reservation, we opted for the LAST night.

Let me tell you, dinner was well worth the extra $30 per person.  Excellent service, fantastic food, great ambiance.

The brunch was also amazing, especially if you are a seafood lover, and my sister clearly IS.  A Bellini (or if you prefer, a mimosa) is included in the $30 surcharge.

IMG_5204You can opt for made to order omelets, waffles, eggs Benedict etc, but why fill up on that when the desserts were so delectable?

Although the food was plentiful in the other restaurants, it was clearly designed with kids in mind.  I’ll admit to being spoiled by Oceania and Viking cruise lines.  This restaurant food was on a par with those lines’ every day cuisine.  The food at the other three restaurants and buffet was more like what you would get at a theme park.

I had never been on a large cruise ship before, so this was the first time I had a set dining schedule.  Disney rotates its guests through the other three restaurants, but you have to choose either a 5:45 or an 8:15 seating.  For the specialty restaurant, you choose your time when you make the reservation.

You can request a certain sequence of restaurants–which is why a travel agent can be so very helpful.  The Animator’s Palate has a wonderful show that should not be missed, so if you plan on dining in the specialty restaurant, make sure your reservation is not on your Animator Palate night.  We requested the rotation that had the second and third nights in the Animator’s Palate, just to make sure we didn’t miss the show.  It was breathtaking.

The Cast of Characters

As a newbie, I had no idea what I was signing the girls up for when I reserved a 9:45 appointment to meet Disney princesses.  So here’s what it means:  your ticket allows you to get in line for a photo op with the characters that show their OWN faces.   Although Disney has their photographers snapping away, there is no pressure to purchase photos, and you are free to take your own, which I did.

For this photo op, the kids got to meet THREE princesses. Rapunzel was the star of the show, Tangled, featured on night #3.  P1190153

 

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Okay, I identified Rapunzel and Cinderella, but I have NO idea who the third princess (the one in the white dress) was.

If you didn’t get tickets, don’t despair.  You still can get character shots with the ones that DON’T show their own faces, no tickets necessary– you simply get in line.

IMG_2820IMG_E5165Many of the kids brought their autograph books, but these girls were too young for that concept.

Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab

So, THIS feature is the reason I think a cruise is preferable to a theme park for families with young children.   FREE babysitting, for as many times as you want! IMG_0347

Not only that, but the kids LOVE this place.  In fact, when my niece went to fetch the girls around 10 PM, they refused to leave.  She had to return at midnight–closing time.

The kids are given a bracelet that operates like the ankle bracelets prisoners on house arrest wear.   It is also a “key” that gets them into the area, and it is a homing device that allows the staff to know EXACTLY where each child is.

When Bonnie couldn’t find her sister, a staff member looked up Katherine’s location on the computer, then summoned another staff member to bring Bonnie to Katherine.  Pretty impressive.  As mentioned before, the staff will text or call you (or any other authorized member of your party) should a child want to leave.  When you board the ship, your photo is taken so the staff member is always able to verify that you are who you say you are.

Another plus–your room is only an elevator ride away when it becomes clear that one or more of the kids is in dire need of a nap.   Even if you are staying in the theme park, you still have to ride the monorail to get to your lodging.

The Spa

So what might you be doing while your kids are having a great time at the Oceaneer Club?   You can choose from a full array of spa services, or you can opt for a day pass to the Rainforest Room.  This room includes a couple of steam rooms, a sauna, showers, plus your day pass entitles you to a complimentary jar of scented body scrub.

Those that are watching their spending (and on a cruise, the extras can mount up fast) can still use the locker room,  which has a free sauna, shower, dressing room and storage bins, PLUS bathrobes and slippers.  (You don’t get bathrobes in your room, but no one stops you from taking one from the free locker room, in the spa area.  These are not the luxury robes that you get on more upscale cruises, but they are quite sufficient.)

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The view of St. John, New Brunswick from an exercise bike.

You have to walk through the spa, to the very front of the 9th deck, to reach the exercise room, which is equipped with treadmills, bikes, weights, and machines.

The adult only area on the 9th deck has a heated pool and two hot tubs.  The weather was a bit too cool for the heated pool, but the hot tubs got a lot of use.

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The Shows

Living in New Jersey, I’ve seen my fair share of Broadway shows, and Tangled was definitely on par with those on the Great White Way.  Although there are shows every night, we only saw two.  The shows were a bit long for the three year old.  On both nights, she was “done” before the shows were.  In my opinion, three is just  about the youngest age to maximize enjoyment for a cruise like this.  (But then, my experience is limited to this cruise and these two kids.)

There are two “BIG” shows per night:  at 6:30 and 8:30, to accommodate the late and early dinner schedules.

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Showtime is not limited to the Disney extravaganzas.  No indeed.  Every evening the audience gets to participate in contests and game shows.  Fortified by copious amounts of “fire water”, some fellow cruisers were induced to exhibit some very “unDisney-like” behavior.

And yes, that is a bra on one of those fine fellows heads.  And yes, the owners of those bras were indeed in that same lounge.  And no, they were not part of our group.

 

Theme Nights

Apparently every cruise includes one Pirate Night, and it should not be missed.  Pirate Night was the second night of our cruise.

IMG_5140The waiters were all dressed in pirate costumes, and after the meal was finished, they led the kids around the dining room, marching, dancing and singing “yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.”

At 7 PM there was a musical show on the 9th deck, that had these little girls rocking.  Although I was able to get them right up to the stage, by asking the adults if they could squeeze through (surprisingly there were a lot of adults on this cruise traveling without kids), I think a better choice would have been on the balcony of the 10th deck.  The grand finale?  Mickey zip lines from the top of the ship, down to the stage.  Pretty exciting stuff when you are three or four.

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What a night! First the pirates on deck, then ANOTHER show in the theater. And if THAT’s not enough, you can watch movies in the kid pool area–sorta like being at the drive in, but instead of sitting in a car, you can climb into the hot tub.

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Notice the attire of the “life guard”.  Still, someone braved the chill to experience the heated pool.

Was our cruise wonderful and magical?  Yes, indeed, because to me,  it was all about the kids.  What a wonderful opportunity for family bonding,

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and for experiencing wonder through the eyes of a child.

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Embarkation: Let the Fun Begin!

I’ll let you in on a little secret. My family’s nom de plume is Murphy.  That law that you’ve heard about?  We live it on a daily basis, and this day was no exception.

Sorta like being in the airplane’s middle seat, but with better beverages

I won’t bore you with the details.  Instead, I will share some helpful hints so that YOUR embarcation goes more smoothly than ours.

Parking at the port was easy.  We arrived a little after noon, drove to the terminal (entrance is on 55th and 12th Ave– the ship was berthed about another block or two south of the entrance) where porters were waiting to help unload the luggage.

If by any chance you have forgotten the preprinted luggage tags Disney sent out with your cruise package, not to worry.  The porters had extra and quickly solved the problem.

Dad parked the car, while mom, the girls and aunt (that would be me) made our way inside to a terminal that was not crowded at all.  Cruise parking at the Manhattan terminal is $40 per 24 hours, payable in advance.

The girls met some very friendly greeters.  In case you’re wondering, their shirts say “My aunt is the coolest”.

Two other members of our group (my sister/girls’ grandmother, my nephew/ girls’ uncle) who drove from Massachusetts, reserved off site parking that charged half as much as the port. The best part–their service included driving you to the terminal in your own car, and helping unload luggage.  Good thing too, because between more than one stretch of bumper to bumper traffic and getting lost, they almost missed the boat.  They had no time to spare, to look for a space in the Port parking lot, park the car and high tail it back to the embarcation area.  There’s a lot to be said for arriving the day before departure.

IF you arrive around 12:30 PM, with proper documentation, you could probably be on the ship by 1:00 PM.  If, however, you happen to be missing a legal document, such as an official birth certificate for a child, you CAN have someone either fax or photograph it and email or text it to you.  See if you can figure out how I know this.

By the time some of us were on board, (2:15 PM) our rooms were ready.  Checked luggage arrived around 5 PM.

All’s well that ends well, with everyone checked in and aboard by 4 PM. The wonder and glory of sailing out of NYC might have been lost on the smallest member of our group, who was far more interested in her burger, but the rest of us loved watching the city’s skyline and Lady Liberty roll by.

Mother, daughter, and a young, cool grandmother also known as my niece, great niece and my “little” sister

About those Fish Extenders (FEs) that I mentioned in a previous post?  This is what they

 

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look like.  Notice the metal fish above the room number?  That’s where the name came from.  The idea is that group members leave little surprises for each others’ children in their FEs.

Wanna know how great some of the other passengers were?  My niece discovered the Facebook group (and FEs) about a week before departure–too late for her to create or purchase surprises for other group members.  Despite her inability to reciprocate,  people STILL left gifts for her girls.  The white board was one of the gifts–another was stuck inside the fish.  No extender necessary.IMG_5135

Lots of VERY kind, considerate shipmates were aboard!

Ten Random Reasons to visit Malta

If you plan on vacationing in Italy, why not extend your visit a smidgen and hop over to Malta?  This amazing little country has an abundance of things to see and do, especially if you are interested in history and archaeology. We spent five days there in late May, and felt that our timing was perfect…perfect weather, not too crowded, reasonably priced.  Yep, there was a whole lot to like about Malta.

It is very easy to get to Malta from Italy.  Although we could have taken a ferry from Catania, we opted for the less expensive, faster way, via Air Malta.

The title of this post is “RANDOM Reasons” to visit Malta and that’s exactly what you are getting.  Not order of importance, or magnificence–just the order in which they popped into this lazy blogger’s head.

1. The Grand Excelsior Hotel

P1180753It’s beautiful, it’s just outside Valetta’s wall, it’s close to buses that can take you wherever you want to go, the service is great, the pool is fantastic, the views from the restaurant and bars are incredible, and it is relatively inexpensive (at least it was in May, with several months advance booking. )

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The Excelsior’s pool at sunset

Be forewarned, though. The hotel is located below street level.  88 steps below, to be exact. The steps aren’t steep, but you WILL get your exercise.  Which can be a good thing, if you eat as much as WE did.

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The hike up those stairs is so worth it, because where else can you find…

2. Flower Shaped Gelato

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Although there is an abundance of gelaterias in Malta, Amorino was our favorite.  You can’t miss it–it is on Republic Street (the main street), on the right, if you are coming through the city gates. Your flower can have as many flavors as you want.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

And since we are on the subject of food, we discovered this wonderful restaurant close to the Blue Grotto.

3. La Cucina de Bettina

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The owner of the restaurant was also our waiter. That’s him, in the black tee, explaining the menu to customers.

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I’m ordinarily not a HUGE seafood fan, but this was incredible–the best tuna I have ever tasted!  Fresh?  Well, the owner told us our lunch had been swimming in the ocean just a few hours before.  Take a look.

No, that was not the serving size, but close.

We also had a wonderful antipasto platter, and a bottle of wine recommended by the owner/waiter.  I should have made a note of what we spent for this feast.  All I can remember was that it cost MUCH less than we ever expected!

I could go on and on about the Malta food, but I’m sure you get the idea.  It was delicious, varied and affordable.

4. Valetta

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Let’s just start with the festive Republic Street.

Yes, it does look a bit crowded, but if you want a more peaceful experience, all you need to do is duck down a side street.  Cruise ships dock in Valetta, so when multiple ships are in town, you do get throngs, but after 5, the city is yours.

The Grand Master’s Palace is on Republic Street, and there IS a guard changing ceremony every day.

Other activities in Valetta definitely deserve their OWN number, like…

5. The Malta Experience

P1180772Perhaps you arrived in Malta without doing any research at all.  You know NOTHING about its history or the history of its many invaders.  Not to worry.  All you need to do is buy a ticket to The Malta Experience, then sit back and enjoy.  You will be quickly brought up to speed!  There are other options on the island, including one that promised you a 5D experience (moving seats, water spray, air blasts and leg ticklers) but this was the one we chose and we were not disappointed.  Now if we had been traveling with children, we probably would have opted for the multi-sensory extravaganza.

6. St John’s Co Cathedral

It is impossible to capture the majesty and magnificence of this building.  It doesn’t look like much on the outside.  In fact, we walked past it a couple of times without even noticing it.  But walk inside and WOW!

 

We’ve hit a lot of churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, and the Americas, but this has to be the most jaw-dropping one I have ever encountered.

“The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the Co-Cathedral, but just off to the side.  I needed to ask directions to find it.

The painting is HUGE–it fills a wall.  You can’t get close to it, so I was unable to verify whether Caravaggio’s signature was formed by the blood flowing from the Baptist’s neck.  TIP: If you go, bring binoculars or opera glasses to get a better view.

You are not allowed to photograph the painting.  If caught, supposedly they confiscate your photo card.

No, I did not break the rules.  This is a photo of a postcard, purchased from the gift shop.  A poor substitute, but better than nothing.

7. Transportation Alternatives 

Here’s another tip: forget about the Hop On Hop Off buses here.  You are better served riding the regular city buses.  They are far less expensive, and more frequent.  Normally we are huge fans of HOHO, but this one had a host of negatives.  Its headsets were not reliable.  Some worked–some didn’t, and the information they provided was not that great.  There were long periods of silence, causing me to wonder whether the headset had stopped working.  I was frequently consulting the brochure to try to figure out where we were.

We soon discovered the HOHO doesn’t necessarily stop in front of attractions listed in their brochure.  But it DID stop at listed attractions that were closed.

We made the mistake of buying the two day, (red and blue) pass, so never tried out the city buses, but we sure saw a lot of them.  Next time, city bus will be our preferred mode of transportation.

If you DO decide to go the way of the HOHO, you can get aboard near the bus station close to the Grand Excelsior.

8. Tarxien Temples

If you are into archaeology, you’ll love the Tarxien Temples.  Full disclosure.  We had wanted to see the Hypogeum, but that was completely booked.  And the Tarxien Temples were supposedly on the HOHO route, (not exactly,  as noted above, but we found our way), so why not?

These four temples date back to the Neolithic age (3600-2500 BC).  The Romans, 2000 years later, used the site for agriculture. The original structures were discovered In 1913, when  local farmers complained about the large blocks of stone they were striking while plowing.

There are other ruins for those that are really, REALLY into prehistory, but this was enough for us.

9. Gozo

We wanted to spend a day touring Gozo, and after our experience with HOHO, decided to book a private tour through the hotel.  We were not disappointed with our choice.  Marco picked us up at 8:30, drove us to and from the ferry and around Gozo, making sure we spent our time the way WE wanted.

View of Gozo harbor from the Ferry

We drove by Popeye’s village, now a tourist trap, formerly the set for Robin William’s 1980 movie, stopping just long enough to take a couple of photos.  

I remember suffering through the Iliad and the Odyssey during my Freshman year in college.  Maybe if I had known I’d be visiting the cave of the nymph who bewitched Odysseus, I would have enjoyed the books more.  (But probably not). The cave was closed because of “geological movement”, so we could only look at a hole in the ground, partially hidden by bushes, but the view of the nearby beach with its red sand was quite lovely.

Gozo had lots of beautiful ocean vistas, a lovely cathedral, a great multimedia show in Rabat, (the old center also known as Victoria), fantastic food—AND this rather graphic painting of St. Agatha.  Seems the Roman suitor she rejected got a bit miffed and decided to cut her breasts off in retaliation.  

She looks remarkably unconcerned, maybe because the little angel hovering over her head (holding a crown) told her that in years to come, the Maltese and Sicilians would create a pastry in her honor.  Think I’m kidding?  Take a look.  They are called “Minni di Sant Aita”. Honest.

The Azure Window would definitely have made the list had we traveled to Gozo in 2016. Unfortunately for us, in March of 2017, the arch tumbled into the sea, so we had to content ourselves with this post card image, and a view of the site where it once stood.  Still a scenic  and lovely area, though.

10. Mdina

The oldest city on the island of Malta, Mdina was built and inhabited by Arabs until they were expelled by the Christians in 1250.   Another fortified city, it has the mandatory moat and gates.

It also has the requisite cathedral, old buildings repurposed as cafes and gift shops, but MY favorite thing was the Palazzo Falzone, a 13th century building loaded with an incredible collection of antiques and the very coolest sound system ever.  

You just put on the headset, point the wand at a plaque on the wall and voila, you have a narrative about the article/ room you are viewing!

Olof Gollcher, a Swedish philanthropist and heir to a shipping fortune, purchased the building in 1927, and used it as a repository for his collections of art, silver, furniture, weapons and books.

There you have it.  This lazy, random blogger got you started.  These ten highlights barely scratch the surface of all that is wonderful and glorious about Malta. The rest is up to you!