Sailing with Disney

Sailing with Disney

By Janna Graber

It's a typical family outing-two parents and three kids out for a drive-in movie on a star-filled summer night.

Yet this drive-in is unusual. We're sprawled on lounge chairs on the top deck of the Disney Magic. The big screen stands high above deck. The Caribbean air is warm and moist, yet the breeze is refreshing as the ship sails toward the Bahamas. A full moon casts light on my family's happy faces.

It's the perfect way to end the day at sea.

These late-night movies have become a family ritual here on the Disney Magic, an unexpected delight to our cruise experience. This is our third Disney cruise, and each time we find new ways to enjoy our time together.

It's been fascinating to watch our children grow and gravitate to different onboard experiences over the years. The same boy who wanted to spend all his time in the Mickey toddler pool on our first cruise now plays dodgeball and computer games at the Oceaneer Lab. And the girls who once waited in awe to meet the Disney princesses now hang out at The Stack, the ship's teen club.

There is something for every age, no matter how fast our kids seem to grow. It's one of the beauties of sailing with Disney-though it doesn't come cheap. Disney is often one of the more expensive family cruise experiences.

One of the first questions asked by those who haven't cruised before is whether passengers get seasick. It's true that the first few hours on a cruise ship can feel a bit strange. Yet my family and I have never felt unsteady or ill. Today's vessels are equipped with stabilizers, which make for relatively smooth sailing. Some people even come to love the motion of the ship, and it's especially soothing at night while you're sleeping.

Others ask about accommodations. On our cruise, we had a family suite: a king-sized bed, as well as three singles which pulled down from the wall or ceiling. A curtain separated the children's area from the main cabin. During the day, the kids' beds folded away to leave a sitting area where we could enjoy room service or watch TV. My favorite part of the suite was our private deck, a worthwhile upgrade if you want a quiet space to read or watch the endless miles of sea go by.

The question we've been most often asked, though, is how Disney compares to other cruises.

In an age where many parents are hesitant to let their kids walk down the street by themselves, the sense of safety was a treasure.

To be honest, the attraction is obvious for families with little ones. Our children's sense of awe at being surrounded by characters and stories they have loved since they were toddlers was something any parent would treasure.

In addition, Disney is a name many parents trust to provide a quality experience in a safe, clean environment. When I was choosing our first cruise and the experience was unknown, this trust level went a long way.

Another benefit is the entertainment options. Quality entertainment on cruises is nothing new, but in my experience, other cruise lines often lack child-appropriate subject matter. Disney takes great care to provide fun, kid-friendly options that families can enjoy together. The nightly shows onboard range from full Broadway-style stage productions to stand-up comics and magicians. Family movies are shown throughout the day.

Perhaps one of Disney Cruise Line's strongest points is its onboard kids' programs, with age-appropriate programs for ages three months to 17 years. Our youngest, Matthew, spent his time in the Oceaneer Lab, a science-themed center for 8-12 year olds. A bank of game-laden computers kept his strict attention, yet he also liked the activities that ran throughout the day, from sports challenges to science experiments.

This year, we decided to let Matthew check himself in and out of the Oceaneer Lab at will. Disney provided us with a pager, and paged us with his information each time he left, so we knew when to expect our young buckaroo.

The sense of freedom this provided to our nine-year-old was something special. In an age when many parents are hesitant to let their kids walk down the street by themselves, the sense of safety that we felt on the Disney Magic was a treasure.

That goes for our two teenage daughters, too. Since most other passengers are families with children, I never worried about our girls hanging out at the pool or anywhere on the ship by themselves. They often gravitated to The Stack, a special area of the ship reserved just for teenagers. This kick-back pad has big-screen TVs, MP3 players and a soda bar. Counselors organize activities from dance parties to games.

Disney's Oceaneer Club is a pirate-themed center for kids aged 3-7 years. Infant care is offered (for an additional fee) in the Flounder's Reef Nursery. Parents can even choose shore excursions which correspond with the nursery's available hours.

Adults can also enjoy quiet time at the Quiet Cove Pool and Cove Café, where no little ones are allowed. The Vista Spa and Salon has a soothing environment. I found the spa treatments adequate, but not outstanding. A better value is the $15 day pass to the spa's Tropical Rainforest, which includes saunas and steam rooms.

Of course, the ports of call are a huge part of any cruise, and each port offers something different. Take care to consider the weather when planning your excursions. For example, Key West is brutally hot in the summer, so choose a water sport or indoor adventure.

For our family, the shore excursions were a hit. The Dolphin Adventure in Cozumel let us meet a dolphin up close, while Grand Cayman was a splendid diving experience.

But the ultimate highlight of any Disney cruise is the day spent at Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Caribbean. Most cruise lines have similar private islands. The white sand beaches and blue waters look like something out of a postcard. We snorkeled, soaked in the sun, and even got to feed stingrays at the Castaway Cay Stingray Adventure.

It was the kind of day most of us dream about-a family memory in the making.

Colorado native Janna Graber is a freelance writer, editor and mother of three.

AAA Connection

AAA Colorado's travel agency has many Disney cruise itineraries, including this year's Mexico cruises. Contact a AAA Travel agent, call 866-235-7070, or visit www.aaa.com

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