15 Tips to Get the Most from Your Disney Cruise

When we return from a vacation and people ask, “Did you have a good time? Was it relaxing?” I try my hardest not to laugh out loud.  Of course it wasn’t relaxing!  We have a five-year-old and two three-year-olds!

However, when people recently asked me, I was able to answer honestly, “Yes.  It’s the closest thing to a real vacation we get.”  And that’s why I love the Disney Cruise Line!

Disney Magic

Disney Magic

There are a thousand reasons to love a Disney cruise: exceptional service, super kid-friendly, nice ships, good food, vegetarian-friendly, tons for kids to do, movies, shows, lectures, lots of opportunities to meet characters, and just time to sit and watch the waves go by.  But in addition to all of those, here are fifteen lesser-known tips that can help you get the most from your Disney cruise.  Note that we did the westbound transatlantic, so some of these tips might not apply for all cruises. 

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1.  Get to the ship early on departure day.  There will be characters in the port available for photos, but only for a few hours.  We arrived just before 1:00pm, and were told they were done for the day already!  Apparently they were only there from 11:00am-1:00pm.  It’s not a deal-breaker, and there are more than enough opportunities to meet everyone, but it’s a great way to start off the vacation!  And it gives the kids something fun to talk about while you wait in very long lines to sign in.

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2.  Before you arrive at the port, put your Disney luggage tags on any and every piece of luggage you don’t want to carry yourself.  For us this included three car seats and even some airline carry-ons.  Just take what you want to/can carry, bearing in mind it will be a few hours before you see your luggage again and you might also be carrying a tired/cranky child (or two).  If you brought it, definitely use the stroller.  And baby/toddler carriers are useful, too.

Meeting Cinderella, Rapunzel & Belle

Meeting Cinderella, Rapunzel & Belle

3.  Referencing back to the long lines during sign-in, definitely bring some snacks for the kids and whatever distraction methods you use.  The line moves, and Disney is known for efficiency, but it’s no easy feat to get 2,000+ people signed in and registered.

Kids pool and splash area, Deck 9

Kids pool and splash area, Deck 9

4.  As soon as you can, whether before the cruise (although I’ve never had luck with that), or immediately upon arriving, go sign up for things!  Get in line at Guest Services and sign up for a character breakfast, special photo ops (princesses, Frozen, etc.), maybe even a princess tea party. Ask what activities are free. 

On our first trip, my then-three-year-old and I attended a very nice princess tea party where all the princesses flitted about while we sipped on tea and juice and ate teeny tiny sandwiches and cookies.  This time, however, they were charging over $100 per person for the princess tea party.  I guess it offered more than just a plate of tiny petit fours.  But for a family of five, it was cost-prohibitive, so we opted out of that one.  But I did ask for anything else that was free.

I was told that some of the activities were booked, but they “waitlisted” us.  If that happens to you, definitely follow up the next day, and the day after.  Disney is great about accommodating people, but you might need to gently remind them that you’re waiting. 

Animator's Palate (my favorite restaurant!)

Animator's Palate (my favorite restaurant!)

5.  One fabulous tip our travel agent gave us, was to order daily room service so hot coffee would be delivered to the room every morning.  The coffee addict in our family (not me), was very appreciative of this.  The other alternative is to just pop up to Deck 9 where there is coffee (and tea, soda, water) available 24/7, but room service is so decadent (and free).

And while we’re talking about room service, you can also order Mickey ice cream delivered to your room (again FREE)!  Now I’m not suggesting you set up a daily order, although you could.  But having a treat delivered to your room is always fun.

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6.  Ask your room steward for character sheets for the kids.  Sometimes they’re already set up.  But if not, ask.  We got “Frozen” and “Good Dinosaur” sets to the great amusement of everyone.  None for adults, unfortunately. 

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7.  The Oceaneer’s Club and Lab (the kids’ club) offers lunch and dinner daily.  If you have kids with special needs, ask ahead what’s on the menu for that day.  We didn’t partake of it as much as we should have, but two of the nights we let everyone play and eat there, while my husband and I had nice calm quiet dinners.  It was the height of luxury for us!  We even went to the piano bar (on the adult side of the ship I rarely saw) for drinks after.

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8. One fabulous perk is the ability to borrow adapters, or diaper Genies (for your room), or even strollers!  Both cruises we’ve been able to borrow strollers, for FREE, for the entire cruise.  We even took them off-ship to explore St. Cadiz. 

9. Maybe this makes me sound crazy, but one of my favorite tips was learning that there’s “secret” stroller parking on Deck 6, mid-ship (behind the double doors between the elevators).  It was so nice to get the strollers out of our tub/shower!  So, whether you’re borrowing the ship’s stroller, or brought your own, park it here instead of losing your precious shower space.

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10.  The Oceaneer’s Club and Lab are for kids 3-12 years old.  It’s completely free, has tons of different things for kids to do, regularly has characters coming through and they are open from 9:00am until midnight on some nights!  They are also open during port days.  So my husband and I ended up taking turns leaving the boat on port days and letting the kids play in the club.

For kids under three years old, they have the Small World Nursery.  This was a godsend on our first cruise, with two 15-month-olds.  They do charge by the hour, but it was worth it.

Note, for those of you with almost-potty-trained three-year-olds (or not-remotely-potty-trained three-year-olds), The Oceaneer’s Club and Lab have a strict no-diapers policy.  However, if you have someone who is on the cusp of being fully trained, have no fear, the staff is amazingly patient and kind.  In truth, our little guy was no where near being potty-trained (it’s on my list of things to do (ugh) after Christmas).  But we just put him in his new Mickey underpants and sent him in.  When, and if, he had an accident, the staff would text us.  They also asked that we check on him every 30-45 minutes or so, and we did.  I was seriously hoping that I could claim that Mickey potty-trained my son… but, well, I can’t.

Deck 9 pool, water slide, and endless movies

Deck 9 pool, water slide, and endless movies

11. As I mentioned in the beginning, the staff are great about accommodating any food needs (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc.) that you may have.  But in addition, they can also prepare daily purees for your little one!  So, no need to bring 80-100 food pouches or clanking baby food jars on board with you.  Just ask your fabulous waitstaff and arrange for it daily.  Our kids were beyond this on our first cruise but our team learned we loved bananas so they promptly appeared at every dinner and we stashed them in the room for the kids.  On our second cruise, we found ourselves swimming in daily raspberries and strawberries.  Decadent!

Enjoying the sunrise on the walking track on Deck 4

Enjoying the sunrise on the walking track on Deck 4

12. For several nights, maybe even most, they offer different photography portrait options.  For families or big groups traveling together, it’s a great way to memorialize the trip.  For those of you, like us, who have squirmy wiggly kids, I would definitely recommend taking advantage of the amazing skill, talent and patience of the Shutters photographers.  We ended up doing it several times, just to make sure we got a good shot (too many with one smiling and two not, or one smiling, one with eyes closed, and the third looking bored, etc.).  And you only pay for the photos you want ($15-$20 each, or get a package).

Goofy doing some touch-ups

Goofy doing some touch-ups

13. No surprise, if you have a birthday or anniversary on the ship, let everyone know.  There will be singing waitstaff for all to enjoy.  But in addition, if your little one just happens to lose a tooth on board, swing by Guest Services and ask if they have any of these super fun buttons to share.

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14.  Upon arrival in your destination port, pre-arrange for a private car to pick you up, or arrange one through Disney.  We ended up standing in a block-long taxi queue with three squirmy kids, all our luggage, right on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.  It was a very tense and stressful 90-minute wait that we could have avoided.

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15.  Finally, I cannot stress enough the benefit and ease of using a travel agent well-versed in the Disney experience.  We have used Cruise Planners (www.premiercruiseplanners.com) for two Disney cruises and one trip to Disney World and each time they have been on the ball and helpful beyond measure.  In addition, after putting down the deposit with them they continue to watch for any fare drops and can save you money up until the day you leave!  More money for your “cruise jar” (because you will want to go again, and again, and again).

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As I said before, this is the closest thing to a “nice, relaxing vacation” we can get right now.  And for that, we are forever grateful to the Disney Cruise Line -- truly the happiest place on Earth's oceans.  We can’t wait for the next one!  (Seriously, husband, I can’t wait!)

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Prague, A Tangible Christmas Wonderland

When the chance arises, choosing where to go in Europe for Christmas can be a daunting (but wonderful) prospect. But wherever you decide, note that for a mere four extra days you can squeeze in most of the sights and sounds of Prague, and it’s worth it. As one friend put it, “It's Paris, Munich, and Vienna all rolled into one fabulous, compact package!” And I couldn’t have said it better (hence the quote). My husband and I spent seven days over Christmas 2011 exploring all that Prague has to offer. Our objective in choosing Prague had been merely to find some place to meet up with my mother in Europe for the holidays; so when I Googled “Christmas in Europe,” I could just have easily searched under “Magical winter wonderland” and come up with Prague both times.

When visiting, there are some definite highlights that should not be missed. First is the Prague Castle, which encompasses an enormous complex and is believed to be one of the largest castles in the world. Within the castle walls there are museums and galleries, fantastic armor displays, an old torture chamber, and an area called “Golden Lane” with the tiny original houses of the castle employees renovated and restored.

It also houses St. Vitus’ Cathedral, a fantastic Gothic enormity built in the mid 1300s, with stunning stained-glass windows and all the requisite pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and endless flying buttresses of any Gothic-inspired structure. Behind St. Vitus is the, even older, Romanesque Basilica of St. George, built around 920 AD. In terms of decoration and adornment, it’s the polar opposite to St. Vitus, with minimalism as its guide. One of the best things about Prague is its walk-ability. Especially once you get your bearings (typically on day two of jetlag), you can almost always find your way through the twisting alleys and cobblestone streets. The walk to and from the Prague Castle is highly recommended, weather-permitting. You can walk over the famous pedestrian Charles Bridge, checking out the artisans selling their artwork or jewelry, or walk across any of the traffic bridges spanning the Vltava river which bisects Prague. The castle sits high atop the hill to the west, overlooking Prague, and the streets around it are full of quaint shops and restaurants and even if you’re not looking to spend a dime, the architecture is seemingly Disney-inspired. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Dopey or Pinocchio heading out from their cute little homes to do some shopping for the day. The other major site on the west side of the river is Petrin Hill, which can be walked up or you can ride the funicular (like a street car), which might be worth it just to be able to say, “I rode the funicular.” At the top is a tower, slightly reminiscent of another tower in Paris (but I don’t want to offend anyone on either side, so I won’t mention any names). We actually did not end up doing this, so I can’t further comment, other than to say that it’s one option for a clear sunny day.

The majority of sites within Prague are on the eastern side of the river. These include Old Town Square, with the Town Hall tower and astronomical clock, Wenceslas Square, the Jewish Quarter, the Spanish Synagogue, and some stunning churches and fantastical architecture hidden in back corners and down side streets. During our visit, both Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square were fully decked out in Christmas cheer (and hot wine sellers, candied nuts and gingerbread sellers, various sausagey-thing sellers, and kitschy ornaments and Christmas decoration sellers, to name a few). And whether we were drawn by the winter wonderland feel of it, or because we kept walking in circles, or just because the Christmas tree in Old Town Square was probably the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen, there wasn’t a night in Prague that we didn’t find ourselves meandering through Old Town Square’s Christmas stalls and gazing in delight at the lights. But, once you’ve got your feel for the city, these two squares can be handy reorientation spots. In addition to the amazing tree and the twinkling lights and the hot wine (which to me tasted just like it sounded, hot wine, but my husband and mother liked it a lot), there are a few other reasons to wander through Old Town Square. There are two churches off the square, Tyn Church and St. Nicholas Church, both of which are worthy of a stop. I loved the stunning crystal chandelier in the ornate baroque St. Nicholas Church, which was built in the early 1700s, replacing a parish church that had stood there since the 13th century. The Gothic Tyn Church (officially Church of Our Lady Before Tyn), built in the late 1300s, is entered by walking down an alley, between the shops that have been built up around it. At night, it’s lit up and bears a striking resemblance to the Disney castle, despite its asymmetrical spires and lack of Tinkerbell. The other reason to swing through the square, is to check out the Town Hall tower and astronomical clock. The latter is quite famous in Prague, and rightly so. It was built in the 1400s and is the oldest still-working astronomical clock in the world. There are actually three clock faces, of sorts. At the top of the tower is the actual clock. Lower, are two more dials, one being an astronomical dial, which charts the positions of the sun and moon, and a calendar dial representing the months. In addition, if you time it perfectly (and I say that with all seriousness, because it took us four attempts until we “caught” it), at the top of the hour, you can see "The Walk of the Apostles" show. In addition to the bells chiming, you’ll see a skeleton standing by the astronomical dial suddenly come to life and ring its bell, and the other three figures move jerkily. Then, two wooden doors open above the dial and if you’re positioned correctly (note, don’t stand right under the clock), you can see wooden figures moving past and pausing to look out the window. Presumably these are the Apostles. We heard a horrific story from our cab driver, who said that it’s rumored that when the artist finished carving the figures, the town’s elders gouged out his eyes so he couldn’t recreate it elsewhere. Even if it’s false, how horrible is it that someone even thought up the rumor? Prague’s Jewish Quarter has tremendous history packed into a very compact area. For one fee, we were allowed entrance into the museum, cemetery, Jewish town hall and ceremonial hall, and six synagogues. Prague has been at the center of European Jewish history, reaching as far back as the 10th century. In the early 18th century, there were more Jews living in Prague than anywhere else in the world. Throughout the centuries, though, there have been multiple periods of expulsions from Prague. Then, during World War II, more than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered. More than fifty years later, there are only approximately 3,000 Jews registered in the Czech Republic, with just 1,600 living in Prague.

The Jewish Museum was originally started in 1906, with the intent to preserve artifacts from synagogues in Prague that were being demolished. According to :

[In 1939, the] Nazis decided not to destroy the museum, but instead use it as a “Museum of an Extinct Race.” In fact, Hitler intended the entire Jewish Quarter of the city to become a museum to the vanished race. The Germans hired Dr. Karel Stein, historian and founder of the museum, to catalogue tens of thousands of confiscated items from more than 153 destroyed Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia. The wartime Jewish staff of the museum during Nazi rule devoted themselves to preserving this legacy, amidst constant threat of deportation and death, having already lost their families to the Nazi concentration camps. The staff only survived while they could prove that they were useful to the Nazis. The vast majority lost this fight and were deported to Terezin and Auschwitz. One survived however; Hana Volavkova returned to Prague after the war and became the director of the Jewish Museum. The museum became a storehouse for over 200,000 objects, books and archival material from all over Central Europe.

In addition to a moving display of the names of those lost to the Nazis, the museum also had a heart-wrenching gallery displaying children’s artwork recovered from the concentration camps.

Following the museum, you walk through the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It dates back to 1439 and remained open for 400 years, during which time it’s believed that more than 200,000 people were buried, some as many as twelve layers deep because of severe space restrictions. Currently there are 12,000 tombstones remaining, with many leaning on each other or lined up around the walls. It’s an amazing sight to see so many moss-covered stones, listing heavily, reaching all the way to the wall, then glance up to see the city of Prague just on the other side of that wall. The six synagogues included in our ticket were the Maisel, Spanish, Pinkas, Klausen, High and the Old-New Synagogues. We did not get to visit all six, but I believe we saw five. The Spanish synagogue was mouth-gapingly beautiful. But unfortunately no photos were allowed, so just trust me and go. It was stunning in its design, detail and adornment. The Maisel synagogue was converted to a museum and had excellent displays (though I would suggest they increase the lighting, for those of us over 40 (sigh)). The Old-New synagogue has two claims to fame. First, it’s the oldest active synagogue in Europe, and second, it’s the oldest medieval synagogue still standing. This synagogue had some curious little wooden boxes along the wall, and my husband attempted to ask the woman taking tickets what they were for, but we learned she only spoke Czech and German. So, grabbing my mother we asked her to muster up her German and inquire for us, which she did. Apparently the boxes were for individuals attending services. (I can’t say how nice it is to travel with folks who actually retained some of their language studies.)

Some good additional sites to see in Prague, depending on your time and interest, include the Mucha museum (trust me, you'll know who Mucha was as soon as you see his art nouveau prints from the early 1900s), and the Kafka museum (which we tried several times to see, but apparently the hopelessness was overwhelming and they just couldn’t open day after day). And if you happen to get the chance to be there during Christmas (which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to be awash in twinkly lights and merriment), then definitely check out one of the many Christmas concerts being put on all over the city. Some have vocalists, some are just instrumental, some are in churches, some are in halls. Flyers will be everywhere, so just pick one and go. However, if you're still not intrigued by the amazing history, the flying buttresses, or the shaking skeleton at the astronomical clock, also note that Prague has some fantastic restaurants, the architecture is picturesque at every turn, there’s some fun shopping to do (especially if you like marionettes, as they seem to be the city’s mascot), there's always the chance to see a dwarf out shopping, and if you’re there in winter, you can try the Trdelnik, a delicious rolled cinnamon pastry they cook right in front of you. Our best advice is bring some good walking shoes, get a good map or guidebook, don’t worry about having to know Czech (our ignorance proved to never be a hindrance), it doesn’t hurt to have a husband, or travel buddy, addicted to the GPS on his SmartPhone (providing he keeps an eye on it to make sure you’re heading in the right direction), and explore anything that looks interesting, which we have found has rarely led us wrong; or at the very least, has provided an amusing tale.

Beyond Prague: Gargoyles and Bone Chandeliers

During our Christmas 2011 trip to Prague, we did venture out for one outside-of-Prague day-trip to the towns of Kutna Hora and Sedlec (both of which were named as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the 1990s, due to their churches and cathedrals). Not wanting to worry about renting a car, getting maps, driving or learning history on the fly, we hired a van, driver and guide to get us there and back and help explain all that we were seeing. Our guide was fantastic, and the poor girl never stopped talking for hours due to all our questions. The town of Kutna Hora was our first stop. It was established in the mid 12th century around the first Cistercian Monastery in Bohemia and within 100 years was known for its silver mines. The center of the town is a beautiful area, reminiscent of older days, with cockeyed houses and cobblestone streets, built up around the old Italian Court, which was originally the central mint for coin making, and is currently the town hall (with the most amazing art nouveau chapel). Across the valley from the Italian Court is St. Barbara’s Church, perched high on the hill, looking as large and foreboding from a distance as it does up-close. We walked through the town, past the Gothic St. James’s Church (which was under renovation), past the Jesuit College, and up to the imposing St. Barbara. Before entering, we walked around the entire church, just marveling at all those pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and endless flying buttresses. But my favorite architectural details were the gargoyles, all of which were different and individual. Some were animals, a frog, a ram, a bat, and several were humans, or at least human-ish. Some looked so horrifying I’d sooner believe they were vampires or relatives of the weeping angels from “Dr. Who” (if you haven’t experienced them, maybe you shouldn’t). The interior was equally enormous, but I found it less interesting than the exterior (not one leering gargoyle!). But you couldn’t ignore the vast scale and extreme height of the arches. Our next stop was in the neighboring town of Sedlec, to see its Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady as well as its famous ossuary. The cathedral was impressive in scale (but have you ever seen a tiny cathedral?), however I was mildly under-impressed. I think anything following the Gothic expanse of St. Barbara’s would probably pale in comparison (barring Notre Dam, of course), so Sedlec’s cathedral had a hard act to follow.

I will admit that one of our deciding factors in choosing a day-trip destination was when we saw pictures of the ossuary, or bone church, in Sedlec. It just screamed out, “You have to see this!” But in hindsight, I found it more disturbing than interesting. When you picture a “bone church” you can imagine some very strange things, but trust me when I say that you couldn’t possibly begin to imagine what they’ve done here. The external church looks like any normal village church, with a surrounding modern graveyard and wall. But entering (and paying the entrance fee) you are transported to something so disturbing that you feel like you’re on a set at Universal Studios. The original ossuary was built in the 1400s as a final resting place for the mass graves that were disturbed during one of the church’s many renovations. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that a man was hired to put the bones in order, which he did, in a sense. Immediately upon walking through the door, you are faced with stacks of skulls against the wall, each one alternating with a crossed ulna and radius (or something similar) reaching to the ceiling. Lines of skulls and ribs are draped garland-like all over the place, bones have been used to recreate the Schwarzenberg coat of arms and towering monstrances (vessels used to display the consecrated host), and the center of the room displays a chandelier that could really only look at home in the Munsters’ domicile. I stumbled around gaping at everything with everyone else, but I think I just found it difficult to wrap my head around the fact that each of those skulls represented a person with hopes and dreams and I’m not sure “being made into a chandelier” was one of them. All in all, our beyond-Prague day-trip was well worth it. I would highly recommend visiting Kutna Hora and, if you have the time and the inclination, you can swing by Sedlec, too. But, truth be told, I think I could have done without mental images of Hannibal Lecter's DIY projects.