Choosing the Cruise That’s Right for You

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By Linda Norton, The Magic for Less Travel

Maybe you’ve been bitten by the Disney bug but don’t necessarily want to do the parks. Maybe you’ve “been there, done that” and want to try something different to satisfy your Disney fix.  Maybe it’s time to experience the Magic and the Wonder of the Disney cruise.

Cruising is totally different from a land-based vacation. You go to your (floating) luxury hotel, unpack once, and get taken to some really fabulous places, all while being pampered by happy and gracious cruise staff who are there to help you have a phenomenal trip. Cruises are mostly inclusive (although tips and adult beverages are not included in the price, and can be a sizeable expense) so you get meals, entertainment, children’s programming, and other activities just by showing up. On a cruise you can do everything…or absolutely nothing. The choice is yours.

Just as we all don’t live in the same type of houses or drive the same type of car, one cruise line does not fit every person. Cruise lines are categorized, just like hotels, and you can have a budget experience or an ultra-luxurious trip where the sky’s the limit. The Disney Cruise Line (DCL) is considered a “premium” cruise experience, and as such you will be paying a more premium price than if you went on another cruise. However, DCL is not stiff or stuffy — it’s casually elegant. I have sailed on several cruise lines, all with at least one child with me, and each cruise line offered something different. The Disney cruise, though, is probably the best available for families and children. The children’s programs on DCL are like really great daycare. Many children don’t want to leave the Oceaneer’s Club and Lab on DCL once they’ve experienced some of the great activities. Teens have their own hangout, as well as their own activities. Entertainment on DCL is also family-friendly and you will not have to worry about what the children will see in the shows or on the television. No casino, either — and the lack of the “casino donation fund” is probably what contributes to the higher cruise fare.

How many nights?
With a Disney cruise, you have some itinerary choices: 3- and 4-night Bahamas cruises on the Disney Wonder, or 7-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries of the Disney Magic. If you plan far enough out, are very adventurous, and have a lot of time (and money!), there are other options, too. The Disney Magic will be heading to Europe in April 2010, and returning back home on October 1, 2010. During summer 2010 the Wonder will be doing 4- and 5-night Bahamas trips too, from Port Canaveral, which is about 45 miles from Orlando International Airport. For purposes of this article, though, we’re going to stick a bit closer to Florida and focus on the Bahamas and Caribbean cruises.

With many choices in length of cruise and itinerary, what determines which cruise you should take? Not everyone enjoys cruising, and I myself was a reluctant cruiser, as I couldn’t imagine being “captured” on a ship for several days — but I confess to getting over that really fast once I boarded the Disney Wonder for my very first cruise in June 2006. Because I had never cruised, and was with two children and no other adults, the 3-night Bahamas cruise was a good place to “test the waters.”

The 3-night cruise is a “long weekend” with one port each day. Typically on DCL, you sail from Port Canaveral at 5 p.m. on Thursday, are in Nassau, Bahamas, on Friday, Disney’s private island called Castaway Cay on Saturday, and you’re back to the port and off the ship by 9 a.m. on Sunday. Besides being the least expensive option on DCL, the 3-night cruise helps you determine if you can live with your travel party in a cruise cabin, how well you deal with the motion of the ship, and whether or not you actually like cruising.

The 4-night Disney cruise also sails to the Bahamas with a departure on Sunday. You visit Nassau on Monday, Castaway Cay on Tuesday, have a day at sea on Wednesday, and go back to port on Thursday. Price-wise, the 4-night sailing usually is more expensive than the 3-night cruise, but you get the added benefit of a day at sea to explore the ship.

So, should you choose three nights or four nights? Well, let time and budget be your guide. Personally I love sea days, but have not yet found the 4-night Disney Cruise to work for my schedule, mainly because it’s pretty close to a 7-night cruise. If I’m going to be gone for four nights, I might as well be gone for seven and just live it up and be pampered for a while.

The Disney Magic sails 7-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries departing Saturdays from Port Canaveral. On the 7-night Disney cruise, you typically have three port days and three sea days. Both the Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises visit Castaway Cay, so you don’t miss out unless for some reason the ship is unable to dock. (Unfortunately, this can happen due to bad weather, but the Captain and crew are responsible for the safety of the ship and her passengers and take their job very seriously.)

Which ports of call?
Let’s say you’re going to splurge for a 7-night cruise. How do you decide whether or not you want an Eastern or Western Caribbean itinerary? Both itineraries are great, so first consider your schedule. Eastern Caribbean brings you to US territories (St. Thomas is part of the US Virgin Islands, as is St. Croix, which is on some DCL itineraries in 2009) and some fabulous beaches too. St. Thomas beaches are among the most beautiful in the world and this is a very popular cruise ship destination. It is not unusual for five ships to be at St. Thomas during peak season. The most popular beaches are Magen’s Bay, Coki Beach, and Sapphire Beach. Eastern itineraries also can stop at St. Maarten, which is half Dutch and half French; the ship docks at the Dutch side in Phillipsburg. For 2009, DCL has added Tortola (part of the British West Indies) and St. Croix, which is another US territory. Eastern itineraries have great shopping and good snorkeling too.

DCL Western Caribbean itineraries stop in Key West (FL), Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, Mexico, along with Castaway Cay. While Key West is still in Florida, it has its own laid-back vibe — think Jimmy Buffett songs and a visit to “Margaritaville” and you have Key West. There are several family activities available in Key West, including a visit to the southernmost point in the US and a glass-bottom boat tour. Grand Cayman is a small island and is known for diving and snorkeling. Because of the reefs surrounding the island, cruise ships cannot dock — instead you take a small boat called a “tender” to the island. (Tendering from the ship to town is about 15–20 minutes.)

Cayman highlights include Stingray City and a turtle farm, where turtles are raised for meat. (The US raises beef, poultry, and pork; Cayman raises turtles.) Cozumel is an island about 12 miles from the Yucatan peninsula and is laid-back and family friendly. Like any nice island, expect some great water activities. Highlights of Cozumel include a marine park where you can swim with dolphins. This park is located in Chakkanaab State Park, which is run by the Mexican government. Cozumel also has some great shopping. Take a shore excursion to Mayan ruins in Tulum, but not in the hot summer months. Both Eastern and Western itineraries include a day at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island paradise.

Which cabin?
You’ve decided how long to cruise, and where you want to go, and now need to figure out what sort of cabin to book: Suite, Verandah (balcony), window, or inside cabin? Your choice will determine your price. Usually cruise ships book suites and least-expensive inside cabins first, and then they sell toward the middle (yes, this is true.) When you book a cruise early you usually have the best choice of cabins and location and often the best price too, as pricing on cruises are dependent upon inventory. (This is where working with a travel agent who specializes in cruises helps.) A Disney cruise, even a short one, will usually initially cost more than a land-based vacation, and since most cruise ships sail full — they don’t want empty berths — there won’t be too many choices if you’re not happy with your cabin location once on board. But keep in mind that your cruise fare includes meals, entertainment, and children’s programming for children ages 3–17, and it really can be a bargain. The best pricing on DCL for cruises tends to be in late August/September (hurricane season), early December, and mid-to-late January.

When selecting your cabin type you need to consider how much time you’re actually going to be IN the cabin. Also consider your travel party, as cruise staterooms can get rather cozy. Finally, look at the price: either it fits the budget or it doesn’t. On a cruise ship, location is everything, and the verandah cabins are larger than the window cabins, which are larger than the inside cabins. On shorter cruises, I really like the large porthole windows on DCL . On a longer cruise I am a verandah fan — but DCL verandahs price out higher than other cruise lines, so for my last cruise on DCL (7-night Eastern with St. Croix), my budget only was able to cope with an inside cabin. After two days that Category 11 became known as “the bat cave.” It was fine for me and the two kids (age 14 and 12), and we kept control over the clutter and I did laundry several times because we packed somewhat light. (DCL is great because they have guest laundromats — I try not to sail on a ship without laundry facilities.) We did not spend much time in that cabin except to sleep and change clothes. Sure I would have loved to have had a balcony, but the price of the inside cabin was more important than the breeze, which I got when I went upstairs. Plus I have a kid who will happily sit on a verandah and read a book or gaze at the ocean — and I wanted him doing something. With the inside cabin there was nothing interesting to keep him inside, except for the television (which on DCL is actually pretty good!).

On a cruise you can do everything, or nothing. It’s totally up to you. So if you’re not quite sure about fighting the crowds of a theme-park vacation, give cruising a try. Hopefully you will love it as much as I do.

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