Vacation Review Blogging

As mentioned in passing a little while ago, we spent last week on a Disney cruise in the Caribbean, with the kids and my parents. We had sort of wondered for a while what those trips are like, and since the first reaction of most parents I've mentioned it to has been "Oh, we've thought about that-- let us know how it is," I figure it's worth a blog post to say a bit about the trip, which the kids enjoyed just a little bit:

SteelyKid swimming with a dolphin, The Pip on a waterslide. SteelyKid swimming with a dolphin, The Pip on a waterslide.

The ship we were on was the Disney Magic, which is the smallest of the Disney ships, and had something like 2500 guests on board (the others hold closer to 4000, I think). It's got three pools (a wading pool, a 4' deep kid pool with a giant video screen above it, and a 4' deep adults-only pool with classy jazz guitar music to drown out the noise from the other two), and two big waterslides. There were also a couple of "kids club" areas in the lower decks, with various activities and counselors to keep kids occupied while their parents relax elsewhere. This being a cruise ship, there were also a million dining options, of which we only used a few-- the buffet restaurant at the back of the ship for breakfast and lunch, and three formal dining rooms for dinner. SteelyKid was a big fan of the self-serve soft ice cream machines near the pools, and there were also multiple snack-bar sorts of things in those areas.

The formal dinner arrangement has you rotate through the three dining rooms, but you have the same service team in each place. Our kids are insanely picky eaters, and rejected most of the official menu options, but the servers bent over backwards to accommodate them, bringing a bunch of stuff that wasn't on the menu. The kids were surprisingly cheerful about dinner, and even sitting around after they had finished waiting for us to eat. It helped that they had some sort of entertainment almost every night, and our waiter helped divert SteelyKid with math-y puzzles (mostly of the "here's a shape made out of a dozen crayons, move two to make a different shape" variety).

We didn't make all that much use of the floating day care options, though about once a day we'd drop the kids there for a little while so the adults could shower or otherwise relax. They were pretty cheerful about playing down there, but also perfectly happy to leave when we came to get them. We picked the itinerary to minimize at-sea days in favor of stops at interesting places, and when we were in port we did stuff all together, because why would you take your family to an interesting place and then not spend time with them?

When we were on board, the kids were very happy with the pools-- The Pip would've been content to splash around in the "circle pool" all day, and SteelyKid was happy to float around in the deeper pool watching Pixar movies on the giant video screen. We also went to a number of the shows and activities-- SteelyKid has gotten interested in magic (she's constantly asking to watch Penn and Teller videos), so we went to both the Magic Dave show in the evening and the "class" that he ran for kids the next day. We also saw a hypnotist, a stage musical version of Tangled, and a couple of comedy juggling things. These were all pitched really well-- mostly under an hour of running time, and kind of broad humor-wise but not too eye-rollingly so. The kids also went to see Zootopia and we carefully kept them from finding out about the live-action Jungle Book and The Force Awakens, which were also playing but are probably too scary for The Pip.

In port, we did a bunch of ocean-oriented activities, because we were in the Caribbean for God's sake. In Key West, we took a glass-bottom boat ride (a bit windy, so the visibility wasn't fantastic and there were some minor motion sickness issues). In Grand Cayman we visited the Cayman Turtle Farm, where SteelyKid was cranky and overheated but cheered up enormously when she got to pick up some green sea turtles (as the name suggests, these are raised in captivity...); The Pip was delighted by the big freshwater pool. In Cozumel, we went to the Dolphin Discovery where SteelyKid and I did a "Push, Pull, and Swim" activity with the trained dolphins-- the photo above is from the "Pull" portion, where you grab the pectoral fins of a dolphin who swims upside down towing you back to the dock. The "Push" involves a boogie-board with dolphins pushing on your feet. SteelyKid was absolutely over the moon about this, and I was very impressed with how well the whole thing was run (I did a "swim with dolphins" thing years and years ago up in the Florida Keys, which was much seedier). The Pip wasn't old enough to swim with dolphins (and isn't quite comfortable enough in the water yet to really enjoy it), but cheerfully passed an hour or two fighting imaginary crimes in the freshwater pool at the park.

The last stop was "Castaway Cay," which is Disney's corporate island in the Bahamas, seen in the "featured image" up top and here for those reading via RSS or too lazy to scroll up and back down:

Disney's Castaway Cay, from the balcony of our stateroom on the ship. Disney's Castaway Cay, from the balcony of our stateroom on the ship.

There's a nice sandy beach with three inlets; the first is for boat rentals, the second swimming and snorkeling, and the third has a water slide platform that we never did get to. SteelyKid wanted to try snorkeling, so she and I rented gear (my parents brought their own gear) and got in the water. The first attempt was only moderately cool-- we saw a big red snapper and a stingray (she climbed onto my back while we were swimming above the ray, and peeked at it around my shoulder). After lunch, she wanted to go again, which is when we discovered all the stuff they sank in the lagoon for people to look at (character statues, fake boats, and lots of big pots and urns), and ended up spending more than an hour in the water, going from one end of the beach (just behind the buildings in the front right of the picture) to the other (by the buildings in the back middle) by way of the lifeguard stand just left of the center. Grandpa and I gave SteelyKid occasional breaks by letting her hang on our shoulders, and we saw a huge array of fish- not much coral, because the lagoon is artificial and of recent origin-- but there were snappers and angelfish and blue tang and parrotfish and at the end of the swim two good-sized green turtles. Again, she was over the moon excited about the whole thing, so there will definitely be more snorkeling trips in our future.

(That kid has stamina like you wouldn't believe-- after all that swimming, I could hardly walk, but she was running and splashing and then she and The Pip went down the waterslide on the ship ten times while Kate and I were packing up the room...)

There were some suboptimal aspects, of course-- the wifi on the ship was expensive and metered in a way that seemed to us to be massively overcounting the bandwidth Kate and I used. The on-board phones were pretty bad-- old-school texting with a phone keyboard, but they didn't always work-- and the chat function of the Disney cruise app was awful-- messages were routinely delayed, and after a couple of days it developed a bug where every time we would reconnect to the wi-fi, it would blort out a couple dozen old messages from the second day of the trip. And there were some issues with the sheer number of people on board-- the pools got very crowded during the at-sea days, at a level that was frankly pretty scary when The Pip decided he wanted to "glide" from one adult to another in the deeper pool on one at-sea day.

And, of course, that's the really big issue for anybody thinking about this sort of thing: just how much of other people do you have to tolerate? As I said, we were on the relatively small ship of the bunch, but it's still a BIG mob of people, a large fraction of them with kids.

While there were occasional displays of, let's call it "baffling parenting strategies"-- mostly involving overstimulated and undersupervised children in the pools and on the waterslide-- it was actually pretty reasonable. There's some amount of forced jollity pushed at you, but the cheesiest bits were easy enough to avoid (it helps that the "Character Appearances" don't hold much attraction for our kids-- they were mostly happy to look and wave from a distance, and didn't force us to wait on lines to pose for pictures with people in character suits). You can't completely get away from crowds, but it wasn't notably worse than most other activities you might choose to do with kids the age of ours. And Disney as an organization is very, very good at managing large crowds of children, with most of their programming well matched to the attention spans of kids about the age of SteelyKid and the Pip.

In fact, it was probably less stressful than a lot of other things we might've done with the kids, precisely because dealing with kids is What Disney Does-- they're such terribly picky eaters that it's really hard to take them out, but they have a good variety of stuff that kids like on board, and as noted above, they were awesome about accommodating our oddball requests. And all the staff on the ship were fantastically cheerful and patient with kids-- one of the guys busing tables at breakfast distracted a slightly grumpy Pip by doing magic tricks, which he totally didn't have to do, but we appreciated enormously.

This is, of course, not remotely cheap, and we were able to do it mostly because my parents are way too good to us, and bought us the tickets as a gift. Despite SteelyKid's expressed desire to do this all again next year (if not even more frequently), it's not going to be a regular thing. But it was an excellent experience overall, so if you vacation with kids and have the cash, I'd recommend it.

And now, I need to try to get back to doing actual, you know, work. And also find a way to reconcile myself to being back in Niskayuna where it's 50 degrees and raining...

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