Tuesday, February 12, 2013

IDMommy Vacation Review: Disney Magic Western Caribbean 6-Night Cruise with Toddlers

We just returned from our first cruise with toddlers and I thought I'd give a little review for those of you thinking about going on a Disney cruise.  If you're looking for specifics, we sailed on the Disney Magic, which happens to be their oldest ship, although I never would have known.  We did the 6 night Western Caribbean cruise, sailing out of Galveston Texas with 1 stop in Grand Cayman and 1 stop at Cozumel, aboard the Disney Magic. We took advantage of a last minute deal, where kids sail FREE.  Couldn't beat that deal!!  Sometimes putting things off really can pay off!

It was fabulous.  The boys loved it and so did we.  When you book a Disney cruise, you can go on their website and schedule a phone call from Mickey Mouse or another character.  We had Mickey Mouse call our house to announce the vacation to the boys.  They were stoked.  I made a paper chain and they each took turns tearing off a link until the trip.
The Paper Chain!
I keep seeing quotes on Pinterest along the lines of, "be a traveler, not a tourist."  That of course was not posted by a family with toddlers.  Sure, we'd love to backpack around Europe or ride a zip line through Costa Rica with the boys some day.  But at this point in our lives, that would be more of a nightmare than a vacation.  So, we will look forward to that and do the tourist thing for a little while.  This was a great choice for us.  The boys LOVE the classic Disney characters, and aren't tall enough to really take full advantage of Disney World yet.  So we got to see characters, and enjoy some of their favorite things...swimming, the beach, swimming, the pool, swimming...

One of the things that made it so much more relaxing for us, even when our kids were cranky, was the total absence of rude glares from people who don't have kids.  You know what I'm talking about...on those EXTREMELY rare occasions your kids act up in public...somehow you are always surrounded by rude people with no kids who are full of either disgust or parenting advice.  Well, we didn't get any of that on a Disney cruise.  Our kids were really surprisingly great despite all the late nights they had!!  But on the few times they started to fight or have an exhaustion meltdown, we were only met with a grin and a nod of understanding and sympathy from the fellow parents around us.  It was like a giant, forgiving, sympathetic support group of parents who just want to get a little taste of a tropical vacation too while making fabulous memories for their kids.

Your room comes with two cell phones that you can use all you want on the ship to call each other or to call your room.  This is great if you split up from your spouse, or if you have older kids out doing their own thing.  We tried to keep our kids on their normal afternoon nap schedule, so we'd take turns going out on our own while the other stayed with the sleeping boys.

You CAN get adult alone time!!  They have free child care up until midnight every day on the ship.  Each kid gets a "Mickey Band" to wear on their wrist that is scanned in and out of the child care area, and enables them to track your child.   We booked a brunch and a dinner at their fine restaurant on the ship ("Palo") and it was AMAZING.  The food was incredible.  And the boys had a blast in the kids area while we were gone.   Here are a few photos of the brunch. 

Palo brunch buffet

One of the four or five brunch buffet tables
Don't judge me by my overflowing plate.  How can you NOT try everything?! 
Dessert?  Um...DUH!  Of course!!
We did the brunch our 2nd at sea day.  We figured this gave the kids some time to get to know the ship and get settled in before we put them in the child care area. You do have to make reservations to eat at Palo.  We made reservations before the trip for the brunch and then a dinner on our last night.  They do have an up charge to eat here...it's not included.  But it was only $20 a person for what would probably be a $150-$200 restaurant bill for our dinner.

A couple other times we put them in there just to go spend 20 minutes having a coffee in the "Cove" cafe which is for 18 and older, and so they could get a little taste of what it was like before our official "date."  Just bring your little phones with you and they will call you if they need you.  You can also call them and check on your kids!

"Mickey Band." The little digital device that keeps track of your kids!
"Oceaneer Lab" - one of the two areas for kids 3 and up
 They have two child care areas for kids age 3 and up. (There's a separate place for under 3 and you have to make reservations there but it still is also free) One is a "lab" theme, shown above. They have computers, a kitchen-like area to do projects and things, bean bags by a screen, etc.  The other room is more like an indoor playground and my boys liked that one the best.  Apparently they are both connected with a walkway so the kids can go between the two.  There can be a long line on the first night to get your Mickey bands.  But you can really get them any time.  Pre-registering your kids online supposedly helps them.  There can also be a long line to drop off kids for a particular event...they have specific events and activities each day that are advertised in your "Navigator." (little newsletter you get each night that lists what's going on the next day) Luckily our brunch and dinner at Palo didn't coincide with any busy kids' area activities.

How the (age 3 and up) Child Care Works: When you get your mickey bands, and you want to drop off your kid, here's how it goes.  You'll stand in a line (if there is one) and when you get up to the counter, they scan your child's band.  Then they let them through the little gate, squirt a little soap on their hands and send them running back to the restroom to wash their hands right away.  We thought this was great for the transition...they were so concerned with getting the soap off their hands, they ran right in and forgot about us!  When you pick them up, you give them your name and then they let you in to go find your child among the chaos.  You bring your kid up to the counter and they scan their wrist, then you have to give them the "magic word" (a word or phrase you choose when you get your Mickey band).  They do not open the gate for you to get out until you give them the magic word. On the Disney Magic they had two rooms you could drop off in...one is more like a playground area and the other more of a "lab" with computers, etc.  They are connected apparently with a hallway so kids can go back and fourth.  So if the line is long in one, you can go to the other.

You can get free room service at any time.   So if your kids just need some down time, or you have second seating and the kids just aren't going to last, you can always eat in your room.  They also have all the pizza, burgers, sandwiches, chicken fingers, and tacos you can eat on the pool deck during the day.  We did that for lunch every day and brought a few slices of pizza back to the room a couple times. They have soft serve ice cream and all the pop you want on the pool deck too.

First vs Second Seating for Dinner... We originally were set for 2nd seating for dinner (8:15, when our kids are normally in bed), because we booked our trip so late.  But, after getting on a wait list as soon as we boarded the ship, we were able to move to first seating (5:45).  Normally they give every family their own table, and we would have had our own at the 2nd seating.  However, we didn't care about giving that up to eat earlier, so we were placed with another couple with a little boy who also moved from 2nd seating to 1st.  All of the dinners were great.  I was surprised the boys made it through appetizers, first and second courses, and dessert.  But when they got cranky or noisy, nobody even noticed because it's noisy in there anyway with all the kids!  If you switch, be sure to let your room attendant know.  They clean your room while you are at dinner.  This way you won't be coming back to your room when they are trying to clean.  It took us a couple days to realize our room attendant didn't know we had swapped!

The staterooms are made for families.  Our room had a window which was really great.  There were two bathrooms...both had sinks, one had the toilet and the other had a stand-up shower / tub combo.  The tub is really nice for bathing kids!  It also had a curtain between our bed and the boys.  The couch turns into a bunk bed so both kids got a bed.   We asked our room attendant to just leave the bunk bed open all day long so we could come back and use it for naps in the afternoon.  Sammy LOVED being on the top bunk.  He fell out one night while goofing around and hit his head on some furniture which was not cool.  But was his own fault.  He learned.

Our room - our bed in the foreground.  The sofa in the back turns into a bunk bed (scroll down)
Bathroom #1 - sink and toilet
Bathroom #2 - shower/tub and sink
View from the boys' area of the room, curtain divider, tv, desk, etc... The TV is on a moving arm so we could pull it out through the closed curtain and face it toward our bed when the boys were sleeping at night.
The bunk bed opened up!

Sunset! The window was really cool for the boys to see when we were at sea or near land, watch the waves, and just to have a sense of daytime and bedtime with some sunlight coming in.  The curtain blocked it out well for naps.

We worked it out so that we didn't have to lug ANY car seats.  We parked our car at the airport.  My husband had a driver arranged who picked us up in a Suburban with two car seats.  She took us to our hotel which was 1 mile from the ship.  The next morning we took a cab the one mile using regular seat belts. I'm a stickler for travel safety but was willing to go 1 mile slowly through stop lights without car seats.  (The law states that you don't need to use them in taxi cabs in Texas)  When we got off the ship, our same driver was there with her Suburban and car seats to take us to the airport. Slick.  Now, if you are planning excursions that involve driving, that may be a different story.  But we didn't need them during our trip.

Ship Activities. There is always plenty to do on the ship.  There are three pools.  The Goofy Pool is deeper if you want to actually swim.  Sammy went in there a couple times with my husband, but we spent most of our time in the Mickey Pool, below:
 There's also a separate pool, bar, and coffee shop for ages 18 and over.  Sammy loved the water slide on the Mickey pool.  Toby was too little to go on it, but didn't seem to care.  We were too big to go on it.  Some of the newer ships have slides that I THINK adults can go on.  Toby just loved being in the Mickey pool.  Each night you get a "Navigator," a little newsletter that outlines everything happening on the ship the next day.  So, you can plan what characters you want to visit, and what activities you want to do.  We did a paper plane making class and a family craft time, each about a half hour.  They also have Bingo, movies, shows, etc.  There is an arcade, a spa, a gym... Our "at sea" days were never boring.  The last day was a bit too wavy and chilly for swimming in the pools but we still found plenty to keep the boys happy!

Character Visits. We tried to get in as many character visits as we could during our "at sea" days.  They are scheduled in 15 minute intervals throughout the ship and throughout each day.  We didn't get to see Daisy and Donald Duck but got everyone else.  Well, we skipped the princesses since we had boys who were totally uninterested in them.  Which was great because the princess lines were LONG!!!  Everyone we visited we got in line 5-10 minutes before their start time and got right through within 5 minutes or less.  Towards the end of the cruise we were able to attend a character breakfast, where they come around your table for photos.  Unfortunately the ones we didn't get to see, Donald and Daisy, weren't there for the breakfast, but the rest were.

Character Signatures. You can spend a lot of money on a signature book and have the characters sign the book, and they have spots for photos.  However, I decided to make my own.  I made each kid a little passport-like scrapbook with blank pages.  They had SO much fun filling the pages and getting signatures.  You can read more about this in another post here, and get a step by step guide on how I made ours.

There are free movies playing throughout each day and night in the theater, and we enjoyed Wreck it Ralph in 3D which was really fun.  But if you're room-bound for a while, the tv plays plenty of movies as well, both kid and adult (...no, not THAT kind of adult, sicko!) ;-)  My boys LOVED the channel that played non-stop old, classic Mickey cartoons.  They also have 3D movies.  We watched Wreck it Ralph in 3D on Pirate night, which kept the boys awake and having fun between dinner and the pirate party.

Laundry. Towards the end of the cruise (or maybe half way through?) they offered a special on laundry...all you could fit in a bag for $30.  Considering the price to wash one pair of tiny toddler undies was $1.25 per pair, and considering we were in the midst of potty training, that is a heck of a deal.  I had already washed a bunch of "accident" clothes in the sink with my travel laundry kit so I didn't utilize this.  But our table mates did and they figured out that it would normally have cost over $85 to wash the bag they stuffed.  And then they didn't have the mountain of laundry upon returning home.  Sounds like a win to me!

Be ready to wait in lines.  This can be hard for some little kids, and isn't nearly as bad as all the waiting you may do at a Disney theme park, but is a necessity on a cruise.  For example, for our Grand Cayman excursion we went to a room on the ship to wait a half hour for our turn to head to the exit.  Then we headed out and waited in line to get out of the ship and on the tender boat.  Next we waited in line to get off the tender boat.  Then waited until our whole excursion group was in another line before walking to a bus.  Then we waited in line to get on a bus.  After getting on the bus we waited in line to get on a catamaran that would take us to our beach.  And did it all again in reverse to get back on the ship.
Line to get on the tender boat to get back to the ship in Grand Cayman, an hour before we had to be back on the ship.  We waited about a half hour for the next tender boat, but amazingly enough ALL of these people fit on ONE tender boat.  So it wasn't as long of a wait as we thought it would be.

And when you are DONE with your cruise.  The last morning they closed down half of the breakfast buffet, so there was about a 1/2 hour wait in line to get to breakfast.  Then we waited in line again to get off the ship.  Once we got off the ship we waited in line to get a porter with a cart to help with our luggage.  After we got the cart and found our luggage, we got in another line to get into a line for customs. (Yup, we actually waited in line to wait in a line.) Once we got through the line, we were assigned another line to get through customs.  Then we waited on the curb for our driver.  And started the whole airport thing.  Wow, looking back, the boys really did great with all the waiting!!  The key is definitely to keep Mom and Dad's spirits up and not get crabby because it wears off on them!!  I had to remind myself that a lot during our 7 HOUR WAIT in the airport before our flight took off.  That wait was our own fault though...we could have gotten an earlier flight but it would have been cutting it so close, we were afraid we might have missed it.  

Prepare yourself for the lines by arming yourself with entertainment ideas! We killed 7 hours at the airport by having lunch, finding an open, empty area to play follow-the-leader and red light / green light, ipad and iphone games (while plugged into an outlet), napping on the floor, working on our scrapbooks, and a restaurant dinner.  My husband taught Sammy how to play rock-paper-scissors, which he partially understood. I was pretty proud to have kept them happy for 7 hours without dipping into their bags of "trip toys" reserved for the flight!  Need some ideas? Here's a great blog post with 10 effortless waiting games!

Froot Loops.  A kindof random tip, but they have them in little pre-packaged portions at the breakfast buffet on the ship.  They work great for little snacks on the go, especially on your way out to an excursion.  (You can't bring fresh or perishable food off the ship, only sealed packaged items)  Just a little tip if your kids are snakers like mine!  Grab a couple on your way out of breakfast and stick 'em in your beach bag!

Stay healthy.  The woman we sat with at dinner ended up being quarantined for 24 hours in her room one night.  She missed out on the whole day at Grand Cayman.  But she found out that if you go get checked out in the health center and they find out you are sick (I think throwing up or diarrhea), and you obey the rules and stay in your room as long as they tell you, then you won't have to pay for the doctor visit and you can get out of your excursion without paying.  So her husband and son did the excursion and she had to stay in.   They checked in on her several times to make sure she was staying there.  ;-)  There are people with disinfecting hand wipes at the entrance of every restaurant and the buffet and they make sure everyone gets one before entering to eat.  But you just can't be too careful, especially with all the kids on board.  We did a lot of sanitizing and hand washing, and made it through just fine, although Toby was getting a runny nose the last couple days.  I brought along all of my usual stuff for sick kids...Children's Tylenol and Ibuprofin, and our digital ear thermometer.

Things I'll do differently next time:

Snatch this Free Souvenir... We found out from the couple we ate with that if you bring along a pillow case and a bunch of markers and give it to guest services when you get on the ship, you will get it returned with all of the characters signatures on it!!  I think some people did t-shirts too.  Fun idea.

I won't bring towels.  Funny, the booklet of information Disney sends you lists all kinds of things you should NOT pack.  To quote their list, you should not pack "firearms and ammunition, any kind of knives, swords, daggers, bullwhips or any other types of weapons... illegal drugs, medically prescribed or synthetic marijuana...."  However, they fail to mention anything that any normal non-criminal traveler might not need.  You do not need to bring towels.  I assumed they'd provide towels on the ship, which they did, but did not expect that they would provide towels for us to take on shore for our beach excursions.  I so wish I had saved all that space in my suitcase!

Bring a coffee mug, if you're a coffee drinker and like to sip your coffee all morning.  My husband saw a few people with mugs and wished he had brought one.  Not sure if I'd want to take up the space in the suitcase, but then again you could always stuff it with socks!

Take off the Mickey Bands during excursions.  Sammy lost his on the water slides in Cozumel, and it cost us fifty bucks. Boo.  That would have been much more fun to spend on souvenirs.

Don't expect it to be just like your vacations before kids.  We have been on one cruise previously, before kids.  This time around was an absolute BLAST in whole other ways!  But there were two things I didn't really get to do this time...lie on a beach chair and soak up sun, and shop.  Our excursions left us virtually no shopping time.  And when kids are by the ocean, they are IN the ocean.  When they are in the ocean, you are too.  So there wasn't really the opportunity to lie around.  Of course I could have utilized the child care to lie on deck, but there were just too many other fun things to do together and we enjoyed the family time!

Choose a better room location.  Our room was in the front of the ship (about 2 or 3 rooms down from the very front), on the 5th deck, which left us sitting directly in the front and center of the theater stage right underneath us.  This meant we heard every bass boom during their shows...one of which was right smack in the middle of the boys' nap time at 2:00 in the afternoon.  The other showings were 8:30, a half hour after they go to bed.  We ended up attending several of the post-bedtime shows which the boys loved, as we figured they'd be kept up by them anyway.  But next time I'll be sure to check where our room lies in relation to the theater!

Plan on a formal night.  Or at least double check somehow.  Unless you just want to avoid formal night.  But I love the chance to get dressed up as those are few and far between in our house. All of the literature that we received in print and email from Disney stated that there are no formal nights on 6 night cruises.  We found out ON our cruise that there WAS in fact a formal night.  My husband and I already packed a formal outfit for our one dinner date night, however, I really wish I had known to pack something for the boys.  I love dressing them up and we could have gotten an adorable family photo.  We did still get a great photo, but dang! I had perfectly adorable little sweater vests and clip-on ties just lying at home!!!

Don't go photo crazy too early. They will take your photos throughout the trip, and will try to sell you expensive packages that include so many photos.  But you don't have to go buying a big package before your photos are all even done being taken.  You can look at all your photos at the end of your trip and buy what you want then.  They scan your "key to the world card" with every photo, and then you can swipe your card at a kiosk and see all of your pictures later.  I bought our first photo of us before we even boarded the ship.  I got all excited that they actually got us all together and smiling and whipped out $20 bucks.  But then later we got a much nicer one all dressed up and ON the ship which was cooler.  So don't feel like you have to buy them quick before they disappear...they have them all throughout the trip!

Don't bring as much cash.  Well, you still will want cash but we wouldn't have brought as much if we knew that you can't use cash for anything on the ship. Everything is paid for by swiping your "key to the world card," which is tied to your account throughout the trip.

Try no excursions. At least at one stop.  I'm really glad we did our beach excursions.  But, if you'd prefer to be on your own schedule and avoid some of the waiting and transportation required to GET to and from excursions, try going without.  It'll save you money and time.  On our 1/2 hour bus ride to the all-inclusive water park resort excursion, we drove by a restaurant on the water that had a free water park.  We're thinking we might try doing a stop with no planned excursion, and just get on and off the ship when we want and explore on our own.  We heard from one family who hired a driver to just take them around Cozumel for cheap! 

Disney's island. Apparently Disney has their own island with a water park, but it was not an option for our particular itinerary.  I'd like to try to visit their island next time we go.  I think you have to do a 7 day or more cruise to stop there.  I remember on our last cruise with Royal Caribbean, stopping at their own island (Labadee) was the most relaxing day we had! But Disney's island would be a lot of fun for the kids I think.

Bring more for Pirate night.  Some of the adults really went all out with their pirate costumes!  I brought along bandannas, swords, face paints and tattoos for the boys.  But next time I'd love to bring something pirate-y for me and my hubby to wear.  Even he was wishing he had something to wear and he's not the type to dress up for costume parties.   You can buy stuff on the ship but it's a lot cheaper at home.  They do give you a bandanna with your dinner that night so that's what my husband and I wore.  It was a late night for the kids with fireworks at 10:15 or 10:30-ish, but boy did they sleep good EVERY night!
Sammy at the Pirate party
Got any more questions about your upcoming Disney cruise?  Post them below!  I'll likely come back and add to this post as I think of more.  Got a review of your own cruise?  I'd love it if you'd share a link!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Boy Valentines: "Love is a Battlefield!"

I just finished making valentines for Sammy (age 5) and thought I'd share a photo!  I can't take any credit for the idea, as I found it here via Pinterest.  I thought it was a fun idea for a boy, being that Valentine's day can be oh-so-very girly! ;-)  I picked up a great bag of army guys at Goodwill for $1.99.  Sammy was excited that there were more than enough, so he could have a pile of them to play with too.  I printed out hearts on pink paper (would have done red but I was out), put a metal eyelet in the hole punch, and tied them to each army guy.  A fun way to give something other than candy while giving a thrift store find a new life!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

ID Mommy Projects: DIY Disney Vacation Passport / Signature Book

When I told my 5-yr-old's preschool teacher that we had a vacation coming up and he'd be missing a couple classes, she told me about another one of her students who brought back a signature book from her Disney World trip that all the characters signed.  She thought it was really cool but thought you could totally make one yourself.  It's been decades since I was there as a kid, and we aren't planning a Disney World trip for a few more years.  But, I thought it might still be a fun thing to do on our Disney cruise!

I haven't seen any of these books myself that you can get at Disney but I had a lot of fun making up my own for the boys.  I had no idea if the characters on a cruise ship were able to sign or stamp books like they do at the theme park, so I decided to make it like a miniature scrapbook for their trip.  If the characters can leave a mark, great!  If not, we'd just have fun filling them up!

Sammy's "passport" with stickers
I made the book out of random scrap paper that I had around my studio. You can see my complete step by step process by checking out my SnapGuide.

I always have some full-sheet adhesive-backed inkjet printer paper in my studio, which I used to make some customized sticker sheets for the boys.  I imagined them using stickers along with their markers to document what they did each day, and maybe even glue or tape in some found objects.

For the sticker sheets I pulled images off of Google Images and placed them on a page in Photoshop, laying them out in such a way that I could cut a full sheet into fourths.  I found images of flags for the places we'd stop, images to represent the various forms of transportation they'd be taking, images to represent the weather that day, etc.  I also had images that could correspond to the day's activities...beach images, pirate images (they have a pirate night on the cruise), and all of the characters we expected to see on the ship.  I planned to just leave some pages empty to attach photos later.  I also printed out some maps of our stops...the port at Galvaston, TX, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel.  My son LOVES maps so I also put a US map on the inside cover, and a map of our ship's floors inside the back cover.

Inside front cover! I put a US map in the cover and a passport-like photo & info page.
Inside the first page I put their photo along with some information on the trip, and information in case they lose their passport so that it hopefully finds it's way back to us.  (our home contact info, as well as our stateroom on the ship)

Passports packaged in Ziploc baggies for each boy, and Mommy's bag of supplies to help them fill their book
 I found some great little 6-packs of Mickey markers at the dollar store which were the perfect size.  Then each kid got a small ziploc bag that held their passport, markers, and a smaller bag with the stickers inside.  I made sure to bring along some small scissors (in the checked baggage of course), tape, and tiny baggies for found items.

 Each day the boys got a sticker with the date, a weather sticker (only used sunny or partly cloudy!), a transportation sticker (whatever we did that day...taxi, plane, ship, etc), and then whatever other stickers I had that went with what we did that day.

We collected sand from Texas, Grand Cayman & Cozumel!
Toby coloring in his book while waiting for a table at a restaurant

First character signature: Minnie Mouse!

Goofy signing their books
The boys filled their books with plane tickets, excursion tickets, stickers, drawings, pieces of confetti from the live shows, chocolate wrappers left on our pillows, chocolate coin wrappers from Pirate Night, leaves from tropical plants, and Cayman Island dollars and coins to name a few!  We even got the captain's signature.
"Captain Robert" Signing Sammy's book

After we got home from the trip, I printed out miniature photos of the boys with each character on adhesive-back paper so they could add them to each signature page.

In the end I'm SO glad that I made these books!!  I went in thinking that I'd end up doing all the work sticking stuff in their books for them.  But, I couldn't have been more wrong.  They were so excited to add to their books every day and it was so fun watching them make these books their own!  It's even more fun watching them flip through them now, reflect on the fun they had, and show them to their family and friends!


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