Friday, March 1, 2024

Should You Take Your Family on a Disney Cruise? I Went On the Inaugural NZ Voyage & Here Are My Thoughts

The Disney Wonder is in town – so should you take your family on a Disney Cruise? Alice took her family (the 9-year-old and 20-month-old) on the inaugural NZ sailing: a four-night cruise from Auckland to Auckland (yes, it was the technically a cruise to nowhere). So, was it any good?

== Cut to the chase please – give me the bullet points so I can decide if a Disney Cruise is for me!==

In a world gone absolutely mad, when I was offered the chance to leave planet earth for four nights with my family and be transported to a whole other dimension – a dimension of  magic and wonder – I positively jumped at the chance.

Yes, technically we were actually going nowhere – just leaving Auckland harbour, then motoring around out at sea for a while before returning – but, this was no ordinary trip on a ship. As I said, this was a trip to a dimension of magic and wonder: one that only Disney can truly deliver on. We were steaming out of town on the Disney Wonder – a cruise ship powered by Mickey Mouse, magic, and, evidentially, a lot of sugar, excitement and free ice-cream.

One of my very first memories is as a three-year-old, discovering Disneyland for the very first time (it was the 80s and although travel cost an arm and a leg, my dad worked for an airline and we were based in Hawaii at the time, so it was actually an achievable trip!).

I was too terrified to actually get close to any of the characters (except for the one photo I had with Donald Duck, where I clung to my mum for dear life), but I remember the excitement and wonder in my bones. I’ve been lucky enough to return as an adult, and as soon as I walk through the gates, I immediately feel like that little girl again.

It was the same story onboard the Wonder. On the first morning of our trip, the moment I saw Mickey Mouse in the flesh, walking across the deck, I found myself letting out an involuntary squeal of “Oh my God, it’s Miiiiiiiiiiickey!” which was actually barely audible because everyone else in my vicinity – children AND grownups – had the exact same reaction. Later on in the trip I had a chat to the Cruise Director, Jimmy Lynett who said that after 20 years on the job, his heart still leaps in his chest when he sees one of the characters.

But, my greatest joy for this voyage was that this time I was experiencing Disney with my family – and through the eyes of our two boys, aged nine and 20 months. One of my favourite memories of our Disney cruise was seeing our 9-year-old bounding up to Goofy for a hug, and tugging along his little toddler brother (who is obsessed with two things in life: cars, and dogs) to proudly introduce him. I found myself getting choked up watching him hold hands with Goofy, bop him on the nose and marvel at him with the biggest smile on his face. I’d live that moment a thousand times over again. It was pure magic.

It’s magic that does come at a cost though – although it’s obviously substantially cheaper than schlepping your family across the planet to one of the parks – so, is it right for your family? Let me help you decide…

The Disney Wonder (image supplied)

So Should YOU Book In?

The Basics:

+ The Disney Wonder is currently available for short holidays – from two to five night trips that leave and return to Auckland (without getting off the ship), or around Australia. At the moment, a four-night Disney Cruise from Auckland to Auckland in December 2024 starts at US$3,212 (NZ$5,287) for two adults and two children.

What I Loved:

+ Eating. It’s what we spent the majority of our time doing onboard! Pretty much all of your food and beverage choices (except for alcohol, one adults only restaurant and coffee shop and drinks delivered with room service) are all included. There’s multiple choices to eat at for breakfast and lunch including a buffet restaurant, sit-down al a carte restaurants, a pizzeria, plus a sandwich/salad shop. Outside of that, you can order room service, open 24/7 for no extra cost. Yes, you read that correctly, NO cost. There’s also a soda fountain, coffee/tea station and a soft serve ice-cream bar that are all at no cost (i.e. heaven for children).

+ The Restaurants. There are three amazing restaurants onboard the Wonder: Tiana’s, which is based on The Princess & the Frog. It serves up southern cuisine, with a band playing onstage. Walking around the restaurant you’ll find Tiana, plus a giant crocodile, who go onstage for the big musical numbers, dance around, start a conga line as well as limbo. Then there’s Triton’s, based on The Little Mermaid, where you’ll find lots of seafood, plus beautiful décor. The final restaurant is Animator’s Palate, where you’re presented with a piece of paper to draw yourself (or a character) into the blank spaces. Up on the screens around the room, you’ll watch behind the scenes videos from Disney animated films, until the grand finale, where all the drawings you have created become animated and walk, jump and dance along the screens into those films. It’s incredibly well done, and such a delight for kids (and adults) to see their sketches come to life! You cycle through all three of the restaurants during your stay, so you don’t need to worry about making a booking!

+ The service. The great thing about rotating through the restaurants is that you also take your serving team with you, so you have the same staff each night. Before long, you know each other really well, which honestly adds so much to the whole experience. In the days since our cruise ended I have missed our servers Richard and Gede immensely. Richard was a true angel on earth, who, on the first night immediately clocked that our toddler did not want to sit in the high chair and instead wanted to sit on one of our laps. Without a word, he quietly rearranged my place setting, put my plate to the side and cut up my food so I could easily pick up mouthfuls with a fork. A hero. When things got a bit hectic (as they do when dining with kids) he crouched next to our 9-year-old and showed him magic tricks while we looked after our toddler. Like I said, a true heaven sent angel.

+ The staterooms. I wasn’t quite expecting the bed to be as comfortable as it was. They’re also larger than I imagined! Our stateroom had a veranda, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Seeing as our ship didn’t stop off anywhere, it was nice to have a spot outside to sit and relax away from everyone from time to time. The rooms are thought of fully with families in mind – there’s a separate bathroom (with shower over a bathtub) and toilet with a sink, to make life easier, plus plenty of storage (drawers, wardrobes, plus we fit two suitcases and our folded down Edwards & Co Oscar stroller under the bed!). We also had two bunk beds that converted into a couch during the day – with space for a cot (which was provided). There’s a heavy curtain that you can pull across for some privacy when you need it between the main bed, and the bunk room. What I also loved was all the little hidden Mickey motifs around the room – it makes for a fun ‘can you spot them’ game for the kids. The rooms are cleaned twice daily, with night-time turndown service, that includes towel art (my favourites were the elephant and the hanging sloth!).

+ The kids club is insane. Insanely good, that is. There’s a full-sized Andy’s room, recreated from Toy Story, alongside a cabin out of Frozen (with snowflakes falling outside the windows), a Marvel area, arts and crafts area, traditional playground, games area and much, much more. There’s also dedicated kids clubs for different ages – from the It’s a Small World Nursery for under threes (which requires a booking and comes with a fee), the Disney Oceaneer Lab for those aged three to 12. ‘Edge’ for ages 11-14 and ‘Vibe’ for 14-17, all decked out with comfy couches, music and video games. Honestly? Your kid will want to go to these clubs. There’s loads to do – plus, the characters often stop by unannounced to play alongside the kids. It also uses state of the art technology to keep your kids safe. They’re issued a wrist band which works with a series of sensors in the ceiling, so when it’s time to pick up your kid, they know exactly where they are. You’re also required to give a predetermined security word at pick-up, where they check your ID in the system.

+ Adults get a break. While the kids are being well taken care of at the kids club, or in the nursery, it means adults can actually have some vacay time. There’s an entire portion of the ship that’s adults only: a pool and spa pools (that are FAR less busy than the others, that turned into kid soup at times), a café, a restaurant, a spa/fitness centre and plenty of deckchairs and recliners to relax in. Cove café pumps out delicious coffees – and if you order a latte, you’ll get ‘Disney art’ on the foam.

I loved the little touches onboard, like the robes that came in four different sizes to fit all of our family – and of course the Disney coffee art!

+ Kids can be kids. One of the things I loved about the Disney cruise was that it was made for families – everything is so well thought out. Going out for dinner with little ones can sometimes be stressful – what if the toddler has a tantrum? What if the baby cries? What if the kid gets bored? What if there’s nothing for them to eat? None of it matters on a Disney cruise, because they will catered for. They will be entertained. If they kick off, there’s so much ambient noise (and other kids losing the plot) that no one is going to stare at you for bringing a crying child to dinner. It’s liberating.

+ The Entertainment. There’s SO much to do on a Disney Cruise – from the pools, to making space goo with Stitch, to Ecanto parties, through to the Broadway style shows, movie theatre and the late-night deck parties. There’s literally always something on – or, you can just stay in your stateroom and watch Disney!

Frozen, the stage show!

+ Palo. While meals are all included in the price (yes, even ROOM SERVICE!), you do have to pay for coffees in the Cove adults-only café and at fine-dining adults-only restaurant, Palo. But HOLY HECK it was worth it. My partner Adam went for dinner and came back so full and content he could barely speak (enough to say that the souffle is amazing though). I went for some time alone for brunch and it was incredible. As I said, I’m gluten- and dairy-free, so am used to having slim choices on menus, but when I told my server Roberto this he told me to pick whatever I would like and they could make it happen. He suggested I start with the Heirloom Tomato and Basil Soup (served with Grape Tomatoes and EVOO) and even though I despise soup, I went ahead and ordered it. It was heavenly and has changed my mind on soup entirely. From there, I told Roberto I would follow him to war, and would try any of his suggestions. I then had an out-of-this-world seafood antipasti (Jonah Crab Claw, lemon marinated shrimp, marinated green lip mussels and spiced ahi tuna gravlax), flatbread AND a (dairy-free) Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Breast (topped with a San Marzano Tomato Basil Sauce and DF Mozzarella Cheese with Creamy Arborio Rice Risotto). PLUS a Mimosa. Yes, I ate this all for brunch and yes, I did need a lie-down afterwards.

What I Didn’t Love So Much:

+ Late nights. What I wasn’t quite expecting was for things to be on quite so late. You can choose from two different dinner sessions – 5.45pm or 8.30pm and seeing as the latter was later than our kids’ regular bedtimes, we went for the early session! What I didn’t realise was that if you’re on the early session, you’re on for the late session of the show that night. Shows start at either 6pm or 8.30pm. They run for 1hr 15 mins. Thankfully there was a matinee for Frozen on our trip, otherwise we would have missed it, because it was a run of late nights! The night ship parties, like the Marvel Unite show (a pretty cool battle with the Avengers, who abseil down the ship’s funnels and zipline overhead down the ship, culminating in a firework show) and the Pirate Night (a Pirates of the Caribbean inspired spectacular, that also features a fireworks show) both started at 10.30pm, with the fireworks finishing at 11pm. There were lots of sleeping kids at those ones – and overtired youngsters (and, to be fair, adults) the next day!

+ The queues. Yes, if you’ve ever been to Disneyland, you will be well used to the concept of queueing. And people do seem to love to form a queue. I watched people mindlessly join some, without even knowing what they were in line for. “What are you waiting for,” I asked “I dunno, but if there’s a queue, it must be good,” one guy told me. The longest wait-times are to get your photos with the characters – and the lines can be an hour or so long, which is painful with little ones! I queued in two (once for 15 mins, once for 45), but also ran into plenty of the characters out in the wild. We saw Minnie just walking around and got a pic, we also played shuffleboard with Chip and Dale and played foos ball with Captain Hook (he totally cheated too obv).

We waited about 45 mins for this experience, but, in the end I felt it was totally worth it

You’ve Already Booked a Disney Cruise? Good For You! Here’s What I Reckon You Should Know!

+ Get in and book fast! As soon as you can get into the Navigator App and start booking in for things, you should! I highly, highly recommend going to Palo for dinner, or lunch.

+ Prices onboard are all marked in US Dollars, so be careful! Also, yes, the power outlets are American and European. But don’t worry about bringing an adaptor onboard – they provide double adaptors for use in your stateroom.

+ Join the Facebook Group! You’ll get to know some of the families you’re going to be onboard with, and have help packing, knowing what to expect etc. You can also sign up for a Fish Extenders group. I know, this sounds like gibberish. But, I discovered this quite late in the game (too late to join a group, sadly!). So next to your stateroom door is a little metal fish, where you’ll find your keys, notes and bandanas on Pirate Night. People use this hook to hang giftbags from. Then, in assigned groups they gift each other little gift surprises to open during the trip. Some of the fish extenders are incredible! We opted to do ‘Pixie Dusting’ – where you put out gift bags, and ‘sprinkle’ little gifts to others. I bought a bag of Frozen and Avenger trinkets from Spotlight and kept some in my handbag, so anytime our kids spotted one, we’d drop them some gifts. We received so many cute little gifts, from stickers and pins, to Mickey ears and bags.

+ Admit defeat – know you’re not going to be able to do everything. There is SO MUCH to do on board a Disney Cruise, it’s physically impossible to do it all. It’s super easy to wear yourself out (and your kids), so accept that you won’t be doing it all and instead make a short note of your must-do’s and ensure you tick those off. If you do the night parties (pirate night etc) you’re in for some late nights, so pace yourselves!

+ Plan for queues. Lines for the character meet and greets can get super long – an hour’s wait at times. The ones with professional photographers are amazing – they get such great snaps. One of the staff will also happily take your camera and take video/additional photos of the interaction. Photos are pretty expensive (if you’re getting 10 or more, there’s a package discount, otherwise they’re US$22.50 a pop!!). Other meet and greets don’t have a photographer – so check what you’re queuing for beforehand! Some guests swore by going early and lining up beforehand (you can sit on the floor) to cut down on time standing, waiting. Others split up, so that one parent stood in the line while the other took their kid out for some fresh air or a run-around and swapped over (it can be a long time in queue). Make sure you take a bag of snacks and activities! And yes, while this all sounds very negative, although the interactions are fast, they’re my favourite memories onboard. There’s nothing like seeing your kids swept up in the magic!

+ Some bad news for uber Disney Cruise fans. I heard some die-hard Disney fans express their disappointment that a few things weren’t exactly like they are on other Disney cruises. Disney has swapped out some of the regular food items (particularly perishable ones!) for locally sourced varieties, rather than the US ones served onboard cruises out of the States. The biggest complaints seemed to be that the Mickey Bars (chocolate dipped ice-creams in the shape of Mickey’s ears) were replaced with Magnum ice-creams. The nightly mini Mickey chocolate bars that are left in your stateroom during the turndown service were replaced with Whittakers. Traditional US drinks in the soda fountain like Minute Maid were replaced with local sodas – Coke, Sprite, L&P, Fanta etc. Personally, I enjoyed some of the swaps – including locally sourced fish! – but if you’re a long-time fan, this may disappoint you. Some items were also sold out in the gift shops, like the Animator’s Palate Butter Knife (IYKYK, apparently), which was a big disappointment for big fans.

Alice and her family were guests of Disney Cruise Lines. All opinions are her own (or those of two very impressed little ones!)

Accommodation Review: Te Arikinui Pullman Auckland Airport Hotel

Welcome to Capsule Travels, where we bring you stories, reviews and experiences of all the best the world – and New Zealand has to...

How Are You, Today… Brooke Fraser? The Kiwi Singer Talks Motherhood, Turning 40 and The Magic of The Creative Process

In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check...

The Divorce Diaries: ‘The Text Message That Prompted the End of My Marriage’

Maria and Jake divorced because of a text message. That's how it started. From there, Maria watched as their marriage completely dissolved. Welcome to...

‘I Thought Covid Wasn’t Really a ‘Thing’ Anymore. Now I Have Long Covid’ One Woman’s Regret & Her Warning to Others

In the early days of hearing about the condition, many of us furiously Googled 'How to not get Long Covid'. When we were exposed...