Magical! It’s a word often used to describe Disney, and our Merrytime Cruise aboard the Disney Wonder was a classic Disney magical experience. It was the perfect first true family vacation for our three year old little girl to experience
From the day we booked, I began researching everything I could to ensure I was prepared for the trip. I didn’t want us to miss out on a single experience. Once aboard, I was glad I had done that. But I also quickly learned, there is simply so much to do that it’s impossible to do it all.
Below are some tips I’ve learned that I believe will help you if you’re boarding the Disney Wonder soon for your own magical Disney vacation.
Tip 1: Tell Your Toddler Ahead of Time
In my research, I saw where parents waited until the day of the cruise to let their children know they were about to set sail on the seas with Mickey. Their children were so excited that day.
Our three year old is still too little to really understand same day surprises. We booked our cruise in August, just four months before we were to embark on this epic vacation. We told our daughter the same day we booked the cruise where we were going and who she would meet.
Off and on over the next few months we would show her videos about the cruise ship that others had posted to YouTube. The anticipation stretched out the excitement for her, and I believe it helped her to understand where we were going.
The concept of a large ship and a vast ocean is hard to grasp when you’re three. Once we finally boarded the ship, she spent the next few hours asking when we were going to get on Mickey’s boat. And she had already met Mickey and Pluto prior to boarding.
So, if you’re traveling with a toddler, my recommendation is to let them know several months in advance where you’re headed. You can still do a surprise vacation reveal with a phone call from Mickey and Minnie, and then do one while you’re traveling down to the port from Goofy (or another one of your favorite characters). And you’ll get the added bonus of months worth of smiles and family vacation planning together, instead of just hours!
Tip 2: Pack Snacks for Setting Sail
I packed one small backpack full of snack food and three bottles of juice. While there is plenty of free food on board, having your toddler’s (and your husband’s) favorite snacks handy can be beneficial.
Snacks are especially handy on boarding day, when your antsy toddler decides he or she is hungry, and you’re still at least a half hour away from your number being called to board the ship. While the port does have a vending machine, bottled juice and snacks from home make it more convenient and ensure your kiddo will actually eat what you offer.
Snacks also come in handy aboard the ship during nighttime shows. Instead of paying for the popcorn outside the theater, you can bring in your own movie snacks. We stocked up on boxed candy and crackers before we left from home. Once on board, I wished I had packed some of the snack sized bagged popcorn for the trip because we still ended up buying popcorn nightly at the shows. That warm buttered popcorn smell is just too hard to ignore when your toddler loves those little puffs of popped goodness.
Tip 3: Be Prepared for Port Days
We enjoyed three fantastic port days, and I was throughly prepared for the first two days. I pre-packed our onshore bag the night before with snacks, cameras, sunscreen, sunglasses, and drinks. Plus, I made sure I had my credit cards handy for any extra things we felt we couldn’t live without.
On our third port day, however, I made the decision to switch to a smaller bag. Since I hadn’t needed my wallet or snacks the day before on Castaway Cay, I failed to pack them for our day out in Nassau, Bahamas. As a friendly reminder, the Key to the World Card doesn’t work on shore.
On the plus side, we didn’t purchase anything extra during our Nassau excursion. But we were some really thirsty and hungry people when we boarded the boat six hours after we had enjoyed breakfast. I was thankful I had packed one bottle of juice for the toddler…it was my saving grace that day.
So make a checklist of the things you’ll need daily ashore. I’m a planner and still managed to miss packing what most would consider the most obvious thing to take aboard in a foreign country … money!!
Tip 4: Make a Plan for Character Experiences
There are no shortages of opportunities to stand in line to meet your favorite Disney characters, but some characters are much more popular than others. Each character appearance is scheduled for 15 minutes, and as long as you’re in line before those 15 minutes end, you’ll get to meet your Disney friend.
Many character appearances can last 30-45 minutes because of the line length. Captain Hook’s Line lasted well over an hour. We discovered two tips throughout our cruise to improve the line waiting experience.
The first tip was to divide and conquer. My husband would wait in one line and hold our spot, while my daughter and I would wait in another. Every other photo we could do as a family, and it decreased our wait time with a toddler in one of the lines.
The other thing we discovered was having a set of Disney figurines to play with on the floor kept our toddler entertained as we waited in line to see the characters.
Also note that if you have tickets for one of the Princess gatherings thinking they are similar to a Fast Pass, you’ll be wrong. We still stood in line 45 minutes after our scheduled event time to take photos. But get the tickets because without them, you’re not allowed to meet the Princesses.
Tip 5: Get in Line Early for the Disney Theater
We were fortunate to have early dining, so we caught the late show most evenings. We had been told it was worth it to sit in one of the first few rows, so we were in line by 7:30 p.m. every night for the 8:30 p.m. shows. Doors open at 8:00 and there is a rush to the front.
The good news is you can see the show well from anywhere in the theater. If you sit farther back, you can take in more of the lights and animation that happens on the walls around the theater. But sitting up front means you get to experience the fall of confetti around you and the joy of snow falling during the Frozen musical.
So my recommendation is to have someone from your party be in line 30 minutes before the doors open. You can bring family games or small crafts to do together on the floor while you wait. Many families brought coloring books for their kiddos. We just used our Disney figurines we had purchased in the gift shop to pass the time.
Tip 6: Participate in the Fish Extenders Gift Exchange & Find Your Facebook Group
Chances are you’re already aware of the Fish Extenders tradition that is unique to Disney. We weren’t when we booked our cruise, but after starting our research, we decided to participate.
Every Disney Cruise has a Facebook Group you can join to signup for a Fish Extender Group. Not only is the Facebook Group where you do that, but it is also a great place to ask questions as you prep for your Disney Cruise.
I made the decision to hand make our gifts for nine other families. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but as our cruise got closer and I began to find myself staying up later and later trying to finish the gifts, I began to question if it was worth all the effort.
It only took one super excited kiddo aboard the ship discovering gifts in her Fish Extender pocket to remind me that every hour spent preparing for the gift exchange was worth it. Most days aboard the ship we had a surprise from someone in our bags.
If you’re stressing over what to prepare as gifts, I can tell you anything for use aboard the ship is a great idea. If we cruise again with Disney, I will be focused on giving sand toys to the kiddos. Our other favorite item received was a character signature photo mat. We hadn’t packed one. Unfortunately we received it on Day 3 and had already seen most of the characters by then, but we still thought it was a fabulous gift idea.
Tip 7: Bring Pixie Dust Gifts, Too
Whether you participate in the Fish Extender gift or not, I still recommend you bring tiny gifts on board to give out to others as Pixie Dust. We were gifted several tiny items throughout the cruise that made our family excited.
I had brought two sets of things for Pixie Dust. First, I brought a pack of extra glow sticks for Pirate Night. Our toddler enjoyed finding kids on deck who needed a glow stick and sharing with them.
Next, I brought extra Disney Trading Pins to share with others on Pin Trading Night. We dropped those off in random Fish Extender bags or handed them out to people we saw. It’s a great way to teach a kiddo about random acts of kindness.
Tip 8: Enjoy Breakfast on the Deck at the Buffet
One of the best things about the buffet aboard the Disney Wonder is the outdoor patio seating on the deck. Each morning we enjoyed the fresh sea breeze while eating breakfast outside. It is one of the few times we just totally relaxed and enjoyed the beauty of the ocean.
Tip 9: Pack Sand Toys for Castaway Cay
If you have kids, packing sand toys for your trip is a must. Checkout your local Dollar Tree during the summer for an assortment of sand toys to take with you.
I had packed our toddler a sand pail and shovel. Unfortunately, the pail broke in our suitcase, leaving us with just a shovel for beach days. We lucked out though when our neighbor Pixie Dusted us three sand toys. They saved the day for us on beach day, when our toddler discovered the giant sandbox that is the ocean shoreline.
If you fail to remember your sand toys, Disney won’t hesitate to capitalize on the opportunity as they help you out. There are several options available for purchase on Castaway Cay. Many families shelled out much higher than Dollar Tree prices so their kids could play in the sand, too.
Tip 10: Wait to Book Your Excursions in Key West
We had read online not to book your Key West excursions through Disney but to wait until you got off the ship. So as soon as we were off the ship, we purchased our train ride tickets.
Then we walked to board the Conch Train and learned we could have purchased our tickets there. The plus to waiting until you’re at the actual train depot is they sell discounted tickets to other attractions in Key West, but most of the discounts are only available if you purchase them at the time you purchase your tickets. We were still able to get discounted tickets to the Butterfly Conservatory (a must see if you are even a tiny bit amazed by butterflies), but she couldn’t sell us discounted tickets to the Hemingway House (which by the way is cash only if you try to purchase them at the museum directly).
The Conch Train was a neat tour for adults, but 45 minutes until we could get off made it a long ride for our three year old. If we were to do Key West from a cruise ship again, I would simply pack a collapsible stroller and explore the city on foot.
Tip 11: Take Advantage of Free Internet to Keep in Touch with Family & Friends
To try and get you hooked on needing internet access, every guest is allowed 50MB of Free Internet aboard the ship. In order to claim your free internet access, you must login and create an account on Day 1.
Because I only wanted internet access to share one Facebook post daily, the 50 MB proved to be just enough for our seven day trip. But you want to heed a few pieces of advice to ensure you don’t burn through the data.
First, ensure all of the Apps on your phone have background refresh turned off. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off on my email app (which used 20 MB of data before I realized it), so I just deleted the mail app while onboard the cruise. Next time I’ll delete the app before boarding.
Next, use the Notes App on your phone to journal about your day. Each day I wrote one fairly long post covering the highlights of our day that I wanted friends and family back home to know about.
Then copy your journal entry.
Finally, open the Facebook App and immediately paste your written text as a post. Resist the urge to upload any photos because that will use all of your data and you won’t be able to post future updates during your trip. You can share all your photos when you get back on land.
After hitting post, immediately turn off your WiFi on your phone. This will ensure extra data is lost loading the newsfeed. If you’re curious, a few things will have loaded in your newsfeed while you were posting, so you can glance at them before putting your phone away.
If you’re like me and a tad bit paranoid about posting online while you’re on an extended vacation, simply set your Facebook privacy settings to only allow close friends and family members to see your posts while you’re away. After your cruise, you can go back and change the settings to normal on each Facebook post. Additionally, you can add photos to those posts at the same time.
Of course, you can also purchase full internet access for about $90 if you feel the need to stay connected the entire time you’re onboard the ship. We didn’t want to do that. We truly enjoyed being off the grid (for the most part) over the seven days at sea.
Tip 12: Get Free Pixie Dust at Bippity Boppity Boutique
We had originally booked our daughter a spa experience at Bippity Boppity Boutique, but then we learned you can stop by and get free Pixie Dust there anytime you want. We cancelled the booking to save the $150 for something else. We figured at bare minimum we could buy her five Disney Princess dresses at Walmart for the same price as once spa experience, and those would bring months of enjoyment instead of a day. (We didn’t buy the dresses either, but it does put expenses into perspective).
Instead, we took our toddler by the Boutique later in the evening when there weren’t tons of little girls being transformed into princess and let her enjoy the magic of getting glitter sprinkled on her head as she made a wish. She truly enjoyed the experience, and I had glitter nail polish already packed to pamper her back in the room.
Tip 13: Pack Your Own Snorkel Gear
If you enjoy being out on the ocean looking for fish, shells, and other treasures, you will want to bring snorkel gear with you. You can purchase it online or at Walmart or Target for about half the price of what you’ll spend renting it, and it’s yours to keep for future beach trips, too. If you plan on getting off the boat at Castaway Cay, you’ll want snorkel gear so you can see the sunken ships and sea life in the pristine waters that are as magical as any other Disney experience.
Tip 14: Download the Disney Cruise Line Navigator App Before Leaving Home
Prior to leaving home, download the Disney Cruise Line Navigator App for use onboard. Not only will it let you know the weather and dinner menu for the day, but it also allows you to select the activities and character experiences you’re most interested in. Then it sends you reminder notifications throughout the day so you don’t miss any of the things you want to do.
We switched back and forth between the paper navigator and the phone app. The thing I enjoyed most about the phone app was the ability to see ahead at when things were happening on board. The paper navigator didn’t allow us to see into the future, so we felt more obligated to do things as they were happening. It turns out, most of the characters and experiences aboard happen multiple times if you’re on an extended cruise, so the phone app makes it easy to plan your activities over the course of several days.
Tip 15: Ask for Shared Seating at Dinner
I’m honestly not sure how we ended up getting to be sat with another family at dinner, but we did. Lots of other families told us they didn’t have anyone else at their table (though everywhere we looked it appeared multiple families were sitting together at dinner).
We were very lucky to be sat with a family who has a three year old little girl, too. Our toddler enjoyed having her at the table and eagerly awaited her arriving every night to join us.
If there is an option during your check-in process to select shared dining, make sure to check it. It’s a great way to make new friends. (Again, Disney may just randomly pair some families while others are given private tables. I’m not really sure how it works, but I know I’m glad we had another family to visit with).
Tip 16: Board Early & Enjoy Lunch on the Ship
Disney will notify you via email when you can schedule your online checkin. The sooner you get online to schedule your port arrival time (PAT), the earlier you’ll be able to board the ship.
We got online at 12:00 a.m. EST the morning we could do our online checkin and secured a 12:30 p.m. PAT. However, our hotel shuttle would only take us at 11:00 a.m., so we arrived an hour early at the port. No worries, they gladly took care of us, and we were on board the ship by about 12:30.
Once on board, we sat down for lunch at Triton’s. It was a great way to start our cruise experience and a meal we would have missed had we not boarded until later in the day. Plus, we then had a few hours to explore the ship before setting sail.
Do note that staterooms are not available until 1:30 p.m. so anything you carry on you must carry around with you until then.
Tip 17: Book or Request Tickets to Special Events
It’s important for you to know that some of the more popular free events on board still require you to reserve tickets. The Princess Gathering (Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, and Tiana) and the Frozen Gathering (Anna and Elsa) tickets can be reserved online prior to setting sail. But they go quickly, so make sure to book them when you schedule your port arrival time during online check-in.
If you are embarking on a Merrytime Cruise, you’ll also want to reserve tickets for the Gingerbread House Activity once you board the ship. Only a limited number of tickets are available, so go to Guest Services to reserve yours on Day 1.
Tip 18: Bring Clothespins to Hang Wet Clothes
The shower has a handy little clothesline for you to drape your wet clothes, but even as a small family of three, there wouldn’t have been enough space on the line had we not brought clothespins with us. So toss in 10 or so clothespins while you’re packing. They’ll come in handy on the trip.
Tip 19: Book the Royal Princess Tea Party
Earlier I talked about how overpriced Bippity Boppity Boutique is, but there is an even more over priced activity for your little princess (or prince) to participate in. Despite the high price tag for the Royal Court Tea Party, I would still recommend you do it.
Not only is it simply a fantastic Mommy-Daughter Date (or family experience), but it gives your little one the opportunity to partake in a real tea party complete with fruit tea (apple juice) for the kiddos and an assortment of teas for the adults. Plus a tiered selection of tea appropriate sandwiches and cakes to nibble on. Each little princess also receives their own cupcake.
While the snacks were delicious, the best part about the gift giving are the gifts on the table. Our three year old is in love with her Cinderella doll and her Cinderella music box. While I could’ve purchased something similar elsewhere, she truly believes Prince Charming (not at the event) gifted her the charms and bracelet inside the jewelry box. And she is happy that each princess gave her an additional charm for the bracelet. That is Disney Magic that can’t be purchased off the shelf.
Our little girl isn’t yet really into the princesses. She would’ve been much more excited had Mickey and Minnie hosted the tea, yet she still loved the experience. Like everything else aboard the ship, the Royal Tea is a well choreographed show lead by Lady Chamomile and the Chef from Beauty and the Beast. Belle, Ariel, and Cinderella all stop by to visit.
I fell completely in love with Belle throughout the Disney Cruise. She has the most amazing disposition and is the very best with the kiddos.
While Ariel has always been my favorite princess, I discovered she’s a bit more of a ditz in real life. But she, too, was amazing interacting with our toddler. She was even excited when another girl at our table showed her the Dinglehopper she had on the table.
Cinderella, however, I was not impressed with. I felt each time we interacted with her, including at the Royal Tea, she was stuck up. I was honestly disappointed in how her character was portrayed … though the girl was almost a spot on resemblance in physical characteristics to Cinderella in the movie. I was just expecting more warmth and compassion and felt arrogance. Perhaps it was just me.
But the overall tea experience was simply fantastic. We enjoyed it, and there was an added surprise the following night. A framed photo of my little princess with the three other princesses was waiting for us when we returned to our stateroom.
If you want to ensure you get to attend the Royal Tea, make sure to book it when you do your online checkin. Tickets to the event sellout quickly.
Tip 20: Be Prepared for Hidden Charges
Finally, be aware that just because you booked an all-inclusive vacation aboard a Disney Cruise ship, there are hidden charges to pre-plan for.
The first hidden charge is gratuity. Plan to spend $12 per day per guest in your party, including children, for gratuity. For a seven night cruise, that comes out to an extra $84 per person charged to your stateroom at the end of the experience, even if you don’t participate in the rotational dining every night. You can always go down to guest services and have the amount lowered or raised, but they also require you to hand the gratuity slip directly to your servers. So even on the two servers we didn’t feel deserved the recommended gratuity, we left the tip at the recommended level.
The other hidden charge on our final bill was $12.95 for the wrist band they put on our toddler when we boarded the ship. It’s required if your kids are going to participate in the Kid’s Club activities. It’s a neat idea because it tracks your kids on board the ship. The good news is, they refund you the money if you turn the band back in at the end of the cruise in the Kid’s Club.
The other non-inclusive items aboard the ship are all priced. You’re aware you are paying for them before you order them. Do double check your receipts in the theater or at room service. There is a place for you to add additional gratuity, but someone pointed out to us after the fact that gratuity was already included on the receipt.
BONUS TIP: Just Have Fun
You really can’t do everything there is to do aboard the ship, so relax. You won’t be bored. If you miss a character experience, more than likely they’ll be back several times throughout your cruise. Catch them next time.
Speaking of catching things, make sure to catch at least one sunrise and one sunset when you’re on the trip. The sunrise I had on the deck, in complete solitude while my husband and daughter, along with most of the rest of the ship slept, was perhaps one of the best moments. Just me, a hot peppermint tea, a fresh bran muffin, and all of God’s beautiful masterpiece around me. It was the perfect moment to reflect and thank Him for the life he has provided my family and this wonderful vacation!
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