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September 23, 2017

Disney Cruise Line offers new excursion at Castaway Cay

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Disney Cruise Line passengers sailing to the Bahamas and the Caribbean have a new option when it comes to their ports of call excursions.

At Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line’s private island, guests can choose from experiences that allow them to feed stingrays, cruise in a glass-bottom boat and parasail. Now, the cruise line says passengers can “dive like a dolphin or soar above the crystal-clear waters like an eagle.” It’s the new Jetovator Solo Rider. If you’re like me, that sounds like something from a Star Wars movie. In reality, it’s the new water adventure in which the guest is propelled into the air on a small water bike that is hooked to a Jet Ski through a large hose.

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According to the manufacturer website, “the Jetovator redirects the water thrust from the jet unit of the Jet Ski along a sixty foot hose to the Jetovator Bike. This water thrust is then used to propel and elevate the Jetovator into the air.”

Just how high can you go? The setup allows up to 40 feet in the air but the Jetovator operator is in control of the height. So, you could choose to hover just two feet above the water if that is where you are most comfortable.

The Jetovator Solo Rider excursion at Castaway Cay is for ages 16 and older, and it costs $149. Guests start this port adventure at Boat Beach with a 15-minute safety briefing and a hands-on tutorial on how to operator the Jetovator. Next, they take a five-minute ride on a jet boat that travels to open waters where they meet their instructor and the Jetovator. They have 15 minutes to find their balance and pilot their Jetovator before heading back to shore.

Know before you go:

** Guests must be ambulatory. Wheelchairs (collapsible or electric) will not be permitted. Tour operators will deny participation to guests arriving in wheelchairs or electric scooters.

** The minimum allowable weight is 90 lbs and the maximum allowable weight is 300 lbs.

** Expectant mothers and guests with a history of back and/or neck problems are not allowed to participate on this excursion.

** Guests are required to be in good physical condition.

** The tour is not recommended for guests with limited mobility.

** All times and distances are approximate.

** Guests are asked to check in at Boat Beach five minutes prior to their start time.

This port excursion, like others, can be reserved through the Disney Cruise Line website when your booking window opens or at the Port Adventures desk on the ship.





August 3, 2017

3 sweepstakes offer Disney Cruise Line vacations as grand prizes

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Have you been dreaming of a Disney Cruise Line vacation? Well, why not dream a little bigger and imagine that the vacation would be paid for by someone else! There is still time to enter three different sweepstakes that have grand prizes of Disney sailings.

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Be Our Guest Dream Cruise Sweepstakes

Members of Disney Family Movies rewards can enter this sweepstakes, which has a grand prize of a four-night Bahamian cruise on the Disney Dream ship. It’s free to register on the Disney Family Movie website, and entrants who have already registered on any of the Walt Disney Company sites also are eligible.

The grand prize is the cruise for four people including airfare to Orlando, ground transfers, stateroom accommodations and all meals (except Palo and Remy fine dining and any alcohol). The grand prize vacation must be taken by November 1, 2018, and it must be booked at least 45 days in advance.

To enter, you must be at least 13 years old and a legal resident of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia. You can enter once per day per person at DisneyFamilyMovies.com. The last day to enter is August 7, 2017, and winners will be randomly drawn on or about August 9, 2017. Official rules can be found here.

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May the Force Sail With You Sweepstakes

In this sweepstakes, one person will win a grand prize of a seven-night Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy. You must be a member of Disney Family Movies rewards (or have already registered on any of the Walt Disney Company sites) for this contest, too.

The grand prize is the weeklong Disney cruise for four people including airfare to Orlando, ground transfers, stateroom accommodations and all meals, including one dinner for two adults at Palo fine dining, and a $200 credit at Senses Spa & Salon. The grand prize vacation must be taken by April 28, 2018, and it must be booked at least 45 days in advance.

To enter, you must be at least 13 years old and a legal resident of the 50 United States, the District of Columbia or Canada (excluding Quebec). You can enter once per day per person at DisneyFamilyMovies.com. The last day to enter is August 30, 2017, and winners will be randomly drawn on or about September 5, 2017. Official rules can be found here.

Disney Make Every Day Magical Sweepstakes

This sweepstakes also offers a grand prize vacation of a four-night Bahamian cruise on the Disney Dream ship. For this one, you must be a member of the Disney Movie Rewards Loyalty Program. This is different than the program in the previously mentioned sweepstakes. Membership is free.

The contest rules describe how to enter this way: “Once you are logged into your DMR member account, you may enter the Sweepstakes by navigating to the "Sweepstakes" tab, clicking on the Reveal The Magic icon on the Website (“Instant Win Play”) and to instantly see a message on-screen telling you what instant prize or reward points you have won (each, an “Instant Prize/Rewards”) AND to automatically receive one (1) entry into the Grand Prize random drawing (each, an “Automatic Entry”).

The grand prize is the shorter cruise with the extra goodies: A Disney cruise for four people including airfare to Orlando, ground transfers, stateroom accommodations and all meals, including one dinner for two adults at Palo fine dining, and a $200 credit at Senses Spa & Salon. The grand prize vacation must be taken by October 1, 2018, and it must be booked at least 45 days in advance.

To enter, you must be at least 13 years old and a legal resident of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia. You can enter once per day per person. The last day to enter is August 7, 2017, and winners will be randomly chosen on or about August 8, 2017. Official rules can be found here.





October 20, 2016

How to save money on a Disney Cruise Line vacation

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Is it possible to go on a Disney cruise vacation and not spend a lot of money on extras and still have a great time? Yes! Disney cruises are packed with activities and options, and you most definitely can have a great time and keep your budget intact. To do so, it’s important to know what is included and what costs extra. Here’s a breakdown:

** Gratuities. It is customary to tip your room stewart, head server, server and assistant server. Tipping is, of course, not mandatory, but most people do tip the suggested amounts ($12 per day per person for the combined amount for four cast members) on their cruises for the excellent service they receive on a Disney cruise. Disney does allow you to pre-pay these tips if you would like for convenience and budget reasons. Know that the ships now automatically add the recommended amounts to your onboard account, but you can have them removed if you choose. In my mind, tipping is just part of the cruise, not an “extra,” but I’m including it here because it is something that is not part of your initial cash outlay.

** Alcohol and specialty beverages. These drinks can add up quickly. If you don’t want to blow your budget, bring the allowable amount of alcohol per adult (six cans or bottles of beer OR two bottles of wine no larger than 750 ml) onboard and at each port. If you received an onboard credit, use that for your bar tab and do not go over the amount. Finally, if you like specialty drinks, check out the Drink of the Day, which will be less expensive than ordering your usual at the bar and you can use the souvenir cup for additional discounted drinks. There also is a refillable beer mug program.

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** Food. Food in the main dining rooms, quick service on the pool deck (including sodas), and room service is included in your cruise fare. What is not included: Sodas and tipping for room service; the upcharge for dining at adult-only Palo and Remy restaurants; and Vanellope’s Sweets & Treats on the Dream. On our first cruise (and our last), my husband and I did not go to Palo or Remy because we wanted to experience all three main dining rooms. We did try the new Vanellope’s Sweets & Treats this time, but visiting the complimentary soft serve ice cream station on the pool deck has been a favorite memory on every cruise for both of my children so I don’t think they would have been hugely disappointed if we skipped it.

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** Excursions. On shorter cruises, especially the three- and four-night Bahamian voyages, there is no need to sign up for expensive excursions. Sure, they are fun if you have the time and money to spend, but there is so much to do on the ship that it is a destination in itself. You will not be bored if you do not book excursions, I promise. We never get off the ship in Nassau and instead use the day as a pool day, but you could just as easily do many other things during that time. Honestly, my children have never complained about not going to Atlantis or another destination.

** Castaway Cay. There are opportunities to spend more money on Disney Cruise Lines’ private island, but again, you do not have to. If you get off the ship early, you can participate in the free runDisney Castaway Cay 5K (with a bib and medal) or grab prime lounge seats with umbrellas. Lunch on the island is included; drinks at the bar are not (see above). Snorkeling gear can be rented, but you also can bring your own if you don’t mind a little inconvenience, and the use of life vests and the snorkeling trail is free. There are excursions and water sports rentals, which cost extra, but there also are water slides, water rope climbing, a splash zone and life-size sidewalk games that are included at no charge.

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** Costumes. Want your family to dress up for pirate night or your little one to wear a fancy Disney Princess dress? Bring them with you. You do not have to go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (as much as we loved it) or The Pirate’s League to feel special. Or just use some makeup and the pirate bandanas that are provided.

** Photos. There is no getting around it – purchasing your professional cruise photos is expensive. If you can be happy with images taken on your camera or mobile phone, you will save a bundle. Me, not so much. I have bought different photo packages on every cruise we have sailed – and not regretted it at all. I think this is largely due to my desire to capture my children’s experiences, but if it were just my husband and I sailing, I might be less inclined to buy the packages.

That said, if you are planning to buy photos, there are a few ways to save. First, pre-order your package at mycruisephotos.com and save 15 percent. The discount is not available on the ship, but you can get a refund if you find you haven’t taken enough photos or don’t like the images as long as you do so before you leave the ship. Then, make the most of your package, especially if you purchased unlimited digital copies or prints. More photos equals a lower cost per photo. So, we took advantage of many of the photo opportunities, including two that I normally would pay for at a local studio. I made sure to get the pro shots of my children in their Halloween and pirate costumes, and we all dressed for a family portrait and individual images of the kids. This means I don’t have to pay for family photos for Christmas cards nor do I have to buy school photos, which I never like anyway. Win!

** Souvenirs. This is the other downfall for me. I’m happy to skip the bar tab in order to be able to shop. Having souvenirs that remind me of my vacation make me happy during my regular, routine days at home. If you’re like me, you’ve got to set a budget or find ways to stash extra cash before your trip.

If you’re not a big shopper, you can still come back with some nice complimentary mementos from the voyage: Castaway Club members receive a gift in their staterooms (usually is a tote or backpack); postcards are in the desk in each stateroom; bandanas left in the stateroom for pirate night; H20 bath products for the stateroom; collectible pins you trade with the ship’s officers; magnets that you made for your stateroom door you now can hang in the fridge; souvenir cups from specialty drinks; birthday pins from Guest Relations; and the above-mentioned Castaway Cay 5K bib and medal.

Bon voyage!



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October 15, 2016

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique veteran gives Disney Cruise Line salon a whirl

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I guess you could call my 12-year-old daughter a veteran of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Walt Disney World. She has been an eager customer at the royal beauty salons four times since her first visit at age 4.

For those not familiar with the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique locations, they are magical Disney salons that are staffed by fairy godmothers-in-training who grant princess makeovers to girls ages 3 to 12. They have been so popular that The Walt Disney Company continues to add locations, the most recent being on its cruise ships. (The Disney Fantasy was the first four years ago, followed by the Disney Magic and Disney Dream last year. The Wonder will emerge from its dry dock with a salon next month.)

Fast forward to my family’s recent cruise on the Disney Dream. My daughter decided that she wanted to experience the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique on the ship for the first time. Sadly, it would be her last time, too, as she is aging out of the experience. Still, my daughter thoroughly enjoyed her time at the onboard Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and declared it the best one yet, which made this momma’s heart fill with happiness.

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Although the premise of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is the same on ship and on shore, there are some nuances that make veterans like my daughter swoon with delight.

First, the outfit. When my daughter was younger, we brought fancy Disney Princess dresses with us, and she changed into them at the salon. At her last appointment at Walt Disney World and this one on the ship, she chose a more grown-up tutu and T-shirt combination that we purchased from the salon.

My daughter selected the Celebrations Package, which includes a nautical outfit, choice of hair style, makeup and face gem, nail polish, Princess tote and Princess sash. She was really excited about the outfit, which is a ship exclusive. And, actually, the Dream offers several outfits that little girls can only get onboard. In addition to the one my daughter chose, there also is the Minnie Mouse sailor outfit and a mermaid-themed swimsuit and cover-up that comes with a colorful sunblock application, hair clip, necklace and nail polish. (The sailor outfit and mermaid swim suit and wrap can be purchased separately in one of the gift shops. We did this with the mermaid set on a cruise four years ago, and my daughter really enjoyed wearing it when we got home.)

We scheduled my daughter’s appointment for late afternoon after the Sail Away Party to maximize her makeover, knowing that she would not be swimming that night and that we had reserved times for the Princess Gathering and the Frozen Meet-and-Greet the next morning. When we arrived at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the fairy godmothers-in-training all gathered to sing “Happy Birthday to You.” It was my daughter’s actual birthday that day, so this was a welcome gesture. Next, we were led to the royal dressing room, which seemed even more luxurious than the ones at Walt Disney World, especially with the porthole!

Once my daughter was changed into her new Celebrations outfit, we met my daughter’s fairy godmother-in-training, Louise from Ireland. Of all the cast members we’ve encountered in this role, Louise was by far our favorite. She struck just the right balance between treating my daughter like she was more grown up and yet still keeping the fantasy alive. She managed to make the experience stand out with special touches, such as granting my daughter two wishes at the end – one for being a princess and one for her birthday – and giving her a Disney Cruise Line birthday sash instead of just a regular Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique sash.

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As my daughter was being pampered, we all got a surprise: Pluto came into the salon for a few minutes and paused to greet and interact with each girl. My daughter was just so tickled by his visit. Characters do not make appearances the Walt Disney World locations of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, so it was unexpected fun. I have no idea if that is a regular occurrence on the cruise ships.

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My daughter noticed a few other differences between the ship and shore Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique: the nail polish is a gold glitter (Tinker Bell’s pixie dust) onboard, while it is a choice of baby blue or pale pink at the resort; the face gems are a different style; and the tiaras are a solid silver color. All of these subtle changes helped make a familiar process just a little more special.

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We were both a little reluctant to leave when it came time to say goodbye to Louise, so my daughter vowed to come back the next day to show off her Halloween costume. When we did, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique had been transformed into The Pirate’s League and Louise’s “twin sister” was working. She admired by daughter’s Tower of Terror bellhop costume and promised to tell Louise all about it. (You can read more about The Pirate’s League in Deb Koma’s blog from when it opened on the Disney Fantasy.)

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Louise had one last bit of pixie dust to sprinkle, however. On our last night, she left a Magical Moments certificate commemorating my daughter’s experience and a special hair clip outside our stateroom door. After that, there was no doubt in our minds that Louise is ready to graduate to a full-fledged fairy godmother.

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October 13, 2016

I survived Disney Cruise Line's Castaway Cay 5K

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I never thought that one of my vacation goals would be completing a 5K. My family and I were on a Disney cruise, for crying out loud, and I was willing to sacrifice precious beach time on a tropical island, not to mention extra sleep and the Cabanas buffet, in order to join actual runners on a hot trail. I blame it on the special runDisney medal.

I became focused on this particular runDisney event earlier this year when we booked our three-night Bahamian cruise and I realized my children were old enough to participate. You see, my husband and my kids have been running runDisney races at Walt Disney World for several years, but I have not been able to join them. I suffered a knee injury four years ago and had been dealing with subsequent complications since then. Just 11 weeks before we set sail, I had a total knee replacement surgery, and I decided one of my recovery goals would be to walk the Castaway Cay 5K. (I would not be cleared for running by the time of our cruise at the beginning of October.)

Despite my determination to complete the 5K, I found myself questioning my decision when I was in the company of a group of serious and casual athletes that morning. The last time I could consider myself an athlete was when I was in high school, many years ago, and I had not trained at all for this event. I was relying on the fact that I used to be a quick walker and that I log many miles at Walt Disney World as an annual passholder.

On race morning, we met at 8 a.m. at Evolution, an adult lounge, where we received official Castaway Cay 5K bibs (cool!) and basic instructions. The minimum age to run the 5K is 10 years. Participants with younger children were encouraged to be at the front of our group departing the ship so they could drop their children at the kids’ club on the island.

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We had to walk about a mile just to get to the starting place, Pelican Point, for the 5K. (Trams normally run to this location, but not for the start of the race.) The brisk walk was not a casual, sight-seeing stroll; we did not stop for photos or anything else! Once we reached Pelican Point, we were reminded of the race route, which can be a bit confusing, and the water stops. We also were told that the staff would count the mile we walked to the starting line if we were unable to do the second loop on the course, which also was about a mile.

And with a verbal cue, we were off! My husband and my 14-year-old son took off running, while my 12-year-old daughter stayed behind to walk with me at the back of the pack. We each quickly realized that what we had heard about the heat and humidity being oppressive, even at 9 a.m., certainly was true. My family of runners had written off complaints about the Bahamian weather and assumed they would be better equipped to deal with it as Florida residents who regularly exercise in 90-degree weather. Not so! Even my son, who as a competitive swimmer is the most physically fit of all of us, said the heat got to him and he had to walk part of the race.

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I struggled almost from the start with the complications I was having with my feet, although my knee felt fantastic. And the heat certainly didn’t help. My daughter and I pushed on through what a cast member called “The Loop of Death” or “The Loop of Fun” -- your choice, he said – for the first lap. That part of the course is thick with trees and brush and, frankly, not very scenic even though there were some themed props. When we came out of the loop, we grabbed more water and headed down the runway to a parked plane and back. I realized at that point that I was going to have to take the option of counting the trek over as part of my 5K, and skip the second “Loop of Death.” Definitely “The Loop of Death.” My swollen and painful feet just couldn’t go any farther, so my daughter and I kept up our pace back to the start/finish line.

My son was there to greet us, and my husband who also completed the entire course appeared shortly after us. Our family posed with our medals by the starting sign, creating the souvenir that I most wanted from this Disney cruise.

Tips

** Sign up for the Castaway Cay 5K onboard the ship at either Guest Relations or the Port Adventures desk. There have been mixed reports about a cap on the number of participants so I’d recommend signing up on your Embarkation Day.

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** This runDisney race is free. Yes, you read that correctly. The cost of the 5K – and your bib and medal -- is included in your cruise fare. Those familiar with runDisney races know what a deal that is!

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** Cast members provide a storage box for belongings you do not want to carry during the race. That way, you do not have to return to the ship if you do not want to. My family and I were so sweaty and tired after the 5K that we definitely wanted to go back to our room to get changed and grab our beach things. Plus, I wanted to take a photo in front of the ship with our bibs and medals. I'm glad we did because the photographers were gone from that location when we re-emerged back onto the island.

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** Want some merchandise to announce your accomplishment? I sure did! Conveniently located adjacent to the start/finish line is Buy The Seashore, which sells Castaway Cay 5K T-shirts, tech shirts, hats, collectible pins and window decals. A smaller selection of items is available at the other gift shop, She Sells Sea Shells and Everything Else, which is closer to the ship.

** The Castaway Cay 5K takes place on the island each day that a ship docks there. This race is different from the Castaway Cay Challenge 5K, which is paired with a race during from the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend to give participants the same medal regular 5K participants receive plus a challenge medal. That event is set up more like other runDisney races with characters on the course plus special activities and speakers onboard the Disney Dream.



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October 11, 2016

Trip report: Disney Cruise Line's Halloween on the High Seas

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My family and I just returned from a frightfully good time on the Disney Dream’s Halloween on the High Seas three-night cruise. And although we are not new to Disney cruising, this was our first time celebrating Halloween onboard one of the ships. And we found it to be full of treats.

Decorations

Halloween on the High Seas began four years ago on the Disney Dream and has since expanded to all four ships in the Disney Cruise Line fleet. (The Wonder is in dry dock so it cannot participate this season.) Halloween on the High Seas takes place in September and October and is family friendly.

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As we boarded the Dream, my family and I immediately felt immersed in the celebration when we saw traditional fall decorations of pumpkins and leaf garlands adorning the three-story, open atrium. The large portholes in public spaces on the several decks have fun designs, too, such as jack o’lantern faces and spider webs.

The Pumpkin Tree

The centerpiece of Halloween on the High Seas is a giant Pumpkin Tree in the atrium. This multi-day experience begins with a Caretaker character explaining about the barren tree and other Halloween customs. Passengers are invited to write their names on pumpkin seed cards and to return to check on the tree the next day. When they do come back to the atrium, passengers find that the seeds supposedly have grown into the 60 pumpkins that bring the dead tree back to life. The pumpkins light up during the reveal and "dance" along to music.

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Following along with the Pumpkin Tree’s transformation doesn’t take much time. Each daily segment lasts about 15 minutes and takes place between the two dinner seatings. As a parent, I appreciated that Disney reserved the space close to the stage for children. My 12-year-old daughter was able to sit with the other kids and have a clear view of the presentation. Adults must stand behind them, so I recommend arriving about 20 minutes early if you want a great view. Otherwise, it can be difficult to see from the back of the atrium.

Trick-or-treating

Families are encouraged to pack costumes for Halloween on the High Seas voyages. I can see this being a fun activity on longer cruises, but on our three-night sailing, the Halloween party falls on the same night as the Pirates IN the Caribbean celebration. That means many families will have their pirate costumes double as their Halloween costumes -- and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But my daughter wanted to wear her Halloween costume in addition to a pirate costume, so we rushed to make that happen. Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party takes place twice in the atrium: typically at 3:15 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. We chose to go to the second party, but there’s no reason you couldn’t go to both parties if you wanted to. The parties only last 45 minutes so you’ll want to be on time in order to fully participate.

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At each Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party, the Fab Five – Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy and Donald Duck – come dressed in their Halloween costumes and lead guests in a dance party. They do not stop to pose for photos, but you can get some fun shots of them interacting with the kids if you’re quick. There are simple Halloween-themed games set up in the atrium, as well, and we saw some of the characters join in.

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Perhaps the activity that everyone at the party is most looking forward to is trick-or-treating. There are two treat stations each on Decks 3, 4 and 5 overlooking the atrium, and guests of all ages can begin at any location. Each station has complimentary treat bags, and cast members generously dole out handfuls of candy. Don’t have a costume? Don’t worry! You can still trick-or-treat. We saw plenty of guests wearing Halloween T-shirts, like my 14-year-old son, and just regular clothes.

More Halloween activities

In addition to the signature events of the Pumpkin Tree and Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party, there are daily Halloween activities for families and in the kids clubs and adult lounges.

On Embarkation Day, there was a special late-night presentation of “Nightmare Before Christmas” that was shown in 3D and as a “Sing and Scream Along.” My husband and my daughter caught the tail end of the show, which they have seen many times, in the Walt Disney Theatre. At the end, Jack Skellington and his love, Sally, appeared on stage and then led passengers out to the lobby where they posed for photos. This was the only time the pair made an appearance during the cruise. In fact, they are rarely seen at Disney Parks as well, only coming out for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.

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In keeping with the theme, on the second night the Broadway-style production is “Villains Tonight!” hosted by Hades and his sidekicks Pain and Panic. “It all begins when Hades finds out he might lose his position as Underworld top dog after seeing that his Evil-O-Meter has hit an all-time low. So he enlists the help of Disney’s most awesomely loathsome villains in an attempt to raise the Underworld’s evil factor,” according to the official description.

On the third night, Haunted Stories of the Sea takes place up on the pool deck and is broadcast on the large FunnelVision screen. This didn’t seen as crowded as other events on our cruise, but that may very well have been because it was the last night and passengers were busy with other activities.

In between, the Oceaneer Club and Lab, Edge tween club and Vibe teen club had plenty of Halloween crafts, which my daughter loved, and their own Halloween parties. Plus, one of the adult lounges hosted a costume contest for those 18 and older.

Halloween on the High Seas dates

Halloween on the High Seas continues this year through sailings that include Oct. 31. Dates for 2017 have been announced, too. Sailings with these start dates will participate in the Halloween festivities:

Disney Magic: Sept. 27 – Oct. 28

Disney Wonder: Sept. 15 – Oct. 27

Disney Dream: Sept. 4 – Oct. 30

Disney Fantasy: Sept. 2 – Oct. 28



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October 4, 2016

What I learned on my 4th Disney cruise

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Although we are not new to Disney Cruise Line, having sailed on the Wonder, Dream and Fantasy, it had been almost four years since our last voyage. In that time, our children have grown up a bit and some things have changed on the ships. So, in our planning for our three-night-sailing on the Disney Dream over the weekend, we re-imagined what a Disney cruise means for our family. Here are some of the changes.

Disney Cruise Line Navigator app

Since the last time we sailed, Disney Cruise Line has launched its Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, which can be run through the ship’s Wi-Fi on each passenger’s personal mobile devices at no cost. The app allows passengers to view cruise activities, menus, deck plans, shopping opportunities and more.

But the best feature in my opinion is Onboard Chat, which allows passengers to text each other onboard. This was a game-changer for my family because each of my children has a cell phone, and we were able to easily communicate with each other. I felt a lot more comfortable allowing my children, ages 12 and 14, to separate from us knowing we weren’t relying on a dry erase board posted on our stateroom door to communicate with each other. Unlike the expensive Wave phones in each stateroom, we found the app simple to use and convenient because we all were toting our phones around to take photos anyway.

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Character meet-and-greets

As with any Disney vacation, character meet-and-greets are a hallmark of the cruise experience. Locations for the various characters are listed in the navigator (paper and app), but two gatherings are unannounced and require passengers to sign up ahead of time. In the past, that meant making a beeline to the Port Adventures desk to obtain the coveted tickets, which are complimentary, to meet the Disney Princesses and Frozen’s Anna and Elsa.

Since June, however, passengers have been able to reserve tickets to these character meet-and-greets online at the same time they are eligible to book port adventures and other onboard experiences. If either event is a must-do for your child, be sure to reserve a time online as soon as you are eligible to do so. Anna and Elsa are only out during the special Frozen set. The Disney Princesses will appear individually throughout each cruise, but meeting them as a group is fun and so efficient. On our cruise, my daughter met Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and Belle.

If you are unable to secure a meet-and-greet reservation online, there usually are a limited number of tickets available at the Port Adventures desk onboard. The Frozen event is in such demand that it is held in Animator’s Palate so that those who were unable to get tickets are not disappointed by seeing characters they cannot meet.

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Castaway Cay 5K

When Disney Cruise Line ships stop at Castaway Cay, passengers have the opportunity to run (or walk!) a 5K on the private island in the Bahamas. The Castaway Cay 5K is much less formal than runDisney events -- more on that in another blog post – but participants do receive bibs and finisher medals. Best of all, the cost of the race is included in the price of your cruise.

My husband and children have been bitten by the runDisney bug and have been running events at Walt Disney World for a few years now, so this opportunity really appealed to them. On our last cruise, my daughter was not old enough because the minimum age is 10 years. And I was determined to join them and make this my first Disney 5K. (After a knee replacement surgery this summer, being able to walk the 5K was a recovery goal for me.) We each succeeded in completing the 5K and came home with our new race bling. If you want to participate, sign up at Guest Relations once onboard and follow instructions for the group meeting place on the ship. There is no limit on the number of participants, and you do not have to worry about being swept if you are at the back of the pack!

Photos

Professional photos taken on a cruise are expensive, and even when I take my own photos, I’m still tempted to buy the professional ones, too. On past cruises, I spent a lot of time poring over the prints to narrow my choices down to a reasonable number of photos and stick with some sort of budget. On this cruise, however, we were offered the relatively new option to pre-purchase a photo package at a 15 percent discount through the third-party photographers at MyCruisePhotos.com. The purchase comes with a guarantee that if you are unhappy with the photos or do not take enough to justify the cost, you can get a refund – as long as you do so before you leave the ship.

My husband and I opted to pre-purchase the package that included all our photo prints and all the photos taken saved in a digital format. To get our money’s worth, we made sure to stop for a lot of photos. Honestly, though, most of the photos were taken at events and activities we had planned to attend anyway. We came home with almost 100 prints and the ability to print the images in any quantity or size. Considering each 8 x 10 costs about $20 individually, we were pleased with our purchase.

What not to bring onboard

In September 2015, Disney Cruise Line changed its alcohol policy, much to the disappointment of many passengers. The once-lenient policy was often viewed as a perk that helped balance out the high prices of Disney cruises. But the company placed tighter restrictions on what can be brought onboard: Now, each adult age 21 and older can bring a six-pack of beer or two unopened bottles of wine onto the ship at the start of the cruise. Adults can purchase and bring onboard the same amount at each port. Disney Cruise Line will confiscate any alcohol above the allowable amount and return it to passengers at the end of their cruises.

Disney Cruise Line also has placed restrictions on some items for staterooms. You no longer are allowed to bring:

** Irons. This is because of the risk of a fire. They are available in the laundry room, however.

** Over-the-door shoe organizers. These were popular with passengers who used them to organize small items, but the metal hooks were damaging the paint on the stateroom doors.

** Power strips. Apparently, they are causing circuit problems in stateroom. This is a pain for those of use who have a lot of devices to charge each night – and who doesn’t? Multi-USB chargers are allowed, however, which could be a solution for charging many cell phones simultaneously.

** Extension cords. There are a limited number available at Guest Relations, and they can be checked out with a $50 deposit. I was able secure an extension cord for my heating pad without a problem, and Disney Cruise Line will make the cords available for medical devices, such as CPAP machines.

Disney Cruise Line has made many changes in the last four years, most of which made our cruise experience even better. In coming blog posts, I’ll tell you more about what we experienced on our recent cruise.



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October 1, 2016

Tips for celebrating birthdays on Disney Cruise Line ships

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As you read this, my family and I are (finally) sailing on the Disney Dream somewhere in the Bahamas. As you can imagine, we have been counting the days and anticipating the fun for months!

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The impetus for booking a three-night trip on the Disney Dream was mostly to celebrate the kids’ birthdays. My son turned 14 on Thursday, and my daughter is 12 as of yesterday, our departure date. So, how are we celebrating their birthdays onboard?

** First, soon after making our reservations, I requested that Disney Cruise Line note in our reservation that we are celebrating the kids’ birthdays. I was asked which night we would like to celebrate at dinner because our servers will bring each child a complimentary dessert that is not on the regular menu, and the presentation usually includes the traditional singing. It’s a fun way to make birthdays special. (Actual birthday cakes can be ordered ahead of time through Disney Cruise Line for an additional charge.)

** At Port Canaveral, we asked for complimentary Disney Cruise Line buttons when we checked in. (You can also go to Guest Relations on the ship.) Don’t underestimate these buttons: My kids love wearing them because cast members and even guests will say “Happy Birthday” all day long. Plus, you never know when some extra pixie dust may be sprinkled for special occasions!

** Once we got into our stateroom, I decorated the door with our family magnets. I have updated our collection to include birthday greetings for each child. Plus, I made a personalized birthday sign to hang from the Fish Extender hook next to the door.

** For the first time, I also ordered one of the room-decorating packages from Disney Cruise Line. There is a birthday package, but I opted for the Halloween package because it has more components, including some things that will make nice souvenirs for the kids. And, after all, we are sailing on a Halloween on the High Seas cruise. The package consists of five dangling signs, a window cling, a large magnet, a pillow and a small black tree that lights up. On the card, I wrote, “Happy Spooky Birthday!” Originally, I had planned to bring items to decorate the stateroom myself, but then I learned that adhering items has to be done with magnets (just like stateroom doors) to prevent damage or you risk a $100 fine. While that still was possible if I wanted to attach magnets to everything, I opted to go with the easier route. Plus, the room is decorated upon arrival, which is a great surprise.

** We allowed each child to choose one extra activity during the cruise. My daughter wanted to go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for the Celebration Package, which comes with a tutu and T-shirt and is a little more grown-up than a princess dress for a 12-year-old. My chose riding on a jet ski with his dad at Castaway Cay. Both kids picked something they have never done on a Disney cruise, so I know they are excited.

** Finally, we gave each child a small bag of cruise-themed goodies the day before we sailed. I ordered reusable Disney Cruise Line tote bags and picture frames from the Shop Disney Parks app. (Cruise merchandise also is available through DisneyStore.com.) I made Halloween on the High Seas journals by printing pages at home and having them bound at an office-supply store. I also ordered a personalized design through an Etsy shop to create magnets for the Castaway Cay 5K, which we plan to run for the first time. (I haven’t heard of official 5K magnets being sold on the island.) Because we are Walt Disney World annual passholders and I am in the parks frequently, I purchased some mystery pin packs to give the kids starter pins to trade on the ship. And each child received a certificate for money they can spend on souvenirs.

Do you have a favorite way to celebrate birthdays when traveling with Disney Cruise Line? Tell us about it in the comments, please.



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September 24, 2016

Disney Cruise Line perks for Disney Visa Card members are changing for 2017

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Perks for Disney Visa Card members are changing soon when it comes to Disney Cruise Line vacations.

Beginning with sailings after Jan. 1, 2017, it appears that card members no longer will receive a $50 onboard credit for beverages. Instead, a new slate of discounts will be introduced. According to disneyrewards.com, they will include:

** 10 percent off cruise photos. This offer is good for non-discounted 10-photo, 15-photo, 20-photo and all-inclusive digital photo packages. These are the professional photos taken at character greetings, posed portraits and candid encounters on the ship and Castaway Cay.

** 10 percent off select merchandise purchases of $50 or more aboard Disney Cruise Line ships.

** 10 percent off a Castaway Cay Getaway Package. The package includes snorkeling, one-hour bicycle rental, and float or inner-tube rental on Disney Cruise Line’s private island, Castaway Cay.

** 20 percent off a non-discounted massage or facial treatment service aboard Disney Cruise Line ships on port days only. This offer is available in the main and teen spas.

Here’s how to take advantage of the benefits for 2017, according to the website:

** When you arrive at the ship, your “Key to the World” card will indicate that you are a Disney Visa Card member and eligible for the onboard perks.

** When you check-in online or onboard at Guest Relations, enter your Disney Visa Card as your form of payment for all onboard purchases.

** Card member perks cannot be combined with any other offers or discounts, including Cast Member, Annual Passholder, Disney Vacation Club, Florida resident, etc.

In the meantime, the $50 onboard beverage credit can be redeemed for sailings through Dec. 31, 2016, that have been paid in full with a Disney Visa Card by applying booking code DCC.

Disney Visa Card members also have the benefit of being able to book a Disney vacation and receive 0 percent interest for that charge for six months while paying off the vacation. In addition, card members earn 1 percent back on card purchases as Disney Reward Dollars, which can be spent at Disney properties and at the Disney Store. See the official details and how to apply here.

Do you like the change in benefits for Disney Visa Card members? Tell us in the comments, please.



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July 16, 2016

Tips for customizing your Disney Cruise Line vacation

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If you’ve never been on a Disney Cruise Line vacation, you may not know about some of the less-publicized activities, entertainment and dining options available to you. Here are a few things my family and I have learned from our sailings with Disney Cruise Line that may make your trip even more enjoyable.

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Pool time on embarkation day

If your kids are eager to get up to the pool, slide and Aqua Duck, consider letting them swim as soon as you board, when the water features are likely to be less crowded as families get their bearings. Pack swimsuits and sunscreen in your day bag and change in the restrooms by the pool. (You won’t be able to get into your stateroom until about 1:30 p.m., and luggage can arrive any time up until dinnertime.) You can opt for lunch at Cabanas by the pool instead of the designated dining room. Just remember that pools close for the muster drill at 4 p.m. and then it’s time for the Sail Away Party.

Registering for complimentary activities

Some activities on the ship have limited space and require passengers to sign up for them ahead of time. Although the activities may take place later in the week, registration is available online in advance or it begins at Guest Services once boarding has commenced and spots can fill up quickly. One of the most popular events is the meet-and-greet with the Disney Princesses. Other such events are holiday-themed activities on the Christmas and Halloween cruises. If these offerings interest you, be sure to stop by Guest Services as soon as possible.

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Castaway Cay 5K

One of the highlights of a Caribbean cruise on a Disney ship is the day at the company’s private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. You can be as active or as relaxed as you choose in the tropical setting. For some, the ideal way to start the day is with the Castaway Cay 5K. This race is free to guests on the cruise, and each participant receives a bib and a medal of the same quality as runDisney 5K races at Disney Parks. That’s a nice perk, considering runDisney 5Ks can cost $65 per person. And you can’t beat the island scenery for this race! To participate, you must sign up onboard the ship, but you don’t need to worry about the race filling up in minutes as runDisney events do.

Room service

Room service, for the most part, is included in the cost of your cruise. The things you pay for are sodas, candy and alcohol – and a gratuity, if you choose. Also, know that there is one very special dessert not on the menu that can be ordered from Room Service: Mickey ice cream bars. Room service is available 24 hours a day but will close at 1 a.m. the night before debarkcation day.

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Meal options

Speaking of food, vacationers onboard Disney Cruise Line ships have options for eating all day long. You do not have to attend three meals a day in a formal dining room. In fact, I don’t think my family and I have ever eaten breakfast or lunch in the dining room we were assigned. Instead, we typically eat breakfast at the Cabanas buffet on the pool deck and return there or one of the other quick-service restaurants on the pool deck for lunch. There is a self-serve ice cream station that is open -- and popular -- all day on the pool deck, as well.

As for dinner, if you were assigned to the late seating, and you are worried your children cannot wait that long to eat, remember that you can get kid-friendly early dinners and snacks on the pool deck. Plus, camp counselors will pick up children from the dining rooms 45 minutes after the second meal service starts so the kids can play and have fun while adults enjoy a late dinner alone.

Finally, know that you can request ahead of time complimentary desserts for any celebrations that your family has. It seems like our cruises have always included birthdays, so we have had at least one night with these cakes. The special desserts have evolved over the years, so you might be surprised what you are presented with, but you can bet it will be delicious and beautifully presented. (You also can request DCL Happy Birthday Buttons at Guest Services.)

If you’re a veteran Disney Cruise Line passenger and have a tip for onboard activities for newbies, tell us in the comments!



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July 14, 2016

What to do before you board your Disney Cruise Line ship

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My family and I have been on several Disney Cruise Line vacations, and we have found that some advance planning helps customize our time at sea and make it an even more memorable vacation. Here are ideas about some of the things you can do to prepare for your Disney Cruise before you set sail.

Online check-in and advance reservations

The most important things you can do are to check in and make reservations online for excursions, upscale dining, the spa and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique or Pirate’s League if you want to do those things. During check-in, you will choose your port arrival time, which is tied to your boarding time. If you want to get on the ship as early as possible, you’ll want to get an early port arrival time. Boarding generally begins about 11:30 a.m., though the published time is later.

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Your online access date is based on your cruise status, which is determined by how many times you have sailed with Disney Cruise Line. If the people in your stateroom have different status levels, Disney Cruise Line will recognize the highest. First-time Disney cruisers can check in and make reservations 75 days prior to sailing. Passengers who have completed one to four trips are Silver members of the Castaway Club, Disney Cruise Line’s frequent traveler program, and can book 90 days ahead of departure day. Those who have five to nine cruises under their belts have Gold status and can book 105 days before sailing. Cruisers who have sailed ten or more times are Platinum members and have priority booking at 120 days out.

To be able to make special reservations, you will need to have paid for your cruise in full. However, that is not necessary to just check in online. The booking window for reservations usually opens at midnight EST and check-in starts at 3 a.m. EST. You can save yourself some time by making sure you have set up an account on DisneyCruise.com and have linked your reservation. Incidentally, once you do that, the website will tell you the date you can access everything online.

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Make magnets for your stateroom door

It’s become popular to decorate the metal stateroom doors on Disney cruises, and the only way to do that is with magnets because DCL does not allow tape. If you're artistic, put your talents to work and create some fun Disney designs! Not a graphic artist? Look online for free designs to download. Once you have the image you like, you can print it directly onto magnet paper, which can be purchased at your local office-supply store. I like this option because it's the easiest, but it also can get expensive if you plan to make a lot of magnets. Other cruise veterans suggest printing the image on cardstock, laminating it, and then sticking small magnet squares to the back. If that sounds like more work than you’re interested in, there are sellers on Etsy who offer personalized, finished magnets for sale. Decorated doors help kids find their rooms, and adults can't help but smile when they see them.

Things you might consider purchasing

My family and I have learned after several cruises that a few purchases we didn’t initially think about greatly enhance our time on the ship. You certainly don’t need these items, but you might benefit from them, too.

Snorkeling equipment: We decided to purchase snorkeling equipment and bring it on the ship rather than rent it at Castaway Cay and other ports because my family and I live in Florida and will use it again. We didn’t mind packing the equipment and having something to show for our money at the end of the trip. For others, especially those flying into Central Florida, this might be a huge hassle and extra weight in suitcases they want to avoid. Snorkeling equipment costs about $31 for ages 10 and older and $15 for ages 5 to 9 on Castaway Cay. Life vests and the use of the two snorkeling trails there are free.

Large insulated mugs or cups: There is a drink station near the family pool of each Disney Cruise Line ship, and it stays open 24 hours. Guests can serve themselves complimentary milk, juice, tea, coffee, lemonade and soft drinks with the disposable cups provided. While convenient, the cups are not large, so if you would like a bigger dose of your daily caffeine without repeated trips to the pool deck, you might consider bringing your own cup.

Dry erase board: Most people choose not to use their cell phones to text or make calls while onboard because the roaming charges are so expensive. That means many groups need to find ways to communicate with each other when they are not together. Disney Cruise Line provides Wave phones that work onboard the ship, but if you do not want to carry one or allow your kids to carry the phones – they’re expensive if you have to replace one -- another low-tech communication tool is a dry erase board. Get one with magnets to stick to your door or cording to loop over the fish extender hook.

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Pirate costumes: Many families enjoy dressing up for pirate night, which occurs on all sailings in the Caribbean. If you do not want to pack extra clothes, know that your cabin steward will provide you with Mickey Mouse pirate bandanas on the day of the festivities and you could pair that with a pirate T-shirt and shorts or perhaps black pants and a white shirt that you already own. Or, if you forget or have a change of heart, children’s pirate costumes are sold in the gift shops onboard. Family members can each undergo a total transformation with an appointment at the Pirates League.

Do you have a tip for packing or planning a Disney Cruise? Please share it in the comments section!



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March 19, 2016

Why you shouldn't miss 'Tangled: The Musical' aboard Disney Cruise Line's Disney Magic

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Disney Cruise Line’s newest Broadway-style show, “Tangled: The Musical,” is the first time the 2010 animated movie has been adapted for the stage, and it has been well-received by critics, bloggers and passengers since it debuted aboard the Disney Magic in November 2015.

On Thursday, I was invited to see the show while the Magic was docked at Port Canaveral, Fla., between cruises. Normally, “Tangled: The Musical” is performed twice in one night during each voyage the Disney Magic makes.

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The production is a full hour -- the longest of any such stage show on a Disney Cruise Line ship -- but it does not leave room for even the youngest audience members to get antsy. The pacing of “Tangled: The Musical” keeps the story moving, alternating slower numbers with peppy ones, while still staying true to the animated movie.

Without giving away too many spoilers, here are some of the reasons Disney Magic passengers should make seeing “Tangled: The Musical” a priority when they are on the ship.

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** You will fall in love with Rapunzel and Flynn Rider all over again. The actors are so convincing – Rapunzel with her 200 feet of braided blond hair and spunky attitude, and charming Flynn who earnestly confesses his real name is Eugene Fitzherbert while trying to win over the lost princess.

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** Rapunzel’s adoptive parent, Mother Gothel, is a master of back-handed compliments, which leave the audience laughing out loud.

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** Who can think of Tangled without picturing the beautiful floating lanterns scene? “Tangled: The Musical” has made that scene even more magical, if that’s possible. Let’s just say that audience members throughout the theater will feel as if they, too, are surrounded by the floating luminaries.

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** Maximus, the guard horse, steals the show. I couldn’t help but watch the puppeteer every time he came on stage to try to see how he managed to have such perfectly timed reactions. The puppet itself was designed by Michael Curry, whose work can be seen in the Tony Award-winning musical “The Lion King” on Broadway.

** Three new songs were created exclusively for the show by Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken and Grammy Award-winning lyricist Glenn Slater: "Flower of Gold," "Wanted Man" and "When She Returns." Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming "Wanted Man" after you leave the theater; it’s that catchy!

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** Speaking of wanted men, the Thugs take over O’Gill’s pub on the ship on the night “Tangled: The Musical” is performed. Lots of little details, including clever signs (“Slug a Thug and Get a Free Mug – sorry all out of mugs”), projections and special drinks complete the overlay. The takeovers happen at 7:45 and 10:15 p.m. The pub is open to families until 9 p.m., and then guests have to be 18 or older until closing time at midnight.

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** Like any great Disney attraction, “Tangled: The Musical” has its own merchandise. There was a blue show T-shirt and a Flynn Rider Wanted T-shirt in one of the gift shops we passed not far from the Walt Disney Theatre.

Disney cruises have always been a fun way to relax and let your hair down. And now there’s even an onboard musical that achieves this feat quite literally.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Disney Cruise Line onboard the Disney Magic for the day to see “Tangled: The Musical” and have lunch. My observations and opinions are my own.



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December 15, 2015

The Force Awakens on Disney Cruise Line with Star Wars-themed spaces, activities

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This is the week Star Wars fans have been waiting ages for, and it’s finally arrived. The seventh film, “The Force Awakens,” hits theaters Friday, so it’s inevitable that conversations, TV specials and news outlets this week will focus on the Star Wars phenomenon. And, of course, Disney – which owns the franchise – is making the most of its popularity across the theme-park giant’s properties.

Recently, we have heard a lot about the Star Wars additions at Disney Parks, but what about Disney Cruise Line? Earlier this year, officials announced the ways in which the franchise would be incorporated on the fleet’s two largest ships, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, which are based at Port Canaveral, Fla.

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In November, the Dream debuted its Star Wars additions after a three-week dry-dock period. The lucky recipients? Kids ages 3 to 12 who visit the kids’ activity center, Oceaneer Club. This huge space has four areas that immerse children in separate Disney stories and characters -- and one has just become “Star Wars: Millennium Falcon.” As the title would suggest, this area allows kids to step into a life-size Millennium Falcon and pilot it, something that no doubt makes many of their parents jealous.

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The play area also features a version of the Jedi Training Academy experience at Walt Disney World that invites young Jedi hopefuls to learn lightsaber moves from a Jedi Master. They then can face off against Darth Vader. In addition, kids can chose to participate in Star Wars-themed crafts, games and activities or watch episodes from the Disney XD animated series, “Star Wars Rebels,” on a large screen.

Another first for a Disney Cruise Line ship is the Dream’s installation of a Disney Infinity video game room, which offers unique content. This year’s version of Disney Infinity focuses on Star Wars (of course).

Reactions online from members of the media and other passengers who have observed the new Star Wars offerings on the Disney Dream have been overwhelmingly positive. Both the play area and the Disney Infinity room are exclusive to the Dream.

Passengers on the Disney Fantasy will enjoy new Star Wars entertainment, rather than refurbished spaces, beginning in January. Eight cruises early in 2016 will offer a Star Wars Day at Sea. Each daylong celebration features a deck party and fireworks; insiders from the Star Wars galaxy who will meet fans and sign autographs; a Star Wars-themed nightclub; character meet-and-greets; screenings of Star Wars movies; Jedi Training Experience and other kids’ activities.

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Because the first Star Wars Day at Sea has not taken place yet, we do not have any feedback. However, it’s worth noting that the Star Wars activities on the Fantasy are designed for all ages, which likely would appeal to fans more. The Star Wars areas on the Dream are reserved for kids in the Oceaneer Club – except during the open houses, which are open to all passengers.

Would Star Wars experiences influence your decision to book a Disney Cruise Line vacation? Tell us in the comments, please.



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August 4, 2015

Disney Cruise Line discontinues Mickey Mail autograph service

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For many younger travelers onboard a Disney Cruise Line ship, collecting autographs is a key part of the vacation at sea. Even my own children, who have annual passes to Walt Disney World and see the characters on a regular basis, were thrilled to come home with a fresh set of signatures. Now, however, one part of the autograph process is changing.

Disney Cruise Line had an unofficial program called Mickey Mail that has been discontinued, according to CruiseCritic.com. I‘m really disappointed to learn of this change because we used Mickey Mail on each of the three DCL cruises we have taken, and we still cherish the resulting products.

Here’s how it worked:

Guests could bring items – two per cabin -- to Guest Services at the start of each cruise and ask that they be autographed by specific characters. The magic signings happened behind the scenes, and the items were returned to cabins on the last night of the cruise. Guests were asked to include the pens or markers that they wanted to be used, and they too were returned. After reading the tip online, we also included candy with each request as a “thank you” for the cast members who provided the service.

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Mickey Mail was an opportunity to collect character signatures on something we would use, or at least see, every day. On our first Disney cruise many years ago, I took Mickey Mouse and Disney Princess pillowcases that I purchased online for my children. My daughter still insists on sleeping on hers each night, and my son’s is packed away as a keepsake.

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On the next sailing, I brought stuffed autograph dogs that I found for a couple bucks at a local craft store. On our third cruise at Christmastime, I purchased blank 9-inch Vinylmation figures at Walt Disney World for all the kids in our group, and they had them autographed in red and green Sharpies. The kids still have them displayed in their bedrooms.

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Another popular item to have autographed by the characters is the white border of a Disney picture or poster" or the mat inside a frame for your own photo. (Be sure to tape off the portion of the mat that is covered by the frame so complete autographs will be visible.)

Although Mickey Mail no longer is available, passengers still can create autographed keepsakes – they just will have to collect the signatures themselves at the meet-and-greets. One easy way to do this if you have a Disney Princess fan, is to be sure to attend the group signing. (Check for free tickets at Guest Services on Embarkation Day). Although you will have a wait, you can meet four or five princesses consecutively, rather than attending separate meet-and-greets throughout the ship.

Also, know that pillowcases, large-scale blank Vinylmations and certain photo frames are not available for purchase on the ships, so be sure to pre-purchase and bring them with you. If you like the idea of the Vinylmation but do not have a trip planned to the Disney Parks before your cruise, you can order them through the Merchandise Mail Order systems, but be sure to allow up to three weeks for delivery. Call 877-560-6477 for Walt Disney World and 800-362-4533 for Disneyland.

For a really special signature, don't miss the Captain's Signing session. My kids enjoyed this unique experience, and my son had his model ships autographed on each cruise.



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August 5, 2014

Disney Cruise Line continues to improve its Navigator app

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If you haven't sailed on a Disney Cruise Line ship in the past year, you may be surprised to learn that Navigators -- the printed daily schedule of activities that are left in staterooms each night -- now are available on a free app that connects to the ship's WiFi at no charge.

I'm among those who have not had the opportunity to test the app for themselves, but I have to think this is a step in the right direction for many passengers. Even if guests prefer to turn off their phones to save money or "disconnect" while cruising, the reality is that cell-phone cameras now are used more than any other type of camera, so a lot of us are carrying our phones around the ships anyway to document our vacations. Why not check the day's schedule digitally instead of also toting around the mangled paper navigator?

The appropriately named Disney Cruise Line Navigator App launched last September on the Disney Fantasy and now can be used on the Dream, Wonder and Magic. If you are planning a cruise, download the app - available for free in the Apple App Store for iOS devices and Google Play for Android devices - before you arrive at the port. You can set a fun countdown clock, which was added during one of the upgrades in the fall. (The app is designed for smartphones but also functions on tablets. The app does not work on BlackBerry or Windows phone devices.)

Once onboard, turn your phone to airplane mode and connect to the ship's WiFi network. The DCL-GUEST network is complimentary for app use only. If you use the network for other functions, such as e-mail, surfing the Internet or texting, you will be subject to charges. You can pre-purchase blocks of time, if you wish to use other functions on your smartphone or other devices.

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So, what exactly can you do with the Disney Cruise Line Navigator App? The cruise line says you can "share details on everything from operating hours, Disney character experiences and ports of call to onboard activities, dinner menus for Main Dining locations and deck plans. Guests can even bookmark their favorite activities for easy reference." An update in June added "reminders," a feature that sends a reminder 15 minutes before the start of an activity you favorited. In addition, guests can see other details found in the paper Navigator, such as the drink of the day, the evening's suggested dining attire, and even a weather forecast. Perhaps one of the best features is that passengers can view details for the entire sailing, not just the next day, as they would with a paper Navigator.

One exception is while the ship is docked at Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island. The network is disconnected there and cached content is displayed.

One thing that the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app does not do is store and display information about activities you have booked, such as meal times, excursions, spa appointments. It is not customizable, like the My Disney Experience is at Walt Disney World. That's a shame, because many regular guests during the past year have come to rely on the My Disney Experience app for keeping track of everything they have planned while on property. Still, we just bet that upgrade is coming, especially because Disney Cruise Line has said they are continuing to add features to the app with each upgrade.

It doesn't appear that Disney Cruise Line is planning to phase out the paper Navigators any time soon. That's good news for those who don't have smartphones or guests who don't want to use them while onboard. Or maybe you're like me and would prefer to have both options. I would use the app on the ship and save the paper Navigator for my scrapbook!

What would you do? Tell us in the comments.




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July 10, 2014

Disney Cruise Line's Fantasy sails Saturday on voyage with Dooney & Bourke events

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Disney Dooney & Bourke fans who don't mind booking last-minute travel just might be interested in the Disney Fantasy cruise that leaves Port Canaveral (an hour's drive from Orlando) on Saturday, July 12. The sailing offers several special events featuring varied interactions with the renowned handbag company, which has had a partnership with The Walt Disney Company for the past five years -- and there still are cabins available.

The Disney Cruise Line website shows several categories of staterooms with verandahs available at this writing. (For a quick and convenient price quote, contact AllEars.Net advertiser Mouse Fan Travel at MouseFanTravel.com.) The Disney Fantasy is sailing to the Eastern Caribbean on a seven-day itinerary, which includes stops in St. Maarten, St. Thomas and St. John, and Castaway Cay, Disney's private island.

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The cruise begins with the launch of the new Dooney & Bourke pattern (above) sold exclusively on the Disney Fantasy during this sailing. Later, the pattern will be available on the other three Disney Cruise Line ships, as well. Steven Miller, merchandise communications manager at Walt Disney World, said when announcing the cruise recently that the pattern will be available on several popular styles of bags, including the totes and Crossbody bags.

On the days at sea, which are Sunday, Monday and Thursday, events are planned around the Disney Dooney & Bourke brand. Ian Ray, director of new product development for Dooney & Bourke, will kick things off by hosting a special presentation that highlights the history and future of Dooney & Bourke at Disney Parks. The presentation takes place at 11 a.m. Sunday in the Buena Vista Theatre on Deck 4.

Ray also will meet with guests in the White Caps merchandise location each evening. Purchasing limits will be in place. This is the current policy for Disney Dooney & Bourke and Disney Vera Bradley bags at Walt Disney World, as well, where the limit typically is two bags of the same style per customer.

On Monday, guests can browse a sample sale in White Caps on Deck 3 that begins at 9 a.m. There will be a Dooney & Bourke Silent Auction in Preludes at 1 p.m. that day, too. Miller said that among the items up for bid will be framed patterns. On Thursday, a meet-and-greet is scheduled with Ray at 1 p.m. in Preludes.

Guests may want to hustle to clean up from their port adventures on Wednesday because Bingo is listed as one of the Dooney & Bourke events for the cruise. Possibly, that means something from Disney Dooney & Bourke will be a prize. Bingo starts at 7:30 p.m. in the D Lounge on Deck 4.

Disney Cruise Line has debuted at least five exclusive Dooney & Bourke patterns during the last five years, including one in 2011 for the inaugural sailing of the Disney Dream. I have been fortunate to receive a couple bags as gifts during my cruises. Now, who can I stow away with so I can add to my collection?



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February 8, 2014

Celebrate true love with a Disney Cruise Line wedding

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With Valentine's Day right around the corner, many of us are thinking about ways to celebrate love. Wedding ceremonies are, of course, a very public declaration of romantic love, and since 1995, Disney has taken the celebrations to a whole new level. Disney's Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons is known for the elaborate and customized destination weddings that its consultants plan at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. But what if your dream is to be married in a more exotic locale? Disney Cruise Line can make that happen, too.

I have seen brides onboard when I was sailing on two different Disney ships and wondered about the planning. After all, organizing a traditional wedding can take months of work that often is stressful for some because of all the decision-making and efforts to stick to a budget. (If you've forgotten what was involved or have yet to go through it, I recommend watching "Father of the Bride.")

Happily, a Disney Cruise Line wedding is one that can be accomplished with just a little planning and a set budget, so the two of you can focus on starting your new life together. Ship weddings really are geared toward couples who will have a small number of guests in attendance. In fact, the basic packages allow for eight guests, though you can add more at an additional charge. And although brides have choices to make, they are not open-ended because of the limitations of being at sea for the wedding. And perhaps that is just as valuable as having numerous choices -- because once the choices are made, the couple can relax and leave the rest in the Disney consultants' hands.

Disney Cruise Line offers two basic cruise ceremony packages -- one that allows the couple to have their ceremony onboard for $3,000 and one in which the couple marries on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay, for $4,000. Those rates are in addition to the price of the cruise. Included for the onboard ceremony:

** On-site ceremony coordinator to coordinate your ceremony day events
** Choice of personal fresh floral for the couple (You may also opt to include floral for your bridal party, available at an additional cost)
** Solo musician (pianist) for the Ceremony and Cake & Champagne Celebration
** Officiant to perform the ceremony
** Cake & Champagne Celebration onboard the ship which includes an elegant 2-tier wedding cake with keepsake cake topper, one bottle of champagne and one bottle of sparkling cider (non-alcoholic) for the toast, served by host or hostess
** Dinner for the couple at Palo on night of ceremony
** Disney Cruise Line Commemorative Ceremony Certificate
** Steaming for the couple's ceremony attire
** The ceremony couple will also receive a $100.00 onboard stateroom credit that may be used towards merchandise, spa treatments, other onboard activities and port adventures. (Any unused portions are non-refundable and non-transferable.)

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For those who get married on Castaway Cay, the package also includes transportation for the couple and their guests from the ship to the ceremony location, which usually is at Pelican Point, overlooking the water with the docked ship in the background. The Cake & Champagne Celebration still takes place onboard the ship.

Photography packages for both types of ceremonies cost extra.

Now for the smaller decisions " If you get married onboard one of the ships, you'll choose between two venues -- a private outdoor patio or an elegant lounge tucked away from the other guests. That was easy, right?

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Brides select their bouquets from six designs that have been created not only for their beauty but also for their ability to stay fresh during the cruise. (Some weddings do not take place until the end of the vacation, but everything must be loaded onto the ship when the guests embark.) Choices include:


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** Solid French Rose Bouquet - Available in red, white, ivory, hot pink, lavender, yellow and orange. You may combine up to 2 colors.

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** Tropical Bouquet - Made with eye-popping shades of hot-pink, orange and yellow

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** Oceanfront Elegance Bouquet - A beautiful all-white arrangement of roses, lilies and hydrangeas

** Garden Bouquet - Delicate pastel shades of lavender, green and white with violet accents

** Orchid and Rose Bouquet - Red roses with fuchsia and green orchids

** Calla Lily Bouquet - Available in crystal white, garnet glow, majestic red, orange mango and Florex gold. Colors may not be mixed.

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The groom's boutonniere is made to match the bride's flowers. Plus, there are more floral options that can be added to your package: crystal accents for the bride's bouquet; adding flowers for other members of the bridal party, and even a basket of rose petals for the flower girl; floral cake toppers; rose wands; orchid leis; and island-inspired décor of palm branches, shells and floral tiki torches for Castaway Cay.

Two decisions made and two to go! The wedding cake is a two-tiered confection iced in white fondant for a classic look. Couples choose the cake flavor, fillings, and the design from these four options:

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** Touch of Character - The familiar 3-circle Hidden Mickey emblem adorns both tiers

** Touch of Whimsy - Cutout dots of different sizes stud both tiers

** Touch of Romance - Wreaths of roses trim the base of each tier

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** "Under the Sea-" Beautifully molded white chocolate seashells and starfish adorn an otherwise-plain 2-tier cake, emblematic of your romantic wedding at sea. (This is considered an enhancement therefore is available at an additional cost.)

A cake topper is included, but couples are welcome to bring their own, too.

Finally, you can select your music for the ceremony and celebration from a set list of traditional and Disney-themed music, or you can bring your own music on a CD.

One thing to note is that the actual marriage takes place on embarkation day as a civil ceremony with an officiant because the ship's officers are not able to legally marry couples.

So, for all the unwed couples enjoying their flowers and boxes of chocolates next week, remember: If you do decide to take another step in proclaiming your love to one another, wedding bells don't have to be in your future. Maybe a ship's horn will be, though.

To get started planning, call Disney's Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons at 321-939-4610 or visit the website, https://www.disneyweddings.com/cruise/



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December 14, 2013

Disney Cruise Line expands Halloween on the High Seas to all ships and keeps more Christmas sailings in 2014

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Next year, pirate parties won't be the only themed events on all four Disney Cruise Line ships. The fleet recently announced that it will increase its holiday offerings in 2014: Halloween on the High Seas will expand to all four ships and Christmas activities will once again be available for six weeks.

"If you look at the trends, people are engaging more in holidays," Jennifer Haile, manager of Disney Cruise Line marketing strategy, told me. "Halloween continues to grow and grow, not only for kids, but also for adults. Adults are putting on costumes and trick-or-treating along with the kids. We realize that this is something where the whole family really gets in the spirit, and why not do it on the ship?"

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Halloween on the High Seas is a collection of activities that debuted in 2013 on the Disney Dream. Among them were: Halloween Tree (a multi-day experience in the lobby); Mickey's Mouse-querade Party (trick-or-treating, games and a dancing with the characters in the atrium); Haunted Stories of the Sea (story-telling on the deck); spooky movie marathon; and an adult costume party. Some of my extended family members experienced Halloween on the High Seas and you can read about it and see plenty of photos here.

Perhaps the most popular event, though, in the first year was Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas Sing and Scream. This interactive experience was described by some as a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" for families, and it ends with a special meet-and-greet with Jack Skellington and his love, Sally. In the last year, Disney has begun offering character experiences with the pair and they have commanded hours-long lines at Walt Disney World.

"We did the 'Nightmare' Sing and Scream, which was very popular," Haile said. "At the very end, there is a scene where Jack and Sally are posed, and we had the scene end with the spotlight on the Walt Disney Theatre curtain and you could see their reflection right through it. Then the curtain rose, and they were in that pose and everyone went wild."

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The same entertainment will return for 2014 Halloween on the High Seas, Haile said, but Disney Cruise Line staff is tinkering with the schedule to better suit passengers' needs, based on guest feedback. The most difficult task is on the three-night sailings on the Dream, where they add the holiday programming to an already jam-packed schedule.

"It was difficult for us because we haven't taken anything away from our typical cruise experience so we had to decide where do you sandwich these [Halloween events] in," she told me.

Also returning next year will be the longer, six-week period of Christmas celebrations.

"We're taking a cue from the [Disney] parks to transition earlier," Haile said. "We're rolling it [the Christmas programming and decor] out in early November."

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The Very Merrytime Cruises feature King Triton's Tree Lighting Ceremony; Deck the Deck Holiday Party; family activities, such as making gingerbread houses and meeting Santa Claus and his elves; holiday storytellers; and a holiday edition of 'Til We Meet Again farewell party.

My extended family and I sailed on the Fantasy at the beginning of December and experienced most of these events. To see photos and read about our experiences, click here.

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October 28, 2013

Review: Disney Cruise Line's Halloween on the High Seas

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Welcome, foolish mortals, to your Bahamian cruise.

This fall, Disney Cruise Line has introduced new Halloween-themed entertainment on all four of its ships. Such new features might seem to be nothing but a treat, yet -- according to some firsthand accounts -- some came off a little trickier than other holiday activities we experienced in the past.

Last week, some of my extended family members sailed on the Disney Dream for a three-night cruise. We had all been on the ship together in 2011, but they went back specifically for the new Halloween on the High Seas events. (The Disney Fantasy and Disney Wonder also introduced Halloween-themed activities, but not to the same extent of the Dream.) My sister's family includes two children who are the same ages as my own, 9 and 11 years, so they focused on the activities planned for elementary-school-age children.

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The centerpiece of Halloween on the High Seas is a giant Pumpkin Tree in the three-deck atrium. This multi-day experience begins with a Caretaker character explaining about the barren tree and other Halloween customs. In addition, she tells the audience a version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" during the 30-minute activity. Finally, passengers are invited to write their names on pumpkin seed cards and to return to check on the tree the next day.

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When they do come back to the atrium, passengers find that the seeds supposedly have grown into the 60 pumpkins that bring the dead tree back to life. The pumpkins light up during the reveal and "dance" along to music. Much like the Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, this one ends with a surprise burst of confetti over the crowd.

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On the second night, the atrium is used for Mickey's Mouse-querade Party, which features games, a dance party with characters and trick-or-treating. Mickey and his pals line up before the party to pose for photos with guests and to sign autographs. Having attended dance parties and trick-or-treating at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in the Magic Kingdom, my sister and brother-in-law were able to compare the two Disney experiences.

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And although their children enjoyed Mickey's Mouse-querade Party, the adults found it to be chaotic and not as well-organized as the party at Walt Disney World. There was no map for the trick-or-treating, which resulted in long lines for the stations on the lobby floor, while others on the other decks went virally unnoticed. In addition, the lobby space just wasn't big enough for all the passengers who wanted to attend the event, my sister said. (Cast members told them there were 3,800 passengers on her cruise, and the ship can accommodate 4,000.)

It's understandable that Disney Cruise Line would choose that location. Obviously, planners want the Pumpkin Tree to be not only part of an entertainment experience, but also a larger-than-life decoration that guests see when they enter the ship and are crisscrossing the decks. Putting the tree in one of the theaters would hide it and interfere with other programming. And the other space for larger groups --Decks 11 and 12 by the pool and AquaDuck -- wouldn't be ideal for a stationary prop, either.

And when it comes deck parties, an unfortunate scheduling issue crops up on the three-night Halloween cruises: Mickey's Mouse-querade Party is on the same night as Mickey's Pirates IN the Caribbean party and Buccaneer Blast Fireworks. For my sister's family, this meant a lot of rushing from one party to dinner and then to the other party, with a change of costumes in between. I can't imagine they were alone in this frenzy, as many families would want to experience both signature events. On the four-night Halloween on the High Seas cruises on the Dream, however, the two parties are scheduled on separate nights.

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Passengers also can attend a special screening of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is shown in 3D. Guests are invited to sing and scream along, and afterward the movie's stars, Jack Skellington and his lady love, Sally, appear for a meet-and-greet. The event was offered at 2 p.m. on the second day and at 10:30 p.m. on the third day. These characters have commanded hours-long lines this year at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, but reports from the cruises are that lines were minimal.

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In the kids' clubs, additional Halloween activities, such as pumpkin carving and mask-making, were on the schedule. While the little ones were having their own fun, adults could check out the spooky programming in the nighttime district, such as the Creepy Cabaret with performances by ghostly musicians and a Villainous Takeover on the dance floor. Also, on the last night, Haunted Stories of the Sea were told from the deck stage at 11 p.m.

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Halloween on the High Seas continues this week through Oct. 31.

Overall, my extended family enjoyed Halloween on the High Seas, but they thought there was room for improvement in scheduling and how some activities were arranged on the decks. Still, it was the first year for this Halloween programming, so growing pains are to be expected.

And you have to remember: The only thing scarier than being on the seas with young kids during Halloween and not having festive -- though chaotic -- fun like what was offered on the Disney Dream would be casting away on an ocean cruise and missing out on all the candy and activities completely.

Because if the happy haunts don't materialize for Halloween season, how can a youngster not think of the voyage as anything except an ill-fated one?

September 9, 2013

Disney Parks Moms Panel application process begins today

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Get ready, get set, type! The application process for the 2014 Disney Parks Moms Panel begins today, and those interested have until lucky Friday, Sept. 13, to express their interest.

The Disney Parks Moms Panel has evolved from its inception in 2008, but its goal remains the same: to provide vacation-planning advice from adults in families that are interested in and knowledgeable about the Disney properties. For the most part, the panelists' jobs are to answer a number of written questions each week, though there also are some public appearances by the group. In exchange, The Walt Disney Co. provides the selected panelists with a paid trip to one of the Disney properties for training, which is required. In the past, the trip has been scheduled during the first half of December and includes the panelists' immediate family members.

If you are the one all your friends turn to when they plan Disney vacations, this may be a golden opportunity for you! To get started, visit MomsPanelSearch.com this week. If the application process is the same as in recent years, you can expect to answer written questions in the first round. About a month later, applicants are notified whether they have been selected for the next round, which requires submitting a short video and answering more written questions. The final round consists of a phone interview.

Competition for a coveted spot on the Disney Parks Moms Panel is intense -- thousands apply each year and only about 20 new members are chosen. Beginning last year, applicants also were asked to declare a speciality -- Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, runDisney, Adventures by Disney, Disney Vacation Club and youth sports at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The name of a panel, though, is a misnomer. Over the years, dads and grandparents have joined the roster; it's not limited to just moms.

Unfortunately, there is no magical formula to being picked to provide the best answers about the Mouse. I can tell you, though, that several factors weigh heavily in the evaluation process:

** Writing ability. Your application must be flawless, with no grammar or spelling errors or typos. After all, your job is going to be providing written answers for the Disney website.

** Accuracy. Double-check your Disney facts to make sure things haven't changed since your last experience. This will be vital when you are answering questions online for families planning Disney vacations.

** Your personality. Disney is not hiring publicists or copy writers for this panel. Instead, the company is looking for engaging personalities who can express themselves clearly in an enthusiastic way.

Get to know the current Disney Parks Moms Panel at http://disneyworldforum.disney.go.com/panelists.aspx You also can see the types of questions they answer -- which are pretty much about anything and everything!


Good luck to everyone who applies for 2014
. Please let us know how the process goes and if you are chosen to advance in the application process.

August 24, 2013

Disney Cruise Line changes dress code, smoking policy

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Disney Cruise Line recently changed two of its guest policies -- one regarding smoking and the other the dress code in the main dining rooms on its ships. Both new policies are the result of guest feedback, we're told.

Beginning Nov. 15, smoking on stateroom verandas will be banned, and passengers who violate this new rule will be charged a $250 fee for stateroom cleaning and replacement of linens. (Smoking in interior spaces already was prohibited.) Common outdoor spaces on each of the four ships are designated for smokers. On the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, these include:

** Outdoors on Deck 4 starboard side from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. only
** The starboard side open-air decks 9 and 10 (excluding the Mickey Pool area).

On the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, smoking is permitted on:

** Deck 4 port side, aft, the outside Promenade Deck from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
** Deck 12 port side, aft, the outdoor area that is accessible through the Meridian Lounge
** Deck 13 port side, forward, by Currents Bar

Like many other non-smoking DCL passengers, I applaud this change. I have been fortunate to sail on several Disney cruises and in different types of rooms. It was disappointing when we paid extra for the veranda and couldn't enjoy it at times because our neighbors were outside smoking.

Some say that tolerating smoking on the verandas must be expected, but I don't agree. Perhaps if every stateroom had a balcony and every passenger paid the same rate, that argument might have some merit. It also would be different if the United States, where the Disney ships most often depart, had not set new standards in the last two decades of trying to minimize the health risks smokers impose on those around them.

This new policy protects the majority of non-smoking passengers while still giving smokers locations to light up. Plus, when veranda rooms are among the most expensive, all passengers should be able to use those balconies at their convenience -- and not just when the smokers aren't out.

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The other change onboard Disney Cruise Line ships is in the dress code for the three main dining rooms on each vessel. Though the new policy is not yet posted on its website, Disney Cruise Line officials announced the company will relax its requirement of "cruise casual" attire -- pants, capris, casual skirts and dresses -- and allow passengers to wear shorts to dinner at Animator's Palate, Parrot Cay, Lumiere's, Triton's, Enchanted Garden, Royal Palace and Royal Court.

I certainly understand why DCL has loosened this policy, but I can't say it doesn't make me a little disappointed. Clearly, passengers have said that wearing shorts would enhance the experience for them -- or potential guests have said that "dressing up" for dinner has given them pause about a booking a Disney cruise.

Believe me, I get it. It does require planning and packing more clothes so that each member of the family has something to wear during each day and each evening. Plus, wrestling my young son into appropriate clothing each night got old.

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But once we were on our way to a three-course dinner in dining rooms where three waiters take care of each passenger and dinner is served at fancy table settings, it's apparent how appropriate the cruise casual dress code is. And the former dress code is not formal by any means -- we routinely saw boys and men wearing khaki pants and golf shirts -- but, for the most part, you did have to change for dinner and the nighttime Broadway-style show. Now, passengers are permitted to show up in shorts, and you can bet there will be plenty of inappropriate styles.

I could better understand the dress-code change if the main dining rooms were the only restaurants serving dinner, but they are not. There are quick-service restaurants by the pool, plus room service, which is complimentary, for the most part. Passengers can opt out of the dining rooms on any night, and some do for formal and semi-formal nights.

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When Disney designed its cruise ships, Imagineers did so with a theme of sophistication that echoed the historical heyday of ocean travel. From the ships' outward appearances to the design elements found in their dining rooms, bars and theaters inside, that well-thought-out design paid homage to a time when travel by ocean liner came with an air of elegance and adventure.

Now, with this more-relaxed dining dress policy, I fear that much of that feeling will be lost. Sure, the décor in the dining room will be just as spectacular as before. But as you look over at the diners around you, the experience will appear little different than what you might find in most any restaurant catering to tourists.

August 3, 2013

Tips for dining with young kids on Disney Cruise Line

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For many adults, one of the pleasures of going on a cruise vacation is the food. Not only are the portions abundant, but so are the choices. In addition, passengers have the opportunity to dress up and be served multiple-course dinners in beautifully decorated restaurants. Many guests enjoy this change of pace from their everyday lives, and they look forward to the experience each night.

This is true of parents, too, but those of us with young children probably need to take a little time at home to help our kids prepare for these "fancy dinners." And we need to adjust our own expectations, as well.

When my children were 6 and 8 years old, we sailed on the Disney Wonder, our first Disney cruise, and my kids were exposed to their first three-course, two-hour meals. It was a family vacation, just the four of us, so my husband and I opted to stick together. However, parents can drop their youngsters off at the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab -- where they will be fed and will have a fabulous time -- so the adults can eat in peace.

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My daughter loved having the opportunity to dress up. From sundresses to party dresses to her pirate costume for Pirates IN the Caribbean, she was ready for it all. Shorts are frowned upon in the dining rooms, even for kids, but that was more an issue for my son, who did not want to stop what he was doing to change and get ready for dinner each night.

Once we arrived at our table, we encouraged our son and daughter to try new foods. If they were skeptical, we let them order a "backup" dish. This tactic cut down on any significant complaining. Despite practice at home, neither mastered the art of balancing their napkins on their laps, and we had to resort to the kids sitting on the napkins. No one was the wiser.

Perhaps the most taxing part of such a long meal is keeping children entertained so the whining doesn't ruin the dinner for the adults. We began each meal by talking about our favorite memories we made that day and we discussed what we would be doing the next day. In between, the kids colored or played the word games on their menus, and they did pretty well. Two hours is a long time, but each dining room also has built-in entertainment. For example, at Animator's Palate on the Wonder, the restaurant and the servers' uniforms transform from black-and-white to color as the meal progresses.

The one thing we did not do is allow our children to use electronics. I am not opposed to 3DS systems, iPods or mobile phones among kids in more casual, counter-service settings, but we didn't think this was the place for them. Truthfully, I think that battle gets more difficult as kids get older.

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We were fortunate to sail on the Disney Fantasy in December with our extended family, and we still managed to banish the electronics from the dining rooms. My children, who are now 8 and 10 years old, were sailing with their cousins of the same age, which was entertainment enough for them. Still, I was surprised by how much the kids used the cruise journals I put together beforehand. I printed sheets designed for our cruise ship and ports of call that allowed the kids to easily record their thoughts about the trip. Then, I added a cover and had each set of pages bound. The four kids often pulled these out in between courses at dinner to complete that day's pages, allowing the six adults some time to talk and relax. My nephew even decided to use the back sides of the pages to collect autographs.

That said, we still made sure to get reservations at Palo for an adults-only brunch and dinner during the seven-day cruise.


July 27, 2013

Disney Cruise Line celebrates Halloween on the High Seas

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My family and I enjoyed sailing aboard a Disney Cruise Line ship last year at Christmastime, and that journey made the holiday a unique occasion. But as much as I love Christmas, Halloween always has been my favorite holiday at Walt Disney World, thanks to the trick-or-treating fun of Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.

So imagine how excited I was to hear about DCL's recent news that the cruise line is bringing a similar family friendly Halloween event to its floating properties, too, as it launches Halloween parties and activities aboard its ships this year.

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The Disney Dream will see the largest share of spooktacular activities, but there will be elements on each of the other three ships in the Disney fleet, too. Beginning Sept. 22, Halloween on the High Seas will be celebrated aboard the Dream. The entertainment, as described by DCL, includes:

** Mickey's Calling All The Monsters Mouse-Querade Deck Party, a celebration in addition to Pirate Night with games, dancing and Disney characters in Halloween costumes.

** A Nightmare Before Christmas-Sing and Scream, an interactive movie experience where guests are part of the action, followed by a meet-and-greet with Jack Skellington and Sally. (A Jack and Sally meet-and-greet last fall at Downtown Disney in Orlando was hugely popular.)

** Haunted Stories of the Sea with a mysterious sea captain storyteller.

** Creepy Cabaret with performances by ghostly musicians and a Villainous Takeover on the dance floor in the adult nighttime district.

** Mask-making, pumpkin-carving and a Disney villain takeover of the ship announcements.

** Elaborate décor including a Halloween Tree that transforms throughout the cruise.

The Dream alternates 3- and 4-night itineraries. Halloween on the High Seas takes place through Oct. 31, excluding the Sept. 29 sailing.

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The other three ships -- Disney Fantasy, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder -- will offer passengers some tricks and treats that debuted on DCL in 2012. These include:

** Costume parties -- Disney characters will get dressed up for this Halloween party, and guests are invited to, as well. Expect live music, dancing and candy! Adults will have their own party and costume contest in the nighttime entertainment district.

** Spooky movies -- Halloween-themed movies will be shown in Buena Vista Theatre, on Funnel Vision by the family pool and in guest staterooms.

** Ghoulish Delights: Disney Cruise Line chefs have conjured some very special treats for Halloween, including chocolate cake with pumpkin filling, spider cakes and "Witch's Brew."

Halloween entertainment begins Sept. 21 on the Fantasy; Sept. 28 on the Wonder; and Oct. 27 on the Magic, when it comes out of drydock.

And here's something that's more of a treat than a trick: Passengers on the October sailing of the Magic not only will experience the Halloween activities, but also all the new water features -- The AquaDunk, a three-story body slide; the AquaLab; and Nephews' Splash Zone. Plus, the kids club has been redesigned with an Avengers theme; restaurants have been re-themed; and the adult clubs have been re-imagined. Read more about the Magic's changes here.

April 9, 2013

How fans can be Kingdon Keepers for a day at Walt Disney World

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This weekend, my 10-year-old son set out to be a Kingdom Keeper at the Magic Kingdom using the self-guided quest in Birnbaum Guides 2013 Walt Disney World edition. We didn't encounter any villains, but we did have fun with a new challenge in a favorite theme park.

For those not familiar with the term "Kingdom Keepers," it comes from a popular series of books by the same name from author Ridley Pearson. The Kingdom Keepers are students who protect the theme park from Disney villains, known as Overtakers in the books.

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In 2011, Disney Youth Education Series (YES) launched the first Kingdom Keepers Quest, a self-guided tour that Pearson helped design to create an immersive experience for the series' fans at Magic Kingdom. Because that program also has educational components -- such as building skills in problem solving, creativity, language arts, mathematics and critical thinking -- it is offered to groups of students.

Fans who weren't visiting the Magic Kingdom with their schools, though, were disappointed and had no such opportunity -- until this year's Birnbaum Guide was published. So, what can fans like my son expect from the individual self-guided quest?

"[The quests] are all me, so they're the same feel," Pearson told me recently. "I think that because of space limitations, they're certainly truncated. " They may be a little more difficult in YES, but those take 3 to 4 hours, and this one takes, maybe, an hour and a half."

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Don't be fooled, though. Birnbaum's Kingdom Keepers Quest is not simple -- at least not for a fourth-grader and his mother. We didn't have any difficulty finding the various locations in Magic Kingdom that the clues describe, but some of the codes and word play took multiple readings to decipher. This was especially true of the first quest in the set of five. Fortunately, you can solve the quests in any order and then put the clues together for the final answer, so we did skip the first one and save it for the end.

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Embedded in each quest are passages from "Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark," the first book in the series, which hint at some of the answers. And, if you have a smartphone and download an app, there are extra goodies you can unlock in the Magic Kingdom to help entertain and guide you through the quests. I don't want to give those surprises away, but the ones we saw were pretty darn cool. Plus, smartphone users can tackle an additional Expert Challenge Quest.

Can't get enough Kingdom Keepers? You're in luck. Disney Youth Education Series currently is testing a new quest for school groups at Animal Kingdom that will launch soon. Individual fans will get their own Animal Kingdom quest in the 2014 Birnbaum Guides for Walt Disney World, which will be released this fall.

"I'm just finishing now a new [Birnbaum quest] for 2014 that is four pages of Magic Kingdom and four pages of Animal Kingdom," Pearson told me. "I think we'll build that out as the years go forward."

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In the meantime, fans can meet Pearson this week when he appears at Walt Disney World to sign copies of the latest book in the series, "Kingdom Keepers 6: Dark Passage," which was released April 2. For details on these events and more about what's in store in the next Kingdom Keepers books, please see my earlier blog post.

January 12, 2013

Disney Cruise Line offers Miami excursions on debarkation days

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Despite living in Orlando for almost two decades, I haven't really spent any time in Miami. Sure, I've driven through the area on my way to the Florida Keys, but I haven't taken the time to explore the city. That's about to change for me this spring when my family plans to visit some of the historic sites and even one of the newest attractions, the American Girl doll store, in Miami.

Still, Miami is a bustling metropolitan area that might leave some tourists confused about what to see and worried about finding their way in a large city. Disney Cruise Line has a solution for that for its cruise passengers, and it's an idea that I think will have widespread appeal for first-time visitors to the city.

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This year, both the Disney Wonder and the Disney Magic will be based at Miami's port; the Wonder is already there and the Magic joins her sister ship at the end of the summer. On debarkation day, Disney Cruise Line is offering port adventures, otherwise known as excursions, in Miami. The beauty of these offerings is that when you exit the ship, your luggage will go with you on the port adventure and then you will be delivered to the airport. Wouldn't you rather have one last adventure instead of killing time at the airport? I know I would.

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Among the excursions offered is a three-hour trip through the Everglades, the dense wetlands of South Florida that are teaming with wildlife and tropical vegetation. Guests who choose this adventure will board an air-conditioned motor coach and travel approximately 45 minutes to the national park. Once there, they will have a 30-minute airboat ride on the "River of Grass" and return to base to see a reptile show featuring alligators. Free time afterward allows passengers to explore the Jungle Trail, alligator farm and crocodile exhibits before heading to the airport.

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Not a nature person? Then perhaps one of the Miami city tours is for you. On the Disney Parks blog, Port Adventures Manager Arnaldo Zanonato recommends the "Best of Miami by Land & Sea": "This city highlights tour takes guests on a scenic drive and boat ride past iconic Miami locations. You'll drive through Little Havana, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, South Beach and other well-known areas and cruise on the famous Miami waters past celebrity mansions, historical buildings and the striking city skyline."

Miami excursions for debarkation day cannot be reserved in advance online; instead, they must be booked onboard the ship. Passengers who want to take advantage of these trips must have flights departing in the afternoon. The exact time varies based on the tour time.

To see real-time updates from his first Miami cruise this weekend, Disney Parks Blogger Jonathan Frontado is tweeting @DisneyCruise with #DCLMiami.

December 15, 2012

How Disney Fantasy voyages are different from other Disney Cruise Line vacations

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Formal night with Minnie Mouse

Sailing on the Disney Fantasy, which only makes weeklong voyages, is in many ways a different experience than shorter trips aboard other Disney Cruise Line ships. And it's not just the number of days at sea that is different.

I have been fortunate to sail on the Disney Wonder for three nights, the Disney Dream for four nights, and, most recently, the Disney Fantasy for seven nights. The most obvious difference is having ample time to explore all the activities on the ship. For a guest like me who wants to see and do everything, that means a more relaxing vacation, knowing that rushing isn't necessary.

Dining

Having seven nights for dinner means that each guest can dine in the three main restaurants -- Royal Court, Animator's Palate and Enchanted Garden -- twice and one restaurant three times. The menu, and the entertainment, will not be the same on each visit, though. Pirates In the Caribbean typically is celebrated on the fourth night of the cruise and it has its own menu that is offered in every restaurant. Without giving too much away, you definitely don't want to miss your second night in Animator's Palate because the dinner show is amazing. Plus, there is a formal night for those who want to dress up on longer Disney cruises.

With so many nights, adults also can choose to dine at Palo or Remy for an additional charge and not miss out on the other experiences with their families. These restaurants offer fine Italian and French food, respectively, and an adult-only, more formal atmosphere. We enjoyed dinner at Palo on the Dream and the Fantasy, and it was a great change of pace for everyone.

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On longer cruises, brunch also is offered at Palo. I was told that was an experience not to be missed, so we made reservations for the second sea day. The menu was delightful, offering guests egg specialties and pizzas cooked to order, a table of pastries, seafood -- including crab legs that were already cracked and shrimp that was already peeled, and other delicacies. Our party didn't even make it to the desserts!

Shows

In the past, my family and I did not want to miss any of the evening productions, so we rushed to one each night. On the Fantasy, like the other ships, there are three original Broadway-style shows, and the other nights feature entertainers and a movie. We chose to attend the performances and skip the rest. Instead, we spent more time at the pool and checked out family activities in the D Lounge, such as a family game show and Bingo. I definitely recommend making time to visit D Lounge if you have elementary-school-age children.

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Characters

On other cruises, my children have only been moderately interested in photos with the Disney characters. And that was fine with me. Because we live in Orlando and are fortunate to have Walt Disney World annual passes, I viewed the collection of autographs as something best done at home when our schedule wasn't so jam-packed.

This time, however, I made each of the four children in our group a cruise journal and they surprised me with how intent they were on completing the pages and filling others with character autographs. It became a weeklong quest for them to meet all the characters. Even my 10-year-old son and his male cousin wanted to meet the Disney princesses so they could have a "complete set" of autographs.

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Captain Tom Forberg autographs my son's model ship.

Kids clubs

Sailing for week onboard the Disney Fantasy definitely gave my children more time to enjoy the programming and freestyle activities in the children's clubs. We allowed them to check themselves in and out of the clubs, which worked out well. They scanned the navigator for activities that appealed to them and then got themselves there on time. The boys were especially excited about GAGA ball on this trip. My daughter made so many crafts that we have a whole shelf at home displaying her work.

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Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique

My eight-year-old daughter loves visiting the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Walt Disney World, so it came as no surprise to me that she'd want to at least check out the salon that does princess makeovers on the Disney Fantasy. This sea location offers the same packages as the ones on land, but there are also several exclusive looks, too.

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The Under the Sea makeover captured my daughter's interest, mainly because instead of a princess gown, the girl can choose an Ariel style two-piece swimsuit with mermaid tail cover-up. The transformation also includes colored sun-block application, a Del Sol Floral Clip, a necklace and nail polish for $99.95. We opted to purchase the swimsuit and cover-up in the gift shop for about $50.

Disney cruise vacations of any length certainly offer their passengers a plethora of choices, but the Disney Fantasy seems to go above and beyond. What experiences have YOU found to be the most worthwhile about Disney Cruise Line's newest ship?


December 13, 2012

Disney Fantasy's newest port of call: Puerto Rico

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For Disney guests who book a magical cruise, the island of enchantment now awaits.

Disney Cruise Line recently added a new port of call on the Disney Fantasy's Eastern Caribbean itinerary: San Juan, Puerto Rico. And the cruise line offers passengers a wide range of opportunities to explore the island through its 26 shore excursions.

Last week, I was among the guests exiting the ship and stepping into the rich history of the U.S. commonwealth. For me, it even was a homecoming of sorts because I lived on the island when I was in elementary school and hadn't been back to visit in more than 20 years.

Although my family chose to visit our favorite places on our own, I can tell you that Disney Cruise Line's offerings will give guests a true taste of the Puerto Rican culture. What and how you experience it depends on your selections.

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There are typical Caribbean outings such as a beach day in Isla Verde, snorkeling from a catamaran or scuba diving. My family always enjoys these types of excursions, but I think choosing them in Puerto Rico is almost doing yourself a disservice when there are so many unique experiences to be enjoyed.

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The Disney Fantasy docks in historic Old San Juan, and this part of the capital is marked by narrow brick streets with many artisans' shops, authentic Spanish and Caribbean restaurants, piraqua (shaved ice) vendors in parks, and two of the oldest Spanish forts in the Caribbean. Passengers from many cruise ships wander this area without guides, and it generally is considered safe for tourists.

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Still, Disney Cruise Line offers walking and bicycle tours and shuttle excursions of Old San Juan, too. Some include the exploration of San Cristobal fortress, and one allows passengers a hands-on cooking demonstration and lunch.

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Another wonderful place in Puerto Rico to explore is its tropical rainforest, El Yunque, which is part of the United States National Forest System. Disney Cruise Line offers port adventures for hiking, horseback riding and ATV exploration of El Yunque. These excursions begin with a 75-minute ride from the port to the rainforest. Once you arrive, be on the lookout for waterfalls and listen for the persistent sounds from coquis, Puerto Rico's native frogs.

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Passengers who enjoy active adventures also can experience the natural beauty of Puerto Rico from a kayak or zipline. A less strenuous taste of the island can be enjoyed with a tour of Puerto Rico's famous Bacardi rum distillery, the largest in the world.

Finally, Disney Cruise Line offers its passengers the opportunity to create their own customized itinerary for the day by choosing a private car and English-speaking driver for 4 or 8 hours. (Spanish and English are official languages of Puerto Rico, and English is spoken in all major tourist areas.)

The Disney Fantasy is scheduled to stop in San Juan on select Eastern Caribbean sailings through April 2013.


December 11, 2012

Sailing aboard the Disney Fantasy during its first holiday season

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There's little doubt that sailing on the Disney Fantasy during its inaugural year is a memorable experience for most, but I recently discovered the holidays make it even more special.

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As soon as passengers enter the terminal at Port Canaveral, they will notice that the cruise line already has decorated for the season with a Christmas tree, wreaths and large ornaments.

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Once they board, the decorations are beautifully themed to each area of the ship. The lobby is elegant, with its giant tree and bountiful garlands. Other trees are whimsically designed to coordinate with their location. For example, the tree outside Animator's Palate has miniature paint palates. Cast members onboard the ship are even wearing red-and-white winter scarves as they greet the guests.

In addition to the decor, Cruise Director Brent has many holiday-themed activities planned for those who are interested.

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King Triton's Tree Lighting

On the first night of each cruise in December, the three-deck-tall Christmas tree in the grand lobby is the star of "King Triton's Tree Lighting" ceremony. We were fortunate to see the first such performance on the Fantasy on Dec. 1. A child is chosen from the audience to help MIckey Mouse and Minnie Mouse use the powers of the sea to bring the tree to life. Other children were selected to help throw confetti from the deck above the ceremony.

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The tree lighting is a short ceremony that takes place on Deck 3 and the grand staircase. Passengers can gather in the lobby or along the railings on Decks 4 and 5 to view the festivities.

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Tip: Arrive a little early for a good viewing spot and the possibility of your child being chosen to help with confetti.

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Gingerbread houses

It's impossible to miss the giant gingerbread house that has been constructed in the lobby on Deck 3. It smells delicious, and the sweet details are exquisite. Apparently, it's also a little too much temptation for some of the younger passengers who attempt to sneak a taste. A cast member told me that they have to make repairs about twice per week during the holiday season.

Guests ARE encouraged, however, to eat the gingerbread houses they make during a special session held in Animator's Palate. In part, that's because passengers cannot take such food items off the ship when they return to port.

To participate, guests must sign up for the traditional holiday activity held on one sea day during each cruise. Building the miniature treats was so popular on our cruise that the staff added multiple sessions as they filled up. The activity is limited to one gingerbread kit per stateroom, though the number of people working together is not restricted.

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In Animator's Palate, a chef walked all the budding architects through the process of constructing the house, and his instructions were shown on the video screens throughout the restaurant. My 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter and their cousins were able to follow along with just a little help from the adults in our group.

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Then, they were encouraged to decorate and sample their creations. With the exception of a few missing gumdrops, our gingerbread houses made it back to our staterooms intact and we enjoyed them for the remainder of the cruise.

Tips: Be sure to sign up as soon as possible if you're interested in participating in this activity. Also, many guests thought of creative ways to incorporate hidden Mickeys, so put on those thinking caps.

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Deck the Deck Tropical Holiday Party

On a port day, passengers were invited to a Deck the Deck Tropical Holiday Party on Decks 11 and 12 -- the pool and recreation areas near Donald's family pool.

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During this late-afternoon event, the characters appear on stage decked out in their holiday attire and they interact with selected children. The party kicks off with Chip and Dale hosting a limbo competition and continues with hula-hooping with Goofy and Pluto, a pass the coconut game with Lilo and Stitch, and dancing with Mickey and Minnie.

Unfortunately, our show was cut a little short by rain, so I'm not sure if there was more to come. I suspect there was.

Tip: If your child is not shy and would like to participate on stage, plan to be on Deck 11 at least 15 or 20 minutes before the party starts. Cast members will ask for young volunteers. They only can take 20 children, so once that number is reached, there is no wiggle room for more. (My son was in the Arr-cade when my daughter was chosen for the show, and he was disappointed to find out he couldn't join his sister in the party when he returned to our deck chairs.)

Castaway Cay

Although there weren't holiday activities per se on Castaway Cay, there is a nice photo opportunity on the pier for families wanting to capture a Christmas or winter image.

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On another note: Participants in the Castaway 5K are again receiving medals for completing the island race. There was a period in which paper certificates were being awarded instead of medals and many guests were upset about this. The medals are a nice holiday surprise for participants, no doubt.

For a look at Disney Cruise Line's exclusive holiday merchandise, please see my previous blog, and stay tuned for more details from my Disney Fantasy voyage.

December 4, 2012

Sailing away on the Disney Fantasy this week

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While many of you are enjoying New Fantasyland, I'll be living my own fantasy aboard Disney Cruise Line's newest ship, the Disney Fantasy. I'm taking a break a break from blogging this week, but will be back next week with all the holiday happenings.

November 6, 2012

Disney Cruise Line's holiday season begins in just 2 weeks

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It's difficult to believe that Disney Cruise Line could pack any more magic into its sailings, but it happens during the holiday season, which begins in less than two weeks with Thanksgiving week cruises.

Passengers who will be giving thanks at sea can enjoy traditional activities, if they choose. A bountiful Thanksgiving Day feast will be served in the dining rooms, and Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and their friends will be dressed in their Thanksgiving finest. Football games will be broadcast live on the ships' outdoor jumbo LED screen, Funnel Vision, located near family pool on each ship.

Those cruises set sail:

** Nov. 17 -- Disney Magic, a seven-night Western Caribbean cruise
** Nov. 17 -- Disney Fantasy, a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise
** Nov. 18 -- Disney Wonder, a seven-night Mexican Riviera cruise
** Nov. 21 -- Disney Dream, a four-night Bahamian cruise

I'm paying just a little more attention to the cruise activities this Christmas because I'll be onboard the Disney Fantasy in December, during its inaugural holiday season. I'm really excited about seeing the ship all decked out! (Photos included in this blog are from Jason of disneygeek.com He sailed on the Disney Dream during its first holiday season last year. With the Fantasy being its sister ship, I would expect many of the same types of decorations.)

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Did you know there are more than 300 custom-designed holiday decor pieces on each ship? For the Fantasy, that means 39 Christmas trees, ranging from 2 to 20 feet. The tallest is the centerpiece in the atrium lobby that sparkles with more than 20,000 white LED lights. There are 27 Christmas wreaths onboard Disney Cruise Line's newest ship, including some up to 5 feet in diameter.

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You think garland is a pain to hang? Try putting up 931 feet of it on the Fantasy! That's almost enough greenery to stretch stem to stern.

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Of course, Disney Cruise Lines' decorations are themed to each room, much like guests do in their own homes. There are bright colors in the kids' clubs, holographic foliage for the teen and tween spaces, and elegant accents for the adult areas. Customized ornaments include a paint brush and palette in Animator's Palate, Mr. Potato Head in Oceaneer Club and colorful tropical fish in Cabanas.

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Guests sailing on Disney Cruise Line ships in December can experience many Christmas activities, including two special celebrations in the atrium lobby. "King Triton's Tree Lighting" takes place the first night of each cruise. Guests onboard the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder will have a holiday edition of the character farewell, "Til We Meet Again."

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Throughout the cruise, families can take part in holiday crafts, such as decorating stockings, building gingerbread houses, making holiday cards and creating holiday animation cells. Plus, there are storytellers sharing tales of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. There's even a special story about celebrating the holidays on a ship.

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Holiday favorites will be served in the restaurants, too.

The holiday spirit even extends to Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas. Guests will be greeted by "snow flurries," holiday carolers, and Christmas trees. Kids can participate in holiday-themed activities and crafts.

On Christmas morning, Santa Claus and his elves will have surprises for all the kids, along with cookies and milk, the ships' lobbies.

Christmas and Hanukkah services will be held on the ships.

Voyages that include New Year's Eve will have a special party to ring in 2013, and guests will receive sparkling wine in commemorative flutes.

To see a preview of Disney Cruise Line's first holiday merchandise line that will only be available on ships, please read my previous blog post.

October 30, 2012

What you should know if a hurricane threatens your Disney vacation

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As a longtime Sunshine State resident who has survived 18 hurricane seasons, I really feel for East Coast residents and what they are facing because of Hurricane Sandy. It's frightening, to say the least, to see a massive storm slowly approaching your home.

For my husband and I -- and most of Central Florida -- the scariest events in recent years occurred in August and September 2004 when Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne passed over the Orlando area. Our son was almost 2 years old and I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter when Charley devastated our area, ripping roofs off homes, knocking power out for days, and stopping traffic with a forest of downed trees.

Two of those storms forced Walt Disney World to close its parks, which is a rare occurrence. Last year, Hurricane Irene neared Disney Cruise Lines' private island, Castaway Cay, and Sandy just hit it on the way to Atlantic City. So, what can guests expect when a hurricane threatens their Disney vacation?

First, when you are planning a trip to Port Canaveral or Orlando, know that hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30 -- half of each year. The peak months for storms are August and September.

If a hurricane warning is issued by the National Hurricane Center for the Orlando area or your place of residence no more than seven days before your arrival date at Walt Disney World, you can cancel or reschedule your Magic Your Way vacation without any fees imposed by Disney. This policy only applies to stays booked directly through Disney, and it doesn't guarantee you will receive any offers or discounts from your original booking. It also does not apply to dining experiences, special events, or sports and group packages.

Guests who book their trips through travel agents or tour operators will need to contact them directly for information about cancellation policies. This also is true for airlines, rental-car companies and other related services.

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But what if you're already at Disney World? In 2004, the Disney World parks were open for half a day on the day Hurricane Charley was expected to make landfall. As you would expect, they were quite uncrowded. Then, guests were asked to hunker down in their hotels as the hurricane made a nighttime pass over Central Florida. Cast members worked to inform everyone what to expect, and even offered extra entertainment to pass the time indoors. The parks opened again in the morning, after what had to have been a very long night for maintenance crews working to clear debris.

AllEars' Anita Answer was staying at Saratoga Springs Resort when Hurricane Charley hit Orlando. Here is her account of that day.

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Reader Barbara from Pennsylvania was staying at POP Century Resort during Hurricane Frances. You can read her report, too.

When a hurricane threatens Disney Cruise Line guests, there actually isn't much you can -- or should -- do. Ships have enough time to to steer clear of hurricanes. This may result in alternate ports or some rough waters, but passenger safety generally isn't an issue. Plus, at one week before departure, passengers will forfeit the entire cost of their cruises if they cancel. DCL may change the ship's departure date, as it did in 2004 when the three hurricanes affected Central Florida.

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When Hurricanes Irene passed near Castaway Cay last year, it did damage the idyllic Bahamian island. Cleanup delayed one ship's visit by a day, but that was the only information DCL officials released. (There is a hurricane "bunker" on the island for permanent residents, I'm told.) Hurricane Frances also damaged the island.

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Hurricane Sandy, though, passed directly over the island, last week, which presumably would cause more damage. Disney Cruise Line officials, though, have not released any details and typically prefer not to discuss damages. The next ship is scheduled to dock at Castaway today.

Perhaps the best advice from longtime travelers and travel agents is to purchase trip insurance for your Disney vacation. Be sure you understand what your policy coves when it comes to weather.


August 30, 2012

Exclusive sneak peek: Disney Cruise Line holiday merchandise

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Forgive me, but I'm about to break my own rule about shopping for Christmas-themed items before Halloween so I can bring you the first look at some exclusive Disney Christmas merchandise. (That rule doesn't apply when you're on vacation anyway, right? If you're like me and millions of other tourists, you're likely to pick up a Christmas ornament to remember that year's travels even if it is the middle of summer!)

Disney Cruise Line has announced that for the first time, it will offer a collection of DCL holiday-themed merchandise. These items will be available only onboard its four ships -- Disney Magic, Disney Wonder, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy -- in gift shops. (Remember, too, that shops are only open when the ship is at sea.) Although some ship merchandise can be found online at DIsneyStore.com, that will not be the case with these 22 items.

Also, the DCL holiday merchandise only will be sold for a limited time, from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, 2012. There is no limit on the quantities guests can purchase, though.

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So, what should you start saving your money for? How about some plaid flannel pajamas for getting cozy in your stateroom or for the younger members of your family to wear to late nights in the kids clubs? The traditional nightwear comes in styles of men's boxers for $24.95, a women's nightshirt, women's 2-piece boxer set with tank top for $39.95, youth long eddies (tight-fit legging and top) for $29.95, and an infant's coverall. Each piece features a DCL logo in red or green.

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The holiday collection also will include apparel and other items with a character graphic and the slogan "Cruising Through the Holidays." Guests will be able to choose from basic T-shirts in youth and adults sizes for $19.95; girls' and women's fitted T-shirts (women's for $31.95); men's athletic T-shirt; long-sleeve T-shirts in youth and adult sizes for $24.95 and $29.95, respectively; and a wooden ornament for $12.95. (Disney Cruise Line ships also will carry the ornaments they stock year-round.)

If you're looking for stocking stuffers, you might consider the DCL holiday pen, the metallic red and green mug and shot glass, or a chocolate box with truffles.

This year I am fortunate to be sailing on the Fantasy in December, and I can't wait to go shopping. There is one thing missing from the lineup, though, that I'm going to have plead with Santa to bring: a Disney Cruise Line holiday-themed Dooney & Bourke bag. It's not part of the new collection this year, but I hope the elves get to work for 2013.

August 9, 2012

Tips for adding extra magic to your Disney Cruise Line vacation

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Part of the fun of a vacation as magical as a Disney cruise is the anticipation leading up to the embarkation date. In my family, while the kids are busy marking off the days on their calendars, I get to work planning some extra surprises. Here are a few ideas that are pretty simple and inexpensive, but they add a whole bunch of magic to your vacation.

Make magnets for your stateroom door

If you're artistic, put your talents to work and create some fun Disney designs to decorate your metal stateroom door. Not a graphic artist? Look online for designs to download.

For an extra special touch, there are artists who take requests on Disboards.com cruise section for personalized designs. Some of these same artists also have their blank designs available for you to download and customize yourself. To request a design, though, you must register on Disboards.com, browse the collections and post a request. When the request is filled, the artist will post the image in the same thread. These artists generously offer their services for free; in return, you are asked not to sell their designs or use them to gain a profit.

Once you have the image you like, you can print it directly onto magnet paper, which can be purchased at your local office-supply store. I like this option because it's the easiest, but it also can get expensive if you plan to make a lot of magnets. Other cruise veterans suggest printing the image on cardstock, laminating it, and then sticking small magnet squares to the back. (Disney Cruise Line does not allow passengers to tape designs to the stateroom doors.) Decorated doors help kids find their rooms, and adults can't help but smile when they see them.

Fish Extenders

Located next to your stateroom door is a knob with a fish ornament on the end. We used this spot to hang a dry-erase board to leave messages for other family members. More industrious cruisers hang a decorative holder with pockets, usually Disney-themed, called a Fish Extender from the knob.

Fish Extenders are used for a Secret-Santa-type activity for people who meet beforehand, most often on roll-call threads online. Using a list of participants from those who expressed interest online, guests will place inexpensive gifts in each other's extenders during the cruise.

This sounds like fun, but it does take more planning ahead of time.

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Collecting special autographs

Instead of bringing an autograph book, why not collect character signatures on something you will use, or at least see, every day? On our first Disney cruise, I took Mickey Mouse and Disney Princess pillowcases (pictured here) that I purchased online for my children. That was a couple years ago, and they still insist on sleeping on them each night.

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On the next sailing, I brought stuffed autograph dogs that I found for a couple bucks at a local craft store. This year, I am planning to purchase blank 9-inch Vinylmation figures at Walt Disney World for all the kids in our group.

Another popular item to have autographed by the characters is the white border of a Disney picture or poster - or the mat inside a frame for your own photo. (Be sure to tape off the portion of the mat that is covered by the frame so complete autographs will be visible.)

For a really special signature, be sure to visit the Captain's Signing session. My kids enjoyed meeting Captain Henry, and my son had his cherished model ship autographed.

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Celebrate an occasion

If you're on a cruise, chances are someone in your group is celebrating an event or milestone, right? Let your travel agent (or Disney Cruise Lines if you booked directly) know so that it can be noted in your reservation. On the night of your choosing, your servers will bring a special dessert to the dinner table. The strawberry shortcake I received on the Disney Wonder was beautiful, tasty, and large enough for my entire family to share.

Themed cruises

Finally, many people enjoy cruising with fellow Disney fans or passengers with other shared interests. These cruises usually do not cost more, and participants are invited to special group events and often receive gifts. AllEars.Net hosted a group cruise on the Disney Fantasy in May and you can read all about it here.

If you have other tips for adding some inexpensive magic to a Disney cruise, please tell us in the comments.

July 19, 2012

Surprising the kids with a Disney vacation

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Can you keep a secret? A really big secret?

If so, you might be a parent or grandparent who wants to surprise the special child in your life with the news that your family is going on a Disney cruise, to Walt Disney World or another Disney theme park. There are so many fun and easy ways to deliver this one-of-a-kind message. It's really just a matter of choosing what works best for your family.

Since my family and I live in Orlando and are fortunate to have Disney World annual passes, there's little surprise in showing up there. But boarding a DCL cruise ship remains a very special occasion. Before my children, then ages 7 and 5, stepped onto the Disney Wonder for our first family cruise a few years ago, I knew I wanted to completely surprise them with the news. I began gathering items in preparation for the big reveal, which would be a themed family lunch and movie.

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First, I ordered the Disney Cruise Line planning video, which is free. (This takes several weeks to arrive, so order early, if possible.) Next, I looked on eBay for kids' pirate costumes for Pirates IN the Caribbean night on the Wonder. I knew my daughter would want to dress up. My son was going through a phase where he thought dressing up was for kids younger than him, so we got him a cool Mickey pirate T-shirt.

Then, I made a trip to one of the Walt Disney World outlet stores in the Orlando area to scope out the DCL merchandise. These stores carry theme-park quality merchandise that has been discontinued or overstocked, and prices are routinely 40 to 50 percent off. I found some cruise T-shirts, photo albums and trinkets. (Back then, the outlets were the only places on land that guests could purchase DCL merchandise. Now, a nice selection is available on DisneyStore.com.)

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So, while their dad took them to soccer practice, I transformed the kitchen table into a party scene with all my goodies. When they came home for lunch, they were stunned to see everything and knew what it all meant. We had a fun lunch, discussing what we were all looking forward to, and afterward we watched the planning DVD. Parents with an interest in cooking could also make a recipe or two that is served on the ship. (Be sure to check out the AllEars.Net index of hundreds of official recipes from Disney Cruise Line and Walt Disney World.)

When we broke the news that we would set sail on the Disney Dream last year, we drove the kids out to Port Canaveral. They didn't find this unusual because we have been going to nearby Jetty Park beach for years. But instead of entering the state park, we pulled into a channel-side parking lot where we could see the ship and share our news. Afterward, we went to lunch and again discussed the upcoming trip. Every other sentence in that conversation contained the word "AquaDuck!"

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For our family, the anticipation of the trip is a big part of the fun, so we like to have time to plan and dream about what's to come. Some parents, however, revel in the awe they see when their kids realize they are not going to Grandma's house and instead are about to land in Orlando. For those folks, the trick is not in planning a reveal but in being able to keep the secret a lot longer.

Recently, my parents, who live in another state, used a video call to tell all the grandkids that their Christmas present will be a cruise on the Disney Fantasy in December. I tried to persuade them to wear their snorkel gear for the big announcement, but my parents didn't need any special props to excite the kids for what awaits.

Have a creative way to share the news of an upcoming Disney vacation? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in the Disney Cruise Line category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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