If you go on a Disney Cruise and don’t see your children for several hours, you can thank Jennifer MacDonald and the other Youth Activities managers in the fleet. Their job is to make sure your children have the best vacation ever — so you can have the best vacation, too. Some of the venues open as early as 7 a.m. and stay open as late as 1 a.m.
Jennifer is a former preschool teacher who spotted an ad for a “DCL Babysitter” nearly seven years ago. “The experiences, lifestyle, the people you work with and people you meet are not like anywhere else,” she said. “Guests come on and are blown away by the spaces available and materials we have.”
Spaces that include an 18-by-5 foot video game walls, playrooms decorated like you just stepped into Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship and the coolest teen coffee house at sea.
Parents can register their children online in advance, so the fun can begin that much faster, especially on shorter cruises. And no child is turned away based on needs or ability.
Disney Cruise Line also recently introduced wave phones, so if the youth counselors need to reach them for any reason, it’s as simple as a phone call or text message. As a safety precaution, families also establish a password when they first check the kids into the programs, as well as a list of adults authorized to pick up the children. All of the youth counselors must have a minimum of two years working with children in teaching, coaching and/or instruction.
The Disney Cruise Line fleet has activities to entertain 3-month-olds to 17-year-olds and everyone in between. That’s right — 3 months … the only cruise line that allows infants that young onboard. Unlike other cruise lines, Disney does not offer in-room babysitting. Instead, for a small fee, parents can make a reservation for their infants and toddlers into their own special group babysitting area on deck 5: Flounder’s Reef (Disney Magic and Disney Wonder) and “it’s a small world” Nursery (Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy).
Everything there is not only “little-one” friendly, but naptime, themed playtime (including making hand and footprints for the parents to take as souvenirs) and eating are all supervised. There is one counselor per every four infants (14 months and younger), and one counselor for every six toddlers (15 months to 3 years), and all counselors have experience working with children and have training in, among other things, age behavior and first-aid. Three-year-olds also have the chance to check out things Disney’s Oceaneer Club (with a parent, of course).
What’s the Oceaneer Club? Well, along with Disney’s Oceaneer Lab, it is “the” place to be if you are 3-10. On the Wonder and Magic, the Club is themed to look like Captain Hook’s pirate ship and includes self-play computer stations, computers, LEGOs and a costume collection. Onboard the Dream and Fantasy, the Club is divided into themed rooms: Pixie Hollow, Explorer Pod (a submarine inspired by the Disney-Pixar animated film Finding Nemo), Andy’s Room and the Monster’s Academy.
On the Wonder and Magic, the Lab truly is a laboratory filled with wacky inventions and opportunities for children to explore. Buzz Lightyear himself is perched atop computer station, plus a simulator on the Wonder lets kids “pilot” the ship through various ports. Nearby, children will find a video wall with giant-size play pads and their own special music lounge.
On the Dream and Fantasy, the Oceaneer’s Lab encourages adventure and exploration among those 3-10, but even parents will be drawn to the fun and decor — and the interactive play floor. In the Media Room, kids can kick back and relax in bean bag chairs and watch movies or play video games; they can learn how to sketch (and bring to life) their favorite Disney characters in the Animator’s Studio; create music in the Sound Studio and create and imagine in the Craft Studio.
Previously, the two areas were split by age group: 3-7-year-olds were in the Club, and, before Edge opened, children as old as 13 were in the Lab.
“We found there was a lot of feedback that they wanted to keep the siblings together,” Jennifer said. “We learned the shy 3-year old would stay and enjoy themselves more if their 6-year-old sibling is with them.”
Now the programs are grouped by themes, so your child can find what suits them — in either the Club or Lab. Plus, a cool tunnel connects the two, making it easy for the counselors to get the kids from one program to another — and if the siblings want to be together, they just have to tell the counselors.
“We brought the majority of the activity back into the club and the lab,” Jennifer said. “This way also, the parents don’t have to go all over the ship dropping their children at different places,” Because we now have a tween space, the Club and Lab are just for the 3- to 10-year-olds.
Small Mickey Mouse heads in different colors in the Personal Navigators make it easy for you and your children to see what Themed Experiences are on the docket for the day. There’s even scheduled downtime for the over-scheduled kids. Four of the themes still have age suggestions, but anyone can join:
- Clubhouse Series (recommended for 5 years and younger-focused on preschool content like Little Einsteins)
- Solve It! Series (recommended for 6 years and older – focused on problem-solving activities like Detective School)
- In the Spotlight Series (recommended for 8 years and older – focused on stage presence like Karaoke Party)
- Out and About Series (recommended for 8 years and older – focused on sports away from the Club and Lab like Dodgeball)
- Storybook Series (any age – focused on the Disney Classics, like Do-Si-Do with Snow White)
- Jump Up! Series (any age – focused on movement games inside the Club and Lab, like Aloha Luau)
- Create and Invent Series (any age – focused on creativity and teamwork Ratatouille Cooking School)
- On all four ships, families who are in second-seating dinner can participate in Dine & Play. Parents can tell their waiters that they are doing Dine & Play and the kids will be served their entrée while the parents are on appetizers. Then, the counselors come to all three dining rooms at 9:15 p.m., to pick up the kids and take them to evening programs, allowing mom and dad to enjoy a meal together. On the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, your kids don’t even need to leave the play areas for lunch or dinner, as meals are served semi-buffet style right there.
“You can see after a few days, the counselors know the kids names, the kids know the counselors and talk about them to their parents, and you can get the children into groups of friends,” Jennifer said. “There’s more of a routine with the longer cruises and the feeling of unity between the guests and the team [of counselors].”
When your kids are too old for “kid-stuff” and too young for “teen stuff,” they come to Edge (the Wonder’s former conference rooms were transformed when the ship was preparing for its longer itineraries). The zone for 11-13 year-olds is designed like the ship’s bridge on the Magic where they can sit in a captain’s chair and virtually steer a cruise ship in and out of ports around the world. On the Wonder, it is a cozy zone where tweens can play computer video games, enjoy arts and crafts and spend a night at the movies.
On the Dream and Fantasy it sports a lighted dance floor and tables with notebook computers for playing games or for accessing the onboard social media application, as well as a state-of-the-art video wall that stretches more than 18 feet long and green screens so they can put themselves “in the picture,” including photo postcards and video karaoke. Plus, Edge’s location on the Dream and Fantasy means tweens can see out, but guests below can’t see in.
And parents, don’t worry, during the school year, there’s even scheduled homework time.
An onboard Oasis just for teens that requires a key-card to enter. That’s Vibe. On the Magic and Wonder, is located in one of the funnels. On the Dream and Fantasy, Vibe comes with its own outside sundeck. The club, part-“coffee house” and part-dance club, ensures that 14- to 17-year- olds have both freedom and privacy.
To keep connected with the new friends they’ve made, Disney Cruise Line created T.O.R.C.H. (Teen Only Resource and Communication Hub). The a private, user-generated social network lets teens check out activity times, post messages for their friends and see videos and pictures of Vibe programs and parties. T.O.R.C.H. is an on-ship only, closed intranet network that’s watched over by Disney Cruise Line Teen Counselors and accessed with special IDs and passwords that teens create themselves.
Unlike the other youth zones, the teens at Vibe design and create the entire program for the cruise. If they want movies every night, or a Karaoke-free cruise, they make it happen. Teens can relax by themselves or with friends, escape with music or a movie, play Wii video games and enjoy all the complimentary soft drinks they want at the juice/coffee bar. They also have the opportunity to “Pump It Up” in the Fitness center.
On the Dream, Vibe’s outdoor deck at the ship’s bow allows teens to enjoy some fun in the sun without ever having to leave their private club, where they can hang out on chaise lounges among as well as “splash” pools, fountains, pop jets and misters to help them cool off. Inside, they can create and edit videos using the latest computer technology. The Disney Dream also has Chill Spa, which has special teen-focused treatment, like a hot chocolate body scrub or ice cream manicure-pedicure.
When families debark in Castaway Cay on the cruises out of Port Canaveral, the fun doesn’t end… it just gets a beach infusion. The family beach is enormous and full of water activities like snorkeling, Castaway Ray’s Stingray Adventure, 2,400-square-foot water play area called Spring-a-Leak and a 2,400-square-foot floating platform, called Pelican Plunge. For kids who want a break from the parents or parents who want to take advantage of the 18-and-older Serenity Bay, the party for 3 to 12-year-olds shifts from the Club and Lab to Scuttle’s Cove. The counselors set up a multitude of programs, broken down by interest and age such as Sebastian’s Sea Search, the Whale Dig, Castaway Capers and the Water Games obstacle course.
Teens who come to the island have a choice of activities. Hide Out, a teen retreat just steps away from the beach, extends the Vibe experience off-ship. Multicolored deck chairs and sailcloth shades create the ideal getaway to kick back, listen to music and soak up the sun.
Those who want a little more action sign up for “The Wild Side Teen Adventure,” an exclusive Port Adventure just for teens (meaning no parents allowed). Passengers 13 to 17 get to snorkel, kayak and take a scenic bike ride around this tropical island paradise —with four hours away from mom and dad.
There’s also a teen-only surfing program in Cabo San Lucas for passengers on the Disney Wonder.
Happily Ever After
The idea of Neverland at Sea, where kids never have to grow up (and grown-ups can sometimes act like kids), happens every day onboard.
And the most popular events? “Flubber, no matter how old or young you are, we easily get 100 children,” Jennifer said. “It’s gooey, it’s fun and it’s funny. Also Do-Si-Do With Snow White. Parents come down with their kids and they’ll be 100 children in a circle listening to Snow White, and 30 parents filming it. Those moments, you can’t take that away… and you can’t find it anywhere else.”
Whether your family is the kind that enjoys spending day and night together, separate or a combination of the two — Disney Cruise Line accommodates it. The hardest thing might be getting your kids to leave.