Here are my best tips, tricks, and packing hints for people planning to cruise on DCL, especially first time cruisers and families with kids, toddlers or babies.
My folks took my family on the 7-Night Western Caribbean Magic cruise on October 7-14. It was our first cruise ever. I did a lot of research beforehand and found a lot of great info on the DIS board and the CruiseCritic boards, and in the PassPorters book and the Birnbaum book. But even so, I had a few questions about cruising with toddlers that went unanswered until I found out first-hand on the ship. Most of my questions stemmed from traveling with little kids, especially a toddler, who isnt quite potty trained.
So I thought Id type up all the tips I got from other people and all the ones I have come up with on my own, and maybe it will help future cruisers with toddlers and children. Here they are, in no particular order. Our party consisted of me, DH, DD (5) and DS (3). Happy cruising!
1) DCL stateroom bathrooms have tubs! They are small, but plenty big enough to give kids a bath in. Other cruise lines, I am told, have showers only. Our stateroom was a category 11, without a split bath, but the bathroom was plenty big enough, anyway. The showerhead was a hand-held thing that you could raise or lower, or take off to hold and rinse off a child after a bath.
2) The bathtubs have clotheslines. That ended up being invaluable, since we constantly had wet bathing suits that we had to hang somewhere. It is the spring-loaded, retractable kind like in a hotel room.
3) The bathrooms have hairdryers. Not only did this save me from having to pack mine, but I used it more than once on the still-damp bathing suits hanging in the tub. The hairdryer has an electrical outlet on it marked for shavers only. Other than that, there are no outlets in the bathroom.
4) If you are going on the Western itinerary, the first port of call is Key West. The kids and I didnt bother getting off the boat since there were so many fun things to do on the ship that first full day, and the crowds were very light since everybody else went into town. We didnt feel like we missed much. There are NO good beaches in Key West, and the kids arent into shopping or walking around. DH went into town for a little while, just in order to go shopping at the CVS drugstore to get the few things we forgot. Dont feel guilty if youd rather play on the ship than trek into town, at any port of call.
5) Bring a nightlight. We forgot ours in the hotel room we stayed in on Friday night. So Saturday night we didnt have anything for our inside stateroom with no window. It was so dark, you could develop film in there!! We tried to leave the closet door open a crack to provide a little light, but the ship kept moving and the door rolled shut! So DH went into Key West on Sunday and bought a nightlight at the CVS. We plugged it into the one (double) outlet on the desk, so it provided plenty of light at night for DS, but we closed the curtains at the foot of our bed, so it didnt keep us awake.
6) The staterooms have safes like youd find in a hotel room. They are activated by your Key-to-the-World card. We locked up everything like our cameras, our wallets, my jewelry, the Oceaneer Club beeper when we werent using it, the kids Key-to-the-World cards when they didnt need them, etc.
7) We asked our stateroom host to remove the little table in front of the couch. It gave us so much more space! (Another great DIS suggestion.) The kids had a spot to play on the floor, and spread out their toys. If Id thought about it, Id have asked them to take the chair/footstool thing out, too. It was tucked into the kneehole of the desk, so I didnt think about it. It turned out that we never pulled it out to sit on all week, and we could have used the kneehole as another spot to store stuff.
8) If your stateroom has beds that fold down from the wall, you can request siderails so your kids dont fall out. Your stateroom host will take care of setting up the bed at night while you are at dinner, and putting it away while you are at breakfast. If you have a baby, you can request a pack-n-play, and the host will take care of that, too. You can ask them to put it away each day, or leave it up all the time for naps. If you do this, youll probably need the table taken out.
9) There are not enough drawers or hangers, but there are lots of cabinets in your stateroom. Most of my clothes and DHs clothes were hung up in the closet, but I had to put multiple items on each hanger. Most of my kids clothes had to be stacked up in a cabinet. As soon as we got our luggage I unpacked everything. I then put most of the suitcases in the closet. I only put a few under the bed. I should have put more of them under the bed, then Id have had more closet floor-space.
10) The ship has a couple of self-serve coin-op laundry rooms. I ended up having to do laundry twice during our 7-night cruise, mostly because DH wasnt supervised while he packed. I wish I had taken Bounce sheets and zip-locks full of powdered Tide. But they have Tide for sale in the laundry room, so each load cost me $3 ($1 for Tide, $1 to wash and $1 to dry.) Happily the dryers work great, so as long as the loads arent too large, one 40-minute dry will do it. Watch out, the laundry rooms are always busy, and people take your stuff out of the dryer if the time is up and you arent around! The vending machines sell Tide for $1 a load, and liquid Downey for $1 a load. The machines all require quarters. There is a change machine in the laundry room, but the second time I went to do laundry, it was out of change, and I had to go to Guest Services to get change. Try not to take any clothes that need to be ironed, because the only irons are in the laundry rooms, and theres no elbow room in there. You can also put your laundry in the plastic bag from your closet and set out in the hallway for ships laundry service, but I didnt even ask what that costs!
11) Take an over-the-door shoe organizer. I read about this on the DIS board. I bought one at Big Lots for about $8. It is made of canvas and has mesh pockets and four metal hooks to go over the door, and the whole thing folds up flat. I put it on the bathroom door, facing out into the stateroom. Then I put everything small in the pockets, like my kids dress shoes, some of their toys, some of their toiletries, etc. Everything that would have been in a drawer at home, but there werent enough drawers on the ship! It was a great suggestion.
12) Take a pop-up hamper. I read about this on the DIS board. I found one at Wal-Mart for about $4. It is red mesh with wire sides and cloth handles, and twists up to a tiny disk, smaller than a Frisbee. I put it in the closet and kept our dirty clothes in it, then picked it up by the handles to carry to the laundry room. Now that we are home, it is in DSs room, full of stuffed animals. It was also a great suggestion.
13) There is nowhere to store stuff in the bathroom. I kept all our toiletries in our small hanging shaving kit, or on the small shelf above the sink, or the other small shelf under the sink. But it got very crowded in there. Id buy a bigger hanging shaving kit before we cruised again.
14) Bring some bottled water. I bought two 8-packs at the grocery the night before we boarded the ship and packed them in my checked luggage. It cost maybe $6 total. The water they give you in the dining room is fine, and the water that comes out of the machine at the drink station is fine. Not great, but fine. But Id never drink the water out of the faucet in the bathroom, because it is always brown for the first few seconds. And if you go off the ship, you will want to take water with you, because it is so hot in the Caribbean, and you dont want to pay $3 a bottle in port. They allow you to take unopened bottled water in your checked or carry on luggage, but no ice! Dont bring a cooler of iced drinks and expect to get it through the scanner. I read in the Disney papers they gave me that they do not allow coolers except those needed for medicine, but Ive read that lots of people bring soft-sided ones, so dont ask me. I also wouldnt buy the bottled water package they offer to sell you on the ship. It is about $29, way too much!
15) The dining rooms have high chairs and booster seats. They are the sturdy wooden ones like at restaurants. If you tell your server on the first night at dinner that you want one, they will have it waiting for you every night after that.
16) The dining rooms give kids a different coloring-page and crayons every night at dinner. DD(5) loved this and colored hers each time. It also lists the kids menu for the night. Unfortunately, DS(3) doesnt care to color, and the dinners take a LONG time, so he got bored and was ready to go before the rest of us almost every night. So, be prepared, and bring some small toys that might entertain your little ones, or check them into Flounders Reef before you go to eat.
17) The kids dinner menu was pretty disappointing from a nutrition point of view. It just didnt have enough options or change often enough. It seemed to have cheeseburgers and chicken fingers every night, and only had other special stuff like pasta sometimes. Plus, even though the menu said you could get mashed potatoes instead of fries, and I requested this on more than one occasion, the kids plates had fries every time. You can order off the adult menu for your kids if you prefer.
18) Notes on non-potty-trained kids: My son was at just the wrong age to cruise. He turned 3 a few days before we sailed. (Did you know kids 3 and up are full price, but kids 2 and under are free, plus port fees?) But, although hes 3, hes not quite potty trained. So he couldnt swim in the pools or be checked into the Oceaneer Club.
a. Swimming: There is one ear of the Mickey pool that isnt a pool, it is a fountain-splash area. They let kids in swim diapers use that splash ear only. If your child needs a swim diaper, they arent allowed in the pools. This is a CDC rule, not a Disney rule. If there is any chance your kid will go in his pants, you cant let them swim in the pools. There are countless horror stories about parents who took their kids diaper off and let them swim in the pool, and the inevitable happened, and the pool was closed for a whole day while they drained it, cleaned it and filled it back up. Since my DS is very independent, and hes a great swimmer, I knew he wouldnt be happy to stay in the splash ear. Thered be nothing to stop him from jumping right over the edge into the pool. So we never put his bathing suit on him, and just avoided the situation. DD(5) loved the Mickey pool and spent two hours one day sliding down the slide. Kids have to be 4 to use the slide. So, best case scenario would have been to wait until DS turned 4, and was totally potty trained, before we cruised, so he could swim in the pools and slide down the Mickey slide.
b. Oceaneer Club: The other non-potty-trained issue was the Oceaneer club. Your child has to be both 3 and potty trained to be checked in. You can take non-potty-trained kids there and let them play while you watch. But if you check them in, they cant even be wearing pull-ups. They have to be trained to the point of being able to go all by themselves, wipe, wash their own hands, etc. If your child does happen to have an accident, theyll beep you to pick them up, and your child will be asked not to come back for 24-48 hours. This is another health thing, just in case your childs accident was the result of an oncoming illness. So, we never checked DS into the club, and he only played there with us watching. We made the mistake of taking him there one day during a planned activity, but he didnt want to sit in the circle and do what the other kids were doing, he only wanted to slide down the pirate ship slide. Well, during activities the pirate ship is closed, so after that we only took him during free play times. Of course, we could have checked him into Flounders Reef nursery and paid the fee, but it is very small, and wouldnt have kept him occupied for very long. It is really more appropriate for babies and very young toddlers.
19) Order room service at least once. It is free, but you are supposed to tip $1-$2 per person. We ordered breakfast the night before Castaway Cay and had it delivered first thing that morning. It helped us wake up earlier and save time getting ready, so we maximized our time on CC. There are breakfast order forms in the drawer of your desk, and you just fill it out and hang it on your doorknob. They call you about 5 minutes before the waiter comes to your door, just in case you are sound asleep. After the food arrived, they called again to make sure it was OK. They had forgotten to give us napkins, so they sent someone right up with some. It was great to be pampered.
20) Budget for the tipping. For a family of four, the regular tips for a one-week cruise add up to about $300 (not counting room service, Palo or alcohol). Dont begrudge the employees this; just count it as part of the cost of your tickets, then it wont seem so painful. You have to tip them, because the cruise line doesnt pay them enough if you dont. Maybe by doing it this way it guarantees your servers and hosts will treat you well, I dont know. You can bring cash and put it in an envelope they provide, or you can go to Guest Services and have them put it on a credit card, and print out a slip for you to put in the envelope. We felt like our servers and stateroom host were great, and we tipped more than the recommended amount to our head server.
21) Take your kids to an Ocean Quest Open House. Ocean Quest is generally the club for the pre-teen crowd, but every day they have Open House hours, but you have to stay with the little ones. It is a cool spot, with video games, board games, coloring, and the ship simulator. It is a helm with one whole wall of giant video screens, and your child can drive the ship! It is very cool, and my DS(3) wanted to go there every day for the Super Mario Cart video game.
22) Buy trip insurance. It will pay if you have to cancel the cruise, or if the cruise gets cancelled. It will pay if your luggage gets lost or stolen. If you were to get really sick or hurt, it will pay to get you back home. I felt much better knowing that if something serious happened to me or the kids, we wouldnt be stuck with whatever hospitals were available in the Caribbean!
23) If someone gets sick while you are onboard: If you are sea-sick, there is a basket of free sea-sick pills outside the door to the health center. If you get the stomach flu, and you go to the health center, they will quarantine you to your room. This sounds bad, but they treat you very nice, bring you room service, and do everything they can to keep you comfortable. If you are sick, you shouldnt be roaming the ship spreading it around, anyway. If you do go to the health center, it costs $100 just to see the doctor, plus the cost of medications. Your health insurance plan is no good here! But if you bought trip insurance, it will reimburse you later. I had to take my daughter to the health center and the nurses and doctor were all very nice and knowledgeable. Luckily, she didnt have anything contagious, so we werent quarantined, but we know of people who were. The cruise ships do everything they possibly can to keep those cruise epidemics from happening, and I really appreciate it. It isnt a big deal to wash your hands a lot and always disinfect them before you eat and before you get back on the ship. If it keeps you from getting sick and ruining your big vacation, it is worth it!
24) Decorate your stateroom door. We brought a poster I made and some tape to hang it up, and a friend gave us some magnets to stick on the door. I found that it really helped my kids to know when we were back to our room, since our door was different than all the others. As the week progressed, we noticed that other cruisers bought refrigerator magnets in the gift shop and in port and decorated their doors more and more all week. What fun! There is a clip outside your door that you can use to leave messages on, too. If I go again, Ill remember to take a post-it pad, since my DH and I were always scrounging for a scrap of paper to leave each other notes with.
25) Take some kind of keepsake to drop off at Guest Services to get signed by all the characters. (Of course, take your kids autograph books, to hand to the characters for their signature, too. I got our autograph books at the dollar store.) But I had read on the DIS board to take a t-shirt or pillow case, drop it off at the beginning of the week, and at the end of the week it will be given back, covered in signatures. We did this, and it is so cool! The autograph books are messy, covered with greasy fingerprints from the character breakfast, and some of the signatures are hard to read because some of the characters, like Goofy, have a hard time signing in their costumes. But the keepsake we dropped off is nice and neat, and all the signatures are there, even of characters we didnt get to meet that week. And since I neglected to take a pen to drop off with it, every signature is a different color. The keepsake I chose was a blank scrap-book page. I drew a square in the center of the page, and wrote Do not sign here, photo goes here in it, so the characters all signed around it. When I got home, I pasted a photo of my kid with one of the characters to the box, and Voila, instant scrapbook page! Its great, and was free!
26) If you bring your own snorkel equipment, be warned, you have to wear a snorkel vest to snorkel at Castaway Cay. Even if you are just sitting in the waste-high water, if you have a mask on, you have to have a vest on. I saw so many people get yelled at by the lifeguards for putting on snorkel masks and sticking their faces in the water without a vest!
27) When you get off the tram on Castaway, just keep walking. I had read this tip on the DIS board. My DB was cruising with us, and since he has teenagers, he wanted to set up camp between the teen beach and the family beach. So he picked a spot near the left-most end of the family beach, near that spit of land that has the Heads Up Bar on it (between the restroom and the #12 on your map. It was a great spot!! We looked down the beach toward the ship, and it was soooo crowded near the J on your map. But there were only a couple of other families near us, and almost all the chairs were empty. We were literally yards from the restroom, and there was never more than one other person in there when we were. Since our kids are so young, all we wanted to do was play in the sand and the waves, so this was a perfect spot. It was quite a ways from the swimming lagoon jungle gym thing, but it is too big for my kids, anyway. The only drawback was it was a little bit of a walk back to the tram stop at the end of the day, since by then we were so tired.
28) Bring a stroller, and take it to CC. My husband looked at me as I was putting our umbrella-type stroller in the car to go to the airport and said We really dont need that, right? My response was that every time HE said we didnt need to take the stroller, I ended up carrying one of the children. Turns out we used it a lot: at every airport, at the terminal at Port Canaveral, and on the ship when DS was asleep during activities like dinner and the Pirate Deck Party. I didnt take it with me when we went to the beach at Cozumel or Grand Cayman, and thats just as well, since it would have been a hassle during the cab rides, and then it would have gotten sandy at the beaches. But I COULD have taken it onto CC because Castaway has clean, paved sidewalks all the way to the end of the beaches. I could have strolled DS all the way from the ship to the restroom building near our beach spot, and parked it in the shade, and only had a couple of yards to walk to the water. It would have come in handy at the end of the day during the long walk back to the ship, when DS fell asleep as I carried all 37 pounds of him. DCL also has strollers at CC that you can borrow, but I didnt realize that until after lunch, when I figured it was too late. Oh, well, live and learn.
29) Dont bother to pack any beach towels. We were afraid wed need some, so I packed two. But since the ship loans you towels when you get off the ship at all the ports of call, not just Castaway, you really dont need to bring any. Just be sure to bring the ships towels back when you re-board!!
30) Once you board the ship, quickly locate the free soft drink station and the free soft-serve station on Deck 9, and use them lots. In fact, having a stateroom near the aft elevators is a good place to be for quick access to drinks and ice cream.
31) Dress up for pirate night. I bought the kids pirate costumes, and DH borrowed one. I wore regular clothes that had a piratey feel to them. It was so fun! There were lots of other pirates on the ship, some really elaborate costumes. They gave us pirate bandanas at dinner on Pirate Night, so to go with it, if nothing else, go to Walmart right now (I'm writing this on Halloween) and get pirate eye patches and earrings for $1. They sell those exact same eye patch/earring packages for $3 on the ship!
32) As for official excursions, we didnt go on any, and we dont feel like we missed out. You can do all the ports on your own, especially with the help of the DIS board and the PassPorters guide. The excursions have the benefit of all the details and the transportation being taken care of for you, but the down side is you are on their strict schedule, not your own, and they charge way too much.
33) Beaches on Grand Cayman: We went by cab to Sea Grape Beach Club on Seven Mile Beach, about 5 minutes from where the tender docks. I highly recommend it. All of the beaches on GC are great, with white sand as fine as brown sugar, and crystal clear blue water. Sea Grape is easy to get to. We got off the tender, walked up a ramp, and there were cab drivers everywhere, waiting for us. We picked a cab driver, and he took us and two other families to his cab, really a small bus. One of the other families wanted to go to the Royal Palms Beach Club, another club on Seven Mile Beach, and the other two of us wanted to go to Sea Grape. The cab driver told us it would be $4/person each way to Royal Palms, but $5/person for Sea Grape, since it is farther away. Once he had dropped the first family off at Royal Palms, he turned to us and said Youll like Sea Grape, not as crowded as Royal Palms! Sea Grape has chairs and umbrellas for rent, clean bathrooms, an outdoor shower, and a bar/restaurant with decent food. There are tents where you can rent snorkel equipment, and go parasailing, etc. They have some covered picnic areas where you can sit to eat, and a waitress serves you at your table. I think it was about $25 for two entrees (a cheeseburger and fries and chicken fingers, slaw, and fries) that we all split. I had brought water bottles in my bag. Sea Grape is part of Seven Mile Beach. All of Seven Mile Beach is public, and you can go to any part of it. The only differences are the availability of restrooms, restaurants, and rentals. Right next to Sea Grape is a place called Public Beach and we walked over there after lunch. It has a couple of covered picnic tables, and a restroom that I didnt check out. We liked the beach there because it had a flatter place to play in the waves. The hurricane last year really eroded a lot of Seven Mile Beach and made parts of it steeper than they used to be. Public Beach also has a playground near some trees, which DD and DH enjoyed while DS and I swam. If I had it to do over again, I would have packed enough towels to have some to sit on, and we would have skipped the chair rental, but done the rest the same way. The DCL excursion Seven Mile Beach Break is identical to what we did, but costs more. The excursion would have cost $36/adult and $26 per child (Total of $124), and all we paid was $5 per person for a cab each way, and $21 total for two beach chairs and an umbrella (Total of $61). The excursion gets you one free drink ticket, and so figure if that would be worth $3 per person, were still ahead by $50 for the exact same experience. We got there at about the same time as the excursion people, and left at about the same time. But while the excursion people were standing in a line for their bus to show up, we walked out to the street and immediately got in a cab and went back to the tender!
34) Beaches on Cozumel: We ALMOST went to Paradise Beach Club. At the last minute my SIL suggested Mr. Sanchos, so I looked it up on the web and it looked good. One review I read said it was where the locals like to go, and it had much smaller crowds. I had also been concerned about the iceberg and trampoline at Paradise. While these sound like a good idea, I knew my DD(5) and DS(3) would be too small to use them, and it would frustrate them to see these fun things and not get to use them. So we took a taxi for $15 each way, plus tip, and went to Mr. Sanchos, which is just past Paradise. It was great, and I recommend it. It is free to get in, and the chairs are free, and there are lots of picnic tables with umbrellas. The bathrooms are clean and nice. There are outside showers. We went after lunch, to avoid some of the brutal sun, so we sat on the beach and watched the sun set in front of us. When we got there, we walked down to the beach and turned LEFT, away from the other people. We sat very near the bathrooms, and there was only one other family on that left side of the bar. It was great! That whole row of beaches in Cozumel is man-made, so the sand is very coarse, not fine sugar-sand like at Grand Cayman or CC, but it was OK. We never did order any food, but it all looked good. We did order a bottle of water for $3.
Whew! I guess that's all. I hope this helps a few first time cruisers. I'll be sure to refer back to it myself before my family cruises again!