As a luxury travel writer, I have one of the greatest jobs on the planet—but now that I have a three year old, I’m much pickier about the trips I accept. One invite that’s always been on my “Nope” list? A cruise.
In my snobby, first-class-loving mind, the world was previously divided into two camps: cruise-lovers, and those who wouldn’t be caught dead on a floating hotel, with its crowds, mediocre food, tiny rooms, and germ petri-dish spaces.
But then I got invited to sail the eastern Caribbean on Disney’s newest ship, the Disney Fantasy. And, for once, I was conflicted: You see, we’re a family of Disney devotees. (Exhibits A & B: my daughter knows all the songs in the sequels to Mulan and Pocahontas.) Against all odds, we loved Disney’s version of a Hawaiian paradise Aulani — and I’d heard whispers that Disney cruises were actually… charming.
But…but…it’s a cruise, I thought. How could we not hate it?
I crossed my fingers, stepped aboard, and disembarked seven days later not only hopelessly in love with Disney cruising but already planning my family’s next voyage with Mickey and Co. (Northern Europe, 2019!) So here's a luxury travel writer's Disney secrets: My fears were unfounded and I learned Disney cruises are not only amazing but also surprisingly high-end — yes, even for snobby ol' me.
My family on the ship
When you’re used to first-class travel (literally and figuratively), the idea of being one among many is nerve wracking. I needn’t have worried. Disney offers Concierge Level, with scads of over-the-top amenities.
Not only do Concierge guests have priority boarding — with their own lounge and dedicated check-in, naturally — but they also enjoy 24/7 concierge, a private sundeck and lounge with complimentary alcohol, advanced reservations for adult-only restaurants, offboard port adventure excursions and Princess meet-and-greets, and perks like in-room breakfast and leisurely disembarkment on the final day.
The rooms and suites themselves are also gorgeous and roomy, with wood paneling, soaking tubs and showers featuring Elemis products, heavenly beds with Frette sheets, and spacious verandahs.
I was especially apprehensive about the food. After all, cruise food is known to be horrible, right? Not so onboard the Disney Fantasy, where — in addition to three themed restaurants named Enchanted Garden, Royal Court, and Animator’s Palate, plus surprisingly yummy fast-food fare like burgers and a kid-friendly ice cream parlor — there are two adults-only fine dining restaurants.
As I later explained to friends, both Remy and Palo weren’t just good-for-cruise-ship food, but genuinely great food, period. Italian spot Palo features a brunch with deliciousness like caviar, lobster salad, artichoke ravioli, and cult-fave grape and gorgonzola pizza, while Remy’s gorgeously plated offerings include Australian Wagyu, Alaskan king crab, smoked bison, and young pigeon pie with foie gras.
Remy boasts serious chef pedigree, too: The French restaurant’s two chefs Arnauld Lallement and Scott Hunnell have done respective stints at the three-Michelin-starred l’Assiette Champenoise outside Paris and Florida’s best restaurant, the AAA Five Diamond, Forbes Five-Star Victoria & Albert’s. Oh — and that epic wine list. (1947 bottle of Château Cheval Blanc, anyone?) Oui, oui.
With the exception of the Sail Away party, when most of the ship’s guests gather on the pool deck, or Pirate Night, a fun thematic evening featuring a stage show and fireworks, the ship genuinely felt half-empty most of the time. That’s the advantage of having a 13-deck ship with so much varied programming — everybody is spread out, with no single area ever too crowded.
As a germaphobe, I was impressed by the pains Disney takes to keep their ships clean. At the restaurant’s buffet, Cabanas, there are four hand-washing stations positioned outside the entrance, with friendly servers gently reminding people to wash up before entering, while a row of servers wait outside the rotational dining rooms at night to hand out sanitizing wipes pre-dinner.
And in the awesome kids club (more about that in a second), there are automatic hand-washing stations for the kiddos that I heard somebody aptly refer to as “dishwashers for little hands.” We left the ship mercifully cold free.
Awesome Kids' Club
Unsurprisingly for a company known to be all about the celebration of childhood, Disney cruise kids’ clubs are incredible. They have childcare divided up by age groups, with the It’s a Small World nursery for infants and toddlers, the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab for kids 3 to 12, Edge for pre-teens 11 to 14, and Vibe for those 14 to 17.
Each area offers options that might appeal equally to boys and girls — the Oceaneer Club had dance-parties with Princess Tiana and a “Pixie Hollow” fairy-land, as well as sections devoted to Marvel Superheros and Star Wars. The clubs are open 16 hours per day, with Pentagon-level security, and two counselors per area (there are a lot of areas). They’ll even pick up and drop off your kids from dinner.
As a parent-slash-travel writer, I’m used to traveling with my mini-me. What I’m not used to is being able to leave her for hours at a time so I can go enjoy a massage or brunch solo with my husband. On the ship, we were able to do just that: our daughter quickly found a friend, did crafts, wore princess dresses, had a dance party, and watched movies. Each time we picked her up, she asked when she could return. Vacation jackpot.
Obviously, it goes without saying there are millions of things for kids to do onboard. But my husband and I were shocked by how many adult offerings left us delighted.
One day, I spent nearly two hours in the huge spa, enjoying the hammam, aromatherapy showers, ocean-view jacuzzi, and infrared loungers in the Rainforest Room. Another evening, we stopped by the Tiffany boutique for an invited glass of champagne before moving onto our eight-course, three-hour Remy dinner. We saw Coco and a Broadway-style version of Aladdin. And my husband nearly cried happy tears when he found out the ship was premiering Avengers: Infinity War onboard at the same time as back on land.
Meanwhile, a large chunk of the fourth floor is devoted to the Europa nightclub section, featuring five bars and clubs: an Irish pub, Italian carousel-themed bar, French champagne bar, British-style bar and nightclub, and a beautiful lounge with virtual views of cities including St. Petersburg, Budapest, and Paris.
Private Bahamas Island
What could be more baller than spending the day on a private island in the Bahamas? Castaway Cay is Disney’s little slice of paradise, only open to one Disney ship at a time, so it doesn’t feel crowded.
The island was clean but didn’t feel artificial. I wished we could have stayed there overnight to take full advantage of the activities like fishing, waterslides, and parasailing. (And apparently, you can! On certain itineraries, they visit twice.)
There’s also a full kids club, plus 21 secluded private cabanas on the far side of the island with amenities like showers, hammocks, snorkel equipment, and private changing areas.
Memories to Last a Lifetime
If you’re a believer in Disney magic, the Disney Fantasy offers it in spades. From the moment we walked on the ship and they announced our name (The Courtney Family!) to rows of applauding staff, our “Is this going to be horrible?” resistance melted away.
If you want to sleep in late, order too many Mickey Bars from room service, eat multiple Dole Whips by the pool (in a row!), have a dance party in the atrium, watch Disney movies on-demand, or sing "When You Wish Upon a Star" in the bathroom with your preschooler (Disney music is playing 24/7, obviously) — it’s all there for your inner kid.
It’s hard to choose a favorite memory, but it would probably be the second to last night, when we took our daughter to the kiddie pool. Toy Story 3 was playing on the FunnelVision jumbo screen, and as we alternately took turns laughing with her in the pool, riding the Aqua Duck water slide — lit up against the night sky, thrillingly circling the perimeter of the ship — and tearing up over Andy saying goodbye to his childhood, it felt like the most perfect version of a family vacation possible.
Disney, you win. I’m sold — hook, line, and sinker.
Ship photos: Nadine Jolie Courtney
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