When my mom (super generously) invited my little family on a Disney cruise to celebrate her 60th birthday, my first thought was excitement (of course!) and my second? Absolute dread. My daughter was only 18 months at the time, but would be freshly 2 years old on the trip. How would I survive a Disney cruise with a toddler? And not just survive, but thrive and have the time of our lives? How would it go, flying across the country, then in a small shared stateroom on a ship for seven nights? How would she sleep? Would she become so overstimulated that she would throw nonstop tantrums? This would be our first vacation since she was born, and I had no idea what to expect.
Ever the researcher, I took to the blog circuit and combed through posts about cruising with a toddler. They were so helpful, and then I learned so much on my own cruise that I thought I’d share with you! We cruised on the Disney Fantasy in January through the Western Caribbean, with a stop at Disney’s island, Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas.
Read on for more tips on loving your Disney cruise with a toddler!
What and How to Pack for a Disney Cruise with Your Toddler
- Car seat/Stroller: If you are just going on the cruise (not doing the Disney parks before or after your cruise), I highly recommend NOT bringing a stroller or car seat. As wonderfully thought out and beautifully appointed as the staterooms are, they do not have extra space for a giant carseat or stroller or both. You can always borrow a stroller from Guest Services (seriously go to Guest Services with any needs…they are so helpful!), and I’m pretty sure you can even take the stroller off the ship at your port. Toddlers are notorious for wanting to walk when it’s inconvenient and wanting to be carried when it’s the worst time/your arms are tired/you’re already carrying a lot of stuff. We figured even if we had a stroller, our girl would usually refuse to ride in it. So my arms just got a good workout through the airports. 🙂
- Diapers: We sent a box of diapers through Amazon Prime to our friend’s house in Florida, since we were staying there the night before the ship debarked. You can actually send diapers/wipes, etc., to the ship (well, to a warehouse and they deliver it to your stateroom on the first day), but in my research it just felt too dicey and complicated, and I didn’t want to be stuck buying diapers at a premium on the ship. If you’re staying in a Disney hotel before your cruise, shipping diapers and wipes to the hotel is pretty straightforward.
- Sand toys: Pick some up at the dollar store or bring your own, just so you’re not stuck buying a $15 sand bucket at Castaway Cay.
- Themed clothing: Our cruise had a Star Wars day and a pirate night, and I packed a borrowed pirate costume for our 2-year-old and figured I would just wear my black and white striped dress that day. They provide pirate bandanas that day, so we used those, too. A lot of people, especially kids, go all out, and it’s really fun to be part of it! For Star Wars day, since we’re not huge Star Wars fans, I simply bought a couple of cheap Star Wars-themed t-shirts from Target for myself and my husband, and my sister gifted a Star Wars leotard dress to my daughter, so she matched her cousins. 🙂
- A note on laundry: I packed with the idea that we’d probably need to do laundry once during our 7-night cruise, because our daughter destroys outfits every time she eats, so I knew we’d have many changes throughout the day. The laundry room on our deck was just a couple doors down from our stateroom, so that made it convenient, but I had trouble with the washer…it didn’t drain my clothes so they were sopping wet when they went in the dryer, and then it ended up taking 3 or 4 dry cycles to get them dry! I did go to Guest Services to tell them about it and they refunded all the charges except one wash and one dry cycle, which was nice because I think it was maybe $2 each. There is laundry detergent for sale inside the laundry room as well.
Disney Cruise Hacks
- Eat breakfast in the restaurant! Ask about the main dining rooms’ breakfast hours. Compared to the feeding frenzy and chaos in Cabanas, breakfast in the restaurant feels luxurious. There’s not a huge menu, but you get to relax and have everything brought to you instead of trying to drag your toddler around while you simultaneously fill plates and look for a table in the crowded cafeteria.
- Be sure to sign up for character meet and greets online ahead of time when possible. They book up really fast. Otherwise be aware of character appearances on your navigator app and show up 15 min early if you don’t want to have to deal with huge lines.
- Make sure your server knows what a monster your kids are the first night, so they bring the kids’ food out ASAP. This was a life saver for our group with five kids 5 and under. Related: Be OK with mac and cheese and Mickey ice cream bars every single night. It’s vacation!
- Bring BIG water bottles and fill them up whenever you think of it, since the only beverage stations are in Cabanas or on the pool deck. Otherwise you’ll end up drinking bathroom sink water (which is fine, btw).
- If you’re from the West Coast, like us, try and keep your kids on West Coast time. Our daughter has an early 7 p.m. bedtime at home, so this way we were able to put her to bed around 9 or 9:30 and get to enjoy the ship’s activities longer, and have a later, more relaxed morning, as well.
- You can request a Pack and Play or a bed rail for your child. We requested a Pack and Play at first since our 2-year-old sleeps in a crib at home, but it took up SO much room that we immediately switched our request to a bed rail, which our room host quickly and graciously accommodated. Since the bed our daughter used was actually the couch folded out, it already kind of felt enclosed like a bunk bed or crib, so it worked super well for us (until she slid out and shuffled over to our bed in our sleep sack every morning and said, “I’m awake,” until we woke up…)
- If you’re the type to sneak alcohol onto a cruise ship, pack your vodka in water bottles in your suitcase, and enjoy with icy cold ginger ale from the pool deck’s drink stations. 🙂
- If you don’t have to, don’t eat in the restaurant every night. It’s a bit of a circus, and you can easily grab pizza or chicken fingers at the pool deck and eat under the stars some nights.
- If your child’s nursery hours go right up till dinner, bring their dress/change of clothes to the nursery. We changed our daughter into her dress right there in the nursery lobby, gave her a lollipop, and hung out in the atrium until all our family met up for dinner. This was so much more relaxing than having her do another two transitions by schlepping back to the room to change, then back out again for dinner.
- Take some time to do SLOW toddler activities Andy’s Room is great for this! They have “toddler time” every day where little kids and babies can play in there. Also mini golf course up on the tippy top deck. Also craft times are offered at random times, including at night. This was night after we had to leave the aladdin show cause it was too scary. Check your navigator app for times.
- This isn’t really a hack, but just some advice from me to you: don’t sweat tantrums from your toddler. EVERYONE understands, including the crew. They all helped diffuse/entertain at some point!
- Make a reservation for dinner at Palo! My husband and I had such a fun “date” there while our daughter hung out with her grandma. The service is kind of over the top, which is fun, and the food is definitely the best you’ll have on the ship (well, I haven’t tried Remy, but I personally prefer Italian food over French). It was so relaxing to have a kid-free meal.
- Dance parties with the Disney characters were THE highlight of our cruise! Where else do you get a chance to both burn toddler energy and let said energetic toddler have organic, fun interactions with characters? Our daughter hugged Daisy Duck and danced with Goofy. The videos are priceless.
- The Small World Nursery was a godsend. At first I was bummed that my daughter wasn’t old enough for the free child care on the ship (Oceaneers Club; kids have to be at least 3 years old). But the nursery is only $9 an hour, and it’s much calmer than the big kids club. I think it was a nice break for my daughter to have toddler-paced activities and a lot of personal attention from people who are paid to be nice to toddlers. 🙂 They do watch movies, though, so be aware of that. Also, if your kid is there at meal times they will feed them (kid food like string cheese and crackers), and if you need your child to take a nap there’s a separate room with cribs for sleeping.
- Deck parties! We loved the Sail Away deck party on the first day with a fun, high-energy show with Micky, Minnie, and the rest. Also, the early pirate show/deck party was so fun and interactive, with an appearance from Captain Hook and Mickey teaching us all how to be pirates. Later, after dinner there was another pirate show, which was more intense and scary with “real pirates” taking over the ship. Afterward, though, there was an amazing fireworks display and a super fun dance party!
- Movies! There are movies playing at all hours of the day and night, it seems, and some of them are new releases. This is a great activity for one parent to do during naptime while the other parent holds down the fort in the stateroom. I got to watch Coco by myself at 1 in the afternoon and it felt like such a luxury!
- ME TIME is probably my biggest can’t-miss item on the Disney cruise. I mean, why else go on a vacation where there’s built-in child care (even if you do have to pay for it)? My absolute favorite place for this was the adult pool deck. Once you go past the ice cream station or the Flo’s Cafe area on the regular pool deck, you’ll find a partition that separates the adult zone from the riff raff outside. The second I’d walk beyond the partition, it was instantly quieter and more relaxing. There’s a huge jacuzzi up against floor-to-ceiling windows, a coffee bar that made a decent iced Americano, and a couple of bars, as well. Lounge chairs were hard to come by in this area of the adult pool deck, but if you go one deck up (to the other bar), you can go all the way to the front of the ship and there are chairs galore, as well as another little cool-off pool. I spent blissful hours drinking iced coffee in the jacuzzi or a fruity cocktail on the deck looking out at the ocean.
- The Disney Junior character breakfast was only so-so for us, but my daughter only watches Doc McStuffins, so if your kid is super into Sofia or Jake the Pirate, it might be worth it? It was just a weird experience; you stay at your tables and the characters come around at record pace while you eat a really subpar breakfast.
- The Castaway Cay 5k run sounded so fun in theory–it’s exercise on an island! You get to leave the ship earlier than everyone else! But really, it was more waiting in lines (to check in, then to start the “race”) and this was the last full day of our cruise, so I was pretty done with lines! Also, we ended up getting off the ship at the same time as everyone else, so really we just got to the beach later than everyone. Also, it’s pretty hard to meet up with the rest of your party afterward. All in all, I’m glad I did it because my mom wanted to do a 5k for her 60th birthday and I had some good quality time with her and my sister, but I wouldn’t do it again.
- Internet on the ship is super expensive, so just save your photos for a nice social media photo dump when you get off the ship. I hate to admit it, but I felt pretty itchy the first day without my phone’s constant stimulation and entertainment feeds, but it ended up being wonderful to unplug. I did buy the smallest data package, in a moment of weakness in the middle of the trip, but then I squandered it all accidentally by checking my email. C’est la vie. On that note, download shows/movies if you want to watch anything on your tablet or laptop while your child sleeps in the next “room,” where the TV happens to be (that privacy curtain is actually really nice!).
Adjust Your Expectations
- Pool Time – unfortunately, pool time was not what I hoped it would be on this cruise. I’d imagined a ton of time spent swimming as a family, but the pool deck was so crowded that it just felt chaotic with a toddler. Also, if your toddler isn’t potty trained, he or she is not allowed in any of the pools; just the Nemo’s Reef splash pad. However there is a “kid jacuzzi” off to the side of the pool deck (see photo) that was basically one foot deep and the temperature of bathwater. It was fun to hang out there and look out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the ocean!
- On a related note, the Nemo’s Reef splash pad – I had high hopes for this splash pad going into the cruise, knowing that it was the only place my daughter was allowed since she’s not potty trained. However, she was NOT into it. It’s enclosed, which makes it super echo-y and loud. It was also pretty cold and crowded! Just know if you go in there with your child, you will get wet!
- Food – Let’s be honest, you don’t go on a Disney cruise for the food. Everything in the restaurants and in Cabanas was pretty much the quality of a chain family restaurant (think Applebee’s or something). It was all fine. I do remember a good beef wellington at Animator’s Palate, but otherwise I started to just rely on a Caesar salad most nights. On the pool deck there’s some quick-serve stations for pizza, chicken tenders, fries, and burgers. The chicken tenders are yummy, but the most overlooked station there was the furthest on the right, where they served Greek salad and tuna salad wraps, along with assorted fresh fruits. I loved getting a Greek wrap and some fruit to take with me to my me time on the adult pool deck.
- Shows – the shows were fantastic, as can be expected on a Disney cruise, but they were pretty intense. We brought our 2-year-old to Aladdin on the first night and she was totally scared just by the intense music of the opening scene. You’ll obviously know your child and what they can handle, but shows were a no go for us after that. My husband and I switched off seeing the other ones with the rest of our group, though, and had a great time!
- Star Wars Day at Sea – this was surely a highlight for a lot of passengers, but it was overwhelming to me since I’m not a Star Wars fan. There’s Star Wars music piped in all day, Storm Troopers marching around everywhere, and BB-8 races in the atrium. There was also a dance party in the atrium that looked super fun, but it was too late for us to stop. Also: kids with light sabers EVERYWHERE. All that to say, maybe be prepared to be a little overwhelmed if you’re easily overstimulated like me! I definitely escaped to the adult pool as soon as I could on this day.
- We stopped at three different islands: St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Disney’s Castaway Cay. We did not get off the ship in St. Maarten, and I’m glad for that! It was nice to take advantage of an uncrowded ship for once.
- At St. Thomas, we took a taxi van to a beach I’d heard about from other passengers. It was really beautiful and just fun to be on land for a while. My toddler had so much fun playing in the sand––her grandpa called it “toddler therapy” after all of the overstimulation on the ship! Everything was expensive on the beach, from chair rentals to beers, so be aware of that.
- Castaway Cay is definitely worth getting off the ship for! It’s basically as if Disneyland built an island. There’s fun characters walking around, everything is super clean and well thought out. There are two family beaches and one adult beach. The two family beaches are almost identical, and have identical bbq places for lunch.
- Perfect for toddlers, there is a little splash pad tucked away, a little inland from the first family beach. While my toddler didn’t love the Nemo’s Reef splash pad on the ship, she LOVED this one! Maybe because it was in the open air and sunshine, so it wasn’t as cold and not nearly as loud as Nemo’s. We had so much fun here before we hopped on the tram to take us back to the ship for naptime.
There you have it! Everything I learned from a 7-night cruise on the Disney Fantasy with my toddler. Have you been on a Disney cruise with toddlers or young children? What did you learn? What were your hacks? What would be on your can’t miss/don’t bother lists? Feel free to ask any questions in the comments!