It’s been quite the year - and its only June - so to say that I was in need of a vacation was an understatement - sunshine, good food and relaxation with my family. A chance to bond and reconnect in a year that’s seen our first with a teenager in the house and our children’s tastes and interests becoming quite diverse.
Agreeing a holiday that would suit us all seemed half of the battle and we were really finding it difficult to find common ground. My seven-year-old twins wanted all of the fun of a theme park - Martha keen to break some kind of world record on how many roller-coaster rides she manages in a day - and Jude keen to add to his character autographs.
And then our teenagers wish list: keen to see Europe and some historical sites, but keen to avoid any hassle of travel that may come with it.
My partner and I were also about to hit the landmark of a 20th wedding anniversary - and whilst work really doesn’t allow much time for dreaming - if you’d asked me what the celebration might look like - I would have imagined a visit to somewhere beautiful, perhaps a good meal and some dancing. But ideally a little bit of quality time - just the two of us.
Reading back through it all, it sounds an impossible ask - and yet we did it and so much more.
If you have ever considered a Disney Cruise and imagined fast food on demand, lots of characters, ears, and those ‘Let it Go’ type anthemic songs on repeat - even piped into your cabin - then yes, you’d would be right! And yet, the surprise for us was the world of extra benefits we received - private adult only dining with a dedicated waited team, a stunning spa with incredible state of the art treatments, and the best gift of all - a happy teenager.
Our itinerary seemed ambitious - starting in Barcelona in Spain, we would head on to Ports of Call including: Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy, Livorno (Florence, Pisa), Italy, Cannes (Monte Carlo, Nice), France and Naples (Pompeii), Italy
The vacation also offered also two full days at sea to explore the ship, but with a rich array of Broadway style shows, restaurants, gymnasium, sports and lots of retail therapy - I wasn’t sure two days would be enough.
Pre -boarding problems…
It seems with our family holidays there always seems to be a sting in the tail, and we managed to get that out of the way almost immediately. On landing in Barcelona, as well as experiencing an uncomfortable hotel I sadly also had my handbag stolen. It left us more than little flustered and not really in the mood for exploring the city. I have since learnt that the hassle of booking flights, transfers and much more can be organised with the experts at Disney Cruise Line - and this would be my first learning from the trip. I would certainly hope for a much easier pre-passage to the next cruise by having a concierge service applied to all the pain points.
And away we go…
As soon as we arrived at the port on a glorious Spanish sunny day - we were directed to passport control, a document check (much of which my husband had completed in a pre-boarding app) and we were on our way.
We had been advised to ensure we had some hand luggage with swimwear and essentials as it can take a little time to access your cabin, and get your main bags delivered. This is brilliant advice - as after a welcome reception and some family pictures, we were soon on the sundeck with the children enjoying the Aqua-Duck - a water ride that brings a touch of theme park to the holiday - and sees you dashing around the length of the boat in an elevated clear tube. Jude insisted I tried this with him - and it was brilliant and a complete advantage point for so many brilliant sights across the trip - all-be-it at speed.
We enjoyed a fantastic show featuring Mickey, Minnie and all their friends when it came to the official voyage departure - the ’Sail Away Party’ - and there was just joy all around - families dancing together - and with the sun-beating down - it was truly a moment to treasure.
Multiple hot dogs & ice-creams later, with a Disney Cruise - all of your dining is part of your vacation price, so other than some optional VIP experiences, you have the relaxing feeling of an all-inclusive holiday - we were on our way to the room to have a petite siesta and get ready for dinner.
A room with a view..
The suite was well-laid out, with 3 beds for the children as a bunk-bed and single bed configuration - and a spacious double area for my husband and I which we could easily make a little more private with a pull-across curtain. The bathroom and separate WC had good lighting, a small tub and shower room. The Disney Dream did show its age a few times throughout the trip - one of these ’tells’ being the televisions in the room - which were incredibly small and quite often glitchy, ditto the telephones - both of which you will need more than perhaps you would think - despite the On-Board Ap which is meant to take you to all your essential information each day, and allow instant, free messaging between your crew. We did stretch the budget to a Veranda room - giving us much needed extra space, and the unexpected benefit of a beautiful vista - each day.
Sitting early in the morning and watching the sunrises with a coffee, of sitting quietly on an evening and listening to the waves whilst looking up at the twinkling stars were some of the very best views of the whole trip.
Dining with friends…
We had our own family table for each meal, with a serving team who ‘followed’ us to each restaurant every evening. This is a great concept allowing a much more personalised experience, with your servers getting to know you and your family and preferences you may have.
As someone with an allergy I was particularly enticed by this concept as the idea of not explaining my requirements each night felt to be a relief.
Your dining is pre located, and we selected Main Sitting - 6pm (as opposed to the Later Sitting of 8pm) which whilst ensuring our children managed to enjoy dinner and then a range of activities after the evening meal, it did sometimes feel that our days were cut a little shorter.
We met our serving team and whilst they were incredibly pleasant, it felt to me that they were stretched for time - and we did experience some bigger gaps between courses for some of the meals.
The restaurant design almost compensates however, as the Disney Dream offers three main sit-down evening dining experiences (as well as a host of other options - room service (included) quick service and of course the adult only restaurants (at a separate cost).
Animators is a beautiful, themed restaurant celebrating the very best of the artistry of Disney, and thanks to special lighting, sound and screens - the theme and activities change each night. The Enchanted Garden and the Royal Palace are slightly more formal in style and offer less in terms of entertainment and wow factor, but all restaurants offer the welcomed activity sheets and crayons each mealtime with quizzes, word-searches, and colouring.
Although the dress-code is Smart-Casual, there are formal nights on board - we had two on our sailing - and we enjoyed getting smartened up as a family and getting a family portrait with one of the official photographers before dinner.
The images taken by Disney photographers are available at a separate cost, but you are more than welcome to ask a crew member to take a picture with your own phone or camera.
Generally, the menu options were expansive - and offered a variety each evening - but the opportunity to switch out the very similar tasting & looking saccharin sweet desserts for some cheese, fruit and biscuits would have been much appreciated.
As someone who has experienced more than my fair share of ‘over promise’ from marketing spin - when I read there were Broadway-style shows aboard, I was more than a little sceptical.
There were 3 brilliant shows of excellent standard in the Walt Disney Theatre - The Golden Mickeys, Disney's Believe and an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast - and the musicality, skill, scenery, and environment just perfect (what is not to love about a plush, comfortable velvet seat and an at-seat service for drinks and popcorn?)
There was also additional entertainment onboard including a rotation of a pianist, violinist and a musical duo in a variety of lounges and in the atrium. For our family, this should have really added to the magic and wonder, but was often too clashing in sound, offered an eclectic soundtrack of song selections - and just didn’t really fit in with the Disney magic.
What did add magic for so many were the Character meet & greets - which were easy to locate, supported with a brilliant cast of colleagues who handled things like character switchovers very well with excited, young (and young-at-heart) fans.
The most important bit? A life in the Oceaneers Club!
If you have heard something about a Disney Cruise, you will have probably heard about the Children’s facilities aboard which carry some of the most impressive theming and run like clockwork.
Exclusive areas are available for guests from 3 upwards and this is included in your package price too.
There is also the Small World Nursery for ages 6 months to 3 years, but there are additional charges.
For kids, tweens, and teens - the club life is completely free - and our 3 children could not get enough.
Touring around the Oceaneer Lab which is for children from 3-12 - I must admit that I wanted to stay and play.
The different rooms and experiences are impressive, and that is enhanced by a team of child-care practitioners that genuinely seem to love what they do.
Our teenager found friends and fun at Edge (for ages 11 - 14) and there was also Vibe (ages 14-17). The security drop off and pick up procedure is reassuringly thorough - and our only difficulty was trying to get the children to leave! Meltdowns at checkout were a regular experience for many parents and guardians - not just for us - but the Disney colleagues were always quick to reassure that they could always return (right up until midnight)
With so much to do on-board, it is perhaps understandable that some passengers skip port-excursions all together - but we were keen to see the sights in France and Italy that we miss when we visit purely on a business basis.
We decided in the end to free-style at Port - although Disney offer an exceptional amount of excursion choices, for different budgets and length of time in port. There may be a few too many - as I did feel a little over-whelmed with the wealth of choice.
Having visited Spain, France and Italy before I know we had the advantage of understanding a lot more about the regions we were visiting than a lot of other passengers, and as a family of 5, it was affordable to book and enjoy some private tours of the places we wanted to visit, and at our pace.
We did hear from many fellow passengers who had really felt the benefit and knowledge of the organised tours and guides - and this is certainly something we will explore on the next cruise…
Spa and Therapy…
And whilst we did take advantage of visiting many of the ports offered, we had found getting our selected treatments and times at the spa a little tricky - so we gave ourselves a third day at sea by skipping the last port of Rome.
When I watched fellow passengers disembark - I must admit I felt I had made the wrong decisions - but easing into my full body, bamboo massage in a spa-suite with a floor to ceiling view of the sea, that thought soon melted away. The Spa Team headed by knowledgeable manager, Tiana, were an exceptional highlight to the cruise.
So, will there be a next time?
Absolutely! For our life-stage the Disney Cruise allowed us to all find a bit of the holiday to enjoy and make our own, and the ship is set up for so many different activities and preferences.
The Dream is certainly an older vessel - and it is easy to see how she is starting to show a maturity - but with this comes experience - and except for some dining delays, and general customer-service missed opportunities - the rest of the 7-night break did run like clockwork.
I had always been nervous of a holiday at sea - I felt that somehow, I would feel restricted or unable to enjoy the freedom I crave on vacation. Yet somehow - the Cruise gave me more freedom. We could easily visit ports and new destinations with no baggage (literally), we could see a show - and less than 5 minutes later be anywhere from eating room service, donned in our pyjamas watching the night sky from our Veranda, or head out for more fun and adventure aboard.
The biggest learning from me is to be much more researched on the layout of the ship, it's amenities and therefore to really make the most of our time from the moment we are aboard.
And to that end, I hope this might help you as a first-time cruiser… perhaps see you aboard!