Archive for July, 2011

Disney Dream, April 2011: Embarkation Day (Part 4: Kids’ Clubs and Dinner)

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Kids’ Club Registration and Open House

Oceaneer's Lab
Oceaneer’s Lab

Registration and an open house was held at the kids’ clubs (Oceaneer’s Club and Oceaneer’s Lab) until 6pm on embarkation day. The time between the sail away and our 6pm dinner seemed like a perfect time for it. Our decision not to wait in the long line for kids’ club registration in the terminal was quickly validated as there was no line at all for registration at this time.

We had already filled out the registration form online, so the actual registration really only involved the issuing of the wrist band. Each registered child is issued a wrist band with his/her name on it and a small electronic chip that is scanned to confirm identity upon arrival or departure from the club. The wristband must be returned before midnight on the last night of the cruise or a charge is issued to the stateroom account to cover the cost of the electronic device.

The wristband is the kind that can only be removed by cutting it off, so the child does have to wear it through the entire cruise. They mentioned that it could easily be replaced if it did become necessary to remove it, such as if the child had trouble sleeping with it on. It is waterproof so it is no problem to keep it on while swimming or showering. We were a little worried that our son would be bothered about having to wear it the whole time, but it wasn’t an issue at all.

Oceaneer's Club Interactive Play Floor
Interactive Play Floor

The kids’ clubs are drop-off, allowing kids and parents to have some independence. The entry/exit is strictly controlled and a lot of effort is made to ensure kids only leave with authorized adults. At registration, parents provide a list of authorized adults as well as a password. When picking up a kid, the attendants scan the Key to the World card to confirm identity and also ask for the password.

When their child is in the club, parents are asked to carry a Wave Phone for emergency contact. They will also send a text message if the child asks to be picked up. If the parents will be somewhere like Palo or one of the shows, they can request that the attendants contact only in an emergency.

Although they will allow parents to accompany their children into the club, it is generally discouraged outside of a few designated family play times. The embarkation day open house was one of those times. After registration, my wife and I went in with our son to do some exploration.. It was comforting to have the opportunity to get a feel for the facility before we would later leave our son there while we went off to do other things.

Monster's Inc. themed play area
Monsters Inc. themed play area

The kids’ club is split into two different facilities, although both are connected and the kids are able to move freely between them. The Oceaneer’s Club is largely play-based, with several character-themed activity areas. The Oceaneer’s Lab is more activity-based, with a focus on high-interactivity. While both areas are officially targeted at ages 3-10, the Oceaneer’s Club tends to focus more on the younger end of that range while the Oceaneer’s Lab has a bit more to offer for older kids.

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Disney Dream, April 2011: Embarkation Day (Part 3: Swimming/AquaDuck, Safety Drill, & Sail-away)

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Swimming and AquaDuck

AquaDuck at nightNight-time view of the AquaDuck.  Somehow, I never took any daylight photos.

One useful tip that I picked up while researching for the trip was to pack swim clothes in a carry-on as the pools tend to be pretty uncrowded during embarkation afternoon. Checked luggage can arrive any time up to around 6pm (our bags arrived one at a time over several hours), so having swimming items in carry-ons is a necessity to take advantage of those relatively sparse crowds.

The Dream has three swimming pools: the Mickey pool for smaller children, the Donald pool for families and the adults-only Quiet Cove Pool. None of the pools are particularly deep, with the Mickey pool maxing out at 2 feet, the Donald pool at 4 feet and the Quiet Cove pool at 4 feet. Unusual for a cruise ship, the pools on the Dream (like the pools on the other Disney ships) use chlorinated fresh water instead of sea water.

One of the most talked about new features of the Dream is the AquaDuck, a 765-foot tube-style water slide that starts on deck 12 and twists and turns around the upper decks of the ship, including a section that extends over the side of the ship. Guests ride on oversized inflatable rafts which each hold one or two people. It is billed by Disney as a “water coaster” and does have a roller-coaster like feel.

Close-up of AquaDuck tube
Night-time close up of one of the tubes. The ride was closed when these were taken.

I was excited to ride the AquaDuck, but my son, who is not yet a strong swimmer, wasn’t feeling ready for it. My wife also wanted me to try it first so I could describe it to her in order to help her guess whether or not it would aggravate her back condition. Therefore, I left them in the Mickey pool and headed over to queue for the ride.

The wait time was posted as about 30 minutes, which was pretty much the shortest posted wait that I saw during our cruise. I found that estimate to be pretty much exactly right. A large part of the queue is outdoors and mostly un-shaded, so make sure to wear sunscreen. I’d also strongly recommend getting some water shoes of some sort. I didn’t think to do that and found that the surface was uncomfortably hot on my bare feet during parts of the queue.

The last 10 minutes or so of the wait is an indoor area leading up to the loading platform. This indoor area has some cute cartoons on the wall featuring Donald Duck, Hewey, Dewey & Louie, and Uncle Scrooge. These provide a lightweight story that gives the ride a bit of theming. The layout of the cartoons was a bit strange, though, in that I found myself essentially following the story backwards.

The rafts are brought up from the ride exit to the loading area using a mechanical conveyer system. A ride operator transfers the rafts from that conveyer to the slide entry way and then helps the passengers get on board. The entry way to the slide also uses a conveyer belt, activated manually by the ride operator, to launch the raft into the slide itself.

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Disney Dream, April 2011: Embarkation Day (Part 2: Lunch, Making Palo Reservations & Stateroom)

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Lunch at Enchanted Garden

Enchanted Garden

A number of crew members were stationed in the lobby with the task of intercepting and guiding embarking passengers. Our helpful crew member made sure we knew that our stateroom would be ready at 1:30 and that lunch was available at either Enchanted Garden on deck 2 or Cabanas on deck 10. She recommended Enchanted Garden since it only required walking down 1 flight of stairs and there were long lines for the elevators. We debated briefly as we were also scheduled for dinner at Enchanted Garden that night, but we ended up taking her advice.

The decor of Enchanted Garden is pretty much as the name implies. It is a brightly lit, elegant dining room with lots of greenery. During the dinner hour, there is a show element where the decor shifts from day to night during the meal, but this isn’t done at lunch. Like all of the restaurants on the Dream, the tables are positioned pretty close together, making for kind of a crowded look. Fortunately, the combination of bright lighting and color schemes as well as reasonably high ceilings keep the restaurant from feeling claustrophobic.

Upon entering the very uncrowded restaurant, we were immediately greeted by one of several crew members waiting by the entrance who escorted us to a table close to the buffet. A waiter took our drink orders and then we headed to the buffet to get our food. Since we had all of our carry-on bags with us (including laptop computers), we were glad to have a table very close to the buffet as this allowed us all to go get our food without requiring that someone stay behind to watch the bags.

The buffet included a carving station with roast beef as well as some of the typical side dishes to go with it. They also had salads & fruit, cold cuts and cheeses, a number of different varieties of bread, peel & eat shrimp, and some pasta and fish dishes. A well-stocked dessert area offered lots of different selections of various baked goods (cakes, cookies, etc.) and a freezer with quite a few different flavors of premium-quality ice cream.

The food all seemed very fresh and we enjoyed everything we had. The servers were very attentive and quick with drink refills. From what I’ve heard, the food selection is pretty much the same at Cabanas, but with a self-service drink station. I felt having servers take care of drinks was preferable, particularly for the first meal of the cruise. One of the servers even took a couple minutes to fold a napkin into a hat, which greatly amused my son.

Making Palo Brunch Reservations

One of the highlights of our previous cruises was the brunch offered on days at sea at Palo, the adults-only restaurant. A limited number of reservations are available on-line, but they were already full (probably due to earlier booking dates for concierge and high-level Castaway Club guests) by the time we were able to book. Through research, I had learned that a large percentage of reservations are held back for guests booking on board. They started offering these reservations at the podium outside of the restaurant, starting at 1pm on embarkation day. It was shortly after 1pm when I finished eating lunch, so we decided that I would head up to Palo to try and make a reservation and then meet my wife and son back at the stateroom at 1:30, the time the staterooms were scheduled to be available.

My journey to the restaurant was my first experience with how large the ship is and how difficult it sometimes was to get from one place to another. Enchanted Garden is located midship on deck 2 while Palo is located far aft on deck 12. I first headed to the midship elevators, which I discovered only go as high as deck 11. I later learned that 4 of the 6 elevators did go all the way up to deck 12, but I got into one of the two that doesn’t. I’m not sure if there were signs up clarifying this, but I didn’t notice any. Once I got up to deck 11, I had some difficulty finding the aft elevators and stairs. It turns out that they are, rather confusingly, actually inside of Cabanas. I had to ask a crew member for directions before I finally figured that out. After I found the stairs, I walked up one deck and easily found Palo right there.

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Disney Dream, April 2011: Embarkation Day (Part 1: Arrival and Boarding)

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Note: I have decided to split each day of the trip report into multiple parts as the posts were getting overly long.

Observation deck at the Disney Cruise Line Terminal
Observation deck at the Disney Cruise Line Terminal

I was a bit nervous about the logistics surrounding embarkation on the Disney Dream.   The Disney Cruise Line had traditionally been known for a very smooth embarkation process at Port Canaveral, but the terminal was designed for the substantially smaller Disney Magic and Disney Wonder and there had been quite a few reports of problems handling the larger crowds arriving for the Dream.

For our previous cruises, we had arrived at the terminal via Walt Disney World transportation, which got us there late enough that we immediately went on board after checking in.  This time, we had rented a car and planned to arrive at the terminal as early as possible, so I wasn’t really sure how it would work.  Fortunately, we found that the embarkation process went very smoothly and with a minimum of hassle.

On Sunday morning, we managed to wake up fairly early and it didn’t take too long to get showers and pack everything up.  We had a light breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet.  Holiday Inn Express has pretty much standardized their included breakfasts from location to location, meaning that the quality and selection is predictable and fairly decent.  I particularly like their cinnamon rolls, which are served warm and fresh.  My only real complaint about breakfast was that they didn’t have enough seating in the breakfast area, something else that is unfortunately fairly standard to the chain.  We had to squeeze all three of us around a table for two, but we were able to manage.

Rental Car Return

I was very unsure about was whether it would be better to drop my family and our luggage off at the port and then go to return the rental car by myself or for us all to just take the shuttle.  We finally decided that the logistics would simply be easier if we all took the shuttle, so we headed straight to the rental car return.

We found Budget’s return process at the Port Canaveral office to be chaotic and a bit confusing.  We initially expected someone to come out to meet us to check in the car, as is typical at airport returns, so we wasted a few minutes waiting for that.  Once we realized that wasn’t the process there, I noted that the paperwork had instructions for doing an express check-out by filling out a form and dropping it in a drop box.

When I went inside, there was no drop box in sight.  This left no choice but to get into the line, which was very long due to the large number of people returning from cruise ships that had arrived in port that morning.   Fortunately, we didn’t wait too long before an employee walked the line offering to collect express check-out forms.  While the process wasn’t exceptionally difficult, they definitely should put in a drop box and also place some signs outside giving instructions for returns.

The wait for a shuttle bus was, fortunately, short and we were soon on our way to the Disney Cruise Line terminal!

Arrival and Check-In

Disney Dream from the rental car shuttle
Disney Dream from the rental car shuttle

We arrived shortly before 10:30am, which was the time that the terminal opened.  The shuttle pulled up at a drop-off spot outside the terminal and a cruise line porter quickly collected our checked luggage.  We then joined the line of people waiting to go in, which ended pretty much right where we had been dropped off.

It took us about 20 minutes to make it up to a security gate, where they checked our cruise documents and IDs before directing us into the terminal.  Inside the terminal, we then passed through airport-style metal detectors and sent our carry-on bags through an x-ray machine.  This process was very quick and efficient and we were soon headed up the escalators to the main terminal area.  We then were asked to quickly sign a form stating that nobody in our family had been sick in the last 24-hours and then we were directed to the check-in line.

Disney Cruise Line Terminal
Disney Cruise Line Terminal

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Disney Dream, April 2011: Introduction and Travel Day

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Disney Dream

For our honeymoon in 2000, my wife and I went on a 7-night Caribbean cruise on the Disney Magic cruise ship.  In 2007, my extended family (including my wife, son, and my parents and sister) took a 4-night Bahamas cruise on the Disney Wonder.   Both trips were great fun and made us into big fans of the Disney Cruise Line.

When Disney announced that the Disney Dream, the first of  two new, larger and more advanced ships, would debut in 2011, we booked another 4-night cruise as soon as they became available.  While the maiden voyage was in late January, my son’s school schedule meant that the April 17th sail date, during his spring break, was our first opportunity.  I was able to book a family stateroom with verandah on deck 7, using points from our Disney Vacation Club timeshare to cover the cost.  The itinerary was the same as our 2007 cruise, with stops at Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, plus one day at sea.  The extended family was unfortunately unable to join us this time, so it was just my wife, 7-year-old son and me.

Flight

Due to the travel time (plus the 3-hour time change) from our home in Southern California to Port Canaveral in Florida, it was necessary for us to fly in the day before the cruise.  Since we have family in the Orlando area, we generally do annual trips out there.  For the last several years, we have been traveling on Delta, which has conveniently scheduled direct flights from LAX to Orlando International.  This year, we also had enough frequent flier points to get one of the tickets for free, reducing the cost by quite a bit.

Our experience with Delta wasn’t really the best this time and I expect that I’ll be looking closely at alternatives for the next trip.  The biggest issue was that they lost all of our luggage on the flight home and then took nearly 24-hours to get it to us.  I’m just thankful that this happened on the return flight.  It could have been a massive problem had they lost it on the flight to Florida instead.

Delta has also been slow to upgrade their planes to the latest conveniences.  Neither the flight to Florida or the flight home offered seat-back entertainment systems or, for that matter, any in-flight entertainment at all.  There wasn’t even a movie.  While the planes did have wi-fi Internet connectivity available, the seats are so closely spaced that we didn’t even bother to try using our laptops in.  They also don’t offer any power at the seats for charging batteries.  These types of improvements are pretty much standard on newer airlines like Virgin America and Jet Blue.

Finally, Delta just isn’t all that competitive in price anymore.  In the past, I have often found them to be the cheapest choice or only marginally more expensive than non-direct flights on other airlines.  Delta’s prices have gotten higher, plus they now charge extra for all checked luggage and any food items more substantial than peanuts or pretzels.  When I did price comparisons for this trip, I found that even with the one frequent flier reward ticket, the airfare for the three of us was only slightly cheaper than some of the more bargain priced airlines, particularly Southwest.

The night before our 2007 cruise, we stayed at a Walt Disney World resort (Saratoga Springs) and then took Disney transportation to the port.  We found that to be a somewhat frustrating experience, as the bus didn’t get us to the port until around 2:30 in the afternoon.  My parents and sister had driven themselves to the port, which resulted in us getting phone messages that they were having a leisurely lunch on the ship while we were still sitting in front of the hotel waiting for the bus.  We hated losing out on those first couple hours when we could have been onboard the ship.

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