Eating is everything on a cruise. You will eat every hour on the hour. OK, not really, sometimes it’s only like 45 minutes between cheeseburgers (thank you, Guy Fiery!). There is access to food 24/7 on any ship. I’m talking shameful amounts of endless everything. Ice cream before breakfast? Sure. Pizza at 2 am? Why not? Wash down that filet mignon with a lobster tail? Absolutely. Keep in mind my family has the extra challenge of dealing with food allergies. Based on our experience, we have ranked Carnival as the best quality food; Royal Caribbean as the easiest allergy accommodation; and Disney with the best atmosphere. (Dinner at the Animator’s Palate on the Disney Magic changed my life!) Don’t even bother trying to lose weight and get “bikini ready” before you sail. You are going to gain 10 pounds while at sea – learn to love it.
Another consideration for dining is when to eat and with whom. There are usually two “main seatings” for dinner – one around 6:00 and another around 8:30. Picking a time is all about your family’s bedtimes and preferences for evening entertainment/activities. Most cruiselines now offer variable dining times, which provides you some flexibility but loses some of the relationships you would otherwise form with the staff taking care of you every night at a main seating. If you book your cruise at the last minute, like we often do, you just take whatever you get. I highly recommend you try something new and exciting on your cruise. Carnival has a whole menu section called “Didja Ever?” My son has literally ordered PB&J and escargot, while my daughter ordered plain chicken breast, baked potato and frog legs. Surprise yourselves to discover something you love but would never order if it wasn’t free.
I encourage you to purchase the pre-paid endless soda & juice package for the kids during your trip. I’ve found it to be worth the investment. On Carnival, the kids get a special sticker on the sailing card that serves as their room key, kid club ID and drink pass. I suggest taking a lanyard for the kids to wear their sailing card. They can flash their badge and order at any bar (you can find one about every 40 feet), which means no cups to carry around and a clean glass every time. Royal Caribbean has a special cup that works at Coca-Cola Freestyle machines placed all over the ship. The variety of flavors and the ability to fill on the run are novel; but I suggest bringing a tiny bottle of dishsoap to your room, or that thing will get funky in no time. Also, it requires you to locate the machines early so you know the closest source of refreshment at all times.
As for adult beverages, most cruise lines allow you to take 1 bottle of wine in your carry-on per passenger. Get a twist-off, or at the very least remember to pack a corkscrew! This makes for a cheap pre-dinner vino or pool-side refresher when you aren’t up for another full-priced frozen concoction. There are some very creative people who try to sneak the hard stuff on board (liquor in empty toiletry bottles, little plastic pouches that fold into clothes to go undetected by security scans, etc). I can neither confirm nor deny if I am one of those people…
Entertainment is a notable part of any cruise experience. Each night you will see Broadway-style productions. Naturally they are amazing on a Disney cruise. The other cruise lines can occasionally be somewhat suggestive, so you may want to consult your cruise staff to gauge which nights are most kid-friendly. The requisite “Love & Marriage” show is always a favorite of mine. It’s like the newlywed game and never family-friendly, but you are guaranteed to laugh. One of my fondest memories on a cruise was watching “Saving Mr. Banks” on a Disney cruise – watching a movie about Disney on one of is boats, starring Tom Hanks of Castaway, on our way to Castaway Cay. I’m easily amused. Admission to entertainment is included in the price of your cruise, and we’ve already decided you’re letting the crew watch your kids, so there’s really no reason to ever miss a curtain call!
There is always at least one formal night on board, when everyone is required to dress fancy for dinner. Can you say family photo? Every night (not just the fancy ones), there are professional photographers with creative backdrops set up around the ship to capture your memories, and occasionally your silly sunburn and island braids, too. The sitting is free, so I recommend doing them all. Each night the photos will be made available for purchase. Disney has cracked the code and managed to put all of your photos magically in your own personal album for your viewing pleasure. The others just plaster everyone’s photos on the wall and you have to search the whole area for yours. Sounds daunting, and it does take stamina; but when you find the perfect shot, it’s worth it. Seasoned sailer tip: Look for a “Wall of Fame” in the photo area. If you are in a featured photo that day, you get a free copy! Even if we aren’t there, I like looking at all the faces and then trying to find those passengers throughout the day to be sure they don’t miss their freebie! It’s like a giant game of “Where’s Waldo?” at sea!
Now that you are well fed, adequately inebriated, and looking good, we’ll move on to sailing outside our comfort zones. Our fourth and final installment is coming soon! If you missed the previous steps in planning your ultimate family getaway, check out my posts on keeping your kids out of the ocean and sneaking them out of school.