I know most of you knew that we took a Disney cruise about 2 weeks ago.  And perhaps you were wondering why I wasn’t writing about it?  It’s because I had promised GeekMom.com several posts about our trip and I wanted to get those posts out there first.  It’s easy enough now to translate the text over to my own blog, which I’m going to do now.  I’ve drafted 7 posts about the cruise, and they aren’t the normal “Here’s how our cruise was” type of posts.  Enjoy!

Santa brought the family a 4-night Disney cruise vacation this year! The trip happened to coincide with Timmy’s birthday. In a very uncharacteristic move, Dave and I agreed to take the boys out of school for a solid week and drove out to Port Canaveral, Florida, the homeport to the Disney Dream, Disney Cruise Line’s most-recently christened* ship.

Learn more about Disney Cruise Lines through their website.  Check out Wikipedia for the Disney Dream‘s amazing statistics. Or better yet, how about the Disney Dream by the Numbers?

Our sons unwrapped big boxes with these certificates inside on Christmas morning.

I don’t plan to discuss too much about the cruise itself. Anyone can write about taking a cruise, right? We stopped in Nassau, Bahamas and on Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay. Our sons got to experience snorkeling for the first time. I’ve cruised with Carnival in the past, but that didn’t hold a candle to last week’s trip! My family was geeking-out at some of the amazing little subtleties that make the Disney Cruise Line experience second-to-none!

1.) Hidden Mickeys everywhere!

Need I say more?

It goes without saying that the “Hidden Mickeys” are everywhere. This one isn’t quite so hidden, though.

2.) Characters everywhere!

Obviously there are Disney characters on a Disney cruise, right? After having experienced many hours in line over the years waiting to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pooh Bear, Rafiki, Buzz Lightyear and Mr. Frederickson at Walt Disney World, it was a breath of fresh air to not have to wait long for characters at all. My sons filled up their autograph book on a family trip to Disneyworld in 2009, so they were rather lassiez-faire about the characters this time around.  In fact, we only waited in line for ONE character: Jack Sparrow! Most of the others we encountered almost by chance throughout the cruise ship.

When your very first elevator ride to your stateroom is with Donald Duck, the bar has been set pretty high.

3.) The Key to the World

Like other cruise lines, many things are tied in to the key card. Disney calls their card the “Key to the World“, whether you’re on the cruise or staying at a Disney resort on land.  If you are combining a cruise with a Walt Disney World vacation, the same card will have your resort key, park tickets and Disney Dining Plan information loaded onto it.

On the Disney Dream, we used the key card to enter our stateroom, turn on the lights, enter/exit the ship at ports of call, tie into a photography account when the onboard photographers take snapshots, drop off/pick up your children from the Oceaneer’s Club, and charge beverages and souvenirs.

The Disney Dream is so new that instead of swiping the key card in many places, we instead had a touch pad. Similar to MasterCard PayPass touch pads. To enter/exit our staterooms, the kids didn’t even have to remove the keycards from their lanyards. Just touch the card to the pad. We used similar touch pads for entering/exiting the ship.

The little black keypad above the door handle is a touch pad for the key card. The kids didn’t have to pull their cards out of their lanyard pockets to open/close the door!

Another thing the key card is used for is to control the electricity in your stateroom.  I found this a great energy-conservation tool.  There was a slot near the front door for the key card.  A card needed to be in the slot before lights or the television could be turned on.  I discovered that it didn’t matter what card was used for the switch — I’m guessing it was a manual connection switch in the slot somewhere.  I saw a stateroom host using a Sleep Inn keycard while cleaning a nearby stateroom, ha ha!

Using key cards to control room electricity is not new technology, I know.  It’s been commonplace in hotels in Europe and Asia for years.

4.) RFID Bands for the Kids’ Clubs

From MouseTalesTravel.com

Each child ages 3-10 who wants to participate in the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab kids’ clubs on the Disney Dream are outfitted with waterproof wristbands. Called “Mickey Bands”.  These two kids’ clubs together (they’re connected) offer over 10,000 square feet of playspace, covering everything from playground space to arts and crafts to interactive play. You may fit the children for the wristbands in the cruise terminal before boarding, at the registration temporary office as soon as your board, or any time during the cruise at the Kids’ Club check-in/check-out area (which I don’t recommend because there’s often a line of parents that you tend to hold up while the attendant is printing and fitting the wristband).

It seemed simple enough for the kids to tap their wrists to the gate to enter and exit. Very secure! You provide a password through the Disney website that approved adults can use to check out the kids from the secure areas.

NOTE: As a safety measure, the kids club policies changed significantly starting in January 2012. Whereas previously parents could freely participate with their children at any time, now the kids’ clubs offer “Open House” and “Secured” areas. If you desire your child to be at the kids’ clubs without parents present, they have to go to the “Secured” area and no other parents are allowed in. Only DCL child care employees. If the family desires to do the kids’ club activities together they can take advantage of “Open House” periods in 2-4 hour blocks throughout the cruise.

Another hidden feature of the RFID bands — the geeky part — is that in the kids’ club spaces, the wristband is transmitting what rooms you child travels to. This helps the counselors maintain their ratios and helps the parents quickly find their children when it’s pick-up time.

5.) The Automatic Hand Washing Machine!

It’s an automatic hand-washing machine! Before the kids entered the Oceaneer’s Club or Oceaneer’s Lab, their forearms were dunked into this machine for 30 seconds. Washed and rinsed!

Also in the kids’ club areas were these most-awesome machines. Automatic hand-washers! The kids simply stick their arms inside and the machine automatically starts. Water spirals around your hands and forearms, then soapy water, then another cycle of fresh water. All in about 25 seconds. Take out your arms and dry them off!

6.) The Amazing Cast

Unlike other cruise lines, families aboard Disney Cruise Line trips are assigned the same service team for dinner dining and stateroom care throughout the entire cruise.  This has both benefits and drawbacks.

Of course, a benefit is that you get to know several of the cast members.  This is great for the kids.  We had very friendly servers and the stateroom host was a sweetheart.  At the end of the cruise, you are presenting gratuities to the servers and stateroom host themselves, instead of their pooling the money.  Our boys learned quite a bit about Bulgaria from our assistant server, Dimi.  Dimi was relatively new and was practicing his Mickey-Mouse ears-shaped ketchup every night.

One of the drawbacks is that I could imagine if someone received substandard service (which wouldn’t be tolerated for long by Disney Cruse Lines, I’d imagine), you’re left with that server for the duration.  I didn’t see this, so let’s just hope this is purely hypothetical.

Meet Drenka from Peru and Dimi from Bulgaria, our dinnertime servers during our entire cruise.

If you’re celebrating while on board, stand back! Disney gives you several opportunities to tell them whether you’re getting married (there were several weddings during our cruise), celebrating an anniversary or birthday, or on a honeymoon. Since our youngest son was celebrating his 7th birthday during the cruise, they gave him a button to wear. Cast members left and right would say “Happy Birthday” to our son as we were walking throughout the ship and on Castaway Cay.

My youngest son was allowed to wear a “Happy Birthday” button during the cruise. Cast members were wishing him “Happy Birthday” constantly. Here, Jack Sparrow is wishing him Happy Birthday. Look at that face!  You can’t beat it!

7.) Disney Movies Galore at the Buena Vista Theater

Are there any Disney films in theaters while you’re sailing?  If so, you have several opportunities to see them during the cruise for no additional charge.

I was thrilled to see Beauty and the Beast 3D being offered but I didn’t get to see any movies during the cruise.  It’s tough debating what items to cut from the packed schedule.

Warhorse and The Muppets were also showing.  Other movies offered included The Help, Cars 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

8.) A Cruise Ship Tradition: Turn-Down Service, Disney Style

Anyone who’s been on a cruise vacation knows that the stateroom host makes up your room in the morning, and then during dinner he/she comes in and performs a “turn-down service”.  For our particular stateroom, this meant pulling the bunk bed down from the ceiling, laying out chocolates and leaving the kids a cool towel origami animal to enjoy.

Good night!

The bottom bunk is the couch with the back flipped down. The top bunk came down from the ceiling! 
Stars and constellations of Peter Pan, Wendy and the other Darling children graced the kids’ top bunk.

How adorable is this? Sleepy Dwarf chocolates every night on our beds!

This is typical for most cruise lines: towel origami. But this is definitely the first time we had a monkey hanging from our ceiling!

Stay tuned for additional posts about our family trip aboard the Disney Dream. Coming soon, the Midship Detective Agency (and other biometrics), the Animator’s Palette, AquaDuck! and the stunning Disney art on the ship.

*The Disney Fantasy is currently undergoing sea trials in Europe and is scheduled for her first voyage in March 2012. Follow her upcoming journey across the Atlantic for her 28 February christening in Manhattan on Twitter.

15. June 2011 · Comments Off on The Real Fine Print… · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , , ,

I found this flyer that was handed to me when I turned on the Disney World Tickets last Thursday.  I remember stuffing it into our backpack as soon as I got it, and while cleaning out the backpack yesterday I found it.  This is the no-kidding real fine print about the extension to the Disney Military Salute promotion.  I’m not finding it very well online, so here it is for you.  Note the new block out dates.  Click the image to see it full sized.

14. June 2011 · 2 comments · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , ,

**I’m reminded of all those Disney reprise movies: Return to Neverland, Return from Witch Mountain, Return to Halloweentown, Return to Snowy River, etc.

Semi-impulsively, this past weekend we took a “short” trip down to Disneyworld and joined our friends Suzy and Andy’s family, and along with their neighbor’s family.  They flew down from Ohio for the week, while we joined them part way through the week after the boys were finished with their school year.

We took advantage of this year’s Disney military salute tickets…while not as big a discount as we experienced in 2009 (when Dave and I each got 5 complimentary days), 4 days + water parks for $138 per ticket is still the best Disney deal there is!  Consider that the 2-day Florida resident ticket is $133!

On this trip we used 3 of the 4 days, we’re considering a future trip combining the last Disney ticket day with Sea World and perhaps even Legoland when the weather turns cooler.

There were 12 of us (6 adults, 6 kids).  Since all 3 families had been recently, there weren’t pressing needs to meet characters, search for Hidden Mickeys or ride particular rides.  I was pleased to get to ride a couple things we didn’t get around to in 2009: Space Mountain, It’s a Small World, and Maelstrom.

It was incredibly hot on this particular trip, which made a marked difference in the boys’ behavior.  We didn’t hear the whining/complaining till day 5 when we went in December ’09.  On this trip, it was halfway through the 2nd day…Timmy sat himself down in the middle of the sidewalk at Hollywood Studios and refused to walk.

Instead of just giving you a random bunch of pictures, I thought I’d instead share some of the cool stuff we found out about this time around.  Enjoy!

1.) Announced in April 2011, the Disney World military promotion has been extended into 2012.  Tickets purchased in 2011 now don’t expire until September 30, 2012!  There is a lot of “fine print” to this promotion change, so I’ll just refer you to this website for the details.

2.) Did you know you are not restricted to that one hour window printed on your Fast Pass?  Fastpass is Disney Parks’ rider management system.  Grab a Fastpass ticket for your favorite attraction and come back at the designated time for shorter wait times…or no wait at all!  The attendants are only ever checking the start time, but if you don’t make it in that one hour window printed, come back anytime afterwards before the attraction closes and ride attendants are instructed to let you through anyway.  They don’t advertise this, since Fastpass is designed as a ridership management tool and they need most riders to return in that one hour window for the program to work smoothly.  More information about how to maximize Fastpass can be found here.

The most popular ride in Hollywood Studios.  See the non-Fastpass wait time on the left?  People waited anyway!  Even more popular than Star Tours on a Star Wars Weekend!  They are typically out of Fastpasses by 11am!  In 2009 one of us ran to this attraction as soon as we got to Hollywood Studios to grab the Fastpass.  And it was still for about 6 hours later.

3.) Disney Dining now has a mobile website that you can use from your smartphone to make dining reservations!  While we were enjoying some air conditioned goodness at Disney Quest (see #6 below), I was able to hop onto the mobile website and make dinner reservations at House of Blues across the street at Downtown Disney.  The following day, Dave got us lunchtime seating at the German Biergarten buffet on our drive into EPCOT.


4.) We caught our first glimpses of the “new Fantasyland” under construction.  Suzy and I commented to each other, “It’s about time Disney decided to do more with the more recent Princesses!”.  However, based on the article I linked above, recent “policy shifts” in Disney’s princess marketing is resulting in some last-minute changes to the original plans.  Based on the concept art, it looks like there will still be big areas dedicated to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.  Set to open in Fall 2012, we’re excited to get to see such quick progress.  (It was also very interesting to see such huge construction areas in general…I figured Disney would have been more discreet, do you?)  A friend who was there recently said that my pictures from June 9th had so much more visible than what she saw just 8 weeks prior.

You can see Beast’s castle in the upper left, and The Little Mermaid’s area towards the top.
Progress so far on Beast’s castle.
I love my camera’s zoom!

5.) A newly-designed Star Tours 3-D attraction opened at Hollywood Studios on May 20th, in conjunction with the first of their 4 Star Wars Weekends that are held every May/June.  The ride was closed from September 2010 for the renovation.  Dave and I had been on Star Tours in 2000, and after riding it again in 2009 it all seemed the same and rather uninteresting.  But this time around, it was WAY more interesting: the ride is now in 3D and it’s interactive in that a random passenger is photographed and shown as a “rebel spy” (our godson on our particular ride).  The movement in the ride is now smoother and flows with the storyline better.  To me, the coolest part is how there are now 54 permutations to the ride, by combining which storylines your “tourship” travels through.  In our case, we wound through Kashyyyk and Coruscant.  At the end, Princess Leia’s holographic message thanks us for protecting the rebel spy for the Alliance.  I was impressed with whatever they did with Carrie Fisher’s mouth movements to make that work…the images were straight from the original Star Wars.

I wrote about our Star Wars Weekend experience for GeekMom.

Dave looking super cool in his 3D glasses!

6.) Disney Quest: One of Walt Disney World’s best-kept secrets!  After dealing with the most crowded, hottest Disney park experience in my entire life at Hollywood Studios for a Star Wars Weekend, we left mid-afternoon and enjoyed a couple hours of air conditioned goodness at Disney Quest.  This is an interactive theme park located at Downtown Disney West Side.  We bought the military promotion tickets that included Disney Quest admission, so we spent a couple hours there and enjoyed unlimited video game play.  Usually Disney Quest is very crowded in the evenings, so to go over there from 4-6pm was delightful, we had a chance to play every video game we were interested in!

08. June 2011 · Comments Off on School’s Out — Let the Travel Begin! · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: ,
In the shade of our garage, we were able to load the car in relative comfort…OUT of the 90+ degrees  at 9am!

Not only is our summer full of travel, but we couldn’t even wait for school to end before taking our first trip!  Since we’re taking the SUV up to PA/WV/VT next week, we’re going to use the Prius to drive down for a couple days at Walt Disney World.  We took the boys out of school a half-day early.

But to easily fit two kids, two adults and our stuff into our Prius, we loaded up our roof-top carrier.  We usually only need to use this when we’re moving from one house to another, but to save us some mileage, we thought we’d use the car.

Better do it now while the weeds kids fit easily in the backseat…

27. December 2009 · 4 comments · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , ,
From 2009 12 19 WDW Vacation Day 2

I didn’t make a big deal out of this beforehand, but for Christmas the Vollmers took a vacation to Walt Disney World! We were there from December 18-23rd and the flight home on the 24th was pretty scary. Dallas-Fort Worth Airport cancelled the next flights to Omaha after ours left. We flew out around 2:40pm. Phew!

It’s rare for us to take a traditional vacation like this. As a military family, we’re typically pretty far from our extended families and Dave’s vacation time is usually dedicated to visiting our parents…the kids’ grandparents. Our last non-family vacation was 2 1/2 years ago.

But how could we resist? We were able to take advantage of Walt Disney World’s 2009 military promotions, both for the hotel room and for the tickets. So all 4 of us enjoyed 5-days of Park Hopper benefits for about the price of one 5-day Park Hopper!!

We had a wonderful time this past week, the boys were very well behaved despite getting about 90 minutes less sleep per night than usual, and we managed to fit in everything we were interested in doing in all 4 of the Walt Disney World parks. We stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort, which offered an outstanding deal for military families. Jacob and Timmy met 21 characters, we had the standard “breakfast with the characters” and I got my grown-up fix with the fantastic Spirit of Aloha dinner show on our last evening at the resort.

NOTE: We received a lot of questions about why we didn’t stay at the Armed Forces Shades of Green Resort which is near the Magic Kingdom. Dave and I had stayed there before when we were younger, but this time around we didn’t make the arrangements in time, so we could only get a suite for Christmas week (which we didn’t need), and with Dave’s rank, we’d have been paying about twice as much for the suite as what we got at the Caribbean Beach. No need for a suite, all we did in the room was sleep.

We had debated taking a trip while we were still living in NC — we’re very glad we waited, though. Timmy’s now 45″ tall and the break point for many of the more-thrilling rides is 44″. Only two of the attractions were off-limits to Timmy: The Rockin’ Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios and the Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom. We definitely were able to live with that. Both boys will proclaim that the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is their favorite ride. DINOSAUR at Animal Kingdom ended up being quite frightening, Timmy was rather spooked afterwards….

We took advantage of the Disney Dining Plan during our stay. The link at the Disney World website is very vague about it, so I’ll include this one that provides MUCH more detail. The pricing for 2010 is a bit more than we paid, but you get the gist. For about $102 per night of hotel stay, our family (2 adults, 2 kids) enjoyed 2 complete meals plus one set of snacks each day. Do you come out ahead? Well, if you aren’t doing anything except Disney World during your visit, it’s an outstanding deal. Several Downtown Disney restaurants are included in the promotion, so we even had a great dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s one of our nights there. It would have been difficult for us to spend less than $100 per day on meals, so by having prepaid for the meals with the hotel payment, we didn’t have to make such a big deal about what our meals would cost. It’s great for budgeting the food portion of a Disney vacation.

It’s also great for things like the $36-per-person buffets — we loved the Tusker House Mediterranean/African buffet at Animal Kingdom and the boys enjoyed breakfast with the characters at Chef Mickey’s — and the $60-per-person Spirit of Aloha dinner show. With the dining plan, we could choose those types of meals and definitely come out ahead! Even the “Quick Service” fast-food style meals were rarely less than $50 for the 4 of us.

It’s a LOT of food. Every quick service and table service meal (when not a buffet) included desserts for each of us, most of the time we’d save the quick service desserts for later snacks (usually cookies, fruit, or their yummy famous Mickey-ear Rice Krispy treats), thus freeing up our daily snack allowances for bagel/cereal breakfasts in the morning.

On occasion Disney World offers vacation packages that include a FREE Disney Dining Plan. They had a very generous promotion in 2009, but we didn’t travel during the inclusive dates (we missed it by a day!).

Oh, one more thing — Disney won’t come right out and tell you this, but even if you pay for kids on the meal plan, we weren’t restricted to the kids’ menu for the Quick Service fast-food style meals. This came up at a Noodle House-style restaurant (near the Lilo and Stitch attraction at Magic Kingdom). Jacob wanted noodles, but the kids’ menu was only chicken strips or macaroni and cheese. It didn’t matter for the Quick Service, Jacob was allowed to order adult portions. At the more formal settings, they’re a little more strict, although at buffets it didn’t matter, and 4 of our 6 Table Service meals were buffets or homestyle where all 4 of us ate the same thing. I was happy about this because I wasn’t looking forward to my boys eating nothing but pizza, cheeseburgers, nuggets and mac/cheese for a solid week. Other great Disney Dining Plans tips can be found here.

Which brings me to my next story. On our 2nd day at the parks, Timmy had cheese pizza and chocolate milk at Pizza Planet for lunch, Mickey Ears ice cream for a snack, then a cheese quesadilla and chocolate milk at Wolfgang Puck’s for dinner. When we went to the Lego Store at Downtown Disney, all that cheese and milk caught up with him and he barfed right on the edge of the children’s play area outside the Lego Store. Poor little guy. No, I didn’t take any pictures, don’t worry! After he got sick, he seemed fine and begged to stay and play — he also didn’t make a mess of his clothing, which was a miracle! Were it not for how, um, neatly he got sick, I probably would have packed us all up and went back to the hotel.

We found out that many of our friends were taking their Disney vacations at the same time. We were able to meet one of our Air Force friends (who I was deployed with this past year), Rose, and her fiance’ Brad and his sister Wendy, at Hollywood Studios for lunch, and we also met one of Dave’s former NC State classmates, Nicole, at EPCOT for dinner in Mexico. It was fun to catch up with friends!

Enjoy these photo albums from the trip. I’ve captioned the pictures, so they’ll describe themselves.

2009 12 18 WDW Vacation Day 1
2009 12 19 WDW Vacation Day 2
2009 12 20 WDW Vacation Day 3
2009 12 21 WDW Vacation Day 4
2009 12 22 Walt Disney World Vacation Day 5
2009 12 23 Walt Disney World Vacation Day 6