If you go on a Disney Cruise, and don't see your children for several hours, you can thank Jennifer MacDonald and the other Youth Activities managers in the fleet. Their job is to make sure your children have the best vacation ever — so you can have the best vacation, too. Some of the venues open as early as 7 a.m. and stay open as late as 1 a.m.
Jennifer is a former preschool teacher who spotted an ad for a "DCL Babysitter" nearly seven years ago. "The experiences, lifestyle, the people you work with and people you meet is not like anywhere else," she said. "Guests come on and are blown away by the spaces available and materials we have."
Spaces that include an 18-by-5 foot video game walls, playrooms decorated like you just stepped into Captain Hook's Pirate Ship and the coolest teen coffee house at sea.
Parents can register their children online in advance, so the fun can begin that much faster, especially on shorter cruises. And no child is turned away based on needs or ability.
Disney Cruise Line also recently introduced wave phones, so if the youth counselors need to reach them for any reason, it's as simple as a phone call or text message. As a safety precaution, families also establish a password when they first check the kids in to the programs, as well as a list of adults authorized to pick up the children. All of the youth counselors must have a minimum of two years working with children in teaching, coaching and/or instruction.
The Disney Cruise Line fleet has activities to entertain 3 month olds to 17-year-olds and everyone in between. That's right — 3 months … the only cruise line that allows infants that young onboard. Unlike other cruise lines, Disney does not offer in-room babysitting. Instead, for a small fee, parents can make a reservation for their infants and toddlers into their own special group babysitting area on deck 5: Flounder's Reef (Disney Magic and Disney Wonder) and "it's a small world" Nursery (Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy).
Everything there is not only "little-one" friendly, but naptime, themed playtime (including making hand and footprints for the parents to take as souvenirs) and eating are all supervised. There is one counselor per every four infants (14 months and younger), and one counselor for every six toddlers (15 months to 3 years), and all counselors have experience working with children and have training in, among other things, age behavior and first-aid. Three-year-olds also have the chance to check out things Disney's Oceaneer Club (with a parent, of course).
What's the Oceaneer Club? Well, along with Disney's Oceaneer Lab, it is "the" place to be if you are 3-10. On the Wonder and Magic, the Club is themed to look like Captain Hook's pirate ship and includes self-play computer stations, computers, LEGOs and a costume collection. Onboard the Dream and Fantasy, the Club is divides into themed rooms: Pixie Hollow, Explorer Pod (a submarine inspired by the Disney-Pixar animated film Finding Nemo), Andy's Room and the Monster's Academy.
On the Wonder and Magic, the Lab truly is a laboratory filled with wacky inventions and opportunities for children to explore. Buzz Lightyear himself is perched atop computer station, plus a simulator on the Wonder lets kids "pilot" the ship through various ports. Nearby, children will find a video wall with giant-size play pads and their own special music lounge.
On the Dream and Fantasy the Oceaneer's Lab encourages adventure and exploration among those 3-10, but even parents will be drawn to the fun and decor — and the interactive play floor. In the Media Room, kids can kick back and relax in bean bag chairs and watch movies or play video games; they can learn how to sketch (and bring to life) their favorite Disney characters in the Animator's Studio; create music in the Sound Studio and create and imagine in the Craft Studio.
Previously, the two areas were split by age group: 3-7-year-olds were in the Club, and, before Edge opened, children as old as 13 were in the Lab.
"We found there was a lot of feedback that they wanted to keep the siblings together," Jennifer said. "We learned the shy 3-year old would stay and enjoy themselves more if their 6-year-old sibling is with them."
Now the programs are grouped by themes, so your child can find what suits them — in either the Club or Lab. Plus, a cool tunnel connects the two, making it easy for the counselors to get the kids from one program to another — and if the siblings want to be together, they just have to tell the counselors.
"We brought the majority of the activity back into the club and the lab," Jennifer said. "This way also, the parents don't have to go all over the ship dropping their children at different places," Because we now have a tween space, the Club and Lab are just for the 3- to 10-year-olds.
Small Mickey Mouse heads in different colors in the Personal Navigators make it easy for you and your children to see what Themed Experiences are on the docket for the day. There's even scheduled downtime for the over-scheduled kids. Four of the themes still have age suggestions, but anyone can join:
On all four ships, families who are in second-seating dinner can participate in Dine & Play. Parents can tell their waiters that they are doing Dine & Play and the kids will be served their entrée while the parents are on appetizers. Then, the counselors come to all three dining rooms at 9:15 p.m., to pick up the kids and take them to evening programs, allowing mom and dad to enjoy a meal together. On the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy your kids don't even need to leave the play areas for lunch or dinner, as meals are served semi-buffet style right there.
"You can see after a few days, the counselors know the kids names, the kids know the counselors and talk about them to their parents, and you can get the children into groups of friends," Jennifer said. "There's more of a routine with the longer cruises and the feeling of unity between the guests and the team [of counselors]."
Next Up: Tween and Teen Adventures