Many of my single mom friends said that the only way to relax while traveling with kids is to find a cruise with a “kids club.” I have traveled the world and doubted I would enjoy the restrictions of a cruise, even if it did free me up as a single mom. But I was desperate for an international experience, and quite honestly, some mommy time, so I booked a 7-night Disney cruise with high hopes for a perfect vacation.
I was giddy, thinking about dropping off my children in the early morning and picking them up at midnight. I thought about how relaxing this cruise was going to be. Even with a kids club, traveling as a single mom on a cruise, even a Disney Cruise, still has its challenges. Here’s what I learned.
- Get Ahead of the Crowds by Checking in Weeks in Advance
Your cruise is booked! But you still have to book choices of dining, port arrival, and port adventure. Since I checked in online at disneycruise.disney.go.com three months prior to our departure I got everything I requested. First-time Disney Cruisers must wait 75 days before the cruise to check in online. After one cruise you become a silver member of the Castaway Club, so on your next cruise you will qualify to book 90 days ahead. Other levels are gold (5+ cruises), which books 105 days ahead and platinum (10+ cruises), which books 120 days ahead. Checking in early allowed me to score tickets to the character breakfast and to unpack with ease. See more about these perks below.
By the time I got back, they were finished eating and jacked up on apple juice. The lunch of my dreams was tossed aside.
- Score On-Board Credit and Have a Travel Agent Do All the Work
I love to research my own travel and I always think I can get a better deal, but I learned that isn’t always the case with Disney Cruises. I called on a friend who is a cruise travel agent for www.kmpgrouptravel.com. In fact, she made sure I was in a good room that wasn’t below the loud nightclub. She booked us in a stateroom mid-ship, the most stable part of the boat. I called her and emailed her with all my questions, and she also reminded me to check in early online. The best part is I that I received a $50 on-board credit because I had referred a friend who booked with a trip with her. I bought my shopping diva daughter toys at the Disney Store with it. They can also arrange Disney World resort stays before or after your cruise.
- Bring A Friend for Your Child
The best part of the kids club is that mom gets a vacation too. My cruising friends said my kids would LOVE the kids club and wouldn’t want to come out… but, of course not my kids. They liked the kids club but didn’t ask to go and at times begged not to go. That was challenging as I spent most of the day with them, and needed some mommy time. The best decision I made was to get a friend that had a daughter the same age as my daughter to come on the cruise with us. I am so glad I did, as my daughter is 8 and only wanted to go into the kids club with her friend. She reluctantly went with her 3-year-old brother. Having a friend on board, was also helpful when we went to Grand Cayman and rented a cabana at Royal Palms (https://royalpalmscayman.com/cruise-ship-visitors/). The girls played in the ocean for hours and us moms watched and relaxed with our piña coladas in hand.
- Reserve the Character Breakfast When You Board
Standing in line for hours to get a photo with Iron Man was not something that I wanted to do on the cruise, so the character breakfast was as great for me as it was for my kids. We were came early and were able to board the ship around noon, which allowed us first timers to buy Character Breakfast tickets and set up picture times with all the Marvel superheroes my 3-year-old son dreamed of meeting. I got tickets for the rest of my party who were not boarding until 2pm. The best part of the sit-down character breakfast is that the characters come to the table and we got almost all of the pictures we wanted. All the Disney Junior characters, the main Disney characters like Minnie and Mickey, and the Marvel superheroes were there.
- A Brilliant Tip for Cruise Ship Cabin Organization
One the best tips I got was to board early to allow yourself time to unpack on the first day so you are organized the remainder of the trip. One organizational packing trick I have is to pack outfits including underwear and socks in extra large zip lock bags for each child. To unpack is as easy as throwing the bags into the drawers and moving the luggage to the closet. I brought a hanging shoe organizer—a tip I read online—since these staterooms are fairly small, and it worked wonders to keep the cabin tidy by using it for all the items we needed easy access to. It seems we were always rushing to change quickly and get to the next scheduled program, so this trick made my single mom life easier.
- Research The Personal Navigators Before You Leave
Every day a “Personal Navigator” is delivered each day to your room, listing the activities for that day by starting time. This blog (http://disneycruiselineblog.com/personal-navigators) posts Navigators from prior cruises. Reading a few of these ahead of time gave me an idea of what to expect. I got the kids excited about the activities and the trip ahead of time, too. If you are thinking that a Disney Cruise is too expensive, just take a look at these Navigators and you will understand why the value of a Disney Cruise is so worth the extra money.
- Beware the Single Mom Buffet Dilemma: Crab Legs v. Apple Juice
The first lunch on the first day is one of the best lunches served, so I was anxious to get onboard and eat! I had dreams of starting my vacation with visions of crab legs and cold beer. The lunch is a buffet, which made it a challenge with two kids in tow, even though there was a waiter. My daughter is 8 and semi-responsible, so I told her to watch her brother while I went to get lunch. The lines were long, so I didn’t come return for 10 minutes. When I returned, they had both ordered apple juice from the waiter without my approval. I put down their plates and quickly went to fill my plate with crab legs. By the time I got back, they were finished eating and jacked up on apple juice. The lunch of my dreams was tossed aside. After that, I stuck to the sit-down meals or ordered room service. Luckily, they had crag legs again, so I was finally able to enjoy my lunch.
- Bring a Small Purse and a Watch
As simple as this sounds, bringing a small purse saved me lots of aggravation. I didn’t want to bring a big backpack everywhere I went, so I packed a small, over-the-shoulder cotton purse that was big enough to hold things like my glasses and such, but not cumbersome. I didn’t need to carry much with me, but I needed to bring my cell phone with me everywhere because of the Disney Cruise app that lists all of the activities and also because I wanted to take pictures. I didn’t need money because Disney gives you a lanyard with a card in it that pays for everything. A watch also saved me lots of time trying to pull out my cell phone every 10 minutes to make sure we were on time for the next event.
You will understand why the value of a Disney Cruise is so worth the extra money
- Take Your Professional Pictures Early
Before and after dinner every night, there are professional photographers available to take pictures. One night I waited in line only to realize we were late for dinner. I left, saying I would come back after dinner. Yeah, right. The kids had stains galore, and after a few glasses of wine I probably looked like Miss Hannigan from Annie, so we opted to not preserve that particular moment for posterity. The next day we all got a little sunburned so we had to wait until the final night to take our family photos. Luckily the photographers do try to catch you at dinner on the dress-up nights. The photos are printed and available for you at Shutters, the Disney photo store, for $20 for each 8 x 10.
- Ask To Be Seated With Other Single Parents
Even though Disney does not offer a single-parent cruise (yet!), there were multiple “solo” traveler get-togethers and lunches offered. I also saw that you can ask to be seated with other single parents at a table for dinner for the duration of the cruise. Luckily, my friend and her daughter and I requested to sit together each night, which was one of the best parts of the cruise as I got some adult time with my friend and our daughters played at the table and entertained themselves. These formal dining meals with our friends were the best part of the cruise.
Cruising is probably one of the easiest vacations for a single parent. Maybe one day there will be special customer service person that can sit with single parents and their children at every buffet meal so Moms, like me, can eat their crag legs in peace and my children will drink water.
Hillary Bressler is a single mother by choice with two children who is determined to make single parent travel happy for the entire family. As founder of HappyTraveler.com she hopes that destinations, resorts, and cruise lines will learn what single parent travelers are seeking and cater to our needs. @hillarybressler