All hail winter travel! What better way to escape the cold than on the open sea? Once you make the excellent decision to cruise with toddlers, the next step is to choose the cruise line. Royal Caribbean ships entice with their Royal Babies and Tots program and nonstop activities; however, I get easily overwhelmed by the vast size of the ships. I don’t want to shove my stroller into a tiny stateroom or injure my back carrying my kid just to get to breakfast each day. Princess and Celebrity are beautiful and offer a layer of calm, but seem more suited to adults. So that leaves Disney vs Carnival Cruise Lines. Both have their appeal. Let’s break down the specifics.
*Please note this post is based on my experience on the Disney Wonder Bahamas cruise in February 2017 and a Carnival Inspiration cruise to Ensenada in November 2017. My daughter was 2 years old for both trips.*
The Booking Process
Since travel agents have largely gone the way of the beeper, the booking process mostly relates to the online experience. Carnival’s website is mostly straightforward, but a little confusing. I kept looking for specific answers to questions and finding very vague responses. The interface also does not fully appeal. It’s quite basic, not a lot of frills. I investigated the safety tab to see what they mentioned about the recent US State Department advisory on Mexico, and the first two links did not work.
In contrast, Disney’s website is classy and fun. All the pictures advertise family fun, lots of characters, fun for every age. The booking process was easy to follow, quite streamlined, and when I called customer service to request some additional assistance booking a post-cruise stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, she very helpfully booked my transfer but advised I call the hotel directly for a better price. Thank you for saving me money, Disney-customer-service-lady! I normally do not associate cost savings with a Disney vacation.
Both onboard apps were easy to use and offered lots of up-to-date and useful information. No Disney vs Carnival app controversy: both equal.
The Disney Wonder had just come out of dry dock 2 months before our cruise, so everything felt new and shiny. With a swim diaper, our 2 year old could enjoy the brand-new Dory’s Reef splash pad, and Tiana’s Place was her favorite restaurant. She loved that Louis the crocodile played his trumpet in the live band. The lobby sparkled, everything was very open and airy. The Ariel statue in the main lobby beckoned you to a good family-friendly cruise.
Carnival Inspiration enjoyed its inaugural cruise in March 1996, and I don’t think they ever bothered to update the decor from early 90s LA dive club. The atrium was dark at most times of the day, orange lights glowed around each walkway (enough to prompt my daughter to state proudly, “It’s Halloween!”), and all the furniture seemed to be the same shade of mauve or beige, the colors of forgetting. That said, other ships that are newer (The Carnival Horizon debuts 4/2018) or go through the Caribbean likely will not have the same feel. When I was in college (an appalling number of years ago now), we took a Carnival cruise through the Caribbean and I don’t recall the same “black and neon” color scheme.
Aboard the Carnival Inspiration, we sprung for the Grand Suite. We planned a fun ladies’ trip with my daughter, my mom, and me, and figured we would benefit from the free bag of laundry and priority embarkation and debarkation. Totally worth the price. With the Grand Suite, you also get a private balcony and an additional 110 square feet over the Junior Suite, and an addition 144 sq ft over an oceanview or interior stateroom. Plus it had a waterpool tub, ideal for my shower-phobic toddler. The decor again sported the same forgetful beige and taupe, and bizarre paint-by-numbers-esque artwork as the rest of the ship, but very comfortably suited the three of us, and could have slept 5 without too much issue.
For the cruise on the Disney Wonder with our two year old, we chose a 268 sq ft verandah stateroom. Seriously, the verandah can be key when your book light runs out of batteries and you just want to finish your chapter while the little one is napping. It had a blue and white nautical theme, very comfortable. Little V loved the bench that she could sit on while playing with her toys and eating yogurt cups. Disney also provides a pack and play, which she loved. For older kids, they have pull-down beds. Only caveat with this is that apparently they are legally not allowed to placed bedding or anything else in the pack and play, and we had for the first time ever not packed one of her 7000 blankets. Our stateroom attendant helped us improvise by surreptitiously delivering an extra pillow and blanket for her.
In Room Entertainment
For most people, they probably don’t watch TV on a cruise. When my husband and I took a 10 day cruise from Buenos Aires to Santiago, we once watched Baby Mama eight times. No lie. We take our TV seriously.
On Disney Cruise Lines, you get several channels of just Disney movies. All the time, different ones constantly. Plus, they will replay the live shows from the previous night, which may be the only time you get to see them if your kid also likes to pass out at 730.
On Carnival, we had one family friendly movie channel which seemed stuck on Book of Life for 36 hours. Little V did enjoy the “cruising” vacation shows, though, which involved Jeff Corwin and people going on exotic cruises. I had never before considered a Baltic cruise, but I’m now revisiting it.
Keep in mind that all cruise lines mandate your kid must be older than 6 months to cruise. Kids in swim diapers are not allowed in pools on board any cruise ship. That being said, there is still a lot to do on any cruise line. You can always bring a little inflatable pool for them to splash or play toys.
The Disney Experience
What do I need to say about the entertainment options on board the Disney Wonder? As I mentioned, little V was not toilet-trained, but she had a great time playing with her toys in Dory’s Reef, and watching movies on the giant pool TV while eating yet another ice cream cone. She talked about the “Frozen” live show for 3 months afterward. For her, meeting the Disney characters kept her occupied for the majority of her waking hours. No joke. At breakfast, she would say, “I want to see Goofy today.” We would plan our entire day around Goofy’s brief appearances. For young kids, every day they had a “Toddler Play Time,” with limited toys in an enclosed area and plenty of parental supervision. Either the Oceaneer Lab or the Oceaneer Club had a limited amount of time each day where the littlest kids could play with toys with parental supervision.
The Fun Ship
As I intimated earlier, the Carnival Inspiration cruise to Ensenada seemed geared to an older, more alcoholic set. The majority of entertainment did not start until 9 or 10 pm. Little V by this point has graduated from swim diapers (huzzah) and loved the Waterworks (though she was still too small for the water slide) and playing Mini Golf with the ocean breeze through her curls. They did offer Hasbro, the Game Show, at the more-reasonable hour of 8 pm, and V laughed uproariously during the morning Towel Animal Theater. We played board games in the Shakespeare Library, and feng shui-ed the giant chess pieces overlooking the main pool. Camp Ocean only offered a few hours (2-3) of “play with parents” during the whole cruise. The Seuss at Sea program primarily occurred on the one sea day. The sold-out Green Eggs and Ham brunch seemed to entertain more adults than kids (seriously–there were several tables of just adults), but they also had a Seussapalooza Parade and Dr. Seuss story time with the cruise director. Little V has not yet quite discovered the rhyming genius of Dr. Seuss, but when she does, we will be back.
OK, part of the appeal of cruising with toddlers is dropping them off at a kids club while you enjoy an oceanfront massage, right? Plus, kids love new toys.
Carnival’s Camp Ocean
Carnival has spent a great deal of time, money, and advertising on Camp Ocean, and the dedication shows. The camp counselors seemed to be the happiest employees we encountered, and every other cruiser or crewmember we met extolled the virtues of Camp Ocean. They cannot accept children under 2 during normal program time, but accept kids from ages 6 months+ from 10 pm-1 AM for an additional $6.75 per hour plus 15% gratuity per child. Fortunately, they do change diapers. They offered special kids meals during lunch and dinner time, arts&crafts, games, family scavenger hunts, etc. Little V loved the Build a Bear workshop, where for an additional fee, she could make her own Build a Bear.
Disney’s Oceaneers and Nursery
Disney cruises seem to thrive on their kids club programs. Every moment of every day, someone or other asked us how our daughter liked the “It’s a Small World Nursery.” While the Oceaneer club is included for potty-trained kids over 3 (they have to be able to do all the mechanics by themselves), the nursery program for kids 6 months-3 costs $9/hour for the first child and $8/hour for each subsequent child. They will change diapers and provide meals at dinner time, and even have quite a lovely little sleeping area with cribs at the back of the nursery. Little V LOVED the toy selection, and kids seemed very content there. The counselors could call the stateroom cell phone or text us through the Disney cruise line app if V was not fully enjoying her experience. I think when she gets a little older, she will not want to leave the Oceaneer Club. Frankly, I wanted to go play in Andy’s Room.
The food on the Carnival Inspiration seemed suited more for soaking up quantities of alcohol while providing essential nutrients than “a foodie lover.” Soups uniformly tasted delicious, and the kids macaroni and cheese satisfied even our adult palates. With a few exceptions, though, V described the food choices best when she said, “Mama, I need something warm.” Two notable exceptions to the banal food choices include the newer Guy’s Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina. Fries from the former with the excellent toppings bar and a make-your-own breakfast burrito with several salsa selections from the latter would even entice my “super-foodie” husband.
Dining aboard the Disney Wonder with our two year old seemed a little more exciting. Though the menus on the Carnival Inspiration changed nightly, on the Disney ships you dine at a whole new restaurant each evening with a totally different feel and menu. Animator’s Palate offered an evolving show along the wall with artistic and delicious food options and the New Orleans-style cuisine at Tiana’s Place won over a picky two year old.
On the other hand, Carnival’s buffet opens 24 hours a day. That may just mean cold cereal and pizza, but they have it available all the time. They even have room service on debarkation day. Disney always offers 24 hour room service (except on debarkation day), but the buffets do close at inopportune times. By this, I mean 430 pm EST. This seems a perfectly reasonable time for most of the country, but for jet-lagged Angelenos with a toddler who wants macaroni and cheese 24/7…you get the picture.
OK, there is really no contest here. Carnival is cheaper. Disney always seems to imply a major wallet-ectomy. Even in a much larger suite with fringe benefits (free laundry, priority embarkation and debarkation, free cookies and bottled water), it cost about $1000 less to take Carnival vs Disney. That being said, Disney Cruise Lines includes the cost of soda in the price of their cruises. Carnival’s beverage programs start at $4.95/day for kids and $7.50/day for adults for unlimited soda. The alcohol and soda package can cost $50/day, and all members of your stateroom have to buy the package. Alternatively, you can pre-buy a 12 pack of bottled water for only $4.50, while the same deal on Disney Cruise Lines costs about $20. Carnival had several “upgrades” offered throughout the cruise: a steakhouse selection in the main dining room, better choices from room service or a paid yoga class. So you could end up spending more in the end depending on your needs.
Carnival recently raised $338,500 in an October Relay for Life. They partner with St. Jude Research Hospital and have fundraisers even on board your vacation. Some of these fundraisers involve “Groove for St. Jude,” which seemed to involve adults with beer doing the wobble. I respect that.
So, Disney vs Carnival?
Honestly, we had a fantastic vacation with both of them. Again the Carnival Inspiration seemed geared more towards single adults and party-going retirees than families. Still, it offered more than enough fun and relaxation for our long weekend. Disney can be worth the cost, for the “Disney Experience” and the availability of kids activities if your little one is under 2. It just depends on your budget. Have a fabulous trip!