I went on a Disney staycation cruise with my 4-year-old. Here’s what it was like on board, and what we did to prepare.

All aboard the Disney cruise
Aboard the Disney Magic cruise ship.
  • We went aboard a Disney staycation cruise and sailed for two nights with our four-year-old.
  • Nearly two years on from our last real vacation, we'd forgotten what it was like to travel with a child.
  • We decided to plan ahead and focus on three areas: pre-travel, day of travel, and on the sea.
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December 2019 was the last time we took a flight together as a family and went out on a proper vacation. That was our 30th flight with our then 2-year-old, and my husband and I had become pro-travelers with a toddler. From flying to the sunny Bahamas and magical Maldives to the cobbled streets of Prague, we had done it all. Then the pandemic hit and we all went into lockdown.

Like everybody else we were skeptical about boarding flights and leaving the country. So we settled instead on a Disney staycation cruise, sailing around the UK for three days and two nights.

Nearly two years on from our last proper vacation, we'd forgotten what it was like to travel with a child. Also, my 65-year-old parents were to accompany us, so we felt we needed to be more cautious. We decided to plan ahead and focus on three areas: pre-travel, day of travel, and on the sea.

Pre-travel: check your booking, plan some activities, upload your documents

The Disney website is easy to use and allows you to access your reservation and plan your activities well in advance. There are some free activities, such as youth club slots and karaoke, but there are also a ton of paid activities to choose from. We timed our son's youth club activity with some beer tasting for the grown-ups.

The check-in process is very similar to airline travel, in that you're required to upload identification documents. Disney also asks you to upload proof of COVID-19 vaccination if you're over 18. Under-18s must buy a rapid test and upload the result at least 24 hours before boarding.

Once all your documents are uploaded, Disney verifies and completes your check in, and you're good to go!

The grand Disney Magic cruise
On deck on Disney Magic.

Now let's pack. There are lots of things to do - sit-down dinners, informal lunches, poolside drinks, water activities, and more - so there are lots of looks to consider. We packed a variety of clothes but we still traveled light.

There's an option to check in your luggage at the terminal before boarding, and leave your suitcase outside your room for collection the night before leaving. This gives you the flexibility to carry just a handbag before getting to your stateroom at 4 p.m.

On the day: fill up your snack bag, keep your water bottle handy, and mask up while you wait to board

We started our day early. The cruise was set to sail from Tilbury, a container port in East London. The port was clearly signposted and we spotted the massive Disney cruise ship the moment we drove in.

We dropped off our luggage at the terminal and made our way to the COVID-19 testing centre.

It's worth noting that everyone needed to get antigen testing done here, regardless of whether they'd had a negative test in the past five days. The test took fewer than five minutes. We were then directed to a waiting area to await the results.

Passengers awaiting their antigen test results
Passengers await COVID-19 test results before boarding.

This was easily the most nerve-wracking moment of the trip. We'd all been vaccinated, and my son's earlier antigen test had come back negative, but as we sat there waiting, we knew it could all have been for nothing. The cruise ship was right there in front of us, but right in the way of it was a wait of up to 45 minutes for our test results to come through.

After several rounds of scrolling through and refreshing my email inbox, I finally spotted the test results: all negative. We were cleared to board so we made our way to the ship.

We were welcomed aboard by none other than Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and were informed that our staterooms would be ready by 3 p.m. We were hungry so we made our way to Cabana, a family buffet with a larger-than-life spread of cuisines including fish and chips, lasagnas, Indian curry, oriental food, Mexican burritos, and so much more.

Our room with a private verandah with Ocean view
Our room had a private veranda with a sea view.

We finished our lunch in time to get the keys for our stateroom. It was nice and spacious and boasted a private veranda overlooking the English Channel. We decided to park ourselves for a bit, get familiar with the ship, and get ready for the whirlwind ahead.

On the sea: quick meals at Cabana, meet-and-greet Disney characters, and rotational dining

COVID-19 restrictions, such as social distancing, were in place throughout the cruise. Guests were required to wear face masks when not dining. Social distancing was also in place for character meet-and-greets, something our 4-year old wasn't happy about: he wanted to run to Spider-Man and Thor and hug them.

Once on board, guests could access an itinerary on the Disney Cruise Line app. Our four-year-old's sole focus was to meet as many superheroes (or people dressed as Avengers characters) as possible. So we went through the app and added all the relevant events to our itinerary.

Meet and greet with Disney characters
A socially distanced meet-and-greet with Disney characters.

The cruise fare includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at the restaurants Cabana, Animator's Palete, Rapunzel's Royal Table, and Lumiere's. The cruise boasts of "rotational dining" - a concept that encourages guests to enjoy each of the three themed dining venues while on board.

Our servers Valentin, Mario, and Gian were extremely warm and welcoming, and worked with us to get a perfect three-course meal experience. The restaurants are grand with interactive storytelling experiences. Each has its own theme, with live music and character appearances to enjoy while eating.

Our final dining experience at Animator's Palete with our servers Gian (L) and Mario (R)
Our final dining experience aboard the ship at Animator's Palete, with our servers Gian (L) and Mario (R).

Food was a big part of our cruise experience but we also spent a lot of time exploring the ship, meeting our favorite superheroes, taking a dip in the pool, and watching Disney Dreams, a magical theatre performance at Walt Disney Theatre.

Overall, the two nights and three days we spent on the Disney cruise was a great experience. We got to spend a lot of time together as a family, made some great memories, and enjoyed a proper vacation for the first time in 18 months.

"I want to go back to the cruise again," said our 4-year-old as we got back in our car to drive back home.

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