Remember when your young children met a favorite movie princess or superhero in person? How they smiled with sheer wonder and pure joy? Know how often this happens with teenagers?
Ok, almost never. There are so many wonderful reasons to travel with teens, but they do voice their opinions about just about everything. So when the family proposed bringing three cousins, ages 13, 14 and 15, on a Disney cruise, we were skeptical. The only time we went to Disney World we waited in line for hours with our youngsters to see Ariel and Sleeping Beauty. What appeal could a Disney cruise possibly have for our mature, world-weary teens?
A lot, it turns out. As a first-time cruise person, I had heard that cruises were ideal for multi-generational family trips and for doing Disney activities without baking for hours in the Orlando sun. But as the parent of teens, my personal goal was to get their phones out of their hands, screens out of their faces, and enjoy one-on-one time with my multi-aged family members. So with Grandma, brother, nephew, husband and kids, we boarded the Disney Magic for a week-long cruise from Barcelona to Dover, thinking if these kids could enjoy an entire week on a boat with Mickey Mouse it would be magic, indeed.
So is a Disney Cruise a good choice for your teenagers? Here are some of the highlights, both from a parent and kid perspective.
European Mickey is Way Better than Orlando Mickey
Our Disney cruise was in Europe, which was a great choice for older kids. While little children can play on any beach for hours, older kids crave more stimulation and novelty. Europe’s mix of history, food, shopping, and culture was a great fit. Disney offers many different Europe itineraries. Ours started in Barcelona and included stops in Cádiz, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; Vigo, Spain; Cherbourg, France; and ended in Dover, UK, with two days at sea.
For my own kids, who had never been to Europe before, they were able to visit four different countries (albeit briefly) and have very different adventures in each port. It’s hard to get bored when it’s a new country each day! Some places we booked tours through Disney, others we arranged them on our own. Either way with the European itinerary, it was something different in every port.
At Sea There’s No Internet!
Ok, technically this isn’t true. You can buy an expensive internet package that allows you to keep in contact with the mainland. But why? One of the greatest challenges in parenting today is getting kids off of their screens. On the Disney Magic, there were Broadway-scale live shows, board games, movie theaters, scavenger hunts, trivia days, and lots of traditional fun.
Disney does provide a texting app that is incredibly handy to communicate with teens as they run around the ship, but without internet access, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and the like are all unavailable. They text to find each other, but then they actually talk to other kids. Seeing your kids playing a board game and talking to other teens in person? Priceless.
Kids Clubs Designed for Kids, Not Adults
When kids are little, you can drop them off in a kids club for safe, adult-run activities. When your kids are older, they have much more say in what they will do. Using more of that Disney magic, the ship provides a place that older kids actually want to go.
Each morning at the crack of teen-dawn (10:30 or so) our kids would scarf some breakfast and meet up with their friends at Vibe, the club for 14-17 year-olds. On the Magic, Vibe was located inside one of the faux smokestacks, making it the only room on the 11th floor of the ship – kind of like a penthouse. Parents are allowed during the first day “open house” and then it is kids-only for the rest of the trip. Vibe had Wii , Xbox and Nintendo Switch; large-screen TVs; a non-alcoholic bar with a smoothie happy hour; and comfy, overstuffed chairs for kids to “chill.” The Vibe staff planned scavenger hunts, t-shirt making parties and video game tournaments to keep kids busy and help them make new friends.
Every day my kids used this area as a jumping-off point to meet up with their new BFFs and to explore the ship. There are activities scheduled throughout the day from which kids can pick and choose. My younger daughter, an aspiring actress, loved a program called “movie makers” where the Vibe staff filmed the kids lip-syncing famous Disney songs, which they later produced and showed in Vibe. She and her friends also saw every live show twice and had photos taken with just about all the Disney characters, proving that some kids are never too old for Disney.
My older daughter, 15, and her cousin, 14, found packs of kids their age and spent a lot of time playing basketball, foosball, ping pong, and shuffleboard, and talking for hours as only teenagers can. From the adults-only pool, we would watch their gangs stroll by on the upper deck, wave, order another Aperol spritz and smile.
Where Can They Go?
As kids get older, they naturally want to explore and be independent. This can get them into trouble in an unfamiliar country. On a ship, the kids can have free reign of the entire place since, after all, you’re in the middle of the ocean. They are also under the constant eye of attentive Disney “cast members” who are wise to the ways of teenagers. The drinking age onboard is 21, or 18 if parents sign a consent form, then only in the presence of their parents. All kids get stickers on their room keys that give them entry into the teen club, but conversely, let bartenders know who is of age and who is not. And finally, if a shipboard romance blooms, watchful staff members remind lovebirds to “leave room for Mickey” when sitting too close together.
More Friends, Less “Boring Stuff”
As a family, we travel a lot, although not usually on cruises. We have dragged our kids from Tokyo to Te Anau, Sydney to Siem Reap. We love the chance to be together and make memories, but let’s face it — after a week, parents want some alone time, and kids (especially teenagers) just want to be with their friends.
My 13-year-old described the cruise as having “a lot less boring stuff,” by which she means long guided tours of temples, shrines, churches, and ruins whose staggering historical significance is lost on young kids. Granted, the cruise was less educational than the parents would like. But when we landed at Cherbourg, our teens were rested and ready for an all-day tour of battlefields and World War II history. They enjoyed seeing where Columbus set sail in Spain and learning about the era. The cruise provided a balance for the kids that a parent-planned itinerary usually lacks, and even forced the parents to have a little fun along the way.
Family Dinner Every Night
No matter what you, your teen or your extended family would choose to do during the day, every night there was a family dinner. Each family or group had its own table, and at the end of a busy day with shipboard activities or in port we could sit together and share what we had done. With homework, sports, activities, and work, how often does this really happen at home? On the Magic, you are rotated to a different restaurant every night, and it’s never a buffet but a real sit-down dinner. Best of all, no one has to cook or do dishes! Now that’s magic.
If you are looking for a low-stress family vacation as a family with teenagers I would definitely consider a European Disney cruise. As your kids get older, you realize that your kids’ independence is a gift, but it’s also a whisper that they will soon be grown and gone. For the fleeting moments we have left, we want to recapture the joy on their faces that we saw so often when they were little. Your teen may not be so easily awed these days, which makes it all the more special when they truly are.
Also, be sure to check out ShoreTrips family-friendly excursions for any of the ports of call on your Disney cruise.
Featured image photo credit: Eric Anderson