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Our Ultimate Christmas Gift: a Big Family Cruise

Last Christmas, my husband and his extended family – mother, brother, sister and families – sat around the tree at my mother-in-law’s South Carolina house. She asked us to open the envelopes in front of us at the same time. We knew what was inside them must have been worth the amped up drama.

The kids were first to identify the photos we pulled from a manila envelope. It was a Disney Cruise for the entire family – all 13 of us.

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“I wanted to go somewhere where no one could escape,” my mother-in-law joked. In reality, she was dead serious. With time together so precious, she wanted to treat adults to a vacation and the kids to an experience they would never forget.

Finding that sweet spot is not an easy task. When it comes to multi-generational travel – grandparents, adult kids and their children, teens, tweens and elementary aged kids – it can be really difficult to choose a location or activities to please them all.

Of course, Disney identified this problem and figured out every last logistic on its Disney Cruise Line. With a fleet of four ships, we set sail on the Disney Magic — the smallest in the fleet with just 2,400 passengers. Leaving Cape Canaveral, Fla., we were destined for a seven-day cruise through the Caribbean, with four ports of call — Key West, Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private Bahamian Island.

With a limited amount of time on each island, it is only possible to get a taste of each destination – either with organized and guided Port Adventures or on your own. Our 13-person group explored each destination, sometimes together, but more often on our own and with each person's particular interest in mind — including the Hemingway House in Key West, beaches in Cayman and Mayan ruins in Cozumel.

You can get lost in that magic for several days, because you can’t stop watching your children laugh and smile, their eyes brightening at every experience.

Because Castaway Cay it is owned by Disney, we spent the most time off the boat there. Our day started with a 5K race in the morning. The rest of the sunny day was spent at the island’s lagoon, where there was snorkeling, water slides, jungle gyms over the water, bike rentals and, of course, ice cream and lunch. For kids, it really is the perfect beach day. For adults, there is a private adults-only beach, small bars and beachside cocktail service. One of the benefits of sailing on the smaller ship is that Castaway Cay is equipped to handle boats with double the passengers, so we never felt the island was crowded or understaffed.

After a day out, we met up for sunset cocktails and dinner in the evening. Our days at sea brought even more family time. The grandchildren went to movies together, while parents went to the gym or the spa. We spent much of our time relaxing in the sun, while the kids played in the pools, met Captain America (Marvel is Disney-owned) or learned how to animate in the Oceaneer’s Lab (probably the most stimulating, secure and clean kids club I have ever seen).

The ship and its crew handled the 2,500 passengers seamlessly. From the two kids' clubs to dining, disembarking crowds were managed and flowed effortlessly. The Disney Magic had been recently renovated, so the rooms, the common areas and restaurants showed no signs of wear and tear and were impeccably clean.

But I should be clear: to really enjoy yourself, you have to be a Disney person. Or at least not mind spending your time surrounded by those who are. If the idea of Disney World and all its charms makes you want to tear your hair out, this is not the cruise line for you. Even the food (which was not gourmet, but is several steps above theme park food), adults-only comedians, on-board pub and the ease of travel won’t release you from the endless Disney characters, Disney movies, Disney décor or 4-year-olds running into your knees at most corners.

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However, if you, like me, see the Disney experience as one of those childhood rights of passage — where you can get lost in the magic for several days, because you can’t stop watching your children laugh and smile, their eyes brightening at every experience — then this is for you.

Mickey Mouse ice cream bars and all.

Image by Amiee White Beazley

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