cruise2My kids couldn’t have been more excited when I told them our next family vacation would be on a Disney cruise ship. My husband couldn’t have been less excited. Hubby tends to be a snob about all things Disney. He once proclaimed often that if our kids ever made it to Disney World, it would be because Grandma and Grandpa had taken them there. (They did.)

Nevertheless, he was willing to sacrifice for his family. And having him along made my job as a writer and traveling mom easier. I didn’t have to be always on the lookout for the downsides of this family vacation. Hubby was on the job, his eyes peeled for the smallest misstep. Four days later, as we disembarked from the Disney Wonder at Port Canaveral, Fla., he was forced to admit he couldn’t find anything wrong with the trip, no matter how hard he tried.

Disney Knows How to Do Family Fun

That’s because Disney, our host for the trip, knows how to do fun for families. No matter how old the kids are, Disney Cruise Lines has something that will make them smile. My biggest surprise aboard the Wonder was the number of families with teens in tow. As one dad of an 18-year-old daughter confided, “It’s one of the few vacations we can take where she can feel like she has some independence and I know she’s completely safe.”

Our kids were 10 and 12 when we sailed aboard the Wonder and they loved having the power to be on their own and step up to one of the many food stands any time they wanted ice cream or pizza or ice cream or hot dogs or ice cream. Like that dad, my husband and I relaxed knowing that the kids couldn’t get into much trouble on the ship and that the efficient Disney-trained staff was kid-friendly and ready to help in any way.

As the cruise industry expands its marketing efforts beyond seniors, kids’ programming is proliferating aboard ships. But none can match the Disney magic, bolstered by Mickey, Goofy and the gang, all of which show up regularly to dance, hug and play with the kids. There are so many things for kids to do on board that the “Personal Navigator” delivered nightly to each stateroom includes a full-page grid broken down by age group (3-4, 5-7, 8-9, 10-12 and teens). I spent an hour studying the thing every night and we still missed things I’m sure the kids would have enjoyed, such as making flubber in the Oceaneer Lab.

What Disney Does Best

And, since this is Disney, there’s lots of entertainment as well. When the sun gets too hot, let the kids can cool down in the massive movie theater showing the latest Disney releases and Disney classics (“High School Musical” anyone?). At night, don’t miss the stage shows. This is Disney as its best, with stunning costumes, soaring sets and amazing music.

Dining is always a pleasure on the seas, but kids are easily bored. So rather than expect them to eat in the same old restaurant every night, Disney has diners rotate among three different restaurants, each with its own theme. But kids like to get comfortable with adults, so the wait staff rotates with you. Our waiter, Levi, entertained the kids with magic tricks, riddles and funny stories while we waited for our next course. On the night my husband and I ate at the fine dining Italian restaurant, Palo (fabulous gourmet food for $15 a person), Levi told the kids they still could come and have dinner with him. They didn’t–too much pizza and ice cream earlier–but I would have been very comfortable knowing he was watching over them while we ate.

Disney’s Castaway Cay

Disney’s short cruises (best for cruise novices and families with smaller children) include a stop in Nassau (where we found nothing to interest the kids, although my husband and I dragged them for a walk around town) and the treat of the trip: one or two stops at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.

Castaway Cay, like the ships themselves, is top-notch, pristine and clean. You can spend the day with the kids playing on the beach (walk past the crowds and you’ll find stretches of sand you can have almost to yourselves). Or book a massage in one of the beachside cabanas and sign the kids in to play at Scuttle’s Cove, the kids’ programming on the island. You’ll get a beeper so you can return to collect them in case that doesn’t work for them, as it didn’t for my daughter.

You can pay a fee to feed the stingrays (the barbs have been removed) and then spend some time snorkeling with the rays. I thought it was cool to feed the rays, but all of the younger kids were freaked by the rays swimming around their legs. There was so much sand swirling in the water that it was tough to see anything when we snorkeled. Save your money and stop by after the feeding frenzy once the sand settles and wade into the water up your knees for a much clearer—and free–look at these majestic creatures.