The “Special” Treatment on Disney Cruise Line

Earlier in the fall, my family was invited to be on the “Disney Magic Re-Imagined” media sailing. Since so many people asked me what’s it’s like to travel with a special needs child on Disney Cruise Line, I put together this post to give you an idea of what to expect and how to make your cruise as successful as possible for your whole family.

For the junior cruiser, the biggest draw of the ship is probably the kids clubs. These are the Oceaneer Club and the Oceaneer Lab, and they were among the newly “re-imagined” areas debuting on this cruise.  In the Oceaneer Club, kids aged 3-12 will find Andy’s Room from Toy Story (climbing, slide and trampoline), MARVEL’s Avengers Academy (video games and the chance to become Iron Man), a Mickey Mouse Club section (interactive play), and Pixie Hollow (drawing and princess/Captain Hook costumes).

Hamm showing his #disneyside

Connected to the Club is Disney’s Oceaneer Lab, also geared to children 3 to 12 years, where kids can play games, perform educational experiments and enjoy a wide variety of supervised activities throughout the day. The Magic also has a nursery for younger guest, and older kid hang out/socialization areas, but based on the age of my son (7), our experiences were solely at the Club and the Lab.

The big screen in the Oceaneer Club

One of the things I was most curious about was how these clubs accommodated children with special needs.  Since my son is on the spectrum, we don’t take a smooth-running vacation for granted.  We don’t know how he will react to new things and for the sake of those supervising him and the other kids, we want to do everything we can in advance to make sure that he can have as great a time as we do.  We also have an older child with food allergies, and while she’s old enough to fend for herself, a lot of the kids coming into the club aren’t, and that can be a source of concern for many parents.

We all want to play in Andy’s Room!

I got to take a tour during the Open House, which is the only time parents are allowed in to see all the fun.  To answer some of my questions,  I had the chance to speak with Gabe, the Youth Activities Coordinator in the Oceaneer Club about how they work to make sure the ship is as accommodating as possible for all needs.

All aboard for Marvel's Avengers Academy
All aboard for Marvel’s Avengers Academy

I learned from Gabe that:

*Each kid in the club wears an RFID bracelet, much like the Magic Bands in the park.  Only people authorized to pick up your child can do so, which gave me extra piece of mind.

*All cast members who work in the kids clubs are required to take disability awareness training two times a year.

* The youth facilities are all wheelchair accessible, with the exception of the slide in the Andy’s bedroom section of the Oceaneer’s Club (just no way to do that as you can see in the picture below).  However, one of the pluses of the new layout of the clubs is it allows them to keep track of the kids in the spaces better than before with the old floor plan.  Kids are able to freely and safely move in between the two spaces which keeps everyone happy.

Where the slide exits
Where the slide exits

* Counselors are trained in use of EpiPens.  All of them.  Every kind.

* Kids can eat meals in the club but no outside food or drink is allowed.  Based on my experience in getting special meals for my nut allergic child, they have plenty of food on board to suit most any diet, and they are knowledgeable about ingredients and preparation methods.

I asked Gabe to tell me from his perspective what’s the most important thing a parent can do to ensure that a child has the best possible experience in the Club.  He said that when you are registering your child online for the clubs, make sure you provide as much detail as possible.  Not just a diagnosis or label, but truly tell them who your child is.  They read these forms, and take notes.  They want to maintain the environment you have at home, so if you have a way of redirecting your child or encouraging them to maintain a standard of behavior, let them know.  At the start of every cruise, there is an open house.  Go.  Talk to the cast members in the club.  Ask them questions.  Tell them about your child.  They want your child to love it as much as the next kid.

For us, we have a child who must be holding something – a stuffed toy, a book, whatever.  They don’t want outside toys in the clubs (believe me, there are plenty in there!) but for us, they just asked that we label the toy and be aware that it could be lost (we were ok with that!).

So much stuff to do here!

If you can’t figure out how to give this information this online, call Disney Cruise Line and the cast members who man the lines will figure out how to convey that information.  Bottom line – they want to do whatever they can to make sure the Club experience is a great one for your child.

Jordan can’t believe he’s playing right next to Chip!

For us, the Disney Oceaneer Club was a happy and safe place for my son.  During dinner our first night, all I heard was “IS IT OPEN YET?!?” He was quite happy to eat a quick meal, but he really wanted to get back and play.  Apparently, there were several visits from characters that had him in a tizzy.

Old friends reconnecting in the nursery area

He gravitated more to the Club (more traditional character based programming) than the Lab (entertainment for older kids) and was quite happy to spend his time coloring or wandering around in a dress-up costume.  Whenever I would go to the Club to pick him up, the cast members around him always had a funny story about something he had done, and seemed to genuinely enjoy their time with him.  Jordan made some friends there, but had no problems being in the club alone.

Dressing up in Pixie Hollow
Dressing up in Pixie Hollow

One of the counselors said that some kids don’t even know that they are at sea, and I believe it.  The Club is a wonderland of fun for any kid, and can certainly be an amazing place for kids with special needs.  To book your stay or for more information on Disney Cruises visit

Disclosure: Your mileage as a parent may vary – these are my experiences only and you should work with Disney Cruise Line to make sure your child’s special needs are taken care of to your satisfaction. Disney provided travel for me and a guest to experience the Magic.  All other expenses were my own.  

SAVING MR BANKS – a review

Last night, I got to see a preview of the new Disney film SAVING MR. BANKS.

mr banks 1

Two-time Academy Award®–winner Emma Thompson and fellow double Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks topline Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” inspired by the extraordinary, untold backstory of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the screen.

When Walt Disney’s daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins,” he made them a promise—one that he didn’t realize would take 20 years to keep. In his quest to obtain the rights, Walt comes up against a curmudgeonly, uncompromising writer who has absolutely no intention of letting her beloved magical nanny get mauled by the Hollywood machine. But, as the books stop selling and money grows short, Travers reluctantly agrees to go to Los Angeles to hear Disney’s plans for the adaptation.

For those two short weeks in 1961, Walt Disney pulls out all the stops. Armed with imaginative storyboards and chirpy songs from the talented Sherman brothers, Walt launches an all-out onslaught on P.L. Travers, but the prickly author doesn’t budge. He soon begins to watch helplessly as Travers becomes increasingly immovable and the rights begin to move further away from his grasp.

It is only when he reaches into his own childhood that Walt discovers the truth about the ghosts that haunt her, and together they set Mary Poppins free to ultimately make one of the most endearing films in cinematic history.

Inspired by true events, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the extraordinary, untold story of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the screen—and the testy relationship that the legendary Walt Disney had with author P.L. Travers that almost derailed it.

banks 2

This is a movie that I have honestly been waiting to see since September of 2012 when I got an email from the Disney list that production had started.  So many great actors.  An inside look at the making of a film classic.  A really unique story that I can totally relate to…

I mean, what writer doesn’t feel like her words are her own, and no one else should be able to do what they want with them?  I totally understood why Mrs. Travers would feel nervous about assigning the rights to someone else and losing control of characters that she regarded as family.

So when these two creative forces get together, it’s quite the fight.  One that neither side is prepared to lose.  Walt has promised his daughters he would make this movie, and he never goes back on a promise to his girls.  Mrs. Travers will not budge when it comes to the beloved Mary Poppins.  Heads butt.  Compromises are made.  Eventually, a movie happens, and that’s where this story lives.

banks 3

There are also flashbacks to Mrs. Travers’ childhood as Helen Goff, the daughter of a well-meaning alcoholic father who can’t seem to do the right things for his family.  You see the hard life that she had and how it shaped both her and her writings.  Colin Farrell plays her father and he hits all the right notes, making you feel the pain that Helen did every moment he is on screen.  You can look into his eyes and see exactly what he is feeling.  His daughter deserves better than him, but he can’t help his addictions.


Emma Thompson is getting raves her role which are totally well deserved.  For me, the biggest thrill was Tom Hank’s performance as Walt Disney.  I legitimately forgot at times that he was an actor, and just soaked into his performance as the man behind the Mouse.  Paul Giamatti also has a wonderful turn as Mrs. Travers’ driver.  My favorite moment was when she showed him she was listening to him all the time she was complaining about her trip to LA.

My other favorite moment was when Mrs. Travers walked into her hotel room and found it filled with all the Disney swag you could ever dream of.  Needless to say her response was not the same that mine would have been.

I took Sarah to see it, and at 14 she’s probably just the right age.  Younger, sure, but it’s not a kids movie, and it carries a PG-13 rating.  Nothing bad in there, you know, but it’s definitely got some subjects that would bore younger kids.

For the rest of you, GO GO GO to see this film.  You won’t regret it, and if you’re like me, you will be fantasizing about walking through Disneyland with Walt himself long after the movie ends.

In the meantime, check out this making of featurette about the music used in the film.  If you’re seen MARY POPPINS, you will know it well and even may find yourself singing along.

SAVING MR. BANKS opens in limited theaters on December 13, 2013 and opens wide on December 20, 2013.

Pixie Dust Girls at Sea!

Earlier in the fall, I had the opportunity to travel with Disney Cruise Line on the reimagined Disney Magic.  This ship is truly amazing.  We had a great time and I can’t wait to share all our adventures with you.

All About for Disney Magic!

As you can see, all the Gersteins were able to attend, which made it even more special.  Even little Donald made it on board!

To get my trip recap started, here’s a short clip of me speaking with Lisa Migliorati from the Walt Disney Imagineering team.  Lisa has been involved with the Disney Magic reinvention from start to finish, supervising the refurbishment at the shipyard in Italy.  Here, I got the chance to ask her a few questions about what on the ship is most amazing to her and what it was like to take this beauty out of the water and make it even better.

Let me know what you’re most interested in learning about and I will make sure I cover it in a future post.