Amidst a hectic two days on the Disney Dream‘s recent Christening Cruise, I welcomed the only stop on our short Caribbean voyage Disney’s Castaway Cay private island. But while the views are breathtaking and unique activities plentiful, all is not perfect on this fabricated island paradise.
Far from the hustle of Disney’s theme parks, Castaway Cay offers visitors a chance to kick back and do nothing. That’s right, it’s a Disney experience where the most common activity to just sit and relax. For those who need a little more fun than sunbathing, the vast ocean setting offers a chance to swim and snorkel and Disney even plusses that experience with the relatively new addition of a pair of short water park-style water slides, enjoyable for kids of all ages (that means adults too!). There’s also an unlimited supply of food and, while not fantastic, is a welcome addition to the off-board cruise experience.
Castaway Cay is not without missteps, but let’s focus on the best of Disney’s version of a Caribbean getaway first…
The Disney Dream docked at Castaway Cay early in the morning, before I was awake. Stepping out on to the aft-facing balcony of my state room, I was greeted by the sunny sight of curved beaches and endless palm trees. Before heading to the island, a morning of walking around the ship was filled with similarly enticing views. It’s a great way to wake up.
Upon spotting Stitch greeting guests going ashore, I knew it was time to disembark:
A swipe of the “Key to the World” card lets crew members know you’ve stepped off of the ship, so they won’t leave you behind. After that, it’s time to explore.
A quick glance at a conveniently-posted map gets guests acquainted with the island.
Here’s a closer look:
But it’s not a far walk to reach the active areas of Castaway Cay. In fact, very little walking is needed at all.
Castaway Cay trams
Three main areas comprise Castaway Cay, each with its own unique activities and amenities. It would likely take upwards of 20-30 minutes to walk from end to end, but fortunately Disney provides theme park-style trams, free of charge, to get guests where they’re going.
Here’s a video compilation of three tram rides, beginning at the stop closest to the cruise ship and ended at the farthest point away, Serenity Bay:
Snorkeling at Castaway Cay
Backtracking to the beginning at the first tram stop (Scuttle’s Cove), guests find Castaway Cay’s main swimming areas. Alongside family beaches, the Swimming Lagoon is a roped-in ocean area accessible for anyone who wants to swim. Nearby, the Snorkeling Lagoon offers a chance to swim amongst fish and a few deliberately-sunken treasures. Guests can either rent a mask and snorkel from Disney or bring their own from home (recommended).
Take a swim with me through Castaway Cay’s Snorkeling Lagoon in this video:
Take warning: On little sleep, a swim from front-to-back in the Snorkeling Lagoon can be exhausting. After seeking out the sunken boat, Mickey Mouse statue, and Nautilus from the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride, I barely had enough energy remaining to make it back to shore. All snorkelers are required to wear brightly-colored inflatable vests (though they aren’t required to be inflated). The vests provide buoyancy and make it easy for the many stationed lifeguards to spot guests in need of help. Only strong swimmers should attempt to make the grand circle tour of the entire lagoon.
Also worth noting is that the vest can cause some friction irritation, so wearing a shirt underneath is highly recommended. And if you’re planning a cruise during winter months, you can expect beautiful outside temperatures in the 70s, but rather cold water temperatures well below that. In fact, the ocean water was so cold during this voyage that very few visitors were swimming. It took me 20-30 minutes to adjust to the extreme temperature difference.
But it was worth the exhaustion, irritation, and near-hypothermia, as in addition to the video above, I snapped some great photos along the way:
Where else but at a Disney island can you find magical treasures like that waiting underwater?
Also found around these first beaches are various extra-cost activities, like hopping aboard paddle boats, glass-bottom boats, jet skis, and other recreational vehicles. There’s also “In-Da-Shade Games” featuring basketball, billiards, ping-pong, shuffleboard, and more. Kids will also find the Scuttle’s Cove play area here, set up for supervised children’s program fun.
Of course, there are plenty of places to stretch out and relax across the beach:
Pelican Point and Pelican Plunge
The second tram stop drops guests at Pelican Point, home to more beach relaxing, a few cabanas, and most importantly, the Pelican Plunge. Not even a year old, the ocean water slides of Pelican Plunge premiered at Castaway Cay in May 2010. They’re the closest activity to a theme park ride on the island and a whole lot of fun.
Take a video ride with me on both of the Pelican Plunge slides:
To get to the the Pelican Plunge barge, guests must swim through a short stretch of ocean water, where they will then be deposited back into after riding the slides.
Both slides wind in circles before dumping guests into the ocean, though the open-air slide is far slower than the enclosed one, which offers a nose full of water at the end if you’re not prepared. On the barge, visitors will also enjoy a giant water bucket dump, some high-powered water guns, and some pretty incredible views of Castaway Cay.
It’s a great addition to the island, as one of its most fun parts.
All of the above-described areas of Castaway Cay are family-focused. That is, plenty of children can be expected to be running around. And with the potentially hot weather and long walks, there are bound to be tantrums thrown. Adults looking to escape from all of that will enjoy the quiet relaxation of Serenity Bay, open only to ages 18 and up.
Take a video stroll around Castaway Cay’s Serenity Bay:
Serenity Bay is all about simplicity. As the final stop on the tram system (utilizing a separate tram entirely from the other two stops), it’s tucked away in its own cove. Guests will find a bar and long stretches of beach in both directions, with little else.
The view out to the ocean is unobstructed and breathtaking:
Depending on the time of day and crowd level, guests may find it necessary to reserve a cabana on the rear side of Serenity Bay, offering shade, seating, and even greater privacy:
Curling up with a good book or just soaking in the sun, adults need to be careful at Serenity Bay, as the day might just melt away faster than they realize. Be sure to listen for the ship’s whistle as the final boarding call!
Disney’s private island downsides
It’s tough to imagine that a private island surrounded by beautiful blue oceans can have any downsides, but Disney’s Castaway Cay isn’t perfect.
All of the above enjoyment is included with a voyage on the Disney Cruise Line, whether it be on the new Disney Dream or Disney’s other cruise ships. But guests looking for more adventurous activities, such as riding jet skis, on glass-bottom boat, or swimming with stingrays, will quickly find that not everything is free.
Beyond swimming, eating, and resting, most of the activities available at Castaway Cay are for an additional cost on top of the hundreds already paid to Disney for taking the cruise out there. It’s not uncommon for “shore excursions” (as they’re often called in the cruise industry) to cost extra, but when it’s Disney’s own island, guests who are familiar with the usual buy-admission, ride-unlimitedly theme park ticketing process might be shocked when asked to pay even more.
The food at Castaway Cay is less than appealing. It’s great to kill a hungry appetite after swimming, but don’t expect an expertly prepared meal coming out of Cookie’s BBQ. It’s all quite edible, but certainly nothing special.
Guests may also find Castaway Cay to be a bit phony in atmosphere. Yes, it’s a real island in the real Caribbean, and Disney gets authenticity points for that. But it still feels like a “Main Street USA” version of being on an island. That feeling of fantasy works well while in a theme park, purposely removed from the real world, but a cruise to the Caribbean ought to accentuate the real world rather than simulate it.
Stopping at other ports on a cruise, guests get a feeling of what Caribbean life is like. Sure it’s a tourist-filled, souvenir-stocked version of the Caribbean, but it’s still real. Somewhere between the pre-recorded “local Caribbean guy” narration on the trams that’s meant to sound live but obviously isn’t and the roped-off stretches of beach and ocean, Disney loses touch with reality at Castaway Cay, instead offering a microcosm of what they believe guests want on a trip to a Caribbean island. It works great in theme parks, but not as well when the vastness of real-world nature should be the star of the show.
Even with its shortcomings, Castaway Cay offers enough of a variety of entertainment and activities for most travelers to enjoy, though some will cost extra. Active types can walk, swim, play sports, ride water slides, snorkel, and even scuba dive. Those looking for rest can pull up a lounge chair and let their minds drift into the sounds of the sea. Less outdoorsy types may find themselves tired of the island after a mere couple hours, ready to head back on board. On my next trip aboard a Disney cruise (whenever that may be), I’ll likely opt out of Castaway Cay in favor of further onboard exploration, having “been there, done that.” But first-timers will certainly get a kick out of a Disney-branded version of a peaceful Caribbean island.
More photos from Castaway Cay: