We were still buried in feet of snow in Colorado although ski season was dwindling. Without an end to the cold in sight, Spring Break was upon us. Now, I am a Midwest girl of the mindset that all Spring Breaks should be spent somewhere warm, basking in the sun and brushing off the sand. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I first became an educator in my adult life--so that I could continue to have that glorious week long stretch of days applying sunscreen, fending off heat stroke, and adjusting my wide-brimmed hat.
Not many career paths detour and frolic to allow you to keep this sacred ritual. No, after almost 17 years of celebrating Spring Break, the workforce is the first official party-pooper to rip Spring Break away from our tanned hands, laugh at our sun and dolphin tattoos--beachside badges of honor hailing from Daytona and Myrtle beaches--and spike a beach-ball sized dose of adulting in our faces.
But I am not a quitter. So, I have held onto the miracle of Spring Break as long as humanly possible.
And while the days of Spring Break past had taken me to popular daiquiri-drenched places like Miami, Fort Myers Beach, and Cancun, the mom in me was now looking for more family-friendly options without the beer bong or American Flag bikini.
Mexico seemed to be the perfect solution for sun and serenity, and we decided on Playa del Carmen because of its easy access from Cancun Airport and its location along the Carribean Sea. The ability to take day trips to nearby Cozumel and Tulum was also a huge plus.
Playa del Carmen is one of the Quintana Roo’s largest coastal cities. It’s about 35 miles from the Cancun International Airport and an hour-long ferry ride to the island of Cozumel. Known for its reefs for world-class snorkeling and diving, Playa del Carmen attracts active tourists and adventurers. The Playacar beach runs along the southside of the ferry dock along the Playacar residential area, where we stayed. It’s sands are pretty and water is blue. Aside from the occasional seagrass, it’s what you would expect from a Carribean beach. Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue, is located just off the beach and is jammed-packed with restaurants and shops.
We opted to stay at an Airbnb single family home in Playacar, Casa la Loma. With seven of us, this offered the most space and ability to cook and come and go as we pleased. The home was located in Playacar fase 1, a gated community a few steps from the private beach that offered 24 hour security. The villa was directly next to the Mayan ruins and short walk into town.
With four bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms, a pool and large kitchen, the villa gave everyone their own space and had ample room to cook and eat together. While the pool was rather small, the kids didn’t seem to mind. The property manager, Nazario, was more than willing to help us figure out where to go and what to do and even did the first grocery run for us! (Although, now that I think of it, it may have been to make-up for the enormous scorpion we found in one of the showers when we arrived!)
Outside of playing at the beach and exploring town, we spent one day in Cozumel sailing on a private catamaran and another at Xcaret, an enormous water, theme, and amusement park in Playa del Carmen. There, we toured the underground rivers by floating with life vests through the fresh crystalline waters and around the massive maze of caves and fossilized coral. After the underground rivers, we ventured off to discover dolphins, sharks, crocodiles and flamingos. We snorkeled in a safe, enclosed area that was easy for the kids to exit in and out. We ate lunch at a buffet that turned out to be pretty good (included in our Xcaret plus package) and wrapped up our day at the Children’s World where the kids could climb up suspension bridges and slide down water slides to calm cenotes. You could spend days at Xcaret and never get bored. In fact, I think we only scratched the surface during our 8-hour excursion. While I can see how it could get very crowded, Xcaret is still well worth the trip if you're traveling with kids.
Our Mexican vacation ended in Cancun with our flight back to the states. Just as we were about to board the plane, we realized we’d forgotten to keep hold of the TOURIST CARD--a small slip the flight attendants give you upon arriving to Mexico. There is both an entrance and exit portion of the tourist card, and you are to keep the exit portion for your departure. We didn’t do that. What happened next resulted in a lot of tears, all-out sprinting, and cold, hard cash. But, after what felt like an eternity when a flight is being held for you, we were able to take our seats--sweaty and flustered--and head back home.
Where to Stay
Playacar is safe and central to everything you’ll want to explore--the beach, town, and the ferry to Cozumel.
What to Do
Take the ferry to Cozumel for a day and rent a private catamaran
Drive to Tulum for ruins and turtles
Visit Xcaret for family fun
Explore Fifth Avenue and all the shops
Where to Eat
El Fogon- hands-down the best taco joint in all of Playa del Carmen. Recommended by just about every local we met. We went twice.
Don Chendo- good for pizza and other Italian dishes.
Grab your groceries at WalMart. One of my favorite parts of traveling is visiting the grocery stores. While this mega-mart is a lot like the ones in the states, you’ll still get a sense of Mexican fare through what’s on offer.
Moms are supposed to love a lot of things. It starts with pregnancy when every annoyance/ache/ailment must be gently swaddled in readily available euphemisms.
No, I’m not drenched in sweat from lugging around an extra 50 pounds all day. I’m a glowing goddess.
No, that’s not indigestion. That’s the miracle of life bubbling up inside me.
No, those aren’t stretch marks. Those are the brush strokes of an artist creating a masterpiece.
Then, we are supposed to love having a newborn. The sleepless nights (we are bonding!). The sore boobs (it’s what’s best!). The miniature diapers filled with mustard-colored poop (look how cute!).
For a brief moment, during the toddler years, we are allowed to push the rose-colored glasses up next to the messy buns on top of our heads and take a breather from the lovefest. As our sweet babies turn into tantrum-throwing tyrants, we trade in our terms of endearment for jokes and jabs that all revolve around their notorious reputation.
Talk about the Terrible Twos!
Looks like you’ve got a threenager on your hands!
To be fair, if people were talking that kind of trash about me behind my back, I’d act like an asshole, too.
Then, maybe to make up for the previous years, we double-down just before kindergarten.
My baby is growing up so fast!
Or, the ultimate: One day you'll put them down and never pick them up again.
But, above all else, above the love of the first macaroni necklace made for Mother’s Day, above the Anne Gedde-inspired photos of our sleeping newborns made to look like acorns or peas or contortionists, above our affinity for high-waisted yoga pants and sensible shoes, every mom must love Disney.
And, damn, do they.
A trip to Disney starts out like a fairy tale romance. There's first the nostalgia; the memory of dancing alongside a thick-glassed television set as Sleeping Beauty looped on the brand-new VCR and mom made spinach dip in a pumpernickel bread bowl. Then, there's the music. How every lyric from “Kiss the Girl” can be accessed on autopilot, played on repeat like the soundtrack for a dinner by candlelight. There's the slightly disturbing fantasy of finding a prince or, in my case, a Beast to love. And there's our own first visits to Disney. The excitement. The magic. Whatever it is, this love runs so deep that moms everywhere take to planning a trip to Disney like they do a wedding.
They book the trip years in advance, create spreadsheets to compare hotels, and scour the internet for deals on everything from meal plans to Mickey Mouse ears. They meticulously plot out the rides, maximizing every moment, eliminating those that are too scary or too babyish. They coordinate the outfits with clever quotes screen printed in glitter across the chest. Disney Dad. Mama Mouse. Park Hop Til You Drop. They make reservations at the Castle for tea and appointments at the salon for tiaras. They download the app. They order the bands. They pack the signature book with the matching pen. And they do this all while humming "It’s a Small World" as if nothing at all could ever go wrong and their planning and packing will be rewarded with real-life pixie dust that will erase the ear infection/flu/hand foot and mouth disease that has plagued the household and, come hell or high water, catapult everyone to a Whole New World.
But I don’t love Disney.
There. I said it.
Don’t get me wrong. Moms who do are nothing short of saints. I, however, tend to find myself on the other end of the spectrum. I wanted nothing to do with that 90-year-old mouse with the perma-grin and freakishly large hands, but since Skinny Jeans was going through a mad princess phase (thanks Frozen), I knew I couldn’t avoid Disney forever. So, when I was first exposed to the world of Disney as a parent, I didn't choose the wedding, I chose to elope and booked a cruise instead.
Here’s the deal: There are no shortages of places you can go to find tons of information on a Disney Cruise. There are even travel agents who specifically deal with this type of thing. I’m not going to pretend I know much of anything about sailing the high seas or character greetings or whatever the hell that app is where you're supposed to sign up to stand in lines for the rides. There are people who literally live for this stuff. I am not one of those people, so I completely understand if this is where you stop reading and go find someone credible.
But, if you're still with me, here's what I will share:
The top 10 things I learned from my experience as a lazy, anti-Disney, sort-of-terrified of boats mom on a Disney Cruise ship with a preschooler
10. Click to Book
For me, there was no obsessing or planning when it came to booking this trip. I just took a wad of money, threw it at my computer screen, clicked on a few things and--viola!--my Disney Cruise was booked. I did all my booking through Costco so I could get a $250 gift card and buy all the enormous tubs of cheeseballs I wanted. I figured that if I was going to allow that marketing monster of a mouse to feed on my soul for six days out on the open seas, I was going to need something to fill it back up when I got home, and cheeseballs seemed like they would do the trick. In a few quick clicks, I booked a stateroom that came with shows, themed deck parties, character experiences, all meals, snacks, beverages (except alcohol), and the youth clubs. Excursions were extra. And there was other crap you could buy, but we didn’t.
9. Five Nights is More Than Enough
We booked a 5-night Western Caribbean cruise aboard the Disney Wonder, a 83,000-ton vessel with 875 staterooms and 11 decks. We departed from Miami and docked in Cozumel and Disney’s own island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay, before heading back to Miami. This was plenty of time to spend out at sea (read: stuck on the ship envisioning how it will all go down like the Titanic and how not even one single guy on the ship looks like Leo) and to do the gimmicky stuff at the ports. While we had fun on land (especially when we could get away from everyone on the ship), I quickly realized that this type of cruise is not a cultural experience, unless you count it as a study in over-indulgent Americana. You won’t have enough time to truly explore the places where the ship docks or immerse yourself in local life, but that’s not really the point of a cruise, is it?
8. Get a Room with a View
We opted for an ocean view room that had a large porthole window. Sleeping 3 with 214 sq. feet, it was surprisingly big from what I’d heard staterooms could be. On one side, there was a pull-out couch in a little living room section with a flat-screen and, on the other, a queen-sized bed. A heavy curtain separated the two, which was great for when Skinny Jeans wanted to nap on the couch and we wanted to drink, I mean, relax in bed. The bathroom was tiny (and perpetually smelled like pee) but we had plenty of storage space for all of our stuff. (An actual tip: I brought an over the door shoe organizer to hang in the closet to put things like sunglasses, sunscreen, flip flops, etc.)
7. You’ll Eat With Strangers
You’re going to be assigned a location and seating for dinner every night. We were paired with another family of three. They were lovely. We were lucky. I’m sure some pairings don’t quite work out that way, so be prepared to dread dinner and play some serious rock-paper-scissors with your spouse to see who has to sit by Dad Jokes or the extra enthusiastic Mouse Mom. I will say that the food at dinner was always great and Disney does a dynamite job at accommodating for food allergies (an added adventure when traveling with Skinny Jeans and Peter).
6. The Kids Club is Legit
This will be one of the main reasons you book a Disney Cruise, and it does not disappoint. At the first sign of bulking, a cast member is there to engage with your child and get them interested in something fun. And, for parents, there are portable phones on the ship that allow the kids club to call with any issues. There was even a night when Belle from Beauty and the Beast came to the club and read the kids a bedtime story. Skinny Jeans still talks about how cool that was.
5. Castaway Cay Reminded Me of The Truman Show
After the captain of our ship made several attempts to dock in the choppy waters (and I again pictured the ship sinking and everyone drowning or being eaten by sharks), we finally got to Castaway Cay, Disney’s own island in the Bahamas. Void of anything authentic, it felt a lot like being on a movie set. Even weirder was that every person we met on the island also worked on the ship, except only they wore Hawaiian shirts on the island. Dying to stretch our legs a bit, Peter and I ran a very cheesy 5k while Skinny Jeans went to the sandy kids club. Since it was somewhat cold and windy, we didn’t venture into the ocean. We basically just walked around, ate BBQ, and wondered who was watching us on T.V.
4. Swimming with Dolphins is Will Make You Feel Like a Horrible Human but You’ll Do It Anyway
As the droves of people from our ship took buses out to the beautiful Chankanaab National Reef Park, I hated knowing the dolphins would be forced to perform, day after day, from one obnoxious tourist to the next at the nearby Dolphin Discovery. I felt horrible knowing that those big, beautiful animals were confined to just a slice of the vast ocean purely for our entertainment. I almost cancelled the reservation twice. And yet...it was a highlight of our adventure. Besides, Skinny Jeans got to get up close to a majestic creature, connect to nature, and build a deep appreciation for wildlife that she will likely one day take and use to chain herself to trees and protest zoos, so we’re even.
3. Alcohol Not Included
Make no mistake: this is not a booze cruise. If you want alcohol to drown out the ongoing Disney soundtrack playing at every turn, you’re going to need to buy it. So, even though you can stuff your face all day long with Disney delights and unlimited refills of sugary soda, plan to throw down on a few cocktails.
2. Swim with Caution
We were warned that the pools on the ship would be minuscule, so I wasn’t shocked to see that they were approximately the size of my dining room table. As sun-screened children poured into the shallow waters, barely enough room to kick or splash, I watched the liquid turn from clear to cloudy in a matter of minutes. Periodically, the pools were drained and refilled with fresh water. Once the kids' pool was drained for an unknown reason (my money’s on poop) and another time it was drained because someone dropped glass. While we tried our hardest to pull Skinny Jeans away from the murky mess, she ended up bopping around, waist-deep, on more than one occasion. While I don’t have concrete proof, I’m pretty sure the pool was the reason Skinny Jeans spent the last day on the ship in the medical center and sent home with a bottle of penicillin.
1. Your Kids Will Love It
No one has it dialed in for kids more than Disney. With every squirt of ketchup made into a Mickey Mouse head for children to dip, every Broadway-caliber show sure to dazzle, and every activity to entertain even the grumpiest of kids, Disney does it right. The service is second to none, and the people pretend to like your kids no matter what God-awful thing they're doing. Our dinner servers even went as far as to bring our last night's 5-course meal to our room when Skinny Jeans was too sick to leave. Love it or hate it, you can’t argue with the fact that your kids are guaranteed a good time. And, thus, the vicious cycle of Disney love will live on.
This place fits: Families looking for an introduction to Disney without all the hassle.
Where to Stay: Prior to the cruise, we stayed at the Hotel Colonnade Coral Gables, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel, Coral Gables. Our cruise ship was Disney’s Wonder
Where to Eat: Everywhere. You can literally eat everywhere.
What to Do:
On the ship, we met the characters from Frozen, attended the pirate themed deck party, and went to all the evening shows. With movie theaters, dance clubs, and a menu of activities to choose from each day, you'll never run out of things to do.
In Cozumel, we did the Dolphin Discovery at Chankanaab National Reef Park. After hanging with the dolphins, we explored the park, met some seals and crocadlies, and did a little snorkeling.
At Castaway Cay, we ran the 5k, explored the entire island by foot, and lounged around the beach.
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