Cabana days on Castaway Cay
I was skeptical when Disney Cruise Line announced last year that it would be building private cabanas on the family and adult beaches as part of an overall expansion of Castaway Cay. Castaway Cay already offers more activities than any one person could experience in one trip, so why would I want to spend all or even part of the day sitting in a cabana? Then they announced the price—$500 a day—and I scoffed; I'd rather use that money as a sizable deposit on another cruise.
But that was before I had the opportunity to enjoy the cabanas during not one, but two, recent visits to Castaway Cay, and I admit, my opinion has changed. There is no disputing that they are still expensive, but the cabanas offer a completely new way to experience Castaway Cay for those willing to make the splurge.
If you book a cabana in advance (and you should; same-day rentals are often hard or impossible to book, especially on the family beach), you'll receive a paper model of your cabana in your stateroom the night before you reach Castaway Cay, along with an instruction letter and wristbands for everyone in your party. After you check in at the island information booth (there's one at each beach), your cabana host drives you to your cabana in a golf cart, and gives you a quick tour of your island home.
The 21 private cabanas—17 on the family beach, 4 on the adult beach—all offer essentially the same amenities. Each comes with a comfortable "indoor" seating area with a couch, two small coffee tables, two taller sofa tables, and two chairs (the incongruous dining room table mentioned in early descriptions of the cabanas was thankfully scrapped in the final design). Each cabana includes a refrigerator stocked with soft drinks and bottled water; you can also ask that adult beverages be stocked in the refrigerator for an additional fee. The refrigerator also contains a tray of scented damp washcloths, which were a refreshing surprise and quite welcome during the heat of the day. A basket containing chips and snack bars sits on top of the refrigerator, and a cabana host delivers a fruit tray shortly after your arrival. A basket of beach towels waits under the table, and a closet opens to reveal a small programmable safe (identical to those in the staterooms), and another stack of towels.
On the shaded deck are two comfortable lounge chairs, two more straight chairs, and another side table. Each cabana has a fresh water shower and one hammock outside. A basket of magazines, a selection of Coppertone sunscreen, and a bag of sand toys (family beach only) complete the in-cabana amenities. Each cabana has a buzzer that summons one of the attentive cabana hosts, who can provide refills if you run out of towels, soft drinks, or sunscreen, and who will page a bar attendant if you want to place an adult beverage order. Our hosts checked on us several times during the day just to make sure we had everything we needed, but were never intrusive. Bar servers also roamed the beaches, offering beverages and discreetly checking for wristbands.
The family cabanas share a private beach that is well-furnished with sun loungers, chairs and umbrellas, and stocked with floats and rafts; bikes and snorkel equipment can be checked out at no charge from the nearby rental locations. Serenity Bay cabana guests access the adult beach via a gate (really just a rope) in front of cabana #19, and the floats and rafts are stacked next to each cabana. Bikes can again be checked out at the Serenity Bay rental location.
The cabanas on the family beach are $499 for up to six guests (including children), and you can add up to four additional guests to some of the cabanas for an additional $50 per person. The adult beach cabanas are $399 for up to six guests, do not include the sand toys or snorkel equipment rental, and you are generally not allowed to add additional guests, though exceptions may be made.
As with all real estate, location matters. On the family beach, cabana #1 is closest to the restrooms, snorkel rental, and BBQ, though, as the only wheelchair-accessible cabana, it is usually reserved until all other cabanas are rented. Cabanas 2 through 17 are increasingly distant from the Pelican Bay facilities, but offer an increasing degree of seclusion. Cabanas 1 through 14 face the private beach reserved for cabana guests, while 15 through 17 face the breakwater and offer the most privacy. Cabanas 11 through 14 overlook the sand volleyball court, which may be a bonus or an annoyance, depending on your preferences. Cabana 10 was the first one built, and offers the "picture-perfect" view of your Disney cruise ship, but we think cabana 9 probably offers the ideal combination of view, location and sun exposure.
Over on the adult beach, cabanas 19 and 20 are set close together, with cabanas 18 and 21 a bit further apart. If you're looking for the most privacy, opt for #21. All of the cabanas on the adult beach are within easy walking distance of the Serenity Bay facilities, but the cabana hosts are also willing (in our case, eager) to offer a ride to and from your cabana upon request.
So what else do you get for your $400 or $500, along with some bottled water and a fruit bowl? Two words: Comfort and convenience. There's no racing to be the first off the boat to snag one of the all-too-few hammocks, or that ideal oceanfront sun lounger under an umbrella. You don't have to remember to pack the sunscreen or grab enough towels, and you don't have to seek a new shady spot throughout the day as the sun moves. You have a lovely space to store your belongings out of the sand and surf, your own personal space to rinse off and clean up after a swim, and a nice cool place to enjoy lunch, read a book or just watch the ocean. And far from what we expected, we didn't spend the entire day in the cabana. After we checked in, some hit the beach to sunbathe while others headed for Pelican Plunge or to snorkel. After lunch we enjoyed another swim, a bike ride around the island, or a lazy float in the ocean. The cabana wasn't so much our home as our home base, and it gave us all the flexibility to head off to other activities without worrying about saving our spot on the beach or carrying our gear around with us.
There are a few enhancements I think could make the experience even better. In the family cabanas, steel-drum music is piped into each hut, and there seems to be no way to turn it off or down, while the cabanas on the adult beach have no music at all. It would be great if the cabanas came with a way to plug in your own MP3 player, though that would likely raise complaints when nearby cabanas did not share your taste in music. An additional restroom facility for cabana guests would be most appreciated, especially on the family beach. Finally, now that Disney is issuing portable Wave phones to passengers for use onboard and on Castaway Cay, it would be more convenient if cabana guests could use their phones to contact the cabana hosts, rather than relying on a buzzer-and-pager system. During our second visit the buzzer was not working correctly, and we had to walk down to the information stand when we needed something.
Even with all that is included with the cabana rental, it's not a cheap prospect. Several couples I've spoken with said that they'd love to experience the cabanas, but it's just too pricey for just two people. My solution: find (or make) some friends.
For my first cabana experience, my husband and I split the cost of a cabana on the family beach with our four traveling companions, at about $170 per couple. We felt it was a reasonable cost when compared to the price of a jet ski tour or a parasailing adventure, and we wanted to see what made the cabanas so popular that they frequently sell out. After that first experience, I knew I wanted to book another cabana on my second cruise, so I rounded up six more people, including the dining companions I'd just met on this cruise, a couple I know from past cruises, and a couple I only knew by their discussion board screen names. This time we booked an Serenity Bay cabana, bringing the cost down to about $65 per person. My table mates joked about being set up on a blind date, but as we reluctantly packed up to leave the cabana that afternoon (our hosts encouraged us to take the remaining soft drinks, snacks and sunscreen back with us), declared it to be a perfect day.
Granted, this might not be the right strategy for everyone, but it worked well for us. I was fortunate in that there were no squabbles over who got the one hammock or the two sun loungers during my cabana stays, and there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone (though both times some of the group opted for the sun loungers on the beach). It might be more difficult to please everyone if you try to cram 10 adults into one cabana, but six fit just fine.
Despite a penchant for frequent Disney cruises, I actually tend to be fairly frugal in my shipboard spending, preferring lower-category staterooms and do-it-yourself shore excursions, and so a $500 cabana definitely does not fit into my normal budgeting for a trip. But $65 towards a shared cabana? I find that to be a perfect use of the shipboard credit we usually earn with each re-booking. The numbers aren't as favorable for families with children, but solo travelers or couples who think a cabana is completely out of reach should reconsider their options. I know my husband and I will be looking to form a Cabana Club any time we're heading to Castaway Cay.