You did it! After hearing about the absolutely magical voyages of Disney Cruise Line, you finally took the plunge and booked your “Dream” vacation. All of the “Magic” and “Wonder” of a Disney Cruise is in your grasp. Your “Fantasy” is about to become reality! But you keep hearing past cruisers talk about…fish. And they don’t seem to be referring to the menu in Animator’s Palate or the Finding Nemo movie on deck. So what in the heck is all this fishy talk about?
What is a Fish Exchange?
Basically, a fish exchange is like a Secret Santa on the high seas. Groups of Disney-loving passengers arrange groups prior to sailing and decide on “rules” for their exchange. Typically each cabin signed up will buy or make a gift for each cabin in their group and deliver it during the cruise. This way, when you get back to the cabin after a long day in port, at Castaway Cay or just lounging by the pool, a little bit of pixie dust awaits you.
How do I join in the fishy fun?
Unfortunately, things have become a bit complicated in this area. The idea of a gift exchange originated on www.Disboards.com when a woman named Debbie passed out the first gifts on a Panama Canal cruise in 2005. After that, the DISboards encouraged cruisers to post under their Disney Cruise Line section to meet up and plan exchanges. After a while, this evolved and some passengers found it easier to communicate via Facebook and plan via Google docs. Many groups functioned on both pages simultaneously. However, in November of 2014, DISboards moderators banned any talk of Facebook or Google docs from their pages. Currently, interested voyagers can search for their cruise on either Facebook (search by name of ship and date and request to join the group) or the DISboards (on the DCL page under “Disney Cruise Meets”). Once you locate your shipmates, the group will set the guidelines for your exchange (how many cabins will participate, group gifts as opposed to individual, etc.). Groups are typically closed a month or more prior to sailing in order to give everyone time to plan (and maybe even create) their gifts, so don’t wait too long to find your “school” and start swimming! Sometimes the fish exchange group even arranges an optional time to meet and get to know each other on the ship as well.
So what does any of this have to do with fish?
Now, don’t panic…a fish exchange has nothing to do with smelling, eating, cooking or gifting actual fish. You will not be leaving the ship with three goldfish in a plastic baggie like the carnivals of your childhood. On Disney Cruise Line ships, mounted to the wall outside each cabin, is a decorative clip used by the crew to leave messages, reservation confirmations or other shipboard communications. On the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder Cruise Ships, this clip is a pewter fish. Similarly, the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy feature seahorses on the starboard side of the ship, while portside cabins retain the traditional fish. Participating cabins hang fish extenders (more on these later) from these clips and gifts are placed inside, extending the fish to make it large enough for all of the goodies to come.
What will I need to get started?
To start, you will need a fish extender, some type of receptacle to hang from your fish, large enough to collect gifts. This could be as simple as a tote bag or a decorated hanging caddy or as elaborate as some of the hand sewn beauties designed with various Disney themes I have seen. Not artsy? A simple Internet search will turn up many reputable artists willing to personalize your family’s fish extender with names and themes. I have found www.etsy.com to be a great place to start.
DIStracted Tip: Unfortunately, villains, Disney or otherwise, do sometimes exist! Whatever fish extender you choose, be sure to bring along a few zip ties to secure your extender to the fish to make sure it doesn’t “disappear.” Try to check your extender a few times during the day, mateys, so none of your pirate booty gets pilfered! Arrrrr!
What kinds of gifts should I give?
Now for the fun part: gifts! Unfortunately, the “fun” sometimes causes the most stress. It is crucial to remember that the idea behind a fish exchange is to sprinkle a little extra pixie dust around, to be part of making the magic, not to judge others on the quality of their gifts. Just have fun! Many of the best gifts are practical ones, creative necessities: “emergency” kits with band-aids and sunscreen; highlighters to mark activities on your Personal Navigator or even hand sanitizer. Some cruisers choose to gift something exclusive to their hometown, state or country. You can give one larger gift per cabin or smaller gifts to every individual in each cabin. Base your decision on what you would like to give, cost and amount of space you have in your luggage. My family has enjoyed a myriad of amazing gifts. Handmade treasures have included jewelry of all kinds, key chains, Disney-themed coasters and bookmarks, hair bows and clips, key chains, luggage tags and pulls, picture frames and magnets. Our kids have been honored to receive gifts personalized with their names such as back sacks, hats, tote bags and water bottles. My husband and I have been gifted with personalized drink koozies, CDs of island or Disney music, recipes, even small bottles of alcohol. We, however, are not especially creative and not at all crafty. Family and friends pity my children and help them with craft projects because the only art supplies my husband and I know how to use are tape and scissors. And a stapler. That being said, Vistaprint.com is our go-to site for Fish Extender gifts. Over the years we have designed and ordered customized postcards, post-it notes, pens and notepads. The Disney Fantasy mouse pad currently sitting next to me as I type was my sister’s fish extender gift from our last cruise, also designed on Vistaprint.com. There are so many possibilities; just embrace your strengths and know your limits!
Where is that Genie and his Magic Lamp? (Also known as: HOW CAN I AFFORD THIS?)
Now, I know you are thinking…how much is this going to cost? Can Uncle Scrooge McDuck help me out? We all know that a Disney Cruise Line vacation is not inexpensive. However, adding fish extender gifts does not have to throw your budget overboard. Little Huey, Dewey and Louie still have to go to college some day! One way to keep costs down is for your group to decide to split into multiple sub-groups if the numbers get too large. For example, if 60 cabins join your group, you may choose to split into two groups of 30 cabins each. You would only be responsible for gifting the other 29 other cabins in your sub-group, making the numbers much more manageable and keeping costs down. Or you may choose to split into three groups of 20 cabins each. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion to your group and do what works for you. Whatever you choose to spend is a personal decision and a gift of any amount should be appreciated.
Taking part in a fish exchange can really be an exciting addition to an already Magical voyage. My family loves racing around the ship passing out our gifts and meeting others in our group. It is so exciting heading back to our cabin to see what surprises have been left for us. Give it a try on your next Disney cruise. While you will likely not see Nemo or Dory or even Flounder, you will have a blast participating in a fish exchange…pixie dust and fun with no tank to clean and no fishy odor!