The Happiest Place on Earth is in California, and the “most magical” is at Walt Disney World, but the most relaxing locale Disney has ever created is Castaway Cay, a Bahamian island exclusively for Disney Cruise Line passengers.
The Disney-operated Cay — pronounced “key” — hosts three glimmering beaches, a duo of water slides, multiple play areas, and an irrefutable amount of family fun. Kids can excavate a sand-covered boneyard while adults escape to a corner of the island reserved exclusively for them, or swim out into the ocean together to whip around on speedy waterslides.
Amidst its athletic adventures, relaxing hammocks, and a trio of restaurants deliver fresh fruit, BBQ and unlimited ice cream, Castaway Cay has become more than just a daytime pitstop. It’s a destination as in-demand as the parks themselves, even without any rides.
Castaway Cay’s popularity stems from its above-average experiences: It’s not just an island vacation but a meticulously crafted one. Here, there are always enough beach chairs for every guest, and coconuts are constantly trimmed back from trees to prevent them from inopportune falls.
Even standard activities like snorkeling are over-the-top. The isle contains 22 acres of underwater fauna swimming amidst hidden Minnie and Mickey figurines and even a submerged ride vehicle from Walt Disney World’s now-shuttered “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” attraction.
Disney’s not the only company with a private corner of the tropics — Royal Caribbean operates two, CocoCay and Labadee, and Norwegian, Holland America and Princess Cruise Lines each have their own — but frequent Disney travelers are so obsessed with the oceanic getaway that it ranks among far-flung destinations like Shanghai Disneyland and Aulani. Rare “double dip” itineraries, which take passengers to the Bahamian isle twice in one trip, are jealousy-inducing jaunts.
There is plenty for kids to do ashore — Disney Cruise Line’s famed supervised activities extend to Scuttle’s Cove, an onsite play area, as well as an exclusive-to-teens Hideout — but the entirety of the Cay comes paired with a certain Disney je ne sais quoi. Characters like Captain Jack Sparrow, Daisy and Chip and Dale appear throughout the island, Goofy leads midday dance parties, and Mickey and friends are even painted upon Mt. Rushmore-style rocks for a quintessential photo op.
Castaway Cay has a history both in line with The Walt Disney Company — scenes from the Tom Hanks-starring “Splash” were shot here — and far from its squeaky-clean image. According to the Disney Dish Podcast with expert historian Jim Hill, Gorda Cay, as it was then called, served as a drug smuggling epicenter in the 1970s and ‘80s. Its convenient location to the United States made for a lucrative operation that culminated in a cocaine seizure totaling $100 million dollars. Disney has never publicly confirmed nor denied the island’s past, but there are still signs in plain view. The tram path shuttling guests to Serenity Bay is actually the former airstrip, and a rusted airplane nearby only adds to the mystery.
These days, Castaway Cay’s popularity stems from a sort of mass appeal, providing every kind of Disney vacation in one. The retreat is an extension of the cruise, which is an extension of the parks, giving everything from Olaf’s beachside frozen drink stand to an early morning 5K race — for which finishers yield a complimentary medal — that special sense of magic, just like when Disneyland debuted in the 1950s. (Yes, Disney Cruise Line passengers are so captivated that they wake up extra-early on vacation to go jogging.)
It’s not just family fun on any island, it’s Disney’s island. Kayaking and paddle boats are offered on site, parasailing and fishing excursions can be booked directly and Serenity Bay, exclusive to adults, makes for an easy romantic beachside afternoon. And, if Disney Cruise Line’s on-board aquatics aren’t enough, there’s Pelican Plunge, a floating platform with water play features and two twisting waterslides, all out in the ocean.
Its conveniences extend to a cross-island tram service, while amenities by way of private cabanas — which are always sold out, despite the price — are at the top of its class. Even the winding bike paths, which feel like backroads through shrubbery and untamed land, make for a thrilling escape from the comfortable fun that highlights the obvious potential for more. The majority of Castaway Cay remains undeveloped and rife for expansion, and with three new Disney-helmed cruise liners arriving in 2021, 2022 and 2023, the horizon for Mickey Mouse’s ocean-faring future is just as bright as the one off of the coast.