Cozumel, Mexico, was one of the ports of call during our 5-night Western Caribbean Very Merrytime Cruise on the Disney Magic in December 2017. I was very excited that we would be traveling to Mexico on this cruise. I had visited Cozumel previously when I was a teenager, cruising with my family on-board a Holland America ship (this was way before Disney Cruise Line even existed!). During that visit, we tendered to Playa del Carmen and did a fantastic excursion to the Tulum Mayan ruins and Xel-Ha, a beautiful brackish water lagoon where we snorkeled. At the end of the excursion, we boarded the ship in Cozumel, where it had docked after dropping us off (and this was at night: it was quite a long day).
My husband had never been to Mexico and neither had my six-year-old son. I would have loved to have returned to Tulum, but that excursion would have been brutal with a young child, as it involves a long day of travel (e.g., ferry boat rides, walking, bus trip). So, in researching excursions, I tried to find something to do relatively close to the port of Cozumel.
One of my favorite places to do Disney cruise research is on the Disney Cruise Mom Blog. I was torn between the two excursions that Disney Cruise Mom had done during her previous visits to Cozumel: the ship-sponsored Dolphin Discovery port adventure and her self-guided visit to the private Nachi Cocom beach club. I was a little hesitant about the Dolphin Discovery excursion, as I didn’t know whether my son would freak out with a dolphin next to him in the water. I also was hesitant about Nachi Cocom, as I wasn’t sure whether I felt comfortable taking a taxi on our own to the beach club.
In the end, I decided on the Dolphin Discovery excursion, but after our experience, I wish I had been brave about the taxi and gone to Nachi Cocom instead. You’ll find out why later in my review.
In booking the excursion, we had a choice of three or four times in the morning when we could leave. I decided on the 9:45am departure time so that we weren’t rushed in the morning. We met up with the Disney port adventure folks in the D Lounge on the Magic around 9:30am or so. While waiting to leave, we picked up a bunch of towels (maybe six of them), as they had a huge stack on a table near the door. I’m glad I brought all those towels (even though it was a pain to lug them around), as we ended up using all of them while ashore. (Any time you go ashore to a beach or any place where you may get wet, bring at least two towels per person, along with a giant bag – e.g., a garbage bag – to more easily carry the towels.)
Once we disembarked, the Disney cast member handed the group over to one of the shore excursion guides. He (initially) was an entertaining and nice guy, and his name was Diego. He led us along the pier and through a shopping area, where he then had us board multiple group taxis. These actually are the same licensed taxis (all of them are white vehicles) that any tourist can take around the island of Cozumel. (Like Disney Cruise Mom, I tried to use the Bubble Bum inflatable booster seat for my son, but the taxi cab driver was booking it out of there, and I really did not have a chance to properly install it. Boo!) Diego got into the last taxi, and we all caravaned to Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park, which is where the Dolphin Discover excursion is held.
I felt like it took forever for us to walk along the pier, get into the taxis, ride for 15 minutes to the park, get out and wait for everyone, and then be told all the instructions we needed to know to do the dolphin encounter. Because the group was large, Diego purposely was trying to be slow and make sure everyone was together, but he really could have sped things up a bit. With all the waiting around, we did not get into the water with the dolphins until at least 11:15am. Also, I was put off a little bit when Diego talked about how he has a family and really would appreciate a tip – what??? I’ve seen tour guides beg for tips before, and I find it to be quite crass and inappropriate. I’ll tip for good service, not if a person begs me for money.
Anyway, I digress…we were told that we needed to put all of our stuff in a locker (cameras or smartphones are not allowed during the encounter). Afterwards, we all put on life vests. Then, they broke us up into groups of 10 or so to do the actual dolphin encounter.
Here is a photo of the dolphin enclosure area. As you can see, it is out in the open water, which makes it a bit challenging when you feel the waves coming in from passing boats or just the normal tide.
The people on the outside of the smaller enclosures are doing the “Dolphin Swim” encounter. There was no way we could do that with our young child, so we opted for the standard dolphin encounter.
Once the dolphin trainer was ready for us, we descended down some stairs into the COLD water where there is an underwater platform on which you stand. The platform is kind of slippery, so wear water shoes, if possible. We all wore our water shirts, but I was the only one wearing a long-sleeved water shirt. The dolphin trainer (named Jessica) wore a long-sleeved water shirt, so she knew what she was doing! The long-sleeves made a huge difference for me. My son (unfortunately wearing his short-sleeve water shirt) was shivering after being in the water for a while, and I constantly had to hug him to keep him warm.
We were in the water longer than I expected. I don’t know for sure, but I think we were in there for 30-45 minutes. I thought it only would last 15 minutes, so that was a good thing in terms of value for our money. My husband and I enjoyed the dolphin encounter, but my son was not so enthusiastic. Even though we got him hyped up and excited about it before the trip, he started freaking out when the dolphins inadvertently splashed him. Also, the water is pretty deep (I’m about 5’4”, and it came up to my chest), so I constantly was holding on to my son (who is 48” tall) and trying to make sure he didn’t float away with the waves off the platform. Standing on the slippery platform, even with my water shoes, it was kind of hard to balance because of the constant influx of waves. There were a few other kids (even younger than my son) who were crying a lot, so I’m not so sure this is the best excursion for young kids. I thought my son would be OK with it, but he surprised me (in a bad way).
One thing to note (especially for young kids), there are some fish that swim around you in the water, as well as small crabs. A crab almost went onto my son’s neck during the encounter, while another one was hanging out on the back of my husband’s shoulder (at least only touching his water shirt) during his interaction with the dolphin (he didn’t notice it). The crab thing wasn’t a big deal for me or my husband, but my son surely did not like it!
As I mentioned before, my husband and I really enjoyed interacting with the dolphins. We were lucky to have both a mommy (named “Olympia”) and a baby (named “Beethoven”) in the enclosure with us. Jessica did a good job telling us what we needed to do to make sure we properly interacted with the mommy. We were not supposed to touch the baby, as the mommy could get aggressive if she perceived us as a threat. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but should they really have a nursing dolphin mommy interacting with humans if she might be a threat to them?
Here are some photos of me doing some “tricks” with Olympia:
The dolphin tricks were fun, but it really begs the question: why are we making dolphins do tricks? In deciding on this excursion, I had this ethical debate going on in my head about whether or not this was a good idea just due to the fact that these dolphins are being kept in captivity, partly to entertain humans. I am not a SeaWorld fan (I’ve seen killer whales in the wild in Alaska – which is where they belong!). I also have a love/hate relationship with zoos (pros: educate the public, encourage conservation, rehabilitate animals; cons: potentially bad conditions for animals (especially the larger ones), it’s just plain wrong to keep a wild animal in captivity). My son absolutely loves animals (and so do we), so I wanted us to all somehow meet these fantastic sea animals. I took a little solace in the fact that Chankanaab is (supposedly) dedicated to research, education, and conservation. Also, Jessica was a fantastic trainer, and I could tell she really loved these animals and was trying to make sure we shared her love and learned about these precious creatures.
After the encounter was over, we were told that we needed to go review all the photos taken by the park’s staff photographer. We were not really allowed to go back to the locker room and change, which meant for a harrowing experience after leaving the water. The photo viewing area was air conditioned, and we were freezing in our wet bathing suites! I noticed that some folks actually brought their towels with them to the dolphin encounter. We put everything in the lockers – we should have brought a few with us to wrap around ourselves after the encounter. Oh well!
While we were shivering, the photo lady tried all sorts of hard-sell negotiation tactics to try to get us to buy the most expensive photo package. I originally was just going to buy four photo prints (at $35 per print!?!), but she said, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m going to offer you all the digital photos on CD, digital access to all the photos on our website, and three photo prints for $250!” Her original offer was $350. When I told her no thank-you (again), suddenly the price dropped to $200. Hmmmm…four photos for $140, or EVERYTHING (60 photos) for $200. OK – deal!
She took our information down and said the photos would be ready in 15 minutes or so. We went to the locker room and changed (the locker room is unisex, but there are private stalls where you can change; there also are separate men’s and women’s restrooms.). We were STARVING, as it was around 12:30pm at that point. Chankanaab has a lot of eating options, including snack bars and a full-service restaurant. I was a bit nervous about eating and drinking in Mexico (we all know about Montezuma’s revenge). I made sure to bring a lot of snack items and bottled water off of the ship. We still decided to order some food from the restaurant: nachos and a cheese quesadilla. My son also wanted some type of Mexican version of Oreo cookies, so we bought that at the large gift shop.
So, this is the main reason why I did NOT like Chankanaab: it seemed very commercialized AND it was super, super crowded! It was not crowded when we arrived, but when we were done with the dolphin encounter, there were masses of people waiting around to start their own dolphin encounters. I suspect that the main reason for the crowdedness was the fact that there were SIX cruise ships in port that day. For the next time that I do a shore excursion, I will be sure to research ahead of time to see how many ships will be in port (you can use this website to research ports all around the world and see how many ships will be joining you at your destination). Nachi Cocom likely was much less crowded that day. They have a daily admission limit of 130 people! I’m sure there were at least several hundred people at Chankanaab the day that we visited.
When I initially researched Chankanaab, I was excited to see that there was a beautiful beach on the premises. Well, after seeing how crowded it the park had become, the first thing we wanted to do after eating our lunch was to go back to the ship. Diego had told us that taxis could take us back to the ship at 1:00pm, 2:00pm, 3:00pm, and 3:30pm. We made sure to hustle in order to make the 2:00pm return trip. We did NOT want to spend another minute at this super-crowded park.
At 2:00pm, Diego procured a large group taxi for us and another family, and we were driven back to the shopping area (without Diego, as he stayed behind to coordinate the later group taxis). Without me knowing, my good-Samaritan husband gave Diego a $5 tip. Diego really was a good guy but for the fact that he demanded a tip!
In the taxi cab, I once again had no time to properly install the booster seat. The cab driver took us back to the port shopping area but did not drop us off at the taxi cab stand area where we had initially boarded. He literally stopped on the side of the road and told us we had to get out right then and there – huh? Anyway, it was a little strange, but we were glad to get out and go back to the ship.
Next time I’m in Cozumel, if my son is still young (e.g., under the age of 10), I’ll go to Nachi Cocom and have a relaxing beach afternoon. Otherwise, if he is older, I really would like to go back to Tulum and see some of what I consider the “real” Mexico (not an over-commercialized and crowded-with-tourists beach park).
But, I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here is a fun dolphin photo – ¡viva México!
This post also may be viewed on the Disney Cruise Mom Blog.