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The Inside Scoop on Doing the Med with the Mouse this Summer

Ten things you need to know before joining the Disney Magic for its first season in Europe.

In its first European season, through early August the Disney Magic (tel. 800/951-3532; www.disneycruise.com)is doing 10- and 11-night cruises to Italy and Spain round-trip out of Barcelona, visiting Palermo, Sicily; Naples (for Pompeii); Olbia, Sardinia; Civitavecchia (for Rome); and Le Spezia (for Florence and Pisa), all in Italy. Along the French Riviera, the ship calls on Marseille and Villefranche (for Monaco).

1. There is still availability.

Though Disney's first season in the Med has been a success for the company -- I'm currently on board the Disney Magic enjoying the season's second Med cruise along with 2,480 other passengers -- company sources say there are cabins available on every itinerary through the end of the summer season.

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2. Book a balcony.

If you can get one, you'll use it here. The Disney Magic is in port nearly every day, so you'll be treated to amazing views at your cabin doorstep. Most mornings during this cruise my kids, husband and I have had breakfast out on the balcony enjoying the castle-dotted skyline of Naples, the terracotta and mustard-colored homes and villas dotting the hillsides around Le Spezia, and the picture-perfect views of charming Villefranche.

3. Go for the 11-night itinerary.

You get an extra sea day on the Magic's 11-night itineraries. The 10 nighters have two sea days, one at the beginning and the other at the end. On the 11-night run, there's a third sea day in the middle between Civitavecchia/Rome and Le Spezia (the port for Florence and Pisa), a very well deserved break in a go-go-go action-packed itinerary.

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4. Count on some great kid-friendly excursions.

In each port there's at least one excursion especially geared to young kids (but don't expect them all to be). We signed up for the "Palermo for Kids" tour and it was excellent. The 4-hour bus tour included a drive-by of the city's best known historical sights -- the 250-year-old Garibaldi Theater; Palermo Opera House (a Godfather III scene was shot on its steps); Quatro Canti, the picturesque intersection of the city's two major streets; and the many gorgeous purple flowered Jacaranda trees -- before reaching our destination. At the 16th century Royal Palace, our group's 20 or so kids painted clay butterflies in the Prince's former dining room, where giant display cases were filled with his porcelain dinner sets. Next, it was on to an adjacent room to sample some delicious gelato before the main event, a traditional marionette show. Sicily has a long tradition of puppetry; the kids (and adults) loved the hour-long performance staged by one of Palermo's legendary family-run marionette theater outfits. It featured the heavy wooden puppets in elaborate medieval customs dueling with swords and engaged in comically dramatic dialogue (no one seemed to mind it was all in Italian!). In Olbia, Sardinia, the trip to La Cinta beach was a hit with our kids; the surf is calm and the sand is soft. In Marseille and Villefranche, city tours in small open-air train-like trams work well with young children too. Some kid-friendly tours, for example several to Lucca, from Le Spezia, were canceled on our cruise because of lack of interest.

5. Major schlepping required to marquee ports.

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Keep in mind, to see famed cities like Rome, Florence and Pisa, it's at least an hour by bus each way from the port, if not two hours. Not to say you shouldn't go to these magical cities, but with young kids in tow, expect 10-hour tour excursions to be a long hull (and they often depart at the crack of dawn, around 7 in the morning).

6. Consider exploring on your own.

With twin four-and-a-half year olds in the picture, my goal was to avoid any tour where we'd be stuck on a bus for too long. From the port of Civitavecchia, for example, we traveled into Rome via the local train system. Not only was it cheap -- about $50 for four round-trip tickets -- and comfortable, we had the flexibility of making out own schedule. The ship's free shuttle service took us the mile or so between the ship and Civitavecchia and then it was a 10- to 15-minute walk to the train station. The ride to the Central Termini station, near the Coliseum, took just over an hour. There were great views of the Italian countryside and small towns along the way. We left the ship by the civilized hour of 10am and were back on board by 7:30 that evening. On the other hand, most organized ship tours departed in the neighborhood of 7 or 8am.

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7. Tour with the kids or without.

The beauty of a Disney cruise (duh) is the extensive playrooms and activities. As my son Tejas explained to me the other day, "the playrooms on the other ships are baby-sized and we need to squeeze in." Well, they're gigantic on the Disney Magic (taking up almost an entire deck) and they're open practically around the clock. On sea days, the playroom doors open at 9am, on port days, they start a couple of hours earlier to accommodate parents who want to tour solo and leave their kids in the capable hands of the 54 youth counselors. Unlike some lines, there's no charge using the children's programming at any time, which runs until midnight daily. (The only exception is the hourly fee charged for infants, 3 months to 3 years, using the Flounder's Reef nursery.)

8. Pre-booking shore excursions is an option, but don't feel obligated.

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Most tours will still have availability once you board the ship. If you do pre-book tours online before your cruise, keep in mind if you want to cancel them once on board, the official company line is "no refund;" though shore excursion manager Heath told me they'll try and work with you. If they can fill your seat on the tour, they may issue a refund. The point is: it can't hurt to ask. According to Heath, you can switch pre-booked tours once on board if you give 48-hours notice. Keep in mind tours will be canceled if there's not enough interest.

9. Eat on shore.

No need to visit Berlitz, but if only so you can order lunch in port, familiarize yourself with a few main food words. Italian food, even at the touristy spots near the ship, is awesome! Pizza is a no brainer (it's excellent in Italy, thin crust and delicious sauce), and of course there's gelato (unbelievably awesome ice cream -- try the hazelnut!), aqua con gas (carbonated water) or sin gas (without carbonation), pomodorro (for tomato), and of course pointing to pictures on the menu goes a long way. Same deal for France. Don't miss the caf? experience, it's how the locals spend a lot of time. Caf? and croissant shouldn't be too difficult for you to remember!

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10. Use squishy suitcases.

Unfortunately, Disney's beds are pretty low to the floor, compared to most cruise line beds. None of our three suitcases fit under the bed (they do on most other ships), making it necessary take up precious closet space with two of them and keep the other out in the open in the cabin. It's better to pack your stuff in duffle bags or luggage that can be collapsed or manipulated to fit into tight spaces.

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