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Cruising Alaska with Disney Cruise Line: A First-Timer’s Guide

SmarterTravel

If you’re like many travelers, you’ve long dreamed of taking a cruise to Alaska—and for good reason. An Alaskan ocean voyage provides an enviable almost-Arctic itinerary, opportunities for adventure at every port, and a constant supply of magnificently icy views, the likes of which probably won’t exist in 50, or even 20, years. You get all this via the comfort of an ocean liner that’s stocked with restaurants, theaters, hotel-like guest rooms, and much more.

I, too, had yearned to cruise to Alaska, so when the opportunity to hop aboard the Disney Wonder presented itself, I enlisted my husband and daughter as my travel mates. We flew to Vancouver to embark on a trip that would end up supplying us with exhilarating experiences, unforgettable nature encounters, heaping helpings of Disney fun, and, ultimately, lifetime memories.

If you’re not sure whether a Disney Alaska cruise is right for you, here’s a good idea of what you can expect based on my experiences and observations as a fellow first-timer.

Why Choose a Disney Cruise?

There are a few factors to keep in mind if Disney Cruise Line (DCL) is among the companies you’re considering for your journey to the Last Frontier.

Foremost among them: If any of the travelers in your group is a Disney fan, a Disney cruise will very much play into that enthusiasm. This may be too obvious to mention, but almost everything on a Disney cruise is Disney-themed, right down to the ketchup that’s squirted onto kids’ plates—in the shape of Mickey’s head. The characters and their stories pervade the ship, as well as some of the shore excursions.

The level of service, too, is thoroughly Disney. Everyone who works on the ship is there to make their guests’ experience magical, and it’s obvious that the hiring process is geared toward picking cheerful people who love to make other people—children, especially—happy.

“We have a fabulous, diverse team on board,” says Martin Kemp, Disney Wonder’s hotel director. “Basically, we get to go around the globe and hire the best talent out there. And when our team members first come onboard, we go through a very, very extensive training program to introduce them to our Disney brand, our culture, and our heritage.”

In addition to providing the exemplary hospitality that the company has become known for, other Disney-specific elements that you can expect during a Disney cruise to Alaska include exclusive shore excursions that are enhanced with Disney touches, like Goofy showing up at the lumberjack show in Ketchikan, or Donald Duck panning for gold alongside your kids in Skagway. Disney hand-picked the top Alaskan tour operators, then worked directly with them to create experiences that are reserved solely for Disney Cruise Line guests.

Onboard, Disney characters wear Alaskan gear—resulting in photos that are Instagram gold—while naturalists lecture about glacier science, and nightly menus spotlight regional cuisine: buttered king crab legs one night, roasted salmon steak the next, alongside Alaska-inspired cocktails that carry the theme even further. Also exclusive to Disney’s Alaskan itineraries: a “Frozen” deck celebration featuring Anna and Elsa, plus a joyous Pixar party in the atrium.

“We truly do believe that Disney Cruise Line is a great way for families to see Alaska,” says Melanie Curtsinger, a company spokesperson. “From our themed dining spaces to the live entertainment, extensive children’s spaces, and exceptional detailed service, there truly is something for everyone in the family on these sailings.”

Disney Alaska Cruise Itinerary

Disney’s Alaska cruises depart from Vancouver for five-, seven- and nine-night summer cruises, with stops, depending on your specific itinerary, for Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Sitka, Victoria, Icy Strait Point, Hubbard Glacier, and Endicott Arm.

Mine was a seven-night cruise, and we spent a full pre-cruise day in Vancouver, where we rented bicycles from Club16 and took the spectacular waterfront ride around Stanley Park. (Other excellent in-Vancouver-for-the-day options include the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain.) We stayed overnight at the Fairmont Vancouver Waterfront Hotel, where Canadian hospitality is on full display, and where they personalize your shampoo bottles with your last name. The hotel is conveniently across the street from the Port of Vancouver, where we boarded the Disney Wonder. (Tip: Before boarding the ship in Vancouver, try an exotic flavor, like osmanthus flower, in a black cone at Bella Gelateria.)

After a day at sea, our first port of call was Skagway, where we took a stunning helicopter ride to a glacier (more on that below), hiked to land’s end, explored the Western-style State Street full of shops and saloons, and watched the visitor center’s film about the short-lived and ill-fated Klondike gold rush.

Next up was Juneau for some satisfying whale watching and browsing the shopping strip. There’s also the Mount Roberts Tramway, an aerial gondola that transports visitors to the top of the 3,800-foot peak for a wide-spanning, eagle-studded view over Gastineau Channel. Everyone kept saying how lucky we were to be here during such gorgeous weather.

In Ketchikan, we took a morning trolley tour to see the town’s iconic totem poles at Saxman Village. The afternoon was reserved for the raucous Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show (more on that below). In the early evening, as a light rain started to fall, we meandered the above-water walkways past Ketchikan’s former brothels—as colorful as the local characters—that now house curated art galleries, one-of-a-kind souvenir shops, and down-to-earth places to eat and drink.

At each port, there’s souvenir shop after souvenir shop, giving you no excuse to come home empty-handed. To save money, we returned to the Wonder for lunch, but there was plenty of opportunity to sample the local restaurants, many of which seem to be mom-and-pop outfits.

We also spent three full days at sea, including one in the Endicott Arm fjord during which the captain pulled the ship in as close as possible to see the 600-foot-tall Dawes Glacier, then did very slow 360-degree turns so that every passenger could take in its full splendor. Meanwhile, smaller icebergs floated past, crackling their presence. It was poignant to be in the presence of such threatened beauty—people all around us were telling their children to remember this scene, since they might not ever be able to see it look this way again. During the glacier viewing, Disney characters, donning galoshes and parkas, were on deck for hugs and photos.

After our last night onboard, we were shuttled back to Vancouver for an early-morning disembarkation. (Tip: Pack your bags the night before to have staffers lug them off the ship for you.) During our bus transfer back to the airport, Disney trivia played on the screens overhead, though our fellow passengers mostly slept through the ride, happily exhausted from such an activity-packed journey.

The Shore Excursions

Called “Port Adventures” in DCL lingo, there’s a menu of more than 200 family-friendly things to do whenever the Wonder docks in Alaska. Make sure to reserve ahead of time for these memorable shore excursions—you can easily find independent vendors to haggle with once you’re at the destination, but you’re taking a chance with the quality of your experience. You’re much better off booking in advance through Disney, whose contracted operators are total pros.

Disney’s most popular shore excursions in Ketchikan include the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour (a Disney exclusive that gives an inside look at the life of Alaskan crab harvesters) and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a down-home demonstration of manly men showing off their impressive timber-sport skills, like chainsawing and log rolling. There’s plenty of enthusiastic audience participation, and Goofy makes an appearance. Wear red-and-black plaid if you’ve got it.

In Skagway, there’s the KlondikeGold Dredge and White Pass Railway excursion, during which you take a gorgeous train ride and pan for gold; and Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp, which includes a narrated motor coach tour of Skagway, panning for gold (you’ll find some, guaranteed), a scavenger hunt, a puppet show that’s both hilarious and educational, a Donald Duck cameo, and a salmon bake.

In Juneau, the Dog Sled Summer Camp lets you feel what it’s like to be pulled through the Alaskan wilderness at the speed of sprinting huskies, while the Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest on Stephen’s Passage guarantees humpback and bald eagle sightings aboard a comfortable catamaran stocked with a full bar; an expert naturalist explains everything you see.

By far the most memorable event of our Disney Alaska cruise—and that’s saying a lot—was the Glacier Discovery by Helicopter excursion, operated by Temsco Helicopters in Skagway. After a quick safety briefing, we boarded an Airbus helicopter manned by a very capable and personable pilot who was also an expert at calming any nerves, mine included. We flew over crystal-blue lakes, above vast expanses of gleamingly white ice fields, and incredibly close to steep, lush mountainsides. When we landed, it was on the 650-foot-deep Meade Glacier, but it may as well have been another planet. Confident, reassuring guides were there to explain what we were seeing—and to stop us from walking into danger—as we took in the surreal scenery before flying back to the Disney Wonder. The word “awesome” is egregiously overused, but this was awesome.

If you’re worried that your children won’t be able to make it all the way through that excursion you’re eyeing, or you’d just prefer some grownup time ashore, don’t feel bad about dropping your little ones off at the ship’s kids’ spaces before you disembark for some adventure. Most youngsters are ecstatic to have more time in these colorful rooms, where the storytelling is epic, the games and crafts are age-appropriate, and the movies are all Disney. Attentive camp-counselor types from around the world do an excellent job of supervising. (Read on for more about the kids’ spaces.)

Life Onboard Disney Wonder

The Disney vessel that shuttles passengers to and from Alaska is the impressive Wonder, which first set sail in 1999 and is one of DCL’s fleet of four (a fifth will be added in 2021; a sixth in 2023). The 83,000-ton ship has 10 floors, 875 guest rooms, 950 employees, and room for up to 2,713 passengers, a third of which are typically children.

Every day, there’s a program so packed with entertaining activity options that it’s easy to fall prey to some initial FOMO, but once you get into the swing of life onboard a Disney cruise (which doesn’t take long), the fun really begins.

Putting together the ship’s complex entertainment and dining schedule, says Natalie Bailey, Disney Wonder’s cruise director, “is a Tetris puzzle, truly a group effort of everyone coming together to try to create variety for our guests throughout the day, and the entire cruise. Our biggest thing when it comes to planning is truly ensuring that we do have something for everyone.”

To that end, there are live shows, deck parties, character greetings, first-run movies in the theaters, trivia games, karaoke, crafts, bingo, chef demos, and plenty more. The handy Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, which you should download before your trip, tells you what’s going on at any given time. In addition to providing the day’s full lineup, it lets you “heart” the activities you don’t want to miss, text your fellow travelers for free, book shore excursions, make spa and specialty dining reservations, link your reservation number, and check in online.

Disney is, first and foremost, an entertainment company, so yes, you will be thoroughly entertained the whole way to Alaska and back. Twice nightly in the extravagant 977-seat Walt Disney Theatre, a cast of Broadway-caliber performers display their prodigious talents, with a new live production to enjoy each night, including the Alaska-appropriate “Frozen, a Musical Spectacular,” “Disney Dreams: An Enchanted Classic” (a production that helped launch Jennifer Hudson’s career), and the life-affirming “Golden Mickeys.” You don’t need to reserve a ticket or pay anything extra to see these shows—just show up; seats are first come, first served. (Tip: Even if the theater appears packed when you enter from the back, there are often seats available way up front.)

If you time your sailing to coincide with the release date of a new Disney movie, you’ll get to see it premiered onboard, to much fanfare—we were at sea the day Toy Story 4 came out and got to see it for free, with Green Army Men photo opps in front of the theater and a bag of popcorn as an in-room amenity.

As mentioned above, children have a whole realm of entertainment catered to them: the fifth-floor Oceaneer Youth Club. Whenever I came there to pick up my daughter, she asked to stay longer, a testament to the amount of fun she was having and the level of comfort she felt with the kind staffers.

These elaborate kids’ spaces were created to immerse youngsters in Disney stories—kids can hang out in the Wandering Oaken trading post from Frozen, Andy’s playroom from Toy Story, or the Marvel-themed Super Hero Academy, where kids train alongside their favorite superheroes. There are many enriching activities for kids to choose from, like crafting, scavenger hunts, dance parties, performing in a talent show, story times, character greetings, and so on; you can use the Navigator app to find out what’s going on in the kids’ spaces. (Tip: Once you’ve made your cruise reservation, you can have a Disney character call your child to get them excited for the trip.)

As for the guest rooms, they’re comfortable and cleverly designed, with enough space for a full family to live, sleep, bathe, and store luggage in. While we dined, our room attendant transformed the couch into a kid’s bunk, adding a guard rail for safety. He also left memorable Disney amenities on our bed, along with Ghirardelli chocolates and towels folded into amusing figures.

The themed restaurants aboard the Wonder are extraordinarily thought-through and exist for much more than just feeding you. Take Tiana’s Place, based on The Princess and the Frog, a movie in which the title character dreams of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Yes, the menu at Tiana’s Place includes gumbo and beignets, but the stage also features a talented quartet jazzing up favorite Disney tunes, while Tiana herself visits each table to take photos with young fans; the grand finale is a joyful parade that stars all the servers.

Over at Animator’s Palate, a screen-enhanced shrine to Disney’s drawn history, your server instructs you to draw a character on your placemat. Soon thereafter, your drawing, alongside those of your fellow diners, gets animated into a magical on-screen mashup. The food is good, too.

There’s also Triton’s, a traditional cruise restaurant, and Cabanas, a huge buffet on the ninth floor with great ocean views. Several walk-up-and-go snack counters hand out pizza, gyros, ice cream, and more. All food and beverage is included in the cost of your cruise (except alcohol; you can bring a small amount onboard), so you can order whatever you want without fretting about the tab.

The only restaurant with an upcharge is Palo, the adults-only Italian eatery atop the ship. The cuisine there is a step up, and the service is top-notch, too. If you’re interested in dining at Palo, make a reservation as far ahead of time as possible.

As you cycle through Tiana’s Place, Animator’s Palate, and Triton’s each night at your set dining time (5:45 p.m. or 8:00 p.m., your choice), your dedicated team of servers follow you from restaurant to restaurant. They’re genuinely kind and accommodating, and clearly hired in part for their ability to make kids smile, laugh—and eat. They joke around, bring you whatever you want, do magic tricks and origami, and give generous hugs and high fives.

If you’d rather skip the dining room, though, or if you get hungry in the middle of the night, room service is included in the cost of your Disney Alaska cruise, and you can order as much as you want without being charged extra.

Other features worth mentioning on the Wonder include the spacious spa and top-floor fitness center, where you can run on a treadmill while watching glaciers and icebergs glide by. No matter the weather, people are always using the swimming pool and outdoor hot tubs, while Disney movies play on the huge outdoor screen above. And the “nightlife district” is a collection of three handsome bars, including a classic British pub.

Wi-Fi on the Wonder is prohibitively pricey ($89 gets you 1,000 megabytes), so it’s wise to use your cruise as an excuse to unplug from email and social media.

Whatever you’re planning to do onboard, book as much of it that’s bookable well in advance, before departing for your vacation, to make sure that you get the spots you want. This includes nursery times, spa appointments, character meet-and-greets, shore excursions, and specialty dining reservations. Then once you get onboard, you can simply relax and enjoy.

What to Pack for a Disney Alaska Cruise

Once you’re ready to get your stuff together for your Disney cruise to Alaska, check out DCL’s full list of what to pack—and what not to.

There are some pretty specific things that you’ll want to bring along for this type of cruise, including binoculars (which are available for purchase at the Port of Vancouver), rain gear, boots, layers, and waterproof jackets. Bring fancy attire for the ship’s formal and semi-formal nights, and if you plan to dine at Palo, keep in mind that the dress code there encourages dress pants or slacks and a collared shirt for men, and a dress, skirt, or pants and a blouse for women.

It’s fun to wear red-and-black plaid in Ketchikan, especially if you’re planning to see the lumberjack show there, and it’s also fun to bring Disney-themed door decorations—check Pinterest and Etsy for ideas. Don’t forget Disney autograph books for your little ones to get signed, princess dresses for the young princesses in your life, Disneybounding gear for you (if you’re into that), and at least two bathing suits so that you can wear the dry one while the wet one dries.

It’s also smart to fold an extra duffel bag into your suitcase—what with the merchandise available onboard and the many souvenir shops on shore, you’ll be coming home from Alaska with way more than you packed.

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