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What to Expect on a Disney Cruise: A First-Timer’s Guide

SmarterTravel

What’s it like to go on a Disney cruise? I’ll tell you. But first I should disclose that I’m not indifferent about Disney. As you might gather from some of my previous pieces (here, here, and here), I’m kind of a fangirl nerd about most of what Disney produces.

I grew up in Southern California, so my parents took me to Disneyland often. The night before we’d leave, there was always that delicious, uncontainable feeling that made sleep impossible. I suspect I’m not alone in having felt that as a kid. (I might be more alone in still feeling that way now as an adult.)

So when my husband and I decided to burn vacation days by taking our three-year-old daughter on a Disney cruise for four nights, I was kid-on-Christmas-Eve excited. And I thought I had a sense of what to expect on a Disney cruise. Once onboard, though, I realized I wasn’t quite prepared for the full spectrum of what it’s like to travel via Disney Cruise Line.

Before our cruise, I’d scrolled blogs upon blogs devoted to Disney Cruise tips and hacks. But I found that most of these sites assume that their readers are repeat Disney cruisers looking to refine their travel skills. It wasn’t easy to find a primer on the basics for those uninitiated to cruising with Disney. So here you go.

Disney Cruise Ships and Itineraries

We sailed on the Disney Wonder, but if you book a Disney cruise, you may well end up on the Disney Magic, Disney Dream, or Disney Fantasy. (A fifth Disney Cruise Line ship will be added in 2021; a sixth in 2023.)

The Disney Magic and Disney Wonder are sister ships, having debuted in 1998 and 1999, respectively—although the Disney Wonder is fresh from an intensive 55-day dry-dock renovation, which transformed many of its spaces and made everything aboard feel brand-new. These 83,000-tonners are Disney Cruise Line’s “classic,” smaller boats, with 10 floors and 875 rooms. Each carries 2,713 passengers, though during our four-nighter in mid-November, there were about 2,600, a third of which were kids. Also onboard: 950 Disney Cruise Line employees seeing to it that everybody gets their money’s worth.

Disney’s newer cruise ships, the Disney Dream (2011) and Disney Fantasy (2012) are 130,000-ton vessels with 1,250 rooms that hold up to 4,000 travelers.

The Disney Cruise fleet’s four ships all offer themed family restaurants, live shows, deck parties, elaborate kids’ spaces, character appearances, at-sea fireworks, and more that feels familiar from Disney cruise ship to Disney cruise ship.

“However,” says Jennifer Haile-Tinn, a Disney spokesperson, “each ship is like a new adventure for our guests. Only on the Disney Wonder can kids train alongside their favorite superheroes in the Marvel Super Hero Academy. There are also special entertainment offerings that can only be found on certain ships, such as Frozen, A Musical Spectacular, which is exclusive to the Disney Wonder.” Other one-ship Disney Cruise Line exclusives include the Aladdin show on the Disney Fantasy, a villain-themed show on the Disney Dream, and “Tangled: The Musical” on the Disney Magic.

There are also stylistic differences from cruise ship to cruise ship—the Disney Fantasy, for example, incorporates Art Nouveau details throughout, while the Disney Dream is more Art Deco.

When choosing your Disney voyage, though, the port stops will likely be your main variables. As Haile-Tinn points out, “Each ship has unique itineraries that allow guests to explore iconic destinations like Norway and Alaska.” The Disney Wonder traverses the Pacific coast—Mexico, California, and Alaska, as well as the Panama Canal. (Our trip made a single stop in Cozumel).

 

Today @disneycruiseline's Wonder ship is docked in the azure waters of sunny Cozumel, Mexico.

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The Disney Magic makes transatlantic crossings and goes into Canada and Europe, including through fjords to see the northern lights. All four Disney cruise ships buzz around the Caribbean, with some itineraries stopping at Castaway Cay, Disney’s Bahamian private island. The Europe and Alaska itineraries have more adults aboard, while the Caribbean jaunts attract more families with kids. Each port stop comes with a big menu of shore excursions (starting around $50 per person), which should be reserved well in advance.

Disney Cruises: Onboard Activities

There’s enough to do aboard a Disney cruise to keep everyone entertained from early in the morning until late at night. So much to do, in fact, that you’ll have to make choices about what to attend and what to give up.

Laid upon your bed each evening, beside the chocolates, is a TV Guide-style sheet called the “Personal Navigator,” which lets you plan the following day in detail. (The same timeline is also available on the Disney Cruise Line official app.)

First up is the “Adventures Away” party—after you check out your stateroom and attend a mandatory assembly drill, you head up to the top deck for a high-energy bon voyage celebration, starring Mickey, Minnie, and friends.  Then, for the remainder of the cruise, you’re constantly choosing from a long list of activities.

There are character greetings around the boat (wait time in line: about 30 minutes). There are free, first-run movie screenings at the theaters. There’s an outdoor splash zone and swimming pool (Disney movies play on the huge screen above), plus a huge waterslide—worth it especially for the exhilarating view from the top—and a top-floor gym, which also affords a wide-ocean view. You can get a spa treatment, play Bingo, or make crafts. You can take your kids to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where they get transformed into princesses and pirates (princess packages start at $65). Or you can send them off to the kids’ clubs while you enjoy the nightlife at After Hours, the stylish and boozy adult district.

You can also, of course, eat.

 

Food on Disney Cruises

All meals are included in your Disney cruise fare, unless you choose to dine at Palo or Remy, adults-only restaurants where a dress code is enforced, reservations are a must, servers are experts, and food is a step up.

At the other Disney cruise restaurants, the attire and cuisine are more casual. There are more than enough menu options for kids, and vegetarians won’t have a hard time either. As is the case throughout this experience, there really is something for everyone on a Disney cruise. You won’t have strangers at your table, just your own party, but you do tend to be seated near the same people each time you dine, so conversation with neighbors becomes inevitable.

Our first restaurant experience on the Disney Wonder was at a new restaurant called Tiana’s Place, based on The Princess and the Frog, a movie in which Tiana dreams of opening a restaurant in Louisiana. “Tiana’s Place transports guests to New Orleans,” says Ozer Balli, the cruise line’s Vice President of Hotel Operations. “We have a grand tradition of transforming our stories into real life.”

Indeed. Princess Tiana herself visits each table to greet her guests as they enjoy Cajun and Creole entrees (for dessert: pillowy beignets) while a talented quartet jazzes up familiar tunes. The rollicking finale is a joyful parade during which kids and staff march through the dining room as they clap, don Mardi Gras beads, play toy instruments, spin umbrellas, and belt out Disney songs.

Another impressive restaurant, called Animator’s Palate, is a tech-driven shrine to Disney’s drawn history. Screens all around the dining room bring to life how pencil sketches turned into movie gold. You’re assigned to draw a character on your placemat, then hand it to your server. Soon thereafter, your drawing, alongside those of your fellow diners, gets animated into a truly magical on-screen mashup.

For breakfast and lunch, there are big buffets available, as well as specialty stands that serve pizza, gyros, ice cream, and whatnot. It’s all you can eat, all day long. And yes, it’s all included.

There are two dinnertime options: 5:45 p.m. or 8:00 p.m.—you pick before you get on the boat. Then it’s the same each night, and you’re expected to be punctual.

If you’d rather skip the dining room, though, or if you get hungry in the middle of the night, room service is included, too, and you can order as much as you want without being charged extra. This was one of my favorite onboard luxuries.

The Rooms on Disney Cruise Ships

Our accommodations were bigger than expected, with an extraordinarily comfortable platform bed. Seriously, I haven’t slept that well in ages. It may have been the ship’s gentle rocking that lulled me to sleep so quickly, or maybe it was the melty-soft bedding, but whatever the trick, man, I want that at home.

The best part of our room, though, was our glassed-in balcony, where we sat with drinks and watched the ocean go by. We saw dolphins, tugboats, oil rigs, rain, birds, Mexico, clouds, and sunsets. Our hours on the balcony were beautiful—by far the most tranquil part of our Disney cruise.

 

Our room had enough space for all three of us to hang out, sleep, bathe, and store our luggage. Though not huge, we never felt cramped, thanks to the clever layout and a few key features: While you have dinner, your room attendant turns the couch into a comfy kid’s bed and adds a guard rail.

We kind of fell in love with our room attendant, actually. Every night he’d leave little gifts on our bed—Mickey bandannas for the pirate party one night, Ghirardelli squares the next—and every night, he’d fold our towels into amusing figures. But more than the stuff he left and the diligent care he took of our room, he was genuinely kind, sincere, and a very hard worker. My daughter still talks about “Mr. Bhong”—he became as cherished to her as the Disney characters.

(Side note: Bhong is Filipino, and it’s hard not to notice that the onboard staff makes for a real-life version of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. Unless you visit U.N. headquarters, you’ll never meet so many people from so many different countries in one place. All of them wear their country of origin on their name tag, and they’re very likely to talk about where they’re from. When I asked Balli whether it’s intentional that the crew members are so international, he replied, simply: “We have the opportunity to go around the world and find the best talent with the most passion for our product.”)

The onboard Wi-Fi in the room is not free—more on that later—but there is a nice-sized TV that runs a 24-hour Disney movie marathon on nearly every channel.

In the hallway, many of your neighbors will have decorated their doors with their favorite Disney characters. (There are printables online, and a cottage industry that deals in door decorations for Disney cruises.) We didn’t come prepared for this onboard tradition, but it was cute to watch my daughter develop the belief that behind each decorated door lived the characters on it.

Disney Cruise Shows

Twice nightly in the 977-seat Walt Disney Theatre, performers on the verge of Broadway put on fantastic stage extravaganzas, and there’s a new show to see each night. You don’t need to reserve a ticket or pay anything extra—just show up and grab a seat at any of the Disney cruise shows.

In November, “Frozen, a Musical Spectacular” debuted on the Disney Wonder. It really is a spectacular interpretation of the smash-hit movie, with plenty of wow moments and special effects that inspire the audience to break into applause mid-song. The most notable one is during Elsa’s rendition of “Let It Go,” when she transforms, right onstage, from the reined-in princess to the glittery-blue queen while reclaiming her own power. It’s hard not to get swept up while watching—my little one’s mouth was open the entire time.

We also saw “Disney Dreams,” a heartfelt Disney cruise show that uses special effects—and its singers’ prodigious talents—to whisk us into favorite Disney scenes and songs. At one point, there’s the theater-wide illusion that Tinkerbell has covered the entire boat in pixie dust.

And during “The Golden Mickeys,” the loose plot is that a clumsy stage manager learns to believe in herself to become the star of the show—a positive message packed, again, with Disney friends, plus an on-screen appearance by Disney CEO Bob Iger.

Note that Disney cruise shows aren’t necessarily the same across boats, so if there’s one you have your heart set on seeing, make sure you’re choosing the right ship.

Kids’ Areas on Disney Cruise Ships

Whichever Disney cruise ship you’re on, there will be several places where you can drop your children off to be supervised by attentive camp-counselor types while they (and you) have fun.

Aboard the Disney Wonder, we left our three-year-old at the Oceaneer Club ($9 per hour) while we dined at Palo. I worried about her during our meal but when I picked her up, she was absorbed in an art project and wouldn’t leave until she was finished. After that, she kept asking us to take her back to the kids’ area.

There’s no mystery as to why children love these spaces: Disney Cruise Line’s creative professionals invested many months of thought and work into making each room magical. As Theron Skees, the project’s lead Imagineer, put it, “We created the spaces to immerse kids in stories. The idea that we can add story into everything we do is really exciting.”

This means that popular characters like Elsa, Doc McStuffins, Sofia the First, and Black Widow interact with the kids in settings inspired by those characters’ films and shows. On the Disney Wonder, there’s the Wandering Oaken trading post from Frozen, Andy’s colorful playroom from Toy Story, a Marvel-themed Super Hero Academy, and a “navigation center” where kids can feel like they’re steering the ship. Basically, kids playing on Disney cruises will feel as though they’ve melted into a movie.

 

Disney Cruise Costs

So what about the cost? Well, this isn’t a budget vacation—but it won’t necessarily zap your savings, either. Fares on the Disney Wonder start at $978 per adult and $360 per kid for a three-night Bahamian cruise in a room with no balcony. So for a family of four, the minimum price to get onboard is around $2,700, though that number could go way up depending on the type of stateroom you choose, where your itinerary goes, and for how many nights.

While that might sound like a lot for a short vacation, a Disney cruise doesn’t turn out to be as expensive at it seems at first glance. For all its upfront inclusions—all food, shows, and activities—a four-night Disney cruise can actually end up being less expensive than a four-night Disney World vacation, as this handy comparison chart demonstrates. Plus, you can book early to save money.

And if you live close enough to drive, instead of fly, to your embarkation port, taking a home port cruise will cut your overall cost, which explains why our sailing out of Galveston was packed with Texans. Onboard, the best way to keep your tab small is to forgo add-ons—especially onboard Wi-Fi and alcohol. Keep in mind that you can bring your own alcohol as long as you comply with Disney Cruise Line’s fairly reasonable rules on the matter.

The Overall Disney Cruise Experience

If you’re trying to figure out what type of trip a Disney cruise ends up being, I’ll be honest: There’s so much to do onboard that it can’t really be called a relaxing vacation, unless you’re absolutely determined to make it that way. With all that goes on—all the time—it’s easy to fall prey to some serious FOMO.

But that’s not a bad thing. You come off the Disney cruise with so many new memories that having made the effort to show up to a majority of activities ends up having been worth it.

One strategy to avoid coming home exhausted: Tack on a couple of relaxing beach days after your cruise. We stayed along Galveston’s seawall for a couple of nights afterward, at the beautiful Hilton in the San Luis Resort. This proved to be a good way to unwind, a worthy quiet counterpoint to the exuberance of the Disney cruise experience.

From another perspective, though, taking a Disney cruise is an unexpectedly good option if you’re looking for a vacation that offers a detox from mainstream and social media, and the constant rush of emails and texts—the perfect way to kick off a digital cleanse. This is mostly because it’s very expensive to be connected: $20 buys just a few minutes online.

If you purchase enough megabytes to be as plugged in as you are at home, you’ll spend a small fortune. So, unless money is of no concern, you stay disconnected for the vast majority of the cruise, which is sometimes frustrating but mostly serene. No matter what’s going on in the world, a Disney cruise is basically Disneyland on the boat: unapologetically happy, removed from reality, and with no trace of the morose or glum.

As for that signature excitement that Disney is so expert at generating, it’s vividly a Disney cruise from start to finish. A week before we got on the boat, Mickey and Minnie “called” my daughter to tell her how excited they were to see her onboard. I received a beautiful packet in the mail with my itinerary, luggage tags, and instructions about how to get the most out of our Disney cruise experience.

 

Our last night aboard, at 10:15 p.m., all the main characters gathered in the lobby atrium to give guests a final chance to interact with them, take photos, and give hugs. The cruise director delivered a farewell speech, and each child was handed a battery-run candle and invited onstage to partake in a moving rendition of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” followed by an avalanche of Mickey-shaped confetti. I let my little one stay up late for this, and it was worth it. In true Disney form, it was the perfect ending.

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