In 2013, Eric and I decided to plan a Disney Cruise for our 2014 yearly family vacation. Neither of us had ever been on a cruise, but we wanted something relaxing and fun that would be a good bet with an almost-two-year-old. I also happen to love all things Disney, so as soon as Eric mentioned it, I was sold. We immediately fell in love with cruising and the Disney Cruise Line in general, so much so that we eagerly went back in 2017, this time with a five-year-old and a three-year-old, and in 2018 when our girls were 6 and 4. It did not disappoint.
Having never cruised on another line, I can’t compare Disney to anything else, but I will say the level of service we experienced is unparalleled to another vacation we have taken. As the maitre d’ on our first cruise told us, “Disney knows that if we keep the kids happy, the parents are happy!” And keep everyone happy they do.
What I can compare it to is a Disney parks vacation. We did do a brief trip to the Disney parks in 2016, and while that had magical moments as well, what we love about cruising at this stage in our lives is
- For most of your trip, your room is never more than an elevator ride or brief walk away. You can pop back in to drop things off, have a nap, change or just take a few minutes to breathe. At the parks, your room is usually a “walk through the park, wait for a bus, bus ride and more walking” away.
- Two words: kids clubs. Now, we go into each cruise understanding that this is a FAMILY vacation, and as such we will not get much adult time. But we do get some, and it’s priceless! The kids clubs kept our kids busy for an hour or two here and there so we could grab a drink, take a rest, dine in peace or get in a little pool time. As we don’t travel with parents or babysitters, that wouldn’t be possible at the parks.
A note on cost: As you might expect, Disney cruises are pricier than their counterparts, and we definitely splurged on activities as well. Personally, we feel the level of service and the Disney experience justifies the cost, but it’s a personal decision. I also saved money for quite awhile to be able to give us all some magical moments on the trip.
As several people over the years have asked for my opinion or advice on Disney cruising, I decided to put together this blog post with all of my words of wisdom and impressions. It is by NO means exhaustive – there are countless online resources with even more info. But it’s an overall picture of the things we have loved, disliked and found most fun and helpful. For more specifics, I recommend:
Those are great resources for learning about the different ships, what to book, when to go, and a million other things I don’t cover here. There’s still a lot in here though, so just skip to the parts you need.
Now, on to my comments. These are based on the three cruises we took which were:
A 2014 5-day Western Caribbean itinerary on the Disney Wonder out of Miami. We cruised in late February; weather was warm enough for swimming.
A 2017 7-Day Halloween on the High Seas Western Caribbean itinerary on the Disney Fantasy out of Port Canaveral (we originally booked an Eastern Caribbean itinerary but it was switched shortly before due to hurricanes). We cruised in early October; weather was warm to hot with a bit of rain but nothing that ruined anything.
A 2018 7-Day Western Caribbean itinerary on the Disney Fantasy out of Port Canaveral, which we took with Eric’s brother and his family. We cruised in August so it was pricier and we did run into one big storm, but nothing was majorly affected. The weather was hot but not unbearable.
Things to Book Ahead of Time
Use a Disney travel agent! A lot of people don’t realize that using a travel agent has no cost to you – they make their money through incentives from the companies they book with. Using a travel agent that specializes in Disney travel is a great idea because they know lots of tricks to getting the most bang for your buck – on our first trip, our agent was able to book us a balcony room that, because it had a slight overhang (and I mean slight), was priced at a lower rate. Disney agents also usually offer onboard credit for booking with them and can offer lots of advice on your trip as well. We used and highly recommend Monica Lahr with Mousekeplanner.
Flights and hotel: I don’t know about you, but I’d be a nervous wreck if I were flying in on the day of the cruise. We always fly in the night before and get a hotel.
Transfers: On Cruise 1, we used Disney transfers (Disney Magical Express) to and from the Orlando airport. On Cruises 2 and 3, we rented a car in Orlando and drove to Port Canaveral. We dropped it off and rented another car for the trip back. Both things worked out well, so it’s mostly personal preference.
Passports: Passports are strongly recommended; take care of this as soon as possible as it can sometimes take awhile.
Spa: I’ve heard good things about the spa, Senses. I think you can buy a day pass or length of cruise pass and they have things like hot tubs and different shower experiences. On Cruise 1 I was pregnant so I couldn’t take advantage of any of it and on Cruises 2 and 3 we just didn’t have time! I got a facial on Cruise 1 and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was quite overpriced.
Photos: On Cruises 2 and 3 we splurged on the Disney photo package you can purchase through My Cruise Photos. You get a discount by purchasing before you get onboard, which is what we did. Again, it’s pricey, but the picture quality is excellent and there are tons of photo opportunities. In addition to photographers at each character experience (with the exception of the Disney Jr. breakfast), they have photo opportunities at the cruise terminal and when boarding the ship, before dinner most nights, and in front of the ship at Castaway Cay. You present your room key to each photographer and all of your pictures magically show up on a flash drive you pick up at the end of the trip. You can also view these photos at Shutters throughout your cruise and order prints and photo books. I LOVED having this service and not having to worry about getting the best shot every time we met a character. However, a couple of notes: each of the pictures Disney takes comes with a decorative Disney border on it, and these borders are NOT removable. From an aesthetic viewpoint, they don’t bother me – however, they bother me because the images are NOT standard print sizes. If you try to print them on your own by ordering prints from a photo service in a size smaller than 8×10, the borders will be cut off. I believe there are online services that will do prints to the specific ratio, but I haven’t done this yet.
Youth Clubs: You can register your kids for the youth clubs when you complete your online check-in. More about the youth clubs below.
Dining: When you check in online, you have the option to choose early seating or late seating for dinner. If you don’t get your first choice, you still have the opportunity to ask to switch when you get on board. More on dining below.
Cruise Activities: Once you’ve booked your cruise you should find out when booking opens for all of the other fun things you’ll want to do on your vacation. For first time cruisers, this is currently 75 days before your trip, but if you’ve cruised with Disney before you can book further out. These include things like Port Adventures, specialty dining reservations and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (see below for more details about what we did). There are other specialty activities as well, such as the Royal Court Royal Tea we did on the second cruise (more below).
You can also snag tickets to things that are included with your cruise but still need tickets. On our 7-night cruises this was a Disney Junior Breakfast, a Princess Gathering and a Frozen Meet and Greet. They do set aside tickets to these that you can get on the ship, but I’d advise getting them ahead of time if possible.
Here was my strategy when deciding when to book things on the second cruise, which was much busier than the first! (details about our activities will be below):
Day 1: Embark
Day 2: At sea. I booked the Disney Jr. breakfast for this morning as a fun kick-off to the cruise. I also booked the girls at the boutique for Under the Sea Makeovers. I figured it was a nice way to get in the cruising spirit, and it came with a bathing suit they could rewear. I booked this midmorning so they could enjoy their makeup all day.
Day 3: Cozumel, Mexico. We did an excursion for most of the day. I booked a morning time to leave us time to get back to the ship early if we wished and in plenty of time for dinner.
Day 4: Grand Cayman; I booked an excursion for late morning.
Day 5: Falmouth, Jamaica, and Pirate Night!; I booked the girls and myself for Pirate League makeovers at the Boutique for late afternoon; this let them swim during the day if they wanted and gave us time to get to dinner, but still let them enjoy their pirate garb for awhile.
Day 6: At sea; we did the Princess Gathering in the morning and then Eric and I did brunch at Palo; that afternoon we had the Royal Court Royal Tea, so it was a day of princesses!
Day 7: Castaway Cay; we did the Frozen Meet and Greet first thing in the morning then headed off the ship. We also had a late morning excursion.
Fish Extenders: A strange name for a fun activity! Attached to the wall outside the door of your stateroom is a metal fish, which cast members use to leave you notes, your tickets to events, and things like that. A cult has grown up around these fish where people hang “extenders” off of these fish – usually a strip of fabric pockets with your family name or individual names on it. You can join “fish extender” groups where you will be paired with other families (usually around ten families total, although we have been in a larger group.) You and the other families can then leave little treats and surprises for each other throughout the length of the cruise! Usually, you fill out short form or spreadsheet about your family and their likes/dislikes, then plan what you’d like to give as gifts! We have never had a minimum or maximum spending amount and it’s truly a “give what you’d like” experience. We have gotten store-bought gifts, handmade gifts, candy, pirate accessories, glow sticks, beach toys and lots of little things local to each family. For Cruise 1, I handmade Disney “Mad Libs” which I put in sheet protectors and paired with dry erase markers. For Cruises 2 and 3, I bought Disney Mad Libs and added Play Packs for little ones, crayons, Disney pens and packets of Del’s Lemonade, a drink local to New England. It’s incredibly fun and exciting to open your door to see your Fish Extender stuffed with little treats, or come back from the pool to a fun surprise. I highly recommend the experience, but do be aware it adds cost and work to your trip planning. You also accumulate a lot of little trinkets. We joined our groups through DisBoards the first two times times (find your specific cruise group here), and Facebook the third. You can make your own Fish Extender or buy them on Etsy – ours are beautiful and are from Bullfrogs and Butterflies.
Here are a few things I recommend that you may not have thought of:
– Pirate gear – On our cruises, one night was always themed as “Pirates IN the Caribbean” and many guests have on at least some form of pirate gear – and some people go all out! Bring as much or as little as you’d like. Disney usually provides pirate bandanas and sometimes eye patches.
-other costumes, such as princess dresses
-men need pants and shoes to dine at the adults-only restaurants onboard
-list of addresses for postcards
-any lists you need related to your Fish Extender group, if you’re participating, such as family names and stateroom numbers
-some people like baby powder and paint brushes for removing sand after the beach
-a stain stick, which I was really glad to have on several occasions. Handy for getting chocolate out of princess costumes.
-we packed puddle jumpers for our girls on Cruise 2, but they only used them a little at a pool on one of our port adventures. Disney provides floaties onboard.
-door magnets or decorations – Many people decorate their doors, but keep in mind you can’t use tape. The doors are magnetic.
– I like to pack a nightlight and a clip-on air freshener for the bathroom
– hair dryer – I have long, thick hair and just use the travel-sized dryer they provide, but if you’re particular you may want to bring your own
-Plastic bags in a few sizes to corral random stuff. I also bring a couple of trash bags, which are handy for packing wet things on the last day. I always throw in a handful of safety pins and some Band-Aids as well.
-gum, if you want it, as it’s not sold onboard
-beach toys – I bought a small set that was easy to pack
– glow sticks for nighttime deck parties
– a pop-up hamper – I never thought we’d use one, but someone in a Fish Extender group gave us one and it was really handy.
-light card – To turn the room lights on, you have to stick your room key card in a slot next to the door and leave it there. Lots of people bring extra cards just to put in there so they don’t stick their key in and forget it. Any credit-card sized card will work, but you can also buy special cards on Etsy, such as cards with important ship locations listed on them, etc. One of the Fish Extender gifts we received was a card with a magnet attached – so simple but GENIUS! When you pull it out you just stick it to the wall, which is magnetic, and it’s there for later.
Your luggage won’t arrive at your stateroom for a few hours sometimes, so you’ll want to pack a carry-on bag with things you might need
-check in documents and passports
-alcohol, if you’re bringing your own – check Disney’s policy for how much you’re allowed
-things you’ll need before your bags arrive at your room – pool gear, phone chargers, , medication, etc.
– autograph books – We actually ran out of room in ours!
– water bottles – They do provide water on the pool deck, but the cups are small.
– purses – I like to pack a lightweight tote bag to carry around the ship with me. I put a folder in it along with pens, other things I need. Every night you will get a “Navigator” for the next day with your turndown service. This has all the times and info you’ll need for that day (this is also on the Disney Cruise app but I am visual and like to see things all laid out). I put this in the folder and also use it for things we pick up along the way, such as art the girls make and other things I want to save. I also use pens and highlighters on it for things we don’t want to miss. I also pack a smaller crossbody purse that will still fit the stateroom’s Wave phone (it’s about the size of an old-school Nokia).
At noon every day the ship horn plays a bunch of Disney melodies.