If you’ve never been on a Disney cruise with your family, it can seem a bit daunting. There are so many things to consider and because cruises are so unique compared to other types of vacations, it’s hard to know what to expect.
Luckily, Today’s Parent is here to give you the lowdown. One of our editors was recently hosted aboard the Disney Dream to get a first-hand look at how Disney Cruise Line makes this experience as magical as possible. Here are a few tips to help you and your family make the most of your first Disney cruise—without any headaches.
Plan to arrive early
If you have kids, you know that getting anywhere involves plenty of delays (whether it’s tantrums at the door, dilly-dallying on the walk or issues getting them into their car seats). So if you’re flying into the port city, plan on arriving the day before and staying somewhere local overnight. It’s worth it to avoid the stress of flying in on embarkation day (the day the boat departs) or potentially missing it due to delays.
Cruisers can start the online check-in process time up to 30 days before their trip, during which you should choose the earliest port arrival time available. While the ship doesn’t usually leave until 5pm, people can start boarding as early as 11am. If you can score one of these early slots, not only will you get to explore the ship when it’s less crowded, but you can also activate vacation mode that much sooner! Plus, you can avoid some of the attractions that typically have long line ups, such as the Aquaduck waterslide on the Disney Dream.
Hot tip: On embarkation day, your checked bags won’t be available at your stateroom until sometime the afternoon, so come prepared in your bathing suits and bring a day bag that has everything you need for the afternoon—including your passports, vaccination records, and port arrival forms, as well as sunblock, a change of clothes and diapers (if your little ones still need them)
The navigator app is your best friend
An absolute must before you set sail is to download the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app. While your room key is referred to as your “Key to the World,” this app is your map of the world. It’s got a map of each of the ship’s decks but offers so much more.
Firstly, you can use the app to check the activity schedules and “heart” any activities your family is interested in, to give you a reminder notification before it starts. As well, if you have kids that have their own phones, you can all use the app to text chat with each other, which is great since cruise/roaming packages can cost a pretty penny (thankfully, the app works with the free on-board Wi-Fi–even if you don’t purchase a special Wi-Fi package. Win!)
And if you’re using the laundry machines on board, the machines will send you notifications through the app when your load is done. So grab a seat poolside and put relax!
Be sure to make use of open house hours
One thing that really elevates Disney Cruises from most others is that the kid’s club is included with the ticket price, which is a huge savings. But if you’re worried that your kid may hesitant to go on their own, don’t be! The kid’s clubs—called the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab— offers open house hours so parents and kids can check out the space together. This way, your little ones will know what to expect and can get comfortable with the idea of hanging out on their own while you get some downtime.
Make time for alone time
Speaking of alone time, make sure you get some! The Oceaneer Club and Lab is for kids ages 3-12, so be sure to check out the schedule and sign them up for activities that you know they’ll love—don’t forget you’re on vacation too! If you have tweens and teens, they’re likely to explore on their own but Disney does offer clubs for them as well: Edge for tweens ages 11-14 and Vibe for teens ages 14-17. If your kids are under three, don’t fret; you can check them into the nursery, but know that unlike the other clubs, nursery care comes at an additional cost.
Now you’re free to check out the adult-only sections of the pool deck where you can lounge without any children running around and shrieking nearby (can’t promise you’ll be able to avoid any loud tipsy adults however). There’s also some adult-only restaurants that require advanced booking and are an additional cost, but it’s well worth the (quiet!) meal. Trust us: You’ll want at least one meal that’s away from the hubbub and outside of your stateroom.
Bonus tip: If you can’t get a reservation before embarkation day, swing by guest services right when you board to check for any openings. This also applies to any other sold-out activities, such as port adventures, spa packages or exclusive character meet and greets. And if you’re planning any port adventures, be sure to bring cash as not all port cities readily take cards. Plus, it’s handy for tipping for room service and other crew members.
Embrace the fun
Whether you’re a big Disney family or not, like most things, you get out of the experience what you put into it. So let yourself get caught up in the Disney magic. Take pictures with the characters, decorate the door to your stateroom (which also helps kids to find their rooms more easily) and dress up for the themed nights.
The cruise we went on was a Halloween on the High Seas theme, so dressing up in costumes and enjoying the trick-or-treating festivities was a must. And every Disney cruise does a Pirate Night where pirate outfits/costumes are encouraged. Arrr, matey! No costume? Each guest gets a free bandana that they can sport, as well. Look out for upcoming themed cruises in 2023, like the new Marvel Days at Sea and Pixar Days at Sea.
One last bit of fun: Don’t skip out on the stage shows. There are two time slots each evening; one before and one after dinner so choose the one that makes most sense for your family. Not only are they high-caliber shows put on by a talented cast of performers, but before each one the Cruise Director provides important info and updates about whats happening on the boat, such as fireworks later on in the evening or details on what port the ship will be at the next day.
Order your family pictures before you disembark
If there’s one thing that really sets Disney cruises apart, it’s all the character encounters and photo ops, complete with official Disney photographer—just like in the parks! The photographer will scan your Key to the World so any photos they snap will link to your account, which you can view at Shutters Photo Gallery aboard the ship.
Make sure to order any prints BEFORE you before you go to bed on your last night because the gallery won’t be open on the morning of disembarkation day. And don’t wait; some special photo package pricing is only be available during your trip.
There are also digital packages available which you can download on the Disney Cruise Line photo site once you get home, BUT be sure to link the photos to your Disney account within 48 hours of your trip, or the photos will be gone forever!
You won’t be able to do it all
Now we all know that FOMO is always real when it comes to vacations, and a Disney cruise is no exception. They have so many different things happening around the ship that it can feel overwhelming. Make peace with the fact that it’s impossible to experience everything they have to offer; you’ll have a much more relaxing time without scurrying from activity to activity. So don’t get bogged down about missing the chance to do some Disney Trivia because you were already busy doing karoake—there’s always next time!