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Why the most magical Disney vacation isn't actually found at the theme parks -- it's at sea

March 29, 2022
11 min read
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Disney magic, the Disney bubble, Disney-quality service ... call it what you will, but an almost-magical level of predictive attention to detail has long been a large part of what makes a Disney vacation special.

Those things are not tied to a Disney location so much as the entire experience. While in the Disney bubble, you feel like any need (or want) will be handled in an attentive, flawless way without being stuffy or intrusive. Sure, this makes a Disney trip more expensive than some other vacations, but, for the most part, you feel like you get what you pay for ... at least, until perhaps more recently.

This level of service is likely how Disney successfully expanded beyond theme parks to offer high-end adventure trips, stand-alone resorts and even a cruise line, which is now on the verge of welcoming its fifth ship, the Disney Wish.

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I'm an unabashed fan who enjoys most Disney-related things, but while I'm in the land of the mouse, I purposefully take off my enchanted rose-colored glasses from time to time to give the experience a serious once-over.

I'm a fan, but I'm not a fanatic. As such, I will readily share that a trip to Disney World has unquestionably gotten more expensive, more complicated and, in some ways, more stressful to plan and execute in recent years.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

There are plenty of ways to mitigate some of these challenges and have an amazing time at the parks, but not everyone wants to strategize to go on a vacation. Fortunately, there's still a Disney trip that doesn't require strategies, the constant refreshing of an app and the use of third-party services to maximize your day.

Where is this magical land, you may wonder? Well, look to the water and a Disney cruise.

Having just stepped off my third Disney cruise (the first I've taken since the pandemic began), I can confidently say the most magical and relaxing of Disney vacations is currently found at sea.

Out on the ocean, the magic inside the Disney bubble is unchanged — and maybe even better than ever. Here's why you should step off land and onto a cruise ship if you crave the simple, romanticized version of a Disney vacation you remember from your childhood.

No strategy is required on board

A Disney trip on land, especially if you are eyeing Disney World in Central Florida, can be complicated, to say the least.

You need to strategize to get the best restaurant reservations, book your Genie+ rides, beat the crowds and more, which you have no choice but to do if you want to justify the $1,000-plus per day your family will spend at Disney's parks and resorts.

But with a Disney cruise, you have the option to book many activities and reservations in advance, though you don't really need to if you just want a fun, relaxing time.

Even if you don't book anything extra, you'll have seats waiting for you at the ship's rotating selection of complimentary restaurants. Not to mention, you'll enjoy a dedicated waitstaff team at dinner that moves with you as you switch restaurants.

There will be characters aplenty, too. Plus, you'll have a full roster of activities to choose from, including Broadway-caliber shows in the evenings and a waterslide that you can zip down as much (or as little) as you like.

All you have to do to have a good time on board is just show up.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Aside from a massage, I didn't book a thing in advance for our recent Disney cruise, and it was hands down the most relaxing vacation we have taken in a long time.

Nothing emphasizes that more than our experience at Disney World the day after the cruise ended.

Instead of just living in the moment with my family, I was on my phone all day refreshing my app to get access to Lightning Lanes for rides and rubbing elbows with hordes of tourists while trekking 10 miles between rides so we could make the most of our one day at the parks.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Don't get me wrong, we had fun at Disney World. I know what to expect and how to make that system work for us, but it took a lot more effort and strategic planning than was necessary when we were on the ship.

Related: These are the best Disney World restaurants

Everybody knows your name

OK, not everybody — that would be weird. But from the moment you step on board the ship, you'll find yourself feeling like you are a long-lost member of the ship's family.

Right away you're greeted by name by those welcoming you during embarkation, and your room host and team of nightly servers quickly learn the names of every member of your group. Even the kids club team and lunch servers we only briefly encountered greeted us by name whenever we passed them in other parts of the ship.

All of the crew members were incredibly detail oriented, too, when it came to learning our preferences. Whether you need the bunk beds pulled down at night or barbecue sauce for everything due to a certain picky traveler in your group, the ship's team quickly notices and remembers so you don't have to ask more than once.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Sure, you may have a similar experience on land, as that level of service is offered in places like concierge lounges at Disney resorts and during VIP tours at the parks, but overall, that kind of pampering isn't the norm.

It's as close to affordable as you'll get for Disney

Our three-night Disney cruise in a room with a verandah during spring break set my family of three back $2,812.26. (That doesn't factor in the $150 onboard credit we received for booking via our travel agent.)

While spending close to $3,000 isn't a bargain by any stretch, the price comes with a lot of inclusions you'd normally pay extra for at other Disney locations. To start, your cruise price covers room service, sit-down meals and nonalcoholic beverages. You also enjoy access to pools, a kids club, Disney's private island and more without incurring any additional expenses.

And because we traveled during a busy time of year in an upgraded cabin, we ended up paying a little more than you have to. Choose off-peak dates or an interior stateroom, and you'll easily bring that price down.

By comparison, our one day spent at Disney World cost considerably more.

For three one-day Park Hopper tickets for me and my two kids, I spent $662.44. Additionally, the Genie+ add-on we deemed necessary to avoid spending the entire day in lines cost $47.94. Then there were the individual Lightning Lanes for Remy's Ratatouille Adventure and Avatar Flight of Passage, two popular rides that are not part of the Genie+ plan. Those set our party of three back $28.77 and $35.16, respectively.

Outside the parks, there was our room at one of Disney's moderate resorts, Port Orleans, that cost $365.63 per night, plus the extra $20 fee per night for on-site parking. Had we stayed at a higher-end property like Disney's Grand Floridian or Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, we would've easily paid double that price for lodging.

Related: What it's really like doing Disney World 3 different ways: Budget, moderate and blow-out luxury

These expenses alone put us at $1,159 for one day at Disney's theme parks ... well beyond what we spent for one day of our cruise. Once we ate, the park day's total cost jumped to more than $1,300, making it abundantly clear that the cruise was the more cost-effective way to go.

But it's not just the potentially lower price for sailing with Disney that stands out — it's the value you feel you're getting from the experience. Not having to open my wallet every time my kids wanted a special treat like a Mickey ice cream bar or chocolate chip cookies from room service only underscored what I already knew a few hours into our cruise: I was getting my money's worth.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Magic is still front and center

Disney magic (or "pixie dust," as it's called in Disney circles) is absolutely present in the theme parks, even on crowded days. But when exploring a space with tens of thousands of other people, it's possible to find yourself not getting the special attention or unexpected surprises you may hope to enjoy during a Disney vacation.

Crowds are common on Disney cruises, too, but with only 1,000 to 4,000 guests (plus more than 1,000 Disney cast members), your odds of finding those magical moments (think: magic tricks at dinner, special stateroom surprises and one-on-one time with princesses) are greater while at sea.

Case in point: my kids. Although there have been times when they've visited the parks and nothing out of the ordinary has happened, they have felt special on multiple occasions during each and every Disney Cruise we've enjoyed.

Related: What it's like sailing in a Disney Cruise concierge stateroom

Your room perfectly resets each night

This highlight may seem silly to call out, but I just have to say it: Having someone clean your room every day is a perk I really value, especially now that nightly housekeeping (aka mousekeeping) is not available at Disney resorts.

After paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars per night for a standard hotel room at one of Disney's popular deluxe resorts and spending a long day with my kids in the parks, I'd like to return to my room knowing that clean towels and a freshly made bed will be waiting for me.

While I'll get a light refresh every other day that includes basic services like taking out the trash, it's not the same full cleaning still available on Disney's cruise ships.

Both in the morning after you exit and again during dinner, your stateroom is transformed into the perfectly put-together space you found on the first day of your cruise. Beds are made, bunk beds are pulled down (or stowed away, depending on the time of day) and fun surprises like towel animals and chocolate treats are placed in just the right spot to catch your eye when you return.

It's a small difference between land and sea, to be sure, but it's one that only adds to the feeling of truly being on vacation ... or not.

Related: Hotels aren't our homes — and that's exactly why they shouldn't end daily housekeeping

Bottom line

If you want to enjoy a Disney vacation where your meals, lodging, entertainment, character interactions and more are magically taken care of, then the ideal getaway for you may not be the one you immediately think of. Rather than plan a trip to "The Most Magical Place on Earth" or "The Happiest Place on Earth," maybe for your next Disney-themed family getaway, it would make more sense to embark on a stress-free adventure at sea with Disney Cruise Line.

Although you won't find the same rides and parades from your youth, you'll enjoy all kinds of fun experiences on the open ocean, plus ample time with Mickey, Minnie and their pals.

I've taken many Disney-related trips in the last few years -- but the Disney cruises are often the most magical of them all.

Featured image by (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases