What’s it really like on a Disney cruise right now? Spoiler alert: Better than ever
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Until very recently, I hadn’t felt the wind in my hair out on a cruise ship deck since the before times.
We had last cruised in January 2020. We had a great time and decided to ramp up our cruise bookings and scheduled additional cruises for later in 2020 and 2021. But, alas, those were ultimately not meant to be.
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By the summer and fall of 2021, the TPG cruise team was out in full force sharing what it was like at sea since ships first returned to the water with passengers in mid-2021. Despite knowing cruising was again possible, the timing didn’t feel quite right for my family, so we remained on dry land … until now.
Fresh off our third Disney cruise (our first in the pandemic era), I can very confidently say this cruise was my favorite one yet. While things can and do change quickly these days, our mid-March sailing proved to be a truly exceptional time to cruise.
Here’s what it was like on a Disney cruise in 2022, and why the current coronavirus-era rules and procedures in place helped make it our favorite sailing yet.
Tests and vaccines required, masks increasingly optional
First, some brief background. While we have traveled during the past two years, my family has taken COVID-19 pretty seriously. We mask and test even when it’s not required and have all received every vaccine we were eligible for the moment they became available to us.
So to us, taking a vacation where everyone is required to test to board the ship and must be vaccinated if they are 5 or older is pretty good news. For travelers who aren’t fully vaccinated or who don’t want to mess with testing to travel, now is still not the time for a Disney cruise.
Testing at the port
While it was reassuring to know that everyone had just been tested once we were on board, Disney Cruise Line’s testing rules were admittedly a little nerve-racking.
Unlike most trips where you test within one to three days of travel while you are still at home, meaning you could simply stay home if you unexpectedly test positive, these cruise tests take place at the port moments before boarding. As a result, you’ll potentially be far from home if you test positive, though you’ll avoid additional testing costs and logistical concerns if all goes as planned and you test negative.
For Disney, testing occurred after we dropped off our luggage. Because we rented a car and drove to the port from the airport (which I recommend doing in case you have an unexpected positive test result and are unable to board), we were directed to enter the parking garage, where we self-tested ourselves with provided swabs while being monitored in our car. Had we come without a car, we would’ve been directed to enter one of several staffed tents to complete our tests.
The process itself was pretty straightforward, though the 25 minutes it took our test results to appear in my inbox felt like a lifetime. Perhaps it was being able to see the ship in the distance that made time seemingly stand still. You could hear cheers from around the garage rise up as different families were cleared to sail.
Fortunately, all worries quickly subsided as we received our own “clear to sail” results and were thus eligible to walk across the bridge and into the cruise terminal.
Masks only required in certain areas
Because our sailing was the first with Disney that had reduced masking requirements (unlike others that required wearing masks indoors unless eating, drinking or spending time in your stateroom), we were only required to wear masks while in the Disney Cruise Line terminal, on motorcoach transportation and in the Walt Disney Theatre. That meant the majority of cruisers did not wear masks during most of our trip.
Still, those younger than 5 who were not yet old enough to be vaccinated needed to wear masks in the youth activity areas and while in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, so we did see a small percentage of cruisers with masks. Additionally, every cruise employee we interacted with was still wearing a mask.
No crowds, easy procedures
Disney Cruise Line’s website states that, “We’re reducing Guest capacity aboard our ship,” but the language is a bit vague, so we didn’t know what to expect in terms of crowds. Luckily, once on board, we were told that our ship (the Disney Dream) was only carrying about 2,200 guests out of the 4,000 it could accommodate.
With the reduced capacity and various procedures in place, we found ourselves hardly spending any real time queuing in the terminal or on board. There was never a wait to enter the restaurant each evening, and we had no problem getting good seats at the evening shows. Even riding the AquaDuck on a sunny afternoon in the Bahamas only required about a 15-minute wait; much shorter than we’d encountered on a previous Dream sailing.
Most noticeably, getting off the ship was very easy and stress-free. There was no wait to grab an elevator that could fit all of us and our luggage, and clearing customs only took about 10 or 15 minutes.
The much-dreaded muster drill was surprisingly painless, too, as it was now mostly done at your leisure upon boarding. Once you checked in at your emergency gathering point, you could complete the drill at your own pace in the hours after boarding.
The loud emergency horns do still sound just before beginning the voyage, but at least you can manage that on your own instead of all standing outside together.
Much like in the pre-pandemic years, Disney characters were just about everywhere you turned on the ship.
In addition to the usual scheduled character appearances, we saw Goofy sleepwalking on the deck in his pajamas, Minnie and Joy appeared at the end of game shows and the “Fab Five” ran through the restaurant one night.
Unlike previous sailings we’d done where we needed to grab a spot in line ahead of time to meet the characters, all we had to do was simply spot a character and wait in line a few minutes to say hi. Rarely, if ever, were there more than 10 groups ahead of us.
Having more chance encounters added an extra dose of excitement, making the experience feel much more magical than before.
The return of the kids club
As luck would have it, with our sailing came a change to Disney’s kids club operations at sea.
Prior to our cruise, Disney had required scheduling time at the kids club so children could be grouped into pods and remain with the same kids during their time in the club. While this system had some benefits, it made it harder to reserve a spot, as I experienced when I tried (and failed) to schedule kids club time in advance of our sailing.
However, the rule changed the day we got on board. From our cruise on, vaccinated kiddos 5 and up could once again drop into the kids club without reservations.
Although eating inside the club was still not permitted, the experience was otherwise much like it was pre-pandemic. My 6-year-old absolutely loved it, so much so that she’d rush to finish her dinner so she could go back to the kids club to play before bedtime.
So long, pool crowds
One of my complaints about previous cruises was how full the pools and hot tubs often were, overflowing with passengers regardless of the time of day.
In fact, other than the time we had the pool area to ourselves when we once sailed in a concierge-level suite, getting us on the ship faster and therefore to the pools before others further back in the embarkation process, we’d really never gotten in before. Because, well, you can see for yourself in these images from 2019.
But this time around, things were vastly improved.
With capacity strictly limited at onboard pools and hot tubs, we were able to thoroughly enjoy our time in the water without rubbing elbows with hordes of other passengers. Sure, there was a little wait to get in at times, but knowing that our pool time would be more enjoyable made the wait more than worth it.
We’ll see if Disney keeps this policy in place moving forward — I sure hope so, since it led to the pools being a real hit with my family.
Plenty of onboard activities
During our all-too-short, three-night cruise, we had a full roster of onboard activities available to us. We played bingo, went to trivia games, participated in a family game show, attended animation classes, were part of a detective game, watched a newly released movie and enjoyed the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” production.
In short, we were never, ever bored.
While popular offerings would reach capacity at times, we were able to experience everything we wanted just by showing up a couple of minutes before each activity began. Talk about a welcome change of pace.
A stress-free time at Disney’s private island
Another feature I hope will stick around after the pandemic is the virtual queue used for disembarkations at various ports. You simply click to join the queue in the Disney Cruise app and then are notified via a pop-up when it’s your turn to leave the ship.
We only got off the ship at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, but using the virtual queue was simple. We did not experience a wait or run into any issues when it was our turn to head to the island for some fun in the sun.
A barbecue lunch was still included, as was the use of chairs and umbrellas by the water. The waterslide was a ton of fun — even if the March water was a little chilly.
Since there were fewer people on the ship (and therefore on the island), we had no problems claiming prime seats on the beach.
Food favorites remain
Before our sailing, I regularly heard about how buffets were going away both on land and at sea. However, this was not the case on my Disney cruise, though there were a few changes.
While we regularly ate in the sit-down dining rooms, we also had the option to dine at Cabanas, which offered a buffet breakfast and lunch.
There was a wide variety of food available just as before, but instead of selecting our own food, we told the servers stationed behind the counters what we wanted and they would then add it to our plates. We could still visit and eat as much as we wanted; we just didn’t touch the serving utensils along with hundreds of our fellow cruisers.
Additionally, the drink machines were sometimes operated by Disney cast members, who would hand us our orange juice or coffee for breakfast, though this wasn’t always the case throughout the day.
The all-you-can-eat soft-serve ice cream machines (a beloved cruise amenity) were still available, too. Rather than watching our kids make a mess while crafting their own cones, though, we were served the flavors of our choice by a cast member. Again, I’ll take that as a win overall.
But really, save room for the evening rotational dining restaurants where your serving team knocks it out of the park as always.
Instead of taking an international trip that was going to require lots of testing, following numerous reentry rules and filling out pages of paperwork, my family opted for a fun Disney cruise.
While it may sound absurd to cruise right now, it turned out to be one of the best travel decisions I’ve made in recent years. Unlike other trips I’ve taken during the pandemic, this one actually felt like a vacation, which is saying a lot, especially since my kids were in tow.
By not having to take reentry tests to get back home (or worry about much of anything once we were on board), I found myself able to truly relax and enjoy the perfect blue water of the Bahamas.
Yes, there were still some rules and upfront tests involved, but other than the temporary anxiety we felt while waiting for our negative results at the port, this cruise was as close to stress- and hassle-free as they come. It was so good that I put a deposit down for the next one before even stepping foot back on American soil.
Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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