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Our first Disney Cruise lived up to our expectations — for the most part. Pros: High-quality food, entertaining shows and plenty of Disney magic to keep the little ones occupied. Cons: Crowds everywhere you turn, tiny pools and a surprising amount of stress on the private island.
It is safe to say that my family has become a Disney family. We go to Disney World at least each year (OK, maybe a few times a year), and have been to Disneyland and Disney’s Aulani in Hawaii. Yet we had never been on a cruise.
You can guess where this is heading.
After 38 years of keeping my feet on the ground (or in the sky), we booked our very first family cruise for this year’s spring break. Given our Disney-themed travel patterns and the cruise line’s solid reputation, it’s probably little shock that our first cruise was booked on the Disney Dream. One of four in the Disney Cruise Line, it first set sail in 2011, has 1,250 staterooms and can house 4,000 guests and almost 1,500 crew members. In other words, it’s big.
While it took a long time for our family to venture into the world of cruising, once we committed to this trip, I was really excited for this new adventure — as in it was probably our most anticipated trip of the year. With such high expectations to live up to, would our cruise be smooth sailing or result in us running for the airport at the first port of call?
We used the Cruise Compete website to start our cruise search, as that was an easy way to quickly compare multiple quotes with one request. It isn’t all about price with a cruise — it’s also about the stateroom credits and other perks that can amount to hundreds of dollars in value. Our decisions quickly came down to booking via Costco Travel or Small World Vacations. While we would have gotten a larger total credit (in the form of a Costco gift card) via Costco, I went with Small World Vacations this time, purely based on recommendations by friends.
As first-time cruisers who are a touch claustrophobic, we booked connecting staterooms with verandahs instead of all piling into one room. Booking two rooms did increase the price over sharing one stateroom, but only by about 50%, which was worth it to us.
We made our bookings directly with Small World Vacations, and the charge coded as travel directly from Disney Cruise Line, so we could’ve earned 3 points per dollar on the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Premier Card. While I had no issues at all with how we booked the cruise or the service we received along the way, our stateroom credits were less than I expected — just $50 per room, even though our final total for the two rooms was over $4,000. Minus taxes, each room was just under the $2,000 threshold to go from $50 to $100 per room. It was a lesson learned that fees don’t count and the total bill for two rooms isn’t viewed as a cumulative total for credit purposes.
In addition to the cruise price, there were per-person gratuities that came to $40.50 per person on our three-night cruise. You could pay these in advance charge them to your account while on the ship.
To use points on a Disney cruise to keep some cash in your wallet, the easiest way is to make payments with a card that utilizes fixed-value points you can use for travel. This includes points from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard (currently with a bonus of 70,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first 90 days, worth $700 in travel) and the Capital One Venture Rewards credit card (currently with a bonus of 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months, worth $500 in travel).
If you have the Disney Visa, it can save while you on the Disney Cruise Line with discounts on spa treatments, Castaway Cay packages and photo packages. You can also get a promotional 0% APR for six months on Disney cruises charged to the card if you need a little breathing room to pay off the magic.
Our first cruising adventure started in Port Canaveral, Florida, less than an hour’s drive from Orlando International Airport (MCO). To make things easy and reduce the stress of missing the cruise thanks to a flight delay, we flew in the night before and spent the night at the in-terminal Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport using the annual Category 1-4 award from the World of Hyatt credit card. The next morning, we picked up a car from Silvercar (with included car seat!) and made the easy drive to the port.
There are plenty of ways to get from MCO to Port Canaveral, including a bus operated by the Disney Cruise Line ($78 per person, round-trip), but with four people and more plans once the ship docked back in Florida, a car rental with port parking was our best option. Parking at the port was $68 for the length of the three-night cruise in the garage, or $88 in the nearest lot. There are cheaper off-site parking options, or you could book a car service for a family for less than the bus option.
When we pulled up to the port, there were plenty of people available to assist us with our bags (with tags sent by the Disney Cruise Line in advance). You should pack a day bag with the essentials for the afternoon, as your larger bags appear in your stateroom a few hours after dropping them off in the port.
We had a 1:15pm port arrival time assigned to us when we completed our precruise online paperwork, but boarding seemed pretty open when we arrived around 1pm.
Boarding for this cruise ran from 11am to 3:45pm, with the earliest slots going to Disney elite cruisers and concierge guests, since most want as many minutes on board as possible. To board, we cleared security like at the airport, had our documents checked by Disney, received the Key to the World Card we used throughout the cruise and then finally boarded the ship.
We were also able to snag a picture with Mickey just before boarding, though the characters seemed to come and go in the boarding terminal.
Once we had gone through the formal check-in process at Port Canaveral, the rest was easy. (Frankly, it was all pretty easy.) As we boarded the ship, we were greeted by name and cheered on as we walked onto our vacation. It was quite the welcome that every family receives!
There was no more work to do once on the ship, so we headed straight to lunch at Animator’s Palate, though we could have gone to our rooms as of 1:30pm, which was roughly when we arrived on board.
Our bags arrived at the room by midafternoon, so our day bag proved to be pretty unnecessary. Before setting sail, there was a mandatory safety drill and demonstration that everyone had to attend. Prepare your kids for loud beeps during this drill.
Being the slightly nervous cruisers that we were, our family of four booked connecting deluxe ocean-view staterooms with verandahs on Deck 8. Each room was around 246 square feet, including the verandah.
Each had one queen bed, a single sleeper sofa and a pulldown berth bed. I did not trust all four of us would fit night after night perfectly with that arrangement, so we doubled those numbers with connecting and identical rooms. I am very glad that we made that choice, as space was tight for someone not used to cruises once our actual stuff was everywhere.
While the space was predictably tight, the queen bed was extremely comfortable, with a plush Euro-top mattress and 300-thread-count sheets. There was also a USB port on the nightstand, which helped keep devices charged.
Though the sofa bed and pulldown beds weren’t as comfortable as the real bed, my short tests of those sleeping areas were just fine, especially for kids. (Ask for the room host for character sheets for the pulldown bed, if the kids want them!) One thing that really helped with the space was that the crew put away the sofa bed and berth beds during the day and brought them back to life at night.
Aside from the beds, the room had a mini-fridge, closet, desk and a small TV that had Disney movies on demand.
There were two separate, small rooms with doors, one with a toilet and sink and another with a small tub shower and another sink.
These areas were tight, though, and anyone over 6 feet would have had to scrunch down a bit to take a shower in this room. There were full-sized showers in the spa and gym, at least.
The verandahs were a nice addition to the rooms, but we didn’t really need two, since we never used more than one at a time.
Since room service was included in our cruising fee, it was great space to enjoy delivered coffee as the ship came into port.
Ports of Call
Day 1: Port Canaveral, Florida
After the important safety formalities, we sailed away from Florida around 5pm and toasted our first cruise while the kids were already deep into the kids-club fun.
The best views for the sail-away party were from the very front of the ship, and we enjoyed them with a premade frozen cocktails that were being sold around the deck.
Day 2: Nassau, Bahamas
The morning of our first full day on the boat, we pulled into Nassau in the Bahamas. The Bahamian water as we came ashore was breathtakingly gorgeous — which we fully expected, having been to Nassau a few times before.
Having been there before, we passed on leaving the ship to the popular Atlantis water park (though here is the cheapest way to do that if you haven’t been). Since our cruise was short, we wanted to spend this full day on the ship taking advantage of the amenities while some of the others were hopefully on land.
Day 3: Castaway Cay, Bahamas
A hallmark of many Disney cruises is the stop at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay (pronounced “key”). Castaway Cay is in the Bahamas about 70 miles north of Nassau. Our ship docked at Castaway Cay a little after sunrise, and streams of travelers began migrating from the ship to the shore shortly thereafter. Note that Disney is reportedly acquiring a second private island in the Bahamas, which will be necessary as it grows its fleet.
As soon as we disembarked at Castaway Cay, we could buy a cooler of water and ice. We now wish we hadn’t skipped the free bug-spray station — we got very itchy bites on the island.
Interestingly, though fountain sodas were free on the cruise, water could be in short supply, so we bought a bag. While you didn’t need to spend a dime on the island to play in the water, relax in a beach chair or even have lunch at Cookies or Cookies Too, we had already booked a package (at a great value) that included snorkels, bikes and floats ($46 for an adult package, $34 for kids). We booked two of those packages and then added an extra one-hour bike rental ($13) when we arrived.
We started off on our bike ride around the island as many of the walkers were finishing the free Castaway Cay 5K you could sign up for in advance. You even got a medal!
Personally, I found the water on Castaway Cay a bit cold, so we didn’t make it to the in-water slides, but the girls didn’t mind the temperature and loved playing close to shore. There was also a splash pad, an included outdoor kids club, as well as shops such as She Sells Seashells.
The biggest disappointment of the cruise turned out to be on Castaway Cay, as the beach-chair situation on this particular day was heated. Think “Jersey Shore” heated. And I’m not talking about the temperature.
We had taken the island’s tram to the second stop to try and avoid some of the crowd, but that wasn’t particularly successful. Even though we had left items on a couple beach chairs while we did our bike ride as soon as we arrived to beat the heat, another family had basically claimed half our spots while we were gone. I’m not sure if they didn’t see our water bottles and towels or if they chose to ignore them, but there were booties in our seats.
We made do with what was left, but then witnessed a full-on yelling match over chairs one row away from us and dealt with grumblings over our own seats as the family that claimed them in our temporary absence was not pleased to be sharing space with us when we returned. In short, it was my husband’s nightmare vacation scenario, and I didn’t find it very pleasant either.
A cabana would have solved the problem, as there are a couple dozen for rent on the island, but with thousands of people on the ship and only 20-something cabanas, you had to either be in a concierge-level room, have high elite status with the Disney Cruise Line or get very lucky to snag one at the $600 going rate.
Unlike the beach-chair situation, the included island lunch was fantastic and stress-free. While the concept of Castaway Cay is five-star, the beach seating on our cruise was very un-Disney.
There was no shortage of amenities on the Disney Dream. Starting on the main deck, there were two family pools, a Mickey waterslide for those 4 and up and a big AquaDuck (as in Donald Duck) tube slide that went around the entire ship for brave souls 42 inches or taller.
While the waits for this slide could get long during the day, there was virtually no wait at night, and it was worth it.
Toddlers should love the Nemo’s Reef splash pad, though my husband called it “the toddler mosh pit,” as it was a bit hectic at times. No swim diapers were permitted in the pools, so kids had to be fully potty-trained before going beyond the splash pad.
Teens may have had the best swimming spot of all on the ship with their own teen-only pool area that was 100% empty when we spied it from the spa.
Perhaps other than the teen area, all of the family areas got very, very crowded during portions of the cruise. In fact, they were way too crowded for me.
For the adults, there was a swim-up bar and adult pool in a calmer area away from the main deck.
As for hot tubs, there were a couple of those in the family and adult areas, but they were often crammed to the point that I almost got panic attacks just looking at them. If you want to soak without the rest of humanity bumping up against you, go during off-peak hours.
There was also find a basketball court and putt-putt golf, both of which were frequently utilized.
The Senses spa onboard was a true haven. It had a full gym and a rainfall-shower series that seemed quite popular. There was also a juice bar with a killer view, though the juices cost extra.
We went to the spa for a couples massage that was light on pressure but high on relaxation. I also had a hair treatment and blowout that was beyond needed and truly fantastic.
Not all spas are worth it, but if you can afford an hour or two at Senses, it is a great break from the bustle of the ship — and the showers were nice and big, so you could skip a turn in the tiny stateroom bathrooms.
Naturally, you can’t talk about the spa without talking about the kids club, since one isn’t as good without the other. On the Dream there was not one kids club but four that were broken down by age.
First was the It’s a Small World Nursery (6 months to 3 years), then the Oceaneer Club (3 to 12 years), Edge (11 to 14) and Vibe (14 to 17). All of these clubs were free to use other than the nursery, which charged $4.50 for every 30 minutes.
I could probably write a whole story about the kids clubs, but instead here’s a short photo overload from the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab.
You also needed a special $12.95 band to use the kids clubs that tracked exactly where the kids were in the club and registered their comings and goings, but that was refundable if you turned the band back in on the last night. If I were a kid, you’d find me parked flying the Millennium Falcon for as long as possible.
If your child is into Disney characters, there were plenty of onboard character meetings with everyone from princesses to the Mouse himself. Some just require you hop in line at a certain time, and others, such as the “Frozen” or princess greetings, required an included reservation you could make online in advance. We were told by some experienced cruisers that there were additional unannounced special pop-up character meet and greets, but we never encountered any ourselves.
Last but not least were the onboard shows and movies. We saw “Captain Marvel” the weekend it premiered on land while we sailed away at sea. While “free” isn’t the right price to describe seeing the movie on a Disney cruise, it didn’t cost anything extra, which felt really cool. Note that popcorn was a couple dollars extra, so don’t get too used to the “yes to everything” mentality if you don’t want a bill at the end of the journey.
The big, Broadway-caliber evening productions on the Dream really were all they claimed to be. We watched the large evening shows that took place in the Walt Disney Theater on two of our three nights. We enjoyed “The Golden Mickeys” and “Disney’s Believe,” both of which had fun songs, great effects and characters we all loved. This large theater also where 3D movies were shown. I recommend getting there are least 15 to 20 minutes early if you want to get a good seat.
Now for the bad news: If you want to stay connected on the ship, it’s going to cost you. Though you can get 50 MB free if you register for an internet account on the first day, I bought about 250 total MB, and it was all gone in an instant. Some people say they can make that amount last a whole cruise, but I did the minimum on my phone, and it would disappear within minutes even though each package was $19. My husband somehow spent over $200 on internet on the ship without being online frequently, so be careful.
While I loved being mostly disconnected for a few days, this almost caused me to lose all photos of my cruise when my phone got wet on Castaway Cay and hadn’t backed up to iCloud in days. Luckily, the phone partially came back to life long enough after the cruise to back up to iCloud and save the photos, but I really hope the cruise line gets the Wi-Fi situation under control before our next sail.
Food and Beverage
I had heard over and over again that the food on Disney Cruise Line was exceptional, and after eating half the ocean on our trip, I’m inclined to largely agree. We did not try the two buy-up adults-only fancy restaurants (Palo and Remy), because there was barely enough time to try the included meals. For us, the included meals were quite fancy enough.
We ate at all three included sit-down restaurants that you rotated through each evening. On the Dream, these were Animator’s Palate, Enchanted Garden and Royal Palace. You were assigned a rotation, and your server staff followed you from restaurant to restaurant each evening, allowing you to have some consistency throughout your voyage.
The menus at these restaurants featured a wide variety of dishes, including pasta bolognese, sirloin steak, salmon tartare, roast duck, iced lobster and jumbo shrimp, sea scallops and prime rib.
There was also a wide variety of soups, salads and a complete child menu with basically anything a picky kid might want. These pretty fancy dining options were all included.
While not every single restaurant menu item was a hit, I routinely went for the seafood options and was never disappointed in the food or service. The overall enjoyment was helped by the kids’ food being served first. We would then take them to the kids clubs halfway through the meal and leisurely enjoy the main course and dessert. Rumor has it that staff took the kids from the second seating to the kids clubs halfway through the meal.
My only restaurant disappointment came via one of the drinks of the day. These daily selections were cheaper than the rest of the drinks, but in this case, this particular one just tasted like a melted mess of sugar. Luckily, it was easy to send it back and order a glass of wine instead.
The buffet on the main deck, called Cabanas, was also enjoyable — better than you’d probably expect from a cruise buffet. We ate here for one lunch and for breakfast the final morning, since our assigned restaurant time was at a not-gonna-happen 6:45am. On the lunch buffet, we found standouts such as peel-and-eat shrimp, sushi and build-your-own salad.
Honestly, eating pretty healthfully on the ship was much easier than I expected — if you were OK skipping dessert (which we totally didn’t skip).
For breakfast, the buffet featured Mickey waffles, hash browns, bacon, sausage, eggs, donuts, fresh fruit, muffins and pastries. Combined with the unlimited self-service coffee and orange juice, this place was a hit.
Casual dining could be found on the main deck of the ship. These “Cars”-themed walk-up ordering stations served chicken fingers, burgers, pizza, fruit, etc. This was not fancy food but it was fast, easy, included and perfect for a casual meal by the pools.
There was also included self-service, soft-serve ice cream on the pool deck.
However, the even better Vanellope’s Sweets and Treats had all sorts of ice cream with mix-ins and other desserts, though it was not included in your cruise fare (about $5 for a small bowl). This ice cream shop was in a location that kids pass frequently, so it is probably easier to budget in a visit than to constantly say no.
On the Dream, there were also little cafes where the pastries were included, but the fancier coffee drinks were not. However, these places were great calm spots to relax, even if you didn’t buy their coffee.
Multiple themed adult bars were in The District, including an almost-too-cute Champagne bar called Pink, the more traditional Pub 687 and the District Lounge. Josh did a margarita/tequila tasting here and had nothing but good things to say.
The price for the tasting, about $20 per person, included multiple drinks and fun along the way. Be sure and make reservations for those sort of activities well in advance, as they sell out.
You could bring two bottles of wine or a six-pack of beer per adult on the ship in your carry-on luggage. Given the prices, that is a really good idea.
A final food option was room service, which was also included, though gratuity was not. We only ordered room service for breakfast, and while having your food delivered each morning was great, only continental breakfast was on the room-service menu.
A good strategy might be to have coffee and a snack and brought to you and then have a larger breakfast in Cabanas later (or eat a small breakfast to save room for the delicious meals later in the day).
Our favorite room service feature was unlimited Mickey ice cream bars at virtually any time of the day. No lie: My 9-year-old learned how to order these herself, and would do it while we got ready for bed at night.
Our Disney cruise was almost everything we hoped for. In fact, we already put a deposit down on another one to score a discount.
It wasn’t perfect, though. The pool situation is a total nonstarter for me given the crowds. Disembarking took well over an hour and was not a pleasant experience with tired kids who had been woken up early to get off the ship. The bickering over beach seats on the private island was unexpected and unsettling. And, if you have an issue with crowds, be aware you are going to be sailing with a few thousand others on the same ship. Buying up to concierge level would help with some of these issues, but, of course, would cost more.
All that said, the food lived up to the hype, cleanliness was top-notch with sanitation stations and wipes handed out everywhere, the kids rarely wanted to ever leave the kids clubs, the shows were fabulous, and it was a great way to just relax and have fun together without doing a whole bunch of planning. I think a three-night cruise was a great place to start as a nervous cruiser, but a minimum of four nights or five is probably needed to even start to experience all the ship has to offer. I would avoid the two-night cruise, as it just wouldn’t be enough time to get a feel for things.
Since we know we want to experience this magic again, we are deciding among a less-expensive one-way cruise, waiting for a new Disney cruise ship that may arrive in 2021, and taking a convenient sail during a school break right out of Galveston, Texas, near our home in Houston.
Regardless of the exact itinerary, Disney Cruise Line captures a lot of the same charm and ease (and crowds) of the Disney parks. I can’t say there is a perfect age for family cruising, but our 3- and 9-year-old girls got to play in the same included kids club together while we enjoyed chilled lobster at dinner, so I think it is safe to say we are in a pretty magical cruising phase of life.
Know before you go.
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