Disney Cruise Advice: Tips & Tricks Onboard the Ship

LAST UPDATE: 5/11/15

On this page we have collected some useful Disney Cruise advice, tips, and tricks that can help you save time and have more fun while you are on a Disney Cruise. Read the advice below and you’ll have a much better idea what to expect, even if you’ve never been on a cruise before!

Other useful Disney Cruise information pages:

Thanks to Marjorie Treger and to MouseSavers.com readers Jeff Evernham and Aileen B, who contributed some great tips.

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Disney Cruise Advice & Important Things to Know

“Embarkation” means getting on the ship for the first time during your cruise; “debarkation” means getting off the ship at the end of your cruise.

“Port” is the left side of the ship as you face forward; “starboard” is the right side as you face forward. “Forward” is obvious; “aft” is the rear of the ship.

A mandatory muster drill is held in the afternoon of embarkation day, usually at 4:00 pm. Everyone must attend in order to learn the location of your lifeboat station and other safety information. The drill takes only 30 minutes or less and you do not have to bring your life jacket with you.

There are not many clocks on board. If you don’t normally wear a watch anymore, because you use the clock on your cell phone instead, that won’t work onboard, because your cell phone won’t be functioning unless you are paying through the nose for “cellular at sea” service. There are many scheduled activities offered throughout the day and you will frequently need to know the time. Bring a watch.

“Cay” is pronounced “key” – so unless you want to sound like a novice, remember this both for Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island) and for Parrot Cay (one of the onboard restaurants on the Wonder and the Magic).

Embarkation

The more time you can spend on the ship, the more value you get for your dollar. Disney may tell you the ship leaves at 4:00 pm, but at Port Canaveral, check-in begins at 11:00 am and embarkation actually begins around noon. Personally we like to be among the first people on the ship, so we can enjoy it longer. Others prefer to avoid the crowds: there are usually quite a few early arrivers, which tends to crowd the terminal. Then things slow down a bit: reportedly if you arrive about 12:30, you may find the terminal nearly empty and be able to walk right on the ship. Then it gets crazy again around 1:30 pm when the Disney buses start arriving from Walt Disney World with great numbers of people all at once. For that reason we recommend taking a limo service rather than Disney’s buses — you can set your own time and not arrive with a huge group of people.

Disney now asks you to select a port arrival time when you do online check-in prior to your cruise. If you show up at a different time, you will still be admitted to the terminal. However, your embarkation group number is assigned based on the port arrival time you choose. If you arrive earlier than your port arrival time, you’ll just sit in the terminal cooling your heels until your group is called. So do online check-in as early as you can, choose the port arrival time you want, and schedule your transportation to the port accordingly.

A couple of exceptions on port arrival time:

  1. If you are staying at an official Walt Disney World resort or at Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport the night before your cruise AND you are using Disney’s bus service to the port, you do not choose a port arrival time during online check-in. You just take the bus and you get to the port when you get there. Your embarkation group number will be assigned based on when you arrive. If it’s important to you to be on the ship early, try to get an early bus.
  2. If you are a Platinum Castaway Club member or staying in a concierge level stateroom or suite, you are automatically in embarkation group 1 and don’t need to worry about when you do online check-in.

When you arrive at Port Canaveral, you’ll hand off your bags to the dock workers. Tipping is theoretically optional. Unlike many baggage handlers who depend on tips for the bulk of their income, the porters at the cruise terminal are longshoremen who get a very good union-negotiated wage. That said, it’s customary to tip them at least $1-$2 per bag, and we tend to tip on the high side for very helpful or friendly porters. Keep your carry-on/day bag with you. Get in line to go through security (a simple metal detector) and up the escalators to the terminal. Inside the terminal you’ll get in line on the left side to check in and get your stateroom keys. (If you are a Platinum Castaway Club member or staying in a concierge level stateroom or suite, proceed to the far right corner of the terminal, where there is a special check-in for you.)

While you’re waiting to board, the Port Canaveral terminal offers a few things to keep you and the kids entertained. There are ship models to look at, cartoons playing and limited seating, plus a balcony for up-close viewing of the ship. Usually characters appear for photos and autographs.

The first people who will get on the ship are Group 1: concierge level guests and Platinum Castaway Club members. Shortly after noon, announcements will be made for general boarding by group number. You’ll present your stateroom key as you board, have a family photo taken (or bypass the photo and get on the ship that much faster), and then your family will be announced as you arrive in the atrium of the ship. After that, the ship is yours!

Most people will head straight to lunch, and if you’re hungry, that’s a great idea. If you’ve brought your swimsuits in your day bag, this is a perfect time to enjoy the pool (or AquaDuck on the Dream or Fantasy), because the ship is still relatively empty and a lot of people will not have thought ahead. If you still need to make spa appointments, change your dinner rotation, sign up for shore excursions, or book Palo or Remy, now is the time to do that. You can also get your kids’ wristbands for the kids’ club. If it’s your first time on the ship, this is a good time to get a map and wander around familiarizing yourself with everything.

If you are a concierge level guest on the Dream or Fantasy, you can go to the concierge lounge, where you can relax and enjoy a snack. You’ll be personally assisted with any bookings or changes you’d like to make (dining rotations, spa appointments, etc.)

At about 1:30, your room should be ready. Your bags will be delivered at some point in the afternoon (up until about 6:00 pm).

Staterooms and What’s In Them

The TV in your stateroom offers limited programming. As far as live TV, there is the Disney Channel, ABC and ESPN, all owned by Disney, plus only one 24-hour news channel (CNN). On the Dream and Fantasy, you can watch a huge variety of Disney movies and a few other family-friendly titles “on demand” (no extra charge). On the Wonder and Magic there are multiple channels, each with a different theme, that show loops of Disney movies and shorts, both classic and modern. For example, there’s a Pixar channel, and a “classic” channel, etc. You can get a list of what’s on each of the loop channels from Guest Services, but there’s no schedule available of when each film begins.

Disney provides cell-phone-style “Wave Phones” in every stateroom that you can carry with you on the ship to stay in touch with the other members of your party. You get two phones per regular stateroom, but only one charger (you get four phones and two chargers in a concierge stateroom). If you aren’t careful to rotate the phones through the charging station, the batteries may become depleted and begin beeping insistently at an inopportune time.

The Dream, Fantasy, and Magic staterooms, and most staterooms on the Wonder, have an actual small refrigerator in each room. Some Wonder staterooms have a “beverage cooler,” which is like an underpowered mini-fridge that may not get very cold. If you get one of these and need a real fridge to keep medicine cold or something similar, you can ask for a real refrigerator, or stick a bucket or zipper bag of ice in the cooler to help it along. Your stateroom attendant can get you ice.

Fire codes prevent cruise ships from having irons in staterooms, but irons are available for your use in the laundry rooms. Speaking of laundry, you can charge the cost of self-service laundry to your room key by swiping it through the readers on the washers and dryers.

Inside staterooms have no window (except the “secret porthole” rooms on the Wonder and Magic that are classified as inside but have an obstructed porthole). Inside staterooms on the Dream and Fantasy ships do have the new “virtual porthole” that provides some light. It can be turned off with a switch by the bed. Bear in mind that on the Wonder and the Magic (or on the Dream and Fantasy with the virtual porthole turned off), inside staterooms have no external light coming in to wake you up in the morning or give you a sense of what time it is. So if you’re anxious to get up and go in the morning, make sure you set an alarm or request a wake-up call.

On the Wonder, the hair dryers are attached to the wall in the bathroom. These are not very powerful and they tend to get very hot, to the point where they could almost burn your hand. Bring your own hair dryer if you are particular about them.

On the Magic, Dream and the Fantasy, a hair dryer will be found in a bag in the bathroom or in a desk drawer. It must be plugged into a dedicated outlet at the desk.

Knowing What’s Going On & Planning Your Day

When your stateroom attendant provides turndown service while you’re at dinner, he or she will place a Navigator (a daily newsletter listing the next day’s events) in your stateroom. Study the Navigator carefully to plan your next day. It will also list the hours of operation for everything from the excursion desk to the restaurants. You may want to bring a highlighter pen on your cruise so you can mark the activities that interest you. If you’d like an extra navigator, or just the schedule sheet, there are lots of them available in a rack next to the Guest Services desk, starting each morning; just walk up and take one.

You can download the Navigator app for Apple or Android devices before you arrive at the embarkation port and then, once onboard, connect to the ship’s WiFi network—complimentary for app use only. Downloading the app does not enable general-purpose web access. In addition to giving you the ship’s daily schedule, the app has some information that isn’t in the paper Navigator, including menus for the various restaurants and some other useful tidbits. Unfortunately, our experience with the app has been that at times the app doesn’t show scheduled activities that are on the printed navigator, or lists them at different times. In every case where there was a discrepancy, the printed navigator was correct and the online one was wrong. In the end we just gave up on the app and used the printed navigator, but if you have a phone or other device that can run the Navigator app, it’s worth checking out; perhaps our experience was unusual.

It’s a good idea to bring a Navigator with you wherever you go, and especially if you leave the ship in any port, as each Navigator has the all-aboard time and the local number of the ship’s agent, who is your contact if you have an emergency or are running late and might miss the ship (or have missed the ship). If you lose your Navigator (or leave it in your room), you can always get another one from Guest Services, but not until they have been delivered to the staterooms (around 8:00 pm). They are also posted in various convenient areas around the ship.

The Navigator app now has a FREE text messaging feature, which is much easier to use than the texting features of the Wave Phones. The messaging feature is available on all four ships. You do not need to buy a data plan to send messages to other people in your party, assuming they also have a device that can run the app. The only real downside is that not all devices buzz or signal when you have a message, so you may need to manually check for messages on a regular basis. Thanks to Sarah B for info.

Onboard Entertainment & Activities Tips

If you’re curious to know what movies will be shown on your sailing before you get on the ship, call (888) 325-2500 about two weeks before your cruise.

Want to ride the AquaDuck water coaster on the Dream or Fantasy? MouseSavers.com reader Bill V has this tip: “If you enjoy the AquaDuck during the day, find an EVENING to ride it as well! Riding it at night, with the red-and-white lights strobing around the tube at each of the supports, is a completely different experience than the daytime, not to be missed! Also, the lines are truly non-existent if you go during dinner or show times, far shorter than even the times when most passengers are ashore when the ship is docked–my daughter rode it one evening over a dozen times in less than 90 minutes, usually walking on with no line whatsoever.”

Some special activities require advance sign-up at Guest Services. For instance, “Tea with Wendy,” (or “Tea with Alice” or some other character) is sometimes offered on some 7-night cruises, but has limited seating, and on cruises near Christmas, there is a build-your-own-gingerbread house activity, but they have a limited number of kits available. Check for those activities (they’ll generally be in the Navigator on the first day) and sign up as soon as you can. Certain popular character meetings are also now requiring advance sign-up, usually on the first day.

Theater snacks: the theaters where the movies and shows are presented have concession stands selling expensive goodies such as canned sodas, bagged popcorn and candy, which can be charged to your room key. If you want to keep costs down, go up on the pool deck to the self-serve beverage station and get FREE sodas (or lemonade, tea, etc) to bring into the show with you. You can also usually get FREE cookies from one of the counter-service locations on the pool deck and bring those along (or order cookies from room service, for only the cost of a tip). Concierge level guests on the Dream and Fantasy can get snacks, including cans of soda and sometimes popcorn, from the lounge.

Dining

Embarkation Day

Once you’re onboard on embarkation day, you can eat lunch in one of two locations: the buffet or one of the dining rooms (on the Magic, it’s Cariocas; on the Wonder, it’s Parrot Cay; on the Dream and Fantasy, it’s Enchanted Garden).

On the Magic and Wonder, the two embarkation lunch locations have the same basic buffet food selections. Cariocas/Parrot Cay is more relaxed and less hectic, and you will get table service for your beverages. The buffet is sunnier, especially if you sit outside, but that’s about the only advantage.

On the Dream and Fantasy, Enchanted Garden has a smaller buffet, but is quieter and has more service: someone will seat you and bring you drinks. Cabanas buffet has more food selection and the option of outside seating, but is louder and is completely self-service.

Note that if you head for the inside dining room, you will encounter multiple crew members who will try to herd you to the buffet, which can handle more people. Just tell them you’d prefer the interior dining room.

Breakfast and Lunch

During the cruise, there are usually two or three breakfast and lunch locations with different hours (check your Navigator for hours). You can choose from one or more full-service restaurants with open seating (just show up when you want during opening hours, and they’ll seat you), or eat at the buffet.

Dinner Rotations

Your dinner arrangements — meaning your restaurant rotation schedule, and whether you have the early or late seating for dinner — are assigned before you embark on the cruise. You can determine your restaurant rotation by looking at your room key. Your rotation is indicated using letters, such as ERAA or PALPALP. For the Wonder, the three restaurants are Parrot Cay (P), Lumiere’s (L) and Animator’s Palate (A). The Magic is the same as the Wonder except Cariocas (C) replaces Parrot Cay. For the Dream and Fantasy, there are Royal Palace/Royal Court (R), Enchanted Garden (E) and Animator’s Palate (A).

If you want to change your seating or your restaurant rotation, do that as soon as you embark. The location on the ship where changes can be made will be listed in the Navigator in your stateroom once it’s ready, or just go to Guest Services and they can point you in the right direction.

If you go to your assigned restaurant for dinner each night, your servers will be the same for every night of your cruise. On longer cruises they’ll get to know you, and may even have your “usual” beverage waiting for you at your table. If you are served something you don’t like, tell the servers and they’ll bring you something else. And if you want to indulge, they’ll be happy to bring you two desserts (or two appetizers, or even two entrees)! In true Disney style, if you have a special event you are celebrating, make sure your servers know. You will get appropriate special treatment (usually a special dessert, and perhaps some singing).

We recommend not rushing to dinner. If you show up five minutes after they begin seating you’ll walk right in. If you show up early you’ll just have to wait in line! Don’t wait too long, though: in order to get everyone served in a timely manner, each server really needs to get all the orders from all their tables at once. If you come too late, it throws off their timing, necessitating multiple extra trips to the kitchen and long delays for everyone. Also, if you won’t be at the regular rotation dinner one night, it’s helpful to tell your server or head server in advance, so they won’t wait for you to arrive to start service for the other tables.

There is a special show at Animator’s Palate that will only happen on one night for each rotation, and Disney has been changing up exactly which night that is, so it’s hard to predict in advance. Typically it won’t be the very first night of the cruise, unless it’s a 3-night sailing. It also isn’t usually on the special Pirates In The Caribbean night, except on short cruises. If you haven’t seen the show yet, ask at Guest Services or ask your server which night it will be for your rotation, and be sure to eat at Animator’s Palate that night. Move your Palo or Remy reservations or change your dinner rotation if you have to. The Animator’s Palate show is one of the highlights of the cruise and not to be missed.

Premium Restaurants

If you enjoy fine dining, we definitely recommend making a reservation for Palo and/or Remy, particularly on a 4-night or longer cruise. There is a small extra cost (larger for Remy) but it is well worth it for the cuisine, the atmosphere, and the opportunity to enjoy a nice dinner without the kids. The Remy dinner is especially elaborate, and is similar to meals that cost much more at Michelin starred restaurants or Victoria & Albert’s at Walt Disney World.

Alternatively, consider booking the Palo or Remy brunch (offered only on a sea day on 4-night cruises or longer). We find both brunches particularly fabulous and might even prefer them to dinner in Palo.

Palo and Remy are very popular, so book them as early as you can. If you’re not able to get a reservation in advance, check the Navigator in your stateroom on embarkation day and you’ll find the location where you can go and request a reservation onboard.

If you want to skip one of the regular rotation restaurants in order to dine in Palo or Remy, our choice for Bahamian or Caribbean cruises is usually Pirates In The Caribbean night, as the pirate menu isn’t our favorite and the only way to escape it is to eat in one of the premium restaurants: all three of the rotation restaurants serve the same menu that night. Pirates In The Caribbean is usually on the 3rd night of a 4-night cruise or the 4th night of a 7-night cruise, but check with Disney to be sure. On our Alaska cruise, we were less impressed with the Golden Mickeys menu and would skip it on our next cruise. Otherwise, our suggestion is to call Disney to find out the dining rotations for your cruise and pick a night that is the second visit to a restaurant. For example, if your rotation is ERRA (or RAAE or AEER), pick the third night, since it will be a repeat. If you have ERAERAE, pick any night from the 4th through the 7th; they’re all repeats. With ERRAERA, pick the third, fifth, sixth, or seventh.

Keep in mind that the dinner rotations and timing of Animator’s Palate show are subject to change, and in our experience the folks at the Disney call center don’t always have accurate information about when the show will happen. The people actually on the ship know, so if you want to be sure your premium dining doesn’t happen on the Animator’s Palate show night, go to Guest Services or the dining reservation location listed in the Navigator on the first day and ask. If there’s a conflict, they can either reschedule Palo or Remy, or put you on a different main dining rotation.

Alternate Dining Options

There are always plenty of options for food: check your Navigator to know which restaurants are open at what times.

If you can’t make it to your dinner seating (or you don’t like your tablemates), Cabanas (or Beach Blanket on the Wonder) is open for dinner every night except the first and last of your cruise, with no assigned seating. Just show up during its open hours. It won’t be a buffet; it will be table service, with a subset of foods from the menus available in the main dining rooms that night.

There are fast-food self-service locations up on the deck, serving kid-friendly food. We think the burgers and other sandwiches on a bun are edible, and the mini-wraps are quite good. The pizza is not a highlight – the toppings are fine, but the crust is sub-par. The fruit is fruit; nothing wrong with it. The soft-serve ice cream is not super-premium, but it makes a nice snack on a hot day, and they usually rotate in some unusual flavors like mango or strawberry over the course of the cruise.

In the adult coffee bar, there are free mini-desserts available during the day, and little antipasto nibbles during the evening. In the adult lounge area on the lower decks, there is a (small) hot snack buffet available for an hour or so around 11:00 – midnight, either in the pub or the hallway between the various lounges. Usually there’s something like a build-your-own nacho bar, plus some sort of hot savory like pigs in a blanket or egg rolls. Typically at least one of the pool deck food stations will be open until midnight, usually pizza. From midnight until breakfast time (6:30 or so) room service is the only food option.

On Alaska cruises, there are some snacks on the front of the ship on the pool deck on Tracy Arm day, including hot soup in small bread bowls, cookies and hot cocoa. They also do a special barbeque lunch that day on the deck behind the buffet, typically sausage, fish, and steak. Sometimes they serve elk or another Alaska specialty. Make sure you go out to the deck to check it out; we met many people who had no idea the cookout was happening and just ate regular buffet food instead of the fresh-grilled options just a few steps away.

Concierge guests on the Dream and Fantasy have access to snacks and beverages (bottled water, soft drinks, coffee drinks) in the concierge lounge.

Room Service

Room service is not a strong suit on Disney Cruise Line, to put it mildly. The only thing it really has going for it is that it’s free (except for tip) and convenient. Selection is very basic and very middle-American: sandwiches, basic soups, a couple of salads (Caesar and Niçoise), a cheese plate, a fruit bowl, wings, burger, hot dog, mac and cheese, pizza. Desserts are limited to cookies and a daily dessert special, which is always some kind of cake. Mickey bars (Mickey head shaped ice cream bars) and Smuckers Uncrustables (packaged peanut butter & jelly sandwiches) are not on the menu, but are usually available on request.

The only remotely sophisticated/healthy hot entrée is a salmon steak with asparagus and orzo. It really stands out on an otherwise uninteresting menu, but unfortunately we found it very poorly executed, with the fish overcooked and the orzo somehow both mushy and hard, not to mention intensely salty.

Other than that, the BLT sandwich is probably the strongest contender on the menu, purely in terms of taste and execution. The Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Wholegrain Panini sounds interesting but we have not tried it. The pizza is pretty bad, with a thick pre-fab crust, though maybe non-picky kids would like it. The chocolate chip cookies are huge, but not particularly good. The oatmeal cookies are ordinary.

Based on reports from other people, the steak sandwich is strange: it’s a whole steak on a bun, which is hard to eat. The wings are not spicy. The fries are greasy and undercooked.

There is nothing obviously vegan (other than the “vegetarian delight” pizza, which can be ordered without mozzarella cheese) and very little that a lacto-ovo vegetarian can eat without special ordering.

Speaking of special orders, they are very limited, but if you want something simple that is not on the menu, but is made with components used in items that are on the menu, such as grilled cheese sandwich, plain salad without dressing, plain steak (steak sandwich without the roll) or just an order of french fries, they will probably make that for you on request.

Room service breakfast in the regular staterooms is a very basic Continental offering of various baked goods, cereal, milk, hot drinks and juice. It’s poorly suited to anyone on a low-carb, low-calorie, diabetic or high-fiber diet, or anyone who needs to eat protein in the morning. You don’t even have the option of yogurt or cottage cheese, or whole fruit. The closest you’ll come to protein is a bagel with cream cheese. The only sources of fiber are wheat toast or Raisin Bran.

Guests in concierge staterooms and suites can order dinner from the rotation restaurants during regular dinner hours. Ask your concierge staff for a menu. All courses of your meal are brought at once, which doesn’t do good things for the quality of the meal, but it’s still better than the regular room service offerings. Concierge level guests can order hot breakfasts in their suites and staterooms during the cruise.

Beverages

You can get milk, juice, tea, coffee, lemonade and soft drinks free with meals in the dining rooms. (Bottled water, smoothies and alcoholic beverages are extra.)

The self-service drink station up by the family pool offers milk, juice, tea, coffee, lemonade and soft drinks for free at all times.

Castaway Cay offers milk, juice, tea, coffee, lemonade and soft drinks for free; alcoholic beverages are extra.

Room service offers milk, juice, tea or coffee free, but charges for soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and bottled water.

There is a charge for all drinks ordered at the bars, including soft drinks.

Consider bringing your own bottled water if you think you’ll drink a lot of it on shore excursions, Castaway Cay, etc. Bottled water on the ship is expensive. Consider packing a small carry-on suitcase with just bottled water. Then on the way home you’ll have room for all those things you didn’t plan to buy. (If you are staying on concierge level on the Dream or Fantasy, bottled water is provided in the lounge without cost.)

Disney is extremely unusual among cruise lines in allowing you to bring your own alcoholic beverages onto the ship. Bottles must be sealed and they must be in your carry-on luggage. You can take a soft-sided cooler full of beverages onboard, but no hard-sided or wheeled coolers.

Disney does not allow beverages such as bottled water or alcoholic beverages in checked bags, because checked baggage is stacked up and handled roughly during the loading process, which could cause liquids to break and/or leak onto other people’s luggage. They do screen for those items. If they find disallowed items, the items will be confiscated and given back at the end of the cruise.

Coffee and Tea

The coffee at the pool-deck drink station and in the buffet is a reconstituted product made with liquid concentrate and hot water. We thought it was fairly OK on the Magic and Wonder, but for some reason on the Dream it tasted bizarre and chemical. The coffee in the main dining rooms tasted fine, like drip coffee, so it’s either brewed or made in concentrate machines that are better calibrated. There are a wide variety of tea bags (regular and herbal) at the main deck drink stations and in the dining rooms.

Bizarrely, there is a half-and-half dispenser on the pool deck in the drink machine area, but not in the buffet, and there are no little tubs of actual half-and-half; just non-dairy creamer. There are half-pint cartons of real milk, but no cream or half-and-half. If you like cream in your coffee, swing by the pool-deck drink machines on the way to the buffet and get a small cup of half-and-half, or eat in the full-service restaurant, where they’ll bring you cream on request.

Iced tea in the main dining rooms is normal brewed iced tea. On the pool deck they only have reconstituted flavored tea from the soda machines.

The adults-only Cove bar on the pool deck and the all-ages Promenade Lounge on deck 3 (Wonder/Magic) or Vista Café on deck 4 (Dream/Fantasy) can make espresso drinks for an extra charge. If you are a regular consumer of espresso drinks, be sure to get a coffee card. Each time you buy a latte, cappucino, etc. they will mark the card. Your sixth beverage is FREE! If you don’t fill your card during the cruise, hold onto it — it can be used on a future cruise, even on a different Disney ship!

Disembarkation Day

Breakfast is served on the day of disembarkation. In fact, you’ll have an assigned restaurant and time for breakfast for disembarkation, or you can choose to eat at the buffet instead. It will be a much smaller buffet selection than during the cruise: welcome back to the real world!

Regular guests do not have access to room service on disembarkation morning. Concierge level guests can order a standard Continental breakfast from room service on disembarkation morning.

Kids’ Meals

If you have kids in the Oceaneer Club or Lab, they will be served lunch and dinner if they are in the Club/Lab at the appropriate time. This is most often done at the buffet or from the “fast food” stations up on deck.

Two words of warning: one, they usually don’t serve the kids dinner on the first night of the cruise (the day of embarkation). So if you have Palo or Remy reservations for that night, you’ll need to feed your kids yourself. Fortunately that’s easy: all you have to do is get food for the kids before or after your reservation from one of the self-serve restaurants on deck. Two: be aware of when the kids are served. Meal times may be too early for your liking if you leave your kids in the Club/Lab.

Dine and Play Program

The Dine and Play program is offered for families assigned to second dining, and is open to children ages 3-12. The Dine and Play program allows children to get their meals quicker and adults to check in a child for Youth Activities without leaving the dining room.

Here’s how it works: You arrive in the dining room and inform the server that your child would like to participate in Dine and Play. The dining room team brings the child’s meal first while serving the adults at a more leisurely pace.

About 45 minutes after seating begins, Youth Activities Counselors arrive in the dining room and sign in the child to Disney’s Oceaneer Club or Disney’s Oceaneer Lab, eliminating the need for you to escort the child to Deck 5.

Adults are then able to enjoy the full dining experience with the knowledge that their children are having a great time in a safe, fun and comfortable environment.

Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab

Most kids find the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab, intended for ages 3-10, to be the best part of a Disney cruise. There is a lot to do, with great hands-on organized activities going on all the time.

Signing in and out is a relatively easy process considering what needs to be done to protect the children. However, you may have to wait in line either to drop them off or pick them up. Plan at least 5 minutes for the pick up or drop off process. If your children are 8 years old or older, they can be given the ability to sign themselves in and out on their own.

The Navigator will tell you what’s happening and where your kids are at any given time. Check the Navigator to see if your children will be out of the Club or Lab at the time you want to sign them out – for instance, they could be up on the deck playing basketball. Using your Navigator to plan will save you a wasted trip. Also, when the kids are moving from one location to another, they will not allow you to sign them in or out, so there can be a 10-15 minute window where you have to wait.

You can keep your child signed in to the Oceaneer Club/Lab while at Castaway Cay. They will take the kids off the ship to special play areas for supervised games and activities throughout the day. If you do this, be sure to bring your Wave Phone with you. It will work on the beach. But if you want your kids to join you for some time on the island, make sure you know their schedule of activities. They eat lunch fairly early, and are taken back to the ship before the beach closes.

Edge and Vibe

Edge is the “tween” club for ages 11-13. Vibe is the teen club for ages 14-17. Disney will sometimes be slightly flexible about the age groups for these clubs, particularly if your child’s birthday is within three months of the cutoff age, if your child is on the ship with a friend or family member who is in the target age group, and if they have space in the club your child wants to attend. This is not guaranteed, but it’s worth asking.

Characters

The Disney Cruise offers many opportunities to meet characters. You will see most of the popular characters at some point or another on the Disney Cruise. Most greeting times are published in the Navigator, but if you want to get every photo opportunity, there is a phone number you can call that has a recording of the schedule. The lines for character greetings usually start forming about 15 minutes before the scheduled greeting time, so if you can get there 10 minutes beforehand, you won’t have a long wait once the characters arrive.

Some popular character meetings, most notably Anna & Elsa, have recently been requiring a ticket, which you can get free on the first day. Make sure to check the first Navigator carefully for notes about character tickets if you or your children want to meet a specific character. You can also call or stop by guest services on the first day and ask about tickets. Thanks to Sarah B for info.

Bring your kids’ Disney costumes. The cruise is a great opportunity to get pictures of your daughter dressed as Belle with the real Belle herself, without having to wear the costume all day.

If you’re on a 7-night cruise, you may have an assigned Character Breakfast on one of the days of the cruise. (There are no Character Breakfasts on the Fantasy and on some itineraries of the Magic and Wonder.) You’ll get a chance for photos with all the main Disney characters, including Mickey and Minnie!

Most of the character greetings will include a Disney professional photographer, so if your own photo doesn’t turn out you can still buy a memento from Shutters, the onboard photo location.

Port Days/Shore Excursions

Click here to read about tips, tricks and discounts on Port Excursions!

Useful Things to Pack

The list below is mostly based on reader suggestions. We have to admit, we have taken Disney cruises at various times without these, and everything went just fine. So don’t go too crazy with overpacking! But some of these are good ideas for specific needs.

Things You Don’t Need to (or Should Not) Pack

First-day Bag Packing List

On the embarkation day, you won’t get access to your room until 1:30 pm, and you may not get all of your luggage until 5 pm (or occasionally even later), so its recommended you carry a bag that contains everything you’ll need between boarding the ship and dinner. If you want to swim or ride the AquaDuck, for example, you will need all your swim stuff.

Here’s our checklist for packing our day bag. Some people like to use a rolling carry-on, but we prefer a small duffel. It’s your call; whatever you feel comfortable lugging around for an hour or two. You can also pack a small backpack for everyone to spread out the load.

Disney Cruise Wear

During the day and most evenings on the Disney Cruise Line, you can wear casual clothing. At dinner, you are asked to stick to “cruise casual.” Most men wear a collared shirt (Aloha shirts and golf/polo shirts are fine) and long pants (chinos or dress slacks). Most women wear a skirt, dress, nice pants or dressy capris. Disney requests no swimwear, tank tops or shorts at dinner, but in practice, chino-type shorts are generally fine, and dressier tank tops will usually be acceptable. People who show up to the main dining rooms in swimsuits are almost always asked to change.

There are times when dressing up to some extent is either required or encouraged:

Where to Buy Disney Cruise Wear

If you’re looking for Disney-themed casual cruise wear (Aloha shirts, etc.), a good place to look is DisneyStore.com. Unfortunately they only offer resort wear on a seasonal basis (usually spring and summer), but even in the winter it’s always worth looking to see if they have anything in the sale section.

DisneyStore.com now carries a significant amount of Disney Cruise Line clothing and other logo merchandise as well.

  • Click here to see current discounts and offers for Disney Store.

Phone and Internet

Your cell phone should still be able to reach a tower on land as long as the ship is in port, so you may want to bring your phone just to use it during embarkation/debarkation from the home port, especially if you want to rendezvous or keep tabs on others in your party.

Once you are at sea, we strongly advise you to either turn off your phone, or turn off international roaming and data roaming. Disney now provides “Wave Phones” in every stateroom that you can carry with you on the ship to stay in touch with the other members of your party. The Wave Phones will also work on Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, but not in other ports.

If you absolutely must use your cell phone on the cruise, service is available on the Disney ships through most major providers through the “Cellular@Sea” service. It is a very expensive form of international roaming and the ship must be 8 to 10 miles out to sea before you can access it. Most phones will just connect to Cellular@Sea without needing any special setup, but be aware that the service includes phone, text messaging, and data. If your phone is set to auto-update, you could end up on the hook for a large data charge because it decided to download a 100MB game update or something. Definitely turn off your cellular data, or set it to not use cellular data when roaming.

Cell phones will work while in most ports if you have turned on international roaming. You might need to arrange with your provider for that feature to be turned on in advance, but most providers have it set up by default. It is very expensive (typically over $2 per minute) and you will be charged even for missed calls and voicemails that come through once you have turned on your phone in a port. Check with your provider for special international roaming packages, which may save you money if you plan to make significant numbers of phone calls or send a lot of texts.

If you have a smartphone, international data roaming can cost you a fortune. Just checking emails on your phone can rack up a big bill. Again, there are international data plans you can buy that may save you money, or you can turn off cellular data and just use Wi-Fi where available.

Wireless internet service is available on the ship, in most staterooms and in various public “hot spots.” Unlike most cruise lines, Disney charges by the megabyte (MB), not by the minute. Various packages are available for different amounts of money; as of July 2014 it’s $19 for 100 MB, $39 for 300 MB, and $89 for 1000 MB of transfer.

Lately Disney has been offering a 50MB data plan, good for the length of your cruise, for FREE if you sign up the first day. This is apparently a test, so if you don’t see it on the menu when you connect to the service the first day, it means the test has ended. You can add more transfer packages over the course of the cruise, and they all add together. So if you get the 50MB plan, when that one is running low you could add 300MB, giving you a total of 350 MB. They provide you with a page you can bookmark that will show how much you’ve used and have left.

You can connect as many devices as you want to the same Wi-Fi account; they all share the transfer allocation. Note that lots of devices, including most tablets and PCs are set to download updates automatically, and that can use tremendous amounts of your allocation. If you use DropBox or OneDrive or similar services, they will download anything that your friends or relatives drop into a shared folder, so if a pal decides to share a 1 GB file with you over DropBox, there goes your entire internet allocation. You may want to suspend auto-updates on your computers and tablets while you’re on the ship. On a recent cruise, our iPad used up almost 300MB of transfer downloading updates to games and apps in the background before we realized what was using up our transfer allocation and turned off updates.

On the Wonder and Magic, computer terminals are available in a couple of “Internet cafe” locations if you don’t want to bring your laptop. Prices are the same as the wireless plans. They also have printers hooked up to those terminals. There is a small printing fee per page.

On the Dream and Fantasy ships, there is no “Internet cafe” but you can borrow a small laptop by putting down a deposit at Guest Services.

Spa: Treatments, Products and Fitness Center

Spa treatments are very popular and fill up early, so book them as early as you can. If you’re not able to get an appointment before you embark, go to the Spa when you get onboard and you’ll probably be able to arrange one in person.

We don’t recommend making any appointments on the first (embarkation) day, because people are touring the Spa all afternoon and evening, making it busy and not very relaxing.

When you check in with the front desk staff at the Spa, they’ll give you a fluffy robe. Sadly, the robes are all “one size fits most” and aren’t big enough for many people. You then proceed to the women’s or men’s locker room, where you can choose a locker that contains a clean pair of spa sandals. The lockers allow you to set your own combination for secure storage of your personal items.

You can change into your robe in the open locker room or in one of the toilet cubicles. Once you’re in your robe and sandals, an attendant will escort you to a quiet waiting room, where you can enjoy some water while you wait for your treatment. After your treatment you’ll be escorted back to the locker room, where you can use one of the spacious showers if you wish. Basic toiletries, disposable combs, etc. are provided. On the Dream and Fantasy, there is a dry sauna in the locker room that you can enjoy after your treatment for no additional charge.

Treatments

If you are considering a Cabana Massage on Castaway Cay, here are a few things to consider first:

The Rainforest

The Rainforest is a lovely, relaxing co-ed spa area on each ship.

You can purchase a day pass for $16/day, or a longer pass for the length of your cruise. A limited number of passes are sold on each sailing. Tip: few people use the Rainforest on the first (embarkation) day, so it may be a waste to pay for that day. You may find it’s a better deal just to pay day-by-day, or ask if you can buy a shorter pass.

When you want to use the Rainforest, just tell the front desk staff at the spa and they’ll give you a robe. They will hold your room key while you are in the Rainforest. You then proceed to the locker room, where you can choose a locker that contains a clean pair of spa sandals. A swimsuit must be worn since both genders share the Rainforest.

Towels and drinking water are provided.

Products

The spas on the Disney ships are operated by a British company called Steiner. The staff do a great job performing the spa treatments, but Steiner trains them to offer product upsells at every reasonable opportunity. The result is that they often give cruise passengers a “hard sell” on spa products. Many of the products are quite good, but they are expensive, and the pushy sales pitch is annoying.

You’ll be given a “health form” before your treatment, asking about various health issues. Any issues you write on that form are used to help them sell you stuff (“Oh, I see you have very dry skin. You should try this cream.”). For that reason, unless you have an allergy or something that directly affects your treatment, we recommend leaving the form as blank as possible.

Some people have tried writing “no sales pitch” on the form, but that is frequently ignored. Here are some other approaches we’ve used with success:

Fitness Center

A well-equipped Fitness Center can be accessed through the Spa on all of the ships. There is no charge to use the Fitness Center. The locker rooms, sauna and showers for the Fitness Center are shared with the Spa. Towels, robes and water are provided, and you can borrow an iPod shuffle if you don’t have your own iPod with you.

Gratuities

Disney provides suggested tip amounts for the crew members who will assist you throughout the week: your server (takes your food orders for each dinner), assistant server (takes your drink orders at each dinner and delivers the food), head server (in charge of the overall dinner experience, special dietary requests and special occasions), and stateroom host/hostess (takes care of your room). As on all cruise lines, tips are the primary source of income for people working in these positions.

Gratuities are now automatically added to your stateroom bill. If you want to adjust the amount, you can go to Guest Services. Toward the end of the cruise you will be provided with slips indicating the tip amounts, which you can present to your servers during your last dinner on the cruise and leave in your room for your stateroom host. (They will get the money in their accounts whether you give them the slips or not.)

If you are staying on the concierge level, envelopes are provided to tip the concierges, but no amount is suggested. We would base it on how much help they provided your family. Concierges are salaried and it is our understanding that tips are not their major source of income, unlike many other shipboard positions.

If you dine at Palo and/or Remy, many people add an additional tip to the per-person charge, though that charge is considered by Disney to cover the gratuity.

An automatic gratuity is added to all beverages ordered in bars and lounges; soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and bottled water from room service; and alcoholic beverages/smoothies/bottled water ordered in the dining room.

You can add room service tips to your room bill. Even if your order costs nothing, you’ll be asked to sign a slip, and there is a space for tips on that slip. A dollar or two per item ordered is about right.

Additional Tips & Tricks

MouseSavers.com reader Christina M suggests, “DO have younger children participate in the Friendship show. Not only are they onstage with Mickey and Minnie, but they also get a cruise T shirt for free.”

Skip the talks, except for the nature talks on the Alaska cruises, which can be excellent. The shopping talk is just a “rah-rah” for certain shops that are paying a marketing fee, and you might get a few coupons for free (junky) souvenirs. Both the shopping and disembarkation talks are replayed on the television repeatedly. Don’t waste your vacation time attending these lectures in person.

For an inexpensive and yet priceless souvenir, purchase a new pillowcase and a pack of colored Sharpie pens before your trip. Drop it off at Guest Services on the first night with a request for the characters to sign it. MouseSavers.com reader Christina M provides more details: “Put cases in a ziploc bag marked with your stateroom number and with the markers and take to service desk. They fill out a form with your stateroom number and you can choose either Princess signatures or Mickey and Friend signatures. It is delivered back to your stateroom the last night of the cruise.”

For additional tips specific to the Disney Dream (which will also apply to the Fantasy), click here.

Trip Reports

So what’s it really like to take a Disney cruise? Here are a few different perspectives on the experience: