Disney Cruise Advice: Tips & Tricks Onboard the Ship

LAST UPDATE: 8/30/14

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 or on a port excursion in one of Disney Cruise Line’s many ports of call. 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!

For advice that will help you with the planning before your cruise, visit the DCL Planning Advice page.

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. Tip them at least $1-$2 per bag. 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, 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). You can watch classic Disney movies and a few other family-friendly titles “on demand” (no extra charge).

Disney now 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. The Wave Phones have only one charging station per stateroom. If you aren’t careful to rotate them through the charging station, the batteries may become depleted and begin beeping insistently at an inopportune time.

The staterooms all have a small, shallow beverage refrigerator.

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 on the washers and dryers.

Inside staterooms have no window. 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 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 and the Magic, hairdryers 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 hairdryer if you are particular about them.

On the Dream and the Fantasy, a hairdryer will be found in a bag in the bathroom. 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 web access. The app is available on all four Disney Cruise Line ships. 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.

It’s a good idea to bring your Navigator, or mobile device with the app, with you wherever you go. If you find that you don’t have a Navigator handy, 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.

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, 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. If you want to try this, but don’t want to miss any of the main evening entertainment, ask Guest Services early in your cruise whether any of the theater shows will have three showings (the two standard ones, plus a late-afternoon matinee) during your cruise. (On our cruise, this was the case for “Disney’s Believe” on the last night.) That day, go to the matinee show, eat at your regular dinner time, and ride the AquaDuck during your originally scheduled show time.”

Some special activities require advance sign-up at Guest Services. For instance, “Tea with Wendy,” offered on some 7-night cruises, 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. Watch for those activities and sign up as soon as you can.

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 does offer the option of outside seating, however.

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

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). On the Dream and Fantasy you’ll also see an assigned time for the evening shows.

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! 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!

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. Just 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 (rather than the buffet, Palo, or Remy) 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, particularly on a 4-night or longer cruise. There is a small extra cost but it is well worth it for the cuisine, the atmosphere, and the opportunity to enjoy a nice dinner without the kids.

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

Palo is very popular, so book it 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.

On the Dream, if you want to skip one of the regular rotation restaurants on a 4-night cruise in order to dine in Palo or Remy, the best choice is the third night, as the pirate menu isn’t very good 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. Second choice would be the last night, as it’s a repeat of the same restaurant you visited on Night 3. However, if you are on the ERAA rotation, be aware that skipping Night 4 will mean missing the very impressive Animator’s Palate show, which does not run on Night 3 (Pirate Night).

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), the buffet is usually open for dinner, with no assigned seating. Just show up during its open hours.

There are fast-food self-service locations up on the deck, serving kid-friendly food.

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.

If you are a regular consumer of espresso drinks, be sure to get a coffee card at the Cove Cafe. 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!

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.

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.

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

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General Tips

A limited number of strollers are available from Guest Services while in port. They are free with a deposit. Since they are limited, don’t wait until most people have left the ship to ask for one.

Port days are a great time to take advantage of the ship’s amenities — such as the pools, spa and AquaDuck — with minimal crowds. Most people leave the ship in the morning and return in the afternoon. If you want to enjoy the ship when it’s nearly empty, reverse your schedule so you’re on the ship in the morning and in port during the afternoon. Depending on the ship’s arrival and departure times, this is easier to do at some ports than others.

Castaway Cay

On your Castaway Cay day, get off the ship early. Use room service to have breakfast in your cabin and then get off the ship as soon after 9:00 am as you can. You’ll have your pick of chairs, no lines for character greetings and photo opportunities, and the snorkeling will be undisturbed by others stirring up the bottom.

If you’re the adventurous type and don’t want to just lie around on the beach, take advantage of the package excursions at Castaway Cay that include snorkel equipment, float/raft rental, and a one-hour bike rental. They are not available once you leave the ship (i.e., you have to pay the individual price for each activity, which will cost more). However, MouseSavers.com reader Kelly M has this to offer: “at Castaway Cay, there is so much to do that we couldn’t get to everything. We booked four passes for the snorkel, float and bicycle package. Next time we will only book two passes and share. We ran out of time and could have easily shared two sets. We didn’t even get to pick up the bikes since we ran out of time.”

Castaway Cay has its own post office, so your stop there is a great opportunity to send postcards to your friends. All of you scrapbookers out there will want to bring an extra postcard or two to mail to yourself; they’ll receive the Castaway Cay postmark! Save yourself some time and buy some Bahamian stamps on the boat at Guest Services before you arrive at Castaway Cay, or you can buy them in Nassau if you go there first. If you do buy stamps at Castaway Cay you will need CASH to pay for the postage — it can’t be charged to your room key, and you may find that the post office has very limited hours. Note that it can take quite a long time (months) for the postcard to reach home, and we have multiple reports of postcards never arriving at all.

Disney Shore Excursions

Disney offers a wide variety of shore excursions of varying quality. In most cases the excursions are offered by third parties contracted by Disney. If you’re wondering whether an excursion is worthwhile, we recommend buying a guidebook that reviews them, or searching the internet for reviews on cruise sites, since nearly all shore excursions are the same ones offered to all the cruise ships. Keep in mind that there are often many tour operators offering similarly-named excursions in each port, so just because you find a fantastic review of a city tour, for example, doesn’t mean it’s the same city tour offered by Disney.

Some excursions are very popular and fill up early, so book them as early as you can. If you’re not able to get an excursion you wanted before you embark, go to Guest Services or the Excursion Desk as soon as you get onboard and see if they can add you to the list.

Booking Your Own Excursions

Booking excursions directly, instead of via Disney, can save you money and give you extra flexibility. As we mentioned earlier, the shore excursions offered at each of Disney’s ports of call (except Castaway Cay) are provided by third-party tour companies. They are (with a few exceptions) the exact same excursions offered by every other cruise line, and are almost always offered directly to the public via the tour operators’ own website. In some cases the tour is cheaper when you book directly (since they don’t have to split the profit with Disney), but even if it’s the same price, booking yourself allows you to choose excursions or optional add-ons Disney doesn’t offer, or alternative times that might fit your schedule better.

Some people worry that if they book a tour directly, the ship won’t wait for them if they’re late. In fact, the ship may not wait for you if you’re late, even if you are on a Disney-booked port excursion. The ship has a schedule to keep and needs to deal with things like tides, currents, and requirements of that port, so if one of the ship-sponsored tours is late, the ship may wait some amount of time, but if they run out of time the ship will sail. Keep in mind that ship-sponsored tours are typically scheduled to get back several hours before the ship leaves port, so it would require a truly catastrophic failure for the tour to actually miss the ship. The real difference between booking yourself and booking through Disney: if you’ve booked directly through Disney and are late because of tour company failure, they will pay the cost to get you to the next port so you can rejoin the ship. If you book yourself and are late, you pay the cost to get to the next port.

In practice, tour operators will go to great lengths to get their passengers back as scheduled. Even if you booked directly, most of the other guests on your tour booked through a cruise line, and if that tour doesn’t get back to port on time the operator is liable for all the costs the cruise line will incur to transport the passengers to the next port. You can be sure no tour operator wants that to happen. If they have a bus breakdown, they will have a contingency plan to bring in another bus or provide alternative transportation. If they have to put everyone in a series of cabs at the tour company’s expense to get them back to the port, they will do it. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to have your own contingency plan just in case. You should always have the number of a local cab company in your phone (and written on a piece of paper in case you lose your phone). And you always want to have several hours of leeway. Under no circumstances self-book a tour or activity that ends less than 2 hours before the ship leaves. You want to have enough time to find alternative transportation back to the ship if necessary.

If you miss your excursion because the ship is delayed or skips a port, Disney will refund your money if you book through them. If you book directly with a tour operator, typically their cancellation policy applies, which may involve forfeiting all or part of your fee.

There is a way to save money and avoid the worries - book through Viator.com. Like Disney, they work with third-party operators in the various port cities. They hand-pick tour operators that meet their standards for experience, financial soundness, and customer service. They offer a Worry-Free Guarantee on almost all of their shore excursions (with some exceptions; be sure to check before you book). When you book a tour from Viator that has their Worry-Free Guarantee, if something goes wrong and the tour doesn’t make it back to the boat in time, Viator will transport you to the next port, free. If your ship misses a port or doesn’t dock in time for the shore excursion, Viator will refund your money. You need to make sure your tour doesn’t begin until after the ship is scheduled to arrive, and ends at least 2 hours before the ship leaves, but as long as you meet those requirements, you’re completely covered at no additional charge. For details on the guarantee, click here and scroll down to item 21.

Viator.com has reviews on their excursions, written by actual customers. You need to take these reviews with the same skepticism that you would with any online reviews: some people are ultra-picky, and some people love everything. But it can give you useful details about the kinds of things you’ll get to do, the kinds of problems that can arise, and so forth.

We have been recommending Viator.com for several years for some of their Hawaii activities and have had very good feedback from readers. They generally have the best prices we’ve found on shore excursions, and offer many of the popular excursions in the major ports Disney visits. In some cases they offer the exact same excursion as Disney, provided by the exact same tour company, but with a wider range of available times or more options. We have on several occasions chosen one of their excursions as an alternative to Disney’s excursions. Be sure to compare their offerings with Disney’s – sometimes Disney’s excursion will involve an exclusive add-on, and that may be worth the extra money.

Here are direct links to the shore excursion pages on Viator.com for the most popular Disney Cruise Line ports, and to the general tours and activities pages for the departure ports:

Bahamas:

Western Caribbean:

Eastern Caribbean:

Alaska:

Mediterranean:

For other locations, go the Viator.com home page, search for the name of the port, then click “shore excursions” on the menu bar on the left, just under the “Things To Do” banner.

Atlantis (Nassau) & Aquaventure

One of the most popular destinations for visitors to Nassau is Atlantis, a truly massive resort and casino on Paradise Island, about a 10-minute drive from the cruise terminal. Atlantis includes a massive water park called Aquaventure and a very large and impressive aquarium called The Dig, which is designed to look like you’re touring an ancient submerged section of Atlantis that has been unearthed by archaologists. The whole thing is very well done, though quite expensive.

There are several options for visiting Atlantis, including several Disney-sponsored excursions. It is easy, and often cheaper, to get to Atlantis on your own. We recommend taking a cab right outside the cruise terminal. There is a water taxi to Paradise Island near the cruise terminal, but it will wait until it is absolutely full before departing, which could take 30 minutes or more. Cabs are easy to get, but be aware that at the cruise terminal the cabs are not organized into a well-behaved line. There is a large, chaotic area with cabs (mostly vans), cab drivers, cab hawkers, etc. all trying to get the attention of cruise passengers. Fares to Atlantis seem to be standardized at $4/person one-way. You can go to a counter, or just find a driver and tell him you want to go to Atlantis or other destination on Paradise Island. The drivers will usually want to wait until they’ve filled up their van, but that shouldn’t take long.

Once you get to Atlantis, there are a few areas that are free to visit, most notably the main lobby, casino, shops and restaurants. If you just want to soak up the atmosphere, gamble, or have some lunch, you’re welcome to do so. However, large sections of the grounds of Atlantis, including Aquaventure and the aquariums and other exhibits, require admission unless you are staying in the Atlantis hotel (or see below for another option). You can take a self-guided tour of the aquariums and grounds (i.e. wander around on your own) for $25 per person, or take a guided tour for $35. Day passes to Aquaventure are usually available (in limited quantities) at the ticket booth for $120-$156 for adults (depending on season) and $80-$90 for children. If there is a huge event going on or the hotel is very full, they may not sell any Aquaventure day passes at all, and even when they sell passes, they can sell out early in the morning. If you know you want to visit Aquaventure, you should book through Disney or use the tip below to book a hotel room.

The best money-saving tip for those wanting to visit Aquaventure: guests of the Comfort Suites Paradise Island, which is conveniently located directly adjacent to Atlantis, get FREE admission to the aquariums, exhibits, and most importantly Aquaventure, just like guests of Atlantis itself. Each room gives you up to four passes to Atlantis (one for each person in the room). The hotel has a 3:00 pm check in time, but you can “check in” early in the morning and get the paperwork you’ll need to get your Atlantis wristbands; they will be happy to tell you how to get to Atlantis. You can even check in and check out in one transaction so you don’t have to stop by on your way back to the ship.

Getting a room at Comfort Suites used to be a truly incredible deal, as their rates are relatively low compared with Atlantis itself. In the last few years the Comfort Suites has raised the price for single-night stays considerably, and added a bunch of fees and add-ons that take the final price for one night to $100/person or more at times. However, if you check their web site regularly, you can sometimes snag last-minute deals in the off season, and they offer a small discount for AAA members. Even at their top rates, one night at the Comfort Suites plus cab fare is almost sure to be cheaper than getting day passes to Aquaventure or buying the Disney excursion, and you can book it in advance, which you can’t with the day passes. Note that their web site will tell you that you will need to pay an additional $20 or so per person for “housekeeping” charges, but in fact those are already figured into the final price you see when you check out.

Once you “check in” at the Comfort Suites, the front desk folks direct you to the back exit from the hotel. You exit, walk to a crosswalk and across the street, and walk up to the Coral Towers entrance to Atlantis, which is perhaps 200 yards away. You then walk through the shopping plaza, through the casino, through another short shopping area, and into the Royal Towers lobby. Then you go down a flight of stairs to the guest services desk, where they will give you the wristbands you need to enter the off-limits areas. They will direct you to go through a nearby door into The Dig (the aquarium section), but our suggestion is to go back up the stairs and outside, which is a faster route to the water park. The Dig itself is nice, but spend your morning riding on the water slides while the lines are short; there’s no real need to see the Dig first. The fish will still be there in the afternoon when you start to run out of steam, and it’s just as nice to walk through on the way out as the way in.

One nice thing about booking the Comfort Suites is that you don’t have to wait for the official cruise-ship tour, which often leaves somewhat late in the morning. You can get off the ship immediately, get into a cab and go straight to the Comfort Suites, check in & out and collect your paperwork, then walk over to Atlantis and get your wristbands. If you’re off the ship at 9:30 you can be on the water slides at 10:00, assuming everything goes well. It’s not uncommon to beat the cruise ship tour buses by 30-60 minutes. On our first trip to Aquaventure, we got off the ship 15 minutes after the ship was cleared, got a very slow cab that made several stops before getting to the Comfort Suites, got lost multiple times while walking to the guest services desk to get our wristbands, and we still beat the Disney excursion; they were arriving as we were walking away from the service desk.

Some handy tips while at Aquaventure:

When you’re ready to leave Atlantis, just walk out the front doors of the Royal Towers and ask them to call you a cab. There will likely be several of them waiting, and it will once again be $4/person to the cruise terminal.

Other Nassau Recommendations

The Ardastra Gardens & Zoo is quite nice. It’s a small private zoo with some lovely grounds and a famous (and fairly amusing) “marching flamingos” show. Exactly how much the flamingos are “marching” versus “running away from the trainer” is debatable, but it’s all in fun and the narration doesn’t take the show too seriously. You can also feed apple chunks to Australian lorys (a kind of small parrot), who will land right on your hands and shoulders to take apple pieces. They have a wide variety of other interesting animals, including rare black swans. It’s good for a few hours, and our recommendation is not to bother with the Disney excursion that includes an overlong “island tour.” Just take a cab there, and when you’re done, ask the Ardastra folks to call you a cab back to the ship.

The Colonial Hilton is a historic and lovely hotel that is an easy walk from the ship (just leave the cruise terminal, turn right, and walk about 10 minutes down the street to the hotel). They have a pool, bar, restaurant, and private beach with floats and kayaks available to borrow, and day passes are available in person for $65 for adults and $35 for children, which includes $40 per adult or $15 per child food & beverage credit. If you pre-purchase the passes from Island Marketing, a Nassau tour operator, you save $5/person. More information is available at this link.

Port Safety

A warning: reading this section can make you feel like it’s a mistake to leave home. We don’t want people to get the impression that they’re in grave danger when they leave the ship, but it’s important to be clear-headed about the risks. Most travelers have no real trouble, especially on organized cruise excursions and shopping in busy tourist areas. However, crime rates are quite high in some of the countries Disney Cruise Line visits, and it’s worthwhile to take some basic precautions.

We strongly recommend against wandering around on your own far from the port at Nassau, Bahamas. Violent crime against tourists does happen, including bold armed robberies of tour groups. Also, you can pretty much count on being accosted by aggressive “freelance sales people” at some point. Don’t just take our word for it, read the US State Department’s advisory, under Safety & Security. If you want to get off the ship in Nassau, we recommend spending the day on Paradise Island or on an organized excursion through Disney or Viator.com. If you just want to shop, stay near Bay Street, sticking to busy parts of downtown Nassau and the Straw Market, which are relatively safe.

Crime and violence have been on the increase in Mexico for the last few years. Relatively little of the violence has been directed against tourists, but it does happen occasionally: in February 2012, a busload of people on an official excursion from a Carnival ship were robbed of all their valuables, including passports, in Puerto Vallarta. (This was a giant mess for those who lost their passports, which is why we say do not take your passport off the ship!) Disney adjusts its port calls in response to current events and will make every effort to visit the ports that are safest. We recommend staying with a group and/or taking an official excursion when visiting Baja ports, except for Cabo San Lucas, which has had few crime problems. For Western Caribbean cruises, Cozumel is a fairly safe port.

Barcelona is an amazing city but has a big problem with pickpockets. According to a tour guide we spoke with there, under local laws most such thefts are a hand-slapping offense (basically if the pickpocket is caught, a ticket is issued and they don’t have to worry about going to jail). Personally, we saw a lot of tourists wandering around with expensive handbags hanging open over their arms. Don’t make yourself such an obvious target and you’re likely to be fine.

Some safety tips when getting off the ship in any port:

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

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.

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. Unfortunately the Steiner employees who are performing spa services tend to 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 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. 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: