Disney Cruise Line Planning Guide

This guide to the Disney Cruise Line provides tips for planning your voyage on Disney’s ships, including thoughts on packing, recommendations for dining, thoughts on Castaway Cay, and more. Note that this guide uses examples from the re-imagined Disney Magic ship, which we feel is the perfect way to get your feet wet with Disney Cruise Line because it is used frequently on Caribbean itineraries.

These are the perfect “starter” cruises to discover whether you’re going to be a certified cruise addict, or if it’s not for you. While some of the specific examples in this Disney Cruise Line Guide are tailored towards the Disney Magic, we have sailed on other ships, too.

Most of these same tips apply to the Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy, and Disney Wonder. This guide applies equally to those ships in terms of the basics of things to know before you go, and recommendations for activities and other things you should try to do once you’re on board the ship.

For starters, a little background. Disney Cruise Line originally debuted in 1998 with the Disney Magic. At the time, it was a gamble for Disney, and there was some uncertainty as to how Disney would do against established cruise lines.

Disney Cruise Line was a smash success from the beginning, as evidenced by the 3 additional ships that have joined the fleet in the last decade. The Disney Dream, Disney Wonder, and Disney Fantasy ships are all larger than the Disney Magic, which is partly a reason why the Magic typically does the shorter and less expensive itineraries.

For additional background and information about Disney Cruise Line, you should definitely order the free Disney Cruise Line Planning DVD. It offers some great video footage of Disney’s fleet of ships, ports of call, staterooms, dining, entertainment, and much more. It’s a great way to choose which ship and itinerary are right for you. This will help you understand the basics of cruising that we might not cover here…

While we prefer the larger and newer ships, we had the chance to sail on the Disney Magic a few months after its re-imagining, and we can safely say that it feels like a brand new cruise ship. It’s still smaller (964 feet long and holds 2,700 passengers plus ~950 Cast Members) the spaces feel fresh and modern.  By contrast, the newest ship, the Disney Fantasy, is 1,115 feet and holds 4,000 passengers (plus ~1,500 Cast Members).

Th overall style and aesthetic of the Disney Cruise Line is evident the moment you step aboard one of the ships and step into its lobby. The lobby is a signature area of each Disney Cruise Line ship, with each having a one-of-a-kind chandelier, beautiful design and detail work, and great use of color and lines. Now, this isn’t new to the re-imagined Disney Magic–the original design was stunning, too–but it just goes to show how well-designed the Disney Cruise Line ships are.

We will cover other elements of Disney Cruise Line in the sections that follow. Let’s get started with planning your voyage aboard Disney’s cruise ships!

What to Pack

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One big one for the adults: BOOZE! That’s right, you can take alcohol aboard the Disney Cruise Line in your carry-on bag when you board the ship or return from port. This used to be huge, because there were no limits; however, Disney recently introduced a policy significantly limiting the amount of alcohol guests can bring on-board. Depending upon your “interests” on the ship, this could be a huge money-saver. If you’re only going to have a drink here or there, you’re probably better off just buying them aboard the ship.

Other than that, all you need to pack is “basic cruise stuff.” We always recommend taking a look at our Unique Disney Packing List, which can give you some good ideas of things to pack, but the basics are a pair of quality water shoes and Frogg Togg Chilly Pads.

You might want to consider the Frogg Togg Super-sized Chilly Cooling Towel for putting on your lounge chair to keep cool around the pool or on Castaway Cay. You also might want to check out our Underwater Camera Buying Guide for tips on choosing the waterproof solution to either keep your camera or phone from getting wet on the cruise, or for a dedicated waterproof camera.

If you plan on getting into the pirate spirit for the Pirate Night deck party, we recommend buying some random pirate accessories before the cruise. We did not do this, and the two of us spent ~$40 on random pirate stuff in the gift shop that we will probably never wear again. It was fun for photos and to just get us in the mood for the party, but lesson learned on that one…

Two more things that might seem obvious: swimsuits and sunscreen. You can buy both of these things on the cruise, but you will pay a significant premium. Make sure to take your sunscreen off the ship at Castaway Cay, as they will really price-gouge you if you need to buy it there!

Getting There

Although Disney Cruise Line sails out of many ports, the most common one is Port Canaveral in Florida. If you’re expecting a simple Disney’s Magic Express-type arrangement to get from Orlando International Airport to the Disney Cruise Line boarding area, you are in for a surprise, as there is no such free service. Instead, you either have to rent a car, take a non-Disney shuttle, or take a Disney shuttle. It’s fairly simple once you figure out which of these transportation methods you’ll be using, but figuring it out is easier said than done.

Disney’s transfer bus costs $35/person per way from either the airport or any Disney hotel, and is the easiest option. However, given the per person nature of the bus, it can be a more expensive option. It also is probably the least efficient option. Just like with Disney’s Magical Express, you are at Disney’s whims in terms of pick up and drop off times, meaning that you may not be able to board the cruise ship as early as you would like. If you are a family of 4, a car service generally charges $200-300 round-trip, which is generally a cheaper option than Disney’s transportation–and it’s more efficient.

Renting a car is another option (we recommend Hotwire’s “Hot Rate” finder to score rental cars for $10-15/day many times), and if you go this route, you will want to do a “one-way” rental from wherever your point of origin to Port Canaveral. Then, once you return, do another one-way rental from Port Canaveral to wherever you’re going. The reasons for doing this are two-fold: 1) you avoid paying for rental car days while you’re on the cruise, and 2) you avoid paying $15/day.

Sometimes, one-way rental costs have a higher per-day cost than round-trip rentals, but the difference should be insignificant. Sarah used this strategy when going on a cruise recently, and her one-way rental cost (times two) was only ~$50, as opposed to the $140 round-trip Disney shuttle cost she would have paid for her and her sister, or the ~$200 cost she would have paid to do a round-trip rental plus parking at Port Canaveral. This does require taking a shuttle from the rental car location to Port Canaveral, which Sarah found to be a hassle.

Even if you’re only a party of 2, two separate one-way car rentals are almost always going to be the cheapest option for transportation to and from Port Canaveral. This is a hassle in its own way in having an additional rental car booking plus having to use the rental car shuttle, but we feel it’s a good balance of autonomy, efficiency, and price.

Staterooms

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Cruise liners have reputations for having small, claustrophobic staterooms that guests should really only use for sleeping and showering. We are not here to suggest that the Disney Cruise Line ships are large and luxurious, but they have exceeded our expectations. On the one hand, they absolutely are smaller, smaller than even a room at a Value Resort at Walt Disney World.

On the other hand, they use space efficiently, are laid out so that you can use them for more than just sleeping and showering, and are well-designed. (I guess we sort of are going to say they’re luxurious!) They are still small and I wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple hours of free time in the stateroom each day, but the rooms are nice.

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Not all of the rooms in the same class are the same! It might seem easy to pick a room since there’s only inside, oceanview, and verandah categories. However, there are actually several “secret” verandah and porthole staterooms, as well as mini-suites and oversized rooms, all of which are priced in a lower tier than you might expect.

As for which class of stateroom you should get, that’s entirely up to you. On our first cruise, the cost of upgrading to a verandah was insignificant, so we did that. We quickly realized that for a short cruise, we weren’t spending enough time in the room to get our money’s worth (and we paid very little for the upgrade). The longer the cruise or the more time you plan on spending in your room, the more worthwhile a verandah or oceanview room becomes.

Dining

The Disney Cruise Line ships feature rotational dining, plus adults-only fine-dining restaurants like Palo and Remy, and an assortment of quick service options so that you can grab food on the go or eat while lounging around on the main deck. Here are our quick-hit summaries of the main dining rooms on the Disney Magic–click each name for a detailed review and food photos–which are similar to the restaurants on the other Disney Cruise Line ships.

Animator’s Palate – Animator’s Palate is a restaurant that’s more like a dinner show. Besides the stage shows, this is probably the biggest dose of “Disney magic” that you’ll have aboard the Disney Cruise Line, as it features an animation-centric transformation of the restaurant via some clever Imagineering. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s definitely not to be missed.  The restaurant is supposedly “Pacific Rim,” but it more or less seemed like standard, American cuisine to us.

Lumiere’s – Lumiere’s is an American and French cuisine fusion restaurant. It combines Art Deco and Beauty and the Beast themes into a stylized restaurant that is elegant, yet full of Disney whimsy and charm. We really liked our meal at Lumiere’s and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food. The dining room is a bit chaotic and loud, but the food and design are both great.

Palo – This is the adults-only fine dining experience aboard the Disney Magic, with a $25 per guest surcharge. It is soooo worth that surcharge that you should not even hesitate to make reservations here. Seriously, so many people pass on Palo because they already paid a lot for the cruise and want to take advantage of the “free” dining (really dining built into the cost of the cruise), but Palo is worth more than a $25 price bump as compared to the other restaurants. Do it. You will not regret it. 

Carioca’s – We skipped Carioca’s for Palo during our rotational dining, having heard that it was the least impressive restaurant on the Disney Magic. It is themed to be an outdoor marketplace set in Rio, and transforms from day to night as it changes from day to night on the ship. The name comes from Jose, the parrot from The Three Cabelleros. We were in here once outside of the rotational dining, and it seemed like an interesting concept. (Here’s GoofyTips’ review of Carioca’s.)

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In addition to the rotational dining, here are the other restaurants on the Disney Magic:

  • Cabanas (Table Service)
  • Daisy’s De-Lites (Quick Service)
  • Pete’s Boiler Bites (Quick Service)
  • Pinocchio’s Pizzeria (Quick Service)

Drinking

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Drinking gets its own section because, for a lot of people, getting your buzz on is an essential part of the cruise experience. We aren’t of that mentality, but there certainly is something to be said for lounging on the top deck and having a drink or two.

The big thing to know with drinks aboard the Disney Cruise Line is that their costs vary widely. Drinks in the ‘cool’ hurricane glasses (made of plastic) at the Sail Away Party are weak Miami Vices that are expensive. There’s also a souvenir beer mug, which is also expensive. We’d avoid these both; even if you want a souvenir, put your money towards something better than a cheap plastic glass.

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Drinks elsewhere on the ship are less expensive, but we were never really blown away with any of the concoctions at any spot we tried. We’ve heard of drink specials (Disney Cruise Line Blog’s drinking page lists a few examples), but we didn’t see any. Keep your eye out for these!

Nightlife

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Nightlife aboard the Disney Cruise Line ships is…how do we put this…not all that full of life. Each ship has a few options, but in our experience, none are all that popular. Here’s what you can find aboard the Magic…

After Hours is the adults-only entertainment district, and it’s pretty cool in theory. There are three venues here: O’Gill’s Pub, Keys, and Fathoms. The main area here is Fathoms, which is used earlier in the night for hosted interactive shows like “Pops” before becoming a dance club later. O’Gill’s and Keys are variations of the same concept, with one being an Irish pub and the other being a modern piano bar.

In terms of concept and design, all three of these venues are cool. And, so long as you’re fine with your entertainment ending at around 9 or 10 pm, they are fun in practice, too. The problem is, once you get past about 10 pm, the number of adults on any given Disney Cruise Line ship looking for nightlife is minimal, and this already low number is spread across multiple venues. If you like the quiet of having a venue (more or less) to yourselves so you and friends can chat, this is a great thing. If you’re looking for an energetic scene, this is an awful thing.

I am somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I hate going to dance clubs in our town because they are loud and obnoxiously crowded. Conversely, I am not keen on pubs and other places where no one else is around. At that point, why not just “party” at home? We have found that After Hours skews too close to “empty” to really do a ton for us. In fairness, one night we did see some adults who had overindulged go absolutely crazy on the dance floor…that was a lot of fun to watch!

This is something that will vary to a degree on every sailing, but one thing that appears consistent is that Disney Cruise Line attracts a disproportionate number of families as compared to other cruise lines. Parents are often too tired or have outgrown the idea of nightlife, and aren’t as likely to partake as singles. We’d hazard a guess that these nightlife spots are busier on cruises that are geared more towards adults (like an Alaska cruise or a repositioning cruise). You can still have fun with the nightlife, especially if you’re the one bringing the party (or more importantly, the people).

Family Stuff & Kid’s Clubs

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If you are looking for family-friendly entertainment, or just a place to deposit your kids for the day, the Disney Cruise Line has you covered!

D Lounge is the main hangout for family-friendly activities. Lots of different things happen here throughout the day, from trivia to dancing to even Disney Vacation Club presentations. Kids, what’s more family-friendly than convincing your parents to buy into Disney Vacation Club? This is your future we’re talking about! 😉

The Oceaneer Club is for children age 3-12, and has numerous themed experiences that will appeal to a variety of different interests and age levels. We had a chance to tour this club, but since we don’t have kids, we have no first-hand feedback on how the experiences are. The spaces themselves sure look cool, but if anyone has feedback from their kids as to how enjoyable this stuff actually is, please share in the comments.

First, and probably the most interesting is Marvel’s Avengers Academy. There’s also Disney’s Pixie Hollow, Andy’s Room from Toy Story, and Mickey Mouse Club. Each of these areas is pretty-well themed. So, Andy’s Room actually resembles his room from Toy Story, Pixie Hollow looks like it might be inhabited by fairies, and Mickey Mouse Club has a strong Mickey Mouse motif.

The Oceaneer Lab, also for children age 3-12, is basically the activity center. The coolest thing about this, I think, as a Disney fan is that it incorporates the S.E.A. (Society of Explorers and Adventurers) concept found at Tokyo DisneySea and Hong Kong Disneyland and brings it to the Disney Magic! It has a pirate-themed area where kids can steer a pirate ship through the Caribbean, plus Captain’s Workshop, Animator’s Studio, and Craft Studio, all of which offer interactive activities.

Both locations are open from 9 am until midnight, and are connected by a kids-only hallway, so kids can utilize both spaces easily. Truthfully, I’m not sure what the distinction between the Club and Lab is, since both venues offer interactive activities. Maybe they just couldn’t fit the entire kids area into one space, and since there are two locations, they needed two names? No clue.

There’s also Edge and Quarter Masters, both of which are basically places to play video games. Vibe is the teens-only ‘club’ hangout.

The nursery aboard the Disney Magic is called ‘it’s a small world’ Nursery, and is themed to the park attraction. It’s for kids under 3, and has an additional charge. So remember, parents, babysitting is FREE for your kids over age 3, but costs extra for those under 3. Plan accordingly when determining when to book your cruise! 😉

Live Shows

Like all things Disney, the Disney Cruise Line nails themed entertainment. Currently, the Disney Magic has three Broadway-style shows “Disney Dreams – An Enchanted Classic,” “Twice Charmed: An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story,” and “Villains Tonight!” These shows play on Deck 4, Forward in the Walt Disney Theatre (a beautiful theater worth checking out in its own right).

One thing several people have asked us is whether it’s worth it to see the shows. Our answer is always a qualified “absolutely.” We absolutely recommend the shows because these are a big part of what puts the “Disney” into the Disney Cruise Line, and more than anything else aboard the ship, they are something you will only find on the Disney Cruise Line. Why would you skip the entertainment that’s a defining feature of the Disney Cruise Line?!

We qualify that ‘absolutely’ response because we want to make it clear that we don’t think these shows are across-the-board incredible. Each of them has its flaws, and while we both loved “Disney Dreams – An Enchanted Classic,” Sarah wasn’t fond of “Twice Charmed: An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story,” which I really liked, and both of us thought “Villains Tonight!” was a seriously flawed show that failed to capitalize on its potential. If you look at some reviews from around the internet, you’ll find that they’re fairly mixed. I would say that you will probably like 2 out of the 3 shows if you’re a serious Disney fan. You might even like them all–I suppose it depends upon how critical you are.

On the plus side, they all have really strong production values and very talented casts. The issue we have with Villains Tonight (and Sarah has with Twice Charmed) is more about writing and pacing than anything else. Villains Tonight is actually a brilliant concept, but it gets bogged down in dated and unfunny pop culture references (Hades needs the writers of the Genie’s jokes from Aladdin the Musical), poor pacing, and its own wavering back and forth between having a storyline, musical vignettes, and flashes of (attempts at) comedy. Ultimately, it tries to be too many different things, and succeeds at none of them.

Sarah and I disagree about Twice Charmed, which I thought was a clever retelling of the original story with a decent dose of humor and nice variety in its means of storytelling. Sarah was less enthusiastic about it, thinking it was dull, and not seeing the need for a retelling of Cinderella in the first place. (I strongly disagree with this assessment and think she might have just been tired after dinner!)

None of these issues exist in Disney Dreams, which essentially tells the story of the importance of believing in your dreams. It is really sappy, and even we couldn’t help but get a bit choked up by it. It’s just a really cute and well done show that is definitely our pick for the can’t miss live show.

The big impediment you might have in seeing all of these shows is dinner. The shows each have two performances on select nights of your cruise, and these occur at 6:15 pm and 8:30 pm (check your Personal Navigator to confirm this). The idea is that if you have an early dinner seating, you go to the late show, or vice-a-versa. For adults traveling without kids, this presents no issue (perhaps unless you’re having a long meal at Palo), but for parents with kids, dinner and a show can be a bit much.

We have two potential recommendations for this: change your meal seating time (you can have it adjusted when you first board the ship) depending on whether you think dinner-first or show-first is better for your kids, or do dinner first and watch the shows from bed on your in-cabin TV. The latter suggestion is less ideal, but possibly more realistic. Obviously, you lose a lot of what makes the shows special by watching them on TV as opposed to in the theater, but if you realistically wouldn’t be able to do both dinner and the theater (and enjoy both), then that’s not really a good option.

Entertainment & Characters

It’s impossible to cover every single piece of entertainment available on the Disney Cruise Line. First of all, because there are like 20+ different things to do everyday. Second, because it changes from cruise to cruise, so we could never keep up. For this area, the Personal Navigator is your friend. Refer to the paper Personal Navigator or the iPhone app regularly, and determine what looks interesting to you on a daily basis.

The stage shows covered above are the flagship entertainment aboard the Disney Magic, and those are not to be missed. Additional entertainment consists of activities in the D Lounge (mentioned above), nightlife (also mentioned above), trivia, and other unique seminars and presentations. There’s really so many entertainment options that you could spend your entire cruise “being entertained.” Based upon what we saw, not all of the entertainment options were created equally, and others are advertisements for other Disney offerings.

There’s also recreation like basketball, shuffleboard, ping pong, soccer, and more. The Fitness Center offers weight machines and elliptical. Aerobic and yoga classes are also offered.

Of course, the pools are the most popular places for ‘fitness’ on the Disney Cruise Line, and there are three of them. One for families, one for adults, and one for kids–you can read more about these pools here. Add to that play areas and the AquaDunk, and there’s a lot to do. Our favorite pool was the family pool, although it was always crowded because it’s open to everyone. However, it’s also in the center of everyone, and it was nice to lounge around. The AquaDunk always had a long wait in the middle of the day–I finally did it in late afternoon and only waited 10 minutes, and didn’t think it was worth even that. It seems like Disney needed something that looked like the AquaDuck water coaster on the other ships, and this was all the Disney Magic could support. It’s fine, but way too short.

Another big thing for many guests is the Buena Vista Theater. This shows first-run Disney movies, and is very popular with guests. To each his own, but we aren’t fans of taking from out of a cruise to see a movie. At home, we can see a movie for $6-12 per person, and while it might seem like a “good deal” to see movies for “free” on the Disney Cruise Line, your per hour waking cost of the cruise is probably significantly more than ~$5 (use that as the per hour cost of a random movie). Why not do things that are actually unique to the cruise? That’s just our take, though, and we understand some people might need downtime, or might just want to relax as a family and enjoy the latest Disney film.

Pirate Night is the ‘biggest’ entertainment aboard the Disney Magic. It starts with character meet & greets in atrium, followed by normal rotational dinner (servers and guests seem to get into the pirate mood), followed by the Pirates in the Caribbean deck/dance party, and concluding with fireworks shot over the edge of the ship.

If you have kids, this is probably great fun. We had a blast getting into the pirate mood and dressing up a bit for it, but the actual deck party was a bit of a letdown. Pirate Mickey and the other characters were fun, but the music was pretty dated and it seemed like the whole thing was way too reliant on the dance element. Kids probably won’t know the difference and will have a blast, but we would have liked to see more scripted action from the characters, or a dance party that wasn’t stuck in the past.

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In terms of character meet & greets, the scheduled meet & greets in the atrium were without a doubt the most popular ones we saw. This was especially true on Pirate Night, when the characters are dressed in pirate attire. If you want to do meet & greets on Pirate Night, make sure to arrive and line-up just before the meet & greets start. Other scheduled meet & greets drew long lines, but nothing as long as this. We actually found the shortest lines to be on Castaway Cay, where the characters (plus Jack Sparrow) generally didn’t have much in the way of lines at all. Perhaps this was because people don’t want character photos when they are in swimsuits? Maybe guests forget their cameras? Whatever the case, we think this is the best time for character photos.

We’re not really sure if it’s “entertainment” per se, but we don’t have anywhere else to put it, so…there’s a spa on the ship. It’s called Senses Spa & Salon. We contemplated doing something here for the sake of “research”…until we saw the prices. Sorry, you’ll have to do your own research on this one.

Castaway Cay

Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, is the port of call that everyone going on Disney Cruise Line for a Caribbean cruise will see. We love Castaway Cay, and since there are so many tips and recommendations for this stop, we actually wrote a dedicated Castaway Cay Guide that you can reference for planning your day on Castaway Cay. In the future, we might write additional guides for other common ports of call.

Since we have yet to do that, we highly recommend checking out the Unofficial Guide to the Disney Cruise Line 2017 if you need comprehensive info about the ports of call or anything else with regard to Disney Cruise Line that we haven’t covered!

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Overall, setting sail aboard the Disney Cruise Line is an incredibly enjoyable experience. Although the itineraries command premium pricing, but it’s a premium experience, too. All things considered, we feel DCL offers good value for money, Disney quality, and the ships don’t nickel and dime you like other cruise lines. We are far from experts on the Disney Cruise Line at this point, but we’re working on becoming seasoned cruise pros. However, if some of you truly experienced cruisers have additional tips and recommendations, please share them. We wanted to put this guide together as a handy starting point, because we’ve been receiving a lot of questions about Disney Cruise Line. We will have guides for the other ships soon!

If you want personalized recommendations for Disney Cruise Line itineraries, ships, and more, click here to get a cruise quote from a no-fee Authorized Disney Vacation PlannerIf you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, we’d really appreciate it if you’d share it via social media to help spread the word. We put a lot of work into making this site a helpful planning resource, and hope it’s useful to you! 🙂

Your Thoughts

Have you ever set sail on the Disney Magic, Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy, or Disney Wonder? Do you have a favorite ship or favorite itinerary? Do you think Disney Cruise Line is worth the premium pricing? What did you think of the ships? Any other tips to add or recommendations? If you have questions or thoughts, please share them below and we’ll try to respond!


33 Responses to “Disney Cruise Line Planning Guide”
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