7 Tips for a Great DCL Alaska Cruise
Disney Cruise Line’s Alaska sailings are among their most popular, but the experience you have on this itinerary can vary widely. In this post, we’ll offer our tips for having the best DCL Alaska cruise possible, with what we think are some key recommendations. I know the Disney Cruise Line Alaska itinerary is a niche interest topic, but yesterday’s “7 Mistakes We Made on Our DCL Alaska Cruise” was popular, and prompted a lot of questions.
Some of those questions I planned on answering in future posts and some I answered in the comments there (but subsequent readers have asked again since this blog’s comment display sucks). With that said, I’m going to save myself some work and jump ahead and preemptively answer some questions and provide additional tips now. I’ll try to space future Alaska posts out a bit more so as to not flood those of you who don’t care with Alaska content.
It’d be pretty easy for me to phone this in and just make this post the inverse of our ‘Alaska Mistakes’ post. I’m hardly above that sort of laziness, but I actually have some worthwhile (well, I think so) tips, so I won’t waste your time with that sort of foolishness. Just remember things from that post like booking a verandah, having a healthy budget, packing binoculars, spending a few days in Vancouver, etc. We feel all of that is adequately covered in the ‘Alaska Mistakes’ post, so we won’t rehash any of it here.
One thing we will expand upon is our comment in that post that we wish we would’ve done a couple more Port Adventures. Several of you asked about that, so we’ll start with that, detailing what we did and what we wish we did…
Do Port Adventures
For our Alaska cruise, we did the White Pass Scenic Railway at our first stop in Skagway. We were on the fence about this excursion prior to the cruise and decided to make a game-day decision based upon the weather. It was gorgeous when we arrived in Skagway, so we opted to buy tickets. You can purchase these directly from the White Pass & Yukon Route ticket agent at the train, which is maybe 100 yards from where the ship docks.
Had we not done the White Pass Scenic Railway, our plan was to hike Upper Dewey Lake Trail for the view along the route to Devil’s Punch Bowl. That would’ve taken most of the day, and we didn’t have the time when we were done with the train, so instead we did the easy 3-mile loop hike on Lower Dewey Lake Trail followed by more in-town activities.
If our budget were unlimited, I would’ve added the Dog Sledding and Glacier Flightseeing to our itinerary, which could be done in the same day as the White Pass & Yukon Route with plenty of time to spare. I’d do this in Skagway over the Mendenhall Glacier Dog Sledding because I found there to be more to do in Juneau than Skagway, and also no shortage of interesting ways to experience Mendenhall Glacier.
Speaking of which, in Juneau we did the Mendenhall Lake Kayak Adventure. This was incredible and well-worth the money, but it’s impossible for me to say it was better than other Mendenhall Glacier experiences. My recommendation for Juneau is to do a Port Adventure that features Mendenhall Glacier in some way; whatever way that might be, you’re likely bound for a great experience.
In Juneau, we also hiked Mount Roberts Trail up, and took the Tramway down (a savvy option for frugal travelers as the tram is “free” that way). Of the three ports, Juneau was our favorite. There were another half-dozen things on my list that I wish we had time to do there.
Our final port was Ketchikan, which is the rainiest city in America, receiving over 150″ of annual rainfall (compared to Seattle’s ~38″), including a record amount last June, July, and August. Suffice to say, it poured the entire day we were in Ketchikan, which is to be expected. Not letting this spoil the experience, we did a rainforest hike through the fittingly named Rainbird Trail. This was more difficult than anticipated due to several impromptu waterfalls and washed out sections of trail. On the plus side, we only saw 2 other people during the entire hike.
We also purchased a combo ticket for the Tongass Historical Museum and Totem Heritage Center, both of which were excellent. In our ideal Ketchikan itinerary, the Flightseeing and Crab Feast Port Adventure–or really just any excursion involving a floatplane and the Tongass National Forest–would’ve been fun.
I’ve tried to keep this section as concise as possible; I’ll be fleshing it out with more of what we did and thought of each experience in the full cruise report. I’ve gotta hold something back to give you an excuse to read that, too! 😉
Explore Beyond the Port Areas
It’s not uncommon for there to be touristy shopping districts right around cruise ports no matter where you go. I don’t know why I expected Alaska to be any different, but I was still surprised to see Diamonds International, my arch nemesis (not really), with large storefronts in the Last Frontier. (I’m so thankful Sarah has no interest in diamonds.)
The trouble with these ports, particularly Skagway, is that much of the local economy is predicated upon tourism. Again, this is par for the course with cruising, but if you’re visiting Alaska for its undeveloped scenery, it’s still mildly surprising. With that said, if you venture beyond the port area, you’ll be rewarded. Aside from a quick stop in a store for surprisingly cheap souvenirs, we largely ignored the shopping areas at each port. We found a scattering of worthwhile museums and other ways to get a sense for authentic culture of Alaska, but this wasn’t as easy as it was in Norway.
Dress in Layers
As noted above, Ketchikan is the rainiest city in America. Weather in the other ports can likewise be dodgy, with heavy rain and sunshine in the span of an hour. One of our days at sea really underscored this, as we went from t-shirts to insulated layers and GORE-TEX within 20 minutes.
You’ll absolutely want to dress in athletic and outdoor attire (I think there was some confusion about this in our ‘Alaska Mistakes’ post–nicer clothing is for evenings on the ship, and definitely not for ports) and pack in layers. Ideally, pack a waterproof & windproof outer layer, an insulating layer, and a moisture-wicking base layer. We’d recommend packing multiple moisture-wicking shirts, as well as extra socks and waterproof hiking boots–even if you don’t plan on hiking.
We both use GORE-TEX jackets for our outer layer, and those kept us totally dry and warm. Unfortunately, GORE-TEX is expensive and might be overkill if you live somewhere dry and warm like Southern California, but it’s a good investment if you’re exposed to rain or snow regularly. We saw a lot of people wearing Disney Parks ponchos at port, which had to have been miserable. If GORE-TEX is out of the question, consider that dorky Frogg Toggs Rain Suit I recommend on our Disney Packing List Tips post. It’s definitely not as dry of a solution, but it’s cheap and far superior to ponchos.
I’d also recommend softshell hiking pants that are water-resistant (GORE-TEX is overkill) or quick-drying. These should have spandex in them; unlike the rest of my wardrobe, that’s actually not cause for concern here. Even if you don’t plan on hiking, softshell pants are a better option for the ports than jeans because you’ll end up wet all day if you just wear jeans. Good pairs of these aren’t cheap, but REI stores should have some that are under $100. If it makes the cost more palatable, these are the most comfortable pants I own, and I frequently wear them around the house on lazy Sundays.
Eat at Tracy’s King Crab Shack
Many people recommended this restaurant to us, but we were still apprehensive. It’s right along the main drag of Juneau’s downtown shopping district, and we worried it’d be like the Alaska version of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. or Joe’s Crab Shack.
Thankfully, we gave it a chance and our fears were totally unfounded. It was the best crab we’ve ever had, and was an excellent experience. In hindsight, I wish we would’ve bought the Large Alaskan King Crab Bucket. Not because we needed that much food, but because I’m a total sucker for gimmicky experiences that involve overeating.
Arrive Early or Late for Characters
From a distinctly Disney perspective, one of the coolest aspects of the Alaska cruise is that the characters meet in Alaska-exclusive costumes. You know the outfits–the iconic photo of Mickey and Minnie in Tracy Arm is featured heavily in pretty much all Disney Cruise Line’s marketing materials for Alaska itinerary.
Unquestionably, the best day to meet these characters is on the Tracy Arm fjord cruise day, when they appear for a couple of sets on Deck 10, weather permitting. Minnie is by far the most popular of these characters (probably because her outfit is best), and the ideal approach for her is lining up about 10-20 minutes before her first set. Info about this in the Navigator is vague, but character attendants will start popping up where characters will be. Don’t be shy about asking them which characters will meet in each location and when. Once the characters actually come out, lines balloon and waits are significant.
If you’re unable to meet every character on the fjord cruise day (perhaps someone has a better strategy than us, but we found it to be impossible), they’ll appear inside on subsequent nights. These are far easier to do, but the backdrop is far duller, too. If you do these, the 10 p.m. meet & greets have the shortest waits…but that might not be a feasible time if you have kids (which is why the waits are so short).
In the ‘Alaska Mistakes’ post, I suggested that we overdid it with hiking. This is something of a double-edged sword: we had a blast on each of the hikes and they were unique, but doing so many was physically exhausting. Perhaps my In-N-Out Diet, patent pending, is not as healthy as everyone assumes? (Meh, it’s still better than the Tapeworm Diet.)
While 4 hikes might be too many, we’d highly recommend at least a couple. For the shorter, less strenuous ones, you don’t even have to plan in advance (aside from attire, but we’d recommend dressing for a hike no matter your plans). Each of the ports has Visitor Centers where you can get recommendations for hikes under 2 miles, and free maps. These hikes are a great way to see Alaska’s beautiful and surprisingly diverse natural scenery.
Every Season Has Pros & Cons
I spent hours upon hours researching the best time to go in order to determine whether we should go early, late, or during peak season. From prices to weather to wildlife, there are compelling reasons to go or avoid every single month of Alaska cruise season. (I got so ‘into’ it that I even spent an inordinate amount of time researching peak mosquito season.)
While we obviously only did this cruise during one particular week of the year, I’m at peace with my belief that there’s no perfect time to go, and upsides and downsides to all options. The big upside for us was price and crowds, and our ship was definitely not filled to capacity. (Although this had its own downside: there was a great last-minute deal on our sailing, meaning we overpaid…which pains me.)
In any case, do the research about what each month offers/lacks, determine your own priorities, and book accordingly. As we’ve already demonstrated, it’s easy to Monday-Morning QB your decisions, but compromise is one aspect of cruising!
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What do you think of these tips? If you’ve cruised to or visited Alaska, what tips would you add? Thoughts on any of these–or other–Port Adventures? Any questions for those taking or considering an Alaska cruise? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
I love visiting sites that offer something extra. I love Disney cruise line and your tips are making Alaska cruise quite interesting. Bookmarking your blog to visit again.
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Just returned from the Alaskan cruise on the DCL on Tuesday. Our weather was perfect … No Mosquitos or bugs. Definitely recommend the helicopter dog sledding/ glacier excursion. We did Juneau. We booked ourselves through Alasakan Shore Tours. Also did the White Mountain Railroad tour in Skagway but we were suppose to do train up to Canada and bus back…there was a rock slide the night before …train was cancelled. DCL excursion was cancelled , we got there and were able to do bus both ways and were refunded difference in price. We had no problems with our experience. This was one of the best trips we have ever done. We saw bears, whales, seals , Eagles and lots of others animals. It was Amazing!
Great post Tom,
Regarding the section about Exploring Beyond the Port Areas, when my wife and I went to Alaska a few years ago on a cruise, we did just that in Skagway. We rented a car and drove to the Yukon Territory where we went to a husky dog camp, rode horses around Emerald Lake and visited the town of Carcross and got our passports stamped at the local post office. This was all a ton of fun and reasonably priced. None of this was booked through the cruiseline. Highly recommend it for all ages. We loved our trip to Alaska so I hope Tom’s post has encouraged you all to go!
That sounds really awesome–in hindsight, I sort of wish we would’ve done something like this. Thanks for sharing your experience.
I think my earlier comment got eaten. You lucked out by being too early in the season for major mosquitoes. Later they will be AWFUL. Plus biting black flies and noseeums. Also, Costco has some great quick-dry travel pants right now (or they did for women a few weeks ago) that would be my pick to wear on excursions. I would also recommend bringing a warm hat and gloves no matter when you visit, especially I you plan to be on a boat or a glacier.
Any chance you would be able to share your packing list for the Alaska cruise? We plan to do a little hiking, a little sight seeing (i.e. town walking & museums), and *maybe* a Yukon/dog musher camp excursion. No glaciers; budget doesn’t allow it. Some of the other packing lists I’ve seen have been very hiking-focused, and while we’ll do some, it won’t be our primary activity in port. So it would be nice to know how much hiking gear would truly be useful, and what would be useful for non-hiking activities.
Great info for our trip next year! Can you tell me what kind of shoes she is wearing in your picture with Minnie? They’re really cute and I’m having a hard time finding some I like. Thanks!!
I did this cruise last summer the first week of June with my husband and 15&13 year old. The best advice I read during planning was to assume it would be raining during port excursions, this proved true 2/3 days. Favorite excursion was kayaking Mendenhall glacier. We booked through Above and Beyond AK, cheaper than DCL and 10% discount by booking in Jan. (I have no affiliation, they are a local comp that gave excellent service)The price for the Whitehall Train seemed high for what it was, we rented a car, drove into Canada along the same route as the train, stopped whenever we wanted to for pictures, had a nice lunch and visited an Iditrod training camp that had puppies on site. Shipboard, download the app before sailing that allows free texting and access to the digital daily events program. Also, we prepaid for a picture package and had a blast having our pictures with the many characters on board, better quality than cell phone pix (which they gladly take for you). Lastly, I want to thank you Tom, I love your writing, and your information. After seeing your Japan info, I cancelled a European Disney cruise for June 2019, and am going to Japan instead – with a stop in Shang Hai first on an open jaw flight. It really is doable for much less than I imagined. Happy travels everyone!
This wouldn’t have been helpful for you, Tom, since you didn’t leave out of Seattle, but this is in case anyone reading here IS leaving out of Seattle. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park is located in two sites: Skagway AND Seattle. We went to the one in Seattle prior to our cruise, and we were super impressed with the information and the quality we got. We then went to the Historic Park in Skagway, and it was disappointing: poorly organized, less information, etc. We were the only ones from our group of 14 to go to the one in Seattle, so we ending up being the “experts” for our group. The Seattle site is well worth seeking out (and both sites have free junior ranger programs).
What animals did you see up in Alaska?
Enjoying your Alaska posts! You have such a great style of writing about your trips. I would love to do an Alaska cruise but am paranoid about being seasick on the boat, so it’s fun to read about your experience. Looking forward to your trip report!
Purchasing GORE-TEX jacket now… This is my dream trip! Can’t wait to hear more about your Alaskan cruise!
We are going on an Alaskan cruise in August but not with DCL. We really wanted to, but my inlaws are coming and in their 70’s, and wanted a cruise with less kids. So, we booked through princess.
So far, we have whale watching/mendenhall glacier excursion, as well as the railroad in Skagway. Still deciding on what to do in Ketchikan, but thinking of a rainforest/nature guided hike.
Were your excursions booked through DCL?
So you’re saying everyone checked in, but the excursion failed to leave, so everyone missed it?
How did you miss the Juneau whale watch? How could you almost miss it if everyone was there? How would you recommend others avoid this?
This was meant to be a reply to Charlene solonynka. Not sure why it posted separately.
Here’s another suggestion…if you’re going to try an excursion that could be canceled due to weather, do it sooner in the trip. We really wanted to try the helicopter/glacier/dog sled excursion. Yes, it’s expensive but we guessed it would be the highlight of the trip and we were not wrong. We originally booked this excursion for our 1st port day at Skagway and whale watching in Juneau on our 2nd port day. We were on a late August sailing so we knew the weather might cancel some excursions and hoped that if our Skagway excursion was canceled, we could rebook for Juneau. If we originally booked in Juneau and it was canceled, there would be no option to rebook. As luck would have it, 2 weeks before we sailed, we received an email from our Skagway dogsled adventure that it was canceled. We found a different excursion for Skagway, canceled our Juneau whale watching excursion and booked the dogsled adventure out of Juneau. Two days before we sailed we received a phone call from the excursion Company in Juneau (not through DCL) that they were cancelling due to too much snow. We were already in transit to Vancouver so we logged onto the DCL website and found a dogsled adventure available and booked the last 2 slots. This 3rd try stuck and we enjoyed this excursion immensely! The point of this lengthy diatribe is be ready with Plan B when going to Alaska and maybe even Plan C. The weather is unpredictable but with backup plans, we had a fantastic trip!
This is a brilliant suggestion.
I talked to one family on the cruise that had all three of their Port Adventures cancelled due to weather, and while they made lemonade out of lemons (and were really positive about the trip), I can imagine that would put a huge damper on the experience if you didn’t have a backup plan.
Ketchikan was our favorite port. The old red-light district had a lot of really unique souvenirs. My biggest recommendation would be to make sure your excursion leaves the Disney ship on time. We missed one (whale watching in Juneau) and almost a second (Skagway train) because even though everyone was there, they didn’t leave the ship on time. It was the major disappointment of our trip.
Were your excursions booked through DCL?
So you’re saying everyone checked in, but the excursion failed to leave, so everyone missed it? How would you recommend others avoid this?
Do a whale watching excursion. Totally worth it
A DCL trip to Alaska is on our bucket list, so I really appreciate these posts.
Question though: I am mortified of mosquitoes (they apparently love my daughter and me more than life itself!). How were they on your trip? Do you know if there’s a season when they are less bad?
We didn’t see any bugs whatsoever. If my research is any indication, mosquitos are a bigger probably during summer, and primarily inland. They seem to be a minor nuisance at the port cities at worst (maybe akin to WDW?). That’s just research–not firsthand experience–though.