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!