Planning to set sail in 2020 or beyond? These first-time Disney Cruise Line tips will help you with things you might not know about the Magic, Fantasy, Dream, and Wonder DCL ships. Most are mistakes we made–and learned from–on our first DCL vacation, but we’ve also updated and tweaked this list with new info, ideas & changes. (Updated October 31, 2019.)
If you’re a Castaway Club member or a seasoned Disney Cruise Line veteran, some of these may seem obvious. However, based on our conversations with our guests aboard the Disney Magic, things aren’t always quite as obvious as they might seem. If you’re planning to set sail aboard Disney Cruise Line, these updated tips should come in handy.
Fortunately, setting sail on the Disney Cruise Line is a far less complicated experience than visiting Walt Disney World, Disneyland, or other theme parks, so there’s not a ton you need to know to “do it right.” These 10 tips should at the very least set you on the right course…
Note that these tips all cover the experiences aboard the Disney Cruise Line ships themselves. If you’re looking for Disney’s Castaway Cay Tips, read this post. If you want something more comprehensive or less aimed at first timers, check out our 101 Great Disney Cruise Line Tips. That’s more of a deep dive and covers a range of things–including stuff you might not know even if you’re a Platinum Castaway Club Member!
Let’s take a look at the tips for having a great time your first time setting sail aboard the Disney Cruise Line…
Every Restaurant is All You Can Eat
One of the selling points of Disney Cruise Line is that soda is all-you-can-drink and there are places to grab food throughout the day without a surcharge. (As a point of clarification since we’ve met many people who call this “free,” it’s not free–it’s built into the cost of Disney Cruise Line, which costs more than other cruise ships in its class.) However, many people don’t know that meals at rotational restaurants are all-you-can-eat, in a way.
At these restaurants, you can order as many appetizers, entrees, and desserts as you want, make substitutions, etc. If you really like a particular appetizer or entree, order another! We did this at every meal, and always found the servers happy to oblige. Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility.
We don’t recommend ordering so much food that you only eat half of what’s on each plate. Ordering a half dozen lobster entrees for yourself might seem like a good idea, but it’s wasteful and probably won’t endear you to your server.
Tipping is Different
We read that tipping was different prior to our trip, and everything we read made it sound super complicated. It’s not. Basically, your onboard stateroom account is automatically charged a set amount towards the end of your cruise for housekeeping, your server, your assistant server, and the dining room manager, with envelopes also provided for the same so you can leave additional cash should you believe they deserve more. You can find out what the exact default amounts will be for your cruise with the Disney Cruise Line Blog Tip Calculator.
Should you want to tip less, you can go to Guest Services to change the amounts. We noticed fairly long lines at Guest Services the last night of our cruise, and assume this was why. We’re not going to get into the controversial area of recommended tips here, but our general advice is “don’t be an ass.” In the cruise industry, these tips are customary, and these positions in the crew depend upon them. If you vehemently disagree with the concept of tipping these positions, maybe you shouldn’t take a cruise.
I know I wouldn’t take a cruise if I hated being on a boat, and this type of tipping is as much a standard of cruising as cruises taking place aboard boats. Personally, I’m not a fan of the social construct of tipping (I feel that what’s now “standard” gratuity should be built into certain wages, as they are in most of the civilized world) for a variety of reasons, but until I can convince the rest of society to agree with me, I uphold my social obligation to tip.
Nightlife is Tame, But Fun
This one varies widely depending upon the Disney Cruise Line ship you’re sailing, and how full your cruise is, I think. On our cruise, “After Hours” was pretty much a ghost town every night after 11 p.m. This is partly to be understood. Unlike other ships, Disney Cruise Line caters to families, precluding many parents from participating in the night life scene.
Still, we highly recommend checking out the night life. We found that, while sparsely attended, it can be highly entertaining. Perhaps not in the way you’re thinking, though. While it can be fun in itself, what we found more fun was people watching. (Yes, we were those people in the corner, creepin’ on the people in da club!) Some of the guests who have the most fun in the clubs presumably haven’t been on the party scene in a while.
Pour copious amounts of alcohol on that, and you the fuel for an awesome fire. We had a blast just watching the partying, and we are 100% certain the partiers had fun doing the party. Regardless of whether you want to be a party animal or a creepy lurker like us, we bet you’ll have a good time.
Don’t Miss the Fireworks
If you’re comparing them to the fireworks at Walt Disney World, the fireworks on the Disney Cruise Line are going to disappoint you. They are relatively short by comparison, and not as large in scale.
But take a step back for a second. Walt Disney World fireworks are launched from the land. On Disney Cruise Line, you’re floating in the middle of the ocean, with a private fireworks show over the water. That’s pretty impressive, and watching them explode over the water as other ships blast their horns in the distance is a pretty cool experience.
Frequent cruisers are very particular about their room, and for good reason: not all of the rooms in the same class are the same! At first blush, choosing a room seems pretty easy, since there’s inside, oceanview, and verandah. 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.
In our case, we didn’t have the ability to pick a room, as we booked a last-minute, restricted fare “verandah or better” (VGT–there are also IGT and OGT restricted) room. The benefit of this was saving money during the off-season (since the ship wasn’t full, last minute deals were offered) and guaranteeing ourselves a verandah view room. As a side note, you also should give serious thought to which class of room to you want, and whether it’s worth the money to splurge and upgrade.
While a verandah is probably nice on longer cruises, we learned that it was an unnecessary luxury on a short cruise. By contrast, we’ve heard that a verandah is pretty much a must-do on an Alaskan cruise, due to the view of whales it might offer.
Palo is a Must Do
Some guests are likely to balk at the cost of Palo, wondering why they should pay extra for a meal when their normal rotational dining is “free.” Well, again, those meals aren’t free, they’re built into the cost of the cruise. Instead of looking at those as free and Palo as $25 per person, look at Palo as costing about 2% the total of your cruise (give or take depending upon the cruise’s actual cost). For a 2% increase in cost, does it not make sense to upgrade to a superb fine dining experience?!
We have a full Palo Dinner Review you can read if you need further convincing, but suffice to say, we fully believe that Palo is well worth the additional cost and highly recommend it for any couple looking for a romantic meal or foodies wanting a fine dining experience. The incredible service, atmosphere, and cuisine are all virtually unparalleled, and we now cannot imagine doing Disney Cruise Line without a meal at Palo.
Don’t Skip the Nightly Shows
If you look at reviews of the nightly shows, they vary widely. We’ve now seen nearly a dozen different productions aboard Disney Cruise Line, some multiple times. Our enjoyment of these shows has been all over the place–sometimes a show we don’t normally love can be elevated by a stellar cast. Other times, the reverse is true. (About the only show we’ve consistently disliked is Villains Tonight!)
The point is, it seems that no one can agree on which of these shows is awful, good, or great, and the only one who can determine whether you will like the shows is you. That requires you going to see the shows. Besides, if you’re going on a Disney cruise, you really ought to see the Disney entertainment on that cruise. The good news is that, regardless of what you think of the story of the show, production values and acting are top notch in all of the shows.
Use the Personal Navigator
If you’re like me and think your main option for entertainment on a cruise is lying around reading a book (more like falling asleep with a book on your face), boy, are you wrong! There are multiple, simultaneous options pretty much all day long. Granted, not everything is going to appeal to everyone, but you’ll probably never be wanting for anything to do while you’re on the cruise.
You’re provided a Personal Navigator each day with the schedule of events on it, but we recommend downloading the Personal Navigator App and using that. Even though we couldn’t use our phones on the cruise, we still carried them for the clock (who wears watches these days?!) and other apps. Of course, if you’re going to be in the pools a lot, maybe carrying around your phone isn’t such a good idea.
The Ship is Beautiful
The Disney Cruise Line ships are seriously beautiful. Seriously. Each of the ships has its own distinct features and design, but they’re all basically modern luxury ocean liners in the style of Art Deco or Art Nouveau. The details are stunning, from gorgeous chandeliers to handrails, the design of these ships is very thoughtful and meticulous.
If you’re a fan of these styles of architecture or themed design, take some time to explore the ship. Go in the movie theater when it’s not in use, wander around the main lobby, stare at that handmade chandelier. A big draw of Disney is in the parks’ highly immersive environments, and while Disney Cruise Line doesn’t isn’t necessarily thematically transportive (although it is literally transportive), the ship itself does make you feel a bit like you’re aboard a ship during the golden age of cruise ships.
People Sleep In
This is one of those seemingly obvious ones, but it’s clearly not that obvious given that the ship is particularly deserted in the early morning hours. I know I often harp on being up for the sunrise, and I realize people take cruises on vacation, but get up for the sunrise at least one morning!
There are very few people around, and seeing the sunrise on the open water is really a sight to behold. You can see and do a lot without worrying about other people in the early morning, so why not get up early during your day at sea, and go back to your stateroom in the middle of the day to take a nap?
Planning to set sail aboard one of the Disney Cruise Line ships? Read our comprehensive Disney Cruise Line Guideto prepare for your trip, plan entertainment and other activities, and learn what to expect from your Disney cruise! For info on specific ships, see our Disney Dream Ship Guide.
If you’ve cruised with Disney Cruise Line before, what first time “lessons” would you add so that people avoid common mistakes? Any other tips? Any questions? Do you agree or disagree with our first-time DCL tips? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!