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Everything you need to know before sailing on the Disney Cruise Line

April 9, 2017, 12:07 PM · If you haven't yet experienced the magic of a Disney Cruise, now is an excellent time to take part in all the Disney Cruise Line has to offer. With the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder recently out of dry dock, there are a number of additions and enhancements that make it more than worth sailing aboard any of the ships in the fleet. We recently returned from a three-night cruise aboard the Wonder and absolutely loved every minute. This was our third Disney cruise, after sailing on the Dream and Magic, and we were impressed from the moment we stepped on board.

Planning in advance is a necessity for a Disney Cruise. It's best to pay your full balance as soon as possible so you can book experiences such as character meet-and-greets (which require tickets), special dining experiences, spa treatments, and port excursions. The number of days in advance you can accomplish this, as well as check-in online, is based upon when your pay and/or your Castaway Club status.

Disney has three levels of their Castaway Club for returning guests, each offering their own set of perks, and you move up levels based upon the number of cruises you've taken. Silver Castaway Club is after one cruise, Gold Castaway Club is after five cruises, and Platinum Castaway Club is after 10 cruises. This varies from several other cruise lines where status is based upon the length of the cruise, and Disney's method is a welcome change.

Select a port arrival time based upon your travel plans — the earlier the better, as you are likely to have more time on board. You can park in the garage across from the terminal for a short walk to the ship. The price is based upon the length of your cruise. If you're flying into Orlando, or staying at a Disney hotel, you may also purchase transportation to the port on board the Disney Cruise Line buses for $35 per person each way.

Be sure to bring the necessary travel documents, such as passports and picture identification, which will help you move quickly through check-in. Guests over 16 must have valid identification, such as a Passport or Certificate of Naturalization, while those under 16 may present an original or copy of their birth certificate. You will receive your Keys to the World Card before leaving the desk, which you'll use at embarkation, for onboard purchases and photos, disembarking at ports, and at the end of your cruise. They'll also provide you with your boarding group number based on your arrival time.

Arrival

Disney celebrates each family's arrival by announcing their name as they step on board to a greeting from two lines of applauding Cast Members. The Wonder's atrium is similar to its sister ship, the Magic, and features three levels, with a central statue of Ariel. Four glass-enclosed elevators on the right whisk guests to their destination. The Guest Services desk, for all of your customer service needs, is at one end while the Port Adventures desk, for booking excursions, is at the other.

Since cellular service is limited, and mostly unavailable, once the ship departs, the Disney Cruise Line app has a free built-in chat feature that works over the ship's wifi. The app also includes a digital version of the Navigator, which is the daily schedule of activities on board. Should guests want to surf the Web, they need to purchase one of several Internet packages. There are also two Wave Phones in each cabin you can use to call family members.

Families with children can register them with Youth Activities, which provides adults with time to relax or enjoy the adults-only areas of the ship while children can make new friends while exploring all of the "Wonder-ful" activities. Clubs include the "it's a small world" nursery for infants, the Oceaneer Club and Lab for children 3-12, Edge for ages 11-14, Vibe for those 14-17, and the 1820 Society, ages 18-20... for those not quite yet 21.

All Youth Activities participants receive a Magic Band which Cast Members can use to locate them inside the club when their parents arrive to check them out. It can also be used in case they become separated from their family on the ship. A Cast Member can scan it to retrieve their information and notify their parents via the app or Wave Phone. Guests can return the Magic Band at the end of the cruise or keep it as a souvenir for $12.95. Disney also offers a daily open house when adults can tour the clubs with their children. Each room has a different theme, ranging from Andy's room from Toy Story to the Marvel's Avengers Academy, featuring replicas of props from the movies. The automatic hand washing machines are pretty cool as well.

One of the perks of cruising on the Wonder is a fully digital photo system, which means there aren't any bulky albums or rows of pictures to sort through. We purchased all of our pictures in advance (at a 15 percent discount) to receive them on a flash drive, and there are smaller packages available as well. You can view pictures within 24 hours of taking your picture by going to Shutters on deck four and touching your keycard to the reader on the displays.

There are several stateroom types to choose from, ranging from a standard interior cabin to suites with verandahs. Our ocean view room had a Navigator's Verandah that offered enclosed seating from which to watch the waves. All cabins feature a couch that converts to a single bed; many also have a pull-down upper berth and/or a Murphy bed. Disney keeps families in mind with a large curtain that can divide the cabin in half, so adults and children have their own sleeping areas within the cabin. Another perk is that most of the cabin bathrooms are split with a sink and toilet in one half and another sink and shower in the other. If you're sensitive to the motion of the ocean, try to book a mid-ship cabin on a lower deck.

Foodies are sure to love dining aboard the Wonder as there are a number of options from which to choose, ranging from fast to fancy. You can grab a slice of pizza from Pinocchio's Pizzeria, sandwiches and create-your-own bowls from Daisy's De-Lites, hamburgers and hotdogs from Pete's Boiler Bites, smoothies and sweet treats from Frozone Treats, and self-serve cones from Eye Scream.

Buffet

Buffet lovers can indulge in a multitude of munchies at Cabanas for breakfast and lunch. Don't miss the fresh Jonah crab claws and shrimp during lunch, along with options ranging from mac and cheese for the kids (and adults) to carved and prepared meats, pastas, fish, world cuisine, and delectable desserts. They also offer table service for dinner.

Adults can reserve, for an upcharge, a spot at Palo, which offers a panoramic view of the scenery on deck 10 and "northern Italian cooking with a modern twist." Dishes are prepared in an open kitchen and the service, décor, and food, is exquisite. We dined there on our sea day as they offer a special brunch menu. Brunch is a combination of plated entrees and self-service items, featuring a large and varied selection of breads, cheeses, and other appetizers. We recommend ordering several items to share, as choosing just one or two from the menu can be challenging. Selections include soups; waffles and pancakes; egg dishes; and perfectly-sized entrees. Our favorites were the Rollatini Melanzane and the Lasagna Bolognese. Save room for dessert, including one of their signature offerings — mixed berries with champagne jelly. The dress code is business casual or dressier.

Palo

Disney cruises feature two nightly seating times for dinner with rotational dining, so you have a chance to experience each restaurant with the same dining staff. While the names may vary from ship to ship, the menu items are mostly similar, with a few variations. On the Wonder, Triton's, named after Ariel's father, features French-inspired dishes such as escargot, French onion soup, and Chateaubriand-roasted steak. Animator's Palate pays tribute to Disney's animation roots with the walls decorated with classic and contemporary characters. Throughout the evening, characters are drawn on video screens, and towards the end of the meal, Sorcerer Mickey appears to bring dinner (and dining room) to life with music and lights. The walls, and characters on screen, magically come to life as your wait staff returns wearing vibrant vests. Longer cruises offer families the opportunity to create their own animated characters and watch them become animated on screen. With all the action taking place, take time to savor menu choices including Smoked Salmon Tartar, Baked Potato and Cheddar Cheese Soup, and Herb Crusted Pork Chop. Don't miss out on the Cookies ‘n Cream Sundae.

Tiana's Place, which is exclusive to the Wonder post dry dock, is the star of the show in both ambiance and food. You enter the restaurant through a recreation of New Orleans Square and the interior, in the style of the jazz era, is taken directly from her restaurant at the end of The Princess and the Frog. Tiana makes the rounds to greet guests soon after they are seated while a jazz trio, the Crawfish Crooners, plays classic jazz tunes mixed with Disney classics in that style. They play two sets, with a short break in between, and are joined by a pianist with a guest performance by Louis, the trumpet playing alligator, from the movie. We ordered all of the appetizers and found the Sautéed Gulf Shrimp and Grits to be one of the best. The New Orleans Pepper Pot was just the right blend of sweet and spicy while Big Daddy's Roasted Prime-Rib of Beef was cooked to perfection. Treat yourself and order several servings of their signature dessert, Tiana's Buttermilk Beignets, which were light and sweet, complimented with powdered sugar and a served with a side of Chocolate Espresso Dipping Sauce. If you order the New Orleans Bananas Foster Sundae, you can enjoy your beignets with some scrumptious ice cream.

All restaurants are kid-friendly, and if little Mouseketeer one enjoys a meal from one of the previous restaurants, you can ask your server if they can order it at another. Room service is available as well, with sandwiches, pizza, pasta, and similar items included in the price of your cruise. Other items, such as snacks and alcoholic drinks, are available for an upcharge. Soda is available at no cost in the restaurants and through room service. You can even order a "secret menu item", a classic Mickey ice cream bar, in the restaurants and your cabin.

On board

Disney entertainment is second to none, and this holds true across their fleet as well. The entertainment staff is there to help fill your cruise with non-stop fun. One of our favorite activities is Bingo, which features different formats, including two "blackout" games in which, if a player covers their entire card in fewer than 46 numbers, they're eligible for jackpots ranging between $5,000-$10,000 depending on the game. There are also several raffles held throughout the game.

Bingo is extra enjoyable, and easy, to play, especially if you purchase the package with the electronic card machines. As our favorite host, Skipper Steve, said, "you don't even have to push any buttons", as the machines automatically keep track of and display your best card. There are also traditional paper cards for sale, and sales start 15 minutes before the game.

There are three main shows for each cruise, some of which are unique to each ship. The Wonder features The Golden Mickeys, which is a tribute to Disney heroes and villains themed around an awards show, Disney Dreams, which reminds children of all ages to always believe in their dreams, and the brand new, Frozen: The Musical, which was created exclusively for the Wonder.

Frozen: The Musical, tells the story of the new Disney classic with a unique and charming twist. The actresses playing Anna and Elsa craftily recreate "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" with life-sized puppets, while talented puppeteers bring Sven and Olaf to life on stage so realistically you almost don't notice the actors operating them. During our cruise, Olaf's performer sounded, and somewhat looked like, Josh Gad, and did an outstanding job of portraying his personality. Sven's puppeteer was excellent as well, and there were times we forgot he was a person. There are also effects that add beautiful displays, mystical mist, and of course, snow. Seats fill up quickly for all of the shows, especially Frozen, so it's important to arrive early to secure your spot.

Castaway Cay

Perhaps our favorite perk is the exclusive access cruisers receive to the Disney Cruise Line's private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. Purchased and developed by Disney, the DCL added its own magical touch to this tropical paradise. The ship docks early in the morning, and you disembark right onto the island – no tender needed. From there, it's a short walk, or tram ride, to the shops and beaches.

You can pass the time simply by relaxing on the beach on one of the many lounge chairs, hammocks or sand chairs, or you can opt to take part in activities (for an additional cost) that range from snorkeling in the crystal clear water to parasailing high above the island. If you're feeling adventurous, you can interact with the local stingrays in a guided visit. Food is of the BBQ variety and is available at two main eateries on the island – Cookies and Cookies Too – along with smaller bars and snack stands offering fresh tropical fruit, ice cream, and adult beverages. There is also an adults-only stretch of beach, known as Serenity Bay, on the far side of the island that offers a quiet alternative to the often crowded family beach. You can also reserve cabanas for a semi-secluded spot, but these are available first come, first served. It can be difficult for new cruisers to reserve them, as your status in the Castaway Club (or for those traveling concierge) determine when you can book them.

If you're an avid runner, be sure to register for the Castaway Cay 5k on embarkation day. There is no additional charge and it gives you an opportunity to observe the serene and undeveloped part of the island. The course starts and ends at the bike rental location and runs from the bike path, down the airstrip to Serenity Bay, and back around the path and airstrip to the finish line. The race doesn't have a pace requirement like other runDisney events and most participants on our cruise took their time to take in the sights. All participants receive a plastic medal, and you can choose to purchase T-shirts for an additional cost.

With all to see and do, three days are hardly enough time to experience all the Wonder has to offer. Not to worry, for Disney makes it easy to book your next cruise while on board. You can book on the spot, or, if you don't yet have a specific date in mind for your next cruise, just fill out a placeholder form and drop it in the box on the future cruise desk. Disney Cruise Line will charge $250 per cabin to your onboard account and it counts towards your deposit. You also receive 10% off the fare and onboard credit based upon the length of your next cruise. If you don't book a cruise within two years, Disney refunds the amount to your original payment method.

Our time aboard the Wonder was too short and we cherished every magical moment. We already booked our next Disney Cruise aboard the Magic for Spring Break next year and can't wait to sail again.

Replies (4)

April 10, 2017 at 6:47 AM · Disney clearly has a powerful brand, and for people who really connect with it and recognize Disney as the world leader in family entertainment, a Disney Cruise is definitely a great vacation. However, one thing left out of this review is the price. Simple 3 and 4 day itineraries on DCL can often cost well over $2,500 for a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 children) in the smallest of cabins. Bump up to a full week's vacation, and you're easily over $5k with some 7-day itineraries costing more than $7 for a family of 4.

I personally haven't been on a Disney Cruise since they began operating it themselves (sailed on the old Premier Cruise line when I was in high school before Disney purchased it), but I've had plenty of friends cruise with DCL and they've all had a great time. I've occasionally looked at their offerings when considering vacation options, but their prices are a serious barrier. To be frank, you can book a moderate resort, theme park tickets, and standard Disney Dining Plan at the WDW Report for far less than what it costs to take a Disney Cruise. I realize that theme parks and cruise ships are very different animals, but if I were choosing where to spend my money, I'd much rather spend it in a theme park than stuck on a cruise ship.

Also, other cruise lines have seen DCL's success and are trying hard to cater to families with different characters (Dreamworks and others) and family friendly itineraries and destinations. Most other cruise lines price their offerings 30-50% less than DCL.

Obviously Disney must be doing something right because guests love the experience and quickly sign up to hand more hard earned cash over to the Mouse. However, I wonder that at some point competitors will be able to crack Disney's domination of the family cruise market. You would think at some point people would come to their senses and stop plunking thousands of more dollars than necessary just to cruise on a boat with the Disney name.

April 10, 2017 at 7:23 AM · Except for itineraries that Disney doesn't offer, we always sail Disney Cruise line. All of the ships are wonderful, and the food is a 90% hit. Entertainment is top-notch. We've never been disappointed with a show.

The boats are beautifully made and maintained. All rooms are nice from the standard inside room, to the 1-bedroom concierge suite (that is a very special experience).

April 10, 2017 at 3:35 PM · Hey Russell,

I hear ya loud and clear. The price barrier is a clear divide for most people and it will stop most people at that point. I however will mention that you do get what you pay for with DCL. I've done several cruises with friends and family on competing cruise lines and while I did experience fine customer service on those cruises... it couldn't possibly compare to what I experienced with DCL.

Not only that, the different cruise lines are clearly geared towards different types of people. With Disney I was able to relax in a seemingly secluded portion of the ship one afternoon with no one bothering me at all. And the next day I was in the thick of the fun on the main deck, enjoying Star Wars Rebels on a big screen, laying in the sun with people bringing me pizza and drinks.

The atmosphere on other cruises I have been on more reminded me of a college party. :/ Those have their place but they just aren't for me. My opinion is my own though, and I understand others may disagree, but the DCL price is well worth the experiences I've had.

April 11, 2017 at 6:07 AM · ^No doubt. For those looking for the Disney experience and attention to detail, DCL guests get what they pay for. I haven't spoken to anyone that has ever been disappointed in DCL. However, in the industry, DCL is among the most expensive, and their cast system for access to certain features can be discouraging to newer cruisers. My parents have been serious cruisers for the past 25 years, and have gotten to the point where they only go on the luxury lines, but even those are typically cheaper than a DCL cruise.

While the experience may be worth it, I personally would rather take 2 cruises or take a cruise twice as long than sail on DCL. I simply do not see the differential in price for the way that we would take a cruise (spend as little time on the boat as possible).

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