Once on board, there are literally dozens of things to do every minute. Disney now offers an iPhone and Android DCL-specific app to download to your phone. It allows you to receive the Navigator on your phone (WiFi access must be enabled on your phone during your cruise – even if you don’t pay for WiFi Internet access, the app will still work to download the Navigator). In addition, the Navigator app can be used to text message other Navigator-app-users onboard. This app continues to be improved and is much better each successive year, especially for texting. If you remember the Wave phones, they’re gone, so the app is your exclusive communication tool (as discussed more fully below).
Arriving at Port and Getting On Board
The Port Terminal is very much like an airport terminal. You will have to go through a metal detector and put your carry-on bags through an x-ray. Your “checked” bags will also be taken and scanned – and if you’re not carrying them aboard yourself, they will be taken by porter to meet you again outside of your stateroom. After security, and assuming you’ve arrived after they’ve started boarding (about 1pm), you will go through the embarkation process. Showing your citizenship proof for all passengers, each of you will have your picture taken (including infants and children). Every individual then receives an ID card with their name on it. KEEP THIS CARD HANDY. You will need it EVERY time you go to get on or off the ship, and the first time is in a few minutes.
A few quick notes about citizenship proof from someone who almost screwed up his whole vacation due to an expired Passport:
- Check Passport expiration dates at least 6 months ahead of your sailing date and submit renewals if your passport is going to expire within 6 months of your cruise. Yes, your Passport IS valid through its expiration date, but it appears that certain Immigration officials and overly-cautious Disney folks will refuse it for sailing.
- Bring copies of your birth certificates as a backup. Even if your passport is valid, having the birth certificates is a good idea.
- This is even easier in 2021 than it has been in the past. Take photos of them with your phone (or scan them and upload them to your phones). My son’s expired passport slipped my mind and thankfully, I had scanned and uploaded his birth certificate to Apple’s iCloud photo service. I was able to retrieve it, email it to Disney and they printed it and let us sail. Otherwise, this would’ve been a disaster. They have no problems denying boarding to people without documentation.
OK… back to fun stuff. At Port Canaveral, you get to board through a Mickey-shaped tunnel. On the way at Port Canaveral, too, you’ll pass a cutaway view of at least one of the ships. Take time to check it out. In any port, you’ll give your ID card to a cast member and then, a few steps later, encounter your first photo session. You can bypass it, but if you are boarding early, or if you’ve purchased (or plan to purchase) the photo package, take the time to get the photo – it will be the first photo opportunity of many and all of the photos you have taken while aboard can be purchased at the end of your cruise in one package. Note: You can pre-purchase the cruise photo package from http://www.mycruisephotos.com at a 15% discount. We always get the all-digital and prints package and haven’t been disappointed yet.
Right as you step onto the ship, another CM will ask your family’s name to “announce” you. You then walk into the grand foyer on Deck 3 amongst cheering and clapping CMs. They keep this up for the next 3-4 hours, so while it feels goofy for you, imagine how they feel.
On the Dream and Fantasy, most people make an immediate right to the first bank of elevators to get to your stateroom. BUT, if you’re in the forward part of the boat, bypass these. Stay closer to the outer edges/sides of the ship and walk a little further to the next set of elevators. If you’re in the aft (rear) section of the ship, walk all the way across the foyer, turn LEFT instead and walk down the LONG hallway to the next set of elevators in that direction. Either of these alternatives will be less crowded – and all will go to every deck that has staterooms.
On the Magic and Wonder, you’ll see the elevators right in front of you. But if you walk to the far side of the lobby and turn left, walk down a long hallway where you’ll find the Aft Elevator Lobby on your left. Same rules apply. If you arrive at your deck before the Stateroom Hosts are ready for your arrival, they will have blocked off entry to the hallways that actually go down to the rooms. The “rope” will have a time on it (3pm) when you’ll be able to finally get to your room. If it’s not yet 3p, go to the upper decks and have a snack, jump in the pool or watch a movie.
Arriving at your stateroom, your luggage may be waiting for you in the hall. If not, it’ll arrive before departure. Your keys are RFID enabled – simply hold them up to the reader on the door and it’ll unlock. Take time to familiarize yourself with your stateroom – which lightswitches work which lights (and on the Dream and Fantasy, the fact that you need to put a key on the inside slot to enable the room’s lighting), how the lock works on a sliding glass door to your verandah, etcetera. Unpack your clothing and stow your luggage under your bed (it’s elevated for this purpose, moreso on the Dream and Fantasy). TIP: If you’ve stayed at another hotel prior to boarding your ship, you can use your room key from ANY standard hotel room as the key to enable the room lights.
Communication is now done ENTIRELY via the DCL Apple/Android app. You have a stateroom phone, but the Wave phones that use to be in every Stateroom have been removed during COVID and we hear they’re not planning to put them back after everything returns to normal. If you have small kids, this is a challenge – people don’t want to buy little kids phones. And Apple and Android manufacturers keep updating hardware which makes older software obsolete. So buying a used phone and removing the SIM card MIGHT be an option for you (Wifi is free for use with the DCL app AND with iMessage on Apple devices to ANYONE onboard or ashore).
Soon, your Stateroom Steward will knock to introduce themselves. They’re typically extremely friendly and willing to do whatever you ask of them to make your vacation more enjoyable. They will provide turndown service every evening (and set up your hideaway sofa, murphy bed, bunk bed, crib, etc) as well as create towel creatures, leave chocolates… and they’re also the Housekeeping service provider during the day. Overall, they work hard and appear to be around almost constantly if you need something. Remember this when you get to tip them at the end of the trip.
Sailing Away Party
Alright. You’re on board, unpacked and you have figured out fore (front of ship), aft (back of ship), starboard (right) and port (left). What’s next? Well – the first real event is the Sailing Away Party literally on top of the pool. It’s a chance to see the Cruise Director’s staff – see a few characters (although they’re already all over the ship in 30 minute intervals), have a drink … and be blissfully unaware as the ship is undocked and starts sailing. It’s fun, loud and personally, I prefer to be on my verandah. But if you’ve never done a Disney Cruise, soak in the experience and go have some of the free ice cream.
This being Disney, children are well looked after. There are 5 age-specific kid “clubs” onboard every Disney ship.
The Nursery is for children 0-3 (those not yet potty trained). It’s billed at $9/hour, and you can book available time well in advance of your cruise through the same tool that you used to book port excursions. This booking tool will limit your ability to book online in terms of the number of hours you can reserve in advance, but I’ve heard rumors of parents who have left their children in the Nursery for the entire day. This isn’t as awful as it may sound – it’s really a well-managed daycare facility. The children have activities, are well-guarded/secured, have snacks/meals, and even have a dedicated nap area (that actually looks pretty cozy – I wouldn’t mind napping there).
Children able to go to the bathroom by themselves (seriously – CM’s will NOT go into a bathroom, even if your child has had an accident) through their early tweens are able to go to the next level up: the Oceaneer’s Club. As they mature through the OC, they can also go to the Oceaneer’s Lab. Technically these are two separate spaces (and can be physically separated if Disney needs to do so), but most kids fluidly explore both spaces during the day. But as two spaces, they’re also treated separately. Children in the OC are checked in/out by parents. Children in the OL can check themselves in and out, if so allowed by the parents. They also can provide meals/snacks throughout the day if desired… and even have a program where they’ll come get the kids at the formal dining rooms to go back to the clubs to play into the evening.
Late tweens, young teens/tweens have a separate space: Edge. Essentially a tween hangout – with large video screens and beanbags for movies, etcetera, plus lots of technology. And as you get to be a late teen, you move into Vibe. Again, spaces dedicated to people your own age and all are electronically secured (through the only current use of a magic band onboard today) to ensure that only kids can be in these spaces. At some key moments on many cruises, they host open houses in each of the clubs. We looked at Edge and Vibe on the Fantasy in April, 2022… and I can honestly say that as a 50-year-old, I wish I had such a cool place to hang out all day.
All Day, Every Day
For the rest of your cruise, you have dozens of options of what you’d like to do. Here are a few of them:
- Water-based sports: swim, sit in a hot tub or try the AquaDuck on the Dream or Fantasy or the AquaDunk on the Magic
- Other sports: basketball, mini-golf, pingpong, and yes, even shuffleboard
- Shows/Movies: every night there will be a live show, and all day there are first-run movies in the movie theater and Disney animated classics on Funnel Vision by the pool
- Characters: as I said above, there is almost a character photo experience every moment of the day. Find your favorites in costumes that don’t exist off the ship. The same is also true on Castaway Cay… like Chip & Dale in bathing suits by the post office. Anna & Elsa are on every ship, too. Note that some character experiences are ticketed events (free, but you have to sign up). These include Anna/Elsa, Captain Jack Sparrow, and other highly-desired encounters.
- Shopping: interestingly enough, the shops are CLOSED during the bulk of your waking hours (when you’re in port), but there are several things to buy you can’t find anywhere else. Also, there’s a Disney Art Gallery on some ships that will sell the artwork – very cool stuff, even if over-priced.
- Pin Trading: Speaking of shopping, if you’re a pin trader, make sure to bring your lanyard along. At least one pin trading event per cruise is (usually) held where you can trade with Officers and other guests. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have many cruise-specific or cruise-only pins… nor do CMs have any CM-only pins to trade.
- Kids Only: Each age group has their own stuff to do. Parents aren’t allowed to play. 🙂
- Midship Detective Agency: Much like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, this is an all-ship adventure to help Minnie solve a crime. As of 2017, there are three different cases to solve. Each will take about an hour and you will walk all over the ship.
- Family: BINGO, Trivia contests and more are arranged by the Cruise Director’s staff
- Adults Only: Every night, the “clubs” open and adult karaoke, trivia, dancing and other activities are available.
Excursions (aka Port Adventures)
Every cruise line has contracts with vendors at each port to provide on-shore activities for additional cost. These obviously change depending on location (SCUBA in the Caribbean, sled dog trips in Alaska, etc). And they’re the exact same vendors in many cases that you could find online and book directly yourself. The benefit of going through Disney is two-fold. First, if the excursion is running long and is delayed getting back to ship, they will hold the departure for you. This is a real concern and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you are not aboard by the all-aboard time, you risk being left behind and having to find your own way to the next port or home. Second, in the event of foul weather, Disney will refund your excursion when the vendor may not be so kind if you booked directly.
Over the years, we have done excursions that include going to the aquarium at Atlantis in Nassau, doing a boat/tour in St. John, taking a glass-bottom boat adventure in Nassau, among others. Note that many excursions have age restrictions on the participants and that younger guests may not be able to do ANY of the excursions available at any given port. If you don’t mind leaving the younger guests in the kid clubs (which is perfectly acceptable to Disney), you can do so. In Alaska, we’ve done dog sledding, gold panning and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (which, because you’re actually going to do a border crossing, you need to bring your passport along) – all of these adventures were fantastic for everyone of all ages.
Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, is no exception. They offer all sorts of additional-cost water-based activities: wave runners, parasailing, scuba, etc; all sorts of land-based activities: bicycles, massage-by-the-sea treatments, etc; and, like other ports of call, not all are kid-friendly. But they have thought about this and offer Scuttle’s Cove – an on-island kid’s club (they even feed kids that are there during lunchtime).
And they have 20 Cabanas, too (1-21 – there is no 13). For our first 5 cruises, we knew the Cabanas existed, we just didn’t understand the appeal. And it didn’t seem to matter anyways, since they were always booked up long before we were able to book them ourselves (Concierge Guests get first priority, then Platinum Castaway Club, then Gold Castaway Club, then Silver Castaway Club members). But we got lucky for cruise number 6 and we got one. Holy cow. They’re expensive ($549-999 depending on size and time of year). But they’re 1000% worth the expense in our opinion.
Cabanas are first on a private section of beach. The only other guests you will have on the beach and in the water with you are Cabana guests. Even at maximum capacity (~6/Cabana for most – so, 120 people)… that leaves the remaining 4000+ guests to fight for space on the regular beaches. It’s a signficant difference. [Note, this isn’t to say that the other beaches really are that crowded. As with everything else on a Disney cruise, there are so many places that people can be, you never really feel space constrained except on the sailing away party.] Second, the Cabana is stocked with sodas and water – you don’t have to go far to get a drink. Third, you have a Cabana host available at the literal push of a button (on the wall in the Cabana) and they come to you to see what you need. In all honesty, we weren’t sure if we were going to like it. But we did and will be fighting to get a Cabana from here on out.