We just sailed our first Disney Cruise. Despite all of my advanced research and my ninja-like travel planning skills, there were many unknowns for me. I am a planner, and I want to walk you through every Disney Cruise tip you should know before setting sail. Although I know hotels, I only have one cruise under my belt, I have gone to an expert on sailing both regular and Disney Concierge. Enjoy our combined cruise tips and expertise for smooth sailing.
Which Disney Cruise to book?
There are several different options for Disney Cruise Line that explore the West Coast and Alaska, European destinations in the summer. There are seasonal departures on the Disney Wonder and Disney Magic from Miami, New York and Galveston. The Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy sail year-round to the Bahamas and Caribbean.
The newest, largest, and most popular Disney cruise ships, the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy embark from Port Canaveral, about 40 minutes from Orlando. Most combine what’s called a Land and Sea Vacation with a visit to Walt Disney World. Your travel agent can book an official Disney Land and Sea package for you or two separate trips, which is what I recommend for the most flexibility.
Why You Need to Use One For Your Cruise, Even if You Never Use Them
Even for people who never use travel agents and prefer to book their own travel, they should use a travel agent to book a Disney cruises. Why?
Unlike booking a hotel, you book your exact stateroom on a cruise, and not all staterooms are alike. My agent (Karen Shelton at My Path Unwinding Travel) knows the best Disney staterooms to book, like those with extra-large verandahs, and where on the ship is best for your family. What should your stateroom be closest to? You’ll have no idea if you are new to cruise vacations.
Another reason to use an agent is that most people choose a cruise because of the ease of this type vacation. It’s nice, sometimes critical, to have an advocate on your side. “Two weeks ago,” said agent Karen Shelton, “A client booked a short cruise for February in January. He declined insurance because it was not a huge trip and so close in time. A family member became suddenly ill the day before the cruise.
I got on the phone with Disney Cruises, cancelled the cruise and worked with DCL and the client (with some documentation from doctors provided) to obtain a full refund for the client. The client could focus on his family while I took care of it. They will never travel without insurance again.”
Finally, a travel agent can save you money. “Sometimes I can help clients save money on the cruise itself by exploring stateroom options they had not thought of, such as splitting into two cabins rather than a suite. I also help save clients money with private transfers (that can often be less expensive than Disney’s) and with private insurance. The icing on the cake is the on-board credit.”
Most travel agents offer a stateroom credit based on the price of your cruise cost that you will not receive if you book directly with DisneyCruise.com. Saving money for more spa appointments and shore excursions is a no brainer, right?
Booking Cruise Flights
Everyone will tell you never to arrive embarkation day to avoid missing the cruise because of flight delays, so you should fly in at least the day before your cruise departs.
Most families departing from Port Canaveral enjoy time in the Walt Disney World resort before the cruise since it is the more physically demanding part of the vacation. I think two days before a cruise is essential (a day of arriving, a day in the parks, and embarkation), but I suggest even more if you are flying where there is a time zone difference more than an hour.
Return flights should not be booked before 1PM to account for port travel and security delays. Clients with later flights home on the last day of the cruise can reserve a day-use room at the Hyatt Regency Orlando airport hotel. They can use the room to relax and store their suitcases and then enjoy some time to rest or explore Orlando attractions.
We personally do not like to fly home from the cruise, as the reentry is just too harsh. We like one more day to luxuriate in the sun and rest before heading home at one of Orlando’s five-star resorts: The Four Seasons Orlando, The Ritz-Carlton Grand Lakes, or the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. Fun at Walt Disney World Resort is better before the cruise.
Our Favorite Miami and Orlando Hotels
Best Miami Hotels Near the Port
If you are cruising out of Miami with kids but still seeking a luxe experience, read why we love the Mandarin Oriental Miami as an escape from the South Beach scene that isn’t always family-friendly.
Even though the Mandarin Oriental Miami doesn’t have a kids club, we found that their restaurants and the pool areas to be very welcoming of children. There’s a great playground next door, and my kids loved receiving a cupcake decorating activity upon check-in. The spa is top notch as is the Peruvian restaurant on site. It’s location on its own island called Brickell Key next to Miami’s downtown area is super convenient to the port of Miami as well as Miami’s amazing museums, The Perez Art Museum and the new Frost Science Museum.
Where to Stay in Orlando Before A Cruise
If you’re embarking from Port Canaveral, I recommend staying in Orlando instead of staying by the port. Even if it’s just for one night before. The distance to the port the next morning is really only adding a few extra minutes to your commute to the ship, but it offers so much more to do to celebrate your vacation before setting sail.
Read our complete guide to luxury at Disney World:
the best resorts, restaurants, and VIP experiences
While I love luxuriating at Orlando’s five-star resorts, I prefer staying at those after the cruise and checking into a Disney resort beforehand for two reasons. First it gives us a 60-day window to book Fast Passes for a day at the parks, as well as free transportation to the resort from the Orlando airport on the Magical Express.
Before the cruise, I would suggest the deluxe resorts that are near the parks. The Grand Floridian Villas and Contemporary Garden Wing rooms are favorites near Magic Kingdom, and the Beach Club is steps from Epcot with one of the best pools and slides in all of Walt Disney World Resort.
Cruise Transfer and Transportation Options
Renting a Car at Disney World
I am not a bus fan. In fact, we never take Magical Express from the airport when we stay on Disney property (a perk for guests) because we like renting a car. I always use Alamo, check in online, and print out their Skip The Counter ticket so we are on the road in a brand-new minivan in minutes. (We always seem to get to choose a minivan even when I book a midsize car.)
The other perk for using Alamo is that is has its only location on Disney property (you pass it exiting Magic Kingdom) with shuttle service to the parks and resorts, which makes it extremely convenient for one-way rentals, too, just from or to the airport, for example.
JOIN THE LUXURY DISNEY WORLD FACEBOOK GROUP IF WE CAN ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS.
Disney Cruise Line Transfers
I genuinely loved the ease of using Disney Cruise Line’s buses to Port Canaveral for one key feature. Your tagged baggage is collected by cast members directly from your hotel room starting at 7:30AM. You don’t have to deal with your bags again until they’re delivered outside your stateroom on the ship that afternoon.
This was incredibly convenient and made checking in at the port wonderfully easy. This felt like a much bigger perk because we were staying at such a large Disney resort the night before our cruise, that bell service was slow and unpredictable.
The bus fare is $35 per person each way for those over the age of three. This fee adds up for a family of four and is more expensive than a private car. I think the luggage service justifies the cost on embarkation day.
The buses play lots of Disney ads as well as Disney cartoon shorts to please children and a few adults, too.
Private Car Service and Uber/Lyft to Port Canaveral
The other option, of course, is using private transfers. Advantages of booking a car or limo service means that you arrive at the port without the crowd of a bus, and you control with more precision your departure and arrival time.
If you do use a private car service, they simply pull up to the terminal, and porters are on hand to take your checked luggage which is then delivered to your stateroom.
Any good travel agent who books several Disney cruises like mine has a list of companies to use if you choose to book privately. Karen at My Path Unwinding Travel can book a car service and arrange a complimentary stop at a grocery store on the way to the ship or on the way back to a resort. This is convenient for guests who wish to buy wine to bring onboard or other items like sunscreen, snacks or waters.
There are always many Lyft and Uber drivers available both near the ports and in Orlando, too.
Joining A Fish Extender Group
The next step once the cruise is booked is to decide if you want to join a Fish Extender group. It is essentially a gift exchange cruise some guests do with each other, and there are typically ten staterooms in each group organized through a cruise Facebook group.
Search your cruise date in Facebook, and you will see the Facebook group organizing it. The administrator and group members can walk you through the process.
Karen, who has sailed several Disney cruises with her family suggests another reason to join one.
“Even if you don’t plan to participate in the Fish Extender group, join the Facebook group. It can be a fun way to connect your kids with other children their age before the cruise.
Many groups have a meet and greet on embarkation day. I enjoy getting to know other parents before the cruise and introducing our kids at the meet and greet. Some parents allow their kids to interact on social media prior to the cruise as well. Having a new friend can make the first visit to one of the youth clubs more comfortable.”
Making Fish Extenders
The first part of participating in a Fish Extender is making one for your stateroom door. The term comes from the silver fish outside each cabin door located next to the stateroom number. Guests design holders that hang from the Fish Extender. Participants place the gifts in this.
I don’t sew, so I looked for the lazy person’s way out. I found a door hanger on Amazon and two iron on Mickey silhouettes, and I think it turned out just fine. Every family should try it at least once. My kids loved preparing and delivering the gifts.
Participants often give a gift to each family member, as the names, ages, and dietary restrictions are shared, along with the cabin numbers of those in your group. Gifts often include candy, stickers, small toys, DIY gifts and Etsy purchases.
I kept to a Star Wars theme and purchased Millennium Falcon keychain-bottle openers for dads, monogrammed canvas travel bags for women, and young children received Star Wars charm bracelets, and teens and tweens got Darth Vader soaps, Star Wars lip glosses and hair ties.
The packaging was the most fun part, and I created bag labels for glossy black gift bags, and I designed a Disney themed Star Wars gift label for them, tying the bags with black and silver Mickey Mouse ribbon I found on Amazon.
After we had access to our stateroom and our luggage, my kids were thrilled to take on the delivery of the gifts. As in life, the giving was more fun than the receiving, but it was a wonderful activity to build excitement before the cruise.
Even if you choose to forgo participating in a Fish Extender group, everyone can join in on door magnet fun. Many cabins do this. Etsy has some wonderful options, and these magnets can be used on each of your family’s Disney cruises.
There is every design you can think of, and these are flat and packable. I went with a nautical Mickey theme to match our nautical Fish Extender. If you book a concierge stateroom, the doors require a heavy-duty magnet that you can also purchase from Amazon.
Things to Pre-Book at DisneyCruiseLine.com
Before the cruise, people book reservations of experiences on board the ship as well as excursions. Concierge guests submit their booking requests to their travel agent or directly to shore side concierge at 125 days prior to sail date. Shoreside services processes them first ahead of other guests right at the 120-day mark. Platinum Castaway Club members book at 120 days before sailing, Gold at 105 days before sailing, Silver at 90 days, and first-time guests at 75 days.
The first things to get booked which sell out typically within the first window to Concierge guests are cabanas at Castaway Cay.
Other things that sell out are Palo brunches (available only on days at sea), wine and liquor tastings, and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique princess makeovers.
Prepay Gratuities and Ordering Disney Cruise Line Gifts
It is much easier to prepay your gratuities that ensure you have the correct cash on hand at the end of your trip. This is a no brainer. Also, when calling to do so, choose a stateroom welcome gift to celebrate your cruise. The options range from fruit baskets and chocolate treats to wine and beer packages. I found it easy to order a 6-pack of bottled water for out mini fridge instead of carrying that on board.
Disney Cruise Line Photo Packages
Disney cruises offers photo packages similar to their memory maker product at the parks. You can pre-purchase a photo package online for a discount before the cruise.
This service is not provided by Disney, however, and it’s from a third-party.
Whether or not you purchase this package depends on how often you’re willing to stand in line to take photos. Photographers are all around the ship beginning at embarkation, at every character meet and greet, at back drops before dinner, during the captain’s party with the captain, and in the dining room.
We must be unusual, because we just got off the boat taking only one picture, though we love the memory maker in the Disney parks.
Online Check In
Guests can check in online beforehand to save time at the port and submit passport information, register children for the kids’ clubs, and choose an arrival and boarding time. There will be a confirmation ticket to print and present at the port.
Disney Cruise Packing List Tricks
There are so many great packing lists already out there.
One thing to think through in advance is Pirate Night. Some families go all out, and others don’t participate at all. My son wanted to dress up, and the pirate hat we packed was great in a suitcase because it worked well being pressed flat. We combined it with the Melissa and Doug Pirate dress up outfit he had when he was younger that still fit him fine.
Have you heard of PooPouri? It’s an amazing toilet spray one uses before going, and the tiny bathroom smells of beautiful lemon cake. It’s a great thing to have when a family shares such tight quarters.
Check out what the Disney Cruise Packing List Kids Are A Trip suggests for more ideas.
Bringing Alcohol on a Disney Cruise
Disney Cruise Line Guests (who are 21 years and older) may bring a maximum of 2 bottles of unopened wine or champagne (no larger than 750 ml) or 6 beers (no larger than 12 ounces) on board at the beginning of the voyage and at each port of call. These beverages must be packed in a carry-on bag and cannot be in checked luggage.
I purchased a few single serving bottles of Prosecco to enjoy on our verandah so that my bag didn’t feel to weighed down. The dining rooms will be charged a corking fee of $25.00 per bottle if you choose to bring your own bottle to dinner.
Download the DCL App
DCL has an app that you must download in advance. Before you sail, it’s a simple countdown to your cruise. But once onboard, it has a number of features including free messaging to other cruisers and all of the information found in the Personal Navigators like the restaurant opening times, character greets, shows, and activities.
Port Canaveral Procedures
When arriving at Port Canaveral, guests who have carried their baggage to the port check it in. Then all guests go through a TSA style security line.
Once through security, guests take an escalator up to the concourse level and check in on the left side. Guests present the confirmation from online check in and receive their Key To The World cards. Children also receive special red Magic Bands for the DCL Children’s Clubs.
After check in, people just sort of pace back and forth eager to board the ship. Captain Mickey arrives for photos, and my kids were fascinated by a scale model of a Disney ship.
Each family receives a boarding card with a group number on it and listens to be called for boarding the ship. Guests enter the Mickey shaped tunnel to board the ship and have a chance to stop and take a family photo first.
The Key to the World Cards
Art check in, each family member is given his or her own card. These cards are best worn around the neck in a lanyard. They list the name of the person, the dining rotation, table number, and more information.
Guests must use these to get off the ship as well as return to the ship, and guests must still use them to exit the ship departure day. It is likely one of your party will lose a card at least once during the cruise. A new one can be issued at Guest Services.
Teens old enough for Vibe can go to there to replace their Key to the World Card with a special VIBE Key to the World Card that is specially accessed so they can enter the teen area.
Tweens who participate in Edge activities receive a special sticker on their cards.
What to do on Embarkation Day
We boarded the ship at 11:30 with our day bag since our luggage would not be guaranteed until 6pm, and our staterooms around 4pm.
(We received both earlier, however). Most families run to Cabanas, the ship’s buffet restaurant, but it gets crowded very quickly. Other families run straight to the AquaDuck waterslide.
We opted for a serene sit-down lunch in the designated dining room, which was Enchanted Garden.
Concierge guests head to the Concierge lounge where there is a food display and a welcome toast waiting for them. Their cabins are typically ready first around 1pm.
Oceaneer Lab Registration
After lunch while you explore the ship, take your children to the clubs to finalize registration. Many parents will have registered their children already in the online process, which also requires the family to provide a secret word — that the children cannot hear— in order to identify as the authorized adult who can collect kids.
Kids club bands are handed out at port check in or inside the club. In the club, the cast members can affix a lock to prevent the band from coming undone easily. During Embarkation Day, the Oceaneer Lab is in open house and children cannot be left until after dinner.
Spa Raffle and Open House
Head to the Senses Spa and Fitness Center during their open house for a raffle and special pricing on treatments. I was concerned I hadn’t booked enough appointments in advance. I was delighted that there were still several appointments available during the open house.
My daughter received a pedicure in the Chill Spa for teens, my husband a massage. I booked a Bliss Package for myself. The Bliss Package is a combo head, neck, shoulder, scalp, and foot massage combined with a mini facial. Booking this during the open house took $30 off of this price.
The day at sea on cruises four nights and longer will be the most popular at the spa. If you are an early bird like me, I booked a 7AM treatment while my family still slept. I booked this on Castaway Cay day with floor to ceiling window views of the ship docking at sunrise. I felt pretty savvy.
Families are given a rotation through each of the ship’s main dining rooms. For the Disney Dream and Fantasy, those are Animator’s Palette, Enchanted Garden, and Royal Palace. Cabanas is open for dinner as is room service from a limited menu.
The best dining requires a reservation and a supplement for Palo, the Italian restaurant, and Remy, the French restaurant. Remy is the most deluxe but only on the Dream and Fantasy. We booked both restaurants in advance.
The easiest way to coordinate these adult-only meals with our children was to go to the main seating with them at 5:45 and sit with them while they ate. We took them to the kids’ clubs on our way to 6:30 and 7:30 reservations with no issue. We could have also ordered room service for our children while we dressed for dinner. Or one of us could have taken the kids to the fast food options near the pool.
Our servers brought us salads to enjoy, but we could have ordered a Mickey Bar had we wanted to. They’ll bring you anything you ask. You can sit back and relax at your first dinner. You are in Disney’s hands now, and no more planning is required.
We hope this makes you feel prepared for your Disney Cruise and that you have a wonderful time!
I collaborated with My Path Unwinding Travel on this article for Karen Sheltons’s expertise on Disney Cruise Line, but all opinions in this article are my own.