A few days ago we (my whole family) got back from a magical Disney cruise in the Eastern Caribbean to celebrate my dad’s retirement. Let me start this post by saying Disney definitely does cruises right! They have amazing customer service, awesome amenities, and if you’re any kind of Disney nut (like I), you just can’t go wrong with DCL. While other adults may have gotten tired of hearing Disney music constantly, I absolutely ate it up and was singing along most of the time!
Before we traveled we did a lot of research, but there were a lot of things we didn’t know until we cruised that I think should be shared! With the help of my family, I’ve compiled a list of tips for first-time cruisers. Some of these items CAN be found in other places online, and some of these will be specific to the Fantasy or Caribbean.
1. Check all of your booking options for the best deal. The price for the cruise itself should be the same no matter whom you book from, but different companies/agents offer different booking incentives. Some travel agents offer an onboard credit, while Costco usually offers a cash card. A note about the onboard credit: if you are not drinkers or are not planning on other activities that cost extra, this might not be a great option for you since you won’t spend a lot of money onboard.
2. Look for the Facebook page and/or cruise page on Disboards.com for your specific cruise. You can ask questions and meet other cruisers before you set sail. There will be many veteran cruisers who are happy to help!
3. Arrange your own shuttle and get the earliest boarding time possible when you check in online (so you can start enjoying what you spent all that money on!). Since we were staying at a Disney resort prior to our cruise, we used Disney transportation. This was a mistake and here’s why:
- It was more expensive than a private shuttle would have been.
- You don’t know your pick-up time until the day prior.
- The shuttle makes several stops, and chances are you won’t arrive at Port Canaveral until 1pm or later. Our boarding time was 11:30, but we were told it doesn’t matter because the actual boarding time for the ship is 1pm. We were also told it’s better to use Disney (by Disney staff) because you get to bypass the normal line for check-in. Not sure this is true, but the 1pm boarding time was definitely not. If the ship gets the “all clear” from all of the agencies at port, they open the doors early. We finally got onto the ship around 2pm, and it felt like we were one of the last ones on. People had already enjoyed the pool, Aquaduck, food, etc., and any spots for special activities (like the Royal Court Royal Tea) were already filled.
4. If you are worried about getting seasick, make sure you test products PRIOR to cruising. I took Bonine the first day of cruise just as a preventative measure and it completely backfired. For some reason it had an adverse effect and made me feel completely drunk. I felt better without it. If you are not prone to motion sickness, chances are slim that you will get sea sick. The ships are so big that it would take a good storm to really feel it. We did feel the rocking motion at night when we were at the front or rear of the ship, but other than that it was fine. (If you are worried about feeling the rocking of the ship, it will be best for you to get a stateroom that is mid-ship).
5. Have a discussion with your children about travel etiquette. I will post a separate blog going into more detail about general travel manners, but here are some cruise-specific things that were obnoxious:
- Running up and down stateroom hallways at all times of day/night.
- Sitting on the stairs, making it difficult for other passengers to walk up/down.
- Moving door decorations or writing on people’s message boards.
- Pushing the elevator button before an elevator moved, so that the doors wouldn’t close.
- Unsupervised children roaming the ship, especially at night. (We were shocked by how many kids were wandering without adults. While it’s good that people felt safe on the ship to do that, you really don’t know all 4,000 passengers onboard and what ill intentions they might have. Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Dateline.)
6. You do not need to bring your own beach towels. Not only does Disney have plenty of clean towels surrounding the pool areas, they supply you with towels as you disembark at the ports!
7. Bring your own cups/water bottles! The cups supplied at the beverage stations are tiny. We used double-wall straw tumblers from the dollar store (that I had decorated with permanent adhesive vinyl cut by my Cricut).
8. Don’t worry about buying bottles of water. The water at the beverage stations tastes great. (We also had no problem brushing our teeth or washing our faces using the sink water in our room.)
9. Make sure you carry on everything you want to use right away on the ship. All luggage is delivered by 6pm, but if you get on the ship fairly early you will want to have access to swimsuits, maybe some toiletries, etc.
10. You can bring two items per stateroom to Guest Services for the characters to sign. They’ll get the characters to sign the items, then they’ll return them to your stateroom. You will need to supply your own marker(s), but be specific with any instructions on colors to use on each item. (We had them sign mats from picture frames, one for each of our kids. We gave them a purple marker [for my daughter’s] and a blue marker [for my son’s]. We didn’t specify and the characters signed in both colors on each mat.)
11. You can bring your own bottles of wine onboard. Not only to enjoy in your stateroom, but your beverage server at dinner will open and pour them for you. Note: alcohol must be in your carry-on luggage, not in your checked luggage.
12. We participated in a “Mixology Class” in one of the bars that was set up prior to sailing. (They do have some others you can sign up for onboard.) The cost was $20 per person and you get to learn how to make five mixed drinks. We thought the drinks would be small, tasting size glasses, but these were full drinks. $20 for five drinks was a great deal, and it was a fun grown-up activity. Just make sure you plan for that much alcohol so you don’t get drunk and ruin a day of vacation!
13. If you are a coffee drinker: there is not flavored creamer onboard. You may want to bring your own if you are like me and enjoy sweet/flavored coffee.
14. If you want to participate in special activities/dining that require advance reservations, make them as soon as you are able! As first-time cruisers you are at a huge disadvantage, because veteran cruisers (broken into “silver,” “gold,” and “platinum” levels of memberships) can make reservations before you even have a chance (90-120 days prior, as opposed to 75 days for first-timers). We wanted to reserve a family cabana at Castaway Cay and I wanted to take my daughter to the Royal Court Royal Tea, but everything was already booked by veteran cruisers before I even had the chance. If you are unable to get something you want, log in each day because people do cancel reservations. If you are STILL unable to get something you want, go to Guest Services (deck 3, midship) as SOON as you board to see if they have any spots available or to see if you can be placed on a waitlist. This is what I did for the Royal Tea. Even though we boarded late and the spots were filled, they put us on a waitlist and my daughter and I DID end up getting to go! (By the way…this is expensive at $210 for the child and around $70 for the adult, but the girl gets a nice Cinderella doll, a princess autograph book, a crown pen, a tiara, a musical jewelry box, a photo from the tea in a nice leather book, a charm bracelet, a charm necklace, and several charms. Plus of course tea/apple juice, sandwiches, pastries, and a cupcake.)
15. The dividers on the verandahs can be opened by the stewards with a special tool, so if you are traveling across multiple cabins it’s nice to have a bigger balcony connecting your rooms.
16. Do NOT go to the show the first night. It’s a giant commercial for the ship. If you’ve done any research at all, you already know what there is to do on the ship and don’t need a cheesy show to tell you about it.
17. The Aladdin show is pretty much identical to the one shown at Disneyland, so if you’ve seen that you can probably skip this one.
18. The entertainers are switched out during the week, so if there is someone performing at the beginning of your cruise you’d like to see, don’t wait thinking he/she will have another show later that week you can attend. There was a hypnotist/comedian on our cruise that we missed because we thought he’d perform multiple shows. He disembarked at one of the islands and another comedian came onboard.
19. Get strong magnetic hooks and a cheap over-the-door shoe organizer. You can’t use adhesives or over-the-door hooks, but you can use magnets. These organizers are fantastic for organizing your toiletries, sunscreen, sunglasses, shoes, etc.
20. There is a ton of storage space in the room! We stored 4 large suitcases + a couple of small bags under our bed. The little coffee table also opens up for more storage, and there is space underneath the little bed side tables. We placed a large suitcase at the end of the sofa for our dirty clothes as well.
21. If you are traveling to the Caribbean, know that the sun is incredibly intense! Despite reapplying sunscreen, we did get sunburned a bit. Wear a HAT! My scalp got sunburned, which is not only painful, but really gross when the skin starts peeling.
22. Bring a small collapsible cooler. You will want to bring bottles of water and snacks with you at the ports!
23. Do not watch any newly released Disney movies before cruising; they will play for “free” on the ship! We got to see Tomorrowland, and they also played the new Avengers movie, Monkey Kingdom, Cinderella, Big Hero 6, and more. (Note: they DO charge for popcorn.)
24. The best time to visit the pools is at dinner/show time, but it will be a little cooler when the sun goes down. During the day (except port days), the line to the Aquaduck is very long, so nighttime is the time to go.
25. Check the movie times on the pool screen. Since it’s less busy on the pool deck at night, it’s nice to just sit and watch a movie outside. (We watched Pocahontas and there were only a few other people up on deck.)
26. There are not a lot of outlets in the room. There are two on the desk/vanity and two by the bed (one being used by the alarm clock). There IS an outlet in the shower room, but it’s on the ceiling and is marked for shavers. You CAN plug an electric toothbrush into this outlet. (Power strips are now prohibited by DCL.)
27. While it is a slower pace compared to Disney World, you can still expect to stay busy. There is a TON to do on the ship! We especially loved the family activities in the “D Lounge,” as we preferred to stick together most of the time. (Note: Bingo costs quite a bit of money and the prizes are not big enough to make it worth it. Stick to the free activities.)
28. Bring your own sand/beach toys. You can get great stuff at the dollar store, and since you only paid $1 it’s no big deal if they get lost, broken, or get so dirty you don’t want to bring them back.
29. If you have a snorkeling set, bring it! We visited Mullet Bay in St. Maarten and were surprised how many fish were so close to shore. Your own gear would also be handy at Castaway Cay, so you don’t have to waste time/money renting theirs. I wish we had two days there; so much to do and it was beautiful!
30. The restaurants are very loud. If you want a quieter dinner, look into an evening at Palo or Remy. Be warned, however, that they are quite expensive considering they don’t include any alcohol and dinner at the other restaurants is already included. The cost is $30 per person for Palo and $85 per person for Remy. We preferred to eat dinner together as a family, which was really nice since there were 11 of us. I just made sure I took some Tylenol or ibuprofen before dinner each night. 🙂
31. The food is GREAT, which is another reason I felt Palo and Remy wouldn’t be worth the extra cost. At dinner you get to choose an appetizer, a soup or salad, an entrée, and then a dessert. (You can eat more than that if you’d like, I suppose, but remember you do still need to fit into your clothes when you go home.) The food looks and tastes great, just like at a fine dining restaurant. Remember soda, juice, and coffee is always free. Flavored coffees (cappuccinos and lattes) and alcohol cost extra.
32. The spa is very expensive. Despite their daily deals the prices were inflated compared to local spas (at least around here). I decided I’d rather spend my vacation with my family (doing stuff already included in the price of the cruise) and then schedule a massage when we got home.
33. The elevators can be a nightmare to use, so if the elevators are busy and you’re physically able, use the stairs. If you need to use the elevators, plan extra time. They’re constantly full and they stop at every floor with people trying to get on. A little tip: sometimes it’s faster to go up to go down, or go down to go up. Meaning if an elevator arrives that is empty (or almost empty) but is going the wrong direction, it might be quicker to ride it to a couple of floors in the wrong direction, then head to the floor you need.
34. I suggest following Disney’s guidelines for dining attire. From their website:
First night is cruise casual—no swimwear or tank tops
One pirate or other themed night (deck party)
3 additional cruise casual nights—no swimwear or tank tops
One formal and one semi-formal night—two great opportunities to dress-up and take advantage of the onboard photography services. Though optional, we recommend for men: dress pants with a jacket or a suit; for women: a dress or pantsuit.
Wearing hats, dirty or torn clothes, or revealing clothing to dinner is distasteful. Also, while I understand there are people who do not enjoy dressing up, the men wearing polo shirts on formal night looked incredibly out of place, especially when there were some men wearing tuxedos. My parents don’t really like to dress up, but they did for semi-formal and formal nights, and it was a lot of fun having the whole family in dresses and suits! (We also all dressed up for pirate night!) Dinner is a great chance for awesome photos, and you don’t want to look like a bum. For “cruise casual” nights the men/boys in our family wore polos/collared shirts and slacks/khakis, and the women/girls wore sundresses or blouses with dress capris/pants.
35. Castaway Cay (pronounced “key,” not “kay”):
- There are some things you can book online in advance (excursions, cabanas), but some things have to be booked on the SHIP. Don’t wait until you get to Castaway Cay to research activities you want to try, because everything will be booked. One of my brothers was very disappointed that he couldn’t rent a jet ski; this was something that needed to be booked onboard, but we had no idea.
- The water slides push you out with a lot of force. Do NOT wear sunglasses or hats. If they fall off, you will not be allowed to go under water to look for them.
- They have all-terrain wheelchairs and strollers for free use. These were very handy for our group on the beach, as my mom was in a wheelchair and my niece was only 9 months. These are available on a first-come, first-serve basis at both tram stops, but there were plenty available. You don’t need to reserve them; you can just grab one from the little parking area.
36. You can decorate your stateroom door with magnets (no adhesives). Not only is this a very fun way to personalize your stateroom, it will make finding your room easy when walking through the long, narrow mazes of halls! I printed designs, laminated them (with a very cheap, small laminating machine), and then used E6000 glue to attach strong, tiny magnets. (I bought neodymium magnets on Amazon. They were about the size of a watch battery, but worked great to hold each magnet!) If you aren’t crafty you can buy decorations on Etsy.
Some of these magnets were gifts, but most of them were ones we made/brought.
37. Another way to decorate your door is with a “Fish Extender.” This is made with fabric pockets that hangs from the fish hook (or seahorse on ours) outside your stateroom door.
You can participate in a “fish extender” gift exchange with other cruisers, where people deliver gifts to your stateroom by placing them into these pockets. Here are my tips regarding this:
- This is NOT an activity affiliated with Disney. It’s set up and done by passengers.
- You must sign up ahead of time, either on that specific cruise’s Facebook page or on its Disboards thread.
- Once you sign up, the coordinator will keep track of participants. He/she will have a cut-off date for sign-ups (probably 2-3 weeks prior to cruising) and may not separate you into groups until that cut-off date.
- Groups can be small (5-10 cabins) or big (20+ cabins).
- You can find gift ideas on Pinterest or on a very busy Facebook page.
- You can give gifts to each individual in each cabin, a cabin gift for the whole stateroom, or even both.
- Your gifts don’t have to be crafty or homemade. Even things from the dollar store can be made into something special with cute wrapping or nice tag.
- You can deliver your gifts whenever you want while onboard. To help prevent theft, it’s best to deliver right before or right after breakfast when a lot more people are walking through the halls. Don’t deliver late at night.
- Do not wait until the last minute to prepare your gifts. This is supposed to be a fun activity, but if you procrastinate it will be stressful.
- Keep it budget-friendly, but put some thought into your gifts so that the recipients experience the “magic.”
- If you want to give some fun, little gifts but feel like an organized gift exchange would be too stressful, you can do what’s called “pixie dusting.” This is when you give gifts randomly to other cruisers. (We put some magnetic Disney-themed photo frames on people’s doors with a note to say they’ve “been pixie-dusted.”)
Now, I don’t think we’d participate in a fish extender gift exchange again. Here’s why:
- We were in two and a half groups of 10 cabins each. We had a couple of staterooms in multiple groups, so we had 21 cabins to deliver gifts to. 6 out of those 21 cabins did not deliver any gifts to us. That’s almost 30%. In my opinion, that’s downright theft to sign up for a gift exchange, accept gifts from others, and then not give anything back. Now I understand sticky fingers CAN happen, but the chances of it happening 6 times? I doubt that. (Note: I kept track of the gifts we received because we brought personalized thank you notes for each cabin.)
- We used the FE group on Facebook as a guideline for how much to spend and for what types of gifts to give. Our family put MONTHS of thought, effort, and money into giving nice gifts. Unfortunately the pictures you see on the Facebook group are not typical gifts you receive. This may have been a fluke, but we received a lot of candy and junk. No one posts a picture of the baggy with two Dum-Dums that they gave in the Facebook group. (And if someone was to post a picture of that as a received gift, they would be attacked and labeled as “ungrateful.”)
- I purposely mentioned in the sign-ups that we were celebrating my dad’s retirement from the fire department after 40 years of service, thinking someone might do something special as part of their gift. Instead my parents received junk also, including some little homemade crayons. What in the world are my 60-year-old parents supposed to do with crayons? It was clear people didn’t really put a lot of thought into their gifts.
- Many of the people that delivered gifts to our cabin only brought gifts to the kids. That would have been fine if we were doing a “kids only” gift exchange, but it was supposed to be for grown-ups/families, too.
- If we had known that the pictures posted on Facebook were the exception, not the norm, we could have gone into the exchange with lower expectations. I understand it’s “better to give than to receive,” and blah blah, but honestly we did expect to get some nicer gifts, especially with 21 other cabins participating.
IF we ever cruise again and decide to do another FE exchange, I would either have just our kids participate (they did love seeing little goodies in their pockets when we went back to the room), or I would do my own group with set limitations/expectations. (I really think we all would have had more fun if we had just exchanged gifts amongst our family, across our four cabins.)
38. DCL does not currently have a “PhotoPass” or “Memory Maker” option aboard their ships like at Disney World. They do have photographers onboard from a third-party company called “Shutters.” They have a couple of all-inclusive photo packages: $449 for all digital files AND prints, or $349 for all digital files OR prints.
You really have to consider whether or not you’re going to get enough photos on your cruise for those prices to be worth it in the end. That’s tough if you’re a first-timer. There are backdrops put up in the atrium every night, photographers at all of the character greetings, and photographers that come around at dinner. If you intentionally plan to get pictures taken at all of those, it might be worth it. BUT, if you have a decent camera and are diligent in using it, the expensive photo packages are probably not worth it. They do have smaller packages ($149 for 10 prints or files, $249 for 20). We only had 10 pictures that we really wanted, so we paid the $149. The rest of the time our camera’s photos were just fine.
I think that is it for my tips! If we think of more, I’ll be sure to update this page.