Oh man, not even sure where to begin with this post, so I guess I’ll just start typing and see where it goes. It’s going to be a long one, but hopefully an informative one. I did a little research before we left and we have several friends that had previously done a Disney cruise and/or visited Disney World with kids in tow, so thankfully we had some insight and knew a lot of the tips, tricks and hacks prior to getting there, but we definitely learned even more during our actual trip. So here goes….my version of Disney Cruise tips, tricks and hacks that you should know, in no particular order.
Check-in. You can complete your online check-in for the cruise starting 75 days before your cruise. This is when you choose you port arrival time, and you’ll want to choose the earliest time available (see more about this below). This is when you can start booking excursions, spa treatments, special activities and reservations. Some things sell out fast, so I recommend booking as soon as available. This is also when you can register your kids for the kid’s clubs. Keep in mind though that if you plan to use the nursery (ages 3 and under), you cannot make reservations yet. You do this once you board the ship. As soon as you board, go visit the nursery (it was called It’s a Small World Nursery on our ship) and make your reservations.
Packing. You will not need as many clothes as you think you will, so keep that in mind when packing. I thought I packed light by bringing one casual outfit and one dinner outfit for each day (plus workout clothes), but I ended up not needing any of the casual outfits because I was either in workout clothes or a swimsuit and cover-up all day, only changing into regular clothes at night for dinner. It just makes more sense to stay in a swimsuit so you’re always ready for the pool. If anything, bring extra swimsuit cover-ups.
Drinks. Pack your own insulated cups. While fountain drinks are free on board, the cups are small, and you’ll find yourself constantly going back for a refill. We brought our YETI cups and were so happy we did. Also, they only have Coke products, so if you prefer other sodas, bring your own.
Alcohol. Alcoholic drinks are not free on the ship. You can also bring your own alcohol onboard (must be in your carry on). I believe you can bring 2 bottles of wine, or 6 beers, per person. We brought a few bottles of wine and would fix a glass to take with us when we headed out for the pool or dinner or whatever. Just don’t forget a bottle opener. While you can always request one from room service, it may take awhile for them to bring it to you. Oh, and unfortunately there’s a corking fee at the restaurants if you bring your own bottle to dinner. It was something ridiculous too…I want to say $25. However, they will let you split a bottle with your tablemates. We made friends with ours the first night, and started ordering a bottle of wine to share, and then just had the server split the cost between us.
Room service. If you want to avoid the restaurant one night and have your meal in your room, room service is always free, although some things do have a cost (like candy, popcorn and obviously alcohol). You can also request these ice cream Mickey bars that were awesome! They aren’t on the menu, but just ask. It’s is customary to tip the staff a few dollars like in most hotels.
Extras. Speaking of candy and “snacky foods” that you may want for the movies and whatnot…bring it from home. Candy, popcorn and packaged snacks are really over priced onboard, but since everyone wants candy and popcorn for the movies, people buy it. Save some money and bring it from home.
Port of embarkation. Get to the port city the night before. It makes the morning of embarkation much less stressful when you are already in the vicinity. Plus, with the uncertainty of traffic and flight delays, I wouldn’t want to risk missing the cruise! If you happen to leave from Port Canaveral, I recommend the Radisson. It’s 5 minutes from the port and they offer a shuttle service. You can also leave your car at the hotel for a much cheaper fee than what you’d pay to park at the port. Hotel has an awesome pool as well and a couple decent restaurants. Rooms were spacious and nice. We actually would have enjoyed staying a few days.
Free character call. You can request a call from Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, etc. before you leave for your cruise. Basically you make the request (through your online account on the cruise line website) and it will spit out a phone number. You call the number, hand the phone to your kid, and there will be a personal recording from their favorite character welcoming them to the cruise ship. Really cute way to start off the trip.
Boarding. Try and get an early boarding time so you can get on the ship as soon as possible. This is prime time for hitting up the pool and other popular areas before all the other cruise goers get on the ship. Remember that as the morning goes by, more and more people board the ship. Might as well take advantage of fewer crowds if you can. Even if you were unable to get the early boarding time, you can arrive earlier than your scheduled boarding time and they will likely let you on. Because we booked our cruise relatively last minute, the earliest boarding time I could get was 1:30 pm. However, we went ahead and got there at 12 and they let us on, no questions asked.
Carry on bag. Pack a backpack or carry on with swimsuits, sunscreen, and anything else you may want for the pool. When you board, they take your luggage from you, but it doesn’t arrive to your room until hours later. We boarded at 12, but our room wasn’t available until 1:30 and our luggage wasn’t delivered until close to 5. Thankfully, we had packed stuff for the pool, so as soon as we boarded, we checked out the ship a little and then hit the pool.
Lanyards and “Key to the World Card”. Bring a lanyard for each family member (those things that hang around your neck and hold a card). You will get a “Key to the World” card (each family member) and you basically have to have this on you at all times. You use it to access your room and turn the power on in your room (in order to turn the lights on, you have to have a card in the slot right inside your door), and you use it to pay for anything and everything (our wallets never left the safe). You also need it to get on and off the ship at ports. You literally need it at all times. So unless you want to carry around a wallet or purse, a lanyard is the best bet. We didn’t know to buy them ahead of time, so we bought them in the gift shop on board, but of course they were totally over priced. Another tip – after you’ve cruised once, Disney gives you a free lanyard for any subsequent cruises.
Childcare. You have two options depending on the ages of your kids. There’s a nursery and a couple different kids’ clubs. The nursery is for kids 3 and under. The kids’ clubs are for 3 and up, but they also must be potty trained to go to the kids’ clubs. AW was 3 (literally to the day) when we cruised, so according to his age, he could have gone to either, but since he wasn’t potty trained, we stuck with the nursery for the most part. We let him play in the kids’ club a little bit during their open house times, but we were with him. He loved the nursery (literally begged to go), but the kids’ clubs were so awesome. They have open house the day of embarkation, so definitely go check them out and make reservations to bring your kids.
Gratuities. This is an important one! They will automatically add a 15% gratuity to all bar and alcoholic drink purchases. They will also automatically add an 18% gratuity to all spa services. Check.your.bill. We did not realize and were adding an additional 20% gratuity when we signed the receipt, which means we were paying double gratuity. This isn’t a huge deal, BUT we got massages at the spa one day, which were not cheap to begin with. When we signed the receipt, I failed to notice the gratuity already on there, and I filled in an additional 20%. An additional 20% on a pretty hefty bill was quite a bit. No wonder those ladies acted so appreciative when we left;) As for gratuities for other service providers during your cruise (your dining room server, assistant server, stateroom host, etc.) you will have the opportunity to give them a gratuity of your choosing at the end of the trip. Little envelopes will be left in your room the day before you return to port and you can simply state that you want it charged to your onboard account, or pay the gratuity in cash by visiting Guest Services onboard (I don’t think they like you to stick cash in the envelopes, probably because of currency issues). You can go with their suggested rates (also available on the website) or choose your own. I looked at the suggested gratuities for the main service providers and upped them a little, because the service truly was exceptional, especially in the dining room. I understand you can also “pre-pay” your gratuities before leaving on the cruise. Just contact Disney Cruise Lines at least 3 days before embarking.
Storage. Store suitcases under the bed in your room to give you more walking space. There is enough space to allow you to slide most suitcases under there.
Refrigerators. Our boat (Disney Dream) had refrigerators in each stateroom, but I’ve heard that’s not the case on the Magic and Wonder ships, so you have to request one if you are on either ship. This may not be the case now, but it’s just what I’ve heard from others, so I’d double check, especially if you know you will need a mini fridge in your room.
Sail Away Party. Best viewing for the Sail Away Party is the deck above the actual party (Deck 12 on the Dream). Not so crowded, but still a great view to see all the action going on below. Also, staff will walk around offering the “drink of the day” – these are not free! However, if buy one, save your reusable cup because you will get a discount if you order another drink and ask them to use that same cup. Many people discard those reuseable cup…collect them, wash them out in your room and then use them to get the discount.
Navigator app. The Navigator app for your phone is a must! Download it before leaving and then follow instructions for connecting once you board the ship. This is how you know everything that is going on around the ship, all day, every day. All on-board activities, shows, special events, character appearances, the weather, port activities, literally everything cruise related. We referred to this throughout the day.
Dinner seating. Don’t worry if you were only able to get the late dinner seating (8:15). That’s all that was available when we booked, but it honestly worked out for the better, and we’ll do it like that next time as well. It’s less crowded and the youth counselors will come in at 9 and take any bored kids over the age of 3 back to the kid’s club so you can finish your dinner in peace. I was worried the late dining would interfere with bedtime, but go ahead and throw any bedtime schedules out the window right now. We are pretty adamant about bedtime when we are home, but AW was up till midnight most nights during this trip. There’s way too much fun stuff going on! Plus, with the later seating you don’t feel so rushed trying to get to dinner for 6:30. We’d swim and play and do whatever until 7 and then get ready for dinner.
Rotational dining. You will be assigned to a specific restaurant each night, and although your restaurant changes each night, your waitstaff and tablemates stay the same, so you dine with the same people every night, and have the same staff. This is awesome because you get to know your tablemates (they try to match you based on the ages of your children, or so I’ve heard) and your servers know your preferences. For example, our favorite drinks were always waiting for us upon arrival, and they knew we liked to eat and run because we often had some sort of activity to get to. They were awesome with AW and basically bent over backwards to appease him. We loved every single restaurant. On our ship there were three main restaurants, and since we were on a 4-night cruise, we ultimately would have visited one restaurant twice, but that’s the night we got room service anyways.
Food options at dinner. You can order whatever you want at dinner, a/k/a 3 appetizers, 2 entrees, only dessert, you get the drift. They had several healthy and vegetarian options. They’ll basically customize anything to meet your request or dietary restrictions. AW wanted applesauce one night, even though we didn’t see it anywhere on the menu or kid’s menu, and no joke, our waiter went to the kitchen and had some apples peeled and processed for him. Homemade applesauce!
On Demand movies. You’ll have “on demand” Disney movies in your room all day, every day. So awesome. It sounds silly, but one of my favorite parts of the cruise was climbing in bed at night with Matt and AW and picking out a movie to watch before drifting off to sleep. We introduced AW to a few of our favorites from when we were kids/teenagers, and he loved them. He also loved those old school Mickey cartoons, which was fun.
Pool shoes. The pool deck is slippery. Have sandals with good traction, especially for young kids that are more apt to fall. AW wears those Native shoes, and they were perfect.
Coffee. While there is 24/7 free coffee at the soda machines, the Cove Café has the best coffee bar and it’s in the “adults only” area. These coffee drinks are not free, but it’s really good and you can get your fancy coffee drinks. There are snacks under the glass that are free. Just ask for them if they aren’t easily accessible.
Professional photography a/k/a Shutters. There is a Disney photographer at every turn while you are on the cruise, and then you can visit the photo shop (called Shutters) and browse all of your pics. Basically they use face recognition (kind of creepy, huh?) so all of your family pictures will be automatically stored together in a hard copy and electronic photo book (gotta love that Disney magic). You can choose to purchase as many or as few of the pictures as you want, but I’ll go ahead and throw this out there…it’s not cheap. I ended up going with the package of 10 prints and it cost me $150.
Adult pools, restaurant, etc. We never visited the fancy adults-only restaurants because we were content with the regular, family-friendly restaurants. Plus, they consist of those 5-course dinners, and we just don’t like eating that heavy. We did enjoy the adults-only pool on a few occasions. The gym/spa was right above it, so we liked working out and then hanging by the pool for a coupe hours while AW was in the nursery. They had a nice bar there too, right next to the pool. The pool was small, but still, the peace and quiet was a nice reprise every now and then.
Other pools. For that matter, the one thing I was disappointed in were the sizes of the pools. Even the main pool was surprisingly small. The deck area is huge and there’s no shortage of lounge chairs, which was nice, but I think they could expand the pools a little. It gets super crowded, especially on the Day at Sea.
Port day. When in port, stay on ship. If you don’t particularly care about the port, I advise you stay on the ship and enjoy the minimal crowds. We didn’t care about seeing Nassau, so we spent the day at the pool. There was hardly anyone there. The restaurants were less crowded too, and it was generally just easier to get around and do things.
Castaway Cay. A few things on this: 1) Get off the ship early so you can save chairs close to the water; 2) Grab several towels as you exit the ship; 3) Once you grab your towels you will get on a shuttle that takes you to the beach area. Get off the shuttle on the 2nd stop so you’ll be close to the slides and snorkeling; 4) Bring your own beach and sand toys. They sell some on the island, but again, over-priced. I didn’t know to bring our own, so I ended up letting AW pick out a few things; 5) Bring LOTS of sunscreen. That Caribbean sun is no joke; 6) We found it hard to find readily available water for drinking, so bring a few bottles, or fill your insulated cups before exiting the ship; 7) The food is barbeque, so not my cup of tea, but they had tons of fresh fruit, and another soft serve ice cream machine;); 8) Don’t be afraid to spend the first part of the day on the island with your kids, then bring them to the nursery/kids club for a few hours so you can have some alone time. Matt and I brought AW back to the ship and then headed back to the island for a few hours. We enjoyed some cocktails at this neat tiki bar area and just wandered around, enjoying the sights.
Pirate Night…costumes. People go all out. I’m talking full-on, Jack Sparrow outfits, make-up, hair, the works. In fact, you will be in the minority if you don’t dress up. I previously told the story of the epic failure that was AW’s costume and the meltdown that ensued when we took him for his appointment at the Pirate’s League, but that’s just a toddler for you. I had a shirt made for myself, and they do give you bandanas, but I was very underdressed compared to others. Next time I’ll be more prepared, and hopefully AW will be a better sport;)
Breakfast. The buffet breakfast is the bomb. Like seriously, best breakfast buffet ever. There was everything you could ever imagine or want, including tons of healthy options. Definitely just plan to eat here each morning. Our buffet style restaurant was called Cabanas, and while I think the name is different on each ship, they all have a buffet style restaurant. Also, before you leave the buffet in the morning, grab a couple boxes of cereal, yogurt, cartons of milk, or anything you think you may want as a snack later. To avoid purchasing snack type foods in the various shops, we’d eat things we snagged from the buffet earlier that morning. Plus, milk is hard to come by other than at breakfast, and AW drinks a lot of it, so I always grabbed extras and kept them in our fridge.
The peel n’ eat shrimp. Oh my word. The raw bar at Cabanas was the highlight of my lunch every day. The shrimp were huge and delicious. They also had stone crab claws. There was a ton of other lunch options available at Cabanas, but I mainly just ate the shrimp and crab, and maybe fixed a salad or something. Matt tried several other items and said they were all delicious. I’m normally not a fan of buffets, but the one on the ship was amazing. There’s also a decent grill and grab n’ go station near the pool area, where we would get things like hot dogs and hamburgers for AW, and tons of fresh fruit.
The soft serve ice cream station. Soft serve 24/7. They always have the standard chocolate and vanilla, but they also have a flavor of the day. We frequented this often. It’s just the perfect treat while laying at the pool.
Eating lunch by the pool. You can visit the Cabanas restaurant (or whatever buffet style restaurant you have on your ship in particular), fix a plate, and then bring it to your lounge chairs on the pool deck (just no food/drink IN the pool). We did this most days and would eat while watching a movie on the big projection screen.
Meeting characters. There is no shortage of opportunities to meet all of your favorite characters and it starts as soon as you arrive at the port. It’s so much easier to meet everyone on the ship than say at a park. All character appearance times and locations are available on your Navigator app, so you know where you need to be and what time you need to be there by. The meet and greet period is usually 15 or 30 minutes (it will tell you on the app), and as long as you are in line during that window, you will get to meet them. So for example, if the app says Mickey will be on Deck 4 Midship from 10-10:30, you must get in line at some point during that 30 minute window. There is always a crew member there keeping things organized and if you arrive after the designated window, they’ll kindly tell you that you can’t get in line. My suggestion is to get there 15 minutes before the actual window opens so you can get towards the front of the line, especially for the more popular characters. You can also get tickets ahead of time for some of the more popular characters. Just go to Guest Services as soon as you board, because I’ve heard they sell out quickly.
Room service and turn-down service. It’s everyday and every night. Your stateroom host/hostess will come in at some point late morning to tidy up your room, make your beds, fold up the trundle bed, etc. Then, during dinner, they will come back and get your beds ready for sleep (including pulling the trundle back out for the kiddos), tidy up, leave chocolates and a cute “towel creature.” This was really nice and it kept our stateroom organized and tidy. Plus, those chocolates were delicious:-)
The gym. The gym is really nice and I visited it everyday. The cardio machines and weight areas are new and in great condition. I loved running on the treadmill looking out the floor to ceiling windows at the turquoise water. I also took a spin class one morning, which was free, although some of the group exercise classes have a fee, so you have to check on that. There are sign-up sheets in the gym for the various classes, so if this is something you’d be interested in, I recommend visiting the gym each day to see what is being offered the following day so you can sign-up.
The spa. It’s nice, and they offer a ton of great services, but it’s pricey! Like I mentioned above, we got massages one day, which was definitely a treat for us and not something we would normally do, and don’t get me wrong, they were amazing, but I probably wouldn’t spend the money next time. Plus, they try to sell you all kinds of things. It was a little over the top. As soon as we finished our massages, the ladies came in with all kinds of products, telling you what you needed and why you needed it, blah, blah, blah. I somehow ended up walking away with $60 bath wash, lol!
Wake-up calls. If you request a wake up call, it’s Mickey that calls you!
Souvenirs. Before you leave, buy and inexpensive 11×14 frame mat (white, or another light color), bring it with you on board and take it to Guest Services when you first arrive on the ship. They will get it signed by all the characters during your cruise and deliver it back to your room before you disembark. When you get home, print off a picture from the cruise and stick it in the frame, with the signed mat around it. It makes a great souvenir. There are also several great souvenir shops on the ship, and they have one-of-a-kind items that you can’t get at the parks or at a Disney store.
Special requests. Don’t be afraid to ask! The staff will totally got out of their way to do anything and everything for you, within reason of course. I forgot to bring a picture mat with us (to do what I mentioned above with the signatures), but upon our arrival that first day we had received a large Disney picture frame for AW’s birthday (part of that room decorating package I purchased ahead of time). One night while we were waiting in line to meet Mickey, Matt mentioned to a staff member that we had this frame and were wondering if it would be possible to get it signed by some characters. She told Matt to run upstairs to our room and grab the frame. He brought it down and gave it to her, and then no joke, when we got back to our room that night, it was sitting there with all of the characters’ signatures around the matting!
Booking your next cruise while onboard. I think I mentioned in a previous post that we went ahead and booked a subsequent cruise while we were on board this one. Besides the fact that we loved it so much and definitely knew we wanted to go again soon, there is a pretty good benefit to booking while onboard. You only have to put 10% down (as compared to 20%), you get extra onboard credit, AND you get 10% off the entire cruise itself. You simply pick a “dummy date” and even if it turns out that you can’t go on that date, you keep moving it back until you find a date/destination that works. You just have to sail within 18 months of booking.
Preparing for your return. You will have to leave your suitcases outside your room the night before you return home. Make sure you set aside clothes for the next day and pack a bag with everything you will need in the morning, or at least until you can get your luggage back at the port in customs.
Customs. Tie a colorful ribbon or tag on your luggage to easily spot it when you get to customs upon returning. It’s pretty chaotic in there. Also, there will be workers that will offer to help you with your bags. This was extremely helpful. You do need to tip them generously, but seriously, with how chaotic it was in there, trying to keep tabs on AW, it was a Godsend to have this gentleman handle our luggage and I was happy to hand over some cash for this service.
Final tip. Let it go! Forget eating/naptime/bedtime schedules and trying to keep your kid calm and under control at all times. Seriously. Let it go. Relax and just go with the care-free, cruise attitude. Your kids are going to be up late. They are going to eat at all different times of the day. They may not nap (although, amazingly, AW took a nap each day). They are going to be ridiculously excited and probably a little obnoxious. No one cares. I’m not saying you should let your kid run around like a banshee, but seriously, pick your battles and know that everyone is dealing with the same thing. Disney makes kids (and some adults) a little cray-cray. Disney on a boat? Yeah, that’s a whole other level. Just go with it. As long as your kid doesn’t fall overboard (I was seriously terrified of this), call it a win and move on.
OK, pretty sure that was the longest post I’ve ever written, but I hope it was helpful! Feel free to message me if you have any other specific questions. It was seriously the best trip…I can’t recommend it enough. We cannot wait to go back!