Our family loves to travel together. Cruising is one of our favorite travel methods. We used to be cruise skeptics, and looked down our noses at the hedonistic hordes floating in the ocean, until we went on our first cruise to the Mexican Riviera. Bam. We were hooked.
I’d been dreaming of a Disney Cruise since 2009. My daughters and I were obsessed with the YouTube videos and would watch them over and over. So when my husband finally relented to our constant references to a Disney Cruise, we were thrilled. We booked it for April 2014. In the months prior I busily researched everything under the sun, the ports, and planning for the trip. I absolutely love planning and researching trips.
Of course, we didn’t anticipate that before our cruise, I would develop a subclavian deep-vein thrombosis clot while we were on the Big Island of Hawaii. In fact, our flight home to Sacramento from Hawaii was April 15th, and our flight to Florida was April 19th. In that time I was able to get to a vascular surgeon, who told me I would be fine so long as I took my medication, and took it easy, before my surgery.
We contemplated not going on the cruise. We hadn’t firmly decided we’d get on the flight to Orlando for the cruise, until the morning we had to leave. We were concerned with how my clot would react to all the flying we’d need to do. We literally threw things into the suitcases before we left for our flight. In the end we figured, what better way to take it easy than going on a cruise where I wouldn’t have to cook, clean, or be in charge of anything. We love cruising because it’s a true vacation for parents too.
Planning for a Disney Cruise
1. Choose the Ship – Select your ship and/or destination. We purposefully chose the newest Disney Cruise Line ship, the Disney Fantasy. It had the new Aqua Duck water slide, which our kids looked forward to. In general newer ships have better staff, food, and facilities. We also selected the Eastern Caribbean, as it was an itinerary that we hadn’t visited before.
2. Book Early – Book as early as you can for lower prices. If the pricing happens to lower, you can submit a request for on board credit. The on board credit can be used for tips, photos, souvenirs, excursions, spa treatments, drinks, and other incidentals. We booked through Small World Vacations. Usually I don’t use travel agents, as I can find better deals on my own, or go directly to the source. However, with Disney Cruise Line, you won’t find different pricing deals elsewhere. It’s Disney. They set their prices, and they’re usually uniform throughout. However, some travel agencies will sweeten the deal by offering extras. Small World Vacations offered us a $200 on board credit, booking through them. So, pay attention to what added value comes with using a travel agent.
3. Book Your Cabin – Decide what accommodations work for your family. Disney has so many options that will suit your needs. Do you want to stay on a higher deck or lower deck? Do you prefer the middle of the ship, or one of the ends? Pricing and comfort differs where you are on a ship. Our family likes to have two cabins, and we prefer to be mid-ship, at deck five or higher. Yes, we could easily fit into one cabin, but we like having connecting cabins where the kids can have their own space and we can have ours. We prefer balcony staterooms, because we love the ocean air, but we have done ocean view before.
4. Port Excursions – If the destination is important to you, which it always is for us, do the research. I’m big on visiting message boards like Cruise Critic, and finding out what activities would suit our family. I also like reading up on tour guides from Rick Steves. Disney has many different excursions that they provide, at an extra charge. Pay attention age requirements, some excursions have an age minimum. You can choose to go with a Disney excursion, do it yourself in the port, or book your own excursions using outside vendors. Sometimes you can find better deals outside the cruise provider. When we cruised the Mediterranean, we found that outside tours provided us with smaller groups, which meant more personalized attention. If you connect with other cruise mates to share the costs, it makes excursions even more affordable, and you might make new, lifelong friends.
5. Meet Cruise Mates – “Virtually” meet other passengers on your ship sailing on either Cruise Critic or DisBoards. You’ll find a wealth of information, and I find most cruisers are very welcoming, and incredibly helpful with their knowledge. Cruisers love to cruise, and want nothing more than to share what they love with new cruisers.
6. Fish Extenders – Join a Disney Fish Extender (FE) group in the Disboards cruise section for you ship sailing date. What is an FE group? Outside of the cabin doors are metal hooks, that are shaped like sea life (fish or seahorse), pictured above. You’ll receive notices, tickets, reservation confirmations, etc., posted to your cabin on the hooks. I’m not sure how far back, but some Disney fans started a little gift exchange onboard the cruise line. Each family creates or buys FE pockets that hang on the FE hooks. Once you’ve joined a group, and you find out names/ages of the members in your FE crew, your job is to provide a little gift to each person/family in your group. It sounds like a lot of extra work, but it’s so much fun for the kids to return back to the cabin and find surprises each time. My kids absolutely loved handing out our FE gifts to the other passengers. It just amps up the magic on a Disney Cruise. It’s all voluntary and not at all affiliated with the cruise line. It really is amazing the time and effort people put into these FE gifts. We have some darling pillowcases from other shipmates who embroidered the date of the cruise and our daughters’ names on them. Love them. You’ll see below, what I did. I’m not nearly as good with sewing machine, but I found a phenomenal deal on the Disney Store website for the Monsters Inc. characters. In addition to the stuffed animals, we added ice cream cups/spoons, and candy toppings for cruise mates to make their own soft serve sundaes from the self-serve ice cream machines onboard. I had to be mindful of all this as I had to fly it out with us. I admit, I enjoy this kind of thing, a little too much.
7. Hotel Stay – Will you need a place to stay prior to, or after your cruise? Due to our flight time flying from the West coast, we needed to spend a night at a hotel prior to the boarding our ship. We found that the Hyatt Regency has a hotel right inside the Orlando airport. We arrived around midnight, so we literally walked off our flight, and found the escalators to the hotel, grabbed a bite at their restaurant and slept. It was so convenient, and I’ve long been a fan of the Hyatt Regency brand. On our way back, our flight was later in the afternoon, so we rented a room at the Hyatt Regency, for a few hours. Totally worth it. Disney also has a shuttle you can book that will take you straight from the airport to the cruise terminal.
8. Castaway Cay Cabana – Book a Cabana at Castaway Cay if you can. If you haven’t been on a Disney Cruise, you need to hook up with someone who has, who can book a cabana months in advance once the cruise line opens reservations for them. They go fast. Even better, find a group via Disboards, and share the cost. We were lucky to connect with Tammy Meyers, who is a travel agent at Glass Slipper Concierge, who knows all the ins and outs of everything Disney. She was kind enough to let us join in on their cabana, to help share the cost. The cabanas are pricey, but man, they are fabulous to share. Plenty of room, and it’s so nice to have a sanctuary away from the crowds, and the heat. You’ll have your own cabana server who will keep the drinks and snacks flowing. Included in the cabana rental you have exclusive access to a more private beach area provided with inner-tubes, bike rental, sunscreen, snorkel gear, and other beach toys.
9. Flights – Book your flights, if you need them. I’m sure there’s some of you lucky folks that can easily drive to the port, for the rest of us, we have to factor in flights. Pay attention to travel news, and watch for when the airlines are compete heavily with each other. Perhaps trying another airport will offer you direct flights, and remember, Tuesdays are generally good days to find and book flights.
10. Cabin Decor – Create decor for your cabin door. I know, it sounds like more work, but it’s so much fun. There are Facebook groups dedicated with people who will create graphics for your family, for free. Yup. I adore these people. Falling through the Disney rabbit hole, you discover an entire world of people who are magically, amazing. In our case we were thrilled to have two doors to decorate. I had some graphics made for us for free from the Facebook groups, and I just printed, laminated, and added magnets to them. Easy, peasy. My kids loved them, and I loved seeing them. Little things just make me smile.
11. Free souvenirs – Why prepare for free souvenirs? Because, they’ll be your favorite ones. Each cabin can have two items signed by all the Disney characters on the ship. The brilliant thing is, they are the official autographs. Disney trains their folks to sign character names the same. Since we had two cabins, I brought a photo mat for each daughter, and I made pillowcases for each daughter (I can sew sort of straight), for the characters to sign. I packaged them into ziplock bags with our names/cabin room numbers, and provided five colorful sharpie markers in each bag, and dropped them off at Guest Services. I also included candy/treats for the staff that work hard all day, and then spend valuable time autographing for us. At the end of the cruise, they delivered the signed photo mats, pillowcases, and even our sharpies to our room.
12. Disney Chase Visa Card – We earn points from using the card, and were able to transfer those points to use on the cruise. Because we also purchased our cruise with the card, they also gave us $50 per cabin as on board credit. In addition, using the card at various Disney sites gave us about 10% off on most purchases.
13. Disney Cruise Line App – Download it as soon as you’re booked, or even before you book, because wishes do come true. The app has a countdown, and once you’re aboard the ship it will connect to the wifi so you can access maps, and the handy daily navigator with a rundown of each day’s activities aboard the ship. Super useful.
14. Reservations – As soon as you’re booked, pay attention to the dates of when your particular cabin will have access to the reservation system. Then plan and book activities aboard the ship. Concerge guests, and veteran cruisers, generally get to have an earlier window. If you want to enjoy the Sunday brunch at Palo, that needs to be on your list to reserve. It’s lovely. Also, a dinner there is nice too. Meals at Palo are an extra charge (use that on board credit). If your kids want Bibbidi Bobbidi reservations for the pirate night or just for fun, pay attention to the dates and times, they fill up fast. If you want to snorkel or do anything special at Castaway Cay, reserve it ahead of time. We did the sting-ray snorkel.
15. Castaway Cay 5k- I wanted to run my first 5k at Castaway Cay, but unfortunately the blood clot made it impossible for me to do so. You should do it for me! The 5k happens the morning the ship docks at Castaway Cay – check your navigator to know what time and where to meet. I believe it’s for ages 12 and up. Be forewarned that if you go in the summer, drink lots of water, and protect yourself from the sun.
16. Senses Spa – I always like to have a spa treatment of some sort when I’m on a cruise ship. On the Disney Fantasy I signed my husband up for a facial and shave. He’d never had one before, so it was fun to book it for him. I booked a hair appointment for our Palo dinner reservation. The staff there were fabulous.
17. Passports – Remember your passports if you’re traveling outside the country. If you and/or your kids don’t have them, totally worth it to apply, and get it done. You’ll discover you’ll find ways to use them more often, and traveling the world with your kids is an experience that will last.
I hope this post helps get your family that much closer to a Disney Cruise. Stay tuned as we show you what you can do aboard a Disney Cruise, and where you can explore with your family.
ps. I was not compensated or asked to post about Disney Cruise, or any of the other sites and products listed here. Our family loves travel, and if we can help your family get out there and enjoy each other’s company while exploring the world, that makes us crazy happy.