If you’ve ever considered booking a Disney Cruise but said “no way” after seeing those prices, the sticker shock is real. Our diehard Disney family (seriously—we do a park trip to Walt Disney World or Disneyland four times a year) had always dreamed of taking our Disney love to the high seas, but any time we’d crunch the numbers it always seemed we could do multiple park vacations for the price of a single cruise. So when we were invited to experience a 7-night Disney cruise to Alaska out of Vancouver, we were out the door faster than Captain Mickey could say “All aboard.” So is it worth it, you ask? You better believe it. Here’s why.
1. So. Much. Incredible Food.
I didn’t have high expectations for the food on this cruise, having been consistently underwhelmed by the dining on other cruises I’ve taken on competitor lines. But glorified theme park food, this most definitely is not. At Cabanas, the casual drop-in restaurant, the buffet was a veritable feast for the eyes, then the stomach, with a seemingly endless parade of offerings that changed daily. My 5-year-old loved to ogle the cold seafood bar, very nearly eating his weight in succulent crab claws and mountains of shrimp; my husband met his match at the carving station; and even my picky toddler managed to eat something at every visit.
Dinner in the dining rooms manages to be both laid-back and extra special every night. On the Disney Wonder, we dined two nights each at the elegant, subtly Little Mermaid-themed Triton’s; Tiana’s Place, which transports you straight to the Mardi Gras bead-strewn streets of New Orleans; and the positively magical Animator’s Palette (read on to learn more about the entertainment highlights at these restaurants).
You’ll choose a seating time for dinner of either 5:45 or 8:15 for the duration of the cruise, and rotate through the ship’s onboard restaurants, but keep the same servers. This was a game-changer, as by the second night, our servers felt like family—who must have been highly trained in tantrum-prevention techniques. Each night they’d have our kids’ drinks of choice ready, and would swoop in to deliver bread or a plate of green apples (all said picky toddler seemed to want), perform a silly magic trick for my 5-year-old, or construct an elaborate Disney-themed napkin animal to keep my antsy littles engaged.
While it’s hard to top nightly specials like rack of lamb, lobster tail, and chateaubriand in the main dining rooms, for an even more elevated dining experience, adults can reserve a table for brunch or dinner (additional $35/person) at the sophisticated adult-exclusive restaurant Palo, which serves gorgeously presented Northern Italian fare in a fine-dining setting that’s perfect for a romantic evening while the kids enjoy one of the kids’ clubs (more on those later). On Disney’s larger ships, the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, there’s also a second adult-exclusive fine-dining option, Remy, a French-inspired restaurant named after the beloved Ratatouille character.
2. Dining With Your Favorite Disney Pals
Many families make it a priority to treat themselves to at least one character dining experience as part of a Disney Parks vacation. Depending on the meal, park, or resort you choose, these can cost a pretty penny for what is often sub-par buffet fare. On your Disney cruise, you can reserve a table for a Disney VIP Character Breakfast at no additional charge. Indulge in all the Mickey waffles and other delectable breakfast staples your heart desires, enjoying table service from an a la carte menu (no racing to the buffet, worried a character will arrive at your table while you’re gone), as favorite characters make the rounds. Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy all visited our table on the Wonder.
3. All the Treats!
It’s not a Disney vacation without sweet treats to keep you going. A hot day at the parks might find you hitting up the ice cream shops and frozen snack carts a couple times over the course of just one day. On our cruise, in addition to the indulgent nightly dessert specials (unique takes on crème brulee and soufflé topped our list), my kiddos were thrilled to find Mickey ice cream bars (delivered on a bed of colorful Mickey-shaped sprinkles) available every night in the dining rooms (all included in the cost of your cruise). But no need to wait for mealtime to indulge your sweet tooth with an icy treat: Disney ships feature a charming “Eye Scream” station, a nod to Monsters, Inc.’s Mike Wazowski. Grab a cone and serve yourself from a range of rotating soft-serve flavors whenever the mood strikes.
4. Round-the-Clock Room Service
Craving a lazy breakfast in bed? How about dessert and a movie in your jammies (the in-room TV shows a round-the-clock selection of Disney films for fans of all ages)? Or, my personal favorite—if you have room with a view, order a cheese plate, pour yourself a glass of wine, and admire the breathtaking sights. This was a particular highlight on our Alaska cruise, where we enjoyed jaw-dropping views of glaciers, mountains, and wildlife, all from our private verandah. Room service is available 24 hours a day at no additional charge, and while quoted wait times were typically 30 minutes, we generally found them to be much shorter.
5. Catch All the New Releases
Movie buffs who never miss seeing the latest Disney films at the theater will love the all-day lineup of Disney’s first-run films and classics on rotation at the stunning Art Deco Buena Vista Theatre, inspired by cinema’s golden age. If you can exercise a little restraint at home during the months leading up to your cruise, you’ll be able to check a whole slew of new releases off your list—at no added cost! Highlights from our cruise in early September included Christopher Robin, Incredibles 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War, and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
6. Childcare Your Kids Will Beg For
Moms and dads, this is a BIG one. Picture this: a sprawling, secure space themed from top to bottom, positively packed with Disney fun and games, and supervised by a team of childcare pros (who also happen to be Disney-loving big kids at heart). Now, imagine dropping your kids off any time day or evening, from 9am-midnight, while you and your partner steal away to relax in the spa, enjoy a cocktail in an adults-only pub or lounge, or have a luxurious, slow-paced meal in the adult-exclusive restaurant. Now, imagine it’s free—and they’ll even feed your kids lunch or dinner. Too good to be true? Nope! This is the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab (connected by a cool secret passageway), open to kids ages 3-12.
Have kids who fall outside this age range? No problem. The It’s a Small World Nursery caters to your littlest ones ages 6 months to 3 in a sweet space filled with safe, age-appropriate toys. Loving caregivers will quickly whisk away, soothe, and distract littles (these people are serious pros at this!) while parents slip off for some grown-up time ($9/hour, reservation required). There’s even a sleeping area with full-size cribs where the crew members can put your babe down for a nap. For older kids, tweens 11-14 can watch movies, play video games, or hit the dance floor at Edge, while teens 14-17 can hang in Vibe, a teen-exclusive space reminiscent of your coolest friend’s basement hangout. Truly the only bad thing about these awesome kids-only spaces is getting yours to leave when it’s time for dinner or bedtime. My 5-year-old woke up every day begging to go straight to the club and threw a fit every time we picked him up.
7. The Cleanest Room You’ve Ever Stayed In
Cruise ship accommodations will always mean closer quarters than your average hotel, but having cruised on several other major lines, I was shocked at how much more spacious DCL rooms are, with far more storage to boot. But, the best part was how much our stateroom hostess helped us keep our room from devolving into the disaster it normally does when our family of four shares a hotel room.
Housekeeping services may come standard at most hotels, but this was some next-level “mousekeeping.” Your stateroom host or hostess will visit your room at least twice a day, generally sneaking in during your daytime excursions and dinner, seemingly never there when you want to be too. In the morning they’ll make the beds (stowing any sofa, bunk, or Murphy beds), straighten the room, replace towels, and remove trash and room service items. While you’re at dinner, they’ll return and transform your room for bedtime, drawing the curtains, lowering and making beds for kiddos, and of course leaving adorable Disney-themed towel characters and chocolates on your bed. We truly felt like we were entering a new room for the first time twice a day, every day. (Disney Vacation Club members, who receive minimal housekeeping services during their stays at Disney resorts without an additional charge, will find this service particularly luxurious.)
8. Party Time
Most Disney Parks diehards have a favorite time of year to visit, with Halloween and Christmas topping the charts. Not only are the parks decorated to the nines, there are also seasonal nighttime “parties” that feature special parades, exclusive character meet-and-greets, and festive fun around every corner. But, depending on the date, the parties can set you back around $500 for a family of four, and that doesn’t even get you access to the park until late afternoon. DCL takes the festivities to the water, transforming ships for special themed Halloween on the High Seas and Very Merrytime cruises. The Halloween itineraries include spooky extras like a Nightmare Before Christmas screening and meet-and-greet with Jack Skellington and Sally, a special adults-only, after-hours costume contest and celebration, and of course, a family-friendly Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party, while the Merrytime cruises turn the ship into a winter wonderland and feature a special tree-lighting ceremony, a tropical holiday deck party, and even appearances by Santa Claus himself.
But party fun isn’t just for the holidays. Our September cruise included two unique fetes: the Pixar Pals Party, a dance party featuring favorite Pixar characters, and the Freezing the Night Away deck party starring the whole Frozen gang. These parties offered great opportunities to interact with and dance right alongside some of our favorite characters.
There are also itineraries that offer either Star Wars Day at Sea or Marvel Day at Sea. These day-long onboard celebrations transport your ship to a galaxy far, far away with special appearances by droids, stormtroopers, Jedi, and even Darth Vader himself, or put you face to face with your favorite Marvel heroes and villains for meet-and-greets, training sessions, and epic stunt shows.
9. Ticketed and Unique Character Experiences
Just try traversing a Disney cruise ship without bumping into a character to interact with (though if mingling’s not your thing, don’t worry, they won’t bother you!). If you’ve ever been frustrated by expensive character dining and using valuable fast passes on character spots in the parks, I promise you will not have to work so hard on your cruise. DCL offers a great mix of opportunities for both impromptu and planned character meetings. Your daily Personal Navigator (delivered to your room each night) and the Disney Cruise Line Navigator App detail the scheduled character meet-and-greets that happen more or less continuously throughout the day. Our cruise included two ticketed (but free!) character meeting opportunities, the Princess Gathering, where we met Tiana, Ariel, Cinderella, and Belle one after another with zero wait, and the Frozen Gathering, another no-wait meet-and-greet, with Anna and Elsa. (Here’s looking at you, parents who’ve waited 4+ hours in the parks to meet the Frozen sisters.) Beyond the ticketed gatherings, you’ll almost never wait more than 10 or 15 minutes to meet a character on the ship. The best part? Frequent character wardrobe changes from port to port mean you can grab lots of different photos with Mickey, Minnie and the gang that are unique to your itinerary.
10. Dinner and a Show
At Disney parks and resorts, the restaurants that offer live entertainment or interactive experiences tend to command the highest prices. But on DCL, the fun comes standard. On the Disney Wonder, our two dinners at Tiana’s Place, hosted by Tiana herself with regular appearances by fun-loving alligator Louis, featured a showstopping jazz trio churning out New Orleans-style versions of Disney favorites like “The Bare Necessities” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Animator’s Palette, a stunning black-and-white space celebrating the magic of Disney animation through the years, uses lighting and video screens to inject splashes of color, showcase the animation process, and celebrate many of Disney’s greatest animated films through a moving and nostalgic (OK, tear-jerking) film montage. You’ll even get the chance to draw your own figure, which later shows up — dancing!— on the big screen.
11. Theater That Rivals Vegas or Broadway
If you love musical theater and never miss an opportunity to catch Disney shows live on stage, you can’t miss the Broadway-style productions put on by top talent. Our favorite was the Oscars-inspired “Golden Mickeys,” which bestows special awards on beloved Disney characters and features musical favorites from The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, and so many more. We also loved “Frozen, A Musical Spectacular,” which brings the film and all of your favorite musical highlights to the stage, and “Disney Dreams — An Enchanted Classic,” which showcases characters and music from and inspired by classic films like Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Cinderella and Aladdin.
The best part? The shows are all an hour long, a perfect length to introduce antsy littles to a Broadway-caliber theater experience without spending a fortune on the real thing, only to have to pull the ripcord at intermission (been there, done that!).
12. Plenty of ‘Pixie Dust’
One of my favorite things about Disney Parks vacations is entering that Disney bubble and experiencing the magic that comes from being surrounding by people who live and breathe Disney and love to pay that magic forward. Disney cast members are empowered to from time to time provide guests with “pixie dust,” unexpected perks—an extra FastPass, a chance to ride a ride with a character, a special pin. We found that this definitely extends to the high seas. The DCL crew doesn’t just provide exceptional service—they live and breathe a passion for Disney and share it with the passengers every chance they get.
Two cases in point: First, Spider-Man on our ship was the most engaging character I’ve ever interacted with. My 2-year-old, Auden, responded to his energy immediately, requesting to meet Spider-Man again and again. By just the second meeting, Spider-Man remembered Auden’s name, thanked him for coming to see him again, and continued to work with him on his “web-slinging” finger formation. By the second-to-last day of the cruise Auden just about had it right, and on the morning of our last day, he received a special envelope on our door from Spider-Man, with a hand-written, very personalized note, and a special Spider-Man pin.
Auden took his crew-member mutual admiration to the next level with Ellyce and Chloe, crew members who worked in merchandising and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. He was bummed when he couldn’t find any Nightmare Before Christmas merch in the gift shop, and proceeded to perform his favorite Jack Skellington impression first to Ellyce, and subsequently to nearly every crew member he encountered. Ellyce went on a mission during the week asking her fellow crew members if they had Jack Skellington pins to share with Auden, and on the last night surprised him with a very special certificate and THREE much-coveted pins along with it. It made Auden’s week (and made me cry because, well, Disney magic!). He still talks about Ellyce almost daily.
13. Extra-Magical Excursions
While the base cost of your cruise doesn’t cover “Port Adventures,” DCL speak for shore excursions, this was another area where Disney really takes things to the next level. It’s not mandatory to spend money when you get off the ship—you can definitely explore ports on your own. But, if you want to take in all that each destination has to offer, particularly on an itinerary like ours in Alaska, sometimes a Port Adventure is truly the best, or even the only way.
We fished for crabs and spotted orcas and bald eagles in Ketchikan, took a dogsled ride in Juneau, and, on a whale-watching expedition in Icy Strait, we first marveled at splashing porpoises and sea otters before finding a pod of humpback whales to follow as they breached repeatedly—one of the most breathtaking spectacles I’ve ever seen.
Even with all of the excitement these excursions offer though, if you’re traveling with young kids with short attention spans, you’ll inevitably find times when you could use a little extra help keeping them engaged. Here’s where Disney really delivers. We took an educational trip back in time at the Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp in Skagway, learned about the gold rush and how to pan for gold. Sure, that’s tons of fun on its own, but when a crew of Disney pals showed up, the excitement multiplied. Chip and Dale goofed around with the families, posing for pictures and even trying to snatch some gold for themselves, while Donald Duck made an appearance, in some sharp Alaska flannel, for photo opps in front of a waterfall. On a later Port Adventure in Ketchikan, Goofy kicked off the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show by inviting kids from the audience to participate in a hilarious series of warm-ups before being wowed by the lumberjacks’ athleticism as they competed for top honors.
This is truly but a taste of all the magical moments our family experienced on our Disney cruise. Sure, you could cruise a similar itinerary on a competitor line for a whole lot less, but you get what you pay for, and if you ask me, Disney delivers in dividends. So would I do it again? You better believe it—we set sail on our next Disney cruise this September.
Check out more highlights from our cruise and hear from our Cruise Director, Natalie, here:
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Editor in Chief of Make It Better, Brooke Geiger McDonald is a Chicago native and Northwestern University grad with a Master’s in English Literature from King’s College London. She’s worked for O, The Oprah Magazine and Shape magazine in New York and for various book publishers in London. Back home in Chicago, she’s outnumbered by her husband and two sons, and the four of them are certifiable Disney and Star Wars fanatics, always counting down the days to their next Disney vacation. Her favorite nonprofits to support include organizations focused on environmental conservation and fighting climate change, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram: @brookegmcdonald