Disney Cruise Family Vacation Planning Tips

I think it was February 2014 after watching a few Disney Cruise Line specials on TV that we decided to plan our first Disney cruise. We had a completely magical Walt Disney World experience in October 2013, drastically improved from our first foray to see the Mouse back in 2010, when Madelyn was simply too young for it to be fun for any of us. A couple good friends had told me, “If you love the Parks, you’ll absolutely die for a cruise! It’s so relaxing! Everything is done for you! The kids will love it, and you and Craig will be able to have some adult time, too!

So of course, I talked to Margaret, then we made our initial booking for our first Disney cruise.

Sure, booking the cruise wasn’t quite as simple as that. But in comparison to planning a Disney World family vacation, the planning required for a Disney Cruise completely pales in comparison.

At the time of this writing, we’ve checked in online for our cruise (which is done weeks ahead of sailing). I wanted to record the cruise planning process up to this point in order to help anyone stuck at those first steps of what to do.

So, how do you start planning a Disney Cruise and what kinds of things do you need to know? Here are all the tips and links and resources that helped me with our cruise planning.

Disney Cruise Family Vacation Planning Tips

Disney Cruise Planning: Phase 1

First, you need to decide what sailing you want to book. Disney has 4 ships: the Dream, the Fantasy, the Wonder, and the Magic. The last 2 are their older ships and often referred to as their “classic” ships. They are smaller in capacity, which some people prefer. The Magic has been “reimagined”, which is a Disney term for the ship going to dry dock and getting spruced up with newer, fresher amenities. Rumor has it that the Wonder will soon head to dry dock to be reimagined as well.

choose your disney cruise

Disney has lots of itinerary options. You can sail for as few as 3 nights, up to sailing on a TransAtlantic cruise! Some people prefer to choose their cruise based on the ship, but more often than not, people choose based on the number of nights and cruise itinerary. Since I’m the only 1 of the 4 of us who has cruised before, we opted for a 4-night cruise to the Bahamas, which means we’re sailing on the Dream!

Second, you need to choose your cabin type. No matter the cruise line you take, there are soooooooo many cabin options! I knew going in that I wanted a room with a veranda, so that helped narrow it down quite a bit. Also, when you look at each room type and the price difference between them, often times you can move up to a slightly better room for a very small dollar amount.

Disney Cruise Line stateroom options

With that being said, there is something very unique about Disney’s inside staterooms. Lots of people shy away from inside staterooms on ships because they do not have a window to the outside. Disney’s inside staterooms have a mock porthole “window” called a Magical Porthole that holds a screen where they basically stream a video of the outside! So even though you aren’t *actually* looking out a window, you look to this porthole on the wall above your bed, and can see what the view outside looks like! Pretty amazing, right?

OK, moving on to actually booking your cruise. The third step in Phase 1 is putting a deposit down for the cruise of your choice. An important distinction here between Disney Cruise Lines and most all of other cruise lines is that Disney cruises are going to be the least expensive the day the booking window opens. Other cruise lines tend to drop their prices the closer you get to your sailing, so you can get amazing last minute deals with them. But with Disney, it pays to plan ahead.

What Margaret and I did was make our initial booking for what would have been our spring break this year. Then once DCL opened Summer 2015 sail dates, Margaret moved our existing reservation to our new, preferred cruise date. There is no cost for making this type of change, and because we went from high season pricing (Easter week) to opening day, pre-summer high season prices (late May), we saved $1,500 on our reservation! Same ship, same itinerary, and same cabin type! The takeaway here is to do your cruise homework ahead of time and be ready to book on opening day for the best prices.

As far as deposits go, DCL is different than WDW or Disneyland. At either set of Parks, you only need to put down a $200 deposit when making your reservations. For a Disney cruise, you need to put down 20%. So be prepared. The flip side is…less is due by your paid in full date (which is 75 days before for a 4 night cruise like ours).

Now that we’ve selected our cruise date and cabin, and made the deposit, what comes next?

Disney Cruise Planning: Phase 2

As I said at the beginning of this post, there is soooooo much less stuff you need to do to prepare for your Disney cruise vacation in comparison to a trip to the Parks. You aren’t going to have to research oodles of restaurant reviews and menus to decide where you’ll eat and on what day, read about each ride to determine if they’ll be a good fit for your too-short or too-scared child, study park maps to effectively manage your time and determine the routes you’ll take to go from ride to ride, determine meal times, plan Fast Passes, or anything else like that.

But at the same time, the cruises are a very different beast than the Parks, so you do need to become acquainted with the vocabulary, and understand things like shore excursions, how the kids club works, Pirate Night, Fish Extenders, what the “extras” are that you’ll want to book on board, and preparing your official travel documents like (either) certified copies of your birth certificates (acceptable and required, at a minimum) or passports (preferred). Along with speaking to your travel agent and other friends who have cruised with Disney before, I’d highly recommend joining the Disney Cruising Facebook Group.

Disney Cruise Planning: Phase 3

Depending upon how far out you book your cruise, your wait could be quite lengthy before you need (or can) do anything more. If you are a first-time DCL cruiser like we are, we are the last group of passengers to complete our online check-in process and select some of the extra cruise activities.

Here’s the way your DCL cruising tenure works:

  • 0 completed cruises – total newbie with no extra benefits
  • 1 completed cruise – Silver status
  • 5 completed cruises – Gold status
  • 10 or more completed cruises – Platinum status

When it comes to booking those extras, the higher the status you are, the earlier you get to choose.

Since we are first-timers, our online check-in window opened at 75 days ahead of our sail date. And at midnight (Eastern) on Day 75, you’re magically able to start that check-in process!

During your online check-in, you’ll…

  • Enter passport numbers, flight information, and emergency contact information for everyone in your party
  • Choose your Port Arrival Time
  • Register your kids for their phenomenal Kids’ Club (Part 2 of this process occurs on your sail date)
  • Make reservations for your port excursions and other extras
  • Receive a form to print, sign, and bring along to the cruise terminal on your sail date

Online check-in for your Disney cruise

Now for those extras I keep talking about…

You can enjoy a Disney cruise and never book 1 single extra thing, and be overflowing with options to spend your time. There are more activities on board than you could possibly fit into your time on the ship – and let’s not forget about relaxing! – so you most definitely don’t need to spend another penny over and above what you paid for your cruise. However, Disney has some uber-awesome extras for adults and kids alike.

Here is what we chose for our upcoming cruise:

  • Brunch at Palo
  • A couple’s massage
  • A mixology class
  • A snorkel/innertube/bike combo rental for Castaway Cay (<– that’s Disney’s own private island!)

You book these extras ahead of time, during your online check-in process, but aren’t charged until your cruise.

Another important planning item would be to locate a past Navigator for your same cruise itinerary. I found one from a 4-night Dream cruise in February of this year on the Disney Cruise Line Blog and pinned it to my Disney Trip Tips Pinterest board. The Navigators are, basically, the daily “line up” of everything happening on and off the ship. It lists the expected temperature, all ashore and all aboard times, show and movie times, drink specials of the day (yum!), character meet and greet times, and other special events on the ship.

Now that Disney Cruise Planning Phases 1-3 are completed, all that’s left to do is countdown to the cruise while shopping for Disney-themed goodies.

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