The Ultimate Guide to a Disney Cruise

by - Tuesday, August 14, 2018

If you're thinking about going on a Disney cruise or just curious about what it's like, this post is for you. It's been a long time in the making and comes from my experiences on five Disney cruises to the Caribbean and one Disney cruise to Alaska. Be sure to read all the way to the end of this post to find out my personal tips and tricks!

Ship Layout

Starting out with the basics, I wanted to give a general idea of how the ship is set up. There are 11 floors, which are referred to as decks, on the Disney Wonder and Magic and 13 floors on the Disney Fantasy and Dream. The Wonder and Magic are obviously smaller ships and they hold less people, so that's something to keep in mind when you're planning your trip.

On all of the ships, Deck 3 houses the lobby, some entertainment lounges, and restaurants. There are three restaurants on each ship and I'll discuss rotational dining in the food section! A few of the restaurants are located on Decks 2 and 4 and you'll also find theaters and young kids clubs on these floors. On Decks 5 through 8, you'll mainly find staterooms.

Deck 9/Deck 11 is home to Cabanas, the buffet eating area that offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, several quick-service-style restaurants, funnel vision (the outdoor movie screen), the pools including an 18+ swimming area, and the ice cream stand! When you're cruising, Deck 9 or 11 will quickly become your favorite place. Deck 10/Deck 12 is kind of an open deck above Deck 9 or 11 that looks down onto the pools and outdoor stage.

It may sound confusing at first, but you'll quickly learn your way around! It's good to spend some time exploring during your first day on the ship so you get used to the layout and get an idea for where everything is in relation to your stateroom.

First Day of the Cruise

Weeks before your Disney cruise, you'll be able to complete online check-in. Get this done as soon as possible so you can get the earliest boarding time that's available for you. Be sure to bring all of the important documents with you in a folder and keep them on hand when you're checking in. 

As soon as you've gotten checked in and boarded the ship, your stateroom may not be ready yet {they're typically ready around 1:30 pm} so be prepared to head straight to Cabanas for lunch. If you're on the Fantasy or Dream, this will be Deck 11 and if you're on the Magic or Wonder, this will be Deck 9.

Around 4 pm, there will be a mandatory emergency drill so be prepared to make your way to your designated area at that time with your entire cruising party. The time between lunch and the drill is great for checking out kids clubs if there are children in your group and getting familiar with the areas you'll be frequenting! 

After the drill, there is a Sailing Away party on Deck 9 or 11 {depending on your ship} and you don't want to miss it! My family usually enjoys this party from Deck 10 or 12 overlooking the stage to get a good view of everything while avoiding the bigger crowd.


Now it's time to discuss my favorite thing about cruising {and probably life in general}: the food! Food is included in the price of your cruise so you should obviously go all out, try things you wouldn't typically try, and, of course, eat ice cream every day! YOLO.

For dinner, there are three fancy restaurants on board and you'll rotate through these each night of your cruise. Your Key to the World card will have the order of your rotation on it. Each night, your serving team rotates with you so you have the same waiters every night and they learn your drink order and your preferences, which is a really nice personal touch. Each restaurant is a different, unique experience so always go to your dinner {don't go to Cabanas for dinner!} and enjoy that experience. 

Sometimes these restaurants have different cuisines like French, seafood, etc. so if you're worried you won't like what's on the menu, there's always a typical steak or chicken and baked potato option, which I've definitely opted for multiple times. I still highly recommend that you try new things while cruising and if you don't like something, your serving team will bring you something different! If you want to try multiple things, they'll bring you as much as you want, no questions asked. 

For breakfast and lunch, there's almost always one of the dinner restaurants open, but I definitely prefer Cabanas for these meals. I like the variety and the freedom to get a plate full of French toast if I want a plate full of French toast. The quick service restaurants that are also on Deck 9 around the pool are a great option for lunch, as well, particularly if you also love chicken tenders and French fries. To be honest, sometimes I would have two lunches and go to the buffet and a quick service restaurant if I didn't really like anything on the buffet. Be prepared to gain a few pounds on your Disney cruise!!


Let's not forget that one of the main parts of cruising is stopping to explore different destinations! Because Disney cruises have so many different ports depending on your itinerary, I can't really summarize excursions and what you should do on land in one short post, but I can say that you should always get off the boat at least for a few hours if you're in a place you've never been! Even if you're just walking around the area closest to the ship, you want to be able to say you've been to that city!

Now I'll discuss the entertainment on board that you can enjoy at night and on days at sea! Disney cruises are particularly famous for their Broadway-style shows that they put on each night. The show is performed twice each night so you can go before or after dinner, depending on if your dinner seating is early or late. These shows are really good and high quality so make an effort to go see them! 

One of my personal favorite things about cruising with Disney is seeing brand new Disney movies for free! If we are going on a cruise shortly after a Disney movie comes out, we'll wait to see it on our ship instead of going to the theater. I always make an effort to see as many movies I haven't seen yet as possible. If you get lucky and you're sailing on the day a Disney movie is released, there will be a special "prem-EAR" on the ship for the first screening of the movie {we saw Into the Woods and Cars 3 premieres!} which is super cool in my opinion.

I can't even begin to dive into the rest of the activities and entertainment that are available on board, but in a general sense, there are cooking tutorials, napkin folding, trivia, dancing, karaoke, character appearances, and so much more. Each night, you'll receive a Personal Navigator that lists everything taking place on the ship the next day. Use this to plan your day and keep it handy while you're out of your room so you can always find something fun to do. My personal favorites are trivia {where you can win prizes!} and crafts {where you can make cool things to take home!}.

Castaway Cay

The one port of call that I am going to discuss is Disney's private island, Castaway Cay! Almost all of the Caribbean and Bahamian cruises stop here. It's hard to understand how cool Castaway Cay is until you've actually been there, but I'll try to explain. On Castaway Cay, you'll find tons of bright beach umbrellas and lounge chairs on beautiful white sandy beaches with crystal clear bright blue water. This island puts every other beach I've seen to shame. 

On Castaway Cay, there are tons of fun things you can do. A lot of the activities are free, but there are also some that you can book in advance as excursions. When we're going to Castaway Cay, we always make sure to bring snorkel gear — usually just the face mask now that we've done it several times and know what we're doing — so we don't have to rent it and then we go out to swim in the ocean and see the hidden statues under the water {they're marked by buoys}. You are required to wear a life jacket while snorkeling, but you can get these for free on the island.

Along with snorkeling and just relaxing on the beach, there is a big water slide on Castaway Cay that you can swim out to and we'll swim to that on occasion. I also think it's important to note that I'm not at all a person who goes in the ocean but I will swim way out at Castaway Cay because Disney has nets up to keep the scary stuff out, the water is super clear, and I feel really safe knowing there are tons of people and lifeguards all around. There are lots of fish and the rare sea turtle that you'll see while snorkeling, but I've never seen anything I would consider dangerous, which for me would honestly be a jellyfish, shark, or sting ray. {There is an excursion for petting sting rays on the island, in a different area.}

One last activity to mention is the Castaway Cay 5K, which is a run that you sign up for in advance and head off to complete early in the morning before everyone else gets off the ship. I did the Castaway Cay 5K when I was 17 and fit and I will say it's pretty hot out, even early in the morning, but I am glad I can say it's something I've done. If running is something you enjoy, I recommend doing it because you get a medal, a sense of accomplishment, and a chance to run off some of that food you've been eating, but if you don't enjoy running, don't even worry about, don't push yourself to do it, just enjoy your day! 

I also want to discuss the food on Castaway Cay really quick {of course, Madison} just so you know you don't have to get back on the ship for a free buffet! Cookies BBQ and Cookies, Too both offer a full lunch buffet with chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, sides, fruit, cookies, etc. and there's a soft serve ice cream station so you're really all taken care of to spend the entire day on the beach.

What to Pack

Your clothing needs are going to be very different depending on where your cruise is going. Because of this, I'm going to talk about clothes in a general sense. Personally, I always take several casual outfits to wear during the day — running shorts and tee shirts in the Caribbean and leggings and sweatshirts in Alaska — because I like to be comfortable while spending my days on the ship. I did bring slightly dressier outfits for days in port so you'll want to plan your outfits in advance and bring what you know you'll be comfortable and happy in, but also what will look good in pictures when you're exploring, as well as any specific clothes you might need for excursions you've booked. Planning is essential! 

I also pack a nice outfit for every night at dinner. If you're going to the Caribbean, bring dresses and skirts, because, as I've mentioned in a different cruise post, it's the perfect time to wear your fancier outfits and get dressed up. Mix and match skirts and tops {and dress pants if you're going to Alaska} to save space while packing and don't forget to bring a few different accessories. Be sure to research in advance if your cruise has a formal night {usually for 7 day cruises} and any themed nights {like pirate night on Caribbean cruises!} so you can know to bring special outfits.

This is probably obvious, but don't forget to bring cameras and chargers! They do have photographers on the cruise, but those photos are pretty expensive and the photographers are definitely not always around to capture every special moment. I always bring my DSLR even though it's big and not very convenient, the quality is worth it for me. I also always bring my GoPro on cruises because it's particularly useful for filming during excursions and really fun to take in the water at Castaway Cay. If you don't have a GoPro, an inexpensive water camera is always a good idea if you'll be snorkeling and in the water often at Castaway Cay.

Some optional things you might want to bring are door decorations in the form of fun, personalized magnets, autograph books if you're cruising with kids, an ID for anyone who is old enough to have an ID, and passports if they're required for your cruise. Also, if you're planning to spend a lot of time at the pool and/or waterslide on the ship, I highly recommend bringing water shoes, especially for kids. The deck can get insanely hot and I think the bottom of my feet blistered instantly in the walk between storing my shoes and getting in line for the waterslide.

My Personal Tips + Tricks

Disney offers Halloween on the High Seas on some of its fall cruises and Very Merrytime cruises in the winter months. We've done both and I was really impressed. We were on a 7 day cruise during the week of Christmas and there were so many fun holiday activities including making gingerbread houses, Santa Goofy, and special gifts left in our stateroom on Christmas Day. We experienced the first year of Halloween on the High Seas so I'm sure its changed some, but it's a lot of fun to see all the decorations and special touches throughout the cruise, especially if you love Halloween. When you're planning your cruise, these events are something to keep in mind if you're looking for a little extra holiday magic! 

When you're meeting characters, the Personal Navigator will list a time frame of fifteen minutes. This is typically not the time frame that the character will be out, but the time frame that the line will be open. Make sure you're in line before those 15 minutes are up {but don't wait until 14.5 minutes have gone by} and don't panic by thinking that the character will only be out for those 15 minutes.

If you enjoy pin trading, they have a pin trading with the captains event on the final night of your cruise where you can trade with crew members, captains, and other guests. They also have pin books at the counters in the stores that you can browse each day to see if someone has put in something new that you might like!

There are a few events on the ship that you have to book in advance like an excursion, but they're free so I recommend doing them at least once. Right now, these events are the character breakfasts, princess meet and greet, and Frozen meet and greet. You can either book these online in your cruise plans or you can go to guest services as soon as you board the ship to book a time if there are any spots left. The character breakfast is a typical cruise breakfast in one of the ship's restaurants where characters — either classic characters or Disney Junior characters — walk around and interact at each table. The princess meet and greet takes place in the lobby and you get to meet all of the princesses on the ship and the Frozen meet and greet takes place in one of the restaurants where you'll take a photo with Anna and Elsa.

Lastly, always remember that even though Mickey bars aren't on the dessert menu at dinner, they're always available! All you have to do is ask.

If you have any questions that weren't answered in this post, feel free to send me an email or a message on social media! 

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