You’re booking your first-ever Disney Cruise.  Congratulations!  You’ve probably already covered the basics such as where does the Disney Cruise go and how long will it be… but now you’re no doubt seeking advice on just about everything else.  We’d like to help.  Everyone who’s been on a cruise has their favorite tips about unlimited ice cream, ordering two entrees at dinner, taking a day at the spa, and so forth — so we though we’d offer a few tips that you might not otherwise think of.  Consider these our “not so obvious” tips for Disney Cruise Line passengers.

Choose your Dining Time Wisely

Most dining onboard a Disney Cruise is at your leisure… show up at any time during the restaurant’s operating hours and enjoy a meal.  But dinner is the exception.

You might have heard that Disney uses a system called rotational dining for dinner service.  You are scheduled at a different restaurant each night of the cruise, and the same service team is at that restaurant every night.  In other words, the same waiter or waitress will be with you every night for dinner, regardless of the restaurant you’re scheduled in.

When you book your cruise, you’ll be asked to pick the time you want to have dinner each night of the cruise.  You can choose either first seating (main dining, around 5:45 PM), or second seating (late dining, around 8:15).  the exact times may vary slightly by sailing.  This choice is important because you’ll be tied to it for the duration of the cruise… you can’t pick 5:45 on the first night and 8:15 on the second night.

Disney Cruise Dining Time Considerations

Early or late — which to pick?  Normally you might think the decision would be as easy as just deciding what time of day you want to eat.  But there are other factors to consider:

  • What effect will your choice have on the rest of your day’s meals?  If you’re eating dinner at 5:45, what does that mean for when you’ll need to have breakfast and lunch each day so you’re hungry at dinner time?
  • How does your dinner time match up with port visit times?  On an Alaska Cruise, for instance, early dining might mean you have to be back onboard the ship an hour or so before the “all aboard” time just to make your scheduled dinner — meaning your missing out on time in port.  You can see scheduled port times on your itinerary page on the Disney cruise website.
  • Your dinner time is directly correlated to the time you’ll have breakfast on the morning your cruise ends. To expedite getting everyone off the ship at the end of the cruise, everyone has breakfast at the same restaurant their rotational dinner was assigned for the prior night.  Have early dining? You’ll end up having breakfast REALLY early on the last morning of the cruise… around 6:30AM-7:00AM.  Those with the later dinner seating get to sleep in just a bit, with breakfast closer to 8:00AM on the last morning.
  • What effect will early or late dining have on your kids?  If they’ll be staying up late on the cruise, the late dining time is probably no big deal (bonus: your dinner servers can expedite serving kids during late dinner, then the Youth Club counselors will drop by to take kids off to the clubs while you finish your dinner at a leisurely pace).  If, on the other hand, your kids are zonked out by 8PM, then early dining is the way to go.
  • Do you prefer to have dinner then a show — or a show then dinner?  Each night’s big Broadway-style live entertainment is presented twice — once at around 5:30PM (for people who will be dining during the second dinner seating), and again at 8:30 (for people who dined during the first dinner seating).  If your showtime is important to you, choose your dinner time accordingly.
  • Do you plan to spend a lot of time in the nightclubs onboard the ship?  If so, early dining will let you get your meal out of the way by the time things start to heat up.
  • Remember that many people end up — well — overeating on a cruise.  Maybe having later dinner is better if you’re gorging on breakfast and lunch; or maybe you need to eat earlier so you have time to digest before bedtime.

Whichever you choose, you can always snack during the off hours to make up for any minor hungriness that might pop up in between meals.  And if there’s one time that works for most of your cruise but not for one particular night, you can always eat dinner at a different location such as Cabanas or Marceline Market on your own schedule.

Know When To Book Onboard Experiences

Once you’ve booked your cruise and selected a dining time, you’ll probably begin thinking about when you can book onboard experiences.  These can include your scheduled port arrival time (when you’re allowed to board the ship for the very first time at the start of the cruise), adult-exclusive premium dining experiences, spa/salon treatments, port adventures (shore excursions), cabanas at Castaway Cay, and other activites.

Disney Cruise Line uses its Castaway Club (frequent traveler) program to determine when you can book.  Sadly, first-time cruisers are the last to book these experiences — 75 days in advance of the first day of your cruise (unless they happen to be staying in a Concierge-level room).

Because people who have sailed with Disney in the past (or are staying in Concierge Level) can booking priority anywhere from 90-120 days in advance of sailing, first-time cruisers might find some of the most popular experiences such as Palo Brunch may be sold out by the time you can book.

Do your research ahead of time — book as soon as you’re allowed — and have alternate plans ready in case your first choice isn’t available.  If you’re not able to get what you want, check again when you get onboard.  People’s plans change all the time, so you might happen upon an unexpected opening.

An important note: regardless of when your booking date rolls around, you won’t be able to proceed with any onboard bookings if there’s an outstanding balance on your cruise fare. Plan ahead to make sure you’ve paid in full before your onboard activity date occurs.

Save Money with an Onboard Credit

Speaking of onboard activities, here’s a great way to save money on them — get your travel agent to pay for your onboard activities!

Confused?  Here’s what we mean:

Life onboard the ship is mostly cashless — all of your onboard purchases (alcohol, premium dining, port adventures, gratuities/tips, etc.) are charged back to an in-room account, and you must pay off that account at the end of the cruise.

To entice you to book through them, some travel agents (such our partner The Vacationeer) will pay a certain amount towards that in-room account on your behalf.  They call this an onboard credit.  It won’t reduce your cruise fare (the amount you pay to get on the ship), but it will give you a bit of cash to splurge with once you’re onboard.  That’s why many people consider a travel agent to be the best place to book a Disney Cruise.

The amount you get is directly related to the cost of your cruise and how it is booked.  The Vacationeer offers onboard credits of up to $1,000 for people who book a Disney cruise directly through them — and up to $500 for cruises that are transferred to them after being booked elsewhere.

If you already have a reservation and want an onboard credit, act quickly!  You typically have only 30 days after you make the reservation to transfer it to a travel agency so you can get the credit.  The cruise also must still have an outstanding balance — it can’t be paid in full.

Get your Onboard Credit

Be Prepared for Your Final Night

On the final night of your cruise, you’ll be asked to pack your bags early and set them outside your room.  Your stateroom hostess will move them to the hold of the ship, where they’ll be offloaded and waiting for you inside the terminal as you debark (get off the ship) the next morning.

Sounds easy enough – but it can be a bit trickier than you might think. First, plan ahead based on when you’re asked to place the bags outside; it’s usually no later than say 10PM, which can be problematic if you have late seating for dinner.  So you might end up packing your stuff up a bit earlier than expected, which can make dressing up for the evening a bit trickier.

You also need to make sure you don’t pack away anything you need for the next 12 or so hours — but be prepared to schlep it off the ship yourself.  Think contacts, medicines, toiletries, baby supplies, jackets — and of course undies, shirts, pants, and shoes.  Forget one of those and… well, as the old comic strips used to note, “it may be comedy for you folks but it’s tragedy for me.”

Most cruisers pack their “big” bag up and send it away, using their airline carry-on as their last night’s luggage.

Be Smart With Your Flights

If you’re not fortunate enough to live within driving distance of a port, you’re likely going to be flying in.

We recommend that you NEVER plan your flight on the same day that your cruise begins. One missed connection or flight delay, and you’ve quite literally missed the boat (though they prefer you call it a “ship”).  It’s well worth the cost of one night’s hotel stay to not be sitting in the airport terminal, watching the minutes tick by, sweating if you’re going to make it to the port on time.  Plus you’ll be well-rested and can start your cruise out right.

As for returning home, it’s much less risky to fly out on the same day your cruise ends.  Just make sure you allow enough time to exit the ship, clear customs, and travel from the cruise port to the airport (Port Canaveral, FL is about an hour away from the Orlando airport).  Disney Cruise Line will often publish guidance for your cruise such as “we recommend you book your flight home no earlier than X:00 PM”.

In a Rush? Use Express Walk-Off.

Not that anyone really wants to get off of the ship at the end of the cruise, but sometimes you might be in a hurry to do so.  Maybe your flight time is a bit too soon for comfort, or you just have other obligations to attend to.

In our prior tips, we discussed luggage handling on the final night of the cruise and your final morning’s breakfast; using Express Walk-Off throws both of those concepts completely out the porthole.

If you’re doing Express Walk-Off, there are two essential things to understand:

  • You’ll be completely responsible for getting your luggage off the ship.  Don’t put your bags outside of your room the night before, because they won’t be offloaded in time to meet you at the terminal.
  • You’ll be long gone by the time breakfast is served.  You can still grab a quick (and not very substantial) continental breakfast at Cabanas or Marceline Market, but eggs and bacon will elude you.

On the final morning of the cruise, you’ll hear an announcement — likely around 6:30 or 7:00 AM — that Express Walk-Off passengers are clear to go ashore.  That’s your cue to grab your bags and disembark.  Don’t stick around — head off the ship right away, clear Customs, and go on about your day.  Lollygag about and you’ll miss your opportunity, leaving you caught up in the crush of everyone else leaving the ship.

We hope our tips have helped you prepare for your Disney Cruise.  Bon Voyage!