My wife and I had never been on a cruise before, and earlier this year decided we would give Disney Cruise Line a shot to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Lots of friends had told us it was great, so we did a little research and chose the 3-day option on the Dream departing from Port Canaveral, FL, stopping in Nassau, Bahamas on day one, Disney's private island Castaway Cay on day two, and then returning to port. For those of you thinking about "dipping your toes in the water" with a DCL Cruise, I thought I would share some lessons learned from what turned out to be one of our most memorable vacations ever.
1. Book Early and Contact an Expert at Conciears
It is no exaggeration to say the experience exceeded our expectations on just about every front, and while I know I'm biased, much of that had to do with the fact that we booked the cruise almost a year in advance through my good friend Mike at Conciears. You can learn a lot from the DCL website and all the forums out there with advice from veteran cruisers, but there's no substitute for the level of knowledge Mike and his team bring to the equation. Aside from saving us a lot of money by booking early, Mike helped us choose a stateroom that was perfect for our needs. Its location minimized any potential for seasickness (a big concern for me), and the verandah gave us the freedom to step outside any time to enjoy the sights, sounds, and sea breeze along the way and in port.
I wasn't sure how much time we'd actually spend on the verandah, but it turned out to be a lot and worth every penny. In terms of pricing, the fact that surprised me most is that you can book a 3-day cruise (including all of your food and standard entertainment) for less than what it would normally cost to stay at a deluxe Walt Disney World resort for the same amount of time, not even including food or park tickets.
2. Download the DCL App Before You Leave
You have the option of paying for what I hear is spotty wifi service on the ship, but why anyone would want to "stay connected" during a cruise is beyond me (okay, if we had been on one longer than 3 days maybe my perspective would have been different). Instead, download the free DCL app before you go. It enables you to send instant messages to others in your party any time, helps you find your way around the ship, and gives you instant access to a full schedule of events (any of which you can earmark as favorites to get a reminder when they are about to start). Other than giving you the option to count down to the day of your cruise, the app isn't very useful prior to boarding, but once things get underway its a great tool to have.
3. If You Don't Have One, Get a Real Passport
If you choose a "closed loop" cruise like we did (that is, one that begins and ends at a U.S. port), you can technically get away with buying a cheaper passport card instead of the full-fledged passport book. Don't do it. If anything goes wrong (such as mechanical issues with the ship) and you end up needing to fly directly back home, your card won't work. At the time I'm writing this, the price difference between the passport book and card is $80, which even if you doubled would be less than the cost of an additional day in the Bahamas or wherever you'd be stuck if your cruise fell victim to Murphy's law.
4. Check in Online As Soon as You Possibly Can and Select the Earliest Port Arrival Time Available
The ship never felt nearly as crowded as Magic Kingdom during spring break, but with a capacity of about 4,000 guests it still pays to try and get ahead of the pack where you can. You can check in online 75 days before sailing, and while there are lots of other things you can do related to "port adventures," at a minimum you should choose a port arrival time, select when you want to have dinner each night (more on that later), and print your check-in document. We chose the earliest possible port arrival time we could get (10:45 a.m.). When you arrive at the port, get through security, and present the check-in document you printed, you'll have to show your ID and passport and then you'll be assigned to a boarding group. The lower the number, the sooner you get on the boat. We were put in Group 5, which got us on the ship around 11:30. We headed straight for the first sit-down restaurant we could find--the Enchanted Garden--and enjoyed a quiet lunch in an empty restaurant. Our stateroom was ready with luggage delivered by 1:30 p.m. It was a great way to start the trip!
5. Sign Up for the 5K on Castaway Cay
We did not book any port adventures, other than the free 5K run/walk on Disney's private island. We wanted to take advantage of as much as we could on the ship, so we spent virtually all of our time on-board other than at Castaway. The 5K was a lot of fun. You have to get up early on the day you arrive at Castaway Cay, meet your fellow "racers" around 8:00 a.m. and head for the starting line.
About 250 of us participated in it during our cruise, but it didn't feel crowded. Even if you're not a serious runner, you should still run and/or walk the 5K. It's a great way to see lots of the island. And don't be put off by the folks who act like it's the Boston Marathon (constantly checking their Garmin watches and looking as serious as possible). There were a few who were legit, but most of the "look-at-me" types were out of gas midway through the race and barely finished. To get the most from this experience, you need to be part of the high-fiving crowd who make fast friends with other participants.
Would we do it again? Without a doubt. There's not much we would do differently (thanks to Mike's great planning and tips), except that next time we might let the kids come along! To all you Castaway Club members: what's your best advice for making the most out of a Disney cruise? Share your thoughts and words of wisdom in the Comment section, below.