My family just got back from our first Disney cruise in three years! We sailed on the Disney Wonder on a 4-night cruise out of San Diego, stopping in Cabo San Lucas before turning back around. Our last family vacation prior to the pandemic was a Disney cruise on the Magic when she repositioned from New York to Puerto Rico in November 2019. Enough time had passed that we decided we were ready for another sailing.
Over the course of a few blog posts, I’d like to bring you along on our Disney Cruise Line adventure. Today I’ll talk about all of the planning and logistics of our cruise, including embarkation and disembarkation. Then in upcoming posts I’ll talk about our sea days, and our one port day at Cabo San Lucas.
We booked this cruise about 6 months in advance. We knew we wanted a November cruise, specifically during the week of Veteran’s day since both of our girls had a day or two off of school. We looked at options on each of the DCL ships, and were pretty excited to find the Wonder sailing out of San Diego, since we could meet up with my friend Brian McNichols and his family!
We also knew we wanted an Oceanview stateroom. I’m all for travelling on a budget, but an Inside stateroom (the only cheaper category) is just too small for our family of four. We went with Oceanview, and booked a stateroom on Deck 2. I struggle with seasickness when things get rough, and Deck 2 suits me nicely. Specifically, we had stateroom 2112. This stateroom was located right around the corner from the aft elevators. The location suited us nicely – very little hall noise, and easy access to less-crowded elevators. Plus it was a quick hop up the stairs to two out of the three rotational dining locations. The only regret I have is all of the engine noise and movement. Lots of shaking anywhere in the aft portion of the ship – even up to Deck 9 and 10 (Cabanas and Palo).
We paid a deposit, and then paid in full 2 days before our activity booking window opened!
Booking Activities and Checking In
Since this was our third cruise with Disney, we are Castaway Club Silver members. That means our advance booking window opens 90 days before sail. Now here’s an important note (or trick!) – that advance booking window opens at midnight eastern on that date. So, our sailing departed San Diego on November 7th. 90 days prior to that is August 9th. But I’m in the Central time zone, so my advance booking window actually opened at 11 pm on August 8th for me. Hooray! I stayed up and booked what we wanted.
First, I nabbed a reservation for Palo brunch on our first sea day (first full day of the cruise). I wanted to “brunch” at 12 pm so that we could feed the girls before dropping them off at the kids club. I booked it with ease.
Then, I wanted to book a port adventure in Cabo San Lucas. We opted to book directly through Disney (we’ve booked third-party excursions before) because of limited time in the port, and because Cabo is a tendering port. Disney Port Adventures get priority for the first tender boats, so this would maximize our time in Cabo. Since we have a 4-year-old, our options were somewhat limited. There are a lot of adventures for ages 5 and up. We booked the Coastal Cruise with Beach Break, so that I could do some of the coastal sight-seeing I wanted to do, and the girls could expend all of their pent-up energy on the beach like they wanted to do.
Finally, I booked the Royal Court Royal Tea for our first sea day. This regularly fills up before it even gets to Silver members, and I knew we wanted to review it here on TouringPlans, so I was happy to get spots for me and both girls. But … you can read how that turned out here.
Unlike the staggered advanced booking windows based on Castaway Club tier, everyone is eligible to check in for their cruise 30 days before sailing. And the same timing “trick” applies here! I was able to check in at 11 pm Central 31 days before sailing since the clock had already turned over on the Eastern time zone.
Unfortunately, the app was feeling like not playing very nice that late at night. Checking in requires uploading identification documentation (i.e. passports), among many other things like security photos. You can read about the full check-in process here, with the understanding that information about vaccination and testing will no longer be applicable (but it was for our cruise). Something to note here – if you’re trying to complete check-in “early” that night before, and you have kids that will be in bed, be sure to take their security photos before they go to sleep. Otherwise you won’t be able to complete check-in.
Once you go through all of the online check-in sections, you’ll be able to select a port arrival time. This is when the early check-in strategy can pay off big-time. Demand for early port arrival times is always high, and they book up quickly. It took me an hour to complete check-in because of the app glitches, but even still I was able to secure the earliest port arrival time for my day (11:00 am), and Boarding Group 3, which was just about as good as I could get without being back-to-back or concierge. This paid off more than we could ever have imagined, but more on that in a bit!
Also at 30 days before sailing, bookings open up for the free-but-reserved character meet-and-greets. For our sailing, that was the Princess Gathering. This is a reserved time to meet four princesses in the atrium of the ship. You don’t have to pay anything extra, but you do have to reserve a time, and they do fill up. So I got my choice of day and time since I was able to reserve so early. I opted for 10:15 am on our first sea day – before our Palo Brunch and Royal Tea. We could dress up and stay in our princess-y finest all day.
Port arrival times are strictly adhered to in San Diego because the cruise terminal has a relatively low capacity. Our port arrival time was at 11:00 am, and we stayed at a hotel right across the street from the port (the Springhill Suites Downtown/Bayfront for those that are interested), so we could just walk right over. We meandered that way at 10:30 and were allowed to drop off our bags. This was helpful since we hadn’t received luggage tags in the mail prior to our cruise. I worked with the porter to write in the required information, and then we hopped in the 11:00 am line after exploring the waterfront and taking a few pictures.
In the terminal, we were first asked to provide our port arrival form so that we could be checked for compliance with vaccination and/or testing requirements. As of now, that is no longer a requirement. After we were cleared, we went through a brief airport-style security screening. Scanners, metal detectors, etc. We quickly passed through and went on to room number 3, where we waited in line to get our passports checked and to receive our kids club wristbands. As we were in that short line, a cast member named Andrew came up and made some conversation with our girls. This isn’t unusual – lots of cast members love keeping kids engaged in line. But Andrew was special. We’ll get back to him.
Our documentation was all confirmed, our stateroom was double-checked, and we got the wristbands for our girls. Then we went to sit to wait for our boarding group to be called. But then … Andrew came back. He asked our girls about their favorite princesses, and we all laughed and chatted a little more. He left for about a minute and then returned again. Now, my kids are cute and funny. But they’re not cute and funny enough to visit three times. But that’s when Andrew surprised us. He said, “I know you’re all excited for your cruise, but I’m about to make you even more excited! My job today is to choose the Family of the Day, and I’d really like for it to be you all.”
Cue the tears. I’m a big sap. We got our picture taken, got announced to the terminal, got a lot of attention from cast members, and then got to board the ship very first out of anyone on our cruise. Core memory. No pictures from all of that because I was busy just living in that moment. And because we didn’t purchase the photo package, so we didn’t get the photo. Ha!
Our ship pulled into the port of San Diego a little later than expected. We were up late the night before (more on that in a future post), so we slept in until 7:15 and skipped our assigned rotational breakfast, opting for Cabanas instead. The ship didn’t dock until close to 8 am. Express walk-off passengers (people that want to get off the ship quickly, and are willing to carry their own luggage) weren’t able to debark until close to 9 am, and had to pause around 9:15 because the terminal was already at capacity.
Our flight home to St. Louis didn’t depart until 5:25 pm, so we were in no rush. Disembarkation after express walk-off usually proceeds by calling character + color combinations that match luggage tags that you are given in your stateroom the night before. After express walk-off finished up, White Ariel and Purple Daisy were called next around 9:45. They had to pause again at 10 am. At this point we gave up listening for our character + color combo (Green Tinkerbell, if that matters) and just decided to enjoy our bonus free time on the ship.
Disembarkation eventually paused 5 different times in the process. We were able to disembark around 11:30, and the last passengers from our cruise weren’t off the boat until 11:45 am. This significantly delayed the next cruise. The 11 am port arrival groups hadn’t been called by 12:15 pm, because that’s when we were cleared through customs, claimed our luggage, and made our way past them.
Since we had time to spare, we walked to a lunch spot on the waterfront with a view of the ship, and then eventually took an Uber to the nearby airport around 1:30 pm. Keep in mind that you can never predict when these disembarkation issues may occur, so early flights are always a risk.
Tempted to Book Your Own Cruise?
I highly recommend it! I’m a Disney World fan, and you all know that I love all of the planning. But a Disney cruise is so much more relaxing, and the service is absolutely next-level. I have some options for you if you want more information or want to explore booking your own cruise!
- Read anything and everything that Erin Foster writes – she’s the queen of all things DCL and author of the Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line
- Follow me on Instagram (@raisingminniemes) as I post detailed information and tips from our cruise daily over the next few weeks
- Reach out to the TouringPlans Travel Agency and get yourself a quote! They can find you a good deal.
Keep tuned in over the next few days as I cover our sea days and time in Cabo San Lucas! And if you have any questions about booking or logistics, please drop them in the comments below!