Seven Must-Dos on Your First Disney Cruise

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First-time cruises can be overwhelming. It can take a few days to get your bearings around the ship, plus the sheer volume of activities on board means that you simply can’t do everything. In reality, going on a cruise can be the most relaxing of vacations, but you may be concerned that, as you’re spending a large price tag for this vacation, that you might miss out on the best of what a cruise might have to offer. Here’s seven suggestions  about what not to miss during your first Disney Cruise.


1. Sail Away Party

Immediately following the required safety drill (which truly is the only must-do on your cruise, whether it is your first or your fiftieth), there is a Sail Away party on the main deck. Although it is billed as a show, think of this more like a pep rally. Lots of energy, appearances by some of your favorite characters all dressed for their cruise, and most important, the sounding of the ship’s horn. It can be VERY hot depending on what port you sail from and time of year, so make sure to stay hydrated and wear plenty of sunscreen. If you are able to get in an area where you can see both the Funnelvision screen and the dock as you set sail, you get the best of the sailing away experience.

2. Special Deck Party

Depending on the cruise that you are taking, there will be an additional deck party with a Pirate, Star Wars, or Frozen theme. Whether you choose to dress up in costume for the party or just go in your everyday cruise wear, this special deck party is a lot of fun, with music, dancing, characters, and more. If you want the best viewing experience, you’ll want to arrive a couple minutes early, as pretty much the entire ship turns out for this event.

3. Nighttime Theater ShowsDSC03839

Odds are very good that if you’re going on a Disney Cruise you are a fan of many things Disney. The nighttime theater shows combine many of the iconic scenes, music, characters, and general emotional feels that you have come to love from Disney movies. The performances are professionally done and entertaining for the whole family. The theater shows are opposite your dinner time. In other words, if you have early dining, you will be able to get out in time to attend the “late” theater show. If you have late dining, you will attend the show before dinner.

4. All Main Dining Room Meal Rotations

Although Disney ships have some fantastic signature dining experiences (Palo on all ships and Remy on the Dream and Fantasy), if it is your first cruise, and especially if you are going on a short cruise, you may want to pass on Palo and/or Remy to make sure you don’t miss any of the restaurants in your main dining room rotation. There are three restaurants in your dining rotation, and each one is a different experience in terms of décor, type of food served, and overall experience. On cruises of four nights or more, where you will dine in main dining rooms more than one time, if you wish to schedule a meal for Palo or Remy, try scheduling for the fourth night or beyond. That way you will have made all of the main dining rotations on your first three nights. That said, if you return to the same restaurant for a second time, the menu will be different, so there’s truly no repeats on a Disney cruise.

5. Port Adventures with DisneyIMG_0339

At the various ports of call that you visit, you have many options. You can simply exit the ship and wander around town on your own. You can book a private excursion on your own. You can even stay on the ship. For a first cruise, I recommend booking excursions (Port Adventures) directly through Disney. With the list of excursions offered, there truly is something for everyone, and generally each island has an excursion that is a “get to see the highlights of the place” type of tour. If you are visiting a place for the first time, this can help acclimate you to being in a different country without having to worry about whether you need to exchange money for the local currency, wondering if the place you are going is safe or family-friendly, or obsessively looking at your watch to make sure that you don’t miss the all aboard time. (If you are on a Disney Port Adventure and it runs late, they will hold the ship for you. If you are on your own, they will give a friendly wave to you as they leave the dock.) If you are familiar with a particular destination, or are an experienced cruiser from other lines, you may feel comfortable making your own arrangements, however.

6. Kids’ ClubsDSC03695

There is no requirement on a Disney cruise to have children with you. In fact, there are plenty of activities for child-free adults to have a great time. That said, whether you have kids or not, take a few moments to stop by during one of the open house times at the Oceaneer’s Club and Oceaneer’s Lab. During this time, adults can wander around and see what there is for the younger set to do.  (During an open house, parents are welcome to bring children, but they cannot drop off children as it is not a secure location. When it is not open house, parents are limited to coming in, finding their kid, and trying to convince their child that it is time to leave.) Why would a parent want to visit an open house? During my family’s most recent cruise on the Dream, my husband tried his hand drawing characters on the animation light tables, I enjoyed exploring the Star Wars area (and may or may not have tried my hand flying the Millennium Falcon), and more than a few parents sat down for some friendly games in the Disney Infinity room. Yes, these are kids’ clubs, but there’s a bit of a kid in all of us, right?

7. Spending Time with Your Navigator (or the App)2016-05-01 22.46.41

Did I mention that there is a lot to do on a Disney Cruise? On embarkation day, and every night at turn-down, you will receive a paper Personal Navigator that has a schedule of events for the next day. I recommend bringing a highlighter with you, so that you can highlight the activities that you want to do on any given day, just to make sure that you don’t miss something that looks appealing to you or one of your family members. Even better, however, if you have a smartphone, before you leave port, download the Disney Cruise Line app. Although the app is just a glorified countdown clock before you get on board, once on board, you have access to a tremendous amount of information, including times for all of the activities during your cruise. I enjoy sitting down in my room on embarkation day in that “dead time” between lunch and the safety drill, and scrolling through all the activities. When I find something of interest, I “favorite” the activity at all the different times it is offered. Then, when I look at my favorites, I can choose what the best time is for me to make sure I hit all of the things I want to do. The Disney Cruise app will also pop up a notification on your phone 15 minutes before the event, that way you have time to get there.

All in all, there’s no wrong way to do a Disney Cruise. If you decide to skip every activity and become one with a deck chair for the entire cruise, that is just as much of a successful cruise than the “must do everything” type of cruiser. But especially for a first cruise, take time to do both–participate in plenty of fun activities, but also take time to relax and watch the world go by. After all, the whole purpose of a cruise is to relax and have fun.


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Julia Mascardo

Former writer, editor, and social media manager of TouringPlans. Embarking on new adventures with husband, kid, and cats.

7 thoughts on “Seven Must-Dos on Your First Disney Cruise

  • May 25, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Good tips – the one thing I would add is to take the offered tour of the ship. We were on our first Disney cruise last year, a tour was offered in the afternoon on embarkation day before the safety drill. It was most helpful to get an orientation and overview of the ship and made it easier for us to find our way around during the cruise,

    • May 26, 2016 at 9:06 am

      I’ve thought about the walking tour of the ship every time, and never have been able to do it. Embarkation day is so hectic for my family (lunch, registering at the kids’ club, getting rainforest passes, and then usually unpacking as we’ve had good luggage luck). By the time we are ready to “do something”, we’ve always missed it. One of these days, we’ll make it!

  • May 25, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Good starting point for discussion but I disagree with a lot of the list. The sail away party is simply an overcrowded time to see characters dancing around. If you’re willing to do your own research, there is no reason to book through Disney Port Adventures other than ease and convenience. And while I like the dining rooms, I wouldn’t consider all of them “must dos”

    So my personal list of 7 must-dos, and I do agree with some of the above-list..
    1.. Princess Gathering (on ships offering it). Seeing a bunch of Princesses come down the the stairs in the large atrium is a unique experience that can only be found on a Disney cruise.
    2.. Brunch of Palo or Remy. While there is an extra charge, these meals are truly a step above, and a great way to spend a couple hours on a sea day.
    3.. Mixology class (for adults).. For a small fee, learn to mix, and to drink, 4 creative cocktails.
    4.. The shows.. Yes, I agree with the list on this one. Lots of cruise lines offer great shows, but only DCL can offer Disney shows, and the productions are quite good. Definitely worth seeing at least one time.
    5.. Animator’s Palate show. Not every dining room and meal is a must-do. And its the newer ships that have the most advanced Animator’s Palate show. But definitely a unique experience during dinner. I’m sorry that I missed the older classic show on the Disney Wonder, as we skipped the dining room that night.
    6.. Kid’s clubs, if you have kids. They are the best kid’s clubs at sea, by far. And they are fun for adults to tour during open house as well.
    7…Take in a movie. Over the last few years, it’s amazing how many great movies and mega hits that Disney has produced. On a slow night or sea day, you have a chance to take in a film in a really nice theater. Only on Disney. For my cruise this summer, some offerings should include Captain America:Civil War, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Pete’s Dragon, The BFG, Star Wars, The Jungle Book, Zootopia…. Just be careful you don’t spend the entire cruise in the movie theater.

    • May 26, 2016 at 9:17 am

      I’m finishing up an article on items to skip for repeat cruisers, and I agree with skipping the sail away party after you’ve seen it once. When we’ve done it, we’ve gone up to deck 12 (on the Dream and Fantasy) and watch it with much smaller crowds up there–but good grief it is hot! The worst crowds were when we had the sailaway party inside due to weather.

      The reason I added the main dining rooms is that, before our first cruise on the Fantasy, we were told by many people “You’ll want to skip Enchanted Garden–the food is meh, and the setting isn’t all that impressive.” In the end, Enchanted Garden was our favorite, both for the food and the flowers that bloom during the meal. On the other hand, if I was going to skip a main dining room meal, I’d skip Animator’s Palate every time. Because everyone’s personal preferences are different, that’s why I suggest doing all of the main dining rooms once. Then, on subsequent cruises, you are able to skip any you didn’t like without missing out on something that might be special for you.

      I love Brunch at Palo and I enjoyed the dessert party at Remy. Sadly, we’re usually on 3-night cruises at this point due to school schedules, so neither of those are options. 🙁

      I’m not much of a drinker, so mixology hasn’t held any appeal for me–and classes like that are something I could take off the ship just as easily, so I guess that’s why it didn’t make my list. For people who like the types of alcohol/drinks that they feature, it does look like it would be fun (and judging by the people I saw coming out of one the last time, you do get your money’s worth in liquor!!).

      Glad you enjoyed the list, and very excited to see what other people find as must-dos!

  • May 26, 2016 at 8:31 am

    As a word of warning: we booked Palo on our last night of our 5-night cruise, figuring that we would have been to each restaurant by then. That was true, but our first night in Animator’s Palate turned out to be the “special” Frozen menu, so AP didn’t do it’s usual thing. That turned out to happen on our last night, when we had our Palo reservations.

    As for booking Disney’s Port Adventures, I agree with Adam Brown. While it might be easier to book with Port Adventures, it is often much cheaper to get the same experience booking directly with the tour provider. And when I say same, I mean EXACT same. I have three excursions booked for an upcoming Alaskan cruise. I dealt with the tour operators directly and found out for two of them they are the operator for the cruise line’s excursions. And the cruise line charges about $50 more per adult for the sames experience. Even if it isn’t the exact same excursion operator, ones that receive strong reviews on the sites that shall not be named here get them for a reason. I have yet to be disappointed in an excursion I booked through a private operator, but I have been disappointed plenty with excursions booked through cruise lines.

    • May 26, 2016 at 9:30 am

      D’oh! I hope you’ll be able to experience the full Animator’s Palate meal/show on another cruise. The whole “best laid plans” bit… but I hope you enjoyed Palo.

      I’m quite the researcher, and so I would feel comfortable booking outside of Disney or even just finding a hire car and say “take me to X spot”. I’ve run into a large number of people for whom a Disney cruise is the first time out of the U.S., however. If you find a site where you trust the reviews and feel comfortable booking on your own, that is certainly a better way to go for cost and for a more personal experience. If you are really unsure about international travel (i.e., people who are scared about State Department advisories for Nassau, folks who are trying to find what language they speak in X country [hint, almost always English is spoken], or worried about converting money into local currency [hint, not usually required]), then knowing that you can just click and book with no additional concerns may be worth the extra money.

      For our family, we haven’t booked port adventures on our last three cruises — and we haven’t missed them at all. We’ve got three more cruises booked, and the only one that we’ll likely see about booking something is our 11-nighter. Needless to say, I’ve started the research now for that one…

      Have a blast in Alaska! I got to spend two weeks visiting SE AK in 1992. It is such a beautiful part of the country!

      • May 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm

        Good points on using Port Excursions versus doing it on your own. For Alaska, booked entirely on my own, and no regrets. Found excursions better than the ones offered by Disney.
        But yes, if you’re timid about being in a foreign place, then using Disney certainly gives you a safety net.
        And for Caribbean cruises, where personally I find the experiences to be a bit more generic and interchangeable anyway, I’ll go with the convenience of Disney Port Adventures bookings. Maybe cost a few dollars more for the exact same excursion booked on my own, but I don’t feel I’m getting a lesser experience. In more exotic or adventurous places, like Alaska, I do think you can find better excursions (smaller groups, more personalized) by booking on your own.

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