As part of the fantastic TouringPlans #Everywhere project, I recently had the amazing opportunity to experience my very first Disney Cruise Line vacation aboard the Disney Magic, on an unusual 7-day itinerary out of Puerto Rico. While I’ve previously stayed on-site in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and traveled with some of Disney’s competitors in the cruising and all-inclusive resort industries, this was my initial experience as a guest of DCL. Overall, I have to say that I went in with sky-high expectations, almost all of which I can happily report were met or exceeded. But that’s not to say there weren’t a few surprises along the way. Here are a handful of Disney Magic observations and advice from this first-time (but hopefully not last-time) DCL cruiser that may may your vigin voyage a little smoother.
1. Arriving early is worth every penny.
When I initially learned that our sailing from San Juan, Puerto Rico, wouldn’t depart the dock on embarkation day until after 9 p.m., I considered flying into the island on the day of our departure. I’m now exceedingly glad I followed the advice I was given to arrive the day before, because it got our trip off to a much smoother start than it would have otherwise.
Arriving a day early allowed us to spend an evening relaxing at the lovely Caribe Hilton hotel; though a bit rough around the edges by mainland luxury resort standards (repeated power outages left us carrying our luggage down eight flights of steps), the Mad Men-era architecture and gorgeous grounds with private beach more than made up for any wear and tear.
Just be sure to select a pre-cruise property with sufficient onsite ammenities to keep you entertained for the evening, because (as multiple friends who have lived in San Juan warned me) this is not a town you want to wander around after dark.
More importantly, the early arrival allowed us to request one of the first terminal arrival time slots on embarkation day. While I’d heard horror stories of afternoon arrivals facing a labyrinth of long check-in lines, we showed up shortly after noon and breezed through security, registration, and the obligatory character photos in the blink of an eye.
We even had plenty of time to shop in the fully-stocked liquor store thoughtfully provided inside the San Juan cruise terminal; I wish I’d known about it sooner, since the wine bottle prices were less than half what I’d paid in our hotel’s gift shop the night before.
Finally, those inital hours that we were aboard before the bulk of other passengers even arrived were a huge boon, allowing us to orient ourselves with the ship’s layout, explore the amazing kids’ clubhouses which would be off limits to adults later on, and (most crucially) book a sought-after brunch seating at Palo. Some of these things could have been handled during our sea day, but it was great to be able to clear them off our checklist early, so we could get to the hard-core relaxing quicker.
2. Go easy on the Internet.
Not long ago, Disney Cruise Line ditched their pay-by-the-minute onboard internet pricing in favor of a more fair data metering system, but it is still far to easy to get yourself in trouble with excessive internet usage. Pricing ranges from an outrageous 25¢ per megabyte, up to a pricey but slightly more sane $89.95 for 1 gigabyte (the tier I selected). If you sign up on embarkation day, you can even get 50 MB absolutely free; however, that amount will only cover a couple quick email checks, and won’t even go that far if you aren’t cautious.
Connection speeds were stable while docked at shore, and sluggish but generally acceptable while at sea; it was sufficient for using Facebook and iMessage, though don’t bother trying to stream Netflix or upload to Youtube. But before I found my virtual sea-legs, I inadvertently burned through nearly 20% of my package (which the technical support folks at the ship’s internet cafe were happy to reset for me) within the first few hours. Eventually, I learned to mange my data consumption well enough to make that 1 GB package last a full week, despite incessant use of Twitter to document my trip.
Here are the settings I adjusted on my iPhone and iPad for most efficient data consumption; your mileage may vary on Android devices, which may have similar features under different names. Be sure to make these adjustments BEFORE logging into the ship’s WiFi network for the first time:
- Airplane Mode ON
- Bluetooth OFF
- Personal Hotspot OFF
- General: Background App Refresh OFF
- Privacy: Location Services OFF
- iCloud: Photo Stream OFF (your Photo Stream will be temporarily deleted, but will return when you reactivate it after your cruise)
- iCloud: Automatic Backup OFF
- iTunes: Automatic Downloads OFF (especially for Updates)
- Mail, Contacts, Calendars: Fetch New Data/Push OFF (set to Manually), Download Remote Images OFF
- Facebook: Video Auto-play OFF, Upload HD Video OFF
- Also disable any automatic photo uploading in apps like Dropbox or Google+
Even if you don’t want to check messages or social media at all during your trip (not a bad idea at all, if you can get away with it), you should still download the free Disney Cruise Navigator App before leaving home. While it will cost you data to install once aboard, using the app via the on-board WiFi system is absolutely free, and it provides more detailed, updated information on ship activities than the printed Personal Navigator itineraries. You’ll soon be able to use the app for free messaging between passengers, not unlike the cordless Wave phones currently included in each stateroom.
3. Sit down for dinner.
On previous cruises with competing operators, my wife and I always selected flexible main dining times, which allowed us to eat our evening meal whenever we wanted without having to sit with the same strangers night after night. DCL doesn’t offer this option; if you want a table service dinner, you’ll have to arrive at a specified early or late seating time, and stick with the same assigned table-mates and wait-staff throughout your voyage.
While I was initially apprehensive, it turned out to be a excellent system. First, our 8:15 p.m. dining time gave us a bit of stability in our day, providing a reliable anchor to our evening after all the activity of our daytime adventures. This was important for us traveling as an adult couple, but would have been absolutely essential if cruising with a couple kids, or our extended family. The ability to go your separate ways during the day, but still always have a set time to reunite at night, is one of the biggest advantages of taking cruise vacation with a group.
Second, our dining companions and servers proved to be delightful company, and it was great to develop a relationship (however brief) with them over the course of the week. We shared a table with a German couple were much more experienced cruisers than us, and able to provide us with valuable insight about the ttrip. And while on previous trips I wasn’t always sure where my mandatory gratuity was going, we became so friendly with our hard-working wait staff (who are on duty every single day for months at a time, with only a few occasional hours off each week) that I happily increased their tips at the end of the voyage.
Third, while the variety and quality of food in the Cabanas buffet and quick-service locations around the pool deck was more than sufficient (easily better than what’s currently served inside WDW’s parks), the repast in the main dining rooms was certainly a cut above. While the mass preparation and presentation of the food prevents it from achieving fine-dining status, our dinners compared favorably in both flavor and appearance to upscale wedding banquet catering. It isn’t exactly Victoria & Albert’s (though Palo’s exquisite brunch came close), but I’d put I’d put DCL’s food alongside or above many popular WDW restaurants like Le Cellier and Be Our Guest. The only exception was the standard fare at Carioca’s, which we found disappintingly underseasoned and overcooked given the menu’s intriguiging South American flair.
Finally, as good as the food was in the main dining room, the atmosphere and entertainment was even better. We were lucky enough to experience Animator’s Palate three times in our rotation, and it quickly became one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. The meal-ending video and light show on our first night had a simiar emotional effect on me as a viewing of Fantasmic! or World of Color (albeit without the fireworks and fountains), while the audience-participation animation on our final night made for one of the most magical memories of any Disney trip I’ve been on.
I wish Disney would bring this restaurant concept to one of their resorts; it could be a huge hit at Disney Springs.
4. Don’t dismiss the adult entertainment.
I fully expected the nightly productions in Disney Magic’s main theatre to be first class, and I wasn’t disappointed. Twice Charmed and Disney Dreams were as good or better than anything on stage inside WDW (except perhaps Finding Nemo The Musical), and the other shows were solidly entertaining, with the exception of the excerable Villains Tonight (or as Laurel calls it, the Stitch’s Great Escape of DCL shows).
What I didn’t anticipate was how much I’d enjoy the adults-only entertainers featured nightly in Fathoms, the main nightclub in the Magic’s “After Hours” area. I have a low tolerance for cheesy lounge entertainment, and expected some second-rate shtick similar to what I’ve seen on other cruise lines. Much to my surprise, while the late-night genres seemed generic, their execution was exceptional.
The best of the bunch was Buckets ‘n’ Boards, a talented duo that combines Stomp-style percussion and tap dancing with self-depreciating comedy worthy of Billy Hill and the Hillbillies. The pair performed 3 times during our trip, and each viewing was better than the last — don’t miss them if they happen to be on your cruise.
On subsequent nights, I saw surprisingly superb shows by a stage hypnotist, a juggler, and a sleight-of-hand magician. Each had a fairly standard repertoire of tricks, but performed them expertly, with practiced patter and propulsive pacing that kept their audiences involved throughout their 45-minute sets.
Performers on the ships rotate regularly, but most are veterans of both DCL and the parks (you may recognize the juggler from his 5000+ appearances in DHS’s old Hunchback of Notre Dame preshow), and all know exactly how to strike the balance between Disney-clean and adult-inuendo; while you won’t hear any 4-letter words, the double entendres gently bend Mickey’s PG-13 boundaries.
5. Get off the boat.
Disney Cruise Lines does a better job of immersing you in a “Disney Bubble” of exceptionally attentive service than any of their stateside resorts currently do, distinctly reminding me of a stay in one of WDW’s top-tier hotels during the 1990s glory years. There so much to do (or, in the case of the wonderfully serene adult-only pool area, NOT do) on the boat, that you may be tempted to save on excursions and stay on board when in port.
As enticing as that may seem, it would be a mistake. The port adventures we experienced gave us eye-opening glimpses into the lives of others that I’d consider absolutely essential to the travel experience. Sure, it was amazing to explore an underwater sculpture museum (and see squid and octopi up close!) while snorkeling in Grenada; drive into a steaming volcanic field in St. Lucia; or zip-line through the rainforest canopy in St. Kitts. But even more important was the opportunity to see the homes, schools, and marketplaces where the real people who inhabit these islands live out their lives.
Our Disney-approved tour guides were refreshingly candid about the political and economic challenges that residents of these tropical paradises face, and it was educational (if occassionally uncomfortable) to experience a small taste of local life, as when we made a pit stop at a wash house were residents without home plumbing take showers and launder clothing. Even if you don’t want to spring for a guided port adventure (all of which were all a good value at under $100 per person), you can see quite bit of local color on foot, as long as you venture beyond the Duty Free diamond shops and tourist-trap bars that congragate around every cruise port; we enjoyed multi-hour self-guided walking tours of Barbados and Antigua (which I’ll share in an upcoming blog post) for less than $20 per person.
While I never felt unsafe during our on-shore adventures, I think it is important when traveling to experience things outside my comfort zone, if only to make me more appreciative of my own lifestyle, which I too often take for granted. That’s a lesson that I didn’t expect to learn from a Disney cruise, but it’s one that will stick with me long after I stop feeling the boat’s motion rocking beneath my feet.