During the month of July I had two back-to-back Disney cruising experiences, 7-nights on the Disney Cruise Line (DCL) Magic ship touring the Baltic countries, followed immediately by 7-nights with Adventures by Disney (AbD) on their new AmaViola Danube river cruise. This quick switch from one type of cruising to another gave me a terrific window into the differences between the two modes of travel. Here’s a rundown.
1. It’s the Destination, not the Journey.
There have been times I’ve booked DCL cruises without a particular destination in mind. I wanted someplace, anyplace, warm on the right dates at the right price. The fact that the cruise was going to the Bahamas, the Caribbean, or Mexico was immaterial; it just needed to fit in my kids’ vacation schedule and be priced right. For me, it was about experiencing the ship, getting a little sunshine, and being lazy during endless days at sea. For a quick three-nighter, I might not even get off the ship.
By contrast, the AbD Danube River cruise is all about where you’re going. The reason to cruise is to see the sights of Europe. There are no sea days and there’s not much to do on board during the day. Instead, when you’re on a river cruise, you are literally steps from historic sights, quaint cafes, magnificent artwork, and lush landscapes. The draw is off the ship rather than on it.
2. Ownership of the Ship.
Disney owns the Disney Cruise Line ships. They have exclusive use and have them fitted and decorated to exactly their specifications. You’ll see lots of Disney touches on board: hidden Mickeys in the upholstery, Disney-themed entertainment, costumed characters, and so on.
The Adventures by Disney river cruises are run as a partnership with AmaWaterways. AmaWaterways owns the ships and will use them for other purposes when they’re not running AbD programs. You won’t find any mouse images hiding in your bed linens or see dozens of Disney-owned entertainment stations on your cabin television. There was literally nothing Disney-themed sold in the small onboard gift shop. The Adventures by Disney product is about bringing Disney service and quality to world exploration, not about having Mickey moments around the clock. If you need to be full-on immersed in Disney, then stick with DCL.
3. Pricing Structure.
The Disney Dream and Fantasy have 28 different stateroom classifications, each with slightly different pricing. The Adventures by Disney AmaWaterways cruises have just 8 stateroom classes, with only minor differences among them, making sorting out the differences in room types much easier.
4. What’s Included.
The AbD river cruises are almost entirely free of add-on costs; effectively everything is included — the price is the price. With DCL, port excursions cost extra, adult dining costs extra, Internet access costs extra, airport transfers cost extra, crew gratuities are extra, all alcohol costs extra. Your budget can easily be blown on ancillary expenses. The river cruise pricing includes all excursions, all gratuities, airport or hotel transfers, adult dining, WiFi, and free flowing beer and wine during lunch, dinner, and various receptions. It’s easier to plan your total costs with the river cruise.
5. Size of the Ship.
The scale of the ocean ships and river ships are completely different. The Disney Magic is 964 feet long, the Dream is 1,114 feet long. The DCL ships are also tall, 11 and 14 decks high, respectively. Due to size constraints related to the Danube River and river lock system, the AmaViola is necessarily much smaller – just 443 long and three decks high. Stateroom sizes are comparable on the two types of ships, which means that it’s the public spaces that are more limited on the river cruise.
Instead of four or five DCL restaurants, you’ll find two dining options on the river cruise. There’s one small pool on the river ship rather than nearly a dozen pools, splash zones, and hot tubs on the DCL ocean ships. Everything is much more intimate and personal. Within a few hours, you’re likely to be speaking on a first name basis with the ship’s officers and many of the other staff.
6. Number of Guests.
The Disney Cruise Line Magic and Wonder have a capacity of about 2,700 guests. The Dream and Fantasy hold about 4,000 guests. The Adventures by Disney river cruises have a maximum capacity of just 158 guests, with a likely load of 130-140 people because not every stateroom will be filled to capacity. You’ll see the same people over and over again at meals, on excursions, in the lounge, etc. By mid-week you’ll recognize nearly everyone on the ship and have had at least brief chats with many of them. If you’re looking to meet people and be social, river cruising is a great choice. Strangely, the larger number of guests on the large DCL ships makes it easier to be alone if you’re an introvert, or if you’re just not in the mood to be social during your vacation.
7. Calendar of Sailings.
With the current fleet of four large vessels, you have a choice more than 50 different itineraries with sailing opportunities year round.
In 2017, Adventures by Disney will offer just seven sailings on the Danube and five on the Rhine River, all but one of which is during the summer. For now, your choices of where and when to sail are fairly limited. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Disney offer many more river cruise options in the coming years. One Disney executive who happened to be on my sailing told me, “There are a lot of rivers out there.”
8. Excursion Booking.
As I mentioned earlier, port excursions are included in the price of the AdD river cruise vacations. During parts of some days, everyone on board will go on the same excursion. At other times, there may be a choice of two to four activities. However, unlike DCL where various levels of Castaway Club members have access to excursions earlier, there’s really no competition for scarce spots on any excursion. Every guest family meets with a guide on embarkation day to choose activities, and they’ll make room for everyone who wants to participate. You can even change your mind mid-trip with no penalty or consequences. During my sailing, several guests easily switched from a primarily outdoor activity to an indoor one because of predicted rain.
9. Activity Level.
During a DCL cruise, it’s quite possible to remain inert for the bulk of your trip: lounge at the pool, watch movies in a full-size theater, and sip drinks playing Bingo to your heart’s content. On the AbD river cruise, your excursions are already paid for and there’s not much to do on the ship during the day, so it’s unlikely that you’ll spend much time just lounging around. You are, of course, welcome to sit on the sundeck, watch movies in your room, or spend time people watching at a cafe steps from the ship, but my observation is that few people did this. There’s a more than a bit of a “let’s go out and do something” group mentality to the AbD river cruise. Your days are FULL.
10. Variety of Excursions.
On most DCL sailings, you’ll have a selection of several dozen port excursions to choose from. With the AbD river cruise, the maximum number of offerings during any daypart was four. On that particular afternoon, guests could choose from a long bike ride of about 30 miles, a short bike ride of about 8 miles, a three mile hike to a historical site, or a wine tasting and tour of a working apricot farm. (Team wine tasting for me!) Most of the time there were only two options during any daypart – Sound of Music tour or Salt Mine tour, for example. You are always welcome to ditch the group and arrange your own activity, but again, the pre-arranged excursions are already included in your cost, so few people ventured off to spend additional money on their own.
11. Stateroom Storage.
I’m a person who likes to unpack on vacation. On the Disney Cruise Line ships, there are enough storage nooks and crannies that I’ve never had any trouble finding sufficient space for my husband and I to each have our own drawers for shirts, pants, undergarments, etc.
On the AmaViola, I found it nearly impossible to unpack. There is one large closet, but it only has hanging space. There were essentially no dresser-type drawers, and the few shelves were inconveniently placed and filled with items like extra blankets and the room safe. We ended up living out of our suitcases.
I did find out on the last day of the trip that there is one giant trundle-esque drawer under the bed (strange that no one mentioned this earlier), but unless you were particularly tiny and flexible this is likely best used for luggage rather than daily clothing storage.
One small but notable difference between DCL and the river cruise is that on the river ships is that, upon request, they can store your suitcases elsewhere on the ship so you don’t have to have them in your room. This is not generally possible with DCL.
12. Bathroom Configuration.
Many of the staterooms on the large Disney Cruise Line ships have a family-friendly split bath, with the tub/shower in a separate room from the sink/toilet — allowing two guests to get ready for the day simultaneously. On the river ships, the bathrooms are all traditional one-room style. Additionally, there only in the river ships’ four suite rooms have bath tubs, the other 75 cabins have showers only.
One small but helpful feature on the AmaViola was the inclusion of a nighttime lighting system. Any time you opened the bathroom door without turning on the main bathroom light, a dim blue overhead light was activated, making packing a night light unnecessary.
13. Kid Space.
A key feature for many families choosing Disney Cruise Line is the dedicated child care centers and kids clubs. The Small World and Flounders’ Reef Nurseries, and the Oceaneer, Edge, and Vibe kids’ spaces are cherished parts of the cruising experience for many Disney Cruise Line Guests. Many families find that they barely see their children during a DCL cruise because their kids spend so much time in the dedicated child spaces.
There are no dedicated child spaces on the Adventures by Disney river ships. Let me say that again — there are no dedicated child spaces on the Adventures by Disney river ships. Kids are mixing with adults in virtually all areas on the ship. While this may seem odd to DCL stalwarts, it does actually work. A key factor to the success of this is that there is a minimum age requirement to book these trips. The AbD website states that guests are required to be six years old, with age eight recommended. On my sailing, there were approximately 140 total guests, including about 20 “Junior Adventurers” age 6-12, and about a dozen teens. You won’t find screaming babies on board, and even the younger children tended to be fairly well traveled and savvy in their interactions with adults.
Every night, several of the Adventures by Disney guides invited the Junior Adventurers to the main lounge while their parents ate dinner in the dining room. In the lounge, they showed movies (Zootopia, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Inside Out were some of the selections on my trip), made crafts, and played games, giving the parents a break. While kids were welcome to dine with the adults, the fun in the lounge and the piles of chicken nuggets and fries made this a rarity.
Additionally, there were always child-specific activities during the “boring” excursions. For example, at museum stops, the kids were invited to play outdoor games with guides in the garden or to participate in an activity like baking a regional dessert. Other excursions were equally appealing to adults and elementary-age and up children: these included a show horse demonstration, a visit to an old salt mine, and a demonstration of Medieval weaponry. The kids on our trip seemed extremely happy. That being said, if you have a child who has trouble separating from you, a particularly rambunctious youngster, or a child who goes not do well in group activities, you may want to think twice about booking this experience.
14. Time in Port.
Depending on the destination, your time in a Disney Cruise Line port can be quite limited. During my Baltic cruise this summer, our port time in Helsinki was just from 11:00 am until 5:30 pm. Even on a typical Castaway Cay stop, the all aboard time is usually at about 4:00 or 4:30 pm.
The proportion of sailing time on the river cruise is much smaller, making port times much longer. The earlier all aboard times were about 8:00 pm, with some nights as late as 3:00 am. If you want to go off on your own, you really do have time to explore the port city in depth.
15. Quality of the Food.
I’ll just say it, the food on the Disney Cruise Line is fine, but outside of the adults-only restaurants, it can be hit or miss. The Cabanas buffet food can sometimes be dried out from sitting on the warming tray a bit too long, fish is frequently overcooked, and the breakfast bacon tends toward rubbery.
Overall, I found the river cruise food to be fresher, more flavorful, and more carefully prepared than on any DCL trip I’ve experienced. I’d compare the quality of the main dining room food on the river cruise to be that of the adults-only Palo on DCL. More on the food situation in an upcoming post.
16. Availability of Food.
Food is available on Disney Cruise Line ships 24/7. If you want chicken wings delivered to your room at 3:00 am, you can make that happen. There are set meal times on the river cruise, with periodic, but not constant, food available outside those times. (Coffee, tea, whole fruit, and a sampling of cookies are available throughout the day and night.)
Disney Cruise Line has two main dining room seatings each night. The river cruise typically has just one set time for lunch and dinner, with slightly more flexibility during breakfast. Also bear in mind that on the river cruise you’re likely to be less than a 5-10 minute walk away from a land-based cafe or restaurant, so if you really want something different to eat, it’s easy enough to venture out into the world to get it.
While there’s certainly plenty of alcohol available on the Disney Cruise Line ships, you have to expend at least a tiny amount of energy seeking it out by heading to a lounge or placing an order with your server. And you have to pay for DCL alcohol separately. If you want a drink, you’ll have to charge it to your stateroom account.
On the AbD river cruise, beer and wine are included with lunch and dinner. And the beer and wine flow freely. At each dinner the wine steward selects a red and a white for the meal and asks which you’d like. Throughout the meal he circles back and refills glasses, much like your assistant server will refill your water glass on DCL. It’s easily possible to consume three or four substantial glasses of wine at a meal if you don’t police the server’s pours. Additionally, there are various non-meal receptions and events on board with free flowing beer or champagne.
Many of the excursions include free alcohol in the form or wine, beer, or schnapps tastings. Not fully understanding what I was doing, on one day I ended up booking excursions that included two wine tastings and a schnapps tasting. Our guide started teasing me when my glasses fogged up midway through the second excursion.
There is a bar in the main lounge offering wine and cocktails for a fee, but it is certainly possible to be inebriated throughout the day with no additional expense. When I asked what the bar hours were, the crew responded, “We’ll keep it open as long as people want to drink.” Given the ubiquity of alcohol on the ship, guests with substance abuse issues may find the atmosphere to be challenging.
Also be aware that the drinking age for beer and wine is 16 in most of the river cruise destinations. On the ship itself, the servers generally refrained from pouring drinks for guests under age 18, but all bets were off on excursions. I traveled with my 16-year-old twin daughters. At every excursion that involved alcohol (which was many of them), they were routinely offered the same beverages as the adults. I was fine with them having sips at the wine and beer tastings, but if you have a teen that you want to have avoid all alcohol consumption, this is not the trip for you.
On Disney Cruise Line, your level of interaction with other guests is largely up to you. You can request your own table in the dining rooms, skip group excursions, and keep to yourself.
On the river cruise, there are no private or assigned dining tables. You’re often sitting with other guests. The smallest dining table was for four, meaning that couples would nearly always be sharing. The excursions too are group affairs in which nearly everyone participates. It’s all but inevitable that you’ll be interacting with other guests throughout the day. The AbD guides also work to engage guests in conversation and will attempt to facilitate guest interaction. This might not be the ideal way to spend a honeymoon.
Another unexpected privacy factor for me was the physical proximity of people on land and on other river cruise ships. If your room is on the center guest deck (the 200 level), it’s all but certain that you will find your verandah parked inches away from a public sidewalk, with passersby easily able to see into your windows. The ship may also be docked in a double-parked position with another ship, meaning that your bedroom window could be inches away from the bedroom window of a guest on another ship. We quickly learned to put on a robe before we left the bathroom.
In my experience, the rules are the rules on Disney Cruise Line. For example, I sailed on the Disney Wonder with my oldest daughter a week before her 18th birthday. I had hoped that she might be able to dine with me at Palo, the adults-only dining venue for guests age 18 and up. However, despite the fact that she was a high school graduate, comporting herself impeccably, there was no flexibility in the rules. Because she was not officially 18, she was not allowed to dine at Palo, or use the fitness center, or use the adults-only pool. I understand that due to the high volume of guests, DCL must be rigid in their enforcement of all types of regulations, but sometimes this results in disappointment or a less than personal feel.
Contrast this with a much more flexible attitude on the river ship. The chef’s table on the AmaViola is advertised for guests 18-and-up only. Given our previous experience on DCL, it didn’t even occur to me that my 16 year old twins could dine there. Without us asking, the ship’s crew offered to have them join us at our chef’s table experience. The same thing happened with the other families with older teens on the ship. In another instance, a biking excursion was advertised as being for guests age 10 and up. A family with an 8-year-old was able to have their young son join them this excursion. Of course there are no promises, but there does seem to be a bit more wiggle room with the river cruise guidelines, serving to make the guest experience feel more real and personal.
20. Motion Issues.
I am prone toward motion sickness. On every one of my many Disney Cruise Line sailings, I have experienced at least a small measure of unease or discomfort with the ship’s movement. I maintain a strict regimen of Dramamine consumption on even the most placid of DCL voyages. Contrast this with the absolute stillness of the Danube. There were several times that the river ship had set sail and I was completely unaware that we were moving.
The only time during my river cruise that I felt even the vaguest notion of motion sickness was on the bus ride to an excursion.
Unlike DCL, where WiFi is spotty and comes with a hefty fee, there is free WiFi on AbD river cruise ships. I found the service to be good to acceptable. I was easily able to check email, post photos to Facebook, and surf the web. I’m not sure you’d be able to stream Netflix without a few hiccups, but my daughters did watch several YouTube videos on board with no problems.
In addition to being able to use your own electronic devices, the in-room televisions are actually large Apple computers, nearly the same as the one I have at home. With the click of a button, you can convert the unit from a TV to a computer, allowing you to use Google as you would with a home or office desktop machine.
The television stations included CNN, BBC News, a few general entertainment channels, and some international sports channels. There were movies on demand in English, French, German, and Spanish, but the selection was limited to a few dozen classics and recent releases. There were no Disney TV channels or Disney movies on demand.
22. Exercise Space.
The Disney Cruise Line ships have large gyms with cardio equipment, weight machines and free weights, and scheduled classes. The river ships have much smaller facilities with just two treadmills and two stationary bikes, plus one weight machine.
Guests can run on deck on DCL, but you are not allowed to run on the river ships because the “walking track” is directly above guest rooms. The pounding of a run would be disruptive. However, given the proximity to populated areas and the long time in port, it’s exceptionally easy to go for a run on land. Many guests on my sailings went for on-shore jogs in port before breakfast. There are also yoga mats you can bring to the sundeck for stretching or non-impact calisthenics.
The river ship also keeps several bicycles/helmet on board, which guests are allowed to borrow whenever the ship is in port. And several of the port excursions involve hiking or biking.
The Disney Cruise Line ships are largely accessible to guests with mobility issues. There may be the odd excursion that’s off limits to a wheelchair user, but the ships themselves are almost fully available. This is not the case with the river cruise ships. While there is an elevator, it only serves part of the ship. A guest who was entirely wheelchair bound would not be able access the sundeck, a key feature of the ship.
Additionally, there were a few times when we “double parked” at a dock with another river cruise ship. This meant that to exit our ship, we had to actually walk through theirs, in one case crossing from the sundeck of our ship to the sundeck of our neighbor, and then down their internal stairs to a gangplank. Exiting the ship in this way would be all but impossible for a guest with restricted mobility.
Also, all the river cruise bathrooms I saw would pose problematic for wheelchair users.
Overall, I had a fabulous experience on the Adventures by Disney Danube river cruise. If you want to explore the heart of European cities, if you like to be active on vacation, if you have adults or older children in your party, and if you enjoy socializing and meeting new people, the river cruise is a fantastic way to travel.
If you want complete relaxation, if you have small kids, if you want an island destination, or if you’re in introvert mode, then Disney Cruise Line might be a better choice for you.
Stay tuned for more information on food, excursions, and more.