Disney Cruise Thoughts

| by Ken | in Travel Add comments

I have now returned from my third (!) Disney cruise and wanted to share some thoughts that might be interesting to people thinking about cruising on Disney or helpful to Disney Cruise Lines for future ship planning.  (Because, you know, after cruising three times, I’m more of an expert than anyone in the industry!)

TL;DR (for people thinking of going on a Disney cruise): Stay at least a deck below the main deck but somewhere near midship and not too low down.  Try for a “Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom With Verandah” while the family version is only really necessary if you have 5 people.  Try to get the 5:45pm dinner seating.  If you haven’t been to Nassau before, go and do the dolphin encounter, but head back to the boat right away;  if you have been to something like that before, skip it and spend more time on the boat.  Bring buckets and shovels for Castaway Cay (you can pack things in buckets so they won’t take up much room) and plan to spend the morning and early afternoon at the beach.  You should get in the pools whenever you can and do the Aquaduck whenever you see a short line – you never know when they will be unavailable for some reason.  See “Believe” and maybe one other show.  Do the ground transfers and pre-paid tips.  Bring a bathing suit with pockets.  Download the app before leaving and plan on recharging your phone often.  Pack smart and pack flexible.

TL;DR (for Disney Cruise Line): Something should be done to reduce the noise transferred from Deck 11 to Deck 10 staterooms.  When planning future ship(s), keep the staterooms going all the way out so when you are on a verandah you can look up and see something more than an overhanging deck above you.  Definitely improve the ratio of the public amenities and pools, in particular, to the passenger capacity in any future ships and retrofits to existing ones.  Add TVs in the Aquaduck line.  Consider shifting the dining schedules up a half hour or even just 15 minutes so the late dining isn’t quite so very late for a cruise focusing on kids.  The menus could use some improvement to make them less exotic while also improving the food quality.  You need to cut the roaming bar staff by at least 50% and tell those that remain to make themselves available but not be harassing.  And tell the busing staff at the buffet restaurant to take it down a notch when it comes to frequency of clearing plates.  Improve the app.  Switch to magic bands.  Plan some cruises from New England.

And now the full story…

This is my second time on the Disney Dream and both times I stayed on Deck 10 in the midship area.  Last time was port side and this time was starboard side.  Last time there wasn’t too much of a noise issue but this time, the issue was fierce.  The noise would start around 6:30am and wake everyone in the room up.  Now 6:30 isn’t too terribly early for a day at home but on vacation, you’d like to get to at least 7:00am.  And what an unpleasant way to be woken up!  Metal chairs scraping on metal decking and the banging of what sounded like cannonballs being dropped on a steel deck that was our ceiling.  Well, the ceiling in the stateroom looked pretty but apparently there isn’t much space or sound insulation between the bottom of the deck 11 floor and the top of the deck 10 ceiling.  By stride count, I measured out exactly where the deck is above our stateroom and found no cannonballs – just some innocent looking tables and chairs.  They were perfectly straight and clean as was the floor around them.  So one can only assume that they are cleaned well and perhaps that happens around 6:30am.  But even later in the day, the pounding from normal guest use is amazingly loud.  My suggestion: avoid the stateroom deck immediately below the main activity deck.  You won’t be guaranteed that the stateroom above you is quiet in the early morning but odds are better and even if they are loud, they would be loud on a carpeted floor.  Also, there was some interior engine-like noise (pool pumps?) around the 10128 and 10628 staterooms – I don’t know if that transmits into the staterooms but it might be worth avoiding rooms near there.

So while deck 10 midship might not have worked for noise reasons, being located midship, close to elevators, and on an upper deck are all still good things.  We didn’t really have much hallway noise even though we were just a handful of staterooms away from the midship elevator lobby.  And the accessibility of getting to our stateroom from the pool deck turned out to be really convenient.  It always seemed like we could stop by there on the way somewhere.  There is a long span of staterooms that are pretty far from elevators and stairs and those are the least convenient on each deck.  For example, stateroom 10104 (deck 10) is further away from the pool deck in terms of practical distance than 7086 (deck 7).  We found that a few decks’ worth of stairs is pretty easy to do.  It’s only when you get to 5 or 6 or more that the elevator starts making more sense.  And even then, if you are trying to get somewhere during a “rush hour” like between dinner seatings, the stairs are faster.  We saw an elevator fill up on deck 10 and made it to deck 3 on the stairs before the people on that elevator car got out.

Our stateroom this time was a “Deluxe Family Oceanview Stateroom With Verandah” and last time, it was a “Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom With Verandah”.  The difference being the word “family” and 54 square feet – which essentially makes the room go about 5 feet further in to the ship (and the corridor move inward for the banks of rooms that are longer).  I’m not sure that we really needed this extra space for the 4 of us – I think most of that space was used for junk that we never really put away.  Although the round shower was nice.  If you were going to cram 5 people in to one stateroom, you’d definitely need the 5 more feet so you could get the murphy bed for the 5th person.

I highly recommend a verandah.  Being able to go out and enjoy the sea air seems like a key feature of a cruise.  As somebody who can get motion sick, I would definitely recommend against an inside room.  Not only is there no real view of the outside, but you also get a video “porthole” which shows you the outside but which doesn’t match the motion you are feeling.  To me that’s just cruel.  No thank you!!  One disadvantage of an upper deck is that you can’t see much sky from an upper deck verandah.  For some unknown reason, the staterooms on the Dream and Fantasy with verandahs are inset in comparison to the decks above and below so the higher up you are, the more ceiling of the pool deck you get to see.  We thought we would be able to see the fireworks from our stateroom verandah but all we got to experience were the booms from the deck above.  For better sky visibility, go for a lower deck where you would be further away from the pool deck overhang and therefore the angles would improve your sky visibility.

Disney cruise does two dinner seatings.  One at 5:45pm and one at 8:15pm.  We usually eat at home around 5:45 so that one would have been perfect for us but when we booked our cruise 7 months in advance, that seating was already full.  We figured the second seating would just mean shifting our schedule and it was vacation, so no big deal.  There are a few problems with that.  First, the flight to the cruise will probably mean you need to get up earlier than usual so on the first day, you will be starting with a sleep deficit already.  The second problem for us was that our room wouldn’t let us sleep in to catch up due to the noise (see above).  And while the second problem may not be a common thing, the third is: if “Disney” is in the name, you aren’t sleeping in.  There’s stuff to do, and the boat is awake.  I don’t imagine there’s a place on the ship that isn’t full of activity by 7:30am.  If you want a cruise that allows you to sleep in, you probably are better off choosing something other than Disney.  The big entertainment events take place during both dinner seatings so the crowd that isn’t eating can be at a show.  Or in the case of some events, they take place between both seatings.  So entertainment options don’t impact choice of dinner seating one way or the other.  Therefore, I definitely recommend the earlier seating.  If the kids are tired after dinner, you can skip the show.  If they aren’t tired, you get to see the show.  You can’t skip dinner and cranky kids at dinner are no fun.  You could always just do the quick service food instead of the restaurant but not only is that underwhelming but it would make you tire of the quick service options sooner.  (I could go on longer on this topic because I know there are counterpoints to be made which I could debate but I think I’ve made my point.)

Note that there is a feature of the later dinner seating where the kids can be picked up and brought to the play space while the adults finish their dinner in leisurely peace.  But that never worked for us.  Again, the kids were exhausted by the time we even got to dinner.  And secondly, we weren’t finishing too far behind the kids anyway.  (Maybe we are used to eating quickly!?)  So the option to have kids picked up seemed ideal before we got on the boat but in practice, it never panned out.

We didn’t bother getting off in Nassau this time.  We had done that before and felt like we’d seen what we wanted to see (the dolphin encounter was really cool).  And given our relatively short time on the boat, we thought we’d take advantage of the time when everyone else went ashore for us to spend time at the pool and on the Aquaduck (the water “coaster” raft ride).  Turns out we were not alone.  Many people had the same idea so the “everyone else” that went ashore was probably only half the boat, if that.  The rest were in line at the Aquaduck.  And who doesn’t love waiting in line while you are dripping wet or getting sunburned while the clock is ticking on all the things you want to get done!?  Ugh.  So while it was still the right call, if you do the same, don’t think that you’ll be by yourself.  Be ready for there to still be crowds.

The second stop for us was Castaway Cay (“key”) and that is definitely worth getting off for.  There’s a beautiful beach there and being that it is a private Disney owned island, it’s sort of an extension of the ship experience but more authentic.  It’s too bad that Disney doesn’t have any resort there for people to just vacation there directly.  I imagine they will one day.  But for now, it’s nice to be able to stop there for a few hours from the cruise.  They have a water slide which you need to swim out to and swim back from.  It’s a good slide but again, long lines to wait in.  And again, dripping wet and/or getting sunburned.  For the beach, we brought some folding buckets and a couple of beach shovels and that’s all that we needed from home or the ship.  Chairs and towels are provided so pretty easy to pack for.  I recommend the second section of beach where the water slide is – somewhere near the “Sand Bar” bar should have available umbrellas in the morning and the beach in front of the lifeguard chair is less rocky in the water as you go more to the right where the private cabana area is.

For the time of year, I liked April more than August which is when we went last time.  We did get a few showers in April, but the air temperature and humidity didn’t combine to produce the oppressive conditions we had in August.  That means good weather for swimming and for breathing!

The pools always felt crowded.  There are two pools for kids plus the Aquaduck and the Mickey Slide.  The Mickey Slide is a good deal because the kids can go by themselves and it is self contained – it doesn’t connect to the pools.  So they slide down and then can go right back up the stairs again, all while you are sipping a drink.  The Aquaduck requires smaller kids go with an adult and that’s a bummer because the line can be an hour long.  Yes, an hour long line for something on the cruise ship – it’s Disney so there has to be a line somewhere, right!?  But it’s too bad because time seems so limited on the cruise ship and it just feels like there are too many people on board for the pools they have.  That’s the same with the “Donald” pool and “Mickey” pool.  They fill up with people to the point where there is no swimming – there is just a bunch of heads in the water like apples in a bucket ready to be bobbed for.

You should also be aware that the pools can close abruptly for good reasons.  On the last cruise, the Mickey pool closed once for what was described to me by a staff member as a “potty accident”.  On this cruise, the Mickey pool closed twice for poops plainly visible after the pool was evacuated (how does that happen!?!) and the Donald pool closed once for unknown reasons.  The treatment is impressive.  The fence goes up around the pool.  They add chemicals to the water and drain the pools right away – the water is dumped to holding tanks where it is treated to neutralize the chlorine and then dumped to sea (I think is what the guy said).  While the pool is emptying they pressure wash the whole thing, all surfaces of it, and remove drains and clean filters.  Then they get new seawater to mix with some freshwater from tanks and add some chlorine and voila, a new filled pool that needs to sit for maybe an hour before it is ready for swimming.  The whole process takes maybe 2 hours.  That’s impressive turnaround and you can feel confident that you are getting a practically new pool when it is done.  And you can probably feel better about cleanliness of the pool right after it reopens than you did the minute before it was closed.  But it still means hours of downtime and if both pools are down at the same time, as happened to us, that means no swimming for kids.

It’s also interesting to note that the Donald pool looked pretty full before the Mickey pool closed.  And then when the Mickey Pool closed, the Donald pool didn’t get more full.  Nor did the line for the Aquaduck get longer.  People just left.  And I think that’s a sign that the pools and slides do not meet the demand that is there.  People would rather leave the pools than get in something that is already crowded or wait in a line longer than an hour.  I think that means that even when all of the pools and slides are open, there are people that find them too crowded and give up.  That’s proof that there are too many people onboard for the amenities offered.  Any future ships Disney builds should increase the amount of amenities while not increasing amount of passengers on board.  And where possible, Disney should retrofit existing ships to increase the number of pools and water related attractions.  (May I suggest a “Goofy” pool!?  Perhaps a river style pool or a circle around the funnel near the sports deck and Aquaduck exit?)  Also, adding TVs and speakers to the inside part of the Aquaduck line showing the same content as on “Funnel Vision” would be a great way to minimize the wait frustration.

For the most part, the staff on the boat are great.  The “stateroom host” (AKA housekeeping) on both this cruise and the last were super nice without being obsequious.  They are smart about knowing when you are there and when you are not so they can freshen up the room a couple times during the day.  They seem to work excessively and I feel a little bad about how much they work.  But I guess it’s just what they do.  The wait staff also seem to work nonstop.  You can see them in the morning at the breakfast buffet and in the evening at the restaurants where they work both seatings.  On both cruises, however, I did find that that two two assigned to our table (that go with you to different restaurants each night) could get a little obsequious.  More-so the last cruise than this one.  I know they are working for tips but the best restaurant pros know how to take care of their guests while also being invisible to the experience.  Also, this time I think our waitstaff pair must have had too many tables or perhaps one table that was particularly needy as the first few nights they always seemed busy somewhere else and the team was out of sync with each other.

I felt the dinner menus could have been better.  For the kids, there was one adventurous choice that my kids would never go for, one more mainstream choice like fish sticks or cheeseburger, and always mac and cheese.  There were also healthy and veg options which wouldn’t have been bad if they were more mainstream.  So that meant that each night, my kids were going to choose between mac and cheese and the other mainstream option.  The mac and cheese was a little too velveeta-y but not bad.  The cheeseburger was actually as lame as a kids’ Burger King burger – 1/8″ thick cardboard wafer purporting to be beef.  For the adults, the menu had a similar ailment with some dishes being exotic while others were too mainstream.  I had a really good prime rib one night and a nice mahi mahi another night.  But the rice with the mahi mahi was not prepared well and the pasta bolognese was basically just pasta and jarred meat sauce.  I know that the scale the ship’s restaurant works on needs to be ready for massive amount of dinners at one time and the fact that they succeed at all is amazing to me.  But from a diner’s perspective, I was not as impressed as I think Disney expects people to be.

The quick-service food was really good, for what it is.  Fruit, salads, panini, pizza are all good and the chicken fingers are especially good.  Good fries too.  I think the food there was better than the kids food in the restaurants.  And most of the time, the wait is less than a minute or two.  Drink stations are available all the time and 4 flavors of soft serve ice cream are there too.  But it would be nice to have some snacks of some kind.  Popcorn comes to mind although that would be terrible for birds and make a mess of the deck.  But something along those lines – maybe nachos or even just bags of potato chips or pretzels.  It isn’t convenience that was lacking – it’s just that by day 3 when you are thinking you could use a little snack, you don’t want a whole dinner’s worth of chicken fingers.

The on-deck roaming bar staff were flat out aggressive on this cruise and I don’t remember that from before.  Previously, I had the sense that bar staff was available and nearby if you needed it.  But on this cruise, a couple of times with my eyes closed they still asked me loudly if I wanted something from the bar and on other occasions interrupted conversation.  And many times, we’d be harassed by one after the other.  In one case, I saw a woman go to the bar to order a drink and a roaming bar staff person run over to her and intercept her so that he could get the order.  These aggressive tendencies definitely detracted from the relaxation that the cruise is supposed to offer.  I get harassing phone calls at home.  When I go on vacation, I don’t want that behavior to be there too.

The other staff that were too aggressive were the people clearing tables at the breakfast buffet.  If you were not actively putting food in your mouth, there was a waiter ready to ask if they could take your plate.   Odds are good that if you paused while eating, it was to talk, so then again, interruptions were unwelcome.  Or in some cases, I’d get up to get something more to drink and come back to find my plate with the food I was still eating was gone.  My wife just shrugged and said she didn’t see it happening and nobody asked her.  In this case, they are actually just trying to be helpful (as opposed to the bar staff who were trying to earn commission) but we still felt the experience was too hands-on.

We paid for ground transfers.  That means that we got luggage tags for our bags that we put on before we left home.  When we arrived at the airport, we handed them our bags and the next time we saw them was at our stateroom door.  Our carry-on is all we needed from the time we left the ticket counter at our home airport until the after we were already in the pool onboard.  The ground transfer also provided the bus that we took from the Orlando airport to the ship’s cruise terminal.  So while it would be great to fly non-stop from home to the boat, the airport is 45 minutes away and the ground transfer makes it all easy.  It’s even better heading back.  You put your bags outside your stateroom before 10:30 the night before, again with the special tags.  And you don’t see them again until you go to the baggage carousel at your home airport.  And the big deal here is that you don’t need to drag those bags through customs.  And if you had lots of checked bags, you’d end up hiring a porter to schlepp things for you.  The transfers are definitely worth doing – if you are already paying for the cruise and the airfare to get there, you owe it to yourself to pay for the transfers.

We also pre-paid our tips.  I liked that because it again takes the stress out of the situation – at least mostly – it’s still a little bonkers that there’s the formality of handing an envelope around.  As though you are slipping something illicit to them.  But you get over that when you realize everyone does it on the boat.  So it’s just part of the ritual.

I should comment about the boat itself.  It is big and beautiful and exceptionally well maintained.  It seems that there are people always wiping something down or cleaning something.  The decor is classic art deco which is kind of funny to see mixed with the Disney characters but it really does work.  And it’s amazing to me to see how things work so well.  My engineer brain looks at a lobby and thinks “good space” but then a character dance party starts and panels open to reveal stage lights and speakers come to life and then my brain is thinking “how did they get all this stuff crammed in here?”.  Lots and lots of details like that throughout the venues.

The onboard entertainment is pretty good – amazing considering it is on a ship, actually.  We have seen two shows – “The Golden Mickeys” and “Believe”.  The first, “The Golden Mickeys” has a lame construct that doesn’t hold together well.  The individual performances are fine.  “Believe” is much better and does a better job of connecting the various Disney vignettes together in an “carpe diem” kind of way.  Again, though, my engineering brain is looking at the sets and thinking “where the hell do they store that set when the other show is running!?”.  You need to get to the shows early to get good seats – again typical Disney with the lines and beating out other guests.

The key to your room is the “key-to-the-world” card.  Pretty neat that you use that key to open your stateroom door, charge drinks to your room account, and help the ship’s photographers connect you to the pictures they are taking.  Printed on the front are your dining schedule and info about ground transportation.  They give you a lanyard to help you not loose your card so you can put the card in the plastic ziploc case and wear it around your neck.  Except obviously you aren’t wearing that when you are swimming.  We also encountered a number of places where you needed to remove the card from the plastic sleeve for it to be scanned.  It seems to me that the “Magic Bands” that are used in the Disney parks would be better than the cards.  They’d never need to be in a lanyard since they are on the wrist.  In fact, the Oceaneer’s Lab and Oceaneer’s Club require the kids to get an additional magic band to wear onboard that has a special lock to prevent them from coming loose.  You return them at the end of your cruise.  (Which is why you need the lock – the used bands don’t stay latched very well.)  I expect Disney is working towards magic bands only and just hasn’t gotten there yet – it will be good when they do.  Until then if you can bring a bathing suit with pockets you’ll solve most of the problem with the key-to-the-world card.

Before you leave for the cruise, download the Disney cruise app to your phone.  You won’t be able to set up anything until you get onboard, but that’s okay.  Once you do get onboard, you can complete the setup and at the least, connect to the other adults in your party for onboard texting.  That beats the “wave phone” that has been the only way to text onboard before.  The app also provides the deck plans and a general schedule for activities.  But there are definitely some problems.  We discovered that after starting the app on our iPhones that our batteries drained faster.  The schedule info is general and doesn’t match what is in the paper copy of the “Personal Navigator” – sometimes times are different and the “Personal Navigator” has more info.  Also, since the app knows who you are, it would be nice if it would tell you the things you have booked like which restaurant you are going to dinner and at what time.  And it would be great if you could check off things on the schedule that you are interested in so that you could check the app to see what is coming up next.  Ideally, the app could be a complete replacement for the wave phone which I’m sure was high tech initially but now seems clunky.  And yet the wave phone is the only way to call between members of your party and the wave phone is the only device that the Oceaneer Lab and Oceaneer Club use to communicate with parents.  And there is still a wired stateroom phone which you use to request room service or call for help with your stateroom – things that it would be nice to be able to do from the Disney Cruise app.  In other words, the app currently has become a third way to communicate and get info when you are on the boat instead of taking the place of the older ones.  Oh, and it would be super cool if you could use the app to locate the other members of your party via their magic bands!  Or use the app to locate a fellow traveler’s lost phone that was also running the app.

Finally for travelers, some packing suggestions.  Pack lightly and pack flexible stuff.  I wore jeans on the plane with t-shirt and sneakers and then wore the same jeans with a nice shirt and shoes to dinner.  When doing the transfers, you’ll need to pack stuff you want when you arrive on the boat in your carry-on since you will beat your luggage on to the boat.  Fortunately, a bathing suit, sunscreen, and flip-flops don’t take up much room.  You just need to plan for that.  The return luggage handling with the transfers is a little more challenging since your checked bags need to be outside your stateroom ready for pick up by 10:30pm the night before you return.  We packed sometime during the afternoon of our last full day and left out the clothes we would wear that night, our pajamas, and the clothes for the next day.  When we returned to the room after dinner, we changed into our clothes for the next day, finished packing our bags with the clothes we just took off and put the bags out.  Then the only stuff that came home in our carry-ons in addition to the usual stuff was our pajamas.  (You wouldn’t need to change into clothes for the next day if you didn’t mind putting your luggage in the hallway while in your pajamas!)  Also, packing cubes made the process easier because we knew what went in what cube and had done the hard part about fitting the cubes into the luggage at home.  So then it was just reassembling things rather than packing all new.

And finally for Disney Cruise Line, the cost of the cruise was only half of the cost of the trip.  The other half was airfare.  We could easily drive to a port in New England and that would save all the cost of airfare.  Granted, we wouldn’t get the same opportunity for baggage transfers but then the need for it would be greatly reduced.  I know that cruising out of New England isn’t a great choice in February and you wouldn’t get to Castaway Cay.  But there are many summer months when the weather is delightful for cruising and the Maine coast and Rhode Island Coast and Cape Cod have lots of interesting sights to see.  Or you could even cruise from New England to Bermuda!  Considering that you are looking to more ports in Europe, hopefully you’ll consider ports in New England too.  I’m sure you’ll have no trouble filling staterooms.

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