(Updated January 2016)
Disney Cruises – a Review
January is a perfect time to think about not only doing a cruise with your kids this coming summer, but doing a cruise with your kids next summer. Disney will be announcing their Summer 2017 cruise schedule soon, and some of their popular and unique itineraries sell out well over a year in advance. If you’re interested in one of their sailings, grab a reservation before it’s too late!
So, that begs the question: should you be interested in one of their sailings? That depends on your family and your budget, but in general my answer is yes. It’s a great vacation for young and old alike, with some caveats.
We’ve now gone on two Disney Mediterranean cruises with our three kids. The first was to/from Barcelona, stopping in Malta, Palermo, Naples, Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Corsica and Villefranche. The second traveled from Venice to Barcelona, visiting Athens, Ephesus, Rhodes, Crete, Mykonos, Santorini and Malta. Our kids were 1, 3 and 5 for the first cruise and 4, 6 and 8 for the second. After a total of 24 nights on the Disney Magic, here are my thoughts:
I touched on this in my post about the best ages to travel everywhere. We’ve seen everyone from babies just a few months old to people in their 80s on the cruises. Disney does a good job of entertaining everyone, but it always looks to me like the teenagers are having the most fun on the ship. I honestly don’t think that kids under two are going to get much out of a Disney cruise. Any other age will be able to find things to do.
A lot of people ask me about the kids clubs on the ship. Honestly, of all of the things to do on the ship, the kids club hasn’t been a top choice of my kids. The club is well organized and well supervised, and there is an ever-changing agenda of things going on (like fairy tale hours or science hours), but whenever our kids have chosen to spend some time there, they invariably get bored after half an hour or so and want to leave. That’s likely not representative of all kids though.
There are activities on the ship for every age beyond the kids club. Our default was always the pools. The pools are good and never seem overly crowded, even on days at sea with 1000 captive kids on the ship. Our kids enjoyed the waterslides, but I would highly recommend waiting to go them. The line for the Aqua Dunk – the slide that drops suddenly and shoots you in a tube over the side of the ship and back – was over half an hour the first day of our most recent cruise. But by halfway through the trip, there was no line at all.
If you don’t feel like the pool, there’s shuffleboard. There’s a sports court. There are movies always showing, including new Disney releases. There are constant character appearances. There are classes on napkin and towel folding. There are cooking classes. There’s a spa. There’s a gym. There’s Bingo (the only gambling on the ship). There are decent-quality, Broadway-type shows. There are magicians for kids. The list goes on. I always kind of preferred to relax with a book, but I think I was in the minority.
Rooms / Cabins
Our first Disney cruise we booked a two-room suite. It came with a personal attendant who would do things like bring us DVDs and popcorn, and surprise the kids with stuffed animals. The setup of the room was nice, with a larger bathroom and a dining table, but it wasn’t worth the money. We didn’t really need the option to dine in our room, and we didn’t watch too many DVDs or eat too much popcorn. So the second cruise we instead booked two connecting rooms with balconies. This was far less expensive, and although there was a little wasted space in that we didn’t really need four sinks or six beds, it worked out great. Disney even removed the balcony divider for us so that we had one long balcony instead of two smaller ones. Just another reason to book far in advance: there aren’t many connecting rooms, so if you’re a family of five or more, you need to reserve them quickly.
The food ranged from not good to very good. There are three restaurants that you rotate among, with the same servers at each. While my foodie wife was fairly disappointed in the food quality, I was decently happy most nights (except when I ordered fish – it was usually really dry). My kids were nicely adventurous, going for venison, Cornish game hen, duck and other more unique entrees off the adult menu far more often than they ordered off the kids menu. One of the biggest letdowns was Greek Night, but really how is a kitchen catering to 2,500 people going to compete with the lunches in the local tavernas on the islands that we were eating every day?
On our first cruise we did three official Disney port excursions. One was good and uncrowded – to Montserrat in Spain. One was fairly good but very crowded – to Pompeii. And one was terrible and crowded – a pottery-painting workshop for kids in Palermo, Sicily. What we took away from this was: never book the cruise-sponsored excursions! On our second cruise we did research well in advance, determined where we wanted to roam around by ourselves (Rhodes, Crete, Mykonos, Santorini) and where we wanted guided tours (Venice, Athens, Ephesus and Malta), and then booked the tours with the top-rated guides on TripAdvisor. All tours turned out to be far better than the previous Disney excursions, they were all at our pace, and they were all far less expensive than if we had booked through Disney. An added benefit was that each tour was timed to avoid the crowds from our ship and other ships. Every night on the ship when we were listening to other cruise-goers complain about their tours, we felt like we made the right decision. At some point I’ll do a blog post about what we’ve done in each port and what we would recommend. In the meantime feel free to email me if you need port advice.
The Disney Element
So obviously the cruise experience is largely Disney-themed. You’ll see characters walking around and posing for photos, hear a constant Disney soundtrack, and be very much surrounded by Disney while dining. What’s interesting is that the Disney experience is a bit of a time warp. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Chip and Dale – the old-school characters? They’re everywhere. And there’s a night dedicated to Pirates of the Caribbean – the 2003 movie more than the theme park ride. But if you’re looking for characters from the most recent movies? Well, the younger passengers are dressed like them, but Disney largely ignores them. Frozen, the biggest animated movie of all time? There were a couple of character appearances, some screenings of the movie and a themed kids menu one night, but otherwise there was no sign of the movie – not at Animators Palate, the animation-themed restaurant, not on the soundtrack and and not in the shows. And we cruised a full eight months after the movie came out – plenty of time for Disney to have taken elements from it and incorporated them. Brave, Tangled, Up and Cars? Barely present. Yet if you’re a fan of the Emperor’s New Groove and Hercules, which not coincidently came out close to the Disney Magic’s maiden voyage, you’re set.
My kids loved the overall Disney presence. I was fine with it. My wife by the end of the cruise very tired of the Disney theme and forced cheerfulness of all employees / cast members, feeling like she had been trapped in a theme park for 12 days. And even when you get off of the boat it’s not over – on the bus to the airport in Barcelona they were showing yet more Disney videos. Two weeks in Paris post-cruise worked nicely to remove us from a Disney mindset. And no, we didn’t go to Disneyland Paris or into the Disney store on the Champs-Elysees.
Quality of the Experience
Having been subjected recently to a cruise on Royal Caribbean, I have to say that the Disney ships are far nicer, and Disney just does things better. On Royal Caribbean, there was a constant push by the cruise line to get you to spend more money – on alcohol, art, jewelry and gambling primarily. Disney doesn’t hit you over the head with any of that. Sure there are the Disney Vacations desk and a few stores, but otherwise there’s an overall appreciation that you paid in advance for the all-inclusive cruise experience and, other than wine, laundry and pirate costumes, there’s not much to add to the room tab.
Complaints / Summary
One thing that annoyed me on both cruises is that there are plenty of areas in which Disney could improve, but they don’t seem to want to hear about them. There is a “comments and feedback” form at the end of the cruise that everyone is encouraged to return, but really it’s just a series of ratings and there’s no room for actual comments. And when I asked Disney about this on their web page, they quickly deleted the comment. Despite that, I would definitely recommend Disney cruises if you want your kids to have fun in a safe environment for a week to two weeks, with (largely) interesting port stops. But definitely book in advance. When we took our Greek cruise in 2014, the following summer’s Norway cruises were already sold out. We booked our Summer 2016 cruise early in 2015. Check Disney’s website (http://disneycruise.disney.go.com/) for current availability.
Have you gone on a Disney cruise? What was your impression?