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A DCL primer for Disney World people

A DCL primer for Disney World people

Lots of people enjoy going to the Disney parks and want to consider branching out to new areas but aren’t sure where to start.

That’s why we’ve put together this Disney Cruise Line primer to help you get started if cruising is new to you.

When we teach people how to plan trips to Walt Disney World, we like to use a 6-step planning process to make sure all of the decisions are being made in the right order.

We’re going to adapt that for cruising in order to walk you through the basics.

Step 1: pick a cruise

Choosing travel dates for a Disney World trip is usually a matter of comparing your availability to crowd calendars or events that are scheduled, but picking a cruise includes a lot more factors that might make this step harder (though other steps – like dining – are much easier for a cruise).

Factors to consider when picking a cruise:

  • Your availability
  • Length of cruise – lots of options available from 2-15 nights in length. We recommend 4-5 nights minimum for a first cruise to give you time to learn and enjoy the ship.
  • Departure port – is the place that it’s departing easily accessible to you? If you’re a Disney World person who wants to try DCL, cruises out of Port Canaveral might be easiest to create a land/sea trip.
  • Itinerary – is the cruise stopping in places you want to visit?
  • Ship – Disney has 6 ships that vary in size, age, and amenities
  • Price – the cost of each cruise can vary wildly. Booking early is your best bet for getting the lowest price.

Use DCL’s filter tool to narrow down your options based on your criteria and/or check out the chart below that compares all of the ships.

Started Service
984 ft long x 106 ft wide
984 ft long x 106 ft wide
1115 ft long x 121 feet wide
1115 ft long x 121 feet wide
1119 ft long x 128 ft wide
1119 ft long x 128 ft wide
# of staterooms
Departure Ports (for 2024 and early 2025)
Ft. Lauderdale, Galveston, San Juan, New Orleans, Port Canaveral
Auckland (New Zealand), Brisbane (Australia), Honolulu, Melbourne (Australia), San Diego, Sydney (Australia), Vancouver B.C. (Canada)
Barcelona, Rome, Ft. Lauderdale, Southampton (England)
Port Canaveral
Port Canaveral
Port Canaveral
Cruise Lengths
3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 nights
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, and 15 nights
3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, and 13 nights
3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 10 nights
3 and 4 nights
7 nights
3 Main Dining Rooms
Rapunzel's Royal Table, Lumiere's, Animator's Palate
Tiana's Place, Animator's Palate, Triton's
Enchanted Garden, Animator's Palate, Royal Palace
Enchanted Garden, Animator's Palate, Royal Court
Arendelle, Worlds of Marvel, 1923
Plaza de Coco, Worlds of Marvel, 1923
Adult-Exclusive Signature Restaurant(s)
Remy and Palo
Remy and Palo
Palo and Enchante
Palo and Enchante
Casual Buffet
Marceline Market
Marceline Market
Quick Service options
Duck-In Diner, Pinocchio's Pizzeria, and Daisy's De-Lites
Pete's Boiler Bites, Pinocchio's Pizzeria, Daisy De-Lites
Luigi's Pizza, Tow Mater's Grill, Fillmore's Favorites
Luigi's Pizza, Tow Mater's Grill, Fillmore's Favorites
Mickey's Smokestack Barbecue, Donald's Cantina, Daisy's Pizza Pies, Goofy's Grill
Add New
Senses Spa
Senses Spa
Senses Spa
Senses Spa
Senses Spa
Senses Spa
O'Gills Pub
Crown & Fin Pub
Pub 687
O'Gills Pub
Keg & Compass
Periscope Pub
Cadillac Lounge
Add New
Add New
Adult pool
Quiet Cove Pool
Quiet Cove Pool
Quiet Cove Pool
Quiet Cove Pool
Quiet Cove Pool
Quiet Cove Pool
Adult pool bar
Cove Bar
Cove Bar
Currents Bar
Add New
Cove Cafe
Cove Cafe
Cove Cafe
Cove Cafe
Cove Cafe
Cove Cafe
Main Stage
Walt Disney Theater
Walt Disney Theater
Walt Disney Theater
Walt Disney Theater
Walt Disney Theater
Walt Disney Theater
Main Stage Shows
Twice Charmed, Disney Dreams, Tangled: The Musical
Frozen - A Musical Spectacular, Disney Dreams, The Golden Mickeys
Beauty and the Beast, Disney's Believe, The Golden Mickeys
Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular, Disney's Believe, Frozen - A Musical Spectacular
The Little Mermaid, Disney Seas the Adventure, Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular
Disney the Tale of Moana, Beauty and the Beast, Disney Seas the Adventure
Walking/Jogging Path
Deck 4
Deck 4
Deck 4
Deck 4
U-shaped path on decks 4 and 5
U-shaped path on decks 4 and 5
Plunge slide or water coaster
AquaDuck water coaster
AquaDuck water coaster
Smaller size ship can make it easier to navigate on board, smaller ship also means fewer people on Castaway Cay (for itineraries that go there), often less expensive than the larger ships, Tangled: The Musical often regarded as 1 of the best on any cruise ship
Smaller size ship can make it easier to navigate, smaller ship also means fewer people on Castaway Cay (for itineraries that go there), often less expensive than the larger ships, some interesting and longer itinerary options,
Marvel Day at Sea cruises, longer itinerary options
Pixar Day at Sea cruises, a few exclusive bar areas, several itineraries go to Castaway Cay twice, several itineraries go to both Castaway Cay and Lookout Cay
Everything is shiny and new, extensive kids areas, great food, many more options for entertainment/activities, multiple themed bar areas
Everything is shiny and new, extensive kids areas, great food, many more options for entertainment/activities, multiple themed bar areas, longer itineraries
Oldest ship (still in good condition but not as shiny and new as the newer ships) 
One of the oldest ships (still in good condition but not as new as the newest ships), no water coaster or plunge slide
Usually a little more expensive than the smaller ships
Usually a little more expensive than the smaller ships
Lack of a full jogging deck, no midship elevators, huge ship with short itineraries, adult areas are spread out rather than all together like on smaller ships
Lack of a full jogging deck, no midship elevators, adult areas are spread out rather than all together like on smaller ships
Ideal for:
Tangled fans (stage show and dining room for Rapunzel/Tangled), solo travelers (since the cost is usually lower so the single supplement is as wel), people who want a smaller ship
People who want a smaller ship with interesting itineraries, solo travelers (since the cost is usually lower so the single supplement is as well)
Families as there are lots of options for kids and some fun itinerary options
Families as there are lots of options for kids and some fun itinerary options
People who want a big ship with lots of amenities, those traveling to WDW who want an easy way to add on to a land trip
People who want a big ship with lots of amenities, those who want a 7 day itinerary

Step 2: choose your stateroom

For Disney World trips, this step would be all about choosing your hotel and room type, but it’s about choosing your stateroom when cruising.

Unlike hotels, cruises allow you to pick your exact room so you’ll know what type of room you’re getting and where it’ll be located on the ship.

(There’s also the option to choose an unassigned room for a lower cost which allows Disney Cruise Line to assign you closer to your cruise date. These are called guarantee rooms. Get more details.)

When choosing a stateroom, you’ll want to consider these things:

  • Cost – bigger rooms cost more, interior rooms can save you money, etc.
  • Type of room – room size, bed configuration, interior/exterior, etc.
  • Location on the ship – forward (front) vs midship vs aft (back), port side (left side as you face the front of the ship) vs starboard (right side), and which deck (lower decks are often better for motion sickness, upper decks have better views)

While researching, you may want to search “[ship name] [stateroom]” for pics, videos, and reviews.

Step 3: make a daily plan

If this were Disney World, you’d be choosing which parks to visit each day of your trip. Since it’s a cruise with a preset itinerary, you’ll want to decide what activities to do each day of your cruise instead.

The tricky thing about knowing what’s happening on your cruise is that you have some parts you already know (days at sea, ports) and some you won’t easily know all the details about (when is pirate night, is there a formal night, etc.)

The schedule is available to concierge guests about 140 days before the cruise begins by emailing [email protected].

Concierge guests will often share that schedule in cruise FB Groups. Sites sometimes have Personal Navigators (printed schedules) from recent cruises that can also give you much more detail on what’s happening each day.

For days at sea:

  • There will be lots of onboard activities you can do for free. You’ll be able to find the whole list in the DCL app during your cruise. We recommend hearting the things you’re interested in which will put them in your plans.
  • Activities you can pay extra to do. This can include things like mixology classes, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, spa services, etc.

For port days:

  • You can choose to stay on the ship. The activities above are available on port days as well if you choose to stay on the ship. For example, we always stay on the ship in Nassau, Bahamas, because it’s not a port we like and the ship is quieter on those days.
  • You can choose what to do when you get off the ship. If you get off at a port, you can choose what to do which could include just walking around, but often includes booking port adventures (excursions). Booking through DCL guarantees they’ll take care of you in the event of anything happening during your port adventure, but it also often means the activities cost more money or have more limited options. Booking on your own can give you more options at a lower cost, but if the port adventure operator doesn’t get you back in time (a rare event for a reputable company) the ship will leave without you boarding and you’ll have to figure out how to meet up with your cruise again. We highly recommend reading reviews of port adventures as the description given by the cruise line or operator doesn’t always thoroughly explain how it works or what’s included.

Themed nights during your cruise

In addition to sea and port days, you might also want to look at themed nights on your cruise.

Most or all Disney cruises have themed nights such as pirate night, Frozen night, formal night, semi-formal night, etc. You’ll likely find out the schedule for these in your cruise FB Group.

Participation in those is totally optional, but if you’re interested in partaking, be sure to add it to your daily plans so you can dress for the occasion.

Live productions

Every ship has a theater called Walt Disney Theater where stage productions take place a few nights during your cruise.

Some of these are stage versions of popular Disney movies (Tangled, Little Mermaid, Cinderella, etc.) and others are original cruise line productions (Golden Mickeys, Disney Seas the Adventure, Disney Dreams).

We highly recommend making time to see them as it’s 1 of the things that Disney Cruise Line does so well.

There will be 2 showings on the nights that the productions are running. For good seating, try to line up 20-30 minutes beforehand.

Step 4: planning dining

This step of the planning is much easier when cruising than going to Disney World since it’s mostly all planned out for you.

On Disney Cruise ships, there are usually these dining options available:

  • 1 large casual buffet location – large buffet available for breakfast and lunch
  • 3 main Table Service restaurants – themed dining rooms that you rotate through each night of your cruise, has a main dining time or late dining time option
  • Quick Service locations – a few different options, often located near the pool
  • 1 or 2 adult-exclusive restaurants – requires reservations, costs extra, has a dress code, available for brunch or dinner
  • Room service – food is included with your cruise cost, but you’ll want to tip $1-3 for a small order, $4-5 for a larger order
  • Miscellaneous areas – various lounges, coffee spots, etc., throughout the ship. Often costs extra.

All of the food listed above is included unless noted.

Some tips related to dining on your cruise:

  • You will rotate between the 3 main Table Service restaurants throughout your cruise, keeping the same table number and servers who rotate with you.
  • You won’t know which order you’ll be dining in them until you can connect to the ship’s wifi at the cruise terminal or on board. If, for some reason, you don’t don’t like your rotation, you can go to Guest Services on the ship to see if they can change it.
  • Your stateroom will have breakfast order door hangers (usually in the desk drawer). You can jot down your breakfast order, leave it on your door, and it’ll be delivered at the time specified. This is completely free since all room service is included. Unless you’re staying concierge, room service breakfast options are really limited. You’ll want to head to a restaurant if you want hot breakfast food.
  • Eating at the adult-exclusive restaurants requires a reservation. These spots can be really competitive, particularly on days at sea. The service and food are incredible, so we do highly recommend them if you want something special during your cruise.
  • The 1 large casual buffet location on each ship is often very busy and crowded, but you can often find smaller locations near the pools that are less crowded.
  • You’ll need to pick a dining time for your 3 rotational Table Service meals. Early dining is usually at 5:45 p.m., while late dining starts at 8 p.m. We’ve done both and prefer early dining because we like the flow of having dinner, going to see the ship’s evening show, and then heading for nighttime activities and bars. However, earlier dining does have more kids and may require getting back to the ship too early, depending on your port and port adventure times.

Step 5: booking and checking in

In this step, let’s talk about booking and check-in processes for Disney cruises because it’s often 1 of the most confusing parts of the whole process.

Now that you’ve made some decisions for your cruise, you can now book your trip.

You can do that on your own, but we highly recommend booking with Small World Vacations who can not only provide professional help but offer you onboard credit that you won’t be able to get on your own.

Once your deposit is put down, be sure to join your cruise’s FB Group which is an invaluable resource as you plan. Search “[ship name] [cruise date]” to find yours (for example “Disney Magic January 10-15 2025”).

FYI – booking for the items below opens at midnight eastern time.

When to book
Book your cruise
Up to 15-18 months out
Final payment due for cruises of 6+ nights (must be paid before booking activities)
120 days
Final payment due for cruises 1-5 nights in length (must be paid before booking activities)
90 days
Concierge guest activity booking
130 days
Pearl Castaway Club activity booking
123 days
Platinum Castaway Club activity booking
120 days
Gold Castaway Club activity booking
105 days
Silver Castaway Club activity booking
90 days
First-time DCL cruiser activity booking
75 days
Pearl and Concierge online check-in
40 days
Platinum online check-in
38 days
Gold online check-in
35 days
Silver online check-in
33 days
First-time DCL cruisers online check-in
30 days
Royal Gathering (for ALL guests)
30 days

Step 6: add extra magic

We always like to include this step in any trip plan because it’s a chance to customize and have fun with your plans.

For a Disney Cruise, consider some of these options:

  • Bring special outfits to wear for themed nights (as mentioned above).
  • Participate in Fish Extenders which allow you to hang something from the fish hook outside your room that other people can deposit trinkets into while you deposit gifts you’ve brought into theirs. This is usually organized in your cruise’s FB Group.
  • Decorate your door. The stateroom doors are magnetic (sometimes the walls are too) so they’re fun to decorate with magnets that are often used to hang lights, dry erase boards, and other decorative items.
  • Purchasing onboard gifts. This is a fun way to have your stateroom decorated when you arrive or have gifts delivered during your cruise. Many onboard gifts are exclusive to each ship.
  • Get a free call from a character. Pre-recorded phone calls from Disney characters wishing you well on your sailing are a fun way to get the entire travel group excited about an upcoming Disney cruise. After you’ve booked your cruise, visit My Reservations under My Disney Cruise and select “Request Call” beside the Free Character Call header. This link will take you to a site where you can choose a Disney character, enter your phone number, schedule a call time, and provide additional information for your Character Call. 
Obsessed with this little bluetooth speaker which is only available to purchase ahead of time as an onboard gift.

Disney Cruise Line trip reports

We routinely chat with people about their cruises. If you’re interested in reading and/or listening to their reports, these might be of interest to you:

Learn more

Although this primer covers a lot of info, we dive into even more details in these articles.

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Shannon Albert