by Sean McCumber
In this series of articles, we will take a look at the Disney Cruise Line for first timers, from dining to adventures to ships and more. You may be a regular cruiser on the other cruise lines, or you may be a regular at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. But there is much to learn about experiencing Disney on the seas.
Lets start with some big picture items. You have to decide what cruise you want to take. Disney Cruise Line offers everything from three-night cruises to the Bahamas to 12-nights in the Mediterranean to Transatlantic voyages and Panama Canal repositioning cruises — and lots more in-between. Many first-timers like to try out their sea legs on the three-night cruise to the Bahamas. It’s easy, and if you book it right, you can find some pretty decent deals. Also, Disney Cruise Line buses run from Walt Disney World to Port Canaveral, so you can tack a cruise on to a theme park vacation (even parks in Orlando that we need not mention here). Other first-timers are looking for something completely different – maybe an Alaskan cruise, full of glacier adventures. Or perhaps an Eastern Caribbean cruise to exotic beach ports catches your fancy. The best way to navigate these options is to speak to a travel agent who works with an Authorized Disney Travel Planner agency, particularly an agent who has cruise experience. An agent with solid Disney Cruise Line knowledge and experience can help explain Disney’s unique rotational dining system, assist with recommending Port Adventures and shipboard activities, ensure that you’re booking the room category that will meet your needs at the best possible rate, and may even offer booking incentives. Unlike most cruise lines, the best rates on Disney cruises are almost always available as close to the release of new itineraries as possible – usually about 18-24 months in advance. A travel agent can work out with you what you want, and then watch for the itineraries to be released, getting you booked as soon as possible to lock in that introductory pricing.
When you book your cruise, you will usually need to put down a deposit equal to roughly 20% of your cruise fare (certain taxes and port fees are excluded from the deposit, and Disney occasionally runs specials where you can book with a smaller deposit). Assuming you’ve taken my advice, and booked as far in advance as possible, now the waiting begins. For Disney’s standard Bahamas cruise, 75 days before your cruise, your cruise must be paid for in full. As soon as you’ve paid in full and are 75 days from sailing, you can begin booking Port Adventures and other special additions to your cruise, including fine dining at the excellent signature restaurants on the ships and registering children for the youth activities program. (Deadlines differ for other cruises – read your booking documents carefully and/or go over your deadlines with your travel agent). Your cruise documents can be completed online, including the necessary signature pages, but you will still receive a cruise package book in the mail, which will include your luggage tags and special information about your cruise. If you are like me, those last 75 days feel like forever!
Because many people fly to Florida, rather than driving, a caution about booking flights before a cruise. Unlike Walt Disney World, if you miss your flight or are substantially delayed, Disney Cruise Line will not wait for you. All aboard means all aboard. Because weather in Florida is about as predictable as lottery scratcher tickets, and delays at any airport between your home airport and Florida (and sometimes even beyond that range) can mean delays for you, it is always best to plan on arriving at the cruise departure port at least tne day before your cruise departure date. If you just can’t resist the risk of flying in the day your cruise departs, I strongly encourage you to book the first flight out of your home airport. Statistically speaking, the later in the day your flight is scheduled to depart, the greater the chance that you’ll experience a delay. When you pack, keep a carryon day-bag with you that contains your IDs, your cruise documentation, swim gear for you and the family, sunscreen, and medications (in TSA-approved sizes). Even if you arrive in Florida the day before your cruise (or longer in advance), any luggage that you check at the port will be delivered to your cruise stateroom, and it may be a few hours after boarding before you have access to your room (and potentially another couple of hours after that before your bags are delivered).
A few notes about personal identification for cruises. On a closed-loop cruise (round trip, returning to the same port from which the ship departed), you have three options. The cheapest option is a government-issued photo ID and a birth certificate (for adults) or birth certificate (for children under age 16). The next least-expensive option is a passport card, which costs $55/adult and $45/child under age 16. Though it’s the most expensive option, the best option is still to have a Passport. Passports are a bit pricey – $135 per adult; $105 per child under age 16. BUT, they’re good for 10 years, renewal is a bit cheaper than a new passport, and they’re the only form of ID that will allow you to reenter the United States in any manner other than returning on the ship as part of the closed loop cruise. Emergencies are extremely rare, but they do happen. If you do not have a passport, you cannot be airlifted back to the United States for medical treatment, to attend to a family emergency, etc. Passport cards aren’t much more than a convenient-to-carry substitute to a birth certificate and photo ID. The cards are NOT substitutes for a valid Passport. The U.S. Department of State is the best source of Passport information for U.S. Citizens.
We’ll pick up the series next time with staterooms, stateroom selection, and dinner seatings.