So your family loves Disney, but you're looking for an alternative to the two-hour lines and tired feet that inevitably come along with a trip to their theme parks. A Disney Cruise might be just the thing. It's a familiar gripe amongst parents returning from Disney, "We had so much fun, we need a vacation!" What's great about a Disney cruise is that you get to experience the same beloved characters and entertainment you'll find at the theme parks, with the added advantage of getting to visit a destination beyond Orlando with your kids. Fast Pass not required.
Disney Cruise Line Basics
Let's start with the basics: Disney Cruise Line has three ships, the Magic, the Wonder and the Dream. A fourth, the Fantasy, is set to make its maiden voyage in March 2012. The Dream began sailing in January 2011, more than a decade after its predecessors, the Magic and the Wonder. With the addition of the two new vessels, some of their itineraries have shifted. This year, the Magic will spend half the year in the Caribbean, then move to the Mediterranean for the summer. The Wonder (sister ship to the Magic) recently repositioned to the west coast where it will begin all new Alaska itineraries in 2011, as well as Mexican Riviera cruises, stopping in Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. The Dream sails three- to five-night cruises in the Bahamas; and the fantasy will sail seven-night Caribbean itineraries, which will alternate between the Eastern and Western Caribbean.
If you want the park experience to be a part of your trip, you can combine a cruise with a stay at Walt Disney World. For all cruises originating from Port Canaveral, you can book pre- or post-cruise stays at 18 Walt Disney World hotels.
The Disney Cruise Line Experience
Disney's ships are beautiful and elegant, and modeled after the old ocean liners of the 1930's. They're all navy blue and white, with bright red funnels. The decor is Art Deco or Art Nouveau, and while the Disney brand (including hidden Mickeys) is everywhere, it's understated, not in-your-face, like it tends to be in the parks. Naturally, Disney had families in mind when designing all of their ships, and they really pioneered the idea of catering to kids at sea. Their groundbreaking kids' clubs are second-to-none and have large, engaging spaces, amazing counselors and activities for kids of all ages and interests. Their ships have nurseries for babies as young as 3 months old, two different clubs for kids ages 3 to 12 and separate clubs for teens.
Dining on all of Disney's ships follows a rotational dining system. Here's how it works: You are assigned a dining time, 5:45 or 8:15 p.m. on Magic and Wonder, and 6:00 or 8:30 p.m. on Dream and Fantasy, and then you rotate to a different restaurant each night, followed by the same waiter. At the time of booking, you can specify other people to sit with you, if you're traveling with friends or family. If you don't, assignments will be made to fill in your table. Generally, adults without children will dine with other adults, while families dine with other families. On all ships, soda is free in all of the restaurants and at self-service beverage stations on the pool deck.
Disney's ships offer arguably the best entertainment at sea for families, with large-scale, Broadway-style productions in the Walt Disney Theater -- found on every ship. Each ship also has its own signature show, each of which features favorite Disney characters and movies, like the Wonder's "Toy Story-The Musical." And the Magic's, "Twice Charmed -- An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story." Disney was also the first cruise line to do fireworks at sea. They light them off as part of their "Mickey's Pirates IN the Caribbean" celebration where kids dress up, dance and play pirate games. On the Dream, the show includes a visit from Jack Sparrow, who repels off the ship's funnel.
For many families, character greetings are an essential part of the Disney cruise experience. Kids can meet and greet the characters at dozens of scheduled times throughout the cruise. Often, you'll see them wandering around, and they always stop for a photo. They also pay visits to the kids' clubs. On the new Dream, they interact with kids via a jumbo screen in Oceaneer's Club and Lab. Frozen's Anna and Elsa can be found on select sailings on the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, while the characters of Star Wars can be found onboard Fantasy for special Star Wars at Sea sailings.
Another appealing aspect of taking a Disney cruise with the kids, as opposed to a Disney park or resort visit, is that there are plenty of kid-free spaces onboard all of their ships. Each has a secluded section of adults-only bars and clubs -- Route 66 on the Wonder, Beat Street on the Magic and The District on the Dream -- offer parents a retreat in the evenings, while the kids are enjoying the supervised activities in the clubs. You'll also find a quiet, adults-only pool on each ship, as well as a wonderfully relaxing and serene Vista Spa, operated by Steiner of London. Palo is an amazing adults-only Italian restaurant on all the Disney ships. Also, the new Dream and Fantasy have a second kid-free option named after the famous rat chef in "Ratatouille" -- Remy.
Disney ships also provides free wave phones for onboard communications (great for families who want to keep in touch), and their large cabins with separate baths and showers are a godsend. Disney ships don't have casinos (hooray!) or libraries (boo).
Onboard the Disney Magic
Disney Magic is the oldest of Disney Cruise Line's ships, and came into service in 1998. Onboard you'll find outstanding kids' programs for children of all ages. The Flounder's Reef Nursery takes babies as young as three months old, and has a sweet mermaid theme, with separate quiet and play areas, games, movies, swings and cribs. The Oceaneer's Club and Lab are both open to kids ages 3 to 12, though the Club hosts activities generally geared toward the younger set, like dress-up and princess meet-and-greets, while the Lab has cooking classes, computer games and science experiments. Both offer kids access to computer games. Parents of kids 12 and under will get a pager when leaving their kids in any of the onboard children's clubs. The Stack is a super cool club just for teens, ages 14 to 17. It feels like a lounge or a coffee shop with oversized furniture, flat-screen televisions, a non-alcoholic bar with sodas and smoothies, a dance floor and computers with limited Internet access.
Kids, especially young kids, will love the pools. There are three great (but small) pools, including one quiet pool for adults only. The highlight is Mickey's Pool, which has a 200-foot Mickey water-slide (kids must be ages 4 to 14 to ride) and a small two-foot pool shaped like The Mouse. While it's designed for young kids, you'll see lots of school-aged kids splashing around too, since the only alternative is the four-foot deep Goofy's Pool. Goofy's Pool overlooks an awesome 24-by-14-foot jumbo screen, mounted on the ship's funnel, where movies are played. Children must be potty-trained to use both pools; but there's a small splash area next to Mickey's Pool that is perfect for toddlers still in swim diapers. The 4-foot Cove Pool is for those over 18 and offers a quiet respite for mom and dad. All of the pools are well-heated so kids can swim regardless of the weather.
There are three main dining restaurants. Animator's Palate is a favorite with its black-and-white animated walls that come alive with color during your meal. The French- inspired Lumiere's is more refined and elegant, with excellent food, while tropical-themed Parrot Cay is more relaxed with American fare that's always appealing to kids. Topsider is a buffet that offers an alternative to the main dining restaurants, open for three meals a day. Adults-only Palo has amazing Italian food for dinner and an ambience so refined you'll forget you're on a Disney ship. Palo also does a wonderful brunch; and while there's a cover to get in ($20 per person), it's worth every cent. You'll also find quick eats for pizza and sandwiches, and the adults-only Cove Cafe for drinks, coffee and snacks. Room service is available 24 hours a day.
Onboard the Disney Wonder
The Disney Wonder is the sister ship to the Magic, and came into service a year after Magic in 1999. The Wonder has the same great kids' clubs that you'll find on the Magic, including the Flounder's Reef Nursery, Oceaneer's Club and Lab, and a club just for teens, which on the Wonder is called the Stack, since it's located in the ship's non-functioning smoke stack.
The pools are identical to those on the Magic, and include Mickey's Pool, Goofy's Pool and the adults-only Cove Pool. Dining options are almost identical, with a few notable exceptions. Both Animator's Palate and Parrot Cay are also on the Wonder, but in place of Lumiere's, you'll find the French-inspired Triton's. Themed after the Little Mermaid, Tritons has stained-glass walls, enormous chandeliers, and mural of Ariel. Beach Blanket Buffet is the requisite buffet (for breakfast and lunch), which transforms into a table-service restaurant for dinner. Palo, which is hands-down the best restaurant onboard, is here too. Don't miss it.
Beginning in May 2011, the Disney Wonder moved from the Caribbean Sea to the Inner Passage of Alaska to become Disney's inaugural cruise to Alaska. The cruise departs from Vancouver in 2011 (it will be Seattle in 2012) and sails to Alaskan ports of call Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau, as well as into Tracy Arm. As an Alaskan ship, the onboard themed-activities and menus reflect the culture and foods of Alaska. With the cold winters, the cruises will run through early October and the ship will dry dock until May 2012.
Onboard the Disney Dream
Disney newest ship to hit the seas, the Dream, set sail on January 26, 2011. It's bigger and bolder than its predecessors, and offers many new features. First off, it's 40 percent larger than the Magic and Wonder, with two more decks. The Dream carries 4,000 passengers, and sails three- to five-night Bahamian cruises out of Port Canaveral, stopping in Nassau and Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.
The Dream looks just like the Magic and Wonder, but sports an extra appendage up top in the form of a giant acrylic tube. The AquaDuck water slide (or "watercoaster" as Disney calls it) is a 765-foot-long slide that travels up, down four decks, at one point extending out over the side of the ship, where you can look down 150 feet to the water below. It's a fun addition, but little ones be advised: there's a 48-inch height limit.
A lot is new in The Oceaneer's Club and Lab, for ages 3 to 12, as well. First off, they are connected, so kids can roam back and forth between them. The Oceaneer's Club is divided into several separate rooms on this ship; Andy's room has oversized characters from Toy Story for little ones to climb on and on the Laugh Floor kids can measure their own volumes on the "laugh-o-meter" and hang out with Mike and Sully. The Lab on the Dream has a new animator's Studio, and a mini Sound Studio. Both the Club and Lab have Magic Floors on which kids can play interactive games, controlling the outcome by where they step on the floor. Tweens (ages 11 to 13) have their own space on the Dream, called The Edge, located in the funnel on Deck 13. It has an 18-foot video wall, video karaoke, and computers with access to an intranet-based social media app. The 9,000-foot teen club Vibe (ages 14 to 17) has modular furniture, a fountain bar, and its own outdoor space with a sundeck and wading pools.
The pools onboard the Dream are very similar to those on the Magic and Wonder. You'll find the same Mickey Pool and waterslide, as well as the four-foot pool overlooking the jumbo screen; though on this ship it's named after Donald instead of Goofy. There are additions to the sports deck on the Dream as well, including a small mini-gold course, sports courts and new virtual sports games.
Like Magic and Wonder, the Dream has three main restaurants, all of which are new. Well, almost. Animator's Palate has found its way onboard; but this new version is very different, as you are brought to an underwater world with fish, bubbles and appearances by Nemo characters. The Versailles-inspired Enchanted Garden transforms day into night with special lighting effects. Princess fans will love the Royal Palace, which has hand-painted portraits of "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty" on the walls.
Also new on the Dream is a separate treatment area for teens, interactive (enchanted) art that moves when you admire it, and a really cool industry-first: Virtual Portholes. Above the beds on inside cabins you'll find a round screen that displays a virtual view outside, by means of cameras mounted on the side of the ship.
Onboard the Disney Fantasy
The Disney Fantasy set sail on March 31, 2012, and is the sister ship to the Disney Dream. Fantasy sails out of Port Canaveral on seven-night Caribbean itineraries, which alternates between the Eastern and Western Caribbean. The Eastern Caribbean itinerary calls in St. Thomas and St. Maarten, while the Western calls in Grand Cayman and Costa Maya Cozumel. Both make stops in Castaway Cay.
You will find many of the same spaces and amenities that are found onboard the Dream, including at Animator's Palate, Palo, Remy and Enchanted Garden restaurants, and Oceaneer's, The Edge, and Vibe children's and teens clubs, as well. Infants from 3 months to 3 years can spend time in the quiet It's a Small World Nursery while parents and older children enjoy some of the bigger attractions on the ship. For water fun, guests can enjoy Donald and Mickey's pools, as well as Nemo's Reef toddler splash area, and in the Bibbidi Bobbed Boutique, children are transformed into pirates and princesses.
For families, the oversized Concierge Family staterooms can sleep five with a queen bed, double sofa bed and an pull-down bed. One-bedroom suites in the Concierge level also sleep five with a queen-outfitted bedroom and a separate living area with a sofa bed and pull-down bed, and two bathrooms.
Read full reviews of Disney Cruise Line Cruises
Watch our video blog aboard a Disney Cruise
Disney Wonder Alaskan Cruise Video Blog
More From Family Vacation Critic:
10 Best Family Hotels in Cruise Ports
What's New at Disney World in 2015