Like many families, ours has cherished memories of visiting Disney World every few years since our two boys were small enough to get in for free.
Nowadays when we visit, we love planning out our FastPasses and ride strategies, wearing our Mickey apparel, exploring the newest rides and attractions, staying at Disney resorts or nearby Orlando hotels and, of course, cooling off with a mid-day post-“Pirates” pineapple Dole Whip break.
We’ve also sailed on two Disney cruises in the past four years: first the Disney Magic and most recently the Disney Fantasy, in addition to several other cruises. (Full disclosure: I also write regularly for Family Vacation Critic’s sister website, Cruise Critic).
As Disney’s fleet expands to five ships with the introduction of the newest ship, Disney Wish, expected to debut in 2022, we’ve decided to explore the advantages of a Disney cruise vs. Disney World to help you decide if a cruise is right for your next vacation with Mickey Mouse and crew.
Disney Cruise vs. Disney World: Crowds
Ask anyone who’s been to the Disney parks and they’ll most likely share that their biggest pain point comes from waiting in line: waiting for rides, waiting for character visits, and angling for a good photo opportunity or a spot to watch the parades.
Though FastPasses somewhat help to mitigate these headaches, for some of the newest attractions, such as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, ride lines have spanned more than five hours, leading some long-time Disney fans to grumble that there’s no such thing as an “off-season” at Disney anymore.
Also, some of the most special dining experiences and character visits at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom book up quickly, so if you haven’t adequately planned ahead, you might miss out on some of your top choices.
Though cruise ships pack as many as 4,000 passengers on board, somehow sailing on a Disney cruise seems less crowded than Walt Disney World, especially during peak times. The cruise lines do a good job of crowd control throughout the cruise, and though you will occasionally wait in line for some things, it’s certainly not a multi-hour wait.
A few examples: on our recent cruise on the Disney Fantasy, we booked several character greetings in advance and were able to wait in lines of less than 15 minutes for other characters we saw without appointments. I observed that these encounters seemed less rushed than at the Disney parks. Elsa and Darth Vader had extensive interactions with my son before we got photos and autographs.
At the evening shows (there are two show times every night for live productions of Aladdin and Frozen), we never had a problem getting a good seat, arriving about 10 to 15 minutes prior to every show. That’s better than other major cruise lines that have started ticketing for popular shows because they run out of seats.
The largest crowds you’ll see will be at peak dining times in the buffet restaurant or for the evening fireworks shows and deck parties. Still, there’s always some place you can easily steal away to for some quiet if you grow weary of the crowds.
Disney Cruise vs. Disney World: Service
Disney built its brand upon excellent service, whether you’re visiting parks, resorts or a cruise. We’ve always loved that at its best Disney always does a great job of making vacations feel special and magical.
Throughout the parks, it’s the little touches that make the difference. For example, you might be celebrating a birthday or a honeymoon, and you’ll hear special greetings from cast members throughout the day. A friend’s daughter kept wanting to ride the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros ride at the Epcot Mexico pavilion on a relatively slow day. Cast members started cheering them on to break the record for most repeat rides, even making an announcement and giving them special buttons.
Characters often pop up and spend a little extra time bopping around while dancing with your kids. (The Evil Queen’s catty banter is legendary.) Whether you’re riding the monorail, checking into a resort, dining in a special restaurant, riding a ride or purchasing a special souvenir, chances are fairly good that Disney employees add a little extra touch of magic to an otherwise banal transaction.
This level of service definitely holds up on Disney Cruise Line. Our most recent cruise on the Fantasy included some of the best dining room wait staff and room attendants we’ve experienced on a cruise.
Parents might worry about their younger kids’ ability to sit still for a multi-course formal dinner, but our waiter and assistant waiter kept our kids’ attention by performing nightly magic tricks, bringing them special desserts and styling the ketchup for their French fries into Mickey faces.
Our cabin steward created blanket animals for us to come back to every night before bed, and always had a smile and a kind word for our kids when he saw us each day. Elsewhere on the ship, we witnessed the same level of service—we even started taking our kids to the formal dining room for lunch each day (something we normally wouldn’t take the time to do), because the service was so phenomenal.
I would argue that a Disney cruise offers even better service than at the parks, because on a weeklong trip you’ll have the opportunity to bond with cruise staff over the course of your trip. From the first night, the staff you interact with knows your name and even your meal preferences, and this makes for a really personalized vacation experience.
Disney Cruise vs. Disney World: Food
Food at Disney parks transcends the average restaurant dining experience. For example, one of our favorite WDW dining experiences is visiting the Be Our Guest restaurant, where an elevated multi-course meal is capped off with a serving of “the grey stuff” (“it’s delicious!”) and even little edible paint pots so the kids could paint their own Chip the teacup. Add to this the atmosphere of the restaurant that puts you right into the setting of Beauty and the Beast, including foreboding thunderstorms, a magical rose and portraits that transform.
Disney-philes of all ages consider dining throughout Epcot’s World Showcase—with themed food and drinks appropriate to the country in which you’re visiting—to be a quintessential part of your park experience. Elsewhere, in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, for example, you’ll also find imaginative food and beverage offerings that coincide with the area you’re visiting, allowing you to experience Avatar’s Pandora or Africa and Asia with all of your senses.
In true Disney fashion, dining aboard a Disney cruise ship goes beyond a typical meal. Unlike any other cruise line, Disney rotates diners among three different dining rooms each night. You dine at a set time (either early or late seating) and stay with the same wait staff each night as you experience a new restaurant.
On the Disney Fantasy, the biggest hit for our kids was Animator’s Palate. The first night, Crush the Turtle from Finding Nemo engaged in lively banter with seated guests from screens around the dining room, leading us all in chants of “Dude!” by the end of our meal. On the next night that we dined in this restaurant, we each drew our own animated figure, which was later brought to life to dance on the screen during our dessert course.
Speaking of dessert: even picky kids love eating on a Disney ship—what’s not to like about your very own Mickey-shaped ice cream bar appearing whenever you say the word? They’ll get their own menu, which changes each night and includes kid-friendly favs like mac and cheese and cheeseburgers. Want something that’s not listed? Just ask your waiter—we tested out a few special requests throughout our cruise, and we always received what we asked for. Waitstaff is also very attuned to food allergies, and will always ask about any dietary needs prior to taking your order.
We really enjoyed both the service and the quality of the food in the on board restaurants. A buffet with limited operating hours, and 24-hour room service is also available, and there’s soft-serve ice cream in four different flavors on board near the pool area for late-night cravings, too.
Also worth noting are the additional fee venues on board Disney Cruise Line: Palo and Remy, two upscale, adults-only venues that elevate the great food and service even higher. These are worthy of a date night splurge while your kids enjoy their own meals at the kids’ clubs.
Disney World vs. Disney Cruise: Value
Disney vacation prices vary widely depending on the season and your budget, but Disney insiders price resort-and-park vacations anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per day for a family of four, when you factor in the cost of park passes, accommodations and food.
A typical seven-night Disney Caribbean cruise can cost about $600 to $1,000 (or more) per day for a family of four, depending on the type of cabin you choose, your itinerary and the time of year you travel. Shorter itineraries of as little as two nights are available (some families add this on to a traditional Disney resort vacation), or longer trips are also an option with itineraries that include visits to Europe, Alaska, the Panama Canal and Hawaii.
Disney cruises, though certainly not the cheapest in the industry, roll in the cost of all of the items you’d pay a la carte for at the parks: food and accommodations—and even nonalcoholic drinks—in addition to including childcare for kids older than 3.
Disney Cruise vs. Disney World: Entertainment
It’s true that you can’t recreate a Disney parks experience on a cruise ship—with so many rides and attractions, a cruise ship can’t compete on some levels with the fast-pace thrills of a day at an amusement park.
Instead of rides, your days at sea will most likely be consumed by the myriad pool and splash pad attractions (like the super fun AquaDuck tube slide that courses around the Dream and Fantasy), plus putt-putt golf and lots of scheduled on-board activities like crafts, trivia and theme days such as Star Wars at Sea and pirate day, when nearly everyone gets into the spirit by dressing up in costume.
One of the biggest perks is access to the kids’ clubs, for ages 3 to 12, included in the cost of your cruise. Babies can go to the Royal Tots nursery for a fee; and there are also clubs for tweens and teens.
These facilities draw on Disney’s impressive oeuvre of movies and characters, from a Toy Story-themed “Andy’s Room” to the Marvel Superhero Academy to a Star Wars command center to an animator’s studio—all with regularly scheduled activities that capture kids’ imaginations, even into the late night hours so that parents can have some kid-free time if they want it.
You’ll also have access to all the characters you’d find at the parks, and the greetings are scheduled multiple times a day so you can catch them throughout your vacation.
Also on board the ship, you’ll find the Midship Detective Agency, which allows kids to solve a multi-part mystery using augmented reality technology that enables the ship’s pieces of artwork to come alive with Disney characters and lead children on the hunt for clues.
Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, is another great perk of a Disney cruise. Many of the Caribbean itineraries stop at this Bahamian island, which is exclusive to Disney cruise guests. Here you’ll find powdery beaches, a splash pad, a mini-waterpark in the middle of the ocean, stingray excursions, bike rentals, a 5K island run, and delicious (complimentary) food from the barbecue.
The Bottom Line
A Disney cruise and a Disney parks vacation are two fairly different vacation options, albeit with some overlap in terms of beloved characters and a high-level of service.
We love the Disney cruise option as a more relaxed vacation particularly for smaller kids who might tire easily after several days of pounding the pavement at the theme parks. It’s also great for families with kids who would make use of the kids’ club so the adults can take time to reconnect and enjoy some adult time.
Cynthia J. Drake is a travel writer based in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Since becoming a mom, she’s been stranded at sea with her family, gotten lost in the Rocky Mountains, dealt with more than her fair share of public vomiting, and still can’t wait for the next trip. She writes regularly for AAA magazines, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Highways and Cruise Critic. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.