Earlier this year, my family had the chance to take our very first Disney Cruise aboard the Disney Wonder. I’m a travel planner by nature. In fact, some might say I overplan. I certainly planned many aspects of our Disney Cruise vacation. Being a newbie, however, there were a couple of holes in my planning knowledge. That meant I ultimately made a few first-timer Disney Cruise mistakes.
But there is no need for other first time Disney Cruise Line guests to do the same. Learn from my mistakes! Here are the things I did wrong to help you make the best choices for your own family on your first Disney Cruise Line vacation. Keep reading to the end to find out things I also ultimately did right so you can take away a few additional DCL tips.
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First-Timer Disney Cruise Mistakes
Booking a Shore Excursion in Castaway Cay
Castaway Cay is Disney’s private island in the Bahamas and is a stop on many of the Disney Cruise itineraries in the Caribbean. It totally lives up to the hype.
As I was planning our trip, I was worried that my kids were going to be bored all day lounging on the beach at Castaway Cay. It seemed like an excursion was a must-do, so I pre-booked a glass bottom boat trip during the middle of the day. Ultimately, that was a mistake. When we were on Castaway Cay, my kids were having a blast – not bored at all! They were not happy when we had to pack up and walk back to the tram to take us almost all the way back to the ship where our excursion departed.
The glass bottom boat tour was very good but all the logistics added unneeded stress to the day. I’d highly recommend first timers plan an unscheduled and unstructured day on Castaway Cay. If you get bored, there are plenty of things to do on a whim – rent a bike, shop, snorkel, meet characters, and more. Pre-booked excursions just aren’t necessary.
Not Pre-Booking Character Meet & Greets
Disney characters make appearances all over the ship on Disney Cruise vacations, but the lines can often be long. Depending on the sailing and ship, Disney usually lets you book some special meet and greet times online in advance of your cruise.
I vaguely knew about the pre-booking option but somehow didn’t spot it as I was completing online check in and poking around the My Disney Cruise website options. It isn’t necessarily obvious, so go hunting for it if you want character time. If your children have a must-meet character, pre-booking is the best way to avoid major disappointment.
Not Having a Packing List for Castaway Cay (Or Other Ports-of-Call)
Before our trip, I had packing lists galore to make sure we brought everything we needed ON the ship. But what I did not plan for as well was for what I needed to take OFF the ship when we docked for the day at Castaway Cay. It’s a long trip back to the ship from most of the beach areas if you forget something. You definitely want to pack everything right the first time.
I highly recommend preparing a specific Castaway Cay packing list before your trip. Then while on the cruise, pre-pack as much as you the night before can so you aren’t scrambling in the morning to add last minute items to your beach bag. Of course, the same is true for any Disney cruise port-of-call where you might get off the ship too!
What are the kinds of things that you need on Castaway Cay specifically? Sunscreen, coverups, sand toys, sunglasses. What don’t you need? Towels & life vests (Disney provides them). Get a Castaway Cay sneak peek in my video below.
Not Booking a Longer Cruise
Ok, this wasn’t technically a mistake. I was invited on this particular 3 day cruise on the Disney Wonder as part of the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, so I wasn’t exactly shopping around for cruises of different lengths. But we ultimately thought 3 days was just not enough.
On three day cruises, you barely have time to get unpacked and learn the layout of the ship before it’s time to get off. And we were on one of the two smaller Disney ships! With all that there is to do and see on a Disney Cruise vacation, I would err on the side of booking a longer cruise. For our next Disney Cruise, we are eyeing trips of at least 7 days.
Of course, if you only have a long weekend to spare, a little Disney Cruise time is better than none. If you have more flexibility, however, go with the longer cruise options.
Not Putting Down a Deposit for Our Next Disney Cruise
While you are on the ship, Disney has a special offer to put down an onboard deposit for your next DCL vacation within 24 months and save. You don’t even have to select a sailing date. A placeholder deposit is $250 and entitles guests to a 10% savings on rooms (except concierge level). This deposit is fully refundable too!
I think because our cruise was shorter, there wasn’t as much time for Disney to hype this offer to us. We just missed the announcements and thus the savings! Considering how much we loved our Disney Cruise, there is no doubt in my mind that we will take one again in the very near future. And next time I’ll be putting down that deposit — the risk is low (frankly nothing) and the savings can be big.
Participating in a Fish Extender Gift Exchange
Calling this a “mistake” is probably going to be controversial…. but I have some regrets about participating in a fish extender gift exchange on my first Disney Cruise. (Don’t know what that term even means? See my guide to Disney Cruise fish extenders.)
Don’t get me wrong. Participating in this fun gift exchange added a lot of magic. My daughter loved sneaking around the ship making our own gift deliveries too.
But I’ll level with you: participating was not without its frustrations. First there was the preparation – the crafty Pinterest research and the buying and the making. Ultimately what was more stressful was how much space the gifts added to our luggage. We traveled a long distance for this cruise and I was flying solo with both kids (my aunt, who joined us on this cruise, flew in separately from a different location). It was a lot of extra stuff to pack and carry in both directions.
My advice? Consider the logistics if you are doing fish extenders. If you are traveling with small kids, for long distances, are already having trouble packing light, on a tight budget or whatever….it’s okay to skip it! That’s even more applicable to your first cruise. If you are flying an airline with checked bag fees, consider that cost as well.
Disney Cruise Tips: Things I Did Right on Our First Trip
Lest you think that I only made mistakes on our first Disney cruise, there were plenty of things I researched heavily and ultimately did right. Here are a few other decisions you may want to make in your own trip planning.
Choosing the Early Dinner Seating
Disney Cruise sailings have two dinner seatings which vary a bit by itinerary. First seating is between 5:45 and 6:15 pm and second is between 8 and 8:30pm. At the time of our travel, my daughter was 7 and son was 3.5. I realized the late seating was just not going to fly with kids who usually get hungry and tired at the witching hour. We smartly choose the earlier one.
The early seating worked well also because the copious Mickey ice bars for dessert gave the kids a boost of energy for the post-dinner entertainment. My son was able to make it most of the way through one of the evening shows and spent another post-dinner evening in the Oceaneer Club while big sister and I were able to watch the Frozen musical spectacular.
Pre-Registering for Childcare
Even though I missed pre-booking character meet and greets, there is one pre-booking that I did not miss — booking my kids into the DCL kids clubs. Every parent has to complete some paperwork for safety purposes before turning the kiddos over to the Oceaneer Club, Oceaneer Lab, or nursery. I’m glad I did it in the comfort of my own home before the trip. Having completed the forms allowed my family to skip some of the waiting time when we were checking in for our cruise at Port Canaveral. Who doesn’t like boarding the ship quicker?
Using the Nursery for Our Three Year Old
At the time of our trip, my son was technically old enough for the Oceaneer Club and Lab – the regular “kids club” aboard all Disney ships. These clubs take kids as young as 3 who are fully potty trained. He was trained at the time and definitely enjoyed many hours playing and exploring with his big sister. The slide in the Toy Story themed “Andy’s Room” was such a big hit that I often found him redfaced and sweaty at pickup time from climbing up and sliding down so many times.
All the activities and noise with the big kids, however, occasionally got a tad overwhelming for him. At one point, I moved him to the nursery instead for an hour with the little ones. A chance to be the big kid for once was just what the doctor ordered. At just $9 an hour, the nursery was money well spent. If your kids are in this in-between stage, definitely consider the nursery a childcare option as well! (Make sure not to miss all my other tips for Disney cruise with toddlers and preschoolers either.)
Packing a Few Specialty Items
There are a million and one Disney Cruise Line packing lists out there. I might have read all of them. But most of the items to bring are not hard to guess for tropical itineraries – bathing suits, shorts, sunscreen, etc. What I found really helpful to find out to pack were a couple of speciality items I probably would not have considered without being tipped off. Here are a few to add to your packing list too:
- iPhone Waterproof Case: Essential if you want to take photos of your kids by the pool, in Dory’s Reef, or on Castaway Cay. Wrecking an expensive phone on a cruise is not the way to spend a vacation.
- USB Multi-Port Charger: Disney Cruise ships are a little light on the power outlets in the cabins. I worried we would have issues charging all of our devices. Power strips and extension cords are prohibited, but a small USB multi-port device like the above solved most of our issues. I was able to charge up multiple phones, iPads, and external battery chargers on a single outlet more effectively.
- Beach Ball, Small Inner Tube or Water Wings: These inflatables pack totally flat and take up very little luggage space. They ultimately can provide a ton of fun on Castaway Cay.
- Kids swim goggles: Takes up very little packing space and ideal for the pool or swimming in the ocean on Castaway Cay.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend the Disney Social Media Moms Land & Sea Celebration in 2017, which included a three night cruise aboard the Disney Wonder. Disney provided my family and me with discounted conference admission, tickets, and lodging. Disney and its conference sponsors also provided me with additional gifts during the event. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.
Tuesday 30th of April 2019
Thanks for the article. I think you should make one important correction though. As a mother, a swim instructor of 20+ years, and a former lifeguard I cannot stress how dangerous water wings are, they should never be used. Please feel free to do your own research on the matter. But I implore you to never use them and not to recommend them.
Tuesday 19th of June 2018
You can Pre-ship your FE gifts and they will show up right to your state room! best way to save yourself the hassle but experience the magic!
Thursday 6th of December 2018
But are you able to ship your received FE gifts home? If not, you're just adding to your packing problems on your return trip...
Thursday 30th of November 2017
Really well done! As an experienced DCL cruiser, I found your article spot on. Especially the one about the Fish Extenders. The LUGgage aspect never even crossed my mind.
Sunday 26th of November 2017
Just so you know, the only meet and greet you can reserve in advance are the Frozen one, and the Princess gathering. All the other characters, you have to wait in line for. Show up about 10 minutes early to get in line. Also, the line closes about 15 minutes after the start time and they are very strict about not letting anyone else get in line. I have never waited more than 30 minutes for any character.
Thursday 2nd of August 2018
But if you book a Very Merrytime Cruise, you may have to wait a very very long time for Santa. Also I have seen before that if you have a Marvel Day at sea, you might have to wait a while for the heroes just because they aren’t seen as much as the other characters.
Sunday 19th of November 2017
thx for the tips!