When embarking on a Disney Cruise, most travelers head to Florida or a city in Europe to start their trip. For many years, however, Disney Cruise Line has had at least one ship calling San Diego, California home for a portion of the year – a much more convenient cruise option for West Coast based travelers. My family recently sailed aboard a Disney Cruise that departed from San Diego, as it was an easy vacation coming from our home base in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We’ve sailed Disney Cruise Line before, and discovered that there are several unique features of Disney Cruises out of San Diego. If you are considering a DCL trip from San Diego as well, here are all the tips we picked up and everything else you need to know!
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What Disney Cruise Line Ships Sail from San Diego & When?
For many years, cruises from San Diego were exclusively aboard the Disney Wonder. The Wonder is one of the older ships in Disney’s fleet. This ship would spend summers in Alaska and come south to San Diego in colder months to sail in fall, winter, and spring. There were not traditionally summer sailings out of San Diego aboard Disney Cruise Line.
Starting at the end of the summer 2023 Alaska season, Disney shook things up a bit. The Wonder headed to Australia for the first time. This repositioning created a little bit of a gap in the usual San Diego schedule. In October 2023, the Disney Magic (the sister ship to the Disney Wonder) came to San Diego via the Panama Canal to cover some of the fall season, but not the full length of the winter holidays (the ship departs San Diego in early December 2023). Several of the Disney Magic cruises are designated as Halloween on the High Seas or Very Merrytime sailings with special holiday decor and celebrations.
The Disney Wonder will, however, return from Australia in March 2024. It will again provide spring break sailings out of San Diego for a few months before heading to Alaska again for summer 2024.
There are no ships scheduled to be in port in fall of 2024 as the Wonder goes back to Australia and the Magic stays in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. But thankfully this San Diego hiatus appears to be only temporary. Disney just released spring 2025 itineraries, and the Wonder will once again return to San Diego in March, April, and May 2025!
Disney Cruise Itineraries from San Diego
Where can you travel to on San Diego Disney cruises? Nearly all of Disney’s cruises out of San Diego head down to ports in Baja California and the Mexican Riviera.
Unlike some ships in the DCL fleet which sail the same itinerary and same length of cruise over and over, the San Diego-Mexican Riviera cruises keep things interesting. There are itineraries as short as 2 nights, many more 3 and 4 night offerings, and quite a few 7-night cruises.
Shorter cruises don’t go as far south and hit Baja ports like Ensenada and/or Cabo San Lucas. Quite a few of the 4 day sailings also visit Catalina Island, California. The longer sailings cruise farther south and can reach Mazatlán and/or Puerto Vallarta on the Mexican Riviera. (For more on each port of call, keep reading below).
Our family’s cruise was a unique 5 day sailing, timed to maximize the long Easter weekend that many schools have on the holiday calendar. We had originally been booked on a somewhat different 7 night San Diego sailing for Thanksgiving week 2022, but had to cancel last minute due to illness. So we did the planning fully for a San Diego Disney Cruise twice!
There are of course a few repositioning cruise itineraries that start and end a ship’s time in San Diego. In 2023-early 2025, those include:
- Miami to San Diego via the Panama Canal (Disney Magic): October 2023 (already sailed)
- San Diego to Galveston via the Panama Canal (Disney Magic): December 2023
- Vancouver to San Diego (Disney Wonder): March 2024, May 2025
- San Diego to Vancouver (Disney Wonder): May 2024, May 2025
Weather & What to Pack for a San Diego Disney Cruise
Many people who aren’t from California have visions of hot beach weather and fun in the sun departing on a cruise out of Southern California. While San Diego can certainly have those kinds of days, the city isn’t always as warm as you might think.
San Diego actually has a pretty temperate climate. Temperatures average in the 60s and 70s during the day year round. But the city can be fogged in certain times of year, just like San Francisco! You’ll hear the term “June Gloom” bandied about, and the gloom happens in more than just June. In short, if you pack only bathing suits and tank tops for a San Diego cruise, you are going to be cold.
Ensenada and Catalina Island have nearly the same climate. Once you get as far south as Cabo San Lucas, however, you can count on much more tropical hot weather.
So plan clothes accordingly. We packed light layers for the more northern parts of our trip like a hoodie or a wrap for evenings. And we spent the southern parts in shorts, t-shirts, and bathing suits.
Disney Cruise Line has self-service laundry on every ship that is very reasonably priced and easy to use. So you can pack light for a Disney San Diego cruise, as we did, if you are willing to do a load or two.
What else should you pack for San Diego Disney sailings? I highly recommend seasickness medication and acupressure bands just in case, even if you aren’t someone who is bothered on Caribbean sailings. The Wonder and Magic are Disney’s smallest ships and the Pacific can be rough in open waters. We were all fine, but a few members of my family got a little queasy the last night of our cruise as the ship was rocking and rolling speeding back to San Diego from Ensenada.
See this complete Disney Cruise packing list for other must-haves.
Getting to Your Disney Cruise
A lot of guests aboard our sailing were based in Southern California and naturally just drove to the port. Traffic in the area can obviously be a significant factor (especially coming from the Los Angeles area). Be sure to consider and plan for that if you are coming in the same day of sailing. Our ship set sail at 4:00pm with the final boarding window starting around 2:30 or 3:00, so the critical cut off time arrives earlier than you’d think.
As a result, even many semi-locals may want to travel to San Diego the night before just in case. And that means staying in a hotel (more on that below). One advantage to this approach is that many area hotels will offer their guests a discounted parking package as part of the stay. And parking is a major factor that guests who are driving need to consider.
If you are driving in the same day, you need to arrange for parking otherwise on your own. The Port of San Diego keeps an updated list of long term parking options on its website. Some of these locations are within walking distance of the dock.
Coming from Northern California, we found cheap flights aboard our family’s favorite Southwest Airlines. San Diego has a pretty large international airport (SAN) located right near downtown, so it’s an incredibly easy and often inexpensive destination to fly in and out of. That said, ongoing construction in 2023-2024 has complicated things. Plan for ground transportation hiccups and longer lines as a result.
If you are going to fly to embark on any cruise, cruise lines and travel agents all highly recommend flying in the day before. Flight cancellations and air traffic control meltdowns are a constant reality in the current state of US air travel. Travelers who fly in the same day risk missing their ship’s departure time if even something pretty minor goes awry.
We flew in the morning before our sailing so we could get to spend a full day in San Diego before setting sail. From our home airport at Oakland (OAK), there are usually 5-10 San Diego flights a day (plus many more from nearby SFO and SJC and on other airlines). So we certainly could have risked it and flown in on an early morning flight the same day as our sailing. But why give yourself that stress?
If you are flying in to SAN for a Disney Cruise, you likely will not need a rental car in San Diego. It’s a cheap and quick rideshare or taxi ride to much of the city. Or arrange a shuttle with your travel agent or Disney directly if you prefer a pre-booked option. If you plan to explore San Diego before your cruise, much of it is walkable and Uber or Lyft will get you farther distances without the worry of paying for or finding parking.
Where to Stay Before (or After) a San Diego Cruise
If you plan to spend time in the city of San Diego before your cruise or if you smartly are just arriving in at least a day before the sailing date, you’ll need a hotel. There are hundreds of hotels in the San Diego area at every price point and luxury level, so there truly are no shortage of options. Many guests prefer to stay within walking distance of the port for easy boarding and luggage transportation, but others would prefer to be closer to a specific attraction or don’t mind staying farther afield to save money.
I surveyed members of the Facebook group for our DCL San Diego sailing to find out where most passengers stayed and what they thought of their hotel choice. Here are a few San Diego hotel highlights to consider:
1. Wyndham San Diego Bayside ($$)
The Wyndham Bayside was by far the most common hotel of choice mentioned. If you just need an adequate place to lay your head with a great location at a moderate price, it probably will fit the bill. But quite a few of my fellow passengers reported that the hotel was pretty dated and in need of an update. The consensus seemed to be that Tower 3 (which has the best view of the ship) was the most recently renovated, so ask for that! Parking packages for cruise passengers are available.
2. InterContinental San Diego ($$$)
With amenities like a club lounge and a rooftop pool and lounge view a bay view, the InterContinental San Diego is the most luxurious (and usually priciest) property within walking distance of the Disney ship.
3. SpringHill Suites San Diego Downtown/Bayfront ($$-$$$)
On the same block as the InterContinental is the family-friendly SpringHill Suites San Diego Downtown/Bayfront. Many of the hotel’s studio suites sleep 5 with two queen beds and a sofa bed.
4. Residence Inn San Diego Downtown/Bayfront ($$-$$$)
Also on the same walkable block is another Marriott property. The Residence Inn San Diego Downtown/Bayfront gives families a little more space as well as family-friendly amenities like full kitchens and included breakfast. Studio and one bedroom suites sleep 4 while two bedroom suites sleep up to 6.
5. Hampton Inn San Diego-Downtown ($$)
If you prefer Hilton hotels, the Hampton Inn San Diego-Downtown is a little more distant to the cruise terminal than the four above, but still decently walkable for many travelers without huge bags or mobility issues. Standard rooms sleep 4 and free breakfast is included.
6. Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton ($$$-$$$$)
The Hotel del Coronado (known affectionately as “The Del”) is the San Diego area’s most iconic historic hotel. It’s also where we stayed the day before our sailing. It had been on our bucket list for awhile! Located on Coronado Island, it’s about a 15-20 minute drive to the port. It has fine dining, a prime beachfront location, great pools, and lots of history to explore. If you want a true vacation and luxury level amenities before or after your sailing, this is the place to go.
San Diego Port Layout & Logistics – Embarkation Day
When it’s finally time to set sail aboard Disney Cruise Line from San Diego, the process really could not be easier. If you are used to a much more trafficked cruise terminal like Miami or Port Canaveral, you will likely be pleasantly surprised. The cruise ship is literally right there in the thick of things in the center of town, just right across the street from several hotels and attractions.
If you are arriving from the airport or a farther destination like we were, taxis and Ubers can drop you off steps from the building where you enter to have your cruise documentation checked to board.
We decided to select one of the later boarding groups to avoid the mad rush, and had no wait at all throughout any part of the process to walk aboard. It was so refreshing! We did happen to sail on a day when we were the only ship in port, so check the Port of San Diego’s cruise ship schedule to find out whether other ships are scheduled the day of your sailing, as that can affect lines and logistics.
Ports of Call on San Diego Disney Cruise Sailings
So once you are on board in San Diego, where can DCL take you? Depending on which itinerary you book, here are the ports of call you may experience on a San Diego cruise.
Located pretty close to the border, Ensenada is a popular port for cruise ships from Southern California because it satisfies the legal requirements of stopping in at least one foreign port. It doesn’t have as much to do or see, but it’s easy to walk off and walk around town for food and sightseeing. We hired a driver to take us to the famous seaside blowhole, La Bufadora, about a 1 hour drive away.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Cabo doesn’t have a cruise ship dock of any size, so the ship uses tenders that drop passengers at the far end of the marina. You can take a water taxi across the harbor to get to the Medano Beach area.
A popular and quick DIY excursion that we did is getting aboard a glass bottom boat to cruise out to see the famed Cabo arch, El Arco. There are lots of active excursions in Cabo as well, including ATV tours and snorkeling trips. Cabo Adventures is a trusted tour company that we’ve used before on other Cabo vacations.
Just across the Sea of Cortez on the mainland of Mexico is Mazatlán, a stop on longer DCL San Diego sailings. A popular excursion there that only takes a limited amount of time and that can be DIYed on the cheap is climbing El Faro – a lighthouse on a hill overlooking the water with spectacular views.
Note that Mazatlán will no longer be a port-of-call on spring 2025 Disney cruises.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta is the farthest south that DCL San Diego sailings go. The city is a well-known and popular resort destination with lots of beach options, shopping, and water activities.
By far the most popular and competitive shore excursion to book on a Disney Cruise for families is the Las Caletas Hideaway. This all day excursion goes to a private beach accessible only by boat filled with activities like ziplining, snorkeling, and a kids adventure park. Think of it like a Castaway Cay alternative.
Catalina Island, California
One of the Channel Islands, Catalina Island is a unique port of call for Disney’s San Diego sailings. Disney only began making stops here as of spring 2022. The ship stops off shore and tenders guests into the main town of Avalon. Popular things to do include renting a golf cart and cruising around town, enjoying a hike with panoramic sea views, or water activities like paddleboarding, scuba, snorkeling, and kayaking.
On the Ship
Longer San Diego sailings tend to have several sea days because of the distance the ship must cover to get to the Mexico ports of call farther south. This is a huge highlight because there is so much to do aboard any Disney Cruise.
In fact, one of the reasons we settled on this cruise (instead of paying the bigger bucks to cruise Disney to Alaska this year) is that we would get to spend so much time doing the Disney activities and exploring the ship. The ports on our San Diego sailing were not a must-do for us. To be sure, there is plenty to see in all of them, but several of them are destinations we can visit easily and independently from our home base in Northern California at other times. We didn’t feel as much pressure to spend every moment in port. Instead, we opted to spend more time experiencing what Disney offered on board.
Dining & Activities
If you’ve cruised Disney before, the on-board experience on San Diego cruises will look very familiar to you. All of the usual on-boarding dining and activities are offered, from the rotational dining through the three restaurants (Tiana’s Place, Triton’s, and Animator’s Palate on the Disney Wonder and Lumiere’s, Rapunzel’s Royal Table, and Animator’s Palate on the Disney Magic).
We also especially enjoyed Family Karaoke, “Anyone Can Cook” cooking demonstrations, and trivia in the English pub. Plus, the usual Broadway style Disney shows are available along with many other fun activities, including a Pirate Night celebration.
Kids & Teen Clubs
Our youngest child was 9 years old at the time of the cruise so he spent a fair amount of time in the Oceaneer Club and Lab – DCL’s kids club. One thing we loved about Disney Cruise Line is that kids as young as 8 are permitted to check themselves in and out of the clubs (with parental permission), so he could come and go as he pleased. We would get an automated message on the DCL app when he checked out so we knew of his whereabouts.
Our older child turned 14 during the middle of the cruise and was able to go to the older teen club Vibe. There were a lot of teens on our sailing (which was during an Easter break for many schools). They formed fast friendships and really made the most of their time and independence.
If you plan to spend any time on board by the pool on San Diego sailings, keep in mind the weather patterns I already mentioned. The warmest days will be in Cabo and farther south – and shorter cruises won’t go that far. You may still want to get in a swim, but it probably won’t be for long. My husband and son hit the AquaLab after our time in Ensenada so it was doable but definitely chilly! They got in a few waterslide rides and jumps into the pool before it got to them.
All good things must of course come to and end, and Disney Cruise is no exception. When the time comes to debark your Disney Cruise in San Diego, the process is pretty easy but does require some thinking through your plans in advance. As on all Disney Cruises, guests can opt to set their bags out the night before and have Disney whisk them off the ship. But that means debarking at a time set by Disney. Alternately, you can opt to DIY it which gives you more flexibility on timing.
Our family opted for the self walk-off and carried our own bags. We were worried it would be hard to get an elevator but had no issues at all. We had our final breakfast in Tiana’s Place and then queued up to debark.
Because we had breakfast and didn’t debark with the earliest of the self walk-off crowd, we were in for some lines. By that time, immigration and customs had a decently long wait in San Diego. It took us more than 30 minutes to debark and complete the necessary passport checks. This was more time than we experienced this year in Seattle coming off of a Celebrity Cruise to Alaska but ultimately quite doable.
If you are planning to head straight to the airport, it’s easy to take a short Uber or taxi right there after clearing customs. Our flight out of SAN was at 11:20am and we made it in plenty of time, even with the lines and eating breakfast first. If we had chosen to skip breakfast, we could have made an even earlier flight with self walk-off. In short, San Diego is one port where you can book an early flight and likely will have no issues if you can manage your own bags.
Things to Do in San Diego Before & After Your Disney Cruise
If you have time before or after your Disney Cruise to explore the city of San Diego proper, the city really always delivers. There is simply so much fun to do. My family visits San Diego often since it’s such a cheap flight from home, and it’s one of our favorite family travel destinations that never gets old.
Here are a few of our favorite family-friendly things to do.
- USS Midway: Located just steps from the cruise ship port this famed aircraft carrier has lots of naval and aviation history on display. This is probably the easiest and most convenient attraction to squeeze in to your schedule if you only have a few extra hours to explore.
- San Diego Zoo: One of the country’s very best zoos, conveniently located in Balboa Park just a couple of miles away from the port. This is my top pick for families with younger kids.
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Located about 45 minutes north of the city, the safari-like experience gets you closer to animals in a more natural habitat. You’ll need several hours to visit properly, so don’t schedule it for boarding day.
- Balboa Park: San Diego’s Balboa park is home to many museums, gardens, and other sights. One of our favorites for kids is the Model Railroad Museum.
- Sea World San Diego: One of Southern California’s best theme parks, Sea World combines roller coasters, family-friendly and kiddie rides, and multiple sea animal experiences, shows, and exhibits.
- San Diego Padres Game: Cruise passengers on spring sailings may be able to catch a home game at Petco Park if the San Diego Padres are in town. The season starts in late March each year. And Park is one of the best MLB stadiums there are, so I highly recommend it if you have a baseball fan in the family!
- Coronado Island: Coronado Island is home to the Naval Air Station but is also known for its beach town vibe. If the weather is nice, plan for some beach time or take a bike ride.
For more activity ideas, see these two guides from local San Diego area professional travel bloggers and moms I trust:
- 50+ Things to do in San Diego with Kids from Mom Rewritten
- 56 Things to do in San Diego with Kids from LaJollaMom
And finally, don’t forget about Disneyland! Located just about a 2 hour drive from San Diego, a lot of our sailing’s passengers headed there to extend their vacation after the cruise. If you are coming from outside California, it’s a great opportunity to get a double dose of Disney.
More Disney Cruise Information
- Mistakes We Made on Our First Disney Cruise
- Disney Cruise vs. Disney Aulani: Which Vacation is Right For Your Family?
- Tips for Disney Cruise Line with Toddlers and Preschoolers
- Disney Cruise Line Fish Extender Gifts for the Non-Crafty