My husband was recently texting a friend who was looking into booking a Disney cruise and wanted some advice on where to start. Now there are people out there who’ve been on dozens of Disney cruises and know everything about the line from the best staterooms to the names of all the servers in the dining room so my two Disney cruises with another one booked for December doesn’t even begin to compare with that level of expertise, but I had a bit of free time today and I found myself thinking about what I would share with someone who was interested in booking a Disney cruise and didn’t know where to start. Here’s what I came up with.
1) It’s a small cruise line
Disney only has four ships, compared to some lines that have dozens. The Wonder and the Magic are often referred to as the classic ships; they are about average in size for a cruise ship and are about 15 years old. The Dream and the Fantasy are only a few years old and are “mega ships”, some of the biggest on the seas. We’ve sailed on both the Wonder and the Dream and while the Dream has more bells and whistles, like a fancy water play area, a water ride and an interactive detective game, both have equally nice staterooms, staff, shows and food.
The small fleet also makes the basic itineraries easy to figure out. The Dream and Fantasy are based out of Port Canaveral Florida about an hour from Disney World. The Dream does three and four night Bahamas sailings and the Fantasy does seven night Caribbean itineraries. This is not scheduled to change any time in the near future.
The classic ships currently spend their winters based in Florida, either Miami or Port Canaveral and do a mix of 4-7 night itineraries from about October to May. For the past few years, the Magic has gone to Europe for the summer and the Wonder has done Alaska cruises from Vancouver. These ships have done a few various itineraries over recent years including cruises out of Galveston, Los Angeles and New York and there are a few Southern Caribbean cruises out of Puerto Rico coming up, but for the next few years it looks like all four ships will be based in Florida. Which is fantastic if you live near Florida, not so great if you live on the other side of the continent.
2) It’s expensive
There’s no easy way to put this; Disney cruise line is usually more expensive than the same itinerary on another line. Just for example, a seven night cruise on the Disney Fantasy in February 2015 costs $4756 in the cheapest inside cabin for a family of four. For a similar itinerary itinerary that same week you could cruise on Royal Caribbean for $2293 or Norwegian Cruise lines for $2077. That’s a pretty huge difference. I love Disney, but would I really pick one week on Disney when I could get two weeks on another perfectly good ship for the same price?
It’s a tough question. We obviously like it enough to have booked again, but it’s getting tougher and tougher to justify the costs. For some, Disney is the only option; they strongly believe that the food, service and overall experience is far superior to any other line and are willing to pay whatever they charge. Others take one look at the price and walk away shaking their heads.
In my own personal opinion, the “Disney Magic” is worth a bit more, but certainly not double. If we can get a decent deal, I’ll go with Disney because we love the entertainment, the shows, the characters and the great kids’ clubs. But when the price starts creeping towards $5000 and up for a one week cruise, I figure I’ll get my magic somewhere else. For example, we wanted to do a cruise from Venice this summer. Disney would have cost about $9000 for nine nights. We found one with MSC cruises that cost $3600 for seven nights. Sorry Mickey, we don’t like you that much! So, is there any way to get a decent price on a Disney cruise? Well there are a few options.
a) Live in Florida, travel last minute and be really flexible with dates
Like most cruise lines, Disney offers deals to locals to fill empty cabins close to sailing time. They frequently offer Florida resident deals that can be quite reasonable. Some sailings also offer deals to everyone, called GTY rates close to sailing time. These can be a good deal, but if you live far enough out that you have to fly you may lose your savings when you have to book last minute flights. These deals are also usually offered in the off season and rarely show up during school holidays. And on that note,
b) Don’t travel during school holidays
Most cruise lines raise rates during school holidays, but because Disney caters mainly to families, their rates can go sky high. The one year we were able to travel in February we got a fairly decent rate. But most years we’re tied to the school calendar and have the option of summer, Christmas or spring break. Each had some disadvantages. Summer is usually the longest stretch, but the weather is pretty awful in Florida which could be a factor if you want to combine a cruise with a trip to Disney World and it’s getting into hurricane season. Alaska and Europe are options but flights to Europe are pretty outrageous in summer and Alaska doesn’t appeal to everyone. I think if I were to cruise with Disney in summer Alaska would be my choice, but only because the other options weren’t great.
Christmas is insanely expensive, probably the highest prices of the year and Florida is the only option at that time. One way we’ve been able to get some reasonable deals at Christmas, though is to look for cruises at the very beginning or end of the winter break. Some schools go back earlier than others and we’ve had luck booking the first week of January just before my husband goes back to work.
Spring break season usually goes from mid March to the week after Easter. The prices are usually high, but not Christmas high since the break season is more spread out. All the ships are in Florida at this time for the next few years, but the weather is usually very good there at that time of year. Of all the main school break options, spring seems the most appealing to me.
If you’re tied to the school calendar but you have breaks at other times such as fall breaks or a really early or late spring or Christmas break, this can be the ideal time to look for a cruise since the savings can be significant.
c) Book early
If you can’t take advantage of last minute deals, it can save money to book as soon as you know your dates. In order to reserve a cruise, you need to put a deposit of 20 percent down, but you can change your mind and get all your money back up to 90 days before the cruise for most itineraries. This is especially important if you have to cruise in high season. All the cruises we’ve booked have gone up significantly in price in the months before we sailed. If you have to move or cancel your cruise it’s pretty easy and painless. If you can, it’s ideal to book the day the cruises are released for booking.
d) Book another cruise while on board
Once you do get on the boat, you can take advantage of the one deal that Disney offers that’s significant and reliable; the onboard booking discount. You can book a later cruise and get a ten percent discount, which can save you quite a bit if you’re planning to cruise again. There are a few limitations. Some high season cruises are exempt from the discount (yet another blow to teachers!) and you have to book another cruise within 18 months. Even for us, cruising with Disney every 1.5 years is quite a bit, so if you aren’t able to cruise that frequently you can’t take advantage. But it is there, and it can save you a lot of money if you plan to cruise again.
e) Don’t have more than two kids
Or alternatively, only take the two kids you like most along with you. Okay, this might not be very practical advice, but it is quite astounding the difference that third kid can make in the price. Disney does have a few staterooms that accommodate five people, but they are some of the more expensive ones. For example, you can get an inside cabin on an Alaska cruise in August 2015 for four people for about $4500. If you add a third child the only option is the largest balcony room with a price tag of $10500! It’s actually cheaper to book inside rooms for two and three people which comes to around $6500, but that third kid is still pretty pricey. So with a large family, it becomes even more important to seek out deals.
3) It may be the best vacation your family has ever had!
Remember that “Disney Magic” I mentioned when I talked about the cost and value? Well, it’s a real thing and while you pay a premium for the Disney experience, it really is an amazing family vacation. Disney has perfected the art of family entertainment and your kids will have more options for fun than they’ll know what to do with. There are far too many highlights to mention in one paragraph, so I guess that now that I’ve shared my thought on booking a Disney Cruise, I’ll have to write another post about actually going on a Disney cruise. But that will have to wait for another day.