Ready to set sail with some Disney magic (and that signature service and attention to detail they're so famous for)? Here's exactly how to plan a dream Disney cruise vacation for your family—from a mom who knows.

By Brooke Geiger McDonald
October 16, 2019

If you've zeroed in on a cruise for your next family vacation, chances are your research has turned up more than a few glowing endorsements of Disney Cruise Line as the ultimate cruise line for families. We're here to tell you the rumors are true: From infants to teens, childless millennials to grandparents, and everyone in between, there really is something—or many things—to keep every type of traveler thrilled to be cruising with Disney.

Brooke Geiger McDonald

What makes me say this so confidently? We’ve done it all. As a Disney-crazy mom to two boys who have been to Disneyland and Walt Disney World more times than I can count on two hands, we approached our first Disney cruise cautiously optimistic, and disembarked downright obsessed, adding Disney cruises to our annual Disney vacation rotation. Our Disney cruises have been some of the most memorable trips our family has ever taken. This year, we took it to the next level, celebrating my dad’s 70th birthday on a seven-night Disney cruise with extended family—parents, kids, grandparents, and adults without kids—and every last one of us loved it.

Ready to sail the high seas with your family and favorite Disney pals? Here’s how to choose the best Disney cruise for your family.

1. Decide Your Timeline

School holidays and work vacation time will probably dictate how much time your family can devote to your cruise vacation. Identifying your window of availability will help narrow your options. Remember that, like all things Disney travel, you'll be looking at higher prices to cruise when kids are out of school.

Some families new to cruising like to start with a shorter cruise. Four nights is a good starter length: anything less and you may find that just when you're really starting to get into the swing of cruising, it's time to disembark! Seven nights is a fantastic length to get a great mix of onboard and onshore time and experiences.

2. Then Give Yourself a Buffer

Unforeseen circumstances—from flight delays and cancellations to traffic jams or car trouble—could cause you to miss the boat if you don't give allow some wiggle room. It's a good idea to arrive at least the day prior to your embarkation.

Brooke Geiger McDonald

3. Consider Your Onboard and Onshore Preferences

What do you want out of your cruise? Is your ship a floating hotel getting you from place to place in the easiest way possible or are you all about the onboard offerings? For most families, it's a bit of both, so you'll want to choose the ship and itinerary that offer the best combination for you.

4. Choose Your Home Port

DCL sails from ports across the United States and Europe. Choosing the right home port can make a big difference to the price and convenience of your vacation. If driving isn't an option, be sure to factor in the cost of flights. These are the main domestic home ports (plus Canada):

  • Galveston, Texas
  • Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Miami, Florida
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • New York, New York
  • Port Canaveral, Florida
  • San Diego, California
  • Vancouver, Canada

Beyond ease of access to these ports (plus your interest in the departure port itself), you may also consider adding a Disney theme park visit to your trip. Port Canaveral is about an hour's journey from Walt Disney World, so it's easy to tack on a few nights at the "most magical place on earth." On the West Coast, Disneyland is less than two hours from San Diego.

Disney Cruise Line

5. Meet the Fleet

DCL's current fleet includes four ships (with three more on the way, starting with the Disney Wish, scheduled to set sail in 2022). The "classic ships," the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder, made their maiden voyages in 1998 and 1999, respectively, and have passenger capacities of 2,400. The newer Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy first set sail in 2011 and 2012, respectively. These much larger ships have a passenger capacity of 4,000.

All four ships have a similar setup and overall "feel," but there are components unique enough to each that most DCL devotees tend to have a favorite. The Magic and Wonder have a classic, intimate vibe and a manageable layout that counter the Dream and Fantasy's sprawling layouts. The larger ships' added bells and whistles can sometimes make things onboard feel a bit chaotic.

When it comes time to eat, each of the ships has their own unique dining rooms, which guests rotate through during their cruise. We think the main dining room décor and experiences match up well on the classics versus the newer ships, with pros and cons to each that make it more or less a tie. The buffet restaurant, Cabanas, seems to get more hectic at busy times on the larger ships than the smaller ones.

Disney Cruise Line

6. Plan to Utilize the Kids' Clubs

If you've spent any time reading up on DCL, you've probably gotten the memo that Disney's onboard kids' clubs are GAME. CHANGERS. These secure, sprawling themed spaces are staffed by a crew of professional kid whisperers who keep littles so happy and engaged, they'll beg to keep coming back all cruise long. All four ships offer dedicated spaces specifically engineered for different age groups: infants to toddlers, kids, tweens, and teens. There are some variations to the kids' clubs between ships, but we find them to be comparable and competitively awesome across the entire fleet, so rest assured there's no wrong choice here.

7. Know When to Book the Disney Dream or Disney Fantasy

We've already told you all four ships deliver exceptional experiences. But, there are a few reasons your family might want to lean toward the big ships. If you have young children and need more than one stateroom, there are more adjoining staterooms available on the Dream and Fantasy. If you're booking an inside stateroom, these get a serious upgrade on the Dream and Fantasy thanks to their "magical portholes" (more on this later!).

If the adults in your group are looking to get plenty of grown-up time in, although there are numerous adults-only zones aboard the Magic and Wonder, the Dream and Fantasy boast the most 18-and-over spaces.

While there's no shortage of recreation options on any of the ships, the Dream and Fantasy do offer a few more, including more elaborate waterslides and more pools and water play areas. Golfers will love working on their game at the nine-hole miniature golf course and golf simulator.

Foodies, rejoice: All four ships feature adult-exclusive Northern Italian restaurant Palo, which offers a more elevated, intimate dining experience for an upcharge. However, the Dream and Fantasy take this to the next level with Remy, adults-only French fine dining that just might be the fanciest—and most delicious—meal you've ever had. We heard that Remy was a spectacular, Michelin-caliber affair, but we truly had to experience it to believe how impressive a meal here really is. The upcharge at Remy is $75 for brunch and $125 for dinner—and it's totally worth it.

Disney Cruise Line

8. Choose Your Adventure: Selecting an Itinerary

If destinations take precedence over onboard experience for you, you'll want to start with your itinerary rather than with the ship. Because many itineraries are only serviced by certain ships, your ideal destinations may dictate which vessel you end up on.

Ready to chart your course? If you're looking to escape frigid winter temps, a tropical escape to the Caribbean, Mexico, or Hawaii is probably in order. If you already live in a temperate clime, a summertime cruise to Alaska will put you up close and personal with some of the most breathtaking natural wonders in the United States. Looking to expose your family to history and culture? There's no easier way to travel Europe with kids. Here are the destinations you can explore:

  • Bahamas
  • Eastern, Western, or Southern Caribbean
  • Northern Europe
  • Norwegian Fjords
  • Mediterranean
  • British Isles
  • Bermuda
  • Alaska
  • Canada
  • Mexican Riviera
  • Baja
  • Panama Canal
  • Pacific Coast
  • Transatlantic
  • Hawaii

9. Get Castaway Cay on Your Radar

There's one port on many DCL itineraries you absolutely must know about. Picture this: a pristine, white sand beach just steps from the ship's dock with plenty of chairs and umbrellas (no need to rush to save your spot!), servers at the ready to bring you a cool tropical drink, life jackets for the kids, snorkel gear and safe, lifeguard-monitored snorkeling, floats and tubes, a full lunch, and so much more. If you need it, chances are it's within arm's reach on Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas.

Disney Cruise Line

10. Check Out the Port Adventures

Once you've picked an itinerary, the choices don't end there. Whether you want to relax on the beach or swim with stingrays; marvel at fjords from your stateroom verandah, trek across a glacier or go zip-lining; or sip wine in an Italian piazza or climb to the top of Florence's duomo, there's a port adventure that makes it fun and hassle-free.

After you book your cruise, make sure you review and select any port adventures you want to do and set an alert for the date and time when the booking window opens. Popular port adventures can sell out almost immediately, so you'll want to book right away to avoid disappointment.

You can also enhance your experience with an Adventures By Disney package that provides you with curated onboard and onshore experiences or an added onshore escape before or after your cruise.

11. Pick Your Room

When you book your cruise, you'll select a particular stateroom category (likely dictated by your budget), and in most cases you'll then choose your exact room. Verandah rooms are the most expensive but also the most plentiful. Rooms with portholes windows are next, followed by the least expensive category, inside staterooms. As we've already mentioned, on the Dream and Fantasy these include "magical portholes," screens that look like windows and feature a real-time feed of the view outside—plus some special appearances by beloved Disney characters.

You can read reviews of individual staterooms on Cruise Critic and The Dis. Considerations beyond room type include noise, proximity to elevators, and motion, all of which are covered to varying extents in these room reviews.

Brooke Geiger McDonald

12. Get Extra Onboard Fun on Special Themed Cruises Throughout the Year

In the fall, things get spooky when the ships are transformed for Halloween on the High Seas. Halloween décor and music, a costume party, shows, trick-or-treating, and other themed activities add an extra layer of fun to seasonal sailings.

Similarly, you can celebrate the holiday season aboard a Very Merrytime Cruise. Ships get decorated in their festive best with a Christmas tree in the atrium, plenty of holiday music and parties, appearances by Santa and Mrs. Claus and more.

In the winter, Marvel and Star Wars fans won't want to miss their chance to sail with their favorite characters on select sailings that include either a Marvel Day at Sea or Star Wars Day at Sea. Get into character and rub elbows with your favorite heroes and villains before capping the night off with an epic show on the top deck. Be sure to have those cameras ready—these special sailings include unique photo ops galore!

13. Remember: Best-Laid Plans…

No matter how organized and thoughtful you've been about planning your cruise, weather, airlines, illness, and sometimes just life happens. You're paying a lot, so trip insurance is a small price to ensure that if something does derail your trip, you'll get your money back.

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