Disney Cruise Tips For First Time Cruisers

We are fortunate to be able to travel frequently, and one of our favorite ways to explore the world is via Disney cruise ship. Soon we will embark on our fifth such cruise, and I would like draw from our experience to offer some Disney cruise tips for first time cruisers.

Our very first Disney cruise was in 2011, with a five-year-old, three-year-old, and eight-month-old. We were definitely in a different place then. We cruised again in 2012, 2015, and 2018. This time around we will be traveling with a teen, a tween, and a big kid {a few days shy of nine}. So, I am writing this from the perspective of parent of older, more independent kids. Vacation planning for the days of diapers and strollers and breastfeeding toddlers is officially a distant memory. 

Following are a few suggestions for both before and during the cruise. I hope you will find this advice useful when planning, and that you will benefit from my experience of what to do {as well as what not to do} when you prepare for your first Disney cruise.

Line of deck chairs on a Disney cruise ship with skyline of city in the background

Pack by Activity {Not by Day}

We pack for a cruise a bit differently than usual, but we still follow most of the same general packing tips. The difference with cruise packing, however, is you need to pack for what you are actually going to be doing, not necessarily the number of days you are going to be gone. 

Clearly you will want sufficient undergarments and socks, a swimsuit, pajamas, and toiletries. But as far as clothing, you want to think more about the activities you will participate in each day. Unless you have a particularly active port adventure planned, you will be able to hang up clothes and wear them again, so don’t feel like you need to have every single activity accounted for. 

For instance, I know we will be at the pool at least a couple of times, and so I will pack my “dress I wear over my swimsuit and easy to remove sandals” for that time. I often go up to the deck by myself right at sunrise to get a cup of coffee and some good photos, so I will need my “outfit I can throw on quickly without waking anyone up” so I can slip out the door. 

I really enjoy fancy night and so I need my “look at me being spiffy” dress. Dinner can be relatively formal or cruise casual, but I like to dress up at least a little, so I’ll pack probably three dresses {for a 7-night cruise} I can alternate wearing to the main dining rooms.

Less rarely will I be hanging around the ship in “regular” clothes {i.e., not on the way to coffee or the pool or dinner} so I can pack just two or three outfits {for a 7-night cruise} and re-wear. It gets chilly in the evenings {and in the restaurants} so I always pack a neutral-color sweater that goes with everything. Also, I take a pair of jeans in case I want to change after dinner. 

This particular cruise we’ll also be packing Halloween costumes and of course pirate gear. We don’t really go all out for either of these, but we do like to participate.

If all else fails and I woefully under-pack, there are washers and dryers on board. Really, as long as you can do laundry and have several pieces that work together, you will be fine. Bringing too little is a better problem to have than bringing too much. That may seem counterintuitive, but trust me: 

You will never wish you’d brought more things to deal with.

Shower Before Dinner {Even If It’s Mid-Afternoon}

The first seating for dinner is at 5:45. {We always request the earlier seating; the other option is 8:15 and way too late for our party.} So at around 4:30 we all head back to the room to shower/change. This means that we go to dinner feeling refreshed, and it also makes our evenings more relaxed, since there’s not late-night rush to get all the kids {and me, and Hubby} ready for bed. We can just brush our teeth and throw on our jammies and we’re set.

The hour or so before dinner also tends to be sort of a lull in activities and characters, so we don’t feel like we’re missing much. It’s also the perfect time for an in-room break so we can recharge for the rest of the night.

Enjoy The Characters {But Prioritize Your Time}

Character meet and greets on the ships are the best. The lines are {usually} not ridiculously long, they take plenty of time with each group, and there is almost always a photographer with them. Depending on the cruise and time of year, you can see the same characters multiple times in different costumes. Some will require tickets {free, but you need timed tickets nonetheless}. Usually this is just the classic princesses and Anna/Elsa. 

While on board you can find out when and where the characters will be appearing via the free Disney Cruise Line Navigator App. You can connect to the ship’s wifi for free to use the app, and even text other members of your party.

As a first-timer, you will be drawn to and excited for the sail away party {recently re-branded as the sail-a-wave party}. I am here to give you a huge spoiler alert: It is not that interesting. The characters only come out briefly, and they are on a stage and not close enough to really interact with. I want to love this part of every cruise, I do. But every time we try to go and get a good view of it, I end up realizing I could have used that time to walk around taking photos of the cool architectural details or gone back to the stateroom to unpack.

Skip any event in the lobby atrium involving characters. Truthfully, these are basically the parades of the cruise ship. We always skip parades in the park because they are not worth the time investment. Essentially you try to get a “good” spot and then stand around while the crew members talk and try to be funny and then you maybe get to see the characters for five minutes {from a distance} and then it’s over. Use this time to explore the ship or get a snack or claim a good deck chair. I think once we got a decent video of Agent A from a lobby “dance party” but we had to stand around for 20 minutes doing nothing just to catch it at the right moment. 

The only exception to this rule is the Till We Meet Again gathering on the last night. Definitely go {in your pajamas if you must} and see all the characters one last time. Last trip, the kids and I saw 8 or 9 different characters {long enough to get a hug/photo} in 20-25 minutes. Then one by one they disappear up the steps “until we meet again” and I totally did not cry typing this sentence.

Captain Mickey in the atrium of the Disney Wonder cruise ship with a male and female passenger
Captain Mickey is the best

Follow the Best Schedule for You {It’s Your Vacation}

On our last cruise, I felt very frazzled every evening. Dinner wasn’t over until about 7:30, and then the show started at 8:30, which of course we wanted to be a little early for to get good seats, and I felt like we wasted that time in between. Then by the time it was over and we made our way out of the theater it was 9:40 or later and I was done. It honestly never occurred to me that we could just simply not go to the nightly show. 

For some folks, especially first-timers, the shows are a must-do. I mean, they really are pretty good and certainly worth a view. However, because we’re frequent cruisers, we ended up going to one show we had seen before and one we had actually seen twice before, and I just feel in hindsight we would have enjoyed that time more elsewhere.

Others may feel this way about the sit-down rotational dining dinners; they’d rather grab a quick dinner on the deck or order room service rather than spending a lot of time getting ready for and eating a formal dinner. The point is, you can do whatever works for your party and not stress either way.

I think this next trip, instead of repeating the shows we’ve already seen, the kids would gladly spend an extra hour or two in the kid/tween clubs while Hubby and I catch a movie or grab a drink or simply sit up on the deck and relax. 

Account for “Extra” Costs {Don’t Let Them Surprise You}

One great thing about cruising is that {almost} everything is included once you are paid in full and you don’t have to worry about budgeting day to day. However, there are a few things you’ll want to be aware of. 

You can access the Internet, but it is pricey. If you sign up on day one, you can get a teeny tiny amount of online time for free. A second teeny tiny amount will cost you about $20. This might be enough to post a few photos or check e-mail two or three times. Splurge if you must, but also take advantage of the free wifi at the ports. The aforementioned Navigator app, however, will work anywhere you can access the ship’s wifi with no additional charges. 

Use the recommended tipping schedule for your servers. They really do go above and beyond and should be compensated accordingly. {We loved ours from our last cruise so much we put in a special request to have them again.} Even if you don’t eat all {or any} of your meals in the dining rooms, these folks are working hard all around the ship {in the quick-service restaurants and behind the scenes} all day. Gratuities are included when you purchase a drink at the bar, and with all spa treatments, but not included with room service or the adult-only restaurants. 

Pre-order the photo package before sailing. You can always cancel it on board if you change your mind, but you save money by ordering ahead of time. The ship photographers have never disappointed us. Especially if you do a lot of character photos, it is totally worth the money. We had well over 200 photos from our last five-night sailing. This time I’m not even going to bother pulling out my phone to take our own shots if a photographer is present. Instead I’ll take some more artistic/random shots around the ship just for fun.

Also keep in mind that while there is often an “assistant” on hand to take photos with your camera/phone, they will not turn out as well as the professional shot. The lighting/angle is just not the same, and they will not look as good. In addition, no personal camera/phone photos are taken on formal night; the lines for these shots are long and they need to keep things moving.

Shop for souvenirs on the first sea day, not the last. The selection is better and you won’t feel rushed to decide. Pick something you will actually use/love just as much at home. Last trip I picked up a Captain Mickey coffee mug, and trust me, it gets used frequently. Note that the gift shops are only open while the ship is at sea; they are closed during port visits. The only exception is the photography shop, which is open a few hours on the final morning for order pick-ups. 

I hope these tips and tricks will assist you in planning your first Disney cruise. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments. 

Thanks so much for stopping by today. If you enjoyed this post, I would love to connect with you on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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Disneyland for First Time Visitors: Key Differences From Walt Disney World

If you have never visited Disneyland in Anaheim, California—even if you are a seasoned Walt Disney World traveler—you may be unaware of some key differences from the Orlando location. This post will share essential information to ensure a great trip to Disneyland for first time visitors.

{If you need some packing tips before you go, be sure to check out How To Pack For Any Adventure.}

Pictures of Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck against a background of flowers and an ornate building.

 

Location, Location, Location

The biggest difference is that Disneyland is a theme park in the middle of a town, not a separate, magical universe like Walt Disney World. Although common knowledge, it is still somewhat jarring to witness it for yourself, especially if you are used to the cocoon of WDW. Once inside the parks, it is Disney vibes all the way; however, your arrival is definitely a different experience. 

In contrast to WDW—with its four main parks, two water parks, boardwalk, golf courses, and Disney Springs—Disneyland consists of just two main parks—Disneyland Park and California Adventure—and a much more condensed downtown area {which is still simply called Downtown Disney}. Overall it has more of a small town, nostalgic feel and is not nearly as overwhelming. 

Where To Stay?

While WDW maintains myriad on-site options, only three “on property” resorts exist at Disneyland. They are all within walking distance of the parks, but very expensive and thus not a reasonable choice of accommodations for most. 

Luckily there are “good neighbor” hotels just outside the gate on Harbor Boulevard or nearby. You can find dozens of excellent hotel options within a mile or so, many of which offer shuttles. 

I have personally stayed at four such hotels, and would wholeheartedly recommend two in particular: the Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort {Marriott} and the Candy Cane Inn {independently owned}.

Winnie the Pooh Topiary holding a red balloon and popping up out of some flowers.

Unique Lands and Experiences

When you visit, you will definitely want to check out the attractions not available at WDW. Some of our favorites include Alice in Wonderland, Indiana Jones Adventure, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Toon Town remains a part of Disneyland Park as well.

{Spoiler alert: The castle at Disneyland Park is much smaller. And pinker.} 

Also keep in mind that even the rides that are “the same” are not exactly the same. You’ll find noticeable variations on Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World, for instance.

California Adventure houses both Cars Land and Pixar Pier, with numerous attractions and amenities not available at WDW. There is also a huge play area {Redwood Creek} where children under 12 can use a mini zip-line.

{Truth: I actually enjoy the attractions at California Adventure more than those Disneyland Park, especially the Guardians of the Galaxy update to the former Tower of Terror and the entire “Radiator Springs” area.}

Do I Really Need MaxPass?

MaxPass allows you to get FastPasses on your phone, rather than going directly to the ride and using the kiosk. It also entitles you to download any PhotoPass photos taken that day. 

Many people will insist you need MaxPass for your trip, but you most definitely do not.

The current price is $15 {per day, per ticket}, which can end up being prohibitively expensive for large parties. For example, for our family of five on a typical three-day trip we would spend $75 a day, or $225 total, simply for the convenience of not walking to a FastPass kiosk and the possibility of getting a few decent photos.

{Spoiler alert: The PhotoPass photo opportunities are not as interesting or varied as at WDW.}

I think where a lot of people get confused is they erroneously believe you must have MaxPass in order to book FastPasses—the way you pay for express ride access at some other theme parks. The truth is, you can still get the same number of FastPasses either way, whether you book them on your phone or walk over and get a paper reminder.

The one advantage would be if you have a park-hopper pass you can book FastPasses for the opposite park {the one you are not currently in} from your phone, but without MaxPass you would have to physically walk to that park. 

Mickey_pastry

Character Meet and Greets

We have certainly met many characters at Disneyland that we have never witnessed out at WDW, including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Groot. However, the character meet and greets are not organized the same way. 

At WDW, if you are in line for a character, you will see that character. A cast member may cut off the line at some point, but if you have a place in line, you will get your hug, autograph, photo, whatever. 

At Disneyland, the meet and greets frequently “end” without much warning. When this happens, usually the character will exit by coming down the line and giving a high-five or hug to the remaining guests.

The cast members are usually good about keeping you updated, but sometimes you might be standing in line for five or ten minutes and then suddenly hear, “okay, this is Mickey’s last family; he’ll be coming down the line to say hello real quick on his way out.” It used to be disappointing, but now we kind of expect it. 

What About Meals?

There is no pre-paid dining plan, so everything is out-of-pocket on the go. They do offer restaurant discounts for annual pass holders and DVC members. As in WDW, the discount only applies at “inside” restaurants, not kiosks or food carts. Personally the lack of dining plans does not make me too sad, as we have recently concluded the ones at WDW are simply not worth it for our party any longer. 

Unlike WDW where you can plan your meal reservations 180 days out, bookings for table service dining can only be made 60 days in advance. Character meals are also more limited; only five available at last count {including both parks and the three on-site hotels}.

While it would be impossible to go through every single difference between the two establishments, I wanted to elaborate on several key disparities. Hopefully this will assist you in your planning, or at least provide some food for thought when considering a first trip to Disneyland.

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How To Pack For Any Adventure

This is my best advice for how to pack for any adventure. Unless you need very specific gear or extras such as formalwear, this list will cover most short-term travels. Be sure to label every bag with your name and cell phone number, even if you think they will never be out of your sight.

Before you get started, however, one thing must be done.

Check. The. Weather.

I honestly cannot stress this enough. For example, when we first considered a move to southern California, we convinced ourselves every day would be like living on the Axiom in Wall-E: a balmy 72 degrees and sunny, no variation. Spoiler alert: it is not. We have traveled to Disneyland in both a deluge of rain and needing winter jackets. Look at the long-range forecast for your days of travel and plan accordingly.

That said, following is a brief run-down of what we typically take regardless of destination. Keep in mind, in most cases there is almost nothing you can forget that cannot be remedied when you arrive. I also include a small-ish purse that completely zips up that I keep with me while out and about. Just enough to hold my phone, chapstick, brush, any tickets or passes, and credit card or cash. And a few band aids. Because, Agents. For reference, no one in our party requires daily medications, and our kids are out of the diapers and sippy cups stage, so those items have not been addressed here.

Globe with three flag pins sitting on the sand.
  • one outfit per day, unless day/night temps are predicted to be wildly different {for trips of 5-6 nights or longer, I pack one outfit for every two days and assume I will do laundry}
  • sweater or long-sleeve shirt for evening {even in summer}
  • rain jacket {if good chance of rain during your visit}
  • two pairs of socks/underwear per day {trust me, if you take a mid-day break you will appreciate this—especially if you change into swimsuits and then different clothes for evening}
  • pajamas
  • swimsuits {if weather is amenable}
  • flip flops or sandals {for getting to and from the pool; can also be a temporary solution if shoes get wet and need time to dry out}
  • chargers for everything {even if it is just an overnight and you think you won’t need them}
  • first aid kit {if you do not want to cart the whole thing, at least take pain relief meds—nothing worse than a headache or a sore back while traveling}
  • basic toiletries {condensed as much as possible; you are likely to want to do the bare minimum especially if your days are long}
  • small containers or shallow boxes to organize toiletries in the hotel bathroom {so much easier than trying to work out of the toiletry bag and/or dumping everything on the counter}
  • nightlight or two {helpful to at least have one in the bathroom}
  • laundry detergent pods {I try to avoid needing to wash clothes on shorter stays, but why not be prepared}
  • sunglasses and sunblock {even cloudy days can be deceiving}
  • book, travel journal, preferred writing implements {if you’re the type to enjoy that type of thing in the evenings or early mornings}
  • coffee or tea and non-perishable creamers {sometimes it is easier to stay in the room than try to go out in the morning or evening after a long day}
  • stuffed animals, if a night time necessity for anyone in your party {move them to the desk in the morning so housekeeping doesn’t accidentally sweep them up in the sheets—yes, this happened to us, and luckily it was recovered}
  • simplified wallet {you won’t need most of what you usually carry; ID and some form of payment is probably enough, plus some cash if you think you will need it for tips}
  • printed copies of tickets/passes/reservation numbers {even if you have them on your phone, you never know}

Alright, savvy travelers: What did I miss?

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Lessons Learned Through Traveling

I learn something new every time I travel.

Not in a deep, philosophical, uncovered a previously unknown character trait about myself sort of way. Not even in a I went to a new place and now I have a better understanding of it sort of way. I mean I know more about what my travel limitations are—and how to prepare for them—with each trip.

Camera and passport sitting on a map of the world.

Last week the Agents and I flew to Orlando for five days with our favorite Mouse. We met three of my four siblings and their kids there, so it also served as a mini-reunion. Hubby did not participate, as the US Navy had other plans for him. This was a first—traveling by air with all three kids solo—and the longest vacation we have spent by ourselves. A final hurdle in the game of what can we realistically pull off with only one adult, if you will.

Yes, there were a few hiccups along the way: a bit of jet lag, some rain, a lunch reservation mishap. We did not spend as much time with the bigger group as we had envisioned, and I regret that now. But, in general, we nailed it and would totally do it again.

Spoiler alert: It all turned out fine.

We did, however, figure out some things along the way that will prove useful on future Disney escapades. {Although some of these relate to travel in general, I am specifically thinking of a Disney vacation with the following list.}

Change Is Good

Before we left, I found myself feeling nostalgic about certain aspects of the parks that have been phased out, but once we arrived I realized how much I love when the parks change and grow. Even though a favorite ride might be gone, or another might be made over, or a new twist is presented with a show or character, I no longer feel like I am missing anything. I am excited to see where they go with it

Space Is Needed

Because we were a party of four, and trying to be conservative with our vacation club points, we booked a studio instead of a one-bedroom. In the recent past this would have worked out swimmingly. However, now that the Agents are older {currently 13, 11, and 8} I can honestly say that the extra square footage would have made a huge difference. More room to spread out, a washer and dryer in the room {only an option at that resort for one-bedrooms or larger}, and the extra bathroom space would have been extremely helpful.

Humans Are Weird

By the end of the week, we had a running joke about Humans of Disney. The anthropological observations one can make while at Disney World know no limits. Instead of getting angry at the outright cluelessness of the population, we decided instead to accept it and then move on. If there is one guarantee about traveling, it is that someone, somewhere is having a bad day and might try to take it out on you. I think we have finally reached a point where we have embraced this and can bounce back from negativity without it ruining the moment.

Patience Does Improve

This visit was game-changing as far as the stamina and tolerance of our party and what we could reasonably do in one day. We wisely still built in rest periods, and we had a pretty firm deadline for when we retired to the room each night, but overall we kept up a fairly quick pace and did things {longer lines, different parks on the same day, earlier starts} that would have been deal-breakers on past trips. Dare I say Disney with teen/tween/big kid is even more fun than Disney with wide-eyed littles. Instead of balancing all decisions based on what is novel without being overstimulating for a young child or baby {and basically dragging them around to activities I wanted to do}, we actually could decide together what to do next and plan on the go and roll with it.

Packing Is Hard

I have been on many excursions all around the world. Whenever I pull out the suitcases I think, this is going to be the instance when I get it right. I will only take exactly what I need and no more. I will not forget anything essential. I will plan everything out to the last detail and travel light yet prepared. Guess what? I make mistakes every. single. time. However, with rare exceptions there are few ways to really screw up. We can do without, or buy something when we get there if it is critical

There were more tips picked up along the way, but these were the biggies. I have no doubt that our next vacation will provide even more insights and more lessons learned through traveling.

Thanks so much for stopping by today. If you enjoyed this post, I would love to connect with you on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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Vacation

Travel plans always sound really great in my head when they are still six months out. 

That will be so much fun! Of course we can make it! Two suitcases for four people for six nights with room for souvenirs is totally enough space! We have to be at the airport at what time? No problem! 

Then a few days before—when it sets in that I now have to execute said plans—mini-panic arises. I gotta do what? Yikes.

Somehow with all my years of experience {with traveling, kids, life} I never seem to internalize the fact that thinking about doing things is always worse than actually doing them. 

I worry up until the exact moment commences, and then when I am in the middle of whatever I worried about I cannot believe I ever thought it would be an issue. 

Still, it is a cycle I am pretty comfortable with, so I am gonna do it again. 

Thanks so much for stopping by today. If you enjoyed this post, I would love to connect with you on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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