I recently completed my first Disney Cruise aboard the Disney Dream, courtesy of an invitation from the nice folks at Disney. It departed from Port Canaveral and included three nights with stops in Nassau, Bahamas and Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.

This vacation left a lot of impressions on me especially regarding things I didn’t realize or expect in a Disney Cruise. Here is my list of the top fifteen things I learned after my first Disney Cruise:

1 – Disney Is Serious About Safety

Shortly after boarding, everyone is required to participate in a muster drill, where you must gather together at set locations on the ship where you would go if there were an actual emergency. The Crew Members talk about wearing safety vests and explain what signals would instruct you to gather for an emergency.

Disney does a safety exercise before setting sail, and there are safety rules posted around the ship. It's important!

Disney does a safety exercise before setting sail, and there are safety rules posted around the ship. It’s important!

Disney described this drill as “mandatory.” That’s not a word you hear very often around Disney. The Crew Members also took attendance to make sure that everyone participated. It all showed that Disney was very serious about the drill. I think that’s good news even if it takes a few minutes away from your vacation.

2 – Your Boarding Order It Really Matters

Before you arrive at port for your Disney Cruise, you can check in online just like you would if you were staying at one of the Disney resort hotels. When you do this, you can select a time of arrival and get a boarding number. This determines the order on which you can get on the ship.

The lower numbers board first, and if you arrive early and have a higher boarding number, it means you will be waiting around in the Port Canaveral terminal for a while.

The Port Canaveral Terminal is really nice, but the real goal is to get on the ship. Try to get a low boarding number!

The Port Canaveral Terminal is really nice, but the real goal is to get on the ship. Try to get a low boarding number!

While there were character meet and greets in the terminal, everyone was anxious to get on the ship. To the extent that you can, note the earliest time that you could arrive at port, arrive as early as possible, and get a boarding number that is as low as possible. That will minimize your time in the terminal and maximize your time on the ship

3 – You Can’t Necessarily Get Into Your Room Right Away

It is amazing how Disney turns around a ship from one group of vacationers to another. On the first day of your voyage, you might get onto the ship as early as 10:30 or 11:00am. However, your room won’t be ready until about 1:30pm. Why? It turns out that the last set of people just cleared out of the ship a few hours earlier, around 8 or 9am.

Your room might not be ready right away. Explore the ship and be patient.

Your room might not be ready right away. Explore the ship and be patient.

But if you have your Key to the World card, which you use to access your stateroom (as well as charge expenses to your account), can’t you just walk up to your room and get in? Nope. Disney places stanchions between the public areas and the doorways where you enter the hallways that contain the staterooms.

You will want to get on the ship early, but realize that you may not be able to get into your stateroom right away. Bring a day bag with items you might need for your first few hours on board, and pack things like medicines and perhaps your bathing suit or sun block.

4 – The Onboard Shops Aren’t Always Open

This seems like something that would never happen in the Disney universe, but it’s true: The shops onboard the ship are not always open. They are closed when the ship is docked. Why? I suspect it is an issue with regulations and taxes. The shops are also closed sometimes during slower periods, like the early mornings.

When Disney docks at a Port of Call, the onboard ships are usually closed.

When Disney docks at a Port of Call, the onboard ships are usually closed.

5 – The Navigator App For Your Phone Is Really Helpful

The Disney Cruise Line has its own application for your smart phone called the Disney Cruise Line Navigator, which is a lot like the MyDisneyExperience app you use in Disney World. The “Navigator” term is also used for the paper sheets distributed onboard that explain the activities for the day.

The Navigator is available in paper and digital versions from an app on your smart phone.

The Navigator is available in paper and digital versions from an app on your smart phone.

I recommend downloading the app. It is really helpful. However, I didn’t think it was very helpful at first. Why? I downloaded it before I got on the ship. You should do that too. However, while you are still on land, the app doesn’t do very much. At all.

However, when you are onboard the ship, and you launch the Navigator app while connected to the onboard guest Wi-Fi, the app really comes alive. It includes maps, restaurant listings, menus, and activity listings. You can also text other people on the cruise. All of these Navigator app functions are free, and you can access them without paying for Internet service.

By the way, you can purchase Internet service. You pay by the megabyte of data sent. It is slow, but it worked well for me. That said, you are on vacation; use the excuse that you are out to sea to really disconnect from the rest of the world.

6 – It Is Good To Get Your Bearings

Cruise ships are big places, much like a floating city. Take a few minutes to study the deck guide maps. There are three sets of elevators and stairwells – at the back, middle, and front of the ship. Learn which is closest to your room, and get a sense for which amenities (like the Cabanas buffet) are where.

The Disney Cruise ships are huge. It's good to get your bearings early on so you can save time later.

The Disney Cruise ships are huge. It’s good to get your bearings early on so you can save time later.

I learned this the hard way, walking up and down the entire length of the ship several times before figuring out that I could have saved a lot of steps if I had taken a closer elevator.

7 – There Is A Lot To Do. A Lot.

Cruises of long ago had a reputation for being slow-paced and ultra-relaxing. Basically, you could eat and lay in a lounge chair.

That was then, and this is now. This being Disney, every day is overflowing with entertainment.

There's a lot to do... like this Pirate Party!

There’s a lot to do… like this Pirate Party!

If you check your Personal Navigator, the paper that lists all the day’s activities, or the Navigator app on your smart phone, you will see many activities going on during nearly every hour of the day (except in the middle of the night).

There are activities for kids including their own spaces with no adults allowed. There are activities for teens, tweens, and young adults. Adults will also find plenty of things to do from wine tasting to mixology classes to bingo and karaoke. The movie theater is open most of the day showing current films.

You can have as much of a quiet, relaxing time as you want – hanging out on the deck or by the pool.  If you like to be on the go, you will find plenty of fun things to do.

8 – The Live Broadway-Style Shows Are A Must See.

While there is a nearly unlimited set of choices when it comes to how to spend your time on the ship, if I had to pick one “must see” entertainment activity, it would be to see the nighttime Broadway-style shows in the Walt Disney Theater.

The shows are presented twice each night. If you go to the early dining, you can go to the late show. If you are scheduled into the late dining, you can go to the earlier presentation of the show.

When I was on the ship, I was able to see three different presentations. The first was a Golden Mickey’s and the last was a show called Believe. Both were great fun and included plenty of Disney songs, characters, and scenes from across the Disney universe.

The theater shows are top notch!

The theater shows are top notch!

The presentation that stole the show, if I’m allowed to say that, is Beauty and the Beast. Yes, it is a retelling of a story that we’ve all seen and heard many times. Yes, it uses songs that we all know and love – with a few recent additions. However, it retells the tale that is as old as time in a fresh and exciting way.

The set for the show is a combination of physical pieces as well as projection mapping technology, much like Disney is using throughout the parks, like in the Happily Ever After fireworks spectacular at the Magic Kingdom. Background scenes are projected onto the perimeter of the stage and are animated to change through different scenes. This is combined in an extremely clever way with moving physical set pieces.

All this seems to come together in a fresh, new way that takes theatrical storytelling to a new level.

Beauty and the Beast on the Disney Cruise Line. Be sure to see it. Photo credits (C) Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Beauty and the Beast on the Disney Cruise Line. Be sure to see it. Photo credits (C) Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

It is hard for me to overstate how impressed I was by the show. There have been a few times in my Disney experiences where I have been completely blown away. One was the first time I ever rode the Tower of Terror when the elevator car moved out of the shaft and towards the drop location where the stars coagulate together into a line. That effect blew me away. Another is when I saw the Starlight Christmas Drone show at Disney Springs, and the stars in the sky came to life. That blew me away too. Seeing Beauty and the Beast onboard the Disney Dream had the same effect on me. It blew me away.

It might be a little bit of an overstatement to say that seeing this show alone was worth the price of admission, but it isn’t too much of an overstatement. It was that good.

9 – There Is Alcohol Everywhere

Aside from the Magic Kingdom, where there is alcohol, but it is mostly hidden away in a few sit-down restaurants, we are seeing more and more booze out in the open in the Disney theme parks. I’m looking at you, Epcot.

This trend is definitely carried into the Disney Cruise Line, too. As you walk around the pool deck, you will see station after station with bartenders selling different types of alcohol including beer in aluminum bottles and tropical mixed drinks. The sit-down restaurants have a selection of cocktails and wines, and the fine dining restaurants like Palo have an extensive wine selection and even a sommelier to help you make your choices.

Alcohol is available in abundance for an extra cost.

Alcohol is available in abundance for an extra cost.

I didn’t see any issues with people who had imbibed a bit too much, but be ready to see alcohol opportunities at every turn.

10 – There Are Upsells Everywhere

This is it difficult topic, and I want to be as clear as possible with my opinion.

It would be very easy to go for an entire Disney Cruise and not spend an extra penny – beyond the cruise fare you have paid. All of your food, water and soda, and most entertainment is included. You would never be hungry, parched, or bored with what is included. The items included with your cruise fare are enough to make an incredible vacation on their own.

One of the most popular upsells is a dinner at Palo or Remy's.

One of the most popular upsells is a dinner at Palo or Remy’s.

That said, there are many, many, many opportunities to spend extra money on the ship.

Actually, the opportunities are everywhere. Interested in a glass of wine? That is extra. Interested in taking a shore excursion? That is extra. Interested in taking a class to learn about mixing drinks? That will cost you also. All of these extras can certainly add up especially when it is so easy to simply charge them to your room on your Key to the World card. In fact, the ship does not accept cash. That makes it easy to spend money.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. It means there are more options.

However, you should know going onto the cruise that the options are available and plan and choose accordingly.

11 – The Ports Of Call Look A Tad Run Down Compared To The Ship

This is not meant to offend any people or countries, but when you exit the pristine environment of the Disney Cruise ship and enter a port of call, the ports don’t look nearly as nice as the ship.

It’s like you leave a well-functioning, clean, and beautiful Disney environment and go back to the shock of the real world, where buildings are a bit rundown and pushy shopkeepers try to get you to buy their merchandise. Exploring the ports can be fun, but they’re also stark reminder of the real world.

Your time may just be better spent hanging out on the ship, and waiting for your trip to Castaway Cay, which is owned and operated by Disney and trained Disney Cast Members.

The Ports of Call aren't quite as clean and well-themed as Castaway Cay or the cruise ship.

The Ports of Call aren’t quite as clean and well-themed as Castaway Cay or the cruise ship.

12 – You Can Get Free Mickey Ice Cream Bars

You know Mickey ice cream bars, right? They’re the delicious, creamy vanilla ice cream treats shaped like a Mickey Mouse head and covered in delicious, thick dark chocolate.

Here is a news flash: You can get as many free Mickey ice cream bars as you want.

Did someone say free, unlimited ice cream? Yes, please!

Did someone say free, unlimited ice cream? Yes, please!

The trick, however, is to know where you can find these treats. They aren’t available out in the open. You need to your order them in a restaurant or request them from room service. Anything you get from room service is free – and there’s a lot more than just Mickey Ice Cream Bars – but you will probably want to tip the person who brings your food.

13 – You Can Get Unlimited Soda

It is pretty easy to see the soda fountains as you wander around the ship, but it still good to know the soda is free. This is different from some other cruise lines.

There are many drinks stations both near the pool area and near the buffet lines. There’s a good variety of different Coke products as well as spots where you can get juices and tea.

Unlike at Disney World, guests do not get a refillable mug. Instead, there are unlimited paper cups available for your drinks.

14 – Disney’s Private Island, Castaway Cay, Is A Blast

One of the highlights of the trip is a visit to Disney’s private island called Castaway Cay.

I learned that you pronounce “Cay” like “Key.”  Now you know.

Castaway Cay is a private island done in high quality Disney style where everything is clean, fun, and functions well. There is a family beach as well as an adults-only beach. There are many excursion opportunities that include activities ranging from fishing to stingray experiences.

If you just want to grab the lounge chair on the beach and hang out by the water, you can do that. You can also rent a float and enjoy just floating in the water.

There's a ton to do at Disney's Castaway Cay!

There’s a ton to do at Disney’s Castaway Cay!

If you want to be on the go, you can rent a bike or go for run. It may sound a little old fashioned, but one of my favorite activities from the cruise was simply renting a bike and touring around the island, making stops along the way at an observation tower and then riding to the end of the island. If you’d rather be in the water, you can rent snorkel gear and take to the water.

Disney serves lunch at several locations throughout the island. I ate at a place called Cookies BBQ. (In a fun Disney way, there is also a second dining location on the island called Cookies Too.) The food was very good and very filling. Lunch is included in your cruise price, but specialty drinks are extra.

15 – A Few People Actually Live On Castaway Cay Full-Time

Some people actually live on Castaway Cay to keep it up and running; the rest of the necessary staff comes off of the cruise ship!

Some people actually live on Castaway Cay to keep it up and running; the rest of the necessary staff comes off of the cruise ship!

This is a fun little tip for you. Most of the Cast and Crew who provide service on Castaway Cay come off of the ship to do so. However, about 15% of the people who work on Castaway Cay actually live on the island full-time. This includes people like maintenance staff as well as people who cook for the employees.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on a tiny, remote, sparsely populated Caribbean island? A place in the middle of the ocean that barely has an Internet collection? Getting a job working and living on Castaway Cay may be for you.

Overall Impressions

I had only been on one other cruise (on a different cruise line) before my first Disney Cruise. It was fine, but didn’t exactly leave me begging for more.

Now that I’ve been on a Disney Cruise, I am begging for more.  Simply put, I loved my time aboard the Disney Dream.

The ship, the food, the service, and the entertainment are top notch – even a bit beyond what you might expect in the parks.

Yes, Disney Cruises are expensive. There is no way getting around it. However, you do get a lot for your money. If you have the means and are looking for a fun vacation with Disney-level quality, consider the Disney Cruise Line.

What have you learned on your Disney Cruise?