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How to plan a Disney cruise: 8 stress-saving tips

The magic of a Disney park without the crowds, lines and general anxiety levels? Yes, please.
/ Source: TODAY

When my family started planning our first Disney cruise, we weren't sure where to begin or what to expect. Having never cruised before, we weren't even sure if Disney Cruise Line (DCL) would be our thing, but as frequent visitors to Walt Disney World, we knew one thing: We love the mouse and all of the magic that comes with him.

So as a mom, a journalist and a Disney-lover, I started researching Disney Cruise Line packing lists, tips and tricks and — my family would say — over-planning everything down to the smallest grain of pixie dust.

On our first Disney cruise, my family learned to relax and go with the flow.
On our first Disney cruise, my family learned to relax and go with the flow.Terri Peters

When it came time to embark on our ship, the Disney Fantasy, we were more than ready. But as the week progressed, I found the key to enjoying our experience was to relax more and expect less. Our Disney cruise experience brought all the magic of a Disney park without the crowds, lines and general anxiety levels. A few days in, most of my plans went out to sea and I stopped to breathe and enjoy the memories I was making with my family.

Here are 8 tips that helped make our Disney cruise more memorable, magical and relaxing.

1. When you board the ship, have lunch at a sit-down restaurant.

Embarkation times for Disney Cruise Line begin just before lunchtime, so it’s a popular choice to hit Cabanas, the buffet located on each of DCL's 4 ships, for lunch. Buffets can be hectic and overcrowded and boarding the ship is a lengthy process in itself, so ask a cast member which of the main dining rooms are open for lunch and grab a table there.

On our first day aboard the ship, we had a relaxing sit-down lunch and spent time getting our Disney Cruise Line app up and running (the app allows you to communicate with other members of your party while on the ship) and reviewing the Navigator — DCL’s paper listing of events happening on the ship each day.

Pro tip: Pack a highlighter to mark up the activities on the Navigator that you hope to hit each day.

2. Let your kids go wild in the dining room.

My daughter is a foodie through and through and, since anyone can order off the kids or adult menu at DCL restaurants, she thoroughly enjoyed ordering filet mignon and fancy pasta dishes and trying new foods like lobster bisque and seared tuna.

I'm not joking about the 16 cheeseburgers.
I'm not joking about the 16 cheeseburgers.Terri Peters

My son, on the other hand, is a picky eater: He ordered a total of 16 cheeseburgers while we were on board. (It's vacation, right?)

If someone in your family really loves a dish from another restaurant on board, it’s OK to ask for items from a different menu. My son wasn’t a fan of the steak fries served at dinner most nights, but our server was able to snag him the fries he loved from a restaurant on a different deck.

Pro tip: DCL servers will cut your kids’ food up for them, so enjoy the bliss of eating your own dinner before it gets cold.

3. Take advantage of the “free” room service.

24-hour room service is included in the cost of your cruise, so my family sometimes started our day with room service breakfast, eating donuts and pastries and sipping coffee on our balcony overlooking the ocean. On mornings when you’d prefer not to hit the buffet or a sit-down restaurant, this is a low-key way to begin the day.

Similarly, on evenings where my kids were feeling hungry at bedtime, they got a kick out of ordering a grilled cheese or a chocolate chip cookie at 9 p.m. (Again… it’s vacation!)

Pro tip: DCL provides door tags to hang outside of your stateroom before bed with the next morning's breakfast order marked off. If you have dietary needs, like gluten-free pastries, just jot down a note on the card and the staff will accommodate.

4. Take a tour early in your trip.

On our first full day aboard the Disney Fantasy, I went on a tour showcasing artistic elements of the ship. Not only was it fascinating — I thoroughly enjoyed dropping my newly acquired knowledge of the ship’s artwork on my family — but it helped me learn the layout of the ship and I made mental notes of beautiful deck areas, bars or activities I wanted to explore at a later time.

Pro tip: Once you get the hang of fore (toward the front of the ship) and aft (toward the rear), navigating gets a lot easier.

5. Plan Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique on the right night.

Watching little Belles and Cinderellas curtsy and parade around on the ship’s formal night was unbearably cute. If your family plans to dress to the nines on formal night, that’s the day to make an appointment at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique — a princess-themed salon experience where girls get made over like one of their favorite Disney Princesses.

Pro tip: The same goes for Galactic Transformations — a Star Wars makeover experience available on select ships. If you’re traveling on a sailing that includes Star Wars Day at Sea, it’s the perfect compliment to the day. Book both online before you set sail.

6. Make rare character meet and greets a priority.

If you’ve done vacations in Walt Disney World and Disneyland, chances are you have photos of your kids with Buzz and Woody or Anna and Elsa. The lines to meet characters on DCL can be long — even when you’ve reserved a meeting time — so focus on the characters you normally wouldn’t have easy access to if your kids tend to tire of waiting in lines.

On the Disney Fantasy, Minnie Mouse wears a beautiful peacock dress on formal night, so we made sure to line up for a photo. We also made it a point to meet Goofy and Max, and to get a photo with Captain Mickey.

Pro tip: Photo packages aboard DCL can be pricey, but cast members will take photos of your family with the characters using your phone or personal camera — just ask!

7. Find your cruise’s unofficial Facebook group.

There’s a unique sense of community among Disney cruisers. You won’t want to miss out on things like “fish extenders” (little gift swaps your kids can participate in with other families) or opportunities to meet up with families with similar interests.

It’s all coordinated through Facebook, so be sure to search the name of your DCL ship and cruise dates and join the group that’s been formed by other cruisers on your trip. Through our group, we participated in a magnet exchange with other cabins and a craft beer exchange where everyone traded beer from their hometowns.

Pro tip: These weren't Disney-sanctioned activities, but they really added something fun to our vacation.

8. Let your kids go… er… grow.

Watching our kids grow more independent on the ship was one of our favorite parts of our Disney Cruise Line experience.
Watching our kids grow more independent on the ship was one of our favorite parts of our Disney Cruise Line experience.Terri Peters

My husband and I couldn't believe how much our kids (ages 10 and 8) grew and matured on our trip. We allowed them the freedom to check themselves in and out of the kids club areas and we listened when they were tired and let them rest in the room (watching on-demand Disney shows and movies!) rather than insisting they accompany us to every activity.

On a night when we had a reservation at Palo, an adults-only restaurant, our server invited our kids to have dinner together in the dining room without us — something we were hesitant about, but that’s now one of our kids’ favorite memories of the vacation.

“Remember the night we had a grown-up dinner all by ourselves?” they ask proudly.

Pro tip: DCL assigns your family the same serving staff each night at dinner, so be prepared to bond with the caring servers who look after your family.

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