This was my wife and I's first cruise for our anniversary (we're 29 and 26). Given that we have a propensity for very active vacationing, were looking for forced relaxation, so we looked into cruises. Thanks to hours of pouring over reviews on this site, we decided to cruise with Disney for the following reasons:
- Relaxed atmosphere.
- No party boat.
- High quality food + customer service.
- Nice new ship.
So, we booked a May 2012 7 Night Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy in May of 2011 and crossed our fingers. Given the reputation of cruising being for the senior citizen class, we were somewhat apprehensive that we were spending a lot of money on a vacation that would turn out to not be worth the money.
The exact opposite happened: the trip went well beyond our expectations and we booked our next cruise for May 2013 on the Disney Magic for an 8 Night Western Caribbean cruise. Our past week on Disney has made us probably lifetime cruisers.
But, some reality. First the bad:
Without a doubt, the Fantasy's pools leave something to be desired. I can see where they were going with a larger number of smaller pools, but we definitely missed out having a large pool available to us (like is apparently available on the Magic). The Fantasy apparently has 2 more small pools compared to the Dream, which may be why the Dream's schedule for 2013 only includes cruises with at most 1 sea day. I think with 3 sea days like ours the lack of those two smaller pools (Satellite Falls and the Wading Pool) would be painfully noticeable. Because of this, we will actively avoid the Dream and stick to the Fantasy for their larger ships when possible.
- New crew.
According to most of the cast members we spoke to, half the ship's was brand new to cruising. This was very obvious especially in the rotational dining restaurants, where there were clear language and cultural gaps. For example, when asked if I would like cream or suger with coffee, I'd say "I'm good" which several Eastern European staff interpreted as "yes" rather than a polite "no." I learned to stop saying the phrase. Also, my wife does not like coffee or tea and avoids juice, which blew the minds of most staff during breakfast. As the week went on, however, there was notable improvement in the crew's performance, so I think given another couple of months this concern will be resolved. Despite this issue though, the staff was overwhelmingly positive and clearly trying to provide great service.
- Senses Spa.
We had major scheduling issues (the cards they provided us for my wife and I's paired pedicures were wrong, but we didn't bring them, we thought we made a mistake on the show time, and during my wife's manicure her beautician gave her a ton of crap the entire time for her "human error"). Also, my wife's hair requires Sulfate Free hair products for her hair treatments, but she forgot to pack hers at the last second. When we went to Senses to buy some, they provided products that were not Sulfate Free - only after using the products we noticed. When we went to return them (which is a pain, they will not let you return on the ship!) they said that they were Sulfate Free. When my wife pointed to the ingredients that clearly showed sulfate, the beautician said "Oh, well, this is the good kind!" When chatting with my pedicurist she said that the contract company Disney uses basically sent her to a 2 month course. Based on our experiences, I would expect that few of their staff could be state certified in the US for their trade.
However, despite these issues, the resolution was fantastic. When we brought this to the attention of the manager, my wife received personal phone calls of apology from all involved (the manicurist, the person who did the scheduling, and the manager's manager) and a complete refund offered (without us asking) without any hassle. I commend Disney for the fantastic recovery - this is one of the reasons we opted to book another cruise with them, their recovery was amazing. Kudos to Disney for this!
- PG-ification of everything.
Clearly Disney is all about kids. We found the Sail Away and Pirate Night parties overly kid-focused and horribly lame for anyone above the age of 13. We were into it too - we dressed up for Pirate Night and all, so it's not like we're too cool for this stuff. But it was all clearly aimed at the below 7 crowd. Disney even PG-ified the macarena (touch your hips across instead of your butt). Also, apparently Disney PG-ifies excursions, with staff giving us extra information about stuff they were not allowed to stay to the larger group because of Disney about the history of slavery and other things about the islands. Several parents on the ship in the Quiet Cove pool mentioned that their teenagers were wanting to gouge their eyeballs out because of how lame the teenage activities were. There is a notable gap here that Disney needs to address, because we could definitely see how a non-sheltered 10 year old kid could find most of the Disney stuff extremely lame.
- First time cruiser scheduling penalty.
Because we had not cruised with Disney before, we could only book excursions and restaurants 72 days out... so a lot of dates were already filled. We went to Palo (which we couldn't book ahead of time for) and Senses (same) once we got off the ship based on recommendations on the forums here and it worked out fine, but the uncertainty was annoying. Also, it seemed that there may have been better excursion times that we didn't get to book for. We're looking forward to being Castaway Club Silver members next time so we have 90 days out to book these and have more scheduling flexibility.
- Farcical official photo pricing.
For a mere $400 you can get unlimited 8x10 photos with a digital copy (folio not included - that's $20 w/ $5 off!). Individually 8x10 are $20 each and 5x7 are $15 each. Now, given the number of official character photo opportunities, we saw some parents with easily 100+ photos from the cruise, so I guess at that point the $400 package makes sense, but we were pretty sticker shocked by it. Maybe because we don't have kids yet we're not used to this though, perhaps it's not as bad as it seems. NOTE: Do make sure to take the official embarkation cruise photo as that is what the facial recognition software uses to put additional pictures in the correct binder for you (their system and setup for photo handling in the Atrium is absolutely amazing, BTW). We skipped the embarkation photo and wound up having the dig through the rest of the pictures to find ours....
Now the good and great:
- Embarkation and disembarkation.
Beyond seamless, this was amazingly painless compared to some reviews I read. We walked off the ship when we wanted and our bags were perfectly handled the entire time. We stayed at WDW the night before our cruise: at 8am someone came and picked up all of our bags and we didn't see them again until our cabin. The night before disembarkation we left our packed bags outside the door and we didn't see them again until customs. They organize bags by section (Orange/Goofy, Red/Mickey) with tags you put on your bags before you leave them out. They have contract staff you pay a tip to carry all of your bags through customs for you (worth the $$). Total time from ship to waiting for our rental car shuttle was no more than 20 minutes and we left the ship on our own schedule.
- The rotational dining.
The food was incredible. Period. The rotational dining food was extraordinary. I read several reviews that Disney portion sizes were "too small" but we found them just right, and you can always order more (our server brought out 3 courses of Baked Alaska for our entire table the last night). Do not miss Animator's Palette! All of the other restaurants are beautiful as well (the mosaics in Royal Court are photo-worthy).
This is the extended hours buffet-style restaurant (it's table service only for dinner, but you can show up whenever). It frequently pulls the exact same menu items as the rotational dining restaurants, so if you can't/don't feel like eating at a certain time, going here is awesome. The breakfast and lunch here are both fantastic in their variety and quality, but they can be a bit busy at times.
- Remy + Palo.
Remy is a pretty upscale French restaurant, so formal dining rules apply. This is an intense 3+ hour experience that is completely focused on the art and quality of the food itself. We were hoping to do Remy for our anniversary but couldn't get a reservation. In the end we were very glad we did Palo for our anniversary instead, because the food is absolutely phenomenal (that it's only $20/person is amazing - it's easily a $150/person meal in a regular restaurant) and very relaxed for the quality of the meal. For our next cruise we intend on doing 2 Palo nights if we can book. If Remy is too expensive for you, that's OK, but for the price missing Palo makes no sense.
- Adults-only areas.
Because of the family-focus of Disney, the adults-only sections never felt too busy or full and were frequently near empty (especially during the early rotational dining time - we had the late dining time). It was very easy, we felt, to avoid kids during relaxation times, even if the Wading Pool was technically all-ages. While we did see kids going through there sometimes (given elevator placement this was sometimes impossible for families to avoid) it wasn't at all bad or annoying, despite what some reviewers have said. Even though it is Disney and everything is very PG-ified, the adult areas are a great place to hang out, drink, and have a great evening. My wife and I were never a part of the binge drinking spring break crowd, so the speed and intensity of the adult sections are perfect for us. If you're on the ship to do some hardcore partying, I presume you're not looking at Disney anyway....
- Disney customer service.
After our cruise we spent at night at Universal's Royal Pacific Resort to check out the CityWalk before flying home. We experienced a massive customer service culture shock between Disney (the cruise and WDW, which we stayed at before the cruise) and Universal. Disney's customer service handling was extraordinary and what sealed the deal for us cruising with them next year instead of trying to find a nice but adult-oriented cruise.
- The excursions.
The quality of the excursion operators was fantastic - zero customer service issues. Other reviews and our own observations while on the islands revealed the potential for some pretty shady excursion operators, and we were glad to have operators who were clearly very well vetted by Disney. Also, Disney's handling of arriving for excursions was awesome and extremely well organized with the way they do check-in and disembarkation to the pickup location for the operators. Compared to Royal Caribbean's "Tours Meet Here" banner off the ship in port that we saw, Disney's excursion operation looked like a well oiled machine.
- The cabins.
We found our rooms to be exceptionally quiet, though kids bounding/running down the hallways were occasionally a problem. But, what was very nice is that beside the mornings when kids were eating room service breakfasts on the veranda, we always had our veranda door open to enjoy the sounds of splashing waves. Most nights we went to sleep with the door open without any noise problems, which was wonderful and really appreciated. The dual-bathroom setup was also awesome and probably a life-saver with kids.
We found alcoholic drink prices very reasonable, with zero pressure to keep buying drinks from staff on the deck. I highly recommend the Coffee Toledo at Vista Cafe in the Atrium! We regret not spending time in Meridian, since a quick look at the drink menu while waiting to be seated (just a minute) at Remy and Palo revealed a fantastic and creative cocktail menu. Excursions were pricy compared to buying for ourselves off ship, but we appreciated the efficiency and quality of the excursion operators we did have, who were just as friendly and professional as the Disney crew. Remy and Palo, as noted earlier, are both worth the $$. Disney cabin prices are way higher than Carnival and the rest, but given the guarantee of amazing customer service (or epic and nearly awkward problem recovery), my wife and I both felt the price was worth that implicit guarantee of excellence.
- Disney customer service again.
I can't really emphasize this enough: if you're professional and polite and have a problem, stay out of the way, because the Disney customer service machine is a sight to behold. Even being the person reporting the problem it becomes overwhelming and awkward because the company will go to such extraordinary lengths to resolve the problem. I feel bad for anyone who works at Disney and does something that gets any kind of complaint (even if it's just a side comment), because the machine will kick into high gear in a way I've never witnessed before. It's clear that Disney takes ANY kind of issue extremely seriously so long as the originator is professional, kind, and polite. In line for Guest Services I witnessed guests who were not kind or professional to the staff there (who had nothing to do with the problem) and were treated accordingly - so any reviews I see here where individuals complain about a customer service response really makes me question their side of the story.
- On ship future cruise booking discounts.
At least on our cruise, Disney offered 10% off disneycruise.com pricing (all cabins except Suites and Concierge cabins), $200 shipboard credit for 7+ night cruises ($100 for <7 nights), and only 10% down payment. We found this to be a great offer, especially for longer cruises (do this is you're going to do the 12 Night Mediterranean! It'll save you $1.5K).
The bathrooms were always amazingly clean and pristine. Public areas were pristine. Disney ran life boat drills while we were in port to train the new crew and afterwards you could see them painting pieces of the life boats and cranes that got dinged up during the exercises (I watched a guy paint the same piece of a metal every day for 3 days because it naturally got scratched when the life boat cranes were extended).
My wife and I have nothing but great things to say about our first cruise experience with Disney. We went from skeptical but hopeful cruisers to planning on doing some kind of cruise hopefully every year (even if just a short one) and diasy chaining the on ship booking discounts. The combination of customer service, adult sections, dining, and excursion quality really sealed the deal for us. It's not perfect (especially if you want large pools or tons of drinking), but if you're looking for a low key, quiet, and flawless cruise, Disney is definitely for you.