My family and I just got back on a cruise on the Disney Dream to the Bahamas, and our feelings are, safe to say, mixed. On the cruise was myself and my wife, our 3 year old daughter, and my mother in law. The cruise was a 5-day, 4-night cruise with 2 ports: Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney's own private island. My wife and I had both been on several cruises with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, but this was the first cruise for my mother in law and my daughter. I think that the best way to structure this review is to break it down in the categories of things we enjoyed and things we did not enjoy as much.
First, Disney puts on a great show, and they did not fail to meet that standard on the cruise. The ship was gorgeous and was immaculately maintained; the staff was courteous and the characters were near flawless (more on this next); there were also free stage shows and first-run movies which were exceptional. All-in-all, it was well geared to children and families, and I believe it was the most successful part of the cruise. The restaurants all have different themes, from Royal Palace which looked like an elegant ballroom replete with chandeliers, to Animator's Palate that had interactive tv screens with characters from Finding Nemo carrying on conversations with the guests (still not sure how they pulled that off!). Being on a Disney cruise ship makes one immediately feel like he/she is basking in luxury.
The characters--from Mickey and the gang to the various Princesses and down the line--were a huge treat, taking extensive time to meet the children (and adults if you are so inclined), answer questions, sign autographs, and pose for pictures. I was particularly surprised by how there was no hesitation to allowing people to take their own photographs with the characters, although there is the option to purchase pictures at the end of the cruise, too. The only word of caution: when it comes to the characters, especially the Princesses, they are available for certain time slots--GET THERE EARLY!!! One day, they had to cut off the line 5 min after the specified time, because there were already too many people in line.
Disney is also great about its use of technology. You are given a card (similar to a credit card) upon your arrival. This card does practically everything during your time onboard. The card also utilizes RFID technology, so you only have to wave it by your stateroom to open the door, or hand it to photographer to collate your photos into one account. It makes things a lot easier and more efficient.
The ports, especially Castaway Cay, were great, too. Nassau seemed to be less family-friendly, at least from an initial appearance, and my wife was a little nervous about the safety of the area. There were plenty of restaurants and other tourists around, so I did not feel unsafe, but that could potentially be an issue, especially for families with young children. Castaway Cay was great, however. White sand, clear water, and an all-you-can-eat BBQ provided by Disney ashore. I didn't want to leave, and wish that we had had 2 days there, instead of 1 day at sea (the duty-free shops onboard were not allowed to be open while in port, so the cynical part of me thought that maybe this was scheduled this way to maximize sales).
Generally speaking, the food was also fine. Nothing extraordinary, and repetitive especially for breakfast, but I didn't dislike anything I ate. My mother in law has simpler tastes, and she thought the food was very good; my daughter was just excited that they had self-serve ice cream available 24/7.
The Less Than Good:
First, I must note that my wife and I have been on other cruises, and went to an all-inclusive resort for our honeymoon, so these experience color our view of the Disney cruise, but we felt that Disney make a conscious effort to nickel-and-dime us to death. The cruise was certainly not cheap, but while we were there, virtually everything was added costs. There was a 24 hour beverage station where you could get all the soda or other soft drinks you wanted to drink; this station was on the 11th floor, however, and our room was on the 6th floor, not exactly practical just to get a quick drink. If you wanted a can/bottle of soda, you have to order it from room service, and it was extra. You could get water from the sink or from the beverage station, but if you wanted a bottle of water, extra (about $3/bottle!!!). They offered large plastic cups in the gift shop if you wanted to fill up on water or soda to avoid this trip, as long as you don't mind spending $25 for the cup. No alcohol is included, of course, but you can carry on alcohol or buy it in port and bring it back on. Any kind of fruit smoothie, extra. You can go to a stage show/movie for free, but if you want to buy a snack to bring in, extra. On top of all of this, anything you bought would have an automatic tip included. We bought a 6 pack of water for around $15, and a $1.50 tip was included...for what?!? There were two upper scale restaurants for adults only, but they were a $75/person up charge, on top of what we already spent. It wasn't so much any one of these things that bothered me, it was the aggregate.
(It is worth noting that, for a family of 3 to go to Disney world for a week, it would cost us close to $10,000, so even with all of these up charges, it is significantly cheaper than one of the parks. Even still, this approach made me want to look to a different type of vacation next time.)
There are only two seating times for dinner: 5:45 or 8:15. Because we booked a little late, the 8:15 time was the only available slot, and it was just too late for our daughter. (That being said, 5:45 may well have been too early.) By the time we had ordered, it would be 8:45, and our entrees would not be coming out until after 9pm; until we said something, they never even thought to bring our daughter's food out earlier, they waiting until our entrees were out before bringing her food! By then, she was exhausted, not eating, and having a meltdown. Not a good situation. I understand that some people booked their cruises a year or more in advance, and there should be benefits to booking early, but perhaps some priority should be given to families with young children. On the other hand, we often would be eating lunch/munching until 2 or 3 o'clock; not sure we would have been ready for dinner 2 hours later. I think they should have had staggered seating times, like in any restaurants, every 30 min or so.
This would also alleviate the problem of long wait times, which is another issue we had. My wife and I both worked in restaurants for years, and the habit of seating a bunch of tables all at once we called "waving the kitchen," in that a wave of orders would come in all at once. This backs up the bar, it backs up the kitchen, and slows everything down. Not only would food take a while to come out, but drinks were incredibly slow, too. One night in particular, it literally took in excess of 20 min for our drink server to come by and get our drink order, all we wanted was a soda and a tea. Which, in and of itself, was another issue we had. We had two servers, one who handled food and one who handled drinks. Not sure whether this was the Disney-implemented procedure or not, but their jobs were strictly bifurcated. The night where we were waiting for our drink server, we asked our food server, and he blew us off, saying "[your drink server] will be over soon to get your order." This is a major no-no in any restaurant, let alone a fine-dining establishment like most cruise lines recruit from.
Generally the food was fine, as I stated above, but it was far from being excellent, it was just OK. I had prime rib that was good, some appetizers that were good, but also had short ribs and risotto that were improperly cooked. I understand that cooking for thousands of people is much different than cooking for a few hundred in a restaurant, but if the kitchen cannot cook a certain type of food properly, they should have the good sense not to serve it at all.
There were also some issues with how the ship was designed, which is troubling since this is one of Disney's newer ships. Two of the restaurants (Royal Palace and Animator's Palate) were down the hall from each other on the 3rd floor, further down the same hall on the same floor was where the characters gathered for pictures, and past the characters was the stairs and elevator to access the third restaurant, Enchanted Garden. As you can probably imagine, the hallways were completely jammed and all but impassable between 5:30 and 9pm as a result. I found this to be poorly arranged, conceptually. Additionally, there are two family pools on the 11th floor, but the pools are relatively small, and became jam packed with children like sardines very quickly; can't imagine that this was the best layout design available.
Our daughter loved the trip, which really is the most important thing, and for that the Disney cruise met our expectations. From a general vacation perspective, however, we were very disappointed; it seemed like more effort was put into the show than into the substantive parts of the cruise. If I had my choice, I would pick an option for a vacation where we get more for our money. This is not to recommend people not pick a Disney cruise, you just need to decide whether it is right for you and your family.