This was my 6th overall cruise, 1st on Disney. Went with my wife, 2 daughters (2 and 8 years old,) and my mother-in-law(MIL) and father-in-law(FIL.) We're all from Tampa so there was no air travel or hotel stays involved since we drove to the port the day of departure. My wife and I usually cruise out of Tampa which is close to home, where drop off is a breeze and self-park is easy. The MIL, however, (who hasn't cruised in nearly 20 years) thought it would be "great" for the family to help her celebrate her 70th birthday on a Disney Cruise! Despite our reservations about taking a 2 year old, she insisted and "promised" that she would help (we'll get to that later.)
Anyway, as I said before, we usually cruise out of Tampa, typically on RCL or CCL. In addition to proximity, the value of those cruises are better, IMO. A 5 day cruise on RCC out of Tampa in a Grand Suite with concierge service is $300-$500 LESS than a comparable cabin on DCL that is only a 4 day cruise! But, you are paying for it being "Disney" and most everything about this cruise is definitely Disney: it's crowded and there are lines ALMOST everywhere. However, the fellow passengers seemed to be a bit more refined which helped make the overall experience nicer (unlike the Disney parks themselves.) As one other reviewer put it, if you are going with children, it really is a cruise for kids and they just bring the parents along to take care of them.
Before I continue and leave the impression that this cruise was not enjoyable, let me say the reason for my not having the best of times was mostly related to taking a 2 year old along. My wife and I had planned on leaving her in the nursery during the days but the MIL wanted everyone together and promised to help should we need it. However, when the need arose, no such help was provided. As such, we were not able to relax or actually feel like we were on vacation for most of the cruise. So should the MIL ever want to go on another vacation with the grandkids, she can - by herself!
Now, about the cruise. Embarkation wasn't too bad. Travel time from Tampa was just around 2&1/2 hours. We stopped and ate lunch before getting to Port Canaveral because with DCL, you have to choose a "port arrival time" instead of just showing up. Supposedly, your ship boarding time is related to your port arrival time and ours was 3:00-3:30. As such, we didn't think we would be aboard in time to eat. Well, we still arrived early (around 12:15) and were not looking forward to the potential wait. We dropped off our bags and got in line. While fairly long, it did move and the agent was nice. Overall, we were in line about 15-20 minutes. After checking in, we were given a boarding group number and as we walked away from check in, our boarding group was called! So we got in that line and waited another 15-20 minutes to get on the ship. So, overall, we spent about 45-60 minutes in check-in time. Not too bad. Once on board, we were able to go to our rooms - after waiting in another line for the elevator.
On to the ship. "Classic" was the word that came to mind as we boarded. The ship has beautiful lines and the color scheme is old world. Not as grandiose as RCL or CCL but still nice to look at and everything is well maintained and beautiful. There is a LOT to explore - if you don't have a 2 year old. After going to our rooms (more on those later,) we walked around a bit. We went up to the pool deck (which was already packed,) watched the AquaDuck, had a cocktail, explored the putt-putt course (which wasn't open,) and found our way to Cabana's (the buffet style eatery.) Was very pleasantly surprised to find stone crab claws and shrimp, so despite having just had lunch, we splurged and ate a few. Cabanas is neatly themed and even has the seagulls from Finding Nemo perched overhead. Over the duration of the cruise, I was able to explore most areas. The main theater is spacious with no truly bad views. The movie theater shows first run movies (I watched Iron Man Three - albeit at 10:30PM having sneaked out after everyone else was asleep.) The shops are all Disney and priced as such. The 3 main dining rooms are all very nice. Didn't spend any time in the kid's areas or the adult lounges but I hear they are present!
Our room was a "Deluxe Family Oceanview with Veranda" on deck 9. It was adequate for our purpose but smaller than what we are used to as we usually have suites on other cruise lines. The drop down bed was cool for the 8 year old. With the 2 year old we requested a crib. FYI: DCL apparently defines "crib" as a pack-n-play; oh, well. We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of storage. There was plenty for 2 adults and 2 children. Additionally, this was the first cruise out of 6 where our luggage actually fit under bed!!! The balcony was nice and since the in-laws were in the next room, we had the divider between the balconies folded back to make 1 larger balcony. Hallways were VERY noisy from foot traffic but conversations could not be heard. The tub/shower was quite roomy but DCL separates the toilet and shower into 2 rooms so this kinda makes both rooms feel cramped.
As for activities, we really didn't use them too much. This cruise did make me realize how much I like having a sea day the day after boarding. Usually, we use that time to further explore the ship and find out about activities. Instead, you go straight to Nassau and then to Castaway Cay. The only sea day is the day before debarkation and we found it to be the most relaxing of the trip. On that sea day, we did finally convince the MIL to let us put the 2 year old in the nursery for a few hours (hmmm... could that be why we found that to be the most relaxing day???) During that time, we were able to enjoy some pool side time with our 8 year old and ride the AquaDuck a few times (really cool!) One day is pirate themed and there is a pirate party at night - LATE at night - that includes fireworks shot off from the ship. I hear they were neat but we couldn't make it with the kids. The 2 year old was asleep by 8:30 and the 8 year old crashed at 9:30. Fireworks didn't go off until 10:45. Oh well. Next time...without the kids!
Service was decent. We've had better and we've had worse. Cabin attendant was almost always around but in a sort of creepy way. Room was cleaned in timely fashion but he continually only set out 3 towels instead of 4. Also, used glasses weren't cleaned until we did it ourselves on day 3. Dining service was mixed. The assistant waiter was AWESOME; he would almost always have our preferred soft-drinks ready, he would play with the kids and he would even cut their food for them. The main server was just plain annoying. We would sometimes just sit down and attempt to get the kids settled when he would be thrusting menus into our faces and giving us his "recommendations," often by just simply talking over us! We tipped accordingly.
The food quality (both in the buffet and in the dining rooms) in our opinion was excellent; probably the best and most consistent of any cruise we've been on. I felt the selection in the dining rooms was limited compared to other cruises but what I had was very good. The buffet dining in Cabana's was great and the selection was amazing. As above, stone crab and shrimp were there, but I also enjoyed venison and wiener schnitzel! We never tried room service or any of the up-charge restaurants so can't give any feedback on them.
As for entertainment, we saw all but one of the production shows and they were all typical Disney quality: excellent. As above, we didn't make it to the pirate party or the fireworks. First run movies were also playing in the movie theater. As already mentioned, I saw Iron Man Three; also playing was Brave, Wreck-it-Ralph, and Oz.
Port excursions were our biggest disappointment. Let me rephrase. The Nassau port excursion experience was a disappointment. Having been on 6 cruises and taken excursions on all of them, our experience on DCL made us think they had never run an excursion program before! First, the meeting time for our excursion (Atlantis AquaAdventure) was 9:30. We got in line at 9:15. For some reason, DCL has multiple security check points just to GET OFF the ship and we didn't reach the first one until 9:40. After that we finally arrived in our meeting room (the main theater) at 9:50 and got in another security line which took another 5 minutes. Following that, you had to go through the Atlantis staff (another 5 minutes;) and then we sat in the theater for another 15 minutes. Then our group of about 100 was taken to the bus cue and where we waited another 20 minutes, followed by a 20 minute ride to Atlantis arriving right at 11:00 AM. All with a 2 year old daughter (and a MIL!) As for Atlantis, the crowds were huge (probably due to the 4 ships in port that day!) Once there, though, we had some enjoyable time, some not (both family and crowd related.) The resort itself was beautiful.
Castaway Cay was great. No de-boarding wait like in Nassau so it was right off the ship and on to the beach. We walked and it wasn't that far. Saw trams every once in a while but we didn't use them. Facilities were well maintained. Beaches were nice. Water was a little cloudy for the Bahamas, so snorkeling was a bit disappointing. Drink servers all over the place (and surprisingly, drink prices both on the ship and at Castaway Cay are fairly reasonable!!) Food at BBQ was superb (especially the jerk chicken and spicy chicken sandwich.) Spent most of time with family at beach so there was no exploring to the adult side of the island. We also did not do anything above and beyond the beach. Walked back to ship and stood in re-boarding line for 20 minutes! Still baffles me why; it's their PRIVATE ISLAND so there was no security; all you had to do was scan your Key to the World card. Even with 2 gangways open, the lines to re-board were ridiculous.
Disembarkment was easy. Ship arrived in port very early and they expect everyone off the ship by 9:30. You have to be out of your cabin by 8:00. If you plan on eating a sit down breakfast before leaving, be aware that if you have early seating for evening dining, breakfast is at 6:45! Otherwise, you can go to Cabana's. We bypassed both and just walked off the ship by 8:15 and were in our car by 8:40.
Overall, we had fun but the kids enjoyed it the most. Wish the weather would have been a little better (mostly cloudy and windy the last 2 days) and wish the ship didn't seem so crowded. My wife and I will probably consider DCL again for just ourselves but we definitely won't be taking a 2 year old (or MIL) again!