We are "cruise veterans" having been on several over the years - mostly on Carnival, but also on Princess and Norwegian. We have always wanted to try the Disney Cruise Line because it seemed different than the others - but never did until now because of the price. Although still expensive, Disney was running a "Kids Sail Free" promotion so all four of us went just for the price of the two adults. So we figured now was as good a chance as we were going to get.
For the most part, I would say that a Disney Cruise is very similar to a cruise you might take on any other of the big lines. I'll highlight some differences, but overall I would say they are more the same than different - which makes it hard to justify Disney's much higher price (roughly 60% on average higher than Carnival for cruises with similar staterooms and lengths). My overall recommendation is to try a Disney cruise if you can get a deal on one (they do offer deals sometimes) or you just aren't that concerned about the cost.
Embarkation - Very smooth - and also similar to Carnival's embarkation process. The Disney terminal at Port Canaveral is very nice, and has couches and lots of TVs showing Disney cartoons. But just like everywhere else, you check in and are then given a boarding group number. You board the ship when your number is called. We arrived around 11:30 and were on the ship a little after 12:00. The literature Disney sends you will say that boarding begins at 1:00 PM but I think it is almost always earlier than that. If you are staying in a suite or have done lots of Disney cruises you get priority boarding - but this wouldn't have been that much of a "perk" since boarding was quick anyways.
Stateroom- We had a category 6 balcony cabin which was quite nice. Disney's split bathroom concept (one side has toilet/sink, the other has shower/sink) is convenient. Other than that difference, it's similar to a balcony cabin on any other ship - except it has decorations with Disney themes. Plenty of closet and drawer storage space. Four of us fit quite nicely into it, the additional bunk bed folded down out of the ceiling.
Ship - It is really well maintained and very elegant in most areas (unlike Carnival which is more flashy). They don't give the decks names (Lido, Empress, Riviera, etc.) just the numbers. Very clean everywhere. Not sure if they have had problems with Norovirus in the past, or just don't want to, but there is hand sanitizer EVERYWHERE. When entering any restaurant at any time, there is a crew member with hand sanitizer wipes giving them to EVERYONE - they don't rely on people to do it themselves.
Dining- Overall the food was excellent, as we have found it to be on every ship we have sailed on. It always amazes me when reviewers say the food is "terrible" - I do not see how anyone could say that. Everything we had was excellent - and the portions were sensible (not gargantuan). If you wanted more than one of something, just like on any other ship, you could simply ask. The food was comparable to Carnival's. We also tried Palo one evening - and it was excellent and the atmosphere very nice (similar to the specialty restaurants on other ships). A couple of differences: Disney rotates you among three different restaurants instead of seating you at the same one the whole cruise. This is kind of fun because the restaurants have different themes. They also don't seat you with strangers (even at lunch and breakfast) like other cruise lines do - at least it never happened to us and I didn't notice it happening to anyone else. They also give the food cute names ("Ariel's surprise", etc.) but it is the same food you would get on other big lines. Also like other lines, the coffee is awful. You can get "specialty coffees" (for around $3) - these are better but don't expect Starbucks. I do not understand why it is so difficult for cruise ships to make good coffee.
Servers- The servers are very good and especially focused on the kids. If the kids order something big (like roast chicken) they will cut it up for them. They also engage the kids in conversation at least as much as the adults. They provide crayons on the tables for the kids to play with. They also have children's menus - though our kids (11 and 10) preferred to order off of the adult menu. They are the same mix of international staff that you see on any other big ship.
Other Passengers - Families with kids are by far the biggest group - which makes the average age on this ship way less than typical. There were "senior citizens" but almost always as part of large family groups (with grandkids). There were very few wheelchairs/walkers like you see on some of the other lines. Most of the wheelchairs I saw belonged to kids - there were a lot of "special needs" type kids on this cruise - wheelchairs, Downs Syndrome, autism, etc. The staff seemed to go out of their way to make these kids feel special - so if you are traveling with a special needs child, I think that Disney would be a great choice.
Shows and Entertainment - The shows were excellent - but they all had a Disney theme so if you don't like Disney (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) you may not care for the shows. Most of them are around an hour. Also, the ship has a separate movie theater where they show first run movies (Disney of course) - on this cruise they were showing Alice in Wonderland. They also have 3D capability in this theater. There is also a Big Screen TV over the "Goofy" pool - which shows movies and occasionally other things (again mostly Disney though there was one basketball game). Disney characters roam around the ship and are available for meet and greet and photos (they publish a schedule in the daily "Personal Navigator"). They have the typical trivia contests and other games - again mostly with a Disney theme, but not exclusively Disney.
Adults- They do have areas just for adults - one pool and its surrounding lounge chairs, a coffee bar type place, the specialty restaurant (Palo's), and a nightclub area. Oddly, since there are so many families with children, these areas don't tend to be crowded and are actually less crowded than other ships. Disney does strictly enforce the no kids rules in these areas.
Smoking/Gambling - Smoking is restricted to very few areas - mostly outdoors (and on Deck 9 "the pool deck" only on certain parts of the starboard side). Smoking isn't allowed in the staterooms. There is no casino - but they do have a few Bingo sessions (which we didn't attend). Seems like smoking and gambling often go together - so maybe because there isn't a casino there aren't as many smokers. We didn't see many.
Kids Programs - Very well attended and popular. Kids areas take up most of Deck 5. Lots of computers/video games. Our kids enjoyed very much. However, kids have to be 10 and up to participate in the "Out and About" program - where they go do different things around the ship - pools, basketball court, etc. Otherwise, they just stay in the kid's club on deck 5. Teens have their own club called "Aloft" which looked good. They give kids little tracking devices that they wear on their wrist so at any time the staff can tell you where your kids are if you can't find them. They also give each family a pager so that they can send you a message about your kids if needed.
Castaway Cay- Disney's "private" island experience is excellent. Everything you could want and very well laid out. Snorkeling was good though it was a little chilly. Plenty of beach, games, sports, and a brand new waterslide. This is really a fun time. We actually "aborted" our trip to Castaway Cay on the first attempt (Tuesday) due to high winds and seas. Because we were on the 4 day cruise, we were able to try again on Wednesday when the weather was much better. This is one of the big advantages of the 4 day over the 3 day cruise. The 3 day cruise can't try again. Castaway Cay is really a highlight of the trip and you don't want to miss it.
Debarkation - Again very smooth. You are given a time and place to have breakfast - and you bring all your carry on stuff with you. Then when you are done with breakfast, you just walk off the ship. No numbers are called. Luggage is waiting when you get off and you are on your way.
Conclusion - A fabulous time was had by all. If you can get a deal, or don't mind the cost, go for it. If you want to take a cruise but can't afford Disney, go on Carnival or one of the other big lines. You won't be missing that much and you will probably pay a lot less.