Our expectations were in check after researching reviews for the Disney cruise line for months on this and other sites. I must say that my expectations were exceeded in just about every area. We are not "Disney-ites", but we have been to the park a time or two. Everything on the entire cruise was really nice, but we are not fancy people either. We like going out to dinner, but we are more Chili's and Outback people than Ruth's Chris. If expectations are set appropriately you will have an amazing trip. In my opinion, the reason for a lot of the negative reviews is that people pay a premium to go on Disney and expect dramatic differences. The differences are subtle, but they all add up to a value our family is comfortable with.
Some of the things that surprised me:
1. The ship was completely sold out in the early part of February. We spoiled our kids by letting them out of school for several days, and obviously many other families did the same. The great thing was that there was only 1 time that I felt crowded during the entire trip (Goofy pool on a sea day afternoon). We never had to wait in a line for food, shows, embarkation, debarkation, etc. Disney excels at people flow, and it was clearly a differentiating factor for us.
2. My kids did not really take to the Kids Lab and Club. They love school, preschool, church groups, etc. and we thought that we would be fighting for their attention all week. The strange surroundings and all new faces made my usually outgoing kids a little more reserved when we were not around. This did not detract from our enjoyment as we went to have a lot of family time. If you are counting on the Kids areas to draw all kids in just be cautious. The Club area was clearly geared for younger kids, and even my kids who were in the top end of the expected range really appeared out of place. We went for a Snow White event in the Club and my 5 and 7 year old were by far the oldest playing games that made them feel like they were 3. The workers were pretty good, but they are not going to go the extra mile to pull kids in when they have so many other kids. If your kids are approaching 5 or entering kindergarten the Lab is the place that they should start. We made the mistake of starting with the Club and they never got excited about the kids areas again. Like I said, this was not a big deal to us as there was tons to do as a family.
3. If food is the main reason you go on a cruise, a different line is for you. It was pretty hard to find food at certain times that was not a hot dog, pizza or other fast food. On other less pricey cruises we had enjoyed sushi mid afternoon or wings and salsa before the early show. They had some snacks like this available at times, but it was not readily available when we wanted it. I will plan ahead better on eating times next time we go as my wife was heard saying several times that week "I can't believe I am hungry on a cruise". The buffet food was always very good and our service at dinner was also good. When we boarded the ship we went straight to the pools and had the pools virtually to ourselves for a long time while everybody else started with lunch. We thought this was great until everything shut down really early to give staff a chance to get ready for the muster drill. We never did get anything until our late dinner seating that night.
4. The entertainment is exceptional. I even missed the Super Bowl to go to one of the shows, and that says a lot. This is a key difference where Disney separates. We never felt crowded at the shows and showed up right at show time with seats each night in the first several rows. My kids always had a great view.
5. The room setup is excellent. There was plenty of room for the 4 of us.
6. There is a lot of organized events on the cruise, but really not much different than we have seen on other cruises (lots of Bingo and trivia). We did enjoy all of the family dance parties and other family games. One of the things that I thought I would enjoy the most with my 5 year old (really a movie buff) is going to the theater and watching movies, but we stayed so busy we did not even make it in once.
7. Castaway Cay is beyond amazing. As we plan our next trip this is a mandatory stop for us which unfortunately rules out the Galveston port which is closest to us.
8. I did not feel nickled and dimed throughout the trip. We really could have had a perfect time and not spent one dollar more than our tips on the room account. No pushy drink servers. Free soda and other drinks throughout the day. Free room service that had a pretty good menu. A free bingo card when the kids wanted to play. These little extras made us feel valued.
9. Getting on and off the ship on port days was a breeze even at Grand Cayman where there is a pretty long tender. Our tender process a few years ago there with Carnival was very laborious, but little differences by Disney go a long way (ice water, warm towels to clean your face, etc.) to make you feel more refreshed after a long day as you wait for the tender.
We are planning our next trip in 2014 as we do not want to go too often to spoil the "Magic". I cannot put my finger on why we felt this trip was better than our other cruises, but it must just be all of the little things that add up. Keep your expectations in check so that you know what you are getting. If you don't mind spending extra money to get a slightly better cruising experience then Disney is for you. We fall in that category and are excited to go again. If you are always looking for the best deal then you will probably be happier on another line as the differences are pretty subtle (except for the entertainment which is fantastic). I think we are going to stay on the smaller older ships as the lack of crowds was one of the things that was most appealing to me.