Updated August 21, 2018
Time and again, Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line receive high marks for their at-sea family programming. Both offer spectacular kids clubs, exciting onboard entertainment, family-friendly dining options and accommodations that are slightly more spacious than industry standards.
So how to choose between them for your next cruise?
For starters, Disney has just four cruise ships (with two more on the way, arriving in 2021 and 2023), as opposed to Carnival's 25 vessels (Carnival Horizon makes 26, arriving in spring 2018). More ships means there's a much better chance that you live close to one of Carnival's homeports, making it easier to travel to your cruise vacation. Disney's ships relocate throughout the year, but are primarily focused in Florida.
More ships also mean more itinerary options. Disney sails to an impressive amount of destinations considering the size of its fleet: Alaska, Bahamas, California coast, Canada/New England, Caribbean, Europe, Mexico, Panama Canal and transatlantic. However, you might be stuck booking these sailings way in advance to secure availability, or waiting a year or two to sail on a newly announced itinerary.
Carnival sails to all the same destinations with just three additions: Hawaii, Bermuda and Cuba. Still, Carnival ships sail from 19 different ports at any given time, and while Disney lists 11 different embarkation ports, the cruise line can only be in four places at one time.
As for size, you're sailing with about 4,000 other passengers on a Disney ship; most Carnival ships range between 4,000 and 6,000 passengers.
If you are wondering about all the differences between a Disney cruise versus Carnival, check out our breakdown of each line and their approach to cabins, dining, kids clubs, family activities, nightlife for adults and, of course, price.
When comparing Disney Cruise Line to Carnival Cruise Line, one difference is crystal clear: Disney cruises are significantly more expensive.
Choose Carnival if you are on a budget.
Carnival might not have an entire arsenal of beloved characters to employ, but for the price, the experience on a Carnival cruise is an excellent value. Carnival offers some of the cheapest cruise prices of any cruise line, with per-night pricing that's dipped as low as $30 per person. A family of five can cruise on Carnival for less than $3,500 total for a weeklong cruise. Add to that the fact that many of Carnival's ports are located within a half day's drive of dozens of cities, and the budget required for cruising can be quite manageable.
Choose Disney if money isn't your first concern.
A Disney cruise is magical, but all of that magic carries a hefty price tag. The base cruise fare for just one person on Disney is close to how much it costs to sail in just about any top-of-the-line suite on Carnival or for a family of five to sail in a standard cabin on Carnival. A safe estimate for a family cruising for a week on Disney is about $15,000; that's not including transportation to the port; pre- or post-cruise stays at Walt Disney World; or any of the added-fee experiences onboard, like a makeover at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
Both Carnival and Disney offer space for the entire family to coexist with rooms for up to five people. While both lines offer generous square footage and connecting rooms, Disney offers that trademark attention to detail like curtains as room dividers or split bathrooms (one for toilet, one for tub) that make getting everyone ready -- or putting them to sleep -- just a pinch easier. Both lines keep the cabin experience fun with inventive towel animals and room packages for kids that come with themed decor (try My Little Ponies or Transformers on Carnival, and Finding Dory or Star Wars on Disney). Regarding suite perks, Disney Concierge passengers have access to a private lounge, the assistance of a concierge and even a media library with access to DVDs, music, video games and board games. Carnival only gives suite passengers priority embarkation, but the newest ships do have a Family Harbor stateroom category, which offer families their own dedicated lounge as well as one free evening of babysitting per cruise.
Choose Carnival if you want the most space for your buck.
Inside, entry-level cabins on Carnival run an average of 185 square feet, and can start from less than $50 per person, per night. Disney's base fares are about eight times that price, and while insides on Magic and Wonder can be 184 square feet, others on Fantasy or Dream run 169 square feet.
Choose Disney if having two rooms in a single cabin is important.
Having an "extra room" isn't only useful for putting kids to bed; it's handy for any travel party. Sometimes one person might be eager to get to sleep after a long day, while the other is content to stay up watching a movie or reading through the next day's cruise schedule. Disney makes efficient use of its cabin space with thick room-dividing curtains that effectively create a living room/bedroom configuration or allow for multiple bedrooms with a pullout couch or cot in one half. On top of that, you don't have to wait to use the bathroom or brush your teeth while someone is in the shower; upper-category rooms include a split bath, with a deep tub for soaking and a sink in one bathroom and a toilet and sink in the other.
Dining on Carnival and Disney is pretty different; while both lines offer some casual venues to grab a bite, dinner on Disney is a multisensory affair while Carnival keeps it simple. On most Carnival ships you'll find a fine dining steakhouse, but that's about it when it comes to date night options unless you want to pony up for a meal at the Chef's Table. Disney restaurants are heavily themed, and while the majority of your dining at sea is included, specialty restaurants -- most notably Remy -- carry a relatively hefty price tag. Both lines offer special dining events for kids, but at a markedly different cost. A Dr. Seuss-themed Green Eggs and Ham character breakfast on Carnival costs just $5 per person. Disney's Royal Tea experience, featuring princesses and other Disney characters, costs more than $200 per child, but does include an assortment of take-home gifts like autograph books, a jewelry box or plush toy.
Choose Carnival if you don't like to sit through long meals.
Sure, if you opt for main dining, a few courses at a shared table with other cruisers might take two hours. But if you choose early dining, whether traditional or through Carnival's flexible Your Time Dining program, chances are you'll be eating with other sympathetic families who will be hurrying to finish. On the flip side, if you're not looking to mingle at all, the line's easygoing approach means plenty of included options at the buffet or complimentary sandwiches through room service to cater to your hunger pangs. There is a buffet on Disney, but the line's central focus is still main rotational-style dining.
Or you appreciate a tasty burger or burrito.
Carnival does complimentary cuisine well, and among cruiser favorites are the burgers and seasoned fries of Guy's Burgers, and the BlueIguana Cantina, serving up tacos and burritos all morning and afternoon. These make handy alternatives (or supplements) to the dining room or buffet during the day. Celebrity chef Guy Fieri also has a barbecue joint, Pig & Anchor, on select ships.
Choose Disney if you want restaurant variety, but server familiarity.
A Disney hallmark is its rotational dining program that moves passengers from venue to venue throughout their cruise, ensuring an exciting variety of evening atmospheres and menus, but with the same wait staff. Not only is it remarkable to have three or four different restaurant experiences included in one cruise, but it's handy when your server knows your name, dietary preferences and favorite drink no matter where you're dining. It's also comforting to children who might be picky eaters or shy at the table. Servers are trained to develop a rapport with kids, helping to cut their food, performing magic tricks and tracing Mickey Mouse's outline onto plates with ketchup. The same child-friendly staples can be found from place to place, but menus are mostly based on their venue -- Cajun at Tiana's Place or Brazilian at Carioca's, for example -- so it's a new culinary offering just about every night.
Or if your family lives for theme nights.
Is your family the first one to dress up or join in on pre-dessert Conga lines or pirate parades? Then you'll love dining extravaganza. Even if you brush aside the formal nights and restaurant motifs, Disney is nothing but enthusiastic about themes and costumes. Once per cruise expect a Pirate Night -- cruisers go well beyond slapping on an eye patch and calling it a day. Halloween is also huge onboard and Christmas is equally as crazy. Booked on a Marvel or Star Wars sailing? Say no more (just remember to bring your superhero cape with you). Even though most themed events feature performances or activities that occur before or after meal times, the general vibe kicks off at dinner with mid-meal song-and-dance routines and plenty of hype that extends well beyond a plate of chicken nuggets.
Or you're big soda drinkers.
It's worth noting that self-serve soda is free of charge on Disney ships. If you crave a soft drink, all you need to do is go to a beverage station in the buffet or on the lido deck and pour your own. (When you order a soda from a bar or in the restaurant, there will be an additional expense.) On Carnival, the only way to get your soda fix at any kind of discount is by paying for a soda package.
The kids clubs of the 21st century far exceed a game of hopscotch, a pile of coloring books and an occasional sing-along. Carnival's clubs use a delightful marine theme with activities like Lego reef building and late-night pajama parties. Disney Cruise Line makes the most of its world-famous reputation, with playspaces plucked right from the latest Disney blockbusters and use of technology like motion-capture Marvel video games or tabletop holograms straight out of the Star Wars universe. Both clubs do an impressive job of catering to all age ranges and providing engaging child care for the modern kid.
Choose Disney if siblings or travel companions would like to play together.
Disney's Oceaneer Lab and Club puts children ages 3 to 12 in the same spaces, but with programming that varies by age groups. The age groupings are suggestions, not requirements, so children are able to participate in any of the activities offered. That means if you have kids onboard that are close in age (and actually want to spend time together!) they won't be broken up into the distinct age groupings that many other cruise lines strictly adhere to.
Or you need all-day babysitting for your little one.
At Disney's It's a Small World Nursery, staff offer the assurance that your baby or toddler, 6 months to 3 years, is being supervised throughout the day, for $9 an hour. Children with special needs are also welcome in the nursery. While Carnival offers care for children 2 and younger (and up to 11 years), it's only for a three-hour window each night, at a cost of $6.75 per hour (plus a 15 percent gratuity), though parents onboard Carnival can play with their babies in the Camp Ocean space from about 8 to 10 a.m. for free if they are present.
Or meeting a Disney character is your child's absolute dream.
Though Carnival ships do have Dr. Seuss characters onboard, nothing beats seeing Mickey Mouse dancing in a Hawaiian T-shirt, having Princess Elsa invite you to a coronation ceremony or Captain America giving you tips on how to be heroic. If your child isn't sold on the whole idea of a kids club, chances are they will be impressed by the presence of familiar characters from their favorite TV shows and films, many of whom are available for meet-and-greets or photo ops. Dedicated spaces -- Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. home base, a command center from Star Wars, Andy's Room from "Toy Story," Oaken's Trading Post from "Frozen," Doctor Strange's study and a Disney Junior space for younger ones -- allow kid cruisers to immerse in themed play.
Choose Carnival if your 2-year-old is ready to join the fray.
A slight difference between Disney and Carnival's kids clubs is that children on Disney don't join the general club activities until they are 3. On Carnival, kids as young as 2 can play in Camp Ocean, with a group that just includes children 2 through 5.
Beyond the kids clubs or hanging around the main pool, what do Carnival and Disney offer families looking to bond while on vacation? From top-deck attractions like water slides to special programming like board game-inspired game shows, each cruise line makes a point to appeal to groups traveling with the young, the old and the in-between.
Choose Disney if you want to hang out as a family at night.
Carnival has family-friendly comedy and their revue shows are just fine for young eyes (if you don't mind the occasional scantily clad dancer). But when it comes to inclusive evening entertainment, there are many more options for families to hang out as a unit on Disney. The line offers unrivaled stage productions for all ages, first-run movies in a gorgeous art deco theater, family-friendly performances from onboard guest entertainers and a dedicated space -- D Lounge -- that has a bar for the adults but offers trivia, karaoke and games specifically for multigenerational groups.
Or if you've got toddlers who want to use the water park.
Carnival is known for having some of the first ships at sea with a water slide. But for many of the slides, cruisers need to be 42 inches tall. Carnival Waterworks on Vista-class ships offers two unique slides and a splash area for kids, but again, nothing for very small kids or those who aren't toilet trained. Disney excels here because they not only offer slides (38 inches and up) and rides (you can go on with mom or dad) like the AquaDuck, which features a two-person raft for anyone 42 inches tall or over, but they also have an extensive splash zone called the AquaLab. Plus -- and this is rare -- Dory's Reef, onboard Disney Wonder, is a gentle splash area that's just for babies who are still in diapers. Disney was also the first cruise line to have lifeguards present at all pools.
Choose Carnival if your family are board game fanatics.
Hasbro, The Game Show is a lively and interactive stage show onboard most Carnival Cruise Line ships, pulling its games from Hasbro-brand offerings like Connect Four, Simon Says and Operation. Audience members answer trivia questions to get in the game, and contestants ultimately qualify for prizes. The teams are always a good mix of kids and adults, and participants are encouraged to go all-out, hollering in the aisles or doing their best to rack up points before the buzzer.
Or if everyone in your house grew up with Dr. Seuss.
The Seuss at Sea program on Carnival brings the timeless rhymes of beloved children's author Dr. Seuss alive, with a silly parade, Green Eggs and Ham breakfast, story time and -- on select ships -- a Seuss-themed reading room. Along with the other backdrops set up each evening for cruise ship portraits, you might see Cat in the Hat make an appearance to pose with eager sneetches. And on Carnival Horizon, debuting in 2018, the ship's top-deck WaterWorks will have a Seuss theme.
For the Adults
While Disney has made strides to improve and expand its nighttime offerings for adults, Carnival really shines once the sun goes down. However, both lines do offer relaxing daytime options in the spa or out on an adults-only sun deck.
Choose Carnival if you like a wide variety of bars and lounges.
You can pick your poison on a Carnival vessel with typically 10 or more bars and lounges on any given ship: There's a bar specializing in rum, one for tequila, one for inventive cocktails and one that's just beer (on Vista-class ships it's brewed onboard!) Additionally, the party atmosphere is alive and well, with couples, groups (think family reunions, bachelor/bachelorette parties) and friends all gathering for a good time.
Or if you enjoy casino games.
All of Carnival's ships offer a casino with table games and slot machines. Usually located on the promenade deck, the casino is a hub of activity in the evening, with live music and free-flowing drinks located close to the dings from a winning pull. There are no casinos on any Disney ship.
Choose Disney if you need to unwind in a totally kid-free zone.
It might sound counterintuitive, but Disney actually does a great job of offering spaces onboard for adults to relax in without a child in sight. Don't get us wrong: Carnival has a solid offering with its tranquil Cloud 9 Spa and made-to-lounge adults-only Serenity sun deck. But the way Disney Cruise Line somehow sneaks an adult oasis onto kid-heavy ships, is impressive. The line's Quiet Cove tucks a comparatively large pool and whirlpools into an area surrounded by plenty of lounge chairs, but no one under 18. The nearby Cove Cafe offers coffee, snacks, cocktails and quiet, for adults only. On Fantasy and Dream, Satellite Falls offers an enticing wade pool and rain curtain to enjoy. And in Disney's Senses Spa, spa villas and thermal suite passes give an additional layer of indulgence to adult time.
Or if you like finding "Easter eggs," even where you imbibe.
The Disney difference is always in the details. The brand is known for inserting "secret Mickeys" and other whimsical hidden touches into its parks and onboard its ships. While the number of bars is far less on Disney ships, (they are cordoned off in a section of the ship for adults called After Hours, and consist of about two different bars and one club used for shows and dancing), the spaces are sophisticated; they're also dreamed up and designed with touches a Disney fan should appreciate. For instance, Pink, a Champagne bar on Disney Dream, is a positively fabulous and rosy place to grab a glass of bubbly. If you pay close attention, a tiny Dumbo will appear in the bubble decor from time to time. In Wonder's Crown & Fin English Pub, you could create a scavenger hunt out of all the homages to Disney movies filmed in Great Britain that are tucked around the pub.