Maybe it was when our head waiter, Joseph, offered to cut my wife’s steak at dinner so she could eat and balance our daughter at the same time. Maybe it was Marvin, our cabin attendant, assembled our Pack-N-Play in our room without being asked to, or when my daughter started singing “Let It Go” in the corridors as we walked towards the Walt Disney Theatre to take in Frozen: The Musical.
There were a thousand little moments like that each of the eight days my wife and our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter were onboard Disney Wonder. They happened intuitively, organically. They were the product of a crew that were highly trained, where every need is anticipated and realized, often before passengers ever realize it.
Surprise and delight. That’s the Disney Cruise Line ethos. And just when I thought Disney had exhausted every trick in the book, the line pulled through to make each day onboard just a little more magical for my daughter – and, by extension, her parents.
What’s a Disney Adult, you ask? Typically, it’s someone who worships the Disney brand, according to an article on NPR. And as I walked around in my Disney Wish shirt, with my daughter dressed in her Frozen jacket and Minnie Mouse bow in her hair, I realized it had happened. I’d become a Disney Adult, thanks largely to Disney Cruise Line.
But as I discovered over the course of our eight-day cruise to Alaska, we were barely scratching the surface of the love that our fellow passengers have not just for Disney, but for Disney Cruise Line. And when it comes to exploring Alaska, nearly every passenger I spoke with told me that, for them, there simply was no other cruise line in consideration when it came to booking passage: it had to be Alaska aboard Disney Wonder.
I’d always liked Disney just fine. I was raised on the likes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, and finally visited my first Disney Park, Disneyland, at the tender age of 25. But I was never a fanatic about the brand. I never owned a pair of ears or bought anything other than a t-shirt purchased years ago that said, “I’m Grumpy!” and came accompanied by a drawing of Grumpy of Snow White-fame.
Of anything Disney-related, I was most predisposed to like Disney Cruise Line simply because I love ships. And, after three past Disney cruises aboard Disney Dream, Disney Wonder from New Orleans and the all-new Disney Wish last summer, I recently had the chance to take my wife and daughter aboard our first-ever Disney cruise as a family.
But it’s not our first family cruise: this would actually be my daughter’s fourth cruise, following on the heels on a family trip aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 earlier this year and a stint on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas in February with friends. What can I say? When you write about cruises, you tend to take a lot of cruises as a vacation, too.
Travelling with a toddler is rewarding, but far from easy. Part of what sets Disney Cruise Line apart from other cruise lines catering to families are the crew themselves, who genuinely delight in making little one’s dreams come true (more on that later).
Perhaps the biggest surprise, even after having sailed Disney solo and as a couple, is just how darn nice everyone is when you have a kid in tow. Other parents stopped by to offer us stickers (Disney, of course!) for our daughter. One noticed her having a bit of a tantrum at embarkation and offered up banana bread that saved the day. One gave her a stuffy of one of the mice in Snow White. Another gave her a yellow rubber duck they were going to hide about the ship.
I’ve seen stateroom door décor before, but never on the scale that it was aboard Disney Wonder. Nearly every door on our Deck 7 corridor was decorated with elaborate magnets and decorations, many of which had been custom-printed just for this sailing. I joked with my wife off-handedly that we could find our stateroom because it was the only door on the corridor without magnetic decorations.
A couple in their seventies walking in front of us overheard me and immediately requested I come with them to their stateroom. They had extra décor, they insisted, we could have. I tried to demur politely, but they wouldn’t hear of it. They produced a winter-themed Mickey and Minnie that fit around the porthole-shaped number on our stateroom door, and a third magnet we could add.
I’ve taken over 200 cruises, and this voyage on Disney Wonder was my 21st cruise to Alaska – a destination I can’t get enough of. I’ve sailed everything from small-ship expeditions in the Last Frontier to cruises on Carnival, Holland America, Princess and the luxury lines.
I even worked, for a brief stint, as a Ventures by Seabourn specialist aboard Seabourn Sojourn in Alaska and British Columbia. I’m pretty l familiar with the roster of standard excursions most cruise lines offer in the State.
Disney Cruise Line might be best associated with the Caribbean, where their private island, Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, is consistently recognized as being one of the best in the region. It came as a welcomed surprise to see how much thought Disney put into its Alaska cruises aboard Disney Wonder.
Onboard Disney Wonder, a naturalist and historian both gave family-friendly, informative talks on relevant subjects to our Alaska itinerary, while commentary was delivered from the ship’s Navigation Bridge during our foray into Tracy Arm Fjord, where Disney Wonder got closer to the South Sawyer Glacier than I’ve personally ever experienced on other sailings.
Our Captain also provided scenic commentary as we entered the heart of the Inside Passage, pointing out local communities like Port Hardy and Alert Bay, British Columbia, as we sailed southbound towards Vancouver.
Alaskan Brewing beers were carried (and advertised) in abundance onboard, and several cocktails were developed to celebrate both Alaska and Disney Cruise Line’s 25th Anniversary. That’s not to mention the special Alaska Disney Cruise Line merchandise the line rolled out, in addition to limited-edition swag to celebrate its anniversary.
From day one to eight, the entire Alaska experience aboard Disney Wonder felt special and unique. The line has high standards for its Caribbean and Bahamian sailings; it’s nice to see that level of magic carries over to its Alaska cruise itineraries.
The one that really blew me away was that Disney had family-friendly shore excursions curated just for its passengers: a salmon bake and gold panning adventure in Skagway that featured appearances from everyone’s favorite characters like Captain Mickey and Donald Duck.
A special Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour in Alaska where Disney passengers were invited to feast on the crabber’s open deck.
A modified version of the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan to encourage family participation from the little ones, along with several new challenges and events, created just for Disney Cruise Line.
Perhaps most poignantly, Disney offers true cultural excursions designed to highlight local Tlingit and Haida culture to families, including ones where kids and adults alike can learn traditional Tlingit dances and songs, or learn about the creation of local art and totems. These went far beyond the standard tours you might have seen to Ketchikan’s Totem Bight park or Saxman Native Village to offer a more inclusive, and interactive, cultural exchange that was accessible and kid-friendly.
Disney even thought of adults who want a break from the little kids: a special departure of Skagway’s iconic White Pass and Yukon Route railroad was reserved exclusively for those over the age of 18, and tours like the Pedal Pub Experience in Sitka naturally lent themselves an adult atmosphere.
It all points to the level of thought and detail Disney puts into its Alaska cruise departures. The line may not have been sailing here as long as Princess or Holland America Line have, but when Disney Wonder enters these waters, it does so with a thoughtfulness and purpose that is missing from some other lines.
Without throwing too much shade on Disney’s parks (which we’re big fans of), we have to come clean: taking a Disney Cruise is so much more relaxing than a visit to Disneyland or Walt Disney World. And, when you add it up, it’s a better value, too.
A three-day Park Hopper ticket, at Disneyland, for a family of four will run you roughly $1,640 in mid-November – and that’s before hotel accommodations (which, at a Disney-branded hotel like the Grand California Resort and Spa, can easily run over $900 per night before taxes and fees). Staying off-property saves money but removes that magical Disney experience that the company so deftly crafts.
A Disney Cruise is not an inexpensive prospect, either. But as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. Meals are of a consistently high quality, staterooms are larger than average and feature Disney’s unique double-bathroom concept that offers a bath room with tub and shower combo and a separate toilet room in each cabin, service is impeccable, and fountain soft drinks are inclusive.
Other niceties include free room service, free on-demand and first-run movies, and a ton of included activities for cruisers of all ages.
There’s a lot of value right there. But the real value, for us as a family, was the more relaxed environment Disney Wonder offered its passengers in Alaska.
Disney’s onboard kids’ clubs are legendary, offering up both clever activities and a team of dedicated child care professionals that make children want to return again and again – and, with the exception of the it’s a small world nursery (branded in all lowercase), all are free of charge. That means there was time for us as parents to relax over brunch (and later, dinner) in Palo, Disney’s specialty Italian restaurant located on Deck 10 aft.
We could sit on the promenade deck and read a book, visit the pub for a pint, or have some time at the spa with a package Disney cleverly brands as “Alone Time” – a 50 minute massage coupled with 30 minutes in one of the ship’s private, sheltered, hot-tub-clad cabanas.
Compare that with a visit we made this past February to Disneyland, where we stood in line, baked in the sun, desperately tried to get even the simplest meals that didn’t have an hour-long wait time, and generally left feeling wrecked each evening. We stayed off-property at a non-Disney hotel that, while nice, could have been located in any city – and had typically so-so service.
If you can afford three or four days at Disneyland, you can afford a cruise on Disney.
Is my journey to becoming a Disney Adult complete? Sort of. I still don’t have any Mickey Mouse ears, and it’s unlikely you’ll see me sporting a Disney backpack or shirt – unless it’s Disney Cruise Line-branded, of course.
But our Disney Wonder cruise to Alaska highlighted everything that, I think, Disney Adults want: an escape to a world that’s just a little bit nicer. A little more understanding. A bit more like the world we want for our children – like the one I want for my daughter.
Now, when I play the Moana soundtrack for my daughter on our drive to daycare (her request), she squeals when she hears the songs. “Like on the ship!” she exclaims. She wonders aloud where Captain Mickey and Minnie are, and when Olaf will show up for dinner, along with our waiters, Joseph and I Gede.
She’s developed an unhealthy penchant for chocolate ice cream after eight days of decadent delights onboard – but who am I to point the finger? A cruise is, after all, about indulgence and a break from routine.
It's true that a Disney cruise comes at a cost that’s significantly higher than many other mainstream cruise lines, and parents should be aware that, once onboard, they’re going to find it hard to say no to the little ones that want to go for Prince and Princess makeovers at the Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boutique for a couple hundred dollars a pop.
It's better to think of a Disney cruise not just as a cruise vacation, but as an overall experience – one that is worth the price of admission.
My daughter managed to sum up my own feelings nicely just two days after we’d returned home. “Daddy,” she said, “I want go back. Disney Wonder.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Disney Wonder returns to Alaska for the 2024 season with sailings out of Vancouver, Canada. The ship will winter in Australia for the first-time in Disney Cruise Line’s history this year before returning Stateside.