Disney Cruise Line First-Timers: What You Need to Know for Smooth Sailing

by | Jul 24, 2023 | Disney Cruise Line

Do you know what to expect on your very first Disney Cruise Line vacation? Here’s your guide!

A Disney Cruise Line trip is truly unlike any other cruise on the open sea! But as a Disney cruise first-timer, knowing what you need to do before your sailing date – and figuring out when to do it – can seem overwhelming. However, planning for your vacation doesn’t have to be a challenge. In fact, preparing for your cruise can be part of the fun! 

Consider this your guide for Disney Cruise Line first-timers! If you’re about to take your very first sailing with Disney, here’s what you can expect in the months and weeks leading up to your sailing.

As Soon As You’ve Booked: Download the Disney Cruise Line App

Once you’ve officially booked your cruise, you’ll want to start off by downloading the Disney Cruise Line app onto your phone. The DCL app is essential for your upcoming cruise – both while you’re planning out your activities, excursions, and meals and while you’re onboard the ship.

After downloading the app, you’ll not only be able to watch the countdown clock (featuring magical icons!) tick away, but it also serves as a reminder of your balance and pay-in-full date. You’ll easily be reminded of any payments coming up, and you can track any remaining to-dos. Plus, the Disney Cruise Line app gives you access to change your dining time, view your itinerary, and digitally explore the ship.

And you’ll want to keep the DCL app on your phone when you arrive for embarkation! After you set sail, the app will be your key to knowing what’s happening on board.

6 Months to Embarkation: Book Dining and Excursions

Triton's on the Disney Wonder

Inside the dining room of Triton’s on the Disney Wonder. Photo by Bill Wood

Excited to try out all of the delicious dining options as a Disney Cruise Line first-timer? You won’t know what your dining rotation looks like until you arrive at the port, but you will have at least one night at each of the ship’s main restaurants. And you can learn about your dining options when you’re six months out from your sailing date!

The dining locations vary by Disney cruise ship, so at six months out, open the DCL app and you’ll be able to tour the themes for your ship’s restaurants. 

When we cruised on the Disney Wonder for my dad’s birthday, we rotated between Triton’s (think upscale Little Mermaid), Animator’s Palate, and Tiana’s Place. Knowing what the restaurants were ahead of time allowed us to plan what we wanted to wear for dinner. We even picked up some festive masks to match the New Orleans theming of Tiana’s Place. 

In addition to a medley of restaurants, first-timers should know that each Disney cruise offers a variety of fancy or specialty themed nights. On 3-night cruises, you’ll have one casual night (no swimwear or tank tops), one pirate night deck party, and one optional dress-up night. On 4-night cruises, the first and last nights are cruise casual, and you’ll also get to participate in a Pirate Night deck party (or a Pixar or Marvel party, if you’ve booked a sailing with Pixar Day or Marvel Day at Sea!) and an optional dress-up night. A 7-night cruise starts off with cruise casual, also includes a theme night with deck party, three cruise casual nights, one formal night, and one semi-formal night.

When it comes to dressier formal nights, a ball gown and tuxedo aren’t a requirement; however, you won’t feel out of place if that’s what you choose to wear. You can use the different themed nights to plan special attire as you shop for your cruise. And cruise Guests do dress for each occasion! For example, on Pirate Night, I saw everything from cruise casual to pirate t-shirts to full head-to-toe swashbuckling attire. Have fun with selecting your wardrobe six months out, but be yourself. 

Use this time to explore the types of port adventures (shore excursions) available at your ports of call so you’ll have an idea of what you might want to book when your booking window opens. Don’t feel that you need a port adventure to have a good time. We didn’t book one for our first two Disney cruises and were still able to have fun on the ship as well as visit the port area within walking distance. 

Six months out from your sailing is also a good time to find some cute matching cruise shirts or personalized magnets to decorate your stateroom door. Door decor is an easy way of finding your home on the high seas. If you forget to get magnets, no worries; you can find them in one of the shops on board.

75 Days to Embarkation: Book Port Adventures

Disney Cruise Line Castaway Cay

A look at Castaway Cay’s beach. Photo by Jimmy Taylor

While you’ll have plenty to explore throughout the Disney Cruise Line ship you’ll be sailing on, you don’t want to overlook the opportunity to book port adventures. Port adventures, or excursions, allow you the chance to explore the destinations you’ll dock at, and there’s something for every kind of traveler.

Booking port adventures is done by your cruising status, or Castaway Club membership. It’s Disney’s way of rewarding returning cruisers with earlier booking windows. First-time cruisers are last to book, which means you’ll be able to book about two and a half months out from your sailing date. So, 75 days before your cruise, set an alarm for just shy of midnight (EST) and brew yourself some coffee. As long as your cruise balance is paid in full, this is your chance to book port adventures on any itinerary.

Additionally, even if you aren’t big on excursions, you’ll still want to hop online 75 days out from your sailing. This is also when booking for specialty dining at restaurants like Palo, Remy, or Enchanté (depending on the ship) and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique opens, and it’s your chance to snag those in-demand reservations. Just keep in mind that all of these are an additional charge!

Lastly, this is also the time to get anything you might want to make your port adventure more enjoyable! Depending on the adventures you book, you may need items like reef-safe sunscreen, water shoes, or a beach bag. Gather those items now, because embarkation will be here before you know it!

1 Month Until Embarkation: Book Special Events

Captain America Steve Rogers

An example of character meet and greets that can be booked for your Disney cruise. Photo by Tatjana Lazar

Are you a little sad that first-timers on a Disney cruise seem to get the booking leftovers? Don’t worry! At 30 days out from sailing, booking certain special events becomes an even playing field. When you’re just one month away from hitting the water, you’ll be able to secure reservations for fun extras like character meet and greets and some specialty dining experiences.

For example, I had the pleasure of embarking on the second Pixar Day at Sea cruise in January 2023, which offered a meet and greet with the Disney princesses, the chance to meet Pixar characters, and a specialty dining experience. All of these activities were included in the price of the cruise itself, but reservations were required. Pro Tip: Since all Disney cruise Guests books at the same time for these events, make sure you’re caffeinated and ready to go before midnight (EST), right at the 30-day mark! And here’s another tip for first-timers: Try to make these reservations on port days, if possible, for more availability.

Additionally, at 30 days out from embarkation, you will select your PAT, or Port Arrival Time. If you’ve booked Disney transportation to the ship, you won’t need to worry about this. However, if you’re providing your own transportation, you’ll want to pick a port arrival time that’s right for your traveling party. I love to get the earliest arrival possible because I feel that once we’re on board, our vacation has started! Lunch at Cabanas is our go-to trip starter. However, I know other Guests will sometimes choose a later arrival time to avoid the large crowds that tend to gather during earlier Port Arrival Times. Whatever time you get, you’re about to embark for the trip of your life!

This is also when you’ll complete your Disney cruise online check-in by uploading your traveling documentation (passport or birth certificate and driver’s license). It’s best to have these scanned into your computer or added to your phone in advance so you’re ready. Also, make sure to take a head and shoulders picture individually of each person in your traveling party, done against a neutral background. These become your photo ID for the cruise, which Cast Members will use to check when you leave and return to the ship at ports. 

Lastly, during these final 30 days before your cruise, you may also want to prepay any gratuities. If you miss this date, don’t worry; you can add gratuities to your folio through Guest Services once you board. 

I also like to take the final month as a time to start organizing my packing and gathering anything I need. For first-timers on a Disney cruise, this is also a good time to explore the ship in the DCL app with your family so you’re familiar with the amenities available and their locations.

Something to note for fellow Guests who must sleep with a fan like myself: Carry your fan on board, if you can. You will stop at a booth after going through security, and they will take it from you for inspection. After it passes, it will be returned to your stateroom! Pro Tip: If you forget your fan, head to Guest Services upon arrival. They have a limited amount on a first-come, first-serve basis.

It’s Embarkation Day!

After a months-long wait, it’ll finally The time has come to embark on your very first Disney cruise! There’s one last thing to do: Attach the luggage tags Disney Cruise Line sent you before arriving at the port.  

Time flies as you countdown to a Disney cruise, whether you’re a first-timer or a returning cruiser. Use that year to build on the excitement and make the journey as much fun as the destination. Just keep one thing in mind as you get ready to set sail on your first Disney Cruise Line adventure. You won’t be able to do everything – and that’s okay! There is seriously so much available on a Disney cruise that you could pack your day from rise-and-shine to sleepy-time, or you can do absolutely nothing but chill and eat all of the soft-serve ice cream your heart desires. You can customize your experience to however you like to vacation.

If you’ve already booked, get ready to have the most magical time of your life! It’s one of my most favorite ways to vacation. If you haven’t booked yet, click below to contact our friends over at Destinations to Travel. They’re a wonderful resource to guide your first adventure, especially because some of the items mentioned here are subject to change. Be sure to book as early as possible for the best rate. Then, get ready to explore the big blue world! 

This post contains affiliate links, and if you use these links to buy something, WDW Magazine may earn a commission.

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