The first day of any cruise can be pretty stressful. Embarkation day on Disney Cruise Line is no different – my wife and I had some nervy moments on our first day on the Disney Dream. Still, just like with Royal Caribbean, there are some Disney Cruise Line embarkation day tips that can really help start your vacation on the right foot. So learn from our successes and mistakes to make the first day of your Disney cruise as magical as it can be!
1. Check in online as early as possible and select the earliest port arrival time possible
Believe it or not, the first key to a stress free embarkation day happens 75-120 days before your cruise. At midnight EST of your check in date (75 days prior for first time cruisers, 90 for silver Castaway Club members, 105 for gold, and 120 for platinum) you want to login to the Disney Cruise Line website and do online check in.
Your goal should be to select the earliest port arrival time possible. This holds even if you know you’ll arrive later. Why? Because they board the ship according to port arrival times and this ensures that you will wait the minimum amount of time to board the ship after the check in process at the port.
I recommend actually going through the online check in process as quickly as possible by selecting things such as “birth certificate” for identifying documents. This saves you time so you can select your port arrival time and go to bed if you’re on the east coast! Then you can go back and update your check in information at any time up until a couple days before your cruise.
2. Print out your cruise contract form and parental authorization form (if applicable)
Sometime before your embarkation day, you want to print out your cruise contract form. This will save you tons of time at check in. If you don’t print it out you’ll have to fill it out all over again. If you know adults in other staterooms will be accompanying your child off the ship (without you), you can also print out the parental authorization form in advance. You can turn this in at check in.
3. Be prepared to go through security
Think of boarding a DCL ship like going to the airport. You’ll have to go through security. If you’re on a Disney transfer, your big luggage will already be taken care of and you probably won’t see it again. If you’re arriving at the port on your own, porters will take your large items onto the ship for you (be sure to add your luggage tags!).
Still, you will be boarding the ship with a day bag and that will need to go through an X-ray machine. You’ll also go through a metal detector. Expect lines so you don’t get surprised by the wait. (This will be a common theme).
4. Pack a day bag with anything you might need until 6:00 PM
You won’t see your large suitcases until they get dropped off at your stateroom in the afternoon. It’s important to pack the right things into your day bag. Definitely pack important items like stuff for the kids, a change of clothes, identification documents, and medications. You may also want to pack swimsuits if you think your kids will want to swim. You’ll want to find a balance between having what you need and overpacking.
We boarded with changes of clothes, swimsuits, and everything the baby would need for a regular outing – that was it. (With three kids, it was still a lot!) Some people even have their kids wear their swimsuits to save changing time.
5. Move your way through the check in line and board as soon as your number is called
I don’t really like hanging around the cruise terminal, after all, the goal is to be on the ship! (One of the reasons Traveling Dads try to avoid short cruises and focus on longer ones). Boarding numbers are given out relative to port arrival times, so if you signed up for an early port arrival time you should get to board early. Most people arrive at the cruise port between 10 AM and 12 noon. Expect it to be the most crowded at these times, although Disney Cruise Line has gotten pretty efficient. There will definitely be lines but you’ll move through at a decent clip. Check in should be pretty straightforward as long as you’ve printed out your forms.
As soon as your boarding number is called, board the ship!
Alternatively, if you arrive later, like 1 PM, there should generally be very short lines and you can hop right on. We may try this next time to avoid the crush of people.
6. Find a place to eat lunch
You’ll have three options to eat lunch on embarkation day. You can eat at Cabanas, the buffet on the top deck or at one of the counter options on the top deck. However, a lot of first time cruisers don’t know that one of the main restaurants is open for lunch on embarkation day. Since seating is limited at whichever main restaurant is open, it can feel a little bit less crazy than fighting your way through Cabanas. We’d recommend going to check it out. At a certain point it seems like DCL crew members are told to encourage people to go to Cabanas – just say you’ll take it under advisement. (Obviously, if there’s a long wait at the main restaurant, don’t bother).
7. Explore the ship while you’re waiting for your stateroom to open
Your stateroom won’t be open for a bit when you board. We got into our stateroom at 1:30 PM but Disney usually says 2:00 PM to be safe. You’ll have some time to kill and we find the pools to be a little bit too crowded for our liking. If you can, this is a nice time to explore the ship with your kids. The majority of people will be on the top deck by Cabanas and the pools, spend some time exploring the lower decks.
8. Visit the Oceaneer Club open house (or Vibe, Edge, etc.)
Speaking of exploration, this is also a great time to visit the Oceaneer Club (kids club). You can show your younger children around and get them and yourself used to the environment. This is a good time to confirm authorized adults for pick up and all that stuff. The clubs are usually empty until after the muster drill, so you can also get some cute pictures of your kids flying the Millenium Falcon and what not.
While we don’t have older kids yet, other traveling dads have told us that it’s important for your older youth to check out the Vibe or Edge (depending on age) on embarkation day. That’s when the crew members run ice breakers and the like so it’s a good chance for your child to meet others their age.
9. Don’t forget about muster drill
At this point, especially if you have a baby like we did, you may be exhausted and just want your child to take a nap. But don’t forget about the muster drill! On embarkation day, every single guest must attend the mandatory lifeboat drill. That may mean standing out on deck or meeting in the Walt Disney Theater. Either way, be sure you’re prepared to make the drill before you have kids rest or nap.
10. Ask your stateroom attendant for anything you need
Disney Cruise Line provides a lot of great kid related gear as part of your experience. If you have a young child you can ask for a Pack-n-Play or a diaper genie. In general, if you need something, your stateroom attendant will help you get it so now’s a great time to ask.
If you need things like strollers, you can see if they have any left at guest services. But note, the line at guest services is long on embarkation day. You might want to drop by late at night if you don’t have a time sensitive request.
11. Find some space to breathe
If you’re traveling with a spouse or partner, you may need some time to just decompress. I can’t emphasize enough the huge crush of people you deal with on embarkation day. Think about it this way, nobody can get in their staterooms so everybody is out.
What we did to combat this is we took turns watching the kids while one of us visited the adult only areas. It’s a lot quieter (obviously) and you can get some time to just relax without the kids. My wife took 15 minutes off and it really helped her stress levels on the day.
I love Disney Cruise Line and Disney cruises (especially with young kids), but even I have to admit: that first day can be stressful! Hopefully these tips can make your embarkation day less stressful and more enjoyable.
Do you have tips for embarkation day? We’d love to hear them in the comments!