I just returned from my first ever Disney cruise and I can honestly say that it’ll be hard to go back to regular vacationing after this trip. The cruise we chose was a 7 night / 8 day adventure out of San Diego down to the Mexican Riviera, and it was perfect. Following is a topline overview of our trip and some general thoughts.
SAN DIEGO PORT
We boarded the Disney Wonder as it was docked at the Cruise Ship Terminal at the Port of San Diego. It was really easy to spot the ship from Harbor Blvd. We pre-purchased parking at the Wyndham San Diego Bayside which is right across the street from the entrance. It was about $14/day for valet parking (which I highly recommend). Upon entering the terminal, you need to show your passport and Disney Boarding Pass (which should be mailed to your house as a little booklet prior to departure or you can print it out from your online reservation). The boarding pass needs to include the names of each member of your party along with a designated barcode. (I actually didn’t know that we needed that booklet as our boarding pass but luckily we had ours, so definitely make sure to bring some sort of boarding pass with you.)
Once we were done with this, we were sent to a waiting area until our number was called. After check-in, each guest is given a boarding number. Once that number appears on the screens in the waiting area, you are welcome to board the cruise ship. We only had to wait about 15 minutes. (Our online check-in time was 1pm, we got to the cruise ship terminal at noon, and were on board around 1/1:15pm, in case that helps give you a reference of how early to arrive.)
We were able to get into our room at 1:30pm which was great because each of us was carrying 2 bottles of wine and it was starting to get a bit heavy. After we put our things down we went and took care of some things we weren’t able to do in advance (such as Palo dining and the Spa). There is also a mandatory emergency drill before the official festivities begin. After the emergency check-in, there is a big welcome party on the main deck featuring Mickey and Friends.
We decided to forgo our rotational dining that first night in favor of Palo’s and I would highly recommend this to everyone who is interested in Palo’s for dinner. It started the trip off on the perfect note. Our server told us that it’s usually easiest to get into Palo’s the first night because most people are tired from their travels that day. We had a 7:30pm dining time and did not leave until close to 10pm. There were hardly any other guests in the restaurant during our entire dining experience and the wait staff really pampered us. (I think we had no less than 6 courses).
DAYS AT SEA
We had 3 days at sea: our first day and our last two days. Days at Sea are perfect for exploring the ship and taking advantage of all of the onboard activities. You won’t find out the schedule until you board the ship but there are things happening every half an hour all day long and for all ages including live entertainment, trivia contests, kids programming, character meet & greets, and more. There was actually so much to do that there are several things we did not get to take advantage of.
The first night at sea was also the “formal” attire night and I was shocked to see how many people took that really seriously. I had read on a number of blogs that most guests ignore the dress code recommendations and are pretty casual for most of the experience. This was not the case for our week at sea. We actually went back to our cabin to change into “fancier” clothing because I felt so undressed. Ladies were wearing floor-length gowns and little black dresses, and gentlemen were wearing sports jackets and fancy shoes. The first night is also the night of the first Broadway-style live entertainment stage show. There was a red carpet and everything, which further amplified the formal vibe of the evening.
PORTS OF CALL
We had three ports of call back-to-back-to-back. This was actually a bit exhausting and I have lots of recommendations coming out of this experience. Our three ports of call were: Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta.
We booked an excursion through the Disney Cruise Line for each of our Ports, even though we had already been to two of the three locations. We decided to go this route because of Disney’s excursion policy. If the cruise ship needs to be diverted for any reason, Disney will take full responsibility for issuing either a refund or rebooking you on a different excursion pending the circumstances around the need for a change. Additionally, Disney takes care of EVERYTHING if you book through them. There are designated meeting areas around the ship and cast members will literally walk you off the boat and onto the transportation you need to get to the excursion. This made exploring each port 100% stress free.
I very much am a do-it-yourself traveler. I usually loath big group tours and prefer to find hole-in-the-wall local spots and the best deals possible, but I will say that I see a ton of value in doing the Disney excursions and would go this route again because each one is carefully curated to give you the feeling that you are experiences something very special in each city.
The excursions we chose were:
CABO SAN LUCAS / HARBOR CRUISE & SCENIC STOP ($51/adult, $34/child)
As a general rule we tried to pick the less expensive of the excursion options and this one fell into that category. My dad had never been to Cabo before and my mom felt it was important for him to see the famous “Lovers Beach” and the arch (Los Arcos). The description seemed to indicate that this would be a catamaran adventure but it wasn’t. It was more like a giant 3 story boat that fit at least 100 people. The boat tour lasted about an hour and included non-alcoholic beverages and snacks.
Once we got back from the boat cruise, we all piled onto shuttle buses and went to a glass factory where we watched artisans blow glass. This felt like a unique experience because the glass factory was pretty tucked away outside of town.
Then we all got back on the buses and made one more stop at a resort that was at the top of a hill. There we each got 1 free beer and were able to take pictures of the view. I think we were there for 20 minutes max.
If I am honest, I would NOT recommend this excursion and here’s why: Cabo is a relatively safe port and everything is very very close. As the cruise ship comes into the port to dock, the ship passes Lover’s Beach and Los Arcos, so if you wake up early enough or you stay on the deck when the ship departs you will be able to see those on your own. Additionally, you can get really great deals on smaller boat tours at the port itself. The tours cater to tourists and are very easy to book once you arrive on-site. I will say what we got as part of this excursion did feel like a good value for $51/person but I didn’t think it was the best use of our time there. Cabo has some beautiful beaches and resort pools and the downtown area is pretty cute. So there is a lot to do close to the ship without having to spend any money.
MAZATLAN / OLD MAZATLAN WALKING TOUR ($26/adult, $23/child)
This excursion was amazing. Worth every penny. We got off the ship and were immediately met by our tour guide, Alma. She helped us all get into taxis that dropped us off in Old Mazatlan. From there she proceeded to guide us on a walking tour that lasted about 5 hours. The city itself is gorgeous and Alma knew all of the history and was clearly very proud of her city. We saw the old Opera house and the town square. We went to a small shop where the owner makes Carnival masks out of leather (we’d never seen anything like that before). We walked down to the coast where we saw the famous cliff diving that Mazatlan is known for. The tour concluded with a stop at a local restaurant for margaritas and chips and salsa. Locals performed a traditional flamenco routine and it was really lovely.
The walking tour really allowed us to fall in love with the city and now this is a place I would want to come back and visit because of course you can’t see everything in just 5 hours.
PUERTO VALLARTA / HISTORIC TOWNS & TEQUILA-MAKING ($65/adult, $31/child)
This was my favorite of all of the excursions. When we got to Puerto Vallarta we all got on buses and drove about an hour into Puerto Vallarta. The tour was primarily by bus with our guide telling us all about the culture of Puerto Vallarta and the various landmarks we were passing. We did stop in the center of old town and had some gelato that Puerto Vallarta is known for. It was super refreshing and the town square was very colorful and open. Then we all got back on the bus and went on to the next area which was the Tequila factory where we took a tour and learned how tequila is made followed by an intense tasting featuring flavored tequilas. The tasting lasted about 30 minutes and everyone could have as big or small a pour as they wanted (which spelled trouble for some of us). After we finished at the tequila factory, we all went to a local restaurant where we had a traditional fajita lunch. It was incredible and a great way to finish off our day.
The reason why I loved this excursion so much is that it felt like we did a lot that day because each stop was long enough for us to really soak it in. It was fun to learn about tequila too.
Each day we had to be back on the ship by 4:45pm or the ship would leave without you. At first I thought that that would be too early to be back on the ship but it really wasn’t. I was so wiped out after every excursion that I actually wanted to get back on the ship as quickly as possible. The timing is also nice in that it allows each family enough time to freshen up (or possibly nap) before the dinner rotations begin. I appreciated that a lot.
Pirate Night is a longstanding Disney Cruise Line tradition and is definitely a spectacle to behold. Ours was on our 3rd to last night. Everyone receives a red pirate bandana in their cabin when they return to their rooms to get ready for dinner. It’s a good idea to bring some of your own pirate-themed attire as well though because EVERYONE is really into this. The festivities begin when you got to dinner. All of the servers are dressed in pirate gear and the music on the ship is pirate-themed. We had the later dining rotation and actually had to hurry and finish early so our servers could go to the deck and prepare for the night. Up on the deck is just one big party. There is a DJ and lights and cast members dancing and it’s a whole lot of fun. There is a stage show involving all of the Disney costume characters on board the ship and Mickey even flies down from the captain’s window! Around 9:30, Disney lights up the sky with a special fireworks show and was pretty cool to think that we’re experiencing fireworks at sea.
The night of our Pirate party we bolted from the main deck as soon as the fireworks were done because Disney surprised us all and had a special premiere screening of Avengers: Endgame that night at 11pm. Given that it was premiere night for the film, I was paranoid about not getting a seat in the theater. It was such a special surprise that Disney didn’t even tell the guests until day-of. I had heard that Disney will often premiere the latest Disney release aboard the cruise ships and this definitely proved to be true. (So pay attention to what’s releasing when you book your trip J).
I could go on-and-on about this trip but I think I’ll save the rest of the details for future blog posts. Hopefully you’ll find this introductory post helpful as you begin planning your upcoming Disney Cruise Line vacation!