9 Ways to Make Your Disney Cruise Line Vacation Even Better — for Free (Video)

Travelers who frequently book a trip on Disney Cruise Line may know that the Senses Spa Rainforest Room is worth the splurge, or that Castaway Cay day is the best time to ride the AquaDuck without lines — but there’s so much more to know about these cruises than most cruisegoers would expect.

Disney Cruise Experiences
Courtesy of Disney

Planning is key on Disney Cruise Line sailings, and the hacks that I've learned first-hand can help you seamlessly navigate both the seas and your dreamy Disney vacation. From the unexpectedly perfect Castaway Cay photo op to how best to board and disembark, here's how to change your trip for the better, all without spending an extra dime. And, with four ships — Disney Dream, Magic, Fantasy and Wonder — and three on the way in the coming years, now’s the perfect time load up on expertise.

1. Board later in the day.

I’ve long been a believer in earliest being best — you maximize vacation and can enjoy the pools with fewer passengers — but in the long run, having 90 extra minutes on the ship doesn’t really add up to much. Consider selecting a later arrival time, like 2 p.m., and in conjunction with online check-in, you’ll breeze through security and embark in a matter of minutes, not hours.

2. Take the stairs whenever possible.

Taking the stairs, if you're able, will alleviate any need to visit Disney Cruise Line’s onboard gym, and free up space in your luggage where those sneakers would have lived. It saves time, is a healthy choice, and you’ll actually feel better ordering two desserts at Animator’s Palate. While the ship is in motion, switch staircases at each floor — it’ll prevent you from getting dizzy.

3. Meridian is the best bar nobody talks about.

You’ll want to hike to the 12th floor of the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy for this cocktail bar beside Palo and Remy restaurants instead, providing ideal sunset views and an amazing gin and tonic cart on both ships.

4. Know when to arrive early or late.

Arrive 15 minutes prior to a character meet and you’ll be guaranteed a photo with popular passengers like Mickey Mouse and Chip ‘n’ Dale — and possibly wait less by being first in line. Doors open 30 minutes before Broadway-style shows, so for banner performances, like Tangled: The Musical on the Disney Magic or Disney Dream’s phenomenal Beauty and the Beast musical, you’ll want to arrive then to get prime seats.

Disney Cruise Experiences
Courtesy of Disney

When it comes to dinner, your rotational time (between 5:45 and 6:15 for first seatings and 8 and 8:30 for second seatings, depending on itinerary) is when the restaurant actually opens; stroll in a few minutes late and you’ll reach your table and avoid the crowd. And on Pirate Night, a celebration on all four ships, Buccaneer Blast fireworks actually start 10 minutes after the announced time. Grab a spot on the ship’s upper deck, starboard side, for an uninhibited view.

5. Disney Parks’ most iconic treat is available on board for free.

You won’t find it listed, but those frozen, chocolate-dunked Mickey Ice Cream bars are available throughout the ship. Request one for dessert at any table-service restaurant (with sprinkles and whipped cream for an over-the-top treat), or order one directly to your stateroom through Disney Cruise Line’s complimentary room service.

6. Carry luggage yourself, if possible.

Walking off the ship at 7 a.m. makes for an easy self-disembarkation with no waiting, smaller crowds, and less overwhelming lines. It’s a reward for those who pack lightly, and weirdly perfect for procrastinators or cruise enthusiasts who want to take in a final dinner and show instead of packing suitcases to be picked up in advance of disembarkation.

7. Become a coffee shop regular.

Cove Cafe has a punch card for its specialty coffees, and with every five gourmet drinks purchased, you’ll get one free. Whether you order a daily Mickey cappuccino (the ships now offer latte art) or the slow-drip cold brew, it’s a small upcharge that’s absolutely worth it, and it comes with a beneficial bonus.

8. Make dinner even more special.

There’s a way to make Palo dinner even more special. If you ask in advance, you can dine outside on the restaurant’s deck, offering spectacular sunset views on earlier seatings.

9. Snap iconic Castaway Cay photos with little-to-no effort.

The private island Disney fans are obsessed with provides an afternoon of sun, shade and relaxation on Bahamas and Caribbean Disney Cruise Line sailings. For picture-perfect memories with one of Disney’s behemoth ships in the background, head to shore immediately after disembarking at Scuttle’s Cove — you’ll want to do so before the island gets busier — or walk to the outer platform of Heads Up Bar near Pelican Point. No matter how many people are frolicking in the crystalline water, you’ll still get a postcard-worthy image. (And, for a pile of photos with characters, don’t miss the ship’s most photogenic event on board.)

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