After a tough year and a half nothing feels like more of a luxury and blessing than being able to go on a vacation. Make that an adult-only Disney Cruise Line vacation (yes, my husband and I decided to leave the 3 kids at home this time), and I’m still pinching myself in hopes that it wasn’t just a dream! However, there is a lot about traveling right now that makes things especially difficult. Hopefully this post will help you decide if a Disney Cruise is right for you and your family!
Travel & COVID
This is the third blog post in our “Travel & COVID” series. We also have helpful hints for traveling to Orlando (Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando) and Disneyland. Some of the things to consider about a Disney Cruise Line vacation during the pandemic/post-pandemic are:
- If you are traveling from Canada, you will need to have a negative COVID test (PCR or antigen), or a doctor’s note saying you are recovering from contracting COVID in the last 90 days.
- As of November 2021, most travelers to the United States will need to provide proof of full vaccination in order to enter; and as of January 2022 it’s looking like all travelers will need to provide proof of full vaccination.
- Currently you must be fully vaccinated to board a cruise ship. This isn’t written in as many places as I’d like to see. In fact, I booked and paid for our cruise and never saw anything that said this at all. It wasn’t until I went to the “Know Before You Go” site that I was able to see this in print.
- If you are traveling with kids (we weren’t) that aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, they must have an extra COVID test before embark day, and test negative. This must be molecular (NOT antigen), and must be within 3 days of sailing. Kids are not able to leave the ship at certain ports unless they are with an official Port Adventure run by Disney, which means limited (and pretty expensive) options for kids to explore off of the ship.
- Everyone on the ship, regardless of vaccination status, must be tested for COVID (at Disney Cruise Line’s expense) before boarding. You must also sign into the Safe Passage site and follow their instructions as well.
Easy peasy right? Well, the truth is, any travel right now comes with a lot of extra complication. No longer can you just hop on a plane. However, if you read and follow all of the steps, it is doable with minimum stress! I am also a Travel Agent, and one of my jobs is to make sure that I support you every step of the way… which means making sure you book all of the right tests, and have all of the correct info for getting there and back home safely.
Before the Cruise
The fun part is booking the cruise. You pay your deposit (or, if within 60 days of the cruise, you pay for the whole thing) and then you download the Disney Cruise Line Navigator App. Input your reservation number, your last name, and one of your birth dates to see your stateroom, pick your Port Adventures (if the window is open), and start your online check-in.
Important Things to Know
Your deposit of 20% is due at time of booking. You can do a 3 day courtesy hold if it’s 60 days or more out (less if it’s a concierge booking), and a 1 day courtesy hold if it’s within 60 days. Once you pay the deposit you can put more down on the balance as you are able. The price varies based on where you are on the ship. We actually got what’s called a GTY rate, which means that we are guaranteed at LEAST the category we are booking with or better. I checked my app like a crazy person to see what stateroom we’d been assigned, which happened about 8 days before the sailing.
Paying in Full:
We had to pay the full amount at the time of booking because we booked so late, but normally either you or your Travel Agent will be advised when final payment is due. It varies between 60-120 days based on what type of sailing you book. It’s VERY important that all information you submit matches your travel documents. As a Travel Agent, I ask for a copy of your passports so that we can double and triple check everything is correct. Also, there is currently a book with confidence promise, which allows for changes because of COVID (even within 14 days of sailing).
You can pay for gratuities before you disembark from the ship on the final day, or you can pre-pay for them at final booking, which is what we chose to do so we didn’t have to worry about it on the ship. The gratuities cover your dining service team and your stateroom cleaning team. The only thing it doesn’t include is any tip for Room Service (room service is included, just not the gratuities for it), as well as additional items such as bar charges.
There are two seating times for dining. MAIN (between 5:45 and 6:15pm) and SECOND (between 8:00 and 8:30pm). When you book your cruise, you are automatically placed into the second dining time. There are various pros and cons to both seating times. Families with young children are likely going to want the early seating; whereas, some like the later seating so they don’t need to rush from the Port Adventures or on ship activities. It’s easy to change and select the seating you want, as long as it’s available. In my case, as a Travel Agent, I ask which is your preferred seating, and if I can’t book it, I call in and wait list you for your preference.
Online Check-In, PAT and Other Bookings:
Once you are paid in full, check your app to see when your window opens for all of the fun stuff. Pre-COVID, there were different windows depending on your Castaway Club status. Meaning, if you’ve sailed before, you get the benefit of booking certain things before everyone else. Here are some examples:
- PAT(Port Arrival Time): Obviously you want as much time on the ship as possible! Even though I booked only 18 days out from the cruise, I was able to pick a PAT time of 11:15-11:30am. However, when things get back to normal you will want to book as early as you can, and Silver, Gold and Platinum CC members get to do this earlier than first time guests like us.
- Port Adventures and Onboard Activity Bookings: Dining at the adult-exclusive restaurant Palo, spa appointments, ship classes and Port Adventures are all booked at certain times based on your CC membership. It’s good to note that this opens on your date at midnight EST, so if you are West Coast like me, that’s actually 9pm the day before for us! This also didn’t affect us being on a last minute sailing… but it’s something to make note of (or again, something I do for my booked guests as a Travel Agent). You can also choose Kids Club times if they are pre-scheduling it, and “it’s a small world nursery” which was closed for our sailing.
- Online Check-In: This has quite a lot of details, including adding a payment, and so on. One of the things they ask you to do is verify your ID and take a picture. You will need to take a picture shoulders up, hair down, nothing in your hair, and against a white wall if possible. Once submitted, your account will say “pending documents” and a lot of people in our Facebook group were really concerned about that. We didn’t get our all clear until the day before. You can show up at the port if it still says “pending” and they will clear it up at that time. One thing I did find helpful though, is while I did check-in on the app, I went to disneycruiseline.com and made sure it also said “pending verification” because if there was an issue, it would say it on a browser, not in the app, some of the time.
As a Canadian traveling to the USA, it’s important to have Travel Insurance for medical coverage. Disney Cruise Line also has Vacation Travel Protection that’s not very expensive to add, and Canadians are able to purchase it and be covered. It includes things like lost luggage, extra medical expenses, and cancel for any reason. There are, as with any insurance policy, specifics that are best read over and decided by the travel party. We chose to add this to our trip and it was an extra $70 USD for the two of us. You can read more about this plan here. As a Travel Agent, I also advise that we add it, and you can take it off before final payment if you want.
Because things are changing constantly when it comes to travel right now, your best bet is going to be to check this site before booking, right after booking, and periodically before you leave. It has helpful hints like what you can’t bring (fun fact, I wanted to bring my collapsible kettle but you can’t because it’s a fire hazard!), and what the safety protocols are for COVID on board.
For US departures it has the following links (it’s different for the Panama Canal cruise sailings).
If you read each of these over a couple of times, you will not miss a thing! It’s singularly the most helpful thing. Additionally, if you can join a Facebook group for your exact sailing, that’s really fun too! You can chat about different things, ask questions, and it’s a great way to get to know the needs of your sailing specifically.
A Few Days Before
There are a few things that are important depending on your circumstances. If you are an American citizen and traveling with no kids, feel free to skip ahead!
Right now, there are specific requirements for traveling to the USA, as I said in my intro. This is changing for land travel in November, but currently still applies to flying into the USA. Ages 2 and up need a negative COVID test or proof of recovery from COVID to enter the USA. They allow antigen testing, which is cheaper than a PCR test. It must be TAKEN no more than 3 days before departure. If you live in Ontario, you lucky duck you, this only costs $40 at any Shoppers Drug Mart. For us in BC, it’s a bit more expensive. You can take the test at most airports (in our case it was YVR), or you can find a clinic that will do it. I check this for my clients often, and new ones are popping up all of the time!
We ended up at a fantastic option called Live Well Medical Centre. They were professional, quick, clean and I highly recommend them. There is free parking and it costs $99 plus GST for adults. If you have 2 adults and 2 kids that need testing then they will do $99 for the adults, and only $50 plus GST for the kids! If we had been able to do this for our July trip to Walt Disney World, it would’ve saved us hundreds of dollars! The results were ready in 15 minutes, and they gave us digital AND physical copies.
If you can, test 2-3 days before travel. In our case, it said in our airline package we could test anytime between Oct 1st and 4th. We wanted to test before our online check-in with the airline and that turned out REALLY well; made everything totally smooth and amazing!
We tested on Saturday October 2nd and got our negative test results right away. Sunday morning, October 3rd, we had a latte in bed and checked in online. Since our trip in July, they have really streamlined the process. We checked into our flight, uploaded a picture of our negative COVID test, AND we were even able to do a digital attestation all at once. Last time we had to print them, so this was much preferred. This is why I think it’s worth getting that negative test a couple of days before, so that you have zero stress when checking in.
Travelers with Kids Under 12:
If you are traveling on a Disney Cruise with kids that aren’t eligible for the COVID vaccine there are specific rules to follow for your situation. The kids must be tested between 1-3 days before the cruise with a molecular test (not antigen). As a Canadian, if our kids were with us, I would’ve tested my two kids with PCR instead of antigen, rather than doing the antigen and then the PCR. As an American, you can find an option (like ID Now, CVS, Walgreens) that does testing with results in 1-2 days for free, or Disney Cruise Lines offered one for $99 on the Safe Passage website.
We arrived to the airport at 5:00am for our 7:00am flight to San Francisco. Pro tip for Canadians, if you can book a direct flight, do it! This means that you know everyone on the plane has tested negative and at least reduces that risk. We didn’t have a direct option and flew into San Francisco first with a very long layover once there. (Fun fact, we pre-decided that if there was an issue with our flight from San Francisco to San Diego we would just rent a car and drive instead.) Which leads me to my second tip regarding flights… you definitely, most certainly DO NOT want to try and fly in on the same day that you are meant to board the cruise. This is true any time, but really really true during COVID time. Flights right now are certainly the most difficult part of booking because changes and cancellations are happening all the time. So we booked a flight into San Diego for Monday, even though our cruise left Tuesday.
Day of Cruise
On the day of your cruise, you are sent a push notification for a health questionnaire. They are very basic questions like “Do you have symptoms?” and “Have you tested positive for COVID?”.
Next, to get on any cruise, you are given a PAT (Port Arrival Time). Our PAT was a 15 min window (11:15-11:30am), and we knew from those doing a B2B (back to back cruise) in our Facebook group that they wouldn’t let you arrive early. We stayed at a cheap and cheerful hotel near the marina and headed over with enough time to check out the hotels close by the port. There are several hotels that are literally right across the street from the Port of San Diego. We got a Starbucks and headed over for 11:00am knowing that we might be turned away, but we weren’t! (You definitely can be though…)
We received luggage tags in the mail from DCL and packed them with us even though we only had carry-ons, which turned out to be a great thing! At the port we were told to see the porters for any luggage we didn’t want to carry with us so we chose to check our carry-on luggage and just keep our backpacks with us. Once our luggage was checked, we were instructed to either take a bus or walk to the testing site nearby, but it wasn’t totally clear where it was. In fact, the testing site location had changed from 4 days earlier (this is how fast things change!) So we hopped on the bus, which then took us next door and DROVE ON THE SIDE OF THE DOCK with an inch to spare between me and the ocean below on my side (I have some anxiety when it comes to driving and this had me in a cold sweat)!
We entered the testing site (a massive warehouse on the dock) and were handed our own testing kits, so we had to sanitize and fill out the labels before being sent together into a curtained off room that was very small. We were greeted by a staff member who instructed us to test ourselves, place the swap in the bag, and leave it with her. Then we were sent out into a large waiting area with a number of chairs setup with plenty of distance between. They were all facing a TV screen that showed a list of stateroom numbers and the words “Terminal” next to all of the ones listed. There was a small script at the bottom of the screen explaining that “Terminal” means “you’re good to go” and “Health Centre” (or something to that effect) means “you’re not getting on the ship.”
Mickey Mouse shorts played on the side of the TV screen and a very nervous energy filled the room. We were told it would take 45 min for results to come in, so we set a timer. In the time we waited, we did not see even one person receive the “Health Centre” message. (Can you imagine if you were the one? Ugh.) 32 minutes of waiting and we finally saw our stateroom number (Pro tip: Memorize your stateroom number, you literally need it for everything), I gave a little “WHOOP” (I was the only one!), and off we went.
We were not allowed to walk back to the DCL port because once we tested negative and in the safe bubble they wanted it to stay that way. Next we got on the GREEN bus (we also saw a purple bus and figured that was the sad bus… but that’s just us projecting) and were given a wristband to wear.
Back to the main DCL port and we entered another warehouse where it was under 10 min for us to check-in, show ID, scan our bags and be cleared to board! This process can be a wait… it wasn’t for us. The cast members asked us if we wanted photos, which of course we DID, and then we walked straight onto the ship. You will have to wait for my trip report to find out what happens next!
Luggage and Stateroom
At luggage drop off, they let you know that you may not get your luggage back until 4:00pm, so make sure to have ID, meds, and anything you may need with you until then (if kids want to swim, bathing suits are a good idea!). When we boarded the ship at 12:30pm there was a rope blocking access to the staterooms, but we were able to visit the open houses for things like the Kids Club while we waited (and we ate at Cabanas of course!). By about 2:00pm we were able to get into our stateroom and our luggage was already there waiting for us! Every morning there is excellent cleaning service, and then turn down every night.
What’s Different On a Cruise with COVID?
For a pre-pandemic report on a Disney Cruise, head over here to read Heidi’s blog post about her time on the Disney Dream! Disney Cruise Line has only re-opened for sailings as of September 2021. To be honest, much of what makes a Disney Cruise special has been captured with the reopening! Yes, most things are modified, but they are not omitted.
When you board, the first thing they do is announce you on the ship, and they had everyone stand on distanced squares. You also MUST wear masks inside… even though everyone is tested at least once, and everyone that is over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated!
Cruise capacity can vary at this time, but they are limiting the number of people on board. The cruise before us had 900 guests on board and the one after us had 1100. Ours only had 350 guests on board! (The Disney Wonder has a max capacity of 2700; 1750 guests and 950 crew members.) It felt so, so quiet… strange, but not unpleasant! They have also changed some sailings because the rules are different for cruises of 5 nights or more. In our case, they changed the Oct.1st-8th 2021 Wonder sailing to Oct.1st-5th and Oct. 5th-8th. So we ended up on the “extra” sailing which is one of the reasons for the lower number of guests.
One of the things that people seem very worried about on a Disney vacation right now are characters. We saw them literally all the live long day. There was almost ALWAYS a chance to see them. When we toured the Kids Club we saw Jessie, and another time we walked by and saw Captain Hook!
There were characters very often in the Atrium (and this was listed in the app) as well as walking around on deck and even in the theatre. There was definitely no shortage of characters! Sometimes they would be on decks above you, but lots of times they were in places where you could fully interact and get photos with them!
Even though we signed up for main seating, when we activated our app, we saw that our dining time was at 6:20pm. But then an hour later, it changed to 7:15pm! We think they decided to go with one seating instead of two because of the smaller number of guests on board, but still with rotational dining. So there was 350 people spread out between 3 restaurants!
The dining experience is the same as everything I’ve previously heard. The serving team is over the top amazing; attentive to your every need! On the last day, I didn’t feel like any of the dessert options on the menu and said I wish they had the beignets from Tiana’s and voila! Fresh beignets! Each night we had 4 courses plus bread service, and the coffee, tea, and soft drinks are also included, which is super nice! We got to see the “art show” at Animator’s Palate, Mickey and friends at Triton’s, and Tiana’s jazz band at Tiana’s. Very little, if anything, was missing.
They only filled about 1/3 of the tables and we were seated alone, whereas before you could be seated with other people. This worked out just fine for us as it was honestly our preference!
We didn’t experience this on our cruise, but we were told that if there is a problem with capacity they will limit and have sign ups. This effects the Kids Club and pools specifically. Then, for things like shows, they mentioned it’s first come first serve but we never came near capacity. I suspect that for sailings that are fuller, this is something you would want to account for as far as when you show up to things.
Heidi talked about the safety presentation that happens on day one of a cruise (which is mandatory) in her DCL blog post. Instead of cramming everyone together, we got a push notification from the app telling us that we MUST check into our safety presentation. We had to find the exact location on Deck 4, take a picture proving we are there, and then a cast member walked through that this is where we would meet in the case of an emergency. It was very quick and no big deal.
Key to the World Card:
Usually you are given a “Key to the World” card before boarding, but this time it was resting over our stateroom door. And instead of the dining rotation being listed on the card, everything was on the app. Honestly, this was fine for us… if technology isn’t something that you rely on I could see this being a change, but for us we found it easy to pull the app up when needed.
Each room has an ornamental fish next to the door that serves as a hook. It has become an unspoken secret amongst seasoned travelers to use this “Fish Extender” as a place to connect with others on board. In our case, it was too late to do any exchanges because everything was pre-set… but this is generally run by a volunteer on the ship. You can do several, or just one, or none at all.
Generally, you find out how many kids are in a stateroom and surprise them with some goodies. On our sailing, there was also magnet exchanges (the doors to the staterooms are magnetic), sock exchanges (literally exchanging pairs of Disney socks!), and recipe exchanges (I really want to do this next time) to name a few. The sky is the limit!
My understanding is there are some rules about what can and cannot be done during COVID with this tradition, so make sure to check your cruise Facebook group if this is important to you!
When I explored the Disney Wonder a couple of years ago (have I mentioned how much I love my job?) there was basketball hoops and balls available in the Wide World of Sports area, as well as foosball, ping pong and shuffle board on deck. Because of COVID you had to use the chat function in the app to request use of these items. One evening we were on deck to watch the sunset so I tried the chat to request use, but they said I had to go to the Port Excursions desk, which seemed really far, so we chose not to do that. However, if activities like these are important to you on your cruise, you can visit the desk in the morning and pre-schedule when you will do these activities, which isn’t a big deal.
Shows and Movies:
On our 3 night cruise, they offered a show each night in the Walt Disney Theatre. Frozen on night one, a magician on night two, and Disney Dreams on the final night. More about these shows in our trip report blog, but I’ll mention here that they did space everyone (every other row was kept empty), have us keep masks on, and release us one row at a time. In the Buena Vista Theatre they were showing first-run movies (Jungle Book and Shang-Chi for us), but they weren’t selling popcorn or other theatre snacks. We think this was likely to encourage people to keep their masks on.
In addition to everyone over 12 being fully vaccinated, and everyone on the ship being tested, everyone had to wear a mask while on board. The only exceptions are when you are in your stateroom or when sitting down to eat, but the staff still wore masks. The cleaning/safety protocols are always very high on a Disney Cruise ship, including that they watch you wash your hands before going into Cabanas (buffet dining) and the Kids Club. Nothing was self-serve… including the limitless soft serve ice cream, drink stations, and buffet stations at Cabanas. For the hot tubs, it was one person or one party at a time, and you could line up for that by speaking with a crew member on deck. We didn’t feel like they took any liberties as far as safety went, and felt like everything was really well done.
Truthfully, with COVID being what it is right now, we weren’t totally sure if we were going to get off the ship at our Port of Call, which was Ensenada. However, I wanted to see the process in order to best advise my clients, so we did. We had to sign up for a time to debark on the app, and once we got the all clear we could go down. There was no wait, we walked right off. We kept our masks on while we walked, and even though we could take a shuttle to downtown, we didn’t want to be in a small space so we chose to walk outside. The risk with excursions right now is that you are in a very safe and protected Disney bubble until you walk off the ship… or once others on board choose to disembark. We didn’t have any close interactions with others on the ship, so in our case it didn’t increase the risk… but it’s something to consider depending on how comfortable you are.
Our cruise was a “Halloween on the High Seas” cruise. We also knew from Heidi’s experience, and from the Facebook group, that there could be a Pirate-themed night. We packed a Halloween costume, and noticed that there was a “Halloween Tree Lighting” scheduled on the app, but when we got on board, it was removed. I asked about both the Halloween Party and the tree lighting on the chat function and they said both weren’t allowed because of regulations.
On a normal seasonal cruise / special day at sea (Halloween on the High Seas, Very Merrytime Cruises, Marvel Day at Sea, Star Wars Day at Sea) you can expect a lot more. For our cruise in particular, there would normally be a Halloween Party, plus trick or treating for the kids, plus a deck party and the tree lighting. Apparently kids did get candy on their beds (which is awesome!), but because there wasn’t an official party we chose not to dress up… however plenty of guests still did! The deck party was great… but very, very late (10:30pm for the party and 11:00pm for the fireworks). More about both in my trip report.
I do think you should adjust your expectations in regards to the seasonal items, but certainly we weren’t disappointed.
Is there anything sadder than waking up and knowing that you have to get off? If you have oversized luggage, you will get a luggage tag with a character on it the night before you disembark. Those characters correspond to specific times in the morning when they want you to get off the ship. If you have a flight to catch, or somewhere you really need to be (we didn’t), you can also specify that and they will prioritize your disembark for one of the earliest time slots. We had breakfast (we were scheduled at Animator’s) and decided we wanted to end our trip with one more latte at Cove Café. When it was finally time to leave, we had no line and off we went.
We chose to get rapid tested for COVID (in order to fly home to Canada) on the day we left the ship. Canada will only accept a molecular test, which means every test EXCEPT antigen is allowed. PCR, Rapid PCR, NAAT (which as far as I can tell IS a Rapid PCR) IDNow, etc… just make sure it says molecular. Now, there are quite a few free COVID tests available when traveling in the USA. Problem is, all of them say 1-3 days for results, or 24 hours (which is actually not 24 hours, but usually between 3-9pm the next night). We booked flights to leave Saturday even though we disembarked on Friday for three reasons. One was to allow enough time for our COVID tests. Two was because we didn’t know how long it would take to actually disembark, get to the airport, check-in, clear security and all that jazz. And third was because the flight options on Saturday were cheaper and better (we were able to get a direct flight!).
Rapid COVID Testing:
Rapid testing is simply a lot harder to find. We were going to do Beeper MD (they come to you!), but heads up… even though they let you book an appointment with them, they are currently only available in Florida. There is rapid testing at LAX, but we had made the (very hard) decision to stick with San Diego for a variety of reasons. We had originally booked a test in the San Diego airport, but it was $150 USD per person AND said it “would be ready by 2pm the next day.” (Our flight was at 3:00pm.) An added complication was that it was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and my husband did NOT want us to miss Sunday. I found a COVID clinic that was $199 USD (you have to prepay), molecular (NAAT), and rapid, so I booked with that one.
We actually walked straight there from the port (it took about 20 min, which would’ve been quite pleasant if we didn’t have all our luggage!). To our surprise, the clinic was actually outdoors in a parking lot! We booked for 11:00am, but got there at 9:00am. They didn’t blink an eye, let us test, and also gave us a free PCR test at the same time. The whole thing took 5 min and then we took an Uber to our hotel. When we were dropping our luggage at the hotel 20 min later, we both got our negative results in our email and checked into the airline right away… once again it was super easy!
Flights and ArriveCAN:
The next day we arrived 3 hours early to the airport, and the security line was SIGNIFICANT. Luckily we have Nexus, so it was no big deal! But you do want to leave LOTS of time. Right before it was time to board we were called up to the gate and asked to show our negative tests, as soon as they reviewed our documents we were good to go!
As a Canadian, you need the ArriveCan app to come back home. Before you board the plane, open the app and answer the straight forward questions. Heads up, when it comes to your vaccination info, submit TWO photos (one for both dose, even if both dates are on one card) in order for them to register you as fully vaccinated. Screen shot the 6 digit code they give you in case you don’t get an email. We did ArriveCan when we checked into our flights the day earlier.
Our flight home was uneventful (except for some wicked turbulence!). They asked to see our negative results once (correction, they asked me, never my husband), and we did see a lady on our flight get turned away from the gate because she only had an antigen test! One thing to note… just because they don’t check doesn’t mean you are totally free. Travel is still elective at this time, and it’s very clear that the responsibility lies on you as the traveler. If you have the wrong type of test, or test within the wrong timeframe, you can still get home and be fined major $$$. It pays to know exactly what you need to, and get it right!
Fun fact, we were randomly selected to test YET AGAIN when we landed back home at YVR, which meant we were tested FIVE TIMES IN SIX DAYS! At least we knew we were negative! When we were selected they sent us to the left line (you want to be sent to the right at YVR!), got tested, and were free to go. We were not instructed to quarantine, but they do ask that you wear a mask in public for 14 days following your trip, and to keep a list of all your contacts. You are also supposed to carry around your negative test results. We were both called by the Federal and Provincial gov’t because ArriveCAN flagged us as not fully vaccinated (due to the one photo uploaded instead of two), but when we explained that we were negative and fully vaccinated we were all good.
To read my full trip report, including all of my experiences on the ship, here is my trip report!
Have a magical day!