There are many things to consider when picking the right boarding time for your Disney cruise. But first things first: You’ll be able to check in at least 75 days in advance using DCL’s online Planning Center. This offers you a chance to verify information, ensure that you have the right credit card on file, and so on. You’ll also be able to choose your boarding window—the time when you provide Disney your travel documents and board the ship.
The earliest boarding windows are usually around 10:30 a.m. We recommend choosing as early a board time as you can, or after 1:30 p.m. Here are the pros and cons to both approaches:
Early Boarding Time
PROS An uncrowded ship. You’ll find smaller crowds at the pools and buffet, and you’ll be among the first in line for last-minute spa, restaurant, or shore-excursion availability.
CONS Most staterooms don’t open to guests until at least 1:30 p.m. This means you’ll be carrying everything you brought on board with you until you’re able to enter your room. Guests with lots of camera equipment or big laptops may find this inconvenient.
Later Boarding Time
PROS The ability to sleep later on your boarding day, and the ability to access your stateroom as soon as you board the ship. If you have children who require an afternoon nap, this may be your best option.
CONS The ship is already full of people, including lines for the pools and food. Moreover, the elevators off the atrium tend to be packed with folks and their luggage trying to get to their rooms.
Get in the Boat Men (and Women and Kids)!
Now that this is squared away let’s turn our attention towards getting ready to checking in at the terminal. Have your cruise documents and government-issued ID ready as soon as you arrive. Many terminals, including Port Canaveral, have an initial security checkpoint outside the perimeter to ensure that only ticketed passengers enter. Once you’re past that checkpoint, you’ll undergo another round of security screening just inside the terminal’s entrance. You’ll pass through a metal detector, and your luggage will undergo X-ray scanning. If you have bags too large to get through the security screening, use the porters at the terminal.
Disney’s cruise terminals, especially those at Port Canaveral and Vancouver, are spacious, clean, and comfortable. (Miami’s is a little smaller than the others, and Barcelona’s offers the finest in Catalan folding chairs for seating while you wait.) If you have to wait a few minutes for your group to be called, you’ll find enough seating for your family to sit down and relax. Vending machines and bathrooms are available, and Disney provides everything from character greetings to ship models to maps on the floor to keep your kids occupied.
Once in the terminal, look for cast members handing out a mandatory (but mercifully short) health questionnaire. This questionnaire asks if anyone in your travel party has suffered from fever or nausea within the last 24 hours. Answering “yes” means you may be denied boarding, so be sure everyone is in good health. You’ll return the completed form at the check-in desk.
Head for the check-in desk and have your signed cruise documents, health questionnaire, and IDs ready. If this is the first Disney cruise for anyone in your group, they’ll need to accompany you to check in. Concierge has a dedicated check-in desk, and returning DCL guests can use a separate line for its Castaway Club (though given the number of return cruisers DCL sees, it’s not always as fast as you’d think).
The check-in desk is where you’ll receive your cabin number (if you don’t already have one) and get issued your magnetic-stripe Key to the World stateroom cards. If this is your first Disney cruise, Disney will also take your photo. You may also choose to replace your photo with a current one if it’s been awhile since your last cruise. The photo is used to ensure the person who gets off and back on the ship is the same person who boarded at the beginning of the cruise. The computerized systems at Disney’s boarding gates display your photo when you swipe your room key to get off and on the ship.
The check-in desk will also issue your party a boarding number, usually 1–30. Rather than have everyone try to board the ship at once, Disney organizes passengers into boarding groups of about 25–30 families at a time. Loudspeakers announce every few minutes which group numbers are currently allowed to board.
If you’ve not yet done so, you’ll have an opportunity in the cruise terminal to sign up your children for the kids’ clubs before boarding. A good time to do that is while you’re waiting for your boarding group to be announced. This card contains helpful information about your cruise.
Your dining schedule will be printed on your card as a series of letters. One letter will be shown for each night of your cruise. In the example shown on the previous page, the four letters PTTA indicate that this is a four-night cruise. Each letter in the series also represents the first letter of the name of one of the ship’s standard restaurants. In the example shown above, P is the Wonder’s Parrot Cay, T is for Triton’s, and A signifies Animator’s Palate. The two consecutive letter T’s here mean that we’ll be dining at Triton’s back-to-back, on nights two and three of our cruise.
Finally, your Key to the World card also shows your transfer information, if you booked transportation through Disney to or from the port. You can board the ship anytime after your boarding number is called. Have your room keys out, as they’re scanned whenever you come on and off the ship.
Just before you enter the ship, photographers will offer to take a photo of your party. If this is important to you, a quick mirror check in the restroom and dressing in something you’d like recorded for posterity is a good idea. If you don’t care to be photographed, breeze on past the people getting photos; they’re certainly not mandatory, and lines can back up.
Sailing with The Mouse soon? Check out The Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line 2016 by Len Testa, Erin Foster, Laurel Stewart, and Ritchey Halphen.