Disney Cruise vs. Walt Disney World: Smackdown!
Can’t decide between a Disney cruise and Walt Disney World for your next vacation? Both have their own highs and lows, so read on for our point-by-point comparison of these two wildly popular options for families.
Accommodations at Walt Disney World range the gamut from simple campsites at Fort Wilderness Resort to deluxe over-the-water bungalow cabins inspired by those on Tahiti and other South Pacific islands at the Polynesian Village Resort. In all, visitors can choose from over 20 themed resorts, with varying room types and views available. Disney's large Value Resorts offer basic motel-style accommodations and centrally-located pools and food courts, spread over many acres. Moderate resorts offer larger motel-style rooms and more elaborate theming, pools with water slides and sit-down restaurants in addition to food courts. Deluxe resorts are hotels with larger rooms, multiple dining options and better locations closer to the theme parks and attractions. Deluxe Villa resorts are vacation-rental options, with accommodations ranging from modest Studios to 2 and 3-bedroom Grand Villas.
Disney Cruise Line ships feature the usual selection of inside, oceanview, and balcony staterooms and, of course, suites. Of note, all Disney Cruise Line staterooms have two bathrooms, one with a sink and toilet, the other with a sink and shower, so multiple members of the family can get ready at the same time. Virtual portholes on Disney ships are a unique feature in some inside staterooms that offer live view outside the ship, thanks to cameras mounted on deck.
Our Pick: Walt Disney World, for the sheer number of resort choices, options and themes you can choose from.
Where You'll Go
Obviously if you’re taking a trip to Walt Disney World, that is the destination. The four theme parks, two water parks, and multiple golf courses make up the massive Walt Disney World property just southwest of Orlando.
Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios make up the four theme parks, and Disney’s water parks are Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. There are also other areas that make up the Walt Disney World Resort, including the Disney Springs shopping zone and ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Basically, Walt Disney World is massive and the majority of families that head there on vacation, don’t really venture outside of the resort. There’s no need to — unless you have other specific Orlando-area activities on the schedule, everything you need is right there.
Since Disney Cruise Line is, well, a cruise line, you’ll visit different ports on your Disney cruise. Most of these will be the same ports you’ll find on other lines’ itineraries, such as Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; Juneau, Alaska; or Barcelona, Spain. However, Disney does have one destination that no other line can visit: Castaway Cay. Like several major cruise lines, Disney has their own destination in the Bahamas, and it’s consistently rated the top private island in our annual awards. If you're looking for a true "beach day," you'll only find that on Disney Cruise Line.
Our Pick: Tie. Everyone should visit the Walt Disney World theme parks at least once in their life, but sailing to some of the world's greatest cities and sites on a floating resort, and spending a beach day on Castaway Cay, is also very appealing.
Walt Disney World offers more than 200 dining options, from counters selling Dole Whip (try the Pineapple) in the Magic Kingdom to AAA Five Diamond dining experience Victoria and Albert's in Disney's Grand Floridian Resort. Add in countless carts peddling popcorn, churros and ice cream, and there's no risk of going hungry in the theme parks, Disney Springs or the resort hotels. While some of the food is decidedly "theme park fare" — burgers, pizza and the like — there are a good number of international choices that allow you to experience with foods you might not be familiar with in a safe, comfortable setting. For most table service restaurants at Walt Disney World, reservations are required 180 days in advance. The most popular restaurants will book early, making it difficult to make plans at the last minute or decide "on the fly" when you want to eat.
Disney Cruise Line features a buffet for breakfast and lunch and a rotating dining experience for dinner, where you will dine in a different theme restaurant each night of your cruise. Your wait staff moves with you from venue to venue. Dining times are assigned, so no need to make reservations or wait in line. Room service is also available at no additional charge, and you can even have Mickey Ice Cream bars delivered to your stateroom.
Adults can elect to dine in Remy or Palo, specialty restaurants that serve French and Mediterranean cuisine, respectively. Remy and Palo are restricted to guests 18+ and carry a per-person cover charge. Also, on a Disney Cruise, you'll be able to experience international cuisine in the actual nation. Would you rather eat fettuccine Alfredo in Epcot or have an authentic Italian dining experience in Rome?
Our Pick: Disney Cruise Line. While Walt Disney World's dining choices are vast and in many cases, superb, the authenticity of the in-port dining experience and not having to make reservations a half-year in advance while on the ship give a Disney cruise the edge.
The Walt Disney World theme parks are among the most popular in the world, with the Magic Kingdom drawing an estimated 20.45 million visitors in 2017. If you do the math, that means over 56,000 people visit the Magic Kingdom on an average day. While there still is a bit of an "off season" — late August, early September and a week or two in January, in particular — Disney has worked hard to ensure bigger crowds throughout the year thanks to discounts, special events like Epcot's Food & Wine Festival and sporting events. During holiday periods, the parks can be so crowded that it's almost impossible to move, with ride wait times exceeding 3 hours on the most popular attractions. Visitors can reserve up to 3 attractions per day with Disney's FastPass+ service, but you'll inevitably spend a good portion of the day waiting in line for rides, especially during the holidays and summer months. Add in Orlando's heat, humidity and summer thunderstorms and you might need a vacation from your vacation.
At full capacity, the two largest Disney Cruise Line ships hold just 4,000 passengers (and the two smallest ships accommodate just 2,400). While it's still possible to experience a line at the breakfast buffet or to reboard the ship after a day in port, you won't be fighting for elbow room with tens of thousands of other travelers. The wait to meet Mickey on a Disney Cruise ship is in the minutes, not hours.
Our Pick: Disney Cruise Line. Hands down.
Appeal to Kids & Families
There's a lot for kids to like at Walt Disney World: meet and greets with the Disney characters, fun rides, parades, and fireworks. There's a reason they call Walt Disney World "The Most Magical Place on Earth." While adults know that it's not really a ghost riding in your Doom Buggy at the Haunted Mansion, kids don't. They experience the magic, the wonder and the seemingly impossible from a fresh, un-jaded perspective that adults lack.
Our Pick: Walt Disney World. While some of the same experiences are available on a Disney Cruise - even the fireworks - it's less awe-inspiring than the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney World.
Appeal to Adults
We're speaking strictly of adults traveling without kids, here. Walt Disney World absolutely makes a great destination for a couple or adult group of friends. The rides, shows, and attractions appeal to adults as well as kids, especially those who grew up visiting the Disney parks or watching the animated feature films or the Disney Channel. But adults traveling without kids might not want to interact with the tens of thousands of children that flock to Walt Disney World on a daily basis. Adults without kids are a minority at Walt Disney World.
It surprises some people that a Disney Cruise can be a viable vacation for an adult, but it very much is. From adults-only restaurants like Remy and Palo to adults-only venues like the Skyline Bar, it's fairly easy for adult Disney fans to avoid kids on board. While adults without kids are also a minority on Disney Cruise Line. The smaller, more intimate ships provide for a better experience. And in port, adults can go their own way and do their own thing, and easily never encounter a Mickey ear-wearing youngster until they get back to the ship.
Our Pick: Disney Cruise Line.
Upfront, understand that a vacation with the Disney logo on it will cost more than a comparable non-Disney trip, be it theme park or cruise. You're paying for the perceived quality that the Disney brand is associated with.
We priced three Walt Disney World package offers for a 7-night stay arriving August 4, 2019. Each package includes the resort, 7 day Park Hopper Plus tickets (access to all 4 theme parks and two water parks with the option to visit more than one park in a day) and the Disney Dining Plan (one counter service, one table service and one snack per person per day) for 2 adults and 2 kids (ages 9 & 13).
Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa (Deluxe Resort) - Theme Park View Room - $8,757 ($313 pp/nt)
Disney's Port Orleans Resort - Riverside (Moderate Resort) - Pool View Room - $5,833 ($208 pp/nt)
Disney's All Star Sports Resort (Value Resort) - Preferred Room - $5,077 ($181 pp/nt)
We priced a 7 night Eastern Caribbean cruise from Port Canaveral on the Disney Fantasy, sailing August 10, 2019. The cruise fare includes accommodations, meals and soft drinks. Note that shore excursions or other activities off the ship aren't included.
Inside stateroom - $8,047 ($287 pp/nt)
Oceanview stateroom - $8,341 ($298 pp/nt)
Balcony stateroom - $8789 ($314 pp/nt)
Concierge Suite - $21,856 ($781 pp/nt)
Our Pick: Walt Disney World has a slight edge in per-person / per-night pricing for our hypothetical family traveling over the summer. Since the Disney World pricing includes theme park tickets, when you factor in the cost of shore excursions on the cruise, the Disney World pricing advantage is even bigger.
Our Pick: Do both. Spend 4 nights at a Walt Disney World resort, then experience a 3 night Disney Cruise from Port Canaveral, or do a 4-night cruise and 3 nights at Disney World. Either cruise will sail to Castaway Cay. Disney used to sell this as a package, but it's still possible to book them independently through a knowledgeable travel agent.