Disney vs. Royal Caribbean: Smackdown!

disney cruise line royal caribbean smackdown
Both lines cater to the young and young at heart. - Photo by Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean

You could make a case that these are the best two lines for families with young kids of multiple ages, the kinds of families who like activities and action. Not sure which line is better at the basics? Read on for our opinion:

Highlights

Disney Cruise Highlights: For families, cruising doesn’t get much better than with Disney. Disney Cruise Line was founded in 1995 and has four ships sailing throughout North America and Europe. Anyone familiar with the Disney parks around the world knows that the company provides an exceptional experience through the quality of service and entertainment, and the cruise ships are no exception. The line consistently ranks highly in our Members’ Choice Awards each year in a number of categories, including Best Line for Families With Young Kids, Best Line for Children’s Programs, and Best Line for Cabins.

  • Disney has a wide range of onboard entertainment, including Broadway-style stage adaptations of well-loved stories like Frozen, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Tangled. The line also features original theater productions such as The Golden Mickeys and Disney’s Believe. 
  • Disney ships include a kids’ water park, kid’s clubs, character meet-and-greets, a movie theater, scheduled activities, and a full spa that features a dedicated teen area. Most dining venues are complimentary and unlike most mainstream cruise lines, nearly all nonalcoholic beverages are included in the cruise fare. The cost of a Disney cruise is high in comparison to similar lines, but the value is there in a variety of ways.
  • Adults are not forgotten on Disney ships. Every vessel has an 18+ deck area called Quiet Cove Pool complete with a pool, hot tubs, loungers, and a bar. The line’s two specialty restaurants are also adults-only. 

Royal Caribbean Highlights: The top cruise line for adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies, Royal Caribbean’s approach to cruising could be described as “go big or go home.” While some of the older ships in their fleet are smaller (if you can call a ship with 3,000 passengers “small”), most of their new vessels easily hold upwards of 6,000 passengers on every sailing, and four of the top five largest ships in the world fly the Royal Caribbean flag.

  • New Royal Caribbean ships come with so many onboard activities, entertainment, and dining options, you literally may not be able to experience all of it during a 7-night sailing.
  • Royal Caribbean continues to uphold its reputation as a leader of onboard activities, with nearly all of its ships boasting a rock climbing wall and surf simulators. The newer ships come with even more onboard adventures like zip lines, sky-diving simulators, and enormous water slides. You might become overwhelmed by the number of offerings on Royal’s ships, but you will never, ever be bored.
  • Royal’s Oasis-class ships continue to be among the top-rated ships on Cruiseline.com, and their newest ship, Symphony of the Seas, has absolutely dominated our Members’ Choice awards for the past two years.
  • Royal Caribbean is a great option for outgoing and adventurous families, couples, and singles, but unless you're sailing one of their smaller, older ships, it's not the best line for travelers looking for a low-key getaway.

 

Prices

Disney Cruise Prices: Disney could be considered a premium cruise line, and their pricing reflects that. As we mentioned previously, the value included can’t be overlooked but it can be hard to put a price tag on. As is common, the less desirable one-way routes or cruises that begin or end a particular region’s sailing season will be slightly cheaper. 

  • With Disney, it’s difficult to find a base fare that ever dips below $120 per night, though we do (rarely) see prices around that figure. The majority of sailings start somewhere between $200 to $300 per person, per night. 
  • If you’re looking for a deal, don’t care where the cruise begins or ends, and are primarily sailing for the ship (and not ports), your best bet is going to be repositioning cruises, including transatlantic voyages that don’t stop in many ports. 
  • Disney includes several things in the cruise fare that Royal Caribbean does not, such as onboard amenities like the movie theater, nonalcoholic beverages, and 24/7 room service. These things can really add up for some families on a cruise, so having them included upfront can save sticker shock at the end of a cruise.

Royal Caribbean Prices: While it’s possible to find good deals on Royal Caribbean sailings, it’s less common for their newer ships and the best prices will almost always be on the smaller, older ones. However, even with the lack of deals, Royal Caribbean’s base fare is much more affordable than Disney’s.

  • Royal’s older ships sail short Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries, but these ships don’t have the new, cutting-edge amenities Royal has become known for over the past decade.
  • It’s possible to find good deals for their top ships like Oasis and Allure of the Seas, (think inside cabins from about $70/night per person and balcony cabins from $100/night), but sailing during high-demand times of year will generally cost more.
 

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean — With base fares that are almost always several hundred dollars per night, Disney is two to three times more expensive upfront than Royal Caribbean. While Disney does include extra perks, it doesn't necessarily make up for the price gap for some families.

 

Itineraries

Disney Cruise Itineraries: With only four cruise ships, Disney Cruise Line is obviously much more limited in the variety of itineraries they can offer versus Norwegian. Most Disney itineraries are in the Caribbean and Bahamas, and the majority of those call at the line’s private island Castaway Cay. They also have ships in Europe and Alaska seasonally, as well as out of California to operate Mexican Riviera cruises. The vast majority of voyages are 3 to 7 nights long, but there are a handful that are longer — most of which are European or repositioning cruises. Most Disney sailings can be done as stand-alone or packaged with time (and stay) at one of their theme parks to make a longer vacation.

Royal Caribbean Itineraries: Royal Caribbean’s fleet of globe-trotting ships go everywhere Disney does, plus many more exotic locales like Asia, Australia, and South America. And since the line has so many ships, you’ll find lots of ships sailing in one region such as the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Royal Caribbean also has a wider range of cruise lengths, from short weekend getaways to a large number of extended sailings ranging from 8-14 nights. These longer voyages are perfect for more experienced cruisers who want to explore hard-to-reach ports or spend a few extra days at sea.

 

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean — With so many more ship options, Royal Caribbean sails to a larger selection of destinations around the world. Plus, the line is also able to offer a better variety of itinerary lengths, making it easy for families to find something they can all agree on.

 

Cabins 

Disney Cruise Cabins: Disney Cruise Line has four main cabin categories with an array of subcategories within them: interior, oceanview, balcony, and concierge suites. Within these categories, there are a few features that set Disney apart from other big-ship lines.

  • Most staterooms in all four categories feature a split bathroom design. One side has a toilet and sink, and the other has a bathtub/shower combo and sink. Both sides have their own doors. This makes getting ready in the morning much easier because two people can essentially use the bathroom at once while still maintaining privacy. 
  • Another unique feature is Magic Portholes, which can be found in most interior cabins on Disney Dream and Fantasy. These virtual “windows” are screens that display a real-time video feed of the view that you would have off the side of the ship that the porthole is facing. An extra magical touch is the addition of Disney characters such as Peach from Finding Nemo, who pop by every so often on the screen to say hi. And don’t worry about a bright screen interrupting your sleep — it can be turned off. 
  • Standard cabins have heavy privacy curtains between the regular bed and the sitting area/pull-out couch area where kids sleep, which can be pulled back during the day.
  • Concierge cabins come in three categories, two of which are suites and one that’s called a family cabin (comparable size to a mini-suite on other lines). Apart from an obviously large amount of space, Concierge cabins offer amenities including Elemis toiletries, upgraded bedding, a large balcony, and access to the Concierge Lounge and private sundeck with free snacks and drinks throughout the day. Concierge guests also have advanced access to reservations ahead of sailing, as well as a Concierge Services Specialist on the ship who can help with booking shore excursions, making dining or spa reservations, planning a special celebration, and more.

Royal Caribbean Cabins: Royal Caribbean also has the traditional interior, oceanview, and balcony cabins, plus a host of suites in wildly varying sizes. Like Disney, Royal Caribbean also has interesting things that set some of their staterooms apart from others. 

  • Following in Disney’s footsteps, Royal Caribbean actually offers a virtual view from some of their interior cabins, too but be sure to check your ship deck plan as this is not offered on all ships. Instead of a porthole, Royal’s virtual element is an entire balcony view. These virtual balconies are just how they sound: a balcony-sized screen that displays the view off that side of the ship in real-time. There’s even a curtain to further assist in the illusion. And of course like Disney’s portholes, the balcony screen can be turned off.
  • Another element that sets Royal apart is the sheer variety of suites that are offered on their newer vessels. For example, Oasis and Quantum class ships offer some suites with two-story, glass-walled loft suites complete with a separate living room. You’ll also find mini-suites and other suites similar to what you’d find on premium cruise lines. 
  • On ships with a large interior promenade or the Oasis class ships with the Central Park and Boardwalk neighborhoods, you’ll find special cabins with windows or balconies that overlook these spaces. They are generally more affordable than the ocean-facing window and balcony cabins and offer an interesting view that you wouldn’t have in an interior cabin. 
 

Our Pick: Draw — Disney does standard cabins exceptionally well, with little touches that elevate the experience (especially for families traveling with children). On the flip side, Royal excels with their suites, offering a huge range of options to fit every preference.

 

Dining

Disney Cruise Dining: Disney Cruise Line does main dining a bit differently than other lines. At the beginning of the cruise, everyone is assigned a rotation that they will follow throughout the voyage. Each night at dinner, you’ll be in one of the three main dining rooms. The next night you rotate to the next one on your schedule. This means that you get to experience a new restaurant each night. The best part is, your serving team rotates with you. There is no “anytime dining” on Disney. The line only has the traditional assigned dinner times and offers an exceptional experience in service and decor as well as a variety of high-quality menu options. Aside from the themed main dining rooms, there are several other dining venues across Disney’s fleet.

  • All four Disney ships have the Italian specialty restaurant Palo, and Disney Dream and Fantasy also include an upscale French venue called Remy. These are the only true specialty restaurants on Disney Cruise Line, and they’re both for adults only. 
  • Those looking for a quick and casual option will enjoy the variety at Cabanas buffet, which is the large, traditional pool deck buffet that you’ll find on most cruise ships. There are also outdoor counters serving up pizza, burgers, salads, sandwiches, and more. Fresh smoothies are also available, and what cruise ship would be complete without an ice cream station?
  • Passengers with a big sweet tooth will satisfy their craving at Sweet on You on Disney Fantasy or Vanellope’s Sweets & Treats on Disney Dream. These little venues serve up treats including cookies, cupcakes, candy, and ice cream sundaes. 
  • For an elegant affair with the littles, consider reserving the character dining experience Royal Court Royal Tea. The feast includes a plethora of teas as well as a two-course meal where young guests and their parents can meet some of their favorite Disney princesses. On top of that, kids receive keepsake gifts from the experience to take home. The price tag for this character experience is hefty, but it’s worth looking into if you have kids that love classic Disney fairytales. 
  • Though not all dining venues or alcoholic beverages are included in the cruise fare, Disney does include nearly all non-alcoholic drinks.

Royal Caribbean Dining: The newest Royal Caribbean ships have so many specialty restaurants, you won’t be able to eat at all of them on a 7-night sailing. This might be disappointing for cruisers who like to experience everything a ship has to offer, but the upside is that there’s a great selection to choose from and ensures there is something for every palate or craving.

  • Unlike Disney, Royal Caribbean does offer My Time Dining, where passengers are not constrained by set dinner times and can eat when they choose. They also offer traditional set time dining with multiple seatings to choose from, which will appeal to those who want a more traditional experience with the same servers each night.
  • Top specialty dining choices include rustic Italian fare from celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver at Jamie’s Italian, traditional American steakhouse favorites at Chops Grille, Japanese cuisine at Izumi, whimsical fare at the Alice-inspired Wonderland restaurant, modern Mexican dishes at Sabor (with guacamole prepared tableside!), and ice cream and candy at Sugar Beach. All of these venues are an additional charge.
  • For those looking for something quick and simple, several Royal Caribbean ships have pizzerias, cafes, and hot dog stands; and most also include Johnny Rockets diners complete with milkshakes and a ketchup smiley face. 
  • There is generally one formal night per cruise where passengers are asked to dress up for dinner. As always, those who want to stay casual can enjoy the evening meal in the buffet. 
 

Our Pick: Disney — Disney Cruise Line has outstanding quality when it comes to food and service in their restaurants. Plus, the themed dining rooms with entertainment and interactive elements as well as included non-alcoholic beverages elevate the dining experience even further.

 

Activities

Disney Cruise Activities: Disney isn’t known for a variety of thrilling and unique attractions like Royal Caribbean, but their ships do have some unique activities and experiences that only Disney can offer.  

  • Each Disney ship has a twisting yellow slide on the top deck. On Disney Magic, Wonder, and Fantasy, there’s a kid’s water park called Aqua Lab. It includes tipping buckets, geysers, leaky pipes, raining showerheads, and more. Disney Dream and Fantasy also include an aquacoaster called AquaDuck, and Disney Magic features a drop slide called AquaDunk. All ships also have a variety of pools, including one that’s adults-only. 
  • Character meet-and-greets are a big part of the draw towards Disney Cruise Line. In various venues and during different events across the fleet, passengers can meet the fab five (Mickey and friends), Toy Story characters, the princesses, and favorite Pixar characters. On select sailings, you might even have the opportunity to meet Marvel superheroes or Star Wars characters. 
  • Similar to other cruise lines, Disney offers a variety of group activities including trivia, bingo, treasure hunts, and dance parties. Disney Dream and Fantasy also include a mini-golf course. 
  • Adults looking for a strong drink, good company, and even live music will find it in one of the many bars and lounges on the Disney ships. 
  • For relaxation, each vessel has a spa complete with massages, mani/pedi, facials and body treatments, and a full thermal suite. The spa also has a separate area for teens called Chill Spa, with its own menu of tempting treatments such as a Hot Chocolate Wrap and Acne Attack Facial. 

Royal Caribbean Activities: In the cruising world, Royal Caribbean is known as the pioneer of onboard innovation with its purpose-built entertainment venues, first-at-sea activities, and Oasis-class ships, which hold the world record for the largest cruise ships ever built. They also set a new bar for activities and experiences on land with their completely overhauled private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay. Onboard, the daily Cruise Compass outlines a plethora of activities for all age groups and adventure-seeking levels.

  • Most ships have the standard climbing walls, mini-golf, and FlowRider surfing simulators, but some go as far as to include ziplining, bumper cars, ice skating, and even a RipCord skydiving simulator in partnership with iFLY. 
  • All Royal Caribbean ships have at least two water slides, and the line can now claim the title of the tallest slide at sea (not a waterslide) thanks to the 10-story Ultimate Abyss on Oasis, Allure, Harmony, and Symphony of the Seas. 
  • The Quantum-class ships have a SeaPlex, the largest indoor active space at sea that includes a circus school, full-size regulation basketball court, roller skating, bumper cars, and a DJ booth.
  • Those that want to keep their physical fitness in tip-top shape will enjoy the sports courts, jogging tracks, and fitness center complete with all the equipment they would expect from a land-based gym. Fitness classes such as spinning, yoga, sculpting, and more are also offered onboard. 
  • Travelers who want to kick back and relax will find just what they’re looking for at the Vitality Spa or the (adults-only) Solarium, a large, tropical-themed space with lounge chairs, hot tubs, and a full bar covered by a large glass canopy.
 

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean — The range of unique activities that one can do aboard most Royal Caribbean ships cannot be ignored, and Disney’s ships, while still activity-filled, just don’t offer the variety that Royal does for travelers of all ages. 

 

Entertainment

Disney Cruise Entertainment: If there’s one thing the Walt Disney Company is known for, it’s their impressive ability to provide quality entertainment for people of all ages. And of course, the company carries over its high standards to the cruise line.  

  • As mentioned above, Disney Cruise Line offers Broadway-style stage adaptations of some of their beloved stories like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Frozen, and Tangled. You’ll also find original theater productions like The Golden Mickeys and Disney’s Believe. 
  • Each ship has its own movie theater, playing first-run Disney films throughout the voyage — some of which are in 3D. You’ll also find family-friendly movies playing on the massive pool deck screen at various times. 
  • In the evenings, singers and instrumentalists perform in many of the ship’s bars and lounges, and, of course, there’s a nightclub to dance the night away.
  • Deck parties are an extravagant affair, with characters joining the entertainment staff for music-filled shows fit for the whole family. On most cruises, there is also a Pirates IN the Caribbean deck party complete with Mickey and friends in their best pirate garb. Don’t miss out on this event — the entire evening is themed to pirates including the dining room menus and there are themed games and trivia, too. The evening is closed out with fireworks because, well, it’s Disney! 
  • Special sailings, like Marvel Day at Sea or Star Wars Day at Sea, include entertainment and character interactions inspired by those universes. If you have a big fan of either one in your family, consider searching specifically for one of these voyages.

Royal Caribbean Entertainment: Just like with their onboard activities, Royal Caribbean specializes in adding flashy, high-tech flares to their live performances. 

  • The Two70 entertainment venue, found on Quantum-class ships, is a multimedia concert experience made awe-inspiring with video projection and moving screens controlled by robotic arms. 
  • Royal’s has their own range of stage shows, delivering Broadway-quality performances to musical-loving passengers. The shows vary by ship, but the most popular ones include staples like “Mamma Mia”, “Hairspray” and “Grease.”
  • Many of the line’s ships offer parades and movies, along with their unique ice-skating and water/diving shows. Entertainment found in other venues around the ship include piano sing-alongs at the Schooner Bar or Karaoke at the On Air Club.
  • The outdoor AquaTheater on the Oasis-class ships is a truly unique venue in cruising, offering high diving and aquatic dancing shows. Some cabins even have a direct view of this theater so you can watch from your balcony.
 

Our Pick: Draw — Nobody does storytelling and performances quite like Disney, and their entertainment lineup is of arguably the best quality in the industry. Royal Caribbean, again, sneaks in for a tie with the sheer variety of entertainment options that can be found on their vessels. And of course, Royal Caribbean offerings are of high quality, too. 

 

Kids & Families

Disney Cruise Amenities for Kids and Families: Disney Cruise Line has youth clubs for kids from 3 years old all the way up to teenagers, as well as a nursery for babies and toddlers. 

  • The kid’s clubs on all four Disney ships for ages 3-12 years old are called Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab. The two spaces are separate but connected so that kids can move freely between them and choose which types of activities and play areas they want to enjoy. However, it’s worth noting that the Club is geared towards younger kids and the Lab is geared more towards the older ones. 
  • There are various themed rooms with different toys and activities in the Club, such as Andy’s Room (Toy Story), Pixie Hollow (Tinkerbell), and the Star Wars Command Post. (Each ship has slightly different rooms, those are just examples.) 
  • The Lab is themed more towards science and art and includes a Media Room for movies and video games, a Craft studio, an Animator’s Studio, and a Sound Studio for learning how to make music. Other Lab activities include cooking classes, mystery-solving, and messy science demonstrations. 
  • The dedicated space for Tweens is called Edge, which offers improv classes, trivia, DJ lessons, video games, and dance parties. Teens can hang out in Vibe and play video games, watch movies, sing karaoke, enjoy dance parties, and even get coffee, smoothies, and snacks at the club’s coffee bar. On Disney Dream and Fantasy, Vibe even has its own sundeck complete with chaise loungers, splash pools, ping-pong, and foosball.  
  • The It’s a Small World Nursery caters to babies ages 6-months to 3 years. The main play area includes books, toys, games, and movies, and youth counselors also do various activities such as storytime and craft projects to keep little ones occupied. A separate quiet room for naps is also provided. Parents can drop off their little ones at the nursery for a fee, and the line strongly encourages that reservations are made ahead of the cruise. 
  • As mentioned before, a big aspect of the Disney cruise experience is character meet-and-greets and other character interactions. Meet-and-greets with a time and location will often be printed in the daily newsletter, but sometimes you’ll also see characters walking around and in unexpected places throughout the voyage.

Royal Caribbean Amenities for Kids and Families: Alongside their popular youth clubs, Royal Caribbean has a large variety of onboard activities which make them one of the best cruise lines for older kids and teens.

  • The Adventure Ocean kids clubs on Oasis-class ships have designated areas for toddlers, kids, tweens, and teens, which includes their own theater, video arcade, a DJ academy, and arts and crafts workshops.
  • Adventure Ocean offers Late Night Party Zone hours, which start at 10 pm. Parents can enjoy a special family dinner with their kids before leaving them in the care of the youth counselors so they can enjoy a night out on the ship. An hourly rate applies. 
  • The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs are a lifesaver to parents of babies and toddlers — drop off your little ones during the day or evening for an hourly fee.
  • Many of Royal’s signature amenities are perfect for families with children, such as FlowRider surfing simulators, rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, and water parks. 
 

Our Pick: Disney — Nobody knows kids like Disney! The line’s themed youth clubs, family events, and character meet-and-greets put them over the top, and make them one of the very best choices for families with kids. 

Best Overall:

It depends. Technically Royal Caribbean won one more individual category than Disney did. But the experiences that the two lines provide are tailored to different types of cruisers and are difficult to compare fairly. Big Disney fans who are willing to pay a premium for a more upscale and immersive experience should go with Disney Cruise Line. Those who are looking for thrilling top-deck attractions and more exotic itineraries might find a better fit with Royal Caribbean.

 

Find great deals on Disney cruises and Royal Caribbean cruises!

Sherri Eisenberg

Sherri Eisenberg  

Sherri Eisenberg has circled the globe as a travel editor for almost two decades. Along the way, she scored chili crab in Singapore, leather sandals in Mykonos, and embarrassing sauna stories in Finland.

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Which line do you prefer?

2 Comments

Posted by JohnsonL

At this time, June 2016, our preference is Royal Caribbean. We feel that Royal while in the middle of the value pack, has very good experiences for all ages and for all cruiser types, but note to Royal, don't let the service or dining side of the value proposition slip - a cheap ticket does not justify a cheap experience or boring food; good service and good food do not justify an expensive ticket, with constant nickel and dime inflation. Royal does offer that non-stop, action packed, and party-full (e.g. 'Carnival Cruise') experience, and also delivers that high service level (e.g. 'Celebrity Cruise') with excellent dining experience, and with good to excellent choices for entertainment. We have cruised on NCL, Princess (before Carnival Corp acquired them), Carnival and small Mediterranean cruise ships and passenger carrying freighters; so we understand that cruise experience delivered should be matched against a reasonable expectation of the cruise line or ship. With our loyalty program standing with RCCL and Carnival, we will let Celebrity and Holland compete for our cruise dollars as our age gets higher and bedtime lower, but we pray that is still some time off:-). It is possible, that one of these might be our choice some years from now.

Posted by Bernie65

I have used six of the major cruse lines and prefer Royal. The QE2 was a MAJOR disappointment. Celebrity Had Coffee problems every day. Their machines didn't work right 9 out of 11 days. Princes well, the layout and design of the ship sucked. ( You can't get there from here, first you have to go to the....) My first transatlantic was in 1954 and my next one is in two weeks.

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