Disney Wonder Alaska Cruise Review
Hi, I’m Richard, and I’m here as a “guest blogger” to talk about the Disney cruise to Alaska my wife Erica and I took September 4-11, 2017. I know that many of you have been on a cruise, even maybe a Disney cruise, but not too many have been on a Disney cruise to Alaska…so I thought a discussion of each aspect of the cruise would be helpful!
Once we knew we wanted to take an Alaskan cruise as our Disney trip of 2017 (we live near Seattle so that’s really the closest Disney to us), I made sure to do plenty of research. I read the Unofficial Guide to the Disney Cruise Line cover-to-cover, looked at ship layouts and menus on sites like disneycruiselineblog.com, and frequently read the Disney Cruise Line message board on the DISboards. Being new to both the Disney Cruise Line and cruising in general, it was really helpful to book our trip with Jaime Leigh. She answered all of the questions that we still had after reading that reference material.
We had a Disney World trip in December 2016 so we booked a bit late for a cruise (late January for a September sailing) and while most of the rooms were booked up, there was still a decent enough selection to pick one that looked good to us. I’d recommend a little bit of a larger lead-time in order to ensure you get the exact room you want. Since we were first time DCL passengers we weren’t in the “Castaway Club” and had to wait until the latest date, 75 days before sailing, to book our activities. That ended up not being an issue for any of the activities and excursions we had planned, but we did get shut out of a brunch reservation at the upcharge fancy restaurant Palo we had planned on. A good tip I saw is to try again to book anything you missed immediately after you board the ship…I did this and they had tons of open Palo reservations for those booking on board. Score!
Since we live near Seattle it was just about a 3-hour drive to the port in Vancouver, British Columbia (plus 45+ minutes at the border crossing). We decided to play it safe and drive up the day before, enjoy some of Canada, and stay in a hotel near the dock. So of course on the way up we had to stop at Tim Hortons for donuts, and get some poutine in Vancouver. The poutine was good and authentic, but could not touch the transcendent experience that is the signature poutine at Le Cellier in Epcot. For our hotel we chose the Pan Pacific, right on the cruise ship dock.
The Pan Pacific is EXPENSIVE (our room with breakfast buffet was US$363) and while the room was definitely nice, it wasn’t really a $363 quality room. What you are really paying for here is the convenience: the hotel’s bellman will take your luggage and you won’t see it again until you are on the ship, and you can take the elevator straight from the lobby to the cruise ship check-in area. It’s also above the port parking garage, so once we parked for check-in we didn’t see the car again until we got off the ship. The breakfast buffet was small but pretty high quality, and since we booked the cruise package with late check-out we were able to relax in the room until it was time to take the elevator down and get on the ship.
The cruise check-in process was a bit confusing and involved a lot of walking around in different directions and passport checking until we were sitting in a big room waiting for our boarding group to be called. One thing I should mention is that DCL cast members are for the large part international in origin, so their English can be very thickly accented at times. You kind of just have to guess and go with it, which mostly works out but sometimes led to odd situations, such as me apparently saying that a book was delicious.
Our cruise was aboard the Disney Wonder, one of the two smaller Disney ships. I thought it was good for a first cruise, to not get too overwhelmed by a truly massive ship like some of their newer ones. It had 3 main restaurants, a buffet with breakfast and lunch service, a few take-out restaurants on deck for food any time of day, an adult section with three bars, a few other bars spread throughout the ship, a large theater for the big nightly shows, a smaller movie theater that played Disney films all day, a pool with a waterslide, and a separate adult pool. The pools did not get much use because this was an Alaskan cruise and temperatures were generally in the upper 50’s with cloudy skies and occasional rain.
One thing that made the smaller ship a disadvantage for us was the lack of shopping. There were only two stores, and as a couple that shops so much during Disney trips that no matter how much luggage we bring we always manage to need to ship a box of stuff home, we missed the larger assortment of stores the bigger ships provide. They did have a decent assortment of 2017 Alaska cruise-specific merchandise, but were a little light on the general Disney stuff like pins.
We chose a porthole room on the second deck a little bit towards the aft of the ship (very technically nautical term), stateroom 2100. I thought the room was decorated nicely with lots of Disney touches, in a tasteful rather than massively in-your-face manner. Obviously it’s going to feel on the small side, you are on a boat, but with the sitting area and split bath setup (sink and toilet in one room, sink and shower in the other) we didn’t feel too cramped. The TV had lots of channels with information on the ship and activities, as well as Disney movies and other Disney programming. The larger ships have a large catalog of Disney movies on demand, which I have to admit would be pretty cool.
While it may not be as important on a Caribbean cruise where the majority of what you are going to see is water, I would say that a porthole or a veranda is an absolute must have on an Alaskan cruise. There was constantly beautiful scenery on the British Columbia and Alaska coastline. Once you’re in Alaska you are surrounded by islands, so there’s always something to see out of both sides of the ship. Let’s face it, as much as there is to do you will still want to be relaxing in your stateroom some of the time, and the savings of an interior room with no view would not be worth it at all to me. After all, how often are you going to go to Alaska?
Okay so here’s the most important part of the blog, because a cruise is really just an excuse to completely stuff yourself with delicious food and get drunk.
On the Disney Cruise Line, dinner service rotates between three restaurants…on the Wonder those are Animator’s Palate, Triton’s, and Tiana’s Place. Triton’s didn’t have a whole lot of theming, while Animator’s Palate was themed to Disney sketches and Tiana’s Place was designed to look like a restaurant Princess Tiana opened after The Princess and the Frog. Most of the seating is at 8-tops so you’re likely to be seated with people you don’t know, and the whole group (including your servers) will stay together at the various restaurants throughout the cruise. Disney does take some care when selecting table-mates, and we were seated with three other couples that were somewhat near our age who were all easy to get along with. I thought the food at the main dinner restaurants was good, above typical table service food at Disney World, but definitely not as good as the signature restaurants there. I did appreciate the more interesting selections (yum, escargot) and the special Alaska-themed items such as king crab, halibut, and venison. Some nights can be a little tough on very picky eaters.
Cabanas, the breakfast and lunch buffet, could be very crowded and hectic at times but I really enjoyed the food. Obviously on a buffet it’s not going to be as high-quality as the dinner places, but they did a good job with a really large selection. Especially at lunch they changed it up every day, so if you go one day and don’t love it you should give it another shot. We didn’t eat much stuff from the carry-out places on the deck, but I can say that Disney does chicken strips right, even on a boat.
Because we opted for the later dinner seating at 8:15 each night, we took the opportunity to often order an afternoon snack from room service. Room service won’t cost you anything for most items (sadly they charge for canned sodas), except for the tip. The quality was okay and my wife loved the cheese plate and off-menu Mickey Mouse Ice Cream Bars. I do have to say that despite living in Seattle, I am not a coffee snob and never complain about coffee…but the coffee from the buffet and room service was AWFUL. It didn’t even taste like coffee. They do have better-tasting coffee drinks in a shop in the adult area of the ship, but of course those cost extra.
The Wonder has one upcharge restaurant, Palo. Palo offers brunch and dinner for an extra charge of $30 per person. We had brunch (it was at noon so really lunch) one day and it was beyond worth it. If and when we take another Disney cruise we will do Palo brunch at least twice. If you look at the menu online, it only tells a small portion of the story. While the menu items you can order are excellent (I really enjoyed my sausage pizza) the main draw here is their buffet. This ain’t a Disney World buffet, they had the good stuff: king crab legs, peeled shrimp cocktail, fancy cheeses, salmon mousse, delicious pastries, decadent desserts, and even CAVIAR. I mean I don’t love caviar, but it’s kind of impressive to have it on a buffet. My favorite item was a bloody mary shrimp cocktail “shot” with a salted rim.
The bar up on deck had your standard Disney fruity drinks that aren’t very strong but are tasty. They advertised Dole Whip (available with rum) but it was made in a slushy maker so it had a consistency more like a pina colada or frozen margarita than soft-serve. The drinks in the adult area bars were somewhat more refined and a bit stronger. The Cadillac Lounge went for an upscale feel and had a wonderful pianist/singer the night we went…it’s your best bet for nice wine. The Crown & Fin Pub was going for an English pub atmosphere and focused on beer-type drinks, with Guinness on draft and my favorite, Rekorderlig Pear Cider, in a bottle. They also had a small late-night snack buffet with stuff like jalapeno poppers and tiny sandwiches. Azure had a stage and was more focused on entertainment, but did offer drinks as well.
Obviously being Disney, the cruise really excelled at entertainment. There was one big show in the large Walt Disney Theatre every night, with three of those being Broadway-style musicals: The Golden Mickeys, Frozen, and Disney Dreams. They were all terrific! A couple of the nights had comedians, one that did more of a physical/prop style and one extremely good ventriloquist. The first night had kind of a “coming attractions” show with samples from a lot of the entertainment on board, which was enjoyable and helped to make up your idea of what you wanted to see more of. One night they just showed the latest Spider-Man movie; we skipped that one since we don’t really care and if we did that’s something we could just watch at home.
There were also shows in the adult clubs in the evening, usually hosted by the ship’s club host Jo, who was really great. The prop/physical comedian and a magician did shows the first half of the cruise, then they were switched out with a different comedian and the ventriloquist. There were also several trivia contests that were more fun as opposed to a real “contest”. During the day there were several nature talks given by a local naturalist discussing the animals we could see in Alaska. We had fun at all of these events.
The big activities for us were character meet and greets, which happened several times per day at various places on the ship. There were some of your more standard characters like you could get at any park, but mixed in were some more rare characters like Remy and his brother, or Marvel characters that can’t meet in Disney World. Many of the classic characters met in cruise ship attire. The biggest attraction was Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Chip & Dale all meeting in special Alaska-themed outfits they don’t wear anywhere else. The characters only meet during 15-minute windows, but if you are in line before the window ends they will usually be able to get to you. I’d suggest arriving 10-15 minutes early. They also had a ticketed princess greeting, where you could meet Ariel, Belle, Tiana, and Cinderella. Tickets were free, but you had to get them in advance…definitely something you should do if you feel at all like you might want to meet them.
The cruise also offered other more standard cruise ship activities like cooking classes, alcohol tastings, family trivia, karaoke, drawing classes, shopping presentations, kid and teen activities, and the ever-popular art of napkin folding.
The Ports of Call
There were four ports of call on the cruise: Endicott Arm (a fjord where you don’t actually get out of the boat so it isn’t really a “port”), Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Endicott Arm was truly amazing, with waterfalls everywhere, steep mountains, icebergs with seals lounging on top, and a big glacier calving into the ocean at the end. The ship stays there for a while to view the glacier and even spins around so that people in rooms on both sides of the ship can see it…it really is an unforgettable sight.
The towns that you dock in all have similar tourist-trap stores mixed with a few local stores and bars/restaurants. Skagway is a very small town with pretty much all of the stores on the main drag, which the ship “parks” at the end of. Juneau is the state capitol, and you can walk to the capitol building, which just looks like a normal old office building. The ship docks a little further away here but constantly runs a shuttle bus into town, which only takes about 5 minutes. Ketchikan is in between the two others in size and as the salmon capitol of the world offers plenty of fish-buying opportunities.
Tons of different excursions were offered through Disney, with even more available from outside vendors. They can get pretty pricey, especially some options where you can helicopter out and land on a glacier. We picked a couple of comparatively cheap options.
Out of Skagway we did the “Yukon Expedition”, which included a bus ride up into the Yukon Territory in Canada followed by a train ride back down into town. This was a long excursion with plenty of photo opportunities including literally dozens of waterfalls and beautiful pristine lakes. A barbecue chicken lunch was served at a little place called Caribou Crossing, which also had real sled dogs (and puppies available for petting) along with a standard-issue petting zoo and an interesting taxidermy museum. The train ride down was in vintage rail cars, and due to the slow speed you could go out between the cars to get better pictures. The excursion was about $200 per person and I thought it was worth every penny to see these amazing sights.
Out of Ketchikan we did the “Rainforest, Wildlife Sanctuary, Raptor Center, and Totems” excursion, which was around $100. We were bused out to a little wildlife center, where we were led on a walk through the woods and repeatedly reminded that if we were eaten by bears it was our own fault. We did see some bears but they were too busy catching salmon to feast on relatively unappetizing human flesh. The forest was beautiful and it was really amazing seeing animals like black bears, harbor seals, river otters, and bald eagles in the wild. There was also a bird rehabilitation center at the end of the walk, where we got a close up look at a bald eagle, and of course a gift shop.
When it was time for us to go home I felt sad, but also felt like 7 days was the exact right amount of time for a trip. It was not like Disney World, where no matter how long the trip is at the end I am tremendously depressed and really don’t want to go home. I think a lot of that is due to the cruise really first and foremost feeling like a cruise to Alaska rather than a massively immersive all-Disney experience…while you definitely feel tons of Disney on the cruise, I didn’t get nearly the same “magical bubble” effect that I do in Disney World or Disneyland. With that being said, those wonderful extra Disney touches to me made it worth the extra cost above a cruise on a different line. When we eventually return to the high seas, it will definitely be on the Disney Cruise Line.