Disney Dream, April 2011: Embarkation Day (Part 1: Arrival and Boarding)

Note: I have decided to split each day of the trip report into multiple parts as the posts were getting overly long.

Observation deck at the Disney Cruise Line Terminal
Observation deck at the Disney Cruise Line Terminal

I was a bit nervous about the logistics surrounding embarkation on the Disney Dream.   The Disney Cruise Line had traditionally been known for a very smooth embarkation process at Port Canaveral, but the terminal was designed for the substantially smaller Disney Magic and Disney Wonder and there had been quite a few reports of problems handling the larger crowds arriving for the Dream.

For our previous cruises, we had arrived at the terminal via Walt Disney World transportation, which got us there late enough that we immediately went on board after checking in.  This time, we had rented a car and planned to arrive at the terminal as early as possible, so I wasn’t really sure how it would work.  Fortunately, we found that the embarkation process went very smoothly and with a minimum of hassle.

On Sunday morning, we managed to wake up fairly early and it didn’t take too long to get showers and pack everything up.  We had a light breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet.  Holiday Inn Express has pretty much standardized their included breakfasts from location to location, meaning that the quality and selection is predictable and fairly decent.  I particularly like their cinnamon rolls, which are served warm and fresh.  My only real complaint about breakfast was that they didn’t have enough seating in the breakfast area, something else that is unfortunately fairly standard to the chain.  We had to squeeze all three of us around a table for two, but we were able to manage.

Rental Car Return

I was very unsure about was whether it would be better to drop my family and our luggage off at the port and then go to return the rental car by myself or for us all to just take the shuttle.  We finally decided that the logistics would simply be easier if we all took the shuttle, so we headed straight to the rental car return.

We found Budget’s return process at the Port Canaveral office to be chaotic and a bit confusing.  We initially expected someone to come out to meet us to check in the car, as is typical at airport returns, so we wasted a few minutes waiting for that.  Once we realized that wasn’t the process there, I noted that the paperwork had instructions for doing an express check-out by filling out a form and dropping it in a drop box.

When I went inside, there was no drop box in sight.  This left no choice but to get into the line, which was very long due to the large number of people returning from cruise ships that had arrived in port that morning.   Fortunately, we didn’t wait too long before an employee walked the line offering to collect express check-out forms.  While the process wasn’t exceptionally difficult, they definitely should put in a drop box and also place some signs outside giving instructions for returns.

The wait for a shuttle bus was, fortunately, short and we were soon on our way to the Disney Cruise Line terminal!

Arrival and Check-In

Disney Dream from the rental car shuttle
Disney Dream from the rental car shuttle

We arrived shortly before 10:30am, which was the time that the terminal opened.  The shuttle pulled up at a drop-off spot outside the terminal and a cruise line porter quickly collected our checked luggage.  We then joined the line of people waiting to go in, which ended pretty much right where we had been dropped off.

It took us about 20 minutes to make it up to a security gate, where they checked our cruise documents and IDs before directing us into the terminal.  Inside the terminal, we then passed through airport-style metal detectors and sent our carry-on bags through an x-ray machine.  This process was very quick and efficient and we were soon headed up the escalators to the main terminal area.  We then were asked to quickly sign a form stating that nobody in our family had been sick in the last 24-hours and then we were directed to the check-in line.

Disney Cruise Line Terminal
Disney Cruise Line Terminal

Guests arriving at the terminal are given cards assigning them to numbered boarding groups and one of our bigger uncertainties was what number we were likely to get.  I knew that in the past these were always assigned in order of arrival, but a few months ago Disney had added the selection of a terminal arrival time to the online check-in process.  This change was made after I had already completed our on-line check-in and I wasn’t aware of the change until a few days after it was added.  When I found out and went to update our check-in, the earliest arrival time available was noon.

At least for our cruise, they didn’t appear to be paying any attention to the selected arrival time.  Instead, they simply were handing out the boarding group cards on a first come, first served basis.  As we entered the check-in line, we were given a card that gave us group 8.  I already knew that the group numbers typically went into the upper 20s or higher, so this was clearly a good number!

In addition to the boarding number, we were also given a sheet with basic information such as where lunch would be available on the ship and general scheduling information about the first part of the day.  This was essentially a preliminary version of the Personal Navigator that is left in the stateroom, providing a detailed listing of each day’s activities.

One thing that Disney Cruise Line is well known for is the speed and efficiency of their check-in process.  One perk of being a return cruiser is the use of a separate check-in line, which typically moves faster due to the guests all being experienced.  The use of their on-line check-in system (which can be filled out starting 90 days before the cruise) really minimizes the amount you have to do at the terminal.  Basically, I just had to hand them the printed out signature form from the on-line check-in as well as all of our passports.  After checking these, the clerk quickly handed us our Key to the World cards (which are the stateroom key and on-board charge card) and sent us on our way.

Waiting to Board

It was about 30-45 minutes from our arrival on the shuttle bus until we had completed our check-in.  At that point, we had about an hour or so until the expected start of boarding around noon.  We had arrived fairly late for our previous cruises, allowing us to board immediately after checking in.  Thus, this was the first time we spent an extended time in the terminal.

Entry Portal to the ship’s gangway
Entry Portal to the ship’s gangway

Disney’s terminal is very nicely designed, with quite a few Disney touches.  The entry way to the ship is through a large Mickey-shaped arch that dominates the back left part of the terminal.  The center of the terminal features a large, cut out (so the interior is visible) model of the Disney Magic, which my son really enjoyed examining.  In the back of the terminal there is an outdoor observation deck where you can get a good close up look at the ship.

Close-up view of the ship from the terminal observation deckClose-up view of the ship from the terminal observation deck

The main waiting area is on the right side, including a partitioned area reserved for concierge guests and members of the highest level of the Castaway Club return cruiser loyalty club.  The waiting area is unfortunately kind of small, with way too few benches, a problem exasperated by the much larger capacity of the Dream compared to the Magic and Wonder.  We were fortunately able to grab some bench space, but at least one of us always had to stay put to hang on to it.  As it got closer to boarding time, there were people taking up pretty much every open bit of floor space.  The one set of restrooms in the terminal are also a bit small for the size of the crowd.

Another big crowd in the terminal is the line for the children’s activity registration desk, which is located in the back right.  By the time we had finished checking in, the line for that already snaked pretty much all the way across the terminal.  I had done enough research ahead of time to know that it actually made no sense to stand in that line as you could do the same registration later in the day on-board the ship with little to no wait.  We found that to be completely accurate.

They do provide a bit of entertainment for those waiting.  Several video screens in the waiting area show Disney movies.  While we were waiting, they were showing one of the direct-to-video Tinkerbell movies, which didn’t seem like the best choice.  They probably really should try to stick with movies that have a broader appeal.

Photo with Mickey in the terminal
Photo with Mickey in the terminal

In front of the model of the Magic, they had Mickey or Minnie, in their cruise line outfits, alternating for photo sessions with guests.  The line  wasn’t very long (and it wasn’t like we had anything better to do!) so it was pretty nice being able to get a picture with Mickey right at the beginning of the cruise.  It certainly wasn’t the only opportunity we had to see Mickey, but it was a great way to help get us (particularly my son) really into the Disney mood.

Boarding

About 10 minutes before noon, they had a short ceremony where a chosen family (the first in line that morning?) officially opened the gates to the ship. They then started calling the group numbers, roughly 5-10 minutes apart. Our group was finally called around 12:20 or so and we were finally headed on-board!

On cruises, it is very typical that there are opportunities to get formal or informal photos taken all over the place. One tradition is to have a fairly formal embarkation photo taken right before you get on board. At least on the Disney cruises, this isn’t a very interesting photo as they take it in front of a pretty non-distinctive, uninteresting backdrop. On our previous cruises, I remember that we got pretty irritated having to wait for this photo that we didn’t really want before we could go on board. This time, we were very glad to see that they had set up a clearly marked “no photo” line that let us quickly head right onto the ship.

Disney Dream Lobby
Disney Dream Lobby

The entry ramp from the Terminal goes directly into the ship’s very ornate, art deco main lobby on deck 3. They make boarding a bit of a fun show by having a crew member announce your family’s name over a loudspeaker as all the other crew members in the area applaud wildly. The lobby area is absolutely gorgeous, with its grand spiral staircase and a huge ornate chandelier overhead. I’d seen many pictures of it, but they honestly don’t do it justice.

Coming Up Next: Lunch, Making Palo Reservations, and Stateroom

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