Cruising vs. Disney World: A Price Comparison

| March 19, 2007

Chances are, you have taken (or will take) your kids to Florida's Walt Disney World at least once. There is less statistical likelihood, however, that the average family will take a cruise. Disney World attracts far more visitors every year than the 10 million people who go on a cruise.

One roadblock to taking a first cruise is the perception that cruises are expensive, and geared towards an older clientele. But that is no longer true. If you can afford to take your family to Walt Disney World for a week, then you easily have the means to go on a seven-day family cruise. In fact, the information below shows that cruises are much more affordable than Disney World (WDW).

In addition, kids and teens (especially) often rate cruises very highly as a vacation experience, they have much more opportunity to interact with other children their own ages because there are babysitting and hosted activities for youngsters of all ages available nearly around the clock. Not only is there plenty to do, but the opportunity for your kids to make new friends, something youngsters value very highly, is something Disney World doesn't even mention.

But this article is about cost - so please allow us to try to make the experience and family budgeting between the two options as similar as possible so we can compare them side by side.

We compare the costs and inclusions for a family of four to embark on a week-long Caribbean cruise vs. hopping around the Disney World theme parks for seven days. (Note that I have not included transportation to Disney World or the port cities of Miami or Ft. Lauderdale, since this will vary a little depending on your home city. But the fact is, both attractions are based in Florida, so the airfare will be about the same either way.)

Walt Disney World Disney World offers many package options to choose from, so various factors will determine your final cost. To make this as fair as possible, I got quotes based on a family of four staying for a week during low season (November 11).

However, I did want to include as many items as possible in the Disney package, in order to make the quote similar to a cruise. So I included accommodations; transfers between the airport and WDW; shuttle bus service around all the WDW theme parks; park hopper passes so families can visit more than one park in a day; and a meal plan.

I chose Disney's Caribbean Beach resort, a mid-priced (called "moderate" by Disney) resort hotel. That way I could compare it to Princess Cruises, which is considered a premium market cruise line (a step above the most affordable cruise lines). Disney's All Star resort hotels are in the value category, similar to a Carnival cruise; while its Grand Floridian hotel, for example, is in the deluxe category, similar to a Crystal cruise.

For meals, I chose the most popular Disney dining package which includes one snack, one counter service and one table service meal (table service includes drink, appetizer and main course) per person daily. There are some limitations as to which restaurants are included in table service. That said, there are bound to be additional out-of-pocket food costs such as: restaurants not in the plan; breakfast; character breakfasts if desired; snacks; and water and drinks while park hopping.

The park hopper passes included in my quote are good for all the theme parks and allow multiple park visits in one day. However, to get the full experience, many families prefer to opt for the Disney Away Ultimate Passes, which also include the Disney water parks. Since day and evening entertainment, pools, water slides (and even ice skating rinks, rock walls, and mini-water parks on some cruise ships) are included on a cruise, I thought I should include as many entertainment options as possible with the Disney package for comparison's sake.

A park hopper package with multiple park visits on one day for a family of four staying at Disney's Caribbean Beach hotel for the week of November 11 is $3,241. A park hopper package with similar parameters except that Disney's water parks are included totals $3,797. In both cases, you'll spend about $30 to $50 tipping the cleaning staff at your hotel and those handling your bags. Thus, the grand totals are at least $3,271 or $3,827. You can bet these totals will increase once you add in drinks and additional food for your family.

Another possible cost would be to have a night out with your spouse and leave your children at one of the kids' programs at WDW. The programs are for those aged four to 12 years old; they are offered only from 4 p.m.. to midnight. The hourly fee is $11 per child, with a minimum stay of two hours. Thus, if you leave your two children for two hours so that you and your spouse can have a quiet dinner alone, it will cost you at least $44.

Caribbean Cruise Although cruise lines promote their prices as "all-inclusive," most rarely are except for the very upscale lines (which are generally not very family-friendly). But the biggest expenses are included in all cruise fares: stateroom; all meals and plenty of snacks throughout the day (such as soft serve ice cream, afternoon dessert, etc.); varied nightly entertainment; daytime activities such as pools, water slides, mini-golf, rock walls, basketball, ping pong, tennis, jogging tracks; and state-of-the-art workout facilities for adults, which include whirlpools and sauna/steam rooms.

A big plus for families on cruise ships is that youth and teen programs are free from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Teen programs go later into the evening and are also free.) Most lines charge a nominal hourly fee of $6 for your first child, $4 for the second only after 10 p.m. Before then (except for Norwegian Cruise Line, which charges a fee for youth activities on port days), children and teens can come and go to top notch, activities-based youth programs aboard ship. So if you and your spouse want to dine alone one night, you can feed your children early at the buffet and bring your kids to the youth program for free. Alternatively, many lines offer at least one night per cruise (a few offer this nightly) when kids can dine with the youth counselors at no charge. Compare that to the minimum of $44 for two children left for just two hours at Disney's youth programming, and you can see the superior value that cruises offer.

A few things are not included in your cruise fare (along with air, which I didn't include for WDW either). The first is tipping. Most lines these days suggest you tip about $10 per person per day, or almost $300 for a family of four on a week-long cruise. Many lines include it on your shipboard bill, but you can lower or increase the tips if desired, once you see how your service is. These tips cover the cabin steward who makes up your room twice daily; your nightly waiter and bus boy; and the maitre d' hotel.

Another cost to add is transportation between the airport and cruise ship. Princess Cruises, for example, charges $20 per person for motor coach service between Ft. Lauderdale's airport and Port Everglades. A family of four could save a few dollars by taking a cab from the airport. However, you may not be able to fit all your luggage into one cab. If you think that might be the case, then pre-book the transfer with the cruise line when you book your cruise.

As at Disney World, drinks are not included on a cruise; however, purified (not bottled) water, coffee, tea and iced tea are included. Most lines have a soda fountain card you can purchase if you have big soda drinkers in your family. The price is around $30 per person, depending on the cruise line, and it includes all soft drinks for the cruise. Many lines offer a lower-priced soda fountain card for kids.

The last major cost is shore excursions, which can vary greatly. If you book a shore excursion for each family member in each of the four ports you'll visit on your Caribbean cruise, it will really add up. Shore excursions can range from $20 to $200, depending on what you choose. Bus tours are the cheapest, while more unique ones such as flying in a helicopter, playing golf at a land resort, or scuba diving, can get very pricey. I suggest that families choose one must-do excursion in one port, then research ahead of time what they can do independently in the other ports. Hopping in a cab and going to the beach is an inexpensive way to enjoy the Caribbean independently.

In total, a cruise for a family of four for the week of November 11 on Princess Cruises costs $2,536. Add $80 for your family's transfers and $300 for your tips on the ship, and the total is $2,916. As mentioned above, this does not include your drink bill or shore excursions, if you opt for any. However, many on-line cruise agencies offer booking incentives such as $25 per person (maximum of $50 per cabin) shipboard credit, which will decrease your shipboard account total.

Other Benefits of Cruising As you can see, sailing on a premium cruise line in the Caribbean for a week is cheaper than a week at Disney. If you choose a more mass-market line such as Carnival, the price will be even lower. Additionally, there are some lines, such as Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises, that let kids sail free for their entire Caribbean season. This can greatly reduce your final bill.

My family - including my husband, 13-year-old daughter and five-year-old son - has been to Walt Disney World five times and on family cruises at least 25 times. We've thoroughly enjoyed both the Disney World trips and our vacations on the high seas. Given a choice, though, we'd pick a cruise. Here's why:

  • Disney World vacations are fun but exhausting! We usually end up park hopping to at least two to three theme parks daily. On a cruise, we may run around in port, but sea days are much more conducive to relaxing, especially by the pool. However, when you're paying top dollar for a park hopper ticket at Disney World, you feel like you should be doing just that - hopping around many parks. And while there are tons of activities for kids and adults on cruise ships these days, there's something about the surf and sun that automatically makes us slow down - which we never get to do at home!
  • Time together, time apart: Whenever we cruise, we always have lunches and dinner together. Also, we explore ashore as a family and create a lot of memories that way. On sea days, though, it's nice for my husband and me to have some adult time for basking in the sun, reading on deck, going for a walk, or using the spa or workout facilities. Since youth and teen programs are top notch and free aboard ship, we get some alone time while our kids are happily hanging out with others their age in the kids' programming.
  • Teen friendly: Let's face it - Disney characters lose their appeal once your children reach the pre-teen and teen years. That said, some areas of the theme parks might be a turnoff for teenagers. But on most family-friendly cruise ships, teens have dedicated spaces designed and decorated with them in mind. Here teens can hang out and participate in group activities such as disco nights and pool parties with their peers.
  • Sea the world: While Disney theme parks do a fabulous job of recreating atmospheres from around the world with their entertainment architecture, there's nothing better than seeing foreign cultures in their natural environments. From Mexican pyramids to the Roman Forum, ships easily transport your family to spots where you can witness history and culture first-hand. That's better than viewing entertainment-based architectural reproductions or reading about it in a book any day! And note that we did not include the value of transportation in moving you from one place to another in the cost of our cruise. During the average 7-night cruise you may travel thousandss of miles and visit many different foreign nations. That sort of travel by air would cost several hundred dollars per person, but because it is an integral part of the cruise experience we did not add it in.

Final Note: Disney Cruises Obviously, we chose to compare our Disney World vacation to a non-Disney Cruise Line cruise. The obvious reason is that a Disney cruise experience is mostly an extension of the Disney experience found in the theme parks, with the great Disney entertainment and characters, but without the rides.

But there is more to our comparison than that; First of all, a Disney cruise is often combined with a visit to Disney World (they mostly homeport out of Port Canaveral, as near to Disney World as a cruise ship can get - though they are now expanding their horizons). Another factor is that Disney cruises are relatively expensive compared to other cruise lines, much more than the Princess cruise we chose. Thirdly, Disney cruises are still heavily focussed on younger children, but other cruise lines often rate higher with kids over the age of ten. In fact, for kids in double-digit age groups, both "mass-market" cruise lines, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, often get a much higher approval ratings than a Disney cruise, and the cost is even lower than the Princess Cruises comparison we chose for this article.

Disney Cruises offers a wonderful vacation experience, especially for younger children, but for all other ages including the parents, the overall family satisfaction factor and much lower cost make other cruise lines a hard act to follow, unless you just HAVE TO HAVE Mickey Mouse on your bedsheets. We take our hats off to Disney for many things, but if you think they are the only vacation option you have just because you have kids, then you are definitely missing the boat.

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