You're looking for the perfect family cruise vacation -- do you choose Royal Caribbean or Disney Cruise Line? Both cruise lines get high marks for entertaining kids and adults of all ages (including babies and toddlers), with expansive kids clubs, onboard attractions, shows and activities.
While you can't go wrong with either line, there are some differences. Disney is perhaps the more premium experience with smaller ships and slightly more fare inclusions, but its cruises are more expensive and limited to a smaller number of ships and itinerary options. Some Royal Caribbean ships carry thousands of passengers and can feel crowded and overrun with kids during peak travel periods, but with a large roster of ships and cruise destinations, you can find options that are quieter and more adult-oriented. Although you might feel nickel and dimed onboard, base fares are generally much lower than Disney, and you have much more choice of places to eat and things to do onboard.
For more on Royal Caribbean vs. Disney, read the comparison across categories below to determine which cruise line is best for you.
Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line have drastically different fleet sizes. Royal Caribbean has 25 ships, seven of which were built before the year 2000, while Disney has four ships, with two built before 2000 and two built after. (Two more ships are on order, to be delivered in 2021 and 2023.)
Royal Caribbean's ships range in size from 1,602 passengers (Empress of the Seas) to 5,518 passengers (Symphony of the Seas), based on double occupancy. Disney's ships are much smaller by comparison, carrying either 1,754 (Disney Magic and Fantasy) or 2,500 passengers (Disney Dream and Wonder). As both lines carry lots of families, however, the actual number of passengers onboard your cruise can be much higher when third, fourth and fifth berths are filled.
Royal Caribbean sails from 16 North American homeports and offers year-round sailings to the Caribbean, Mexico, the Bahamas, Europe and Asia. It sails seasonally to North American destinations like Bermuda and Alaska, as well as more exotic destinations like South America and Australia.
Disney always sails to the Bahamas and the Caribbean and seasonally to Alaska. Other itineraries vary by year and can include Mexico, the Mediterranean, Baltic and Canada/New England. The line makes it easy to combine a vacation at Walt Disney World in Florida with a cruise out of Port Canaveral.
Choose Royal Caribbean if you like choice.
If you want your pick of a wide selection of ship sizes and styles, Royal Caribbean is the line for you. It has seven classes of ships, all with varying cabin types, onboard attractions and styles.
Choose Disney Cruise Line if you are more interested in the destination and Disney cruise experience.
While there are some nuanced differences among the four Disney cruise ships, you will get most of the same entertainment opportunities, dining venues and cabin types fleetwide. Most people decide they want to experience Disney's superb attention to detail and entertainment mastery, choose a destination and end up on the ship that goes there -- rather than selecting a ship first.
At their core, both cruise lines offer the same basic categories of stateroom: windowless inside cabins, oceanview rooms with porthole or picture windows, balcony cabins with private verandas and larger suites. Suite residents benefit from a variety of perks, such as priority boarding and tendering and exclusive lounge access. Disney and Royal Caribbean ships all offer connecting cabins for families or travel groups who want to share space without squeezing into a single stateroom.
On select ships, both cruise lines try to enhance the inside cabin experience with virtual views. On Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, Disney offers Magical Portholes -- video screens that look like porthole windows and display real-time views enhanced with animated characters. Royal Caribbean offers virtual balconies in some inside cabins on select ships; these floor-to-ceiling LED screens mimic the sliding-glass doors of veranda cabins and also stream live views from outside the ship.
Choose Disney for truly family-friendly accommodations.
While Royal Caribbean does offer special family cabins -- including staterooms and suites with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms -- all of Disney's cruise ship rooms are family-friendly. Even inside cabins come equipped for families with two bathrooms (one with sink and toilet, the other with tub/shower combo and sink), room-dividing blackout curtains (so little ones can sleep while parents stay awake with the lights on) and extra berths (pulldown bunk beds or sofa beds). There are even Peter Pan murals above the bunk beds for kids to look at as they drift off to sleep.
Or for the most spacious standard cabins.
Perhaps because of the many families who squeeze four people into one cabin, Disney's standard rooms are quite spacious. Inside cabins, depending on ship and specific category, range from 169 to 214 square feet and balcony cabins from 246 to 304 square feet (including the veranda). Compare that to Royal Caribbean, where a basic inside runs 109 to 170 square feet (varies by ship) and standard balcony cabins run 192 to 264 square feet.
Choose Royal Caribbean for the largest selection of suite types and perks.
While Disney ships have three types of suites, a small Royal Caribbean ship could have five, while larger vessels have more than 10 kinds of deluxe accommodations. Junior Suites are essentially giant balcony cabins, while Loft Suites offer two floors, often with multiple bathrooms, bedrooms and balconies. Family Connected Junior Suites combine three cabin types to sleep 10 people, while the Presidential Family Suite can house 14 in a humongous space, including four bedrooms and a balcony with full dining table and hot tub.
And while Disney does offer expanded amenities to suite guests, Royal Caribbean's Royal Suite Class, a tiered perks program available on Oasis- and Quantum-class ships, adds attractive benefits like free gratuities, specialty dining, Royal Genie butlers and alcoholic beverage packages for top-end suites.
Or for quirky cabins.
Especially with Royal Caribbean's larger ships, variety doesn't just come with suites. Four ships in the fleet have studio cabins designed for one traveler (hello, grandma), and Oasis-class ships have window and balcony rooms that look out onto the Boardwalk and Central Park onboard spaces, rather than out to sea. Promenade cabins face an interior eating/drinking/shopping thoroughfare; the one Promenade-facing room whose window is blocked by the Ben and Jerry's cow's behind is decorated bovine-style and residents get free ice cream every day of their cruise. On Symphony of the Seas, you'll find the Ultimate Family Suite, a two-story, two-bed affair with a child-sized slide that leads from the kids' bedroom to the living room, two giant TVs, a LEGO wall and a balcony with a hot tub and a climbing wall.
When it comes to dining, Disney and Royal Caribbean take somewhat different approaches. Both do offer main dining venues and buffets that are included with the fare, plus extra-fee restaurants, alcoholic drink and wine packages, celebrity chef partnerships, room service and kids menus. Both have at least one formal night per cruise. That's where the similarities end.
Disney features a rotational dining system. Passengers are assigned a dining time, tablemates and waiters, and eat with the same people at a different main dining room (there are three) each night, per a pre-set schedule. In addition to the buffet, there's pizza and burgers for free, while one or two specialty restaurants are upscale, adults-only and charge a fee.
Royal Caribbean gives passengers a choice of traditional (same time, same table) or flexible (come anytime, request where you sit) dining options in one large main dining room.
Royal Caribbean ships can have quite a large number of alternative dining venues, from casual hot dog stands to upscale fine dining establishments and an array of restaurants serving ethnic cuisine. Not all extra-fee restaurants are fancy and kids are welcome.
Choose Disney if you don't want to be nickel and dimed on food.
Family-friendly dining options are always included on Disney ships, and if you opt out of paying for food, you'll still get to try multiple restaurants and only miss out on an adults-only date night or two. Disney does not charge for soda (unlike every other mainstream cruise line) or room service (Royal Caribbean charges a fee for all room service orders except Continental breakfasts).
Or if you like your dining venues to be whimsical rather than formal.
Disney does a great job at making dinner fun for young cruisers, who might not have the patience for a multicourse meal. Animator's Palate features different "shows" on the four ships, including conversations with Crush the Turtle from "Finding Nemo" and an animated sequence featuring diners' drawings. Royal Court and Royal Palace take a Disney castle theme, wowing kids obsessed with Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Even Palo, the adults-only venue, allows people to wear jeans, and the upscale Remy, while requiring dressy attire, has an adorable rat motif, inspired by the movie "Ratatouille."
Choose Royal Caribbean if you want to dine when and where you want.
On average, Royal Caribbean ships offer more alternative dining venues than Disney and many that are family-friendly. If you don't want to be pinned down to eating at the same time each night, you can choose the flexible MyTime Dining option and switch off between the main dining room(s), the buffet, specialty venues and room service as you see fit.
Or if you like ethnic food.
Disney's specialty restaurants are upscale French and Italian. Royal Caribbean offers Italian, Brazilian, Mexican, Asian and a steakhouse on varying ships. If you're partial to a certain cuisine, choose a ship that offers your favorite.
Disney and Royal Caribbean both know how to wow passengers when it comes to entertainment. Shows take place in onboard theaters or in venues around the ship, and adults can enjoy plenty of bar and nightclub options. Disney is known for its Pirate Night live-action show on the pool deck followed by a fireworks display. Royal Caribbean offers Broadway shows on select ships, as well as energetic themed parades for kids to participate in.
Choose Royal Caribbean if you love Broadway shows.
Six ships feature Broadway or London West End musicals on every sailing. You can watch "Hairspray" on Symphony of the Seas, "We Will Rock You" on Anthem of the Seas, "Cats" on Oasis of the Seas, "Mamma Mia!" on Allure of the Seas and "Grease" on Independence of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas. And if you love the theater, don't worry; in rotation with the big production are guest acts and song-and-dance shows developed for the cruise line.
Or want to see innovative, cutting-edge performances.
One of the more innovative cruise lines out there, Royal Caribbean doesn't stop with the stage when it comes to live-action shows. Its Oasis-class ships feature the AquaTheater, a water-based stage that showcases high diving and acrobatics, and its Quantum-class ships offer Two70, a high-tech performance venue that combines music, dance, digital imagery and computer technology to wow audiences. Voyager-, Freedom- and Oasis-class ships offer ice-skating shows in an onboard rink, while select Vision- and Radiance-class ships feature evening aerial shows in the atrium.
Choose Disney if you love Disney characters and songs.
High-quality live performances are a mix of animated classics brought to life ("Frozen" on Disney Wonder, "Beauty and the Beast" on Dream and "Aladdin" on Fantasy) and original stories that weave in classic Disney songs and characters. The familiar faces and stories will delight children, and creative costuming and colorful sets will impress adults. Each ship typically runs three different shows per cruise.
Or if you want to watch first-run movies.
All ships have license to screen Walt Disney Studios flicks, including popular movies in land-based theaters now. If your kids want to see the latest Pixar movie, while you want to take in a Star Wars or Avengers film, you can see the latest onboard -- for free. Ships will also run classic Disney movies in the theater or on the poolside jumbotron.
You can't have a family-friendly cruise line without having plenty of outdoor fun. All Disney and Royal Caribbean ships have multiple pools (many with poolside movie screens), including adults-only sun deck areas with pools and hot tubs. Select ships have kids' water play areas, including the H20 Zone and Splasaway Bay on Royal and the AquaLab on Disney. Both lines offer sports areas with attractions like basketball courts and mini-golf courses.
Choose Royal Caribbean if you're an adrenaline junkie.
Royal Caribbean is the king of crazy top-deck attractions. All ships have rock climbing walls, 14 offer the FlowRider surf simulator, the Quantum-class ships have indoor skydiving and a London Eye-esque ride, and the Oasis-class ships have ziplines. As if that weren't enough, the line will add water slides to nearly every ship over the next few years. Disney does offer the AquaDuck and AquaDunk water rides on three of its four ships, but that's the extent of adrenaline-inducing activities.
Choose Disney Cruise Line if your little ones love to get wet.
While Freedom- and Oasis-class ships do have small splash areas for the swim diaper set and water play areas for kids, most Royal Caribbean ships just have standard pools and hot tubs. Disney, on the other hand, goes out of its way to offer all-ages water fun on all four ships. It's got splash zones for toddlers, shallow pools and junior water slides for kids, and regular pools for family fun. Select ships have the AquaLab water play area with water dump buckets and geysers and the aforementioned water rides. Both lines have lifeguards stationed at pools.
Expect standard cruise ship entertainment like bingo, wine tastings and trivia. Disney's daytime events revolve primarily around character meet-and-greets (photo ops, autograph sessions, etc.); Royal Caribbean's parades are always a hit. The main difference is that Royal Caribbean's ships, many of which are much larger than Disney's quartet, house some impressive indoor attractions, while Disney is focused more on events and activities in well-designed -- rather than out-of-the-box -- spaces, though the line does have some pretty spectacular Frozen-, Star Wars- and Marvel-themed kids club spaces. (For self-guided fun, check out the Midship Detective Agency scavenger hunt, a Muppets-themed mystery with clues hidden in "enchanted art" -- digital artwork that comes to life when you approach.)
Choose Royal Caribbean if you want an amusement park or mall on your ship.
Royal Caribbean's biggest ships have some pretty impressive onboard attractions. Twelve ships have indoor ice rinks, with open hours for skating. Quantum-class ships offer the SeaPlex, an indoor amusement park with bumper cars, roller skating, trapeze classes, games and an arcade, while Oasis-, Quantum-, Voyager- and Freedom-class ships feature the Royal Promenade, an indoor mall with restaurants, bars and shops.
Choose Disney for holiday fun.
Disney goes all-out when it comes to the holidays. It has the most robust Halloween offerings, running from September through October with a transforming pumpkin tree, onboard decorations and costume parties. "Very Merrytime" holiday cruises take over from November through December, with holiday-costumed characters, snow in the atrium (courtesy of Anna and Elsa from "Frozen"), carolers, holiday crafts, storytellers and a Winter Wonderland ball.
Kids Clubs and Babysitting
These two cruise lines have enormous kids clubs, including nurseries for little ones ages 6 to 36 months (on all Disney and select Royal Caribbean ships), age-appropriate youth activities and cool hangouts for tweens and teens. You might find a science lab or animation studio, as well as areas for crafts, games and videos. Play areas for the youngest cruisers will be filled with toys, while tweens and teens will have dance floors, gaming stations and space to socialize. Both lines provide day and evening options for when families need to go their separate ways.
Both Disney and Royal Caribbean offer group babysitting in their respective kids clubs at nights, so parents can enjoy a late meal or some time in the bars and clubs. However, after 10 p.m., Royal Caribbean charges an hourly fee per kid, while Disney remains free of charge.
Choose Royal Caribbean if you like separate activities for different ages of kids.
Royal Caribbean's Adventure Ocean divides children into specific age groups: Aquanauts (ages 3 to 5), Explorers (ages 6 to 8), Voyagers (ages 9 to 11), tweens (ages 12 to 14) and teens (ages 15 to 17). They have separate play spaces and programming, and parents cannot lobby for their "advanced" child to participate in programming for older kids. The separation allows kids to get to know the youth staff for their group, and parents to know who is looking after their kids or where they might be at any time.
Choose Disney if the older and younger kids in your travel group want to stay together.
Disney is unlike any other cruise line in that it offers an array of activities in its Oceaneer Club and Lab for kids ages 3 to 12, without divisions. Games, crafts and programming target certain age groups, but no one who might be deemed too old or too young is turned away. The benefit of this is, that young siblings, cousins and friends can always be together, regardless of age. The drawback (for some) is that the system gives kids a lot of freedom and can be overwhelming for preschoolers -- or scary for parents who don't know exactly where their kid might be in the large play area. (Note that the youngest kids cannot sign themselves into or out of the club to prevent anyone from wandering away.)
Or if your kid loves Star Wars or the Marvel universe.
Each Disney ship offers at least one themed play area centered on the Star Wars or Marvel franchises. On Disney Dream, kids can climb into the Millennium Falcon and practice their space flying. Disney Wonder and Disney Magic have the Marvel Super Hero Academy, where kids learn to embrace their inner super hero. Disney Wonder also has a "Frozen"-themed play space with a setting taken straight from the movie. Disney Fantasy has both a Star Wars-themed space and the Marvel Super Hero Academy.
Like with any cruise line, prices on Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line vary by ship, itinerary and season. In general, Disney cruises command premium pricing because the brand is very well known (and beloved) and the line only has four ships. Plus, it includes slightly more amenities in its fares, such as soft drinks and late-night group babysitting, and offers fewer extra-fee attractions (no casino, limited extra-fee dining, etc.)
Royal Caribbean's newest ships are priced much higher than its older ships, but fares can vary greatly and are generally competitive with cruise lines like Princess and Norwegian. Prices include nearly half of the line's alternative restaurants, but passengers are tempted by a variety of extra-fee amenities -- though big-name theater performances and cool activities like onboard surfing and bumper cars are free of charge.
Choose Royal Caribbean if you want a deal.
While last-minute discounts are only offered on short sailings of four nights or less, Royal Caribbean offers so many itineraries, often with multiple ships in the same destination that flexible travelers can often find reasonable deals. Inside cabins can be had for under $100 per person, per night. Look for limited-time promotions offering discounts, onboard credit or reduced deposits.
Choose Disney if you're willing to pay for the Disney experience.
Disney cruises are notoriously pricey, with inside cabins starting at $160 per person, per night (with cruises in destinations like Europe costing as much as $400 a night for an inside cabin). The line very rarely offers any kind of discount or promotional offer. A three-night cruise on Disney could cost the same as a seven-night cruise on Royal Caribbean. But you can only get the true Disney experience on a Disney ship, and many fans believe the quality of vacation warrants the high price tag.