Compared to other cruise lines, the Disney Cruise Line fleet is pretty small. There are only four ships total, although by 2023 they will have an additional three, a pretty big deal. Disney’s first ship was the Magic which set sail on its maiden voyage back in 1998 (gulp, I was an 8th grader then!). Then came the Wonder which launched the following year and was the first Disney cruise ship I ever sailed on. And then there were no other ships until 2011.
When the Dream and Fantasy ships came into service (in 2011 and 2012 respectively), they were the bigger cousins to the Magic and Wonder. But were they necessarily better just because they were bigger? If you’ve never sailed on a Disney cruise ship before or perhaps have only been on one or two of the ships, I’ll explain the differences below. And for the benefit of this post, the “old” refers to the Magic and Wonder, and the new refers to the Dream and Fantasy.
The Old Grand Dames
Best for individuals looking for a (slightly) more intimate cruising experience, unique sailing itineraries, who wish to save some money and don’t care about the ship’s age.
An intimate cruising experience: The Magic and Wonder can both fit a maximum of 2400 passengers (875 staterooms total), compared to the newer ships which can sail with 4,000 passengers. So in short, that’s a huge difference and you truly do feel it in the size of the ships when walking the hallways (I once walked all the way from the forward to the aft of the ship-this is front to back- on the Dream, and the hallways seemed like they would NEVER end).
Many people’s gripes with cruise ships is that there are too many people all crammed together. Well first off, when you’re sailing with 1,600 people less, one can’t really complain in the same way because it’s no different from any “mega” hotel. And even on a smaller ship with fewer decks (the old ships only have 11 versus 14 on the new ships), there’s still plenty of areas where you can go in search of quietude.
Many people (myself included) also like the smaller ships because they feel they can navigate them better. Granted, on all the ships, there are maps and excellent signage just about everywhere you look, but it’s a wonderful thing knowing exactly where you’re going, almost to the point that being on the ship feels like home.
Unique sailing itineraries: So here’s the thing about the older ships, they go to the coolest places-Norway, the Mediterranean, Iceland, Alaska, the Panama Canal. The newer ships, well, their itineraries don’t vary…at all. For the Fantasy and the Dream, it’s the Caribbean and the Bahamas year-round. Not a bad thing but I’ll never be one of those people content with visiting the same places over and over. I’ve talked to many people who had no idea Disney Cruises went to places other than fun and sun locales in the Caribbean, but indeed they do.
Wanting to save money: It’s not always a huge amount, but sometimes you will find lower costs for the same itinerary by sailing on one of the older ships. Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re doing an Alaska or Mediterranean cruise since only the older ships go to those places. Disney cruises are known for being significantly more expensive than some other cruise lines, so sometimes every little bit helps. That $40 you’re saving, well, there’s a Palo brunch for one person taken care of or three pre-dinner cocktails.
Indifference to age: In (some) regards you can notice the difference between the older and newer ships (when you’re comparing an almost 20 year old ship with a five year old one, yes, the “age” will be noticeable. But here’s the thing about cruise ships in general-when a ship is over 15 years old, it’s required to undergo two out of the water inspections within a five year period but this can’t exceed three years. The Magic underwent an extensive dry dock refurbishment back in 2013 and the Wonder had the same done in the fall of 2016. Not to mention, when you’re on a Disney ship, you will see maintenance workers round the clock cleaning, painting, washing, etc.
The New Kids on the “Sea”
Best for individuals wanting the “new” feel and experience, hardcore foodies, and those not looking to spend a fortune on airfare
The new feel & experience: When there’s a 14 year gap between when the first and last Disney ships came out, obviously you’ll notice major differences in terms of design in various areas and features of the ship. Although the Magic was given a special water slide, the AquaDunk, after its dry dock in 2013, the Dream and Fantasy were the first to have the special slide, the AquaDuck, and personally, I prefer the latter.
If you’re looking to book a new Disney cruise or another type of Disney trip while still onboard, the newer ships have an actual room designated for this, whereas on the older ships there’s simply a desk on the 4th deck in the atrium area.
I feel that overall, Disney tried harder for more unique artwork and themes on the newer ships. On the Fantasy and the Dream, both of its adults-only bars/nightclub area are themed (on the former it’s known as Europa and on the latter it’s called The District), versus on the older ships, it’s simply the adults-only zone (I should add that there are fewer nightclubs/bars on the older ships too).
And while I haven’t personally visited it, I’ve read that the Rainforest Room on the newer ships is infinitely better than on the older ones, where it’s not really worth the money). If you’re not familiar, the Rainforest section of the Senses Spa and Salon is home to saunas, hot tubs (not those overcrowded ones in the main area that are filled with individuals being obnoxious, like eating and drinking while in said hot tub even though you’re not supposed to), steam baths, and more secluded, intimate areas of the spa. To utilize this space you simply purchase a “rainforest room pass” that is good for the length of your cruise; you can come and go as many times as you’d like. The next time I sail on one of the newer ships I would definitely like to do this.
Hardcore foodies: While all four ships feature Palo, the adults-only Northern Italian restaurant, only the newer ships have Remy, the adults-only French restaurant. Although I like Palo very much, nothing compares to the magnifique dining experience you’ll get at Remy (for my complete write-up on dinner at Remy, click here). It costs more than Palo and like everything in life, price is a very good indicator that you’ll be receiving higher quality and you truly do. I’ve only ever done dinner at Remy, but they also offer brunch and a dessert experience (yes, the equivalent of being let loose in a French patisserie) but am most anxious to try Remy’s brunch.
Saving on airfare: I mention this since the newer ships ONLY sail from Port Canaveral, Florida, about an hour from Orlando. Now granted, I know this isn’t always the case but I think for most people, you can probably score a good flight deal into Orlando’s airport no matter where you’re coming from. Cruises sailing from Vancouver and especially Europe, well, they’re naturally going to cost significantly more.
And if you’re lucky enough to live within (easy) driving distance of Port Canaveral, then you win all the more.
The biggest takeaway is that a Disney cruise is almost always a good time, so at the end of the day the sailing vessel you’re on shouldn’t matter. However, if you have specific criteria in mind, then yes, you’ll need to pick either an “old” ship or a “new” one. I think both have their pluses and minuses. I’ve now been fortunate enough to sail on all four ships, and as I’ve spent the most time on the older ships (20 nights) versus 13 nights on the newer ones, I do prefer the former, but that very well might change if I ever did more sailings on the newer ones. However, that might be tough since I would love to do the Panama Canal or Transatlantic cruises and both of them are on the older ships.
Which do you prefer? The old or the new ships?
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