The quick summary
If you can depart from Seattle instead of Vancouver, pick that option. Leaving from Vancouver means going through U.S. and Canadian customs multiple times, and unfortunately they aren’t equipped to handle the crowds. Better yet, stick to the newer Disney ships sailing to the Caribbean.
Planning a Disney Alaska cruise
Vancouver is a beautiful city. It’s very easy to navigate for American visitors, and it has both the waterfront and mountains for some amazing scenery. It’s also very hilly like San Francisco, so be prepared to get a workout if you do a lot of walking.
After our last Disney Caribbean cruise on the Fantasy, we were fans of Disney Cruise Line. Alaska was a destination on the bucket list for the grandparents, so we booked a 7-night Alaskan cruise on the Disney Wonder.
We chose a concierge suite, and I spoke to the shoreside concierge team many times. They gave us tips on excursions and Palo, but the first breakdown by Disney was their lack of knowledge on the boarding process in Vancouver.
I specifically asked the concierge about boarding time, because on our previous cruise, we had timed our arrival at Port Canaveral to get onto the ship early and avoid the crowds from the buses. The concierge assured us that we could board early with no problems. Unfortunately, they either weren’t aware or forgot to explain to us that the Vancouver port would be a nightmare.
Since I couldn’t find any information about this online previously, I wanted to post some detailed notes to help any future travelers.
Vancouver boarding and customs
When we arrived at Canada Place and Port Metro Vancouver, the longshoremen took our luggage but then we found ourselves in a long confusing line. There were signs above that said “Norwegian baggage dropoff”. I asked a man at the front about the Disney line and any concierge lines, but he had no idea what concierge meant since he didn’t work for Disney, he was merely port security. As I later wrote to Karl Holz, President of Disney Cruise Line, this was an opportunity for Disney to shine. If someone from Disney could greet guests in the port terminal, waving a big white Mickey glove, they could guide people to the lines, answer questions, and most importantly, set the proper expectations.
I think expectations are key here. Maybe it’s even more critical for past Disney cruise guests like us who traveled on the Disney Fantasy and smoothly boarded from Port Canaveral straight to the buffet on ship. We told family in our group to expect the same, and from the beginning the shoreside concierge team should have warned us about customs. Once we got through the Canadian security line, we turned the corner only to see an even bigger line for U.S. customs. Again, if someone from Disney could have warned us or at least been there to tell us what was going on, we could have adjusted our expectations. I understand that Disney cannot control U.S. customs, but everything that was Disney was missing from the boarding process. The customs agents were yelling out for help from other agents while shuffling people into hundreds of seats to give themselves more time. We spent nearly two hours in line with a toddler, surrounded by over 2,000 other passengers (most of which were families with children as well). When we finally got through customs, I tried to complain to the check-in agent, assuming he worked for Disney. He referred me to the manager, who told me that they are a third party company, none of them work directly for Disney, so there’s no use complaining to them and I would just have to wait until I boarded the ship.
A true Disney fan and employee could have listened to our complaints right away and shown compassion. Instead, the check-in company brushed us off, and when we started passing by the crew with the big white Mickey gloves, I said they should improve customs and one of them made a snide remark, “Must be Americans”. We skipped the boarding photograph out of anger and no one asked us what was wrong. A good Disney employee could have saved the brand at any step along the way, from setting the right expectations in the many calls with the shoreside concierge, to greeting us in the port terminal and explaining that we would be going through Canadian security because the port terminal is like a busy airport, then going through U.S. customs because we’re doing it in Vancouver rather than Skagway for the entry into Alaska. A Disney manager could have listened to our complaints at the check-in counter instead of having a third party manager who doesn’t show the magic of “problem resolution” in the Disney way.
Disney Wonder sailing to Alaska
I should probably start with some of the good things. The Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp and Salmon Bake excursion was great, much better than the Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest. I know whale watching is the thing to do in Alaska, but spending 5 hours to see the back of a few whales and maybe a tail just didn’t compare to the skill and talent of the performers in the Liarsville excursion.
Dinner at Palo was great. The stage shows were entertaining as we knew they would be. There were tons of Disney characters all over the ship. This might be because the ship is smaller than the Fantasy, so they make up for some of it with more characters. I’ll go into specific differences between the Wonder and Fantasy later on.
Our concierge, Rodrigo, was really the one who saved the day for us. He listened to our complaints about boarding, and went out of his way for the next week giving us excellent service and more importantly, talking about his passion for Disney that eventually helped counter our bad first impression of the Wonder. Rodrigo is a rock star for Disney.
Now here’s a list of some bad things:
- We had a welcome gift in our suite, but it had the wrong names on it. There was also a phone message, again for the wrong guests.
- The Bose audio system had no power. Rodrigo realized that the power cable must have been disconnected when they slid out the tray perhaps for cleaning.
- The clock in the master bedroom was set to the wrong time. I had to ask the stateroom attendant to set it.
- There was a drawer in the second bedroom that was tilted and couldn’t close. Our stateroom attendant fixed this.
- One of the wave phones was not charging. Rodrigo opened the battery compartment to fix it.
- The couch was old and worn. That’s understandable given the age of the ship, but we had high hopes for a concierge suite.
- There were bugs in the light fixture in the master bedroom. We never reported this issue.
- There was a random pair of underwear and socks that showed up on a chair in the master bedroom one night. Our guess is that when they cleaned the carpet they moved furniture and found it behind something and put in on the chair thinking it was ours, but it wasn’t.
- The servers at dinner seemed less experienced. They didn’t know what was in the specialty drinks and had to ask someone else. On the Fantasy, the servers remembered our preferences quickly and had it ready each night after that. On the Wonder, we had to ask for Tabasco sauce almost every night, and a small spoon for our child. We’ve heard that when the Dream and Fantasy were launched, a lot of the better employees were transferred to the newer ships.
- We only saw the head server a few times at our table. On the Fantasy, the head server made extra effort to get avocados for our child.
- For the first few days of sailing, it was cold and the crew looked unhappy. Crew members in the hallways didn’t always look up or say hello. When I got in line at the buffet, the crew member handed me a tray without looking up or saying a word.
Disney Wonder vs. Fantasy
I knew the Disney Wonder was an older ship, but I was surprised how many things really stood out when comparing the difference. The Fantasy and Dream are just completely different ships. The Magic is now being renovated, so once that’s done I would consider any of the Disney cruise ships EXCEPT for the Wonder (until that is renovated which could happen in a few more years).
Animator’s Palate on the Fantasy is amazing. Anyone who’s seen the animation show knows what I’m talking about. That feature isn’t even available in the Disney parks. On the Wonder, the Animator’s Palate is not much different than any of the other dining rooms. They make up for it with more character appearances, but it doesn’t measure up to the Fantasy.
The elevators and stairways are smaller on the Wonder. This was a good improvement on the Fantasy, where they took into account strollers and families.
As I mentioned, the servers and staff on the Wonder seemed less experienced than on the Fantasy. That’s a subjective opinion, but it was my impression.
The Alaskan weather is cold. That doesn’t bother everyone, but there were very few passengers out on the deck. You had to wear a coat to walk on deck. The swimming pools were virtually empty except for a few kids. Even if the weather was warmer, there’s nothing to compare to the water slide on the Fantasy, which surprised me because it was a lot of fun even for adults.
The Wonder is just a smaller ship overall, so there aren’t as many decks, and you can explore the whole ship easily in less than a week. The Fantasy just had more to do on the ship and more to see.
The Disney Wonder is also an older ship, and it shows in the staterooms. The furniture is worn, and things look older. The Fantasy is very new (not even a year old when we sailed on it).
The buffet on the Wonder doesn’t run continuously like it does on the Fantasy, so you have to get there when it’s open.
Overall, I can’t recommend any Alaskan cruise from the Port of Vancouver. There is supposedly a U.S. Direct program that was never mentioned to us, but it might only make sense if you live in California.
Thanks to Rodrigo, we’re still Disney fans, and we still like to cruise. But if you are choosing between the Disney Fantasy sailing to the Caribbean or the Disney Wonder to Alaska, I would strongly suggest you choose the Fantasy. If you really want to see Alaska, I would wait until they sail out of Seattle. The great thing about being in Alaska is that your cell phone works just like in the states, so you can make calls, browse the web, and download emails on your phone. If you depart from Seattle, most likely you won’t need to deal with entering Canada, leaving Canada, entering the U.S., leaving the U.S. to enter Canada for a few hours to leave Canada again on the final disembarkation day.
In the end, you have to make the most of any trip, so hopefully the good experiences will last in your memories and the bad things will fade. Oh, one last thing, the crew member leading Wake Up with Disney Junior didn’t know the moves to “Roll Up the Map” so here you go!