I took a back to back cruise on the Disney Dream during the last week of February 2020. Writing now in September 2020, it’s interesting to realize I took one of the last cruises before everything started shutting down in March.
Travel is an important activity for me, so I do prioritize it in my spending and will continue to do so. This forced hiatus, however, is causing me to rethink exactly how I want to travel in the future. So we’ll see how that shapes up. In the meantime, I thought I would share this experience from the “before times.”
While this post isn’t intended to be a traditional trip report, I will provide a few highlights. Mostly I plan to go over things that are specific to a back-to-back sailing as compared to a tradition schedule.
What is a Back to Back Cruise and Why Take One?
A back to back cruise is one where you take one cruise then take the next one on the same ship. Most will finish one sailing in the morning and then leave later that same day on another one. This practice exists largely because the cruise companies need to maximize the use of their very expensive ships.
So when you book two or more cruises in a row on the same ship, you’re doing a back to back.
I never even knew this was a thing until about 18 months ago on a prior cruise. I was chatting with some other passengers who had just booked one, and I was genuinely intrigued by the idea. So why did I decide to try this out? Several reasons:
For the week I was looking at, it actually cost less in total to do a 3-day + 4-day than a single 7-day cruise. The difference wasn’t huge – maybe a few hundred dollars – but still not insignificant.
With Disney’s frequent cruiser program, Castaway Club, status is based on the number of eligible sailings. With a back to back, I would get 2 credits toward the next level.
This might seem trivial, but higher status gets you earlier booking windows when the new schedules open. I’d love to get on an early sailing when Disney’s new ship, the Wish, comes online. It’s going to be in high demand – especially now that it looks like it will be delayed until at least 2022 – so those extra credits improve my chances of getting onboard.
Different cruise lines have different ways they calculate status. So this aspect might not be a factor for you.
Interest in the Process
I was honestly just interested in how the whole process worked. I found a little information out there on how Disney handles things, but not a lot of details. And I’m a real logistics junkie!
Could I stay on the ship? What happens to my luggage if I have to change staterooms? How many people really do this? Lots of questions 🙂
Plus, I did know I would have the opportunity to photograph the ship while almost completely empty.
Extra Day at Castaway Cay
An extra bonus that I hadn’t really thought of initially is that I would get 2 days at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. Each leg of the back-to-back had a port day there, so I had 2 in a week.
Disney has only a few cruises each year that have 2 stops at the island built into the itinerary. So it’s a rare experience to get multiple on one vacation.
Costs & Itinerary on Disney
Breakdown of Fares
As I mentioned above, the cost was a bit less than if I had done a straight up 7-day cruise the same week (which would have been on the Disney Fantasy, BTW). Disney cruises are on the pricey side for their category to begin with, so I was pleased I could shave off a few hundred dollars total. Also keep in mind that I was paying the single supplement.
Here’s the breakdown for my balcony cabin, midship deck 8:
- 3-Day: $1,764.03
- 4-Day: $2,310.63
- Total: $4,074.66
I can’t find my notes from when I was researching my options as to the exact cost of the 7-day, but I know the difference was in the $200-300 range. So I saved about 5%-7% by choosing the back-to-back option.
The above numbers do not include ground transfers (which I added) or insurance (which I did not). I have an umbrella travel insurance policy, so in the past I’ve rarely purchased the cruise line’s option. That will probably change in the future given what’s gone on in the world this year.
The itinerary for each leg was pretty standard. Other than the stops at Castaway Cay, I wasn’t focused on the ports as I’ve visited Nassau multiple times before.
- Depart Port Canaveral
- Nassau, Bahamas
- Castaway Cay
- Return to Port Canaveral
- Depart Port Canaveral
- Nassau, Bahamas
- Castaway Cay
- Sea Day
- Return to Port Canaveral
The Dream basically repeats this pattern week after week when it’s sailing, so you have a lot of flexibility in how long of a vacation you put together if you want to try this. I met a family that was doing a back to back to back (i.e., 3 in a row). And this wasn’t the first time they had taken this approach.
Advantages & Disadvantages
So what are the pluses and minuses to doing a cruise like this?
I’ve talked about most of the advantages already – cost (at least in this case), extra credit toward status, 2 stops at Castaway Cay. But I also found things to really enjoy about the process on the day switching between cruises, what I’m calling the crossover day (details to follow).
It was a genuinely relaxing experience for me. Empty cruise terminal. Use of a private VIP seating area before re-boarding. Free specialty drink at one of the onboard coffee shops. It was fun to explore an almost empty ship and then listen to the boardings. Disney has this thing where they announce each group as they step onto the ship with crew standing around to applaud. A bit cheesy but also a neat touch.
Of course, there are things to be aware of and that might make this the wrong option for some travelers.
Because you have to get off the ship and then re-board, you do lose part of crossover day. You get back on well before any other passengers, but you’re still off the ship for several hours at least. And very little is open when you initially get back on board.
If you can’t book the same cabin on each leg, there’s a certain level of hassle because you need to repack your bags the last night of the first cruise. The crew will, however, move your luggage to your new stateroom. I was lucky and was able to book the same room for each leg.
Unless you arrange a tour or similar for the crossover day, I would not recommend doing this with younger kids (toddler, elementary age). There’s not a lot for them to do otherwise while waiting to get back onboard. One family I met was there with their son, but he was about middle school age and was home schooled (so I think more used to occupying himself). Only one other party had a child, and she was an infant who mostly napped LOL. I chose to hang around the cruise terminal, reading and taking pictures.
Start of the Vacation
Since I live in the Philadelphia area, I obviously have to travel regardless of where I sail from. And this usually means flying. This trip was no different since the sailing was out of Port Canaveral.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about my flight – Philadelphia to Orlando is a little over 2 hours in the air. But I was looking through my photos from the trip, and it’s weird to remember just how packed the airport parking was! I had to really hunt to find a spot and wound up a terminal away from where I wanted to be.
I’m an advocate of arriving the night before your cruise if your travel includes a flight. Especially in the middle of winter! There’s just too many variables to risk missing the cruise. But this does mean a hotel night.
Hotel & Transport
While usually not a bargain option, the Hyatt Regency in the Orlando Airport is by far the most convenient choice when taking a Disney cruise out of Port Canaveral. So I simply include the cost in my vacation budget. It’s literally in the airport concourse, sitting over the TSA security checkpoint for terminals 2 and 4. So you don’t even have to leave the building to enter it.
The picture below was taken from my room late in the evening. You can see the entrance to the hotel on the right (escalator – they also have an elevator). The rooms actually go all the way around in a big rectangle with the concourse below like a courtyard. The stanchions in the lower right corner are for the airport security lines.
In the morning, I had a leisurely breakfast in the hotel restaurant. There’s a great view for plane spotting!
I then grabbed my luggage and walked downstairs to the Disney transportation area on Level 1 B-Side. I checked in for the bus, handed over my luggage – would not see it again until it showed up at my cabin in the afternoon – and was on my way.
A super relaxing way to start my vacation!
A comment about convenience vs. cost: I always use Disney transportation to the port which is an added expense – $39 each way per person in February 2020. If you have a large party, it might work out better to get a less-expensive hotel closer to the port and arrange some other transportation from the airport. For one or two people it’s often a wash.
Cruise 1: 3-Day to Nassau & Castaway Cay
A Relaxing First Half
The first part of my trip was notable mostly because the seas were quite rough the first night. Interestingly, I slept really well and woke to much calmer seas as we approached Nassau.
In what I think was a harbinger of things to come, the excursion I had booked for Nassau (chocolate factory!) was cancelled by the tour operator. Too few people had signed up. And I was starting to realize the ship was definitely not full the way Disney cruises usually are.
And, at Castaway Cay, my parasailing was cancelled due to high winds. This is has become something of a running joke among my friends and family: I’ve been booking parasailing every cruise since 2015 and it has been cancelled literally every time. Some day I will get to try it!
Preparing for the Back to Back Process
The dining manager checked with me at dinner the last night to see if I wanted to keep my same seating and serving team on the next leg. Disney has a distinctive rotational dining system where you move to a different dining room each night with your servers following you. They were a great group, so I asked to keep it all the same.
I had a letter in my cabin that evening detailing what would happen the next day.
Perhaps the biggest question you might have is: Are you required to leave the ship? You might have inferred this from my earlier comments, but, yes. U.S. Customs requires all passengers to disembark.
But those of use doing a Back to Back had some special procedures and considerations.
- I had to disembark no later than 9:15am and was reminded to bring my proof of citizenship. This time is a little later than I was normally assigned to leave the ship.
- My luggage could remain onboard. If I were changing cabins I would have had to have my luggage repacked by 8:00am for the crew to move. In my case, I didn’t have to do anything but carry a small day bag to get me through the next few hours.
- They included a special boarding card (collected later) that gave me priority access during the re-boarding process. I was also given copies of the usual boarding paperwork.
- After clearing Customs, I could come back (through Security) to the main hall of the terminal to check in for my next cruise. This didn’t work out quite how they implied in terms of timing, but I’ll discuss that below.
- Once back on board all normal services would be suspended until 11:20am, and there would likely be maintenance work going on. But I would be able to get complimentary drinks and pastries at either of the 2 coffee shops (Cove Café and Vista Café).
The next day we were back in Port Canaveral, and it was time to disembark.
Off & On
So how did things actually happen once we were back at Port Canaveral?
The morning felt more leisurely than usual on disembarkation day. I enjoyed my breakfast in Animator’s Palate and chatted with my Assistant Server a bit before heading off the ship. The line for Customs & Immigration was still a bit long, but I was through by 9:00am.
So, based on the wording of the letter from the previous day, I thought I would be able to just turn the corner and come right back into the cruise terminal. Turns out that was not the case. Security wasn’t open yet, and I had to wait. I got the impression they had to wait for verification all passengers were off the ship and U.S. Customs gave the OK.
Fortunately, it was a gorgeous day there on the coast of Florida. I found a comfy bench, did some people watching, and read. A cast member did check in with me to make sure I wasn’t waiting for transportation or anything like that, which I appreciated.
After about 45 minutes, I became aware of a couple heading toward Security, and it was clear they were getting in. So I joined them and was back in the terminal.
An Empty Cruise Terminal
Upstairs on the 2nd floor, the check in hall was eerily quiet. Usually it’s a bit of a madhouse with people checking in, getting pictures with characters, checking out the giant model of the Fantasy, and just generally milling about.
Instead there were a few cast members and about 4 other passengers.
They had a couple of stations open, and I was checked in within a few minutes. Staff directed us to wait in an enclosed area at the far end of the terminal. I didn’t think to get a photo of it specifically, but you can see the frosted glass walls just to the right of the big yellow and black Mickey boarding entrance.
It wasn’t particularly fancy – just a selection of comfy chairs and sofas. But it was quiet and a refuge from the growing noise that could be heard on the other side of the wall in the terminal. And had this amazing view.
When I checked in, the cast member said the wait would be about an hour. It wound up being less. By the time we were all gathered up to board, there were about 15 total doing a back to back on this cruise.
We were brought on board through a door that was actually inside the private seating area. Which explains why I was never aware of this process! Anyone in the rest of the cruise terminal can’t even see what’s happening. The staff member collected our precious yellow boarding cards as we went through the door.
And I was back on board!
Back On Board
I had been looking forward to being able to explore and photograph the empty ship and had a fun time doing so for the next half hour or so. I went up to the pool deck which was empty of all but a few maintenance staff but was not quiet: they were doing some sort of cleaning that involved a giant, noisy vacuum.
The interiors, on the other hand, were oddly quiet with just a few housekeeping staff vacuuming the hallways.
Disney is big on its soundtrack. Normally, there’s music playing everywhere but in the staterooms. But it was not playing before the main boarding time. When it suddenly came on at 11:10am I knew other passengers would soon be arriving.
After my wander, I settled in at the Vista Café on Deck 4 and enjoyed my complimentary cappuccino and a pastry.
That’s where I met the family doing 3 cruises in a row. They were specifically trying to get their status to Platinum before bookings for the Wish opened. The husband worked remote (before all of us did), and the wife home schooled their son. So they didn’t even consider the time a full vacation. Nice arrangement! All in all, a very interesting conversation.
Regular boarding started at 11:20am, and cruise #2 was underway.
Cruise 2: 4-Day to Nassau & Castaway Cay
So what really became clear on this part of my vacation was the dampening effect the spreading pandemic was having on travel already. This part of my cruise started February 24, 2020, only a matter of days and weeks before the lockdowns started in much of the world.
After being assigned a shared table on the first cruise (common for solo cruisers), I had a table to myself on the second on. And there were quite a few empty tables in the dining room.
I was chatting with the Head Server for my section, and he told me that the sailing was short about 300 passengers of being sold out. This translates to their being at about 90% capacity which was unusual for a Disney cruise to that point based on my past experience. And the reduced headcount was noticeable everywhere I went on the ship.
I never had a problem getting a lounger on the pool deck or a spot in the hot tub. Decent seats were easy to find in the shows. Attendance at a lot of the on board activities was noticeably sparse. How much of this was because people were already trying to avoid crowds and how much due directly to lower headcount it’s hard to say. But a sign of things to come.
So that’s my experience with Disney’s procedures for back to back cruises.
Would I do again? Absolutely. Depending on how things fall out in the coming months with a potential vaccine, I might even do another early in 2021 if the price is right. It was sort of fun and a different way to do a cruise vacation.