I’m a Disney Cruise Line fan. FANATIC. It’s not all Mickey Mouse in your face (although there is plenty of characters and events) but gives you a deluxe vacation with the same magic that only Disney knows how to make.
NCL vs DCL
However, as my business grows in planning and booking family vacations, I had to realize not everyone can afford to sail Disney or it may not be the right fit for every family and I needed to check out some other options. We decided to take Norwegian Cruise Lines for a spin as they were offering a promotion we could not pass up. Here is what I think you NEED to know about the differences and if cruising NCL could be a valid option for you!
1. Disney sends a cute booklet with luggage tags for your reservation. NCL does not. NCL you print your own tags from home.
2. Online check-in and reservations. The check-in is about the same ease but reservations on NCL for dining and shows is a tad confusing. NCL prides itself in “freestyle cruising” meaning you can book dining and shows last minute or leisurely show up. I found that I actually prefer to know where we planned to eat and what nights we would see shows so that I could make an itinerary. Not everyone will agree.
I give them a tie
1. We arrived in the chaos of the Miami port. Now, I’ve only ever sailed Disney from Port Canaveral, so Miami was SHOCKING! I can’t dock points from NCL for this, but Miami should step up their game.
2. We parked at the port, again I can’t blame NCL but the walk was much farther than the lot at Port Canaveral.
3. The terminal. We walked into the terminal and had a short line. We proceeded to do the normal check-in just like DCL. It was sufficiently fast, we were given a number to board then we headed into a “holding area.” We were greeted by a photographer who took our picture but unlike Disney, NCL does not allow personal photographs to be taken behind their cameraman. This area was large, with restrooms and vending machines. NCL had an assortment of drinks on tables for guests while they waited. AND waited we did. It was loud and not enough seats for all those waiting. We also were travelling with a family that was in a different waiting area, so we headed there to say hi for a bit and then back to our “side.” Numbers were called and it was incredibly loud and we had a hard time hearing.
4. We boarded the ship on an outdoor gangway compared to Disney’s in Port Canaveral. We were met with balloons tied around the deck, which was fun! We then headed into the ship’s casino. Yep. The smokey casino. No one met us, told us where we were or where to go or what to do. DCL has a personal greeter once you board into the main deck.
Disney wins hands down
1. We boarded and headed straight to lunch. I try to avoid pool-side buffets on embark day because it’s usually packed and crazy! On Disney the only other option is another buffet but much quieter and a server brings you drinks. On our Norwegian cruise, we opted for the sit down menu restaurant which had amazing choices (like blackened Mahi sandwich). NCL serves Pepsi, so I grabbed a champagne instead.
2. Open dining. NCL has SO SO many choices to dine! Most are complimentary and some have fees or are a la carte. During the week we ate at all 3 main dining rooms (same menus as each other, changing slightly each night) as well as the Irish Bar and Grill (opened the latest of any venue), the Noodle Bar which serves Dim Sum and Asian noodle dishes and the buffet near the pool. We also paid to eat at the American Steak house (my husband’s prime rib was really not much better than the complimentary one) and the sushi restaurant which was AMAZING!! Disney has rotational dining, you keep the same server and you are assigned a restaurant each night, going back to the same ones on longer cruises. You get to know your server personally and it can be an amazing experience if you have an amazing wait staff. Both cruise lines allow you to order how ever many dishes you would like for no additional fares.
3. Quality of food is about the same. I say that because I am not a foodie. I like the numerous options that NCL has but Disney has presentation and dishes down to perfection. NCL still has great fish dishes, steaks and desserts but what Disney does offer is higher quality. (I think you really get what you pay for here). Although quality over quantity is key, doing a 7 night cruise I’m glad we had so many more options than what Disney offers.
4. Sodas aren’t free. Even if you purchase the NCL soda package, you have to wait in line at the bars to get your cup filled. I like that Disney is free and easy to access. The plus to NCL is that they do have free flavored waters available throughout the day.
I would say dining is a tie
1. We had an oceanview room that slept 5. DCL offers cabins for 5 and they are: Queen, twin bunks and a murphy pull out twin. NCL had 2 twins pushed together to make a queen/king and a full sized bottom and twin top bunk. So 2 children had to sleep together. It wasn’t ideal but it worked.
2. Our cabin was trendy, modern in decorations and I really liked the feel. It seemed like we had much more storage than Disney since we had an extra single closest on top of the double closet. Plus you can store under the full sized couch pull out.
3. The bathrooms aren’t split like Disney, and the shower has a clear glass door. This can be awkward for some families. However, I loved the double sink and storage in the bathroom. The garbage can was tiny and inside of one of the cabinet doors, I didn’t care for that but not enough to dock any points from NCL. Towels were replaced when left on the ground.
4. NCL uses the same card activator for room electricity, so we used our hotel key card from the night before the cruise. They also have a VERY handy light/alert system that you can switch to alert the room steward if you want the cabin to be cleaned or if you want privacy. I LOVE THIS! (Just don’t forget to turn off the privacy switch or your cabin won’t get cleaned…oops!)
5. You can’t currently sleep 5 in a balcony, which you can on Disney. However, NCL does have a studio option for single travelers which is a first in the industry!
6. The TV channels and movies leave something to be desired. We really like hanging in the cabin before dinner watching Disney channel etc. There is just SO very few options on NCL, I guess it’s a good reason to get out to some fresh air. This may be a hindrance for families travelling with nappers or early sleepers.
7. Cabin size seemed about the same not too noticeable of a difference.
I would say that cabins is a tie
1. The Norwegian ship I sailed on had 5 slides, a kid’s pool, an adult pool, a kid’s splash area, and an adult-only area with waterfalls, loungers and a bar. The ship also had a huge obstacle course ending with a zip-line, a rock climbing wall, trampoline and 9 holes of putt-putt. There was an arcade, ping ping tables and a basketball court. Disney’s ship don’t have ALL of this but I wouldn’t say you’d ever run out of things to do on Disney. Disney has 1st run movies in their theaters, mid-ship detective, the Aqua-duck, a splash area, kid’s and adult pool, Mickey slide, movies playing AT THE POOL and more. The one thing I would dock NCL on is that you have to “check out” towels. It’s a pain. BUT I think NCL’s kid’s area was quieter than Disney although there are not many good spots to sit and watch your kid’s play/swim.
2. Nightly shows Disney has again. We are real suckers for Disney-themed Broadway and I like that it’s really part of your itinerary. You know where to go and what time. On NCL they had a salsa dancing show (my kids would have hated it), an a Capella group (again, my kids would have thought it was a bore), and a couple of comedy nights (a tad too much for my kids). So we dropped the kids off at the clubs from 7-10:30 every night and did the shows on our own.
3. The bar scene can be fun! NCL has SO many options. And I think I tried them all but the ice bar (that has a $20 fee and you get 2 drinks with that fee). We loved a bar called Headliners that had either comedy or Howl at the Moon dueling pianos.
It’s a tough call but I give them a tie
1. The hours on NCL don’t really compare to DCL. If you want to keep your kids late on NCL (past 10:30pm) you gotta pay. BUT we were exhausted most nights and ready for bed anyway.
2. The space on NCL just PALES in comparison, I can’t even put it in writing. Disney knows kids, let’s just say that.
3. The activities they had planned seemed to suffice for my kids. We spent a TON less time in the clubs on NCL than we normally do on DCL but my kids left happy after their 3.5 hours nightly. The pros of DCL is also a con depending on how you look at it. On DCL we are constantly in and out of the clubs because they offer SO many amazing classes. We see the kids less and we do a lot of travelling back and forth. So if you want more family time, maybe NCL’s clubs are a good fit!
Just gotta give Disney this one
1. No one can complain about Disney service, so this is a clear winner but NCL did hold their own. Faces were smiling and pleasant, seemingly eager to help just not as magical as Disney.
2. The ship looks immaculate. Fresh paint and carpets. Again, pretty even.
3. NCL’s Guest Services desk is right next to a bar and live entertainment area. I thought it was an odd location and found myself needing to scream over the counter to converse with them.
Disney wins, but NCL scores high
All in all I recommend NCL! I would sail them again in a heart beat and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I did love it.
I think older kids may like NCL better and obviously most couples without kids may find NCL is more their style.
Total score gives DCL a win but it was a close, close race!
Need some tips on what to pack? Here are the top 5 things you need to pack for your cruise!