by: Passholder Diva
If you are a planner like me, then one of the things you do before you cruise is to decide what you are going to do in each port of call. This may not be a big deal on shorter cruises where you stop in only one place and Castaway Cay, but for longer, more port-intensive itineraries, dealing with logistics can be time (and money!) intensive. Most people will have to decide between three different types of shore excursions:
1.Disney Cruise Line Port Adventures – this is the easiest option: when your booking window opens up, you simply go online and choose from the available excursions. You can preview port adventures ahead of time on the DCL website, but for more unusual itineraries, they may only be loaded a few weeks (or days!) in advance. If the itinerary is not completely new, you can often go online and find descriptions of past Port Adventures the cruise ship offered.
Disney divides up the Port Adventures by geographic location; you can drill down further and specify port of call, experience type, activity level, accessibility and price range. DCL does a fairly good job of providing a variety of excursions. There are always going to be a few adult-only departures as well as some with mild to moderate activity levels.
There are lots of advantages to going with a Disney Port Adventure: it’s a known entity (although they do contract with outside companies to do most of the tours), it’s easy to arrange, and the ship will never leave a Port Adventure group behind, even if their tour runs late.
The downside, and it’s a big one, is that the tours can be quite expensive. A day’s sightseeing in St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, will run an adult $251. A steam train trip in Skagway, Alaska is $235 for adults and $119 for children ages 3-9. The tours are also large affairs. On a Western Caribbean cruise at some Mayan ruins near Costa Maya, we saw the Disney tour guides with groups so massive they literally herded them by blowing on conch shells.
Best for: Those traveling alone; new cruisers; anyone who is overly nervous about making it back to the ship on time; those looking for a very unique or Disney-themed excursion (for example, for $401 you can attend a royal ball with Catherine the Great at her palace in St. Petersburg. Or meet Merida at the castle in Edinburgh, Scotland for $305 for adults, $223 for children).
2.Private Tour Companies – Ports inevitably have a local tourism industry that has developed to cater to the incoming cruise ships. A search on Cruise Critic or Trip Advisor will usually yield a wide variety of choices for just about every port in the world.
Going with a private tour company combines the ease of having someone else do most of the work with a lower price tag than the ship’s tours. With a little bit of research on your part (read lots of reviews on several different sites if possible!), you can find a reputable and affordable local tour guide.
When my family traveled on the Baltic cruise in 2015, we found a highly-recommended local travel operator in St. Petersburg. Our family of four was able to go on a private tour with our own driver and guide and design our own itinerary for the same price as the above-mentioned Disney Port Adventure. The Disney tour was shorter, saw fewer sights, and was a large bus-type tour.
On a Greek Isles tour, we traveled with another family and split the cost of a private guide/driver in Athens. Again, it was a fraction of the price of the ship’s excursion, and our local expert was able to beat the crowds up to the Acropolis and take us to many more sights than the ship tour would have done. She also made sure to tailor her narrative to our daughters; this is an important bit of personalization that you can get on a small tour.
We haven’t always gone with totally private guided tours: in the Cayman Islands, we took a highly-rated tour on a catamaran out to Stingray Bay. There were just two other families on board, and everyone had a blast. And our tour to the ruins in Costa Maya included a couple from our ship. But for the most part, except for one of the “Big Red Bus” type tours, private tour company excursions are almost always smaller and more intimate than DCL’s Port Adventures.
Best for: those who want to save some money; those who want more personalized itineraries; larger groups.
3.DIY Port Adventure – I have to admit it, even though we have done this type of port excursion quite a bit (in fact, we ended up having to do it in most ports on our Iceland/Norway/Scotland cruise last summer), it’s actually my least favorite way to see a location. On a cruise, I like to relax and not have to do a ton of research and reading. I like to soak up the culture via osmosis, not by having to read aloud out of a guidebook.
However, there have been several times when we really just had no choice in the matter: the Disney Port Adventures we were interested in were too expensive for our family of four or there simply *was* no Port Adventure that we were interested in. Some of the smaller towns that we docked at in Norway didn’t have many local tour operators (I’m looking at you Kristiansand!). So we were forced to piece together a tour of our own.
In this internet age, it’s pretty simple to find transportation options. Rental car companies have branches all over the world. In Oslo, we were able to get ferry information from the tourist information bureau. If you’re not sure of where to start when it comes to putting together your own DIY excursion, you can always get inspiration from Disney’s Port Adventure listings.
For example, in Tallinn, Estonia, there was a DCL excursion that was a Marzipan Workshop that included a walking tour of the town and a stop at a chocolate shop where kids could model (and eat!) their own marzipan figurines. The Disney tour cost $125 for adults and $88 for children. After a brief search on the internet, I determined there was a free walking tour of Tallinn (most towns have one – just search “free tour” and the town you’ll be visiting.) I also discovered that there was another candy shop in town that offered a hands-on marzipan class, but it was only 5 euros per person (roughly $5.31).
Best for: Those who are more adventurous and/or comfortable planning their own trips; budget-conscious travelers; travelers who have a specific itinerary in mind
Our DIY marzipan workshop tour in Tallinn was an easy choice to make, but there is a downside to both private tour companies and DIY excursions: if you don’t make it back to the ship before the “all aboard” time, then there’s a distinct possibility that the ship will leave without you. That’s why it’s so important to vet any outside tour operators, and make sure that all your planned activities will end with plenty of time to make it back to the ship.
Whatever you decide to do in each port, make sure you do your research and feel comfortable with your choice. It’s also a good idea to touch base with any outside tour operators that you will be using just before your trip. Make sure that they will not charge you a fee if for some reason the ship doesn’t make that particular port, something that occasionally happens. Trip insurance is another important consideration as is a good travel agent, such as Authorized Disney Vaction Planner, Patricia Payne of All For Dreams Travel. And the added bonus of booking with Patricia? Her services are FREE for you, and best of all, she can help you with all of your travel needs. Click here for a free quote!
Have you planned any excursions on a Disney Cruise? Do you stick with the ship’s Port Adventures or go off on your own? Let us know in the comments below!