About the Panama Canal Cruise
The Disney Cruise Line sends the Disney Wonder through the Panama Canal twice each year. In the early spring, it heads west for cruises along the Pacific coast and to Alaska. In the late fall, it returns to the Gulf of Mexico for Winter cruises to the Caribbean.
We just got back from the east bound trek from San Diego, California to Galveston, Texas via the Panama Canal. The Disney Panama Canal Cruise and TransAtlantic Cruises are the Disney Cruise Line’s two epic cruises, each lasting 12-14 days.
We have cruised across the Atlantic on the Disney Magic twice, but this was our first Panama Canal Cruise. So, what is it like to spend two weeks aboard the Disney Wonder, racing to South America and then back to the U.S.?
The Disney Wonder is the sister ship of our favorite cruise ship, the Disney Magic. We had not sailed on the Wonder since the Southern Caribbean Cruise about 3 years ago. Significant changes have been made including adding the Princess and the Frog inspired Tiana’s Place restaurant and the adjoining French Quarter Lounge. Our cruise was one of the first to use the French Quarter Lounge. Frozen: a Musical Spectacular also replaced Disney Wishes, which was a big upgrade.
We prefer Disney’s two smaller ships, the Magic and Wonder, over the two larger, the Fantasy and Dream. They are more intimate, easier to navigate, and have better customer service. We will compare the Magic and Wonder in a later post.
When most people think of Disney cruises, they imagine hordes of kids running amok all over the ship. While many Disney cruises, especially the shorter cruises out of Cape Canaveral do have a lot kids on board, the Disney Panama Canal Cruise did not. Of the roughly 2000 passengers, only about 250 were under the age of 18.
At least 1 in 3 passengers were 65 or older, with many much older. Almost all were North American. Every cruise takes on its own personality. This one was very laid back and was the overall friendliest cruise that we have taken. About 300 passengers were taking their first cruise. Over half had taken more than 5 Disney cruises. Just more proof, that Disney fans come in all ages.
Disney Cruise ship rooms are the same on all of its ships; which is a good thing.
Disney Cruise Line rooms are large by cruise standards. As always, we chose a cabin with a portal window. We find these to be a good value with an open feel but lower price than a veranda room.
A curtain can divide the room into two parts: one with the queen size bed and the other with a couch and bunk that lowers from the ceiling. This provides some privacy. As always, we believe that Disney Cruise line has the most comfortable mattress that we have ever slept on. A gentle rocking motion at night lulls you to sleep like a cradle.
The bathroom is divided into two parts. One section houses the toilet and a sink. The other has the shower and another sink. This makes it easy for multiple people to get ready at once.
A large closet and multiple drawers gives plenty of place to store clothes. Multiple outlets allow you to recharge cameras, phones, etc. A flat screen TV swivels out from the wall. On demand access to virtually all Disney animated, live, and Pixar movies is provided. A variety of TV stations can be viewed, too; mostly Disney related.
Bars and Lounges
Since our last Disney Wonder Cruise to the Southern Caribbean, the adult section has been almost completely transformed. The prior Route 66 theme has been replaced with the Afterhours theme from the Disney Magic. We liked the old, but the new is better.
The Cadillac Lounge remains the same, serving as a piano bar. I love the 1950s Cadillac motif. The Crown & Fin Pub is an English pub/sports bar that serves as a meeting place to play games, cards, watch sporting events, and compete in trivia. Entertainment for adults, like comedians take the stage in Azures. Game shows, dances and other entertainment fill the evening hours in the disco setting.
The French Quarter Lounge replaced the Promenade Lounge. It is a huge upgrade. The Crescent City theming is magnificent. It serves as a wonderful lead into Tiana’s Place. The Lounge menu is rooted firmly in New Orleans with coffee, beignets, and only Abita beers (brewed in the Big Easy) on tap. In addition to enjoying booze and coffee, you can listen to jazz bands, take drawing lessons, make crafts, compete in trivia and much more.
Weather and Sea Conditions
As you would expect, sailing southward from San Diego to within 6 degrees latitude of the equator, it is hot,.. and humid. Only one day after setting sail was not muggy. It was overcast and more comfortable on Grand Cayman. Now, I am not complaining. On our first week of the cruise, most of the US had a cold spell with snow as far south as Memphis. Personally, I will take the heat!
With heat and humidity, you also get some rain. There was plenty of sun, too, though. Passengers enjoyed the pools outside and the AC inside. We experienced rough seas on one night and the following morning. I slept through most of it. Thankfully, the rocking of the ship neither bothers nor frightens any of us.
Ports of Call
The Disney Panama Canal Cruise disembarks from the wonderful city of San Diego and ends 2 weeks later in Galveston, Texas. San Diego especially is worth extra time if possible.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
On the tip of Baja California, lies the beautiful, party hub of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Stunning rock formations, whale watching, fishing, and partying draw people to this once sleepy town.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
The tourist town of Puerto Vallarta has been dubbed Puerto de Walmart by cruisers due to the view at the dock. The real draws await a few miles south of the pier. The historic old town and the seaside walk/Malecon as well as picturesque beaches draw tourist. It also serves as the gateway to the Sierra Madre mountains.
The beautiful Colombian port on the Caribbean, Cartagena combines African, Native American, and Spanish cultures in a mix of old and new. Culture and history with colonial architecture and soaring skyscrapers await.
This tourist mecca off the coast of the Yucatan is one the most popular and common cruise ship stops. 5 ships with near 15000 passengers descended on the island on our port day. Beaches, snorkeling, scuba diving, the Chankanaab park, shopping, adventure activities and more await tourists.
Grand Cayman Island
Another very common and popular cruise destination with over 10000 passengers in port on our day, Grand Cayman boasts snorkeling, scuba diving, water sports and shopping in a very upscale, Florida-like environment.
One full day was spent transversing the historic Panama Canal. On each sea day, Captain Ken Puckett gave lectures on the history, construction, design and politics of the Panama Canal. Capt. Puckett is a retired pilot in the canal and has made hundreds of passages.
Panama Canal Day proved to be a highlight for most cruisers. We reached the first lock at 5:45 a.m. Passengers began staking out prime positions as early as 3 a.m.! The Wonder made a party atmosphere out of it with music, donuts and pastries, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as Bloody Mary’s!
On board all Disney Cruise ships, passengers rotate on a set schedule through three main restaurants at dinner time. Your waiters remain the same throughout the cruise as do your table mates. We honestly love this.
We requested our server from our prior Disney Wonder Southern Caribbean Cruise, Jeyson from Goa, India. His assistant now is Josimar from Cartagena, Colombia. We instantly hit it off with Josimar! He was never without a pleasant smile and laugh. They were both exceptional.
On the Disney Panama Canal Cruise, entertainment during dining was provided during 5 of the 14 nights. We love this aspect of Disney cruises. As always, the food quality ranged from good to excellent. We were pleased with the quality. We looked forward to the dining and entertainment as much as anything during the cruise.
Tiana’s Place replaced Parrot Cay in 2016. In my opinion, this is a huge improvement. The New Orleans theme, based on the Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog, works. On two of our four nights in Tiana’s Place, we were served wonderful Cajun cuisine and were entertained by a jazz band. Tiana and Louis from the movie perform and greet diners.
Every Disney ship now has an Animator’s Palette. It serves California cuisine and is themed on a Disney animation studio
One night, an animation show is presented on screens all around the restaurant. It shows the creation of Disney characters from pencil to full movement. The room gradually turns from black and white to fully colored throughout the meal. The wait staff changes outfits mid-meal, too. It is fun.
On the second themed evening, diners draw a person which is later fully animated and played on the surrounding screens, dancing with Disney characters. It is a lot of fun for everyone.
Triton’s is the flagship restaurant of the Disney Wonder. French cuisine, including escargot is served. The menu is the same as the menu at Lumiere’s on the Disney Magic, but Triton’s theme is based on The Little Mermaid, taking its name from Ariel’s father. The food was excellent and the decor beautiful and classy. The other restaurants offer entertainment, though.
On the Disney Panama Canal Cruise, three original, Broadway style productions were performed. Disney Cruise Lines original productions are almost always top rate.
Frozen: a Musical Spectacular highlights the list. While the production was not as smooth as the movie, it was still good. A Broadway actor was aboard to perform the role of Olaf for 2 months. He was excellent and became Olaf. His vocals could not be differentiated from Josh Gad, who voiced the role in the film. Olaf and Sven come to life as puppets. Both were magnificent. The actress for Elsa hit every note perfectly, too.
The other two shows were Disney Dreams and The Golden Mickeys. Disney Dreams tells the story of a girl learning to believe her dreams with help of Peter Pan and other Disney characters. Even though it is one of our favorites, we have seen it multiple times and chose to skip it.
The Golden Mickeys turn the Walt Disney Theater into a TV awards show. Awards are given to the Best Hero, Best Villain, and others with a back story about the presenter. We have seen this play several times and still like it. The villains scene is the best. Cruella Deville steals the show.
A variety of performers joined the Disney Panama Canal Cruise to entertain us throughout. Singers, comedians, acrobats, magicians, ventriloquists, and variety acts all performed with varying success.
On the bad side, one of the most unfunny comedians that I have seen was a headliner. He stunk on another cruise we took and has not improved. I met him on the ship. We talked. He was pleasant, but he is not funny.
On the good side, comedian Don Friesen only performed in Azures, but was one the best that I have seen. The entire crowd laughed and clapped from start to finish in both of the sets we watched.
Other acts included Disney Cruise favorites JUNNK and John Charles. JUNNK sent their new “B-team” and were not as good as usual. John Charles takes audience song requests, sings and plays the song on guitar, working it all into improv comedy. His repertoire is vast and diverse and every show is completely unique.
Disney always provides an array of activities for all ages during their cruises, especially on sea days. We enjoy trivia, game shows, and drawing classes. Passengers flock daily to BINGO. Do you want to watch a movie? Movies play at the Buena Vista Theater and at the family pool on Funnel Vision. Do you want to cool off and get some sun? Three pools (kid pool, family pool, and adult pool) and a water slide offer respite from the heat. Do you want to be pampered? Adults can go to Senses Spa or you can take your child to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
Just like on Disney’s other longest cruise, the Disney TransAtlantic Cruise, the 14 day long Disney Panama Canal Cruise offers special activities to fill the 8 sea days. We were surprised that Panama Canal Cruise did not have as many special activities, though.
- Only on Disney Wonder cruises longer than 7 days, a second show is added into the rotation at Tiana’s Place during dinner.
- Frozen Day at Sea makes sense on the Wonder because it is the only ship to have Frozen: a Musical Spectacular. They were not on the same day, though. Weird.
- The head chef from the Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World gave cooking lessons on each sea day at Anyone Can Cook.
- Daily ballroom dance lessons were given.
- As mentioned above, on sea days, Captain Ken Puckett gave lectures on the history and construction of the Panama Canal. He filled the Walt Disney Theater each day and gave a running commentary during our passage through the canal.
- More entertainers with multiple shows.
- Disney Wonder Crew Talent Show highlighted the talent of the regular crew; a great show.
- One extra non-Disney movie was shown in the Buena Vista Theater: Yesterday. We enjoyed it. It surprised us that there were not more.
The crew of the Disney Wonder is fantastic. Everyone works tirelessly to ensure a good experience. Our dining servers were excellent, pleasant and funny. We will miss them. The cabin stewards work hard and are always friendly and smiling. Muluk and Steph from the help desk were especially helpful and pleasant. The Cruise Staff Team, who host entertainment like dances, trivia, game shows, crafts, drawing, etc.. kept us all occupied, happy and amused. They were the best team we have had.
The staff of the Disney Wonder rivals the Disney Magic as the best crew that we have experienced.
The Disney Panama Canal Cruise is one of the least expensive Disney cruises per night. It still costs about 1/3 more per night than the TransAtlantic Cruise, but will be less than almost all others.
Disney cruises cost more than most other value or moderate priced cruises. Other cruise lines earn money with casinos and beverages. Disney Cruise Line does not have casinos, fountain drinks are included, and alcoholic beverages are not pushed. You are also not nickel-and-dimed.
The Disney Panama Canal Cruise offers a good value for a once in a lifetime experience through this historic location.
The Disney Panama Canal Cruise offers an amazing opportunity for families to have a once in a lifetime experience. Adults and children have plenty to do to keep entertained for 2 weeks. Everyone with whom I spoke was sad to leave and wished that the cruise could just continue on and on.
5 port days, 8 sea days, and 1 day in the Panama Canal is an almost ideal combination for most cruise passengers. The combination of ports is honestly not the most interesting, but there are plenty of excursions at each offering new experiences, or you can just stay onboard.
If you have never cruised, then this might not be the best primer. 2 weeks at sea for those who suffer sea sickness is unimaginable. If you are bothered by heat, then you might want to look elsewhere. The destinations of this cruise are hot and humid. Those who enjoy gambling might be disappointed, too. Disney Cruise ships have no casinos. You can play Bingo, though. The Disney Panama Canal Cruise is laid back and casual. If you prefer things more formal and sophisticated, then it might not be the best choice for you, either.
We thoroughly enjoyed the Disney Panama Canal Cruise and are thankful to have to done it. It is not our favorite Disney Cruise, but was still excellent. We probably will do it again someday, simply because we love the longer Disney cruises and prefer the smaller ships.