The thought of sailing onboard the Disney Cruise Line is usually a stress-free image. Imagine long days basking in the sun, spa treatments, gourmet dinners and intriguing ports of call as a DCL guest. But what is it like to work on Disney Cruise Line?
For crew members setting sail on the Disney Cruise Line, the days are filled with staff meetings, long hours on your feet and plenty of costume changes. I should know. I worked on the Disney Wonder cruise ship back in 1999 as it was inaugurated. While you might think that a lot has changed in that time, apparently it hasn’t (I’ll tell you how I know that later on.)
Enjoy this behind the scenes look of what it’s really like working on a cruise ship and discover whether life on the open seas is really as exciting as it seems.
This series first appeared back in 2007 on AllEars.net when my friend Deb, the editor and founder of AllEars.net, asked me to share my experiences as a DCL crew member in her emails.
All photos were taken in 1999. That’s why they look old and blurry! I had to take a picture of them in my scrapbook to share with you.
How I Got a Job on the Disney Cruise Line
Working onboard a cruise ship had always been a dream of mine, much like many other travelers who take a relaxing, week-long cruise and then imagine how much fun it must be to work onboard a ship. Luckily, my dream coincided with my employment with the Walt Disney Company while they were planning the inaugural cruise season of the Disney Wonder. Through my position with Disney’s On-Property Sales and Marketing Division, I was part of a team given the task to introduce the new Disney Wonder crew members, most of whom were from foreign countries and had never been to Walt Disney World, to the wonders of the Walt Disney World Resort Property.
While talking with the crew members for three days, I decided that I just had to get a job onboard the Disney Cruise Line.
Wondering how to work on a cruise ship? Well, for me, it was having an introduction to the DCL staff from a crew member that I met on the three-day tour. But it wasn’t that simple. After a month of leaving voice mails and resumes with the Disney Cruise Line’s Human Resources Department, I was finally called in for an interview.
The interview was in a small office in Celebration, Florida. The office was crammed with all of the essentials that it takes to run a cruise line from the shore while all of the action takes place on the ocean. The questions were typical of any position where you’re in charge of entertaining guests….hypothetical “what-ifs” on how you would handle a power outage during a dance party, what to do with unruly guests, etc.
I was warned of the rigors of working onboard a cruise line….the long hours and no days off during your six months on the ship. I wanted to work onboard so badly by this point, though, that it would have taken a lot to dissuade me.
When I got the call offering me a Cruise Staff position underneath the Cruise Director onboard the Disney Wonder, I was ecstatic. I had only two weeks to prepare, though. I had to quit my job at the Walt Disney World Resort because the Walt Disney Company is NOT the same as the Disney Cruise Line company. Turning in my cast member ID and giving up my Walt Disney Company seniority was hard, but the prospect of a new career with the Disney Cruise Line was exciting.
Preparing to Live on a Cruise Ship
I then had to move out of my apartment, pack all my belongings and drive to my parents home in North Carolina (during a hurricane evacuation, no less) where I would be leaving all of my possessions for the next six months. As soon as I got home, I had to start packing once again.
If you have ever tried to pack for a one-week vacation using only two suitcases, imagine packing for six months using only two suitcases.
Because of weight and space issues, crew members were restricted on how much luggage they could bring on the ship. Every single item I packed had to face extreme scrutiny.
After packing shoes, outerwear, personal clothing, and medicines and toiletries to last at least a month or two in case I couldn’t get off of the ship, I was only able to pack a couple photos and mementos to stave off homesickness for the next half a year.
You quickly learn what is important and what is not when you’re essentially living out of two suitcases for six months.
I was flown back to Orlando to report for initial training at the Disney Cruise Line offices in Celebration, FL. In a small room filled with people from all nationalities, we discussed contracts, pay scales, and received a hefty dose of Disney “pixie dust.”
Working for Disney is Different on the Cruise Line
Right from the beginning, though, I stood out like a sore thumb.
I was the only American in this group to be training for a Disney Cruise Line position. In fact, once I got onboard, I found out I was one of only five Americans among the approximately 900 crew members, and three of the Americans were behind-the-scenes in Human Resources and never had guest contact.
As long-time cruisers probably have realized, Americans aren’t common among ship’s crew members, mainly because the pay is so low. (If you’re not cool with making slightly above minimum wage, you might want to consider another type of employment.) Citizens of other nations, though, can usually end up making a decent amount of money with currency exchanges, so foreign nationalities are common among cruise ship staff.
I was also different because I knew Disney. Almost no one in my training group had ever been to ANY Disney theme park. Much less the Walt Disney World Resort which is so close to the cruise terminal and is part of the cruise-land travel packages.
Though everyone seemed to know Mickey Mouse, no one really understood the legacy of Walt Disney or the stellar customer service that Disney is known for. As a former cast member who could easily recite the seven principles of Guest Satisfaction, who relied on implementing Guest Satisfaction Surveys to address guest complaints and who recently interviewed for a position on the Disney Traditions training staff which “pixie dusts” new cast members, I was completely unprepared for fellow crew members to know so little about the legendary company they were working for. It was a major blow to me, having been such a Disney nut while working for the company, and it would continue to play a role in my days onboard the Disney Cruise Line.
Disney Cruise Line Crew Member Training
After training at the Celebration offices, we were transported to Port Canaveral for additional days of training in one of the most important aspects of life at sea…fire safety.
Though many cruisers might think that the ship capsizing on the water or falling overboard and drowning is their biggest danger, one of the most dangerous things that can happen at sea is a fire. If a fire were to break out onboard a cruise ship, it could quickly spread throughout the entire ship, making evacuation very challenging, to say the least. So crew members receive extensive training in fire prevention and safety, and continue to do so throughout their tenure onboard the ship.
We reported to duty at the fire training offices used by all of the cruise lines at Port Canaveral. After hours of classroom training and instruction in the use of fire extinguishers, we were ready for the hands-on training.
One by one, we were paired with a team of firemen and entered a room with a simulated fire. We were shown how to spray the fire extinguisher, aiming the nozzle towards the base of the fire to quickly extinguish it. It was one of the scariest moments of the training, yet it was also one of the highlights. I don’t really remember anything from my classroom training, now many years ago, but the image of facing a fire and using the fire extinguisher will always be burned in my mind, so to speak, and that is the whole point of a crew member’s fire safety training.
On our last night on dry land, our training team gathered in the hotel bar and raised our glasses to the new adventure that awaited us the next day and for the next six months. We would still be training as a team, learning about the basics of working onboard the Disney Cruise Line, but now we would be onboard the Disney Wonder, which was dry docked in preparation for its inaugural press events. Excitement filled the air as we wondered who our roommates would be, how tiny the crew cabins were and what our positions would be like. Little did we know that the relaxed and carefree atmosphere that we were enjoying would soon change as soon as we stepped onboard the ship.
Becoming a Crew Member Onboard the Disney Cruise Line
After days of land-based training, my training team was brought by van to the Disney Cruise Line’s crew area. We gathered our luggage and followed our Human Resources leader to the security gate, where we were cleared through and were soon walking across the cargo loading areas to the crew gangway which leads into the lower decks of the ship.
For most of us, the anticipation was overwhelming. Few people really know what life is like on the crew levels of a cruise ship, and we were about to experience it for the first time.
Boarding the ship from the crew entrance is definitely not the same as boarding through the guest entrance. The gangway leads into a no-frills bay which is usually loud and bustling with crew members scurrying through the crew quarters, cargo being brought onboard, and plenty of security and immigration personnel overseeing your every move.
Our first stop was the Crew Office, a really tiny room on a lower deck of the ship where paychecks, room assignments and benefits are handled.
Even though the Crew Office is a central part of every crew member’s life while onboard, the space was ridiculously small. Three people maximum could fit in the space behind the counter, so bringing in an entire training team meant that we were standing in line in the hallway with our luggage, eagerly anticipating our room assignments, crew IDs, etc.
On pay days, the Crew Office would invariably have long lines with crew members trying to cash checks or pay bills. Crew members soon learned that if you needed to take care of financial problems or any other type of issue that the office handled, you’d need to go late in the night unless you wanted to waste a lot of time. It was sort of like the DMV, only for a ship.
After much waiting, we were finally given our room assignments. Crew members are typically roomed with someone in the same department. Most rooms sleep two people. For instance, dining staff will be roomed together and housekeeping crew members would be roomed together, but chances are a dining crew member and someone from housekeeping would rarely, if never, be in the same room. This is because of the odd work hours on the ship. Typically, crew members working in the same department would have comparable working and sleeping hours, and would be spending the most time together.
Who your roommate is depends on who has an empty space in their room at the beginning of your contract. As crew member’s contracts end and begin over staggered times, there’s a continuous flow of empty rooms.
As a member of the Cruise Staff, I was part of the Programming Division. Since our staff only had about eight members, we were combined with the Children’s Programming staff, which was considerably larger. My room assignment was with Allison, a Canadian who worked in Children’s Programming.
What Are the Crew Rooms Like on a Cruise Ship?
I thought for sure I took pictures of my room, but I can’t find them! Wish I could show you what it looked like!
The number one question that I’m always asked about working on the ship is “What were the rooms like?” Let me tell you, the first time I opened the door to my crew room, it took my breath away (not in a good way, either!) I don’t think it’s possible to imagine how tiny a crew room is without actually seeing it!
Seriously, your mind can’t even fathom such things.
When I opened the door to my home-away-from home for the first time, the door swung into the room and immediately took up half of the interior space. To my left was a wall that had two narrow desks, each with one shelf above with metal railings so your items wouldn’t fly off during rough waters. We had a television on one of the shelves, which broadcast the guest television channels as well as an additional movie channel for the crew.
Immediately in front of me were two bunk beds. I don’t think they were even a normal-size twin bed, they were so small. Thankfully, though, they each had a curtain that could be pulled the entire length of the bed so that you could sleep while your roommate had the lights on.
Though we each had two closets, which would hold about eight hangers each, most of the storage was in and under the bed. The headboard and footboard could be lifted up for some small storage and we each had a drawer under the lower bunk. That’s it.
In hindsight, working on a cruise ship actually prepared me quite well for living in an RV full time!
If all of this wasn’t depressing enough, I hadn’t even stepped inside the “bathroom” yet, which was being hidden by the opened room door.
Crew bathrooms are very reminiscent of airline bathrooms, only with a really tiny shower in the corner. The shower is in the shape of a triangle, and you can’t lift both arms up at once without hitting the shower curtain and having it cling to you. The toilet and sink were crammed in there, too, with very little storage space.
The room was entirely too small for one person (more senior members of staff did get single rooms). Imagine putting two people in it at the same time – there was no room to even move around, since we had about nine square feet of open floor space.
When my boyfriend sent me a bouquet of flowers on my birthday, the flowers ended up taking up so much room that we had pollen on our clothes for about a week, since the flower arrangement consumed about half of our useable walking area by the door. At Christmas, my family wanted to send me a small tabletop tree to decorate. They just couldn’t comprehend that there was literally no surface space to set a tree on.
So, that was to be my living arrangements for the next six months. I would soon learn that I was directly under the luggage loading area, too, which meant that every debarkation morning, the walls would literally start shaking as passenger’s luggage was being carted off the ship directly above my head about 5 a.m.
Thankfully, my room was right next to the elevator because I never did learn to navigate my way through the maze of rooms that created the crew quarters. Every single room looked the same, and countless times I got lost trying to find my way back from the laundry room.
Doing Laundry on a Cruise Ship and Being Assigned Costumes to Wear
Doing laundry on the ship was a new experience, too. Because of strange work hours, I would have to put in a load of laundry before heading off to host a dance party, and hope that no one was stealing my clothes as I was doing the twist and the hand jive in WaveBands. In between shows, I would run down to the crew area to put my clothes in the dryer, and then run back up to the guest area to socialize with the guests.
I didn’t have to do too much laundry, though, because all crew members are fitted for costumes as soon as they get onboard. You never have to wash your costumes, you just bring them down to costuming to exchange them for clean clothes, hopefully ones that are actually your size. The costuming area is hidden away among the lower decks, where the heat and steam from the industrial washers and dryers creates agonizingly miserable conditions for the crew members whose job it is to wash bedding, towels, costumes and linens all day.
Each crew member has a series of costume pieces, depending on their position. I was taken in the back of the costuming department and measured for a wide array of costumes that I would need during my varied job duties:
- Formal nautical outfit for standing in the embarkation greeting line
- Slacks and a blazer for standing behind the Guest Services counter
- Polo shirts and shorts, as well as pants, for walking along the deck and hosting deck parties
- Shirts and shorts to be worn on Castaway Cay, as well as a bathing suit
- Silk shirts and dressy pants for evening activities
- Outerwear jacket and belts that corresponded to each outfit.
I also received two nametags, the defining moment when you know that you are truly a crew member. Sure, signing the contracts and getting a crew ID makes you feel like a crew member, but for me, it was official when I had the nametag that was to be worn at all times so that guests could identify me as part of the crew.
The last pieces of my costume were my favorites. We hosted two themed dance parties on each sailing, a 1950s party and a 1970s party, so we had to have appropriate costumes. Those weren’t to be found in normal costuming, though.
We got those from theater costuming. It was so exciting to go behind the stage of the Walt Disney Theater to the costuming department, where racks upon racks of fanciful show costumes were hanging. A seamstress that was dedicated to keeping up the costumes for the theater productions also fitted the Cruise Staff for our specialty costumes. Since the girl who I had replaced on Cruise Staff was the exact size that I was, I didn’t need to have a costume specifically made for me, but we went through the paces of measuring me to make sure that we had the perfect fit. I was assigned a green felt poodle skirt with a crinoline underlay, a cardigan sweater and gauzy scarf for the 1950s party, and a lime green pantsuit for the 1970s party.
Safety Training for My Disney Cruise Line Job
After coming aboard as a new crew member, there is not much time for rest, and there won’t be until after your contract ends. It’s that simple. And NOT an exaggeration.
Safety training starts just hours after you board the ship, beginning with the assignment of a life jacket and your crew station during an emergency. While you will see some crew members positioned throughout the ship during each safety drill before embarking on your cruise, every crew member has a position to take somewhere in the ship should there be an actual emergency.
As part of the Cruise Staff, my position would have been in the Oceaneer Club, checking I.D.’s of children who were being picked up by their parents.
Safety training is taken extremely seriously among crew members onboard the Disney Cruise Line. There are strict guidelines to follow, stringent protocols in place for every conceivable event, and at no time will a half-hearted attitude be tolerated.
The safety training for all of the new crew members in my training class started with thick manuals of information that we read, discussed and were then tested on during numerous classes that took place in the crew lounge area below the guest decks. Medical emergencies, life boat drills, fire safety, etc. were thoroughly covered in every aspect. Crew members can expect to frequently be retested on safety procedures at any time and you could possibly lose your job if you can’t pass a test on safety protocol. You can’t just study a safety booklet enough to pass a test and then forget the information, much like in high school or college, so all of the new crew members spent hours learning and memorizing safety procedures.
After classroom discussions, we had tours of the ship with the lead crew member in charge of Safety. Though you can spend hours reading manuals about the safety precautions that are installed in the ship, it only takes a minute or two of a demonstration to instill in you an appreciation and understanding of all that it takes to make a ship safe on the ocean. We watched demonstrations of the water-tight doors that can be closed through various areas of the ship, listening as the doors lumbered loudly to seal off a corridor while bright strobe lights lit up the hallway and a deafening alarm pealed through the surrounding area.
We then took a tour of the ship’s bridge, where a large electronic chart of every square foot on the ship was mounted on the wall. A myriad of different colored mini lights represented sensors throughout the ship that were monitoring heat, electrical currents and water levels, constantly scouring the ship for any small problem that might occur. We inspected life boats and completed training in evacuation procedures. In a matter of a day or two, our new training class had become experts in safety at sea.
After the majority of safety training was completed, we were then allowed to report to our individual crew assignments for job-specific training, which would continue to be interspersed with safety training for the next week or two. I reported to the Assistant Cruise Director who immediately started training me in my role as a member of the Cruise Staff.
Sea Sickness While Working on a Cruise Ship
Since the Cruise Staff department is relatively small, it’s necessary for new crew members to jump right in and quickly learn the ropes. One of my first activities was helping to host the 50s dance party. Though I might have looked the part while doing the Twist in my poodle skirt, guests probably didn’t realize that I was battling one of the worst cases of seasickness that I had ever encountered.
I have suffered from motion sickness my entire life, even getting sick on the mountainous roads of my hometown. I was so anxious to work onboard a cruise ship, though, that I didn’t want to admit that seasickness would be a problem for me. And I thought I’d get over it.
It turned out to become a HUGE problem that never ended. That first night while sailing, all I wanted to do was hang over the side of the deck and be sick, but as I soon found out, seasickness is not an excuse for missing work! As I sat with my head between my knees in the cramped, darkened DJ booth at WaveBands, I soon wondered what I had gotten myself into. But, receiving no sympathy from my fellow crew members, I had to get out on the dance floor and try to keep my footing while the ship rocked and my stomach churned.
I assumed that I would eventually get accustomed to the motion of the ship and that my seasickness would become a thing of the past. That never happened.
What did happen was that I frequently visited the crew member portion of the Infirmary and grabbed handfuls of packets of seasickness pills that were readily available in a handy bin right next to the aspirin. There were many times when I had to get through a deck party or dance party or other event simply by sheer will, but I soon found out that one of the best remedies for seasickness was to simply stop thinking about it and go on with life. It worked just as well as the mountain of seasickness pills that I must have consumed during my time onboard.
Working with the Cruise Director
Learning the ropes of hosting dance parties and deck parties was pretty simple. My job as a Cruise Staff crew member was simply making sure that people had a great time, whether it was dancing in the crowds during the Sail Away party or talking with guests before the Disney Theatre performances.
Other parts of my job required much more training.
On embarkation days, the Cruise Staff manned the shore excursions desk, booking shore excursions and answering questions about what was available at our ports of call. I had to become familiar with the most popular shore excursion destinations, so during the first two cruises I was able to take shore excursions along with guests so that I would be able to answer guest questions on future sailings.
On subsequent sailings, a member of the Cruise Staff was sometimes assigned to be onboard a shore excursion in case problems arose, so I frequently was able to enjoy a boat tour around Nassau or a trip to Atlantis.
Note: Disney Cruise Line has since changed the roles of the Cruise Staff. Now, there are separate crew members just for shore excursions and different crew members for entertainment. When we sailed on the Disney Fantasy during its inaugural year, I found this out by talking with crew members. I was a little jealous that they had less work to do than I did!
Another aspect of my job that required in-depth training was the family activities. We used microphones for most events, so there was training in the electrical systems for each venue, plus how to handle technical glitches with the microphone in case the Engineering Staff was unable to show up for each activity. I had to receive training for the DJ stations at each venue, too, just in case I had to handle the sound as well as host an event. Learning the technical aspects of sound was a piece of cake compared to trying to operate a movie screen in Animator’s Palate, which I never really mastered.
Each activity that we hosted onboard had its own set of challenges.
For one event, guests made cars out of potatoes and assorted vegetables and raced against each other to compete for a prize. The activity sounds simple enough, but required much planning and execution. I had to learn where the produce supply pantry was located below decks. This might not sound like a big deal, but I frequently got lost in the crew decks because everything looked the same and there were so many small alcoves and hidden doors. Picking up pounds of potatoes, celery, carrots and the like wasn’t always easy, either, as you had to sign out the produce with kitchen managers who frequently weren’t aware of why we needed their produce, resulting in challenging conversations. Then we had to transport the vegetables to guest areas, but not using guest elevators, which was strictly forbidden. Once inside the lounge, we would then have to set up the supplies before finally arranging with the Entertainment department the arrival of Mickey Mouse at the end of the races. What seems like a simple one-hour activity to guests could actually take two to three hours of prep time and scheduling, trying to get many different parts of the ship to cohesively work together, which isn’t always easy.
After the first few sailings, I was finally starting to get used to my new position. Hosting dance parties and teaching guests how to do the Electric Slide had become second nature to me. Preparing the Disney Theatre for each production was my nighttime ritual. I was equally adept at exercising with Goofy on the sports deck as I was hosting the elegant Captain’s reception with everyone dressed in their finest.
Hardest Part of Living on a Cruise Ship
While I was easily adapting to my new role in entertaining guests, I wasn’t adapting as easily to the living conditions of a cruise ship crew member. Surprisingly, the hardest aspect of cruise ship life for me was the strange sensation of feeling like I was living in a foreign world, even though I spent so much time in Port Canaveral and on a Disney ship full of Americans.
As I mentioned before, I was one of only a handful of Americans to be working onboard the Disney Wonder. My immediate boss was also an American and had worked at the Walt Disney World Resort, too, so we had a great deal in common and I had someone that I could easily talk to. Everyone else, though, was from a myriad of different nationalities. When you’re living and working with other people in a very close environment, cultural differences tend to become much more pronounced.
Though everyone on my team came from an English-speaking country, our phrases and vocabulary definitely weren’t the same. There were many, many times that our conversations seemed to need an interpreter, even though we were all speaking English. I know I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, because many guests would come up to me and say “Oh, you’re from the United States! I can actually understand what you’re saying!”
Of course, language was just one of our cultural differences. Throughout the ship, everyone had a different style of dress when they weren’t wearing their cruise line uniforms, different political views, different work habits and ethics, different ways of dealing with the opposite sex….everything seemed to be different. It was as if I was living in a foreign country and dealing with culture shock, yet twice a week I would sail back to port in my home country and yet not feel like I was home at all.
What Crew Members Eat on the Disney Cruise Line
One of the biggest cultural differences of all was the food.
In the crew mess below decks, the cafeteria is a display of multicultural tastes. Never in my life had I seen broths served with every meal, yet apparently this is common in many countries, so there was always a large vat of some type of broth liquid available. Rice is also a mainstay, and there was plenty of it.
There were more hot teas to chose from than I had ever been used to before. Yet for all of the nods towards other country’s culinary tastes, there was rarely a supply of “American” food, such as sandwiches, hamburgers, pastas, etc.
This might sound like a blessing in disguise, since American diets are traditionally too heavy with too many calories. Yet, when you’re working for 18 hours a day on your feet doing very physical activities, you need some substance to get you through the day and we were definitely NOT getting it.
The food situation became so bad that my boss, knowing my journalism background, asked me to write a letter to DCL management to increase the foods available and their quality. The lack of edible food in the cafeteria was a situation affecting everyone.
Though there are plenty of places onboard the ship for guests to get a quick snack whenever they want, it was not like that for the crew. The Crew Mess was essentially your one-stop dining destination, and if you weren’t eating food there (especially when they were closed periodically throughout the day), then you had to rely on food you bought in port. The problem with that, though, is that you actually needed time to get off the ship, get transportation to a store to buy food (which has to be prepackaged and not fresh fruits, vegetables, etc. because of Customs rules) and get back to the ship. With our work schedules, that didn’t happen too often.
And if you remember my description of our crew rooms in a previous article, there was no room to store food even if you were able to purchase it.
Perhaps during a cruise you might have seen some crew members dressed in work clothes eating in guest areas. As officers, you are allowed to do that, and as a member of the Cruise Staff, I was a very low ranking officer but still had that privilege. However, my boss didn’t think it would look appropriate, so we weren’t even allowed to go to the snack bars, even though it should have been one of the perks of my job.
With the lack of food that I was willing to eat and the heavy amount of physical activity every day, I was soon losing weight at a rapid pace. By the end of my time with the DCL, I was stick thin and my clothes just hung on me. I was already wearing the smallest size costume that was available, and even those quickly became too big, even the bathing suit. It was a serious medical problem that guests would find hard to believe with the extravagance of food in the guest areas, yet the lack of food for the crew was a problem nonetheless.
When I was able to get off the ship, my only concern was finding a place to eat. To this day, I still consider a Subway sandwich that I bought in Nassau to be one of the top ten food highlights of my life. Before you start questioning my taste, I also consider Artist Point and Victoria and Albert’s at Walt Disney World to be among the tops, too. But I had been so hungry for so long and just wanted something “American” that every single bite of that sandwich tasted like a little bit of heaven to me.
You might be wondering to yourself, why was it so hard to get off the ship to get food? After all, guests can come and go whenever you’re in port. Not crew members.
Getting Off a Cruise Ship as a Crew Member
When most people dream about getting a job on a cruise ship and sailing the world, they imagine working onboard a ship while still being able to enjoy the freedoms and little luxuries of being a guest. They think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to work as a waiter onboard, and get to explore Cozumel or Nassau during the day before heading to work for the rest of the night?”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
The most important difference between cruise line guests and crew members is the sheer frustration in just trying to disembark the ship.
It’s important to point out that this has nothing to do with the Disney Cruise Line itself. It’s just the nature of the industry and a myriad of Customs rules.
As a guest, you anxiously await the general disembarking announcement of each port day so that you can start walking down the gangway and begin exploring the port of call. Just because the ship is in a port of call, though, doesn’t mean that the crew members will be disembarking, too.
When we were in ports during the sailing, such as Nassau, the crew were allowed to get off the ship along with everyone else. However, you actually needed the time to do it.
Crew members’ schedules are highly erratic and rarely are you given an eight-hour time span in which to work, like most jobs on dry land. You might be scheduled for work for an hour, with an hour break, and then work again for a couple of hours with 30 minutes off.
My team’s daily schedules came in a tiny, pocket-sized Excel document. Each 24-hour day was sectioned off in 30-minute segments. I just about went blind trying to decipher which blocks of the column were shaded in for work and which were break times, because every single day we had a different schedule. The entire Cruise Staff team religiously walked around with an Excel document folded up in their back pocket because we never knew for certain where we were supposed to be at any given time in any day.
The thought of working for an hour or two and then having a break for a while sounds good in theory, until you try to do it while living on a ship.
You know how it can take up to 15-20 minutes to walk from your stateroom just to get some lunch? Its the same problem for crew members. So a 30-minute or hour break is quickly eaten up with travel time just to get back to your room or the crew mess.
With a schedule like that, it’s nearly impossible to find the time to clear Customs getting off the ship, go somewhere, and then wait in line to get back onboard and report to duty on time in the appropriate costume.
Other than leading shore excursions, I rarely ever got off the ship in the Bahamas because it was physically impossible. And you rarely, if ever, get a day off… for six months straight.
Do You Get Any Time Off When Working on a Cruise Ship?
Though some crew members, such as the dining staff, had a more structured work schedule and were allowed half days off every now and then or large blocks of personal time, the Cruise Staff never had that luxury.
With only six to eight people on staff at any time, we all worked around the clock. Typical days would start at 8 a.m. and not end until well after midnight, especially if you were hosting a deck party or acting as DJ for a club.
We actually had staff meetings at 2 a.m., the only time when one of us wasn’t working, so even if your work day ended at 10 p.m., you couldn’t really get much sleep because you had to be in a meeting at 2 a.m.
We also had staff meetings while we were docked in Port Canaveral, the only time that we really had the opportunity to run errands, get a haircut or go to Wal-Mart. Though some other crew members had the luxury of being able to go into town all day while in our home port, the Cruise Staff always had to be back on the ship well before lunchtime, because we were all expected to be a part of the receiving line for newly embarking guests, as well as manning the Excursion Desk.
Though the Cruise Staff’s schedules made it extremely difficult to find time to get off the ship in Port Canaveral, the Customs officials made it a crazy guessing game for all of the crew members. Any time we were in Port Canaveral, crew members could not just walk off the ship like the guests. We had to wait for “windows.” These “windows” were pockets of time that Customs would allow crew members to disembark.
The “windows” were never at the same time, might only occur every one to two hours, and there was never a specified amount of time that the “window” was open.
So, early every Thursday and Sunday (well before 7 a.m.), all of the crew members would start gathering anxiously in the elevator waiting area near the Infirmary, just outside of the crew disembarking point. Crew members were sitting on the floor, lying on the steps or standing up in a crowd of bodies who were desperately trying to get off the ship. No one knew when Customs would start scanning the first crew member ID and allowing you to get off the ship. When the process did start happening, there would be a rush of people pushing their way forward and trying to get through the security line, because sometimes Customs allowed the disembarking phase to last for 30-45 minutes, while sometimes they mysteriously closed it off after 15 minutes, possibly not to reopen for another three hours.
The “windows” situation was a source of high stress and exasperation for every crew member on board. You were never guaranteed the ability to get off of the ship to go buy some toothpaste or get a new pair of sneakers. It wasn’t just for crew members working onboard the ship, though.
Even DCL shore-side staff who came to the ship while it was in port to take care of some business would often become trapped onboard because of the “windows.” The “windows” were finally discontinued in 2007, much to the enjoyment of every DCL crew member. Next time you sail, ask a crew member who has been around for more than a year about the crew “windows.” You’re sure to get some good horror stories.
Though there were many challenges in trying to disembark the Disney Wonder as a crew member, there were many reasons to stay onboard.
Crew Life Onboard a Cruise Ship
Just like cruise line guests are excited and eager to enjoy the deck parties, cocktail evenings and other occasions to have fun and celebrate, the crew members are anxious for events of their own. While it is fun to work a party as a crew member, you’re still expected to serve the guests and be professional.
Let’s face it, crew members need time to themselves when they’re not serving the fruity frozen drink of the day, dancing the electric slide or wearing the requisite shorts with a hem two inches above your knee caps.
That’s where the crew pool comes in.
Some guests are aware of the Disney Cruise Line crew member pool which is located at the bow of the ship. You might have seen it from the guest decks and wondered, “How do I get to that pool? There’s hardly anyone there!” or you might have heard about it during DCL trivia contests. The crew pool is literally one of the few places where crew members can just hang out and be themselves, without fear of acting improperly in front of guests.
During the day, crew members can work on their tan, take a swim, or just socialize in the open air and sunshine. At night, the crew pool transforms itself into party central. This is where the crew members gather to have drinks, talk about their day and socialize. It’s essentially just like any bar you’d go to after a long day of work or during a night out on the town. Crew parties last until the wee hours of the night, and sometimes they actually have a theme, like a costume night.
When it was raining or the winds were just too rough, crew parties were held inside. There was one common crew area, beside the crew mess, where many crew activities took place. It was generally just a meeting room, filled with seats and booths. This is where we had crew training during our orientation onboard the ship.
However, at night, crew members gather here to watch movies, have impromptu parties and generally just gather with friends. Since crew rooms are so small and there are few places available anywhere on the ship where crew members can congregate outside of guest contact, these were essentially the places to be seen.
Occasionally, crew members were allowed to “take over” guest areas. The Cruise Staff and Children’s Programming Department routinely had parties in the area that used to be the ESPN Club the night before members of our staff left the ship at the end of their contract. Since this occurred quite frequently, we could easily have gatherings in the Club late in the evening on the nights before disembarkation when guests were busy packing their suitcases and weren’t staying in the clubs too late.
We were also fortunate to be able to take over the Spa late one night. We weren’t able to enjoy spa services, but we could utilize the steam showers and saunas. At that point, a full size shower was definitely a luxury experience.
Crew members could go to the spa for discounted services or haircuts, but it still wasn’t cheap. For hair cuts and personal grooming supplies, most crew members tried to get to Wal-Mart, Walgreens or the mall when we were in our home port.
Thankfully, there is a transportation service just for crew members that allowed us to get into the city and run our errands without needing to hire a taxi. The crew buses service all cruise lines, and are essentially shuttle buses that have scheduled pick up times at the most popular spots that crew members frequent. Without the crew shuttles, it would have been much more difficult to get into town since very few crew members have cars.
Time in port is also when crew members try to get in contact with their family. Since most crew members are not from the U.S., it’s a challenge for them to find and use international calling cards on the public pay phones that are banked outside of the crew disembarkation point. Have you ever noticed the lines of crew members standing around pay phones at ports of call? This is the only time that we were able to really talk to our families, and the nuances of trying to use international calling cards are extremely frustrating. Remember, we have very little time off the ship so being patient and trying to figure out the phones while the time clock is ticking is extremely annoying.
I was reduced to tears more than once just trying to get a phone call to go through to my family in the U.S. from a pay phone in the Bahamas or Mexico. In fact, there’s a pay phone in Cozumel that took quite a “beating” during my frustration in trying to make an international phone call. (I never did succeed.)
Of course, if you have a cell phone you can use it while in port… in theory.
Do cell phones work on cruise ships? Not really, in my experience. And that’s even on a sailing in 2019 that I had problem using my phone while in port for debarkation.
Though I had a cell phone back then, it wouldn’t pick up reception on most parts of the ship while in port. I walked the decks endlessly trying to get a signal. Though reception was a bit better while we were sailing out of port, I was usually working during that time and couldn’t make any calls. So, in order to stay in touch with my family and hear their voices, I either had to take a crew shuttle into town so I could get phone reception and call them around 7 or 8 a.m. (thankfully my family was in the same time zone that I was), or use the static-filled public phones in ports of call while other crew members were standing in line behind me anxiously awaiting their turn on the phone.
Getting Mail and Phone Calls on a Cruise Ship
When I was a crew member, the Internet was not available on the Disney Wonder, so times have changed, thankfully for the better. (However, I heard in the videos posted below that paying for the privilege of internet as a crew member eats up half of your salary, which isn’t too much to begin with.)
One of the only public places for crew members to check their email was at an Internet cafe somewhere on Nassau. I never did visit the cafe, because I never had time. Remember, it’s really difficult for some crew members to have enough free time to do any errands off of the ship. Since we stayed late in port at Nassau, many crew members would head to the cafe at one or two in the morning.
For the international crew members, email was the cheapest and easiest way to keep in touch with their friends and family. However, all of the cruise lines that docked in port had crew members who were all competing for the computer terminals at the Internet cafe. Just because you had the time and the money for a taxi to travel there, it didn’t necessarily mean you were going to be able to check your email.
If you weren’t using a pay phone, cell phone or email, your communication with the rest of the outside world relied on your postal mail… if you got it.
Since we were living on a ship, mail only came twice a week while we were in port. Our mail was sent to a stateside address, then delivered to the heads of each department on the ship. For instance, all of the Cruise Staff personal mail was delivered to our boss, who then had to hand it out individually.
So it’s not like you’re ordering supplies on Amazon.com and getting them in a couple days.
For me, mail was mainly cards and letters from my family and boyfriend, but some crew members relied on the mail to receive credit card bills and other important financial matters.
If there was a delay in the mail, it could really mean trouble, especially since the outgoing mail had to wait until you came back in port several days later and then had to pass through the chain of command once again.
Mail delivery was one of the highlights of my week, since it was one of the few ways I could keep in touch with my family. If they sent pictures, I would immediately tape them to the walls of my bunk bed. I kept every single card and letter. I was ecstatic when I would get a small gift in the mail. The mail system was my lifeline to the life that I was used to back on dry land.
Having Guests Visit You Onboard the Cruise Ship
Luckily for me, I had friends and family in the area who wanted to drive to Port Canaveral to see me, so I was really able to stay in touch with people. But it’s not like a crew member can just walk off of a ship to see someone that has popped in to say hi.
Because of the previously mentioned crew “windows,” it was really hard for anyone to come see you on the cruise ship. That made seeing my boyfriend, who would drive an hour each weekend to the port to see me for just a few brief hours, really difficult. Because if I missed a crew window, I wouldn’t see him again for a week.
In fact, one weekend the crew “windows” were never opened and we were not allowed to leave the ship. My boyfriend was waiting on the dock to see me, and my cell phone had no reception in port. Even the onboard satellite phones that cost about $8 a minute weren’t working because we were in port, so there was no way to let him know that I wasn’t going to be allowed off of the ship.
Frustrating isn’t even the word to describe what it feels like when you can’t see friends or family who are so close, yet so far, in the bureaucratic red tape of sailing in international waters.
Another time, my aunt and family surprised me by driving to the port to see me, not realizing the legalities that were involved with me getting off of the ship. They were in the boarding terminal and somehow got a message through to my boss on the ship that they were there. I was ecstatic, but I couldn’t leave the ship. Thankfully, my boss was able to somehow pull some strings and get the appropriate paperwork together for me to simply step off of the gangway into the boarding terminal so that I could see my family. By that time, though, so much time had passed doing the paperwork that it was a very brief reunion.
To get around all of the red tape and spend some quality time with me, my boyfriend surprised me on Thanksgiving by booking a stay on the Thanksgiving sailing. The entire lobby heard me scream when I saw him walk off of the gangway into the main lobby of the ship.
While I was so happy that I would be able to spend time with him, once again the intricate laws of the cruise line would limit our time.
Just to be able to have dinner in Palo’s, I had to request special written permission from one of the heads of the dining department to be in the restaurant, because I was a crew member. My schedule for the sailing had already been made, so there was no way to get a few extra hours off.
During my limited time off, I just really wanted to relax and enjoy a decent meal so we ordered room service from his stateroom. The room service waiter recognized me and nearly refused to serve us the food because I was a crew member, even though it was ordered by a paying DCL guest.
While it was clearly obvious that I was forbidden to be in guest areas to socialize when I wasn’t on the clock, it was also forbidden for any guests to enter the crew quarters, so the complexities of trying to find a time and place to visit a personal acquaintance were quite frustrating.
Cruise Line Crew Member Contracts
Crew members are signed to a contract of a specific length, usually six to nine months. At the end of the contract, you can choose to extend the contract with no time off, or sign up again for another contract with a set amount of time off in between, typically six weeks.
You are paid a base wage with cash compensation for each week of your contract. Then money is accrued per week to be paid as a cash bonus when your contract is up. Included in your monetary compensation will be non-cash compensation such as food and rooming. So you won’t be charged for that, but they consider the value of that as part of your compensation package.
With a crazy work schedule and little sleep, I decided not to renew my contract. Though I will always look back at my time with Disney Cruise Line with fond memories, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, I knew that signing up for another half of a year onboard the ship was just not for me.
Leaving the ship is a bittersweet time. You’re excited to get on dry land for more than several hours at a time. It’s exhilarating to return to a bedroom or a house with a normal size bathroom and closets and bed. It’s a comfort to realize that you don’t have to battle daily with seasickness anymore.
But there’s also what you leave behind.
The crew members onboard cruise ships become a tight-knit family… after all, you live and work with these people every day, all day, with little or no contact with your actual family. When saying goodbye, it’s a very real possibility that you’ll never see your fellow crew members again. Everyone comes from around the world, so it’s not as easy as returning to a city and being in the same geographical area as old friends.
And there’s no guarantee that when you come back to the ship, if you renewed your contract, that your friends would still be onboard. Contracts end and begin at staggered times, people get transferred to other ships, etc.
How Guests Impact Crew Member’s Lives
And then there are the guests. Some guests really can make your day or your entire week, and it’s kind of sad to think that you’ll be leaving those experiences behind.
On one cruise, I was talking with a family who knew where I lived (a remarkable occurrence since I was living in a tiny town at the time). After commenting that I didn’t get many opportunities to talk with my family, they got my mom’s email address and emailed her to tell her that I was doing OK and they had just visited with me on the ship. That one simple act still remains with me today. It was something so simple, so easy, yet meant so much to me.
I started a conversation with another guest at a pin-trading event onboard. I was commenting how Chip and Dale were my favorite characters and I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to buy a Chip and Dale pin on land, since they weren’t available onboard the DCL. Surprisingly, the woman bought a Chip and Dale pin when she got back to Orlando and mailed it to me on the ship. Once again, such a simple act, yet it meant so much to me.
Would I Work on the Disney Cruise Line Again?
Those are the things that I remember most about my time onboard the Disney Wonder. Yes, the crazy work hours and unusual living conditions are always in the back of my mind, but I focus more on the unique opportunities that I was fortunate enough to experience, the places that I traveled, and the people from around the world that I met.
I remember the exciting energy that was present on the ship each and every time we set sail. Every sailing was a new and different experience that was entirely shaped by the people who chose to set sail with us on that specific voyage. Some sailings were more boisterous than others, some were more subdued, yet each took on a different feel depending on who checked in on embarkation day.
After I first left Disney Cruise Line, I felt a lot of nostalgia. There were a lot of crew members on the shows and commercials who I used to work with, and seeing them on television doing a role that I used to do brings back a lot of memories. I missed my extended family. I missed the allure of sailing.
Disney Cruise Line is such a great place for guests that my sister actually took her honeymoon on Disney Cruise Line.
But over time, I realized that I am too old and know too much to do that life again. The amount of work that you are asked to do, and the personal freedoms you give up, are too great for the small amount of money that you make. (And, yeah, it’s small! My contract actually stated that I had a 70-hour work week. Though I feel like I worked more.)
Sailing as a crew member onboard a cruise ship isn’t a permanent vacation. Neither is travel writing or full-time RVing. People like to look in at your life from the outside and assume it’s all fun. Without knowing the crazy amount of work it takes to get there.
I thought that crew member life would have gotten better in the two decades since I was a Disney Cruise Line crew member. I was shocked to find out it really hasn’t.
During one late night binge-watching on YouTube, I found the Gianna Alexis channel. And it was very disturbing to hear that not much has changed while living on a cruise ship, even 20 years later.
P.S. 20 years ago there was NO WAY that I would have been allowed to take video or photos or document my life on DCL the way that YouTubers can now.
Here’s some of her videos that you’ll want to listen to in order to know what life is like onboard the Disney Cruise Line now: