Welcome to the community. I happen to be visiting for the first time here and noticed your cordial posting. I've sailed 17 cruises with my spouse with 4 of the last 6 on Disney. Currently we're reserved for the upcoming 15 nite LA to Port Canaveral Trans Panama Canal voyage in August.
As such we have some experience with cruising and Disney.
If you're looking for advice and impressions of what to expect - there is obviously a veritable endless range of data to consider. I am still picking up bits of knowledge and insight - all while enjoying the sense of discovery with planning and actually sailing. Having said that I will drop a couple major considerations:
1) Our FAVORITE cruise line is currently Disney - we have 2 young kids but would still consider Disney #1 without kids. The #2 cruise lines on our list are more or less everyone else provided it is a newer ship sailing interesting ports. Our #3 priority/preference would be the older and/or smaller ships of any line going to ANY port... provided it is dirt cheap.
One example of cruise off of list #3 is COSTA... which we sailed last December. It was incredibly DIRT CHEAP for a week in the Carribean... $1400 for 4 in a window cabin with 4 ports + 1 joke of a port call. Although this sailing was with the Costa Fortuna - a mega liner of 105,000 tons launched in November of 2003 (it's relatively NEW).... it gets horrible reviews because it is targeted for the European market - and hence suffers from food and service considerations.... even though we were satisfied with the service .... we had mixed feelings about the food. Plus the entertainment tends to have an international audience - so there are lots of dancing (little language)... and hence the announcements are often made over the loud speakers in 5 (FIVE) languages. And to my spouse and I we thought this had an interesting international quality to it - and it was by FAR the nicest ship with decent port rotation for the LEAST MONEY EVER. On the downside - the late nite and lunch fare was horribly limited and repetitive AND... the childrens' program was woefully amaturish and IMO simply BAD. Incidentially ... most folks would also count any CARNIVAL sailing in this catagory too.
An example of a ship/sailing off of my #2 list would be a Norwegion Cruise LIne Alaska sailing. The price was middling... ship newish when we sailed ... decent entertainment... good or great dining with generally excellent "premium" dining for a fee... and the ports as well as the TIME in ports was typical. We've also taken a HAL (Holland America) sailing that fits into this group comfortably too.
As for a #1 type cruise - we would count Regent (expensive), and Disney (considered a bit pricey by some) in this group. With Disney we've always experienced exceptional service, quality ambiance, and unusually well maintained ships. The entertainment fits our expectations as Disney at one time boasted that had the largest stages at sea even when compared to ships larger then thier 80,000 tons. we'd say that if not the largest anymore - they still can lay claim to having the best FAMILY entertainment at sea... and the best theaters (free of obstructions blocking sightlines, and comfortable seat arrays with modest rakes and pitch). Now on the down side - I'd say although the food is good ... it is not great. And because they currently have just 2 ships - they tend to have comparatively little variety in port calls which interest us. However, they just brought out a sailing with Tortola and the transcanal (which we're booked for) which do interest us. So.... having said so much ... is it truly worth the considerable cost to sail the likes of Regent or Disney? It depends upon your preferences and minimum requirements to be HAPY with a cruise vacation. For us... I'd say we like it all as long as it meets or exceeds our expectations (low or high).
Other remarks: Well if I were new to cruising I would probably appreciate knwoing a little of the following:
a) try reverse auctions to get the lowest rates. I'll NOT mention the site name to stay compliant with forum guidelines... but if ya PM me I can let you know privately.
b) shop for your best rates otherwise. I've found that different TAs (travel agents) have come up with my best deals. Sometimes I skip the lowest price if I suspect the TA is not as competant as I'd like.
c) We've sailed HURRICAN season many years to get the lowest prices with no problems. However, actually ONCE we had our sailing reduced from a 7 niter to 4 niter on account of a hurricane. In compensation the Disney cruise line refunded about half our money, upgraded us from a window to veranda, gave us 25% off a future sailing and provided other benefits that boosted our package of "compensation" for sailing the reduced schedule instead of cancelling to an amount GREATER than what we paid originally! Now - not every cruise line will do something like that. IE, I read of how NCL sailed THROUGH rough hurrican whipped seas to make port and exposed the ship to extrememly rough seas - getting a large numebr of passengers seasick! They filed a class action lawsuit - and gained revenge through the bad press they generated.
d) Check you cabin location CAREFULLY. I prefer to avoid the front quarter of the ship (too much ships motion and risk of sea sickness)... and look carefully at what is directly above or below your cabin. You do not want to be anywhere near a disco dance floor or sports deck if you sleep lightly. Actually - our idea of the "best value" is a window cabin located close to dead center on the ship with only other cabins above and below. And otherwise acceptable alternative is a basic veranda dead center or interior cabin free of noisey neighbors above or below. AND... if you or any of your party are vulnerable to seasickness - in addition to trying medications like bonine - we prefer accupressure wrist bands and the ELECTRIC powered RELIEF bands. They work for us and allow us to avoid medications.
e) Look at the times you have in port - as some sailings are odd ball port calls. AND ... consider sea days and private island calls as EXTREMELY NICE features as well! We love an occasional sea day and especially enjoy the private island calls. Although a cruise is not really a cruise without all three of these things mentioned (Exotic international ports, private islands and sea days).
f) Generally - you don't have to BUY most shore excursions through the ship. It's overpriced with the ship - and often when you step off the ship in international ports you'll see many locals offerring the same things for as much as half the price of the ship sold shore excursions. AND... the further you walk from the point you disembark - the LOWER the price will be for most shore excursions. IE, the first few "locals" trying to sell you on a "circle island" tour (or what-ever) will be highest priced... and the last guys selling the same thing - who are also furthest from the point you step ashore will often be the cheapest. I would generally NOT go with the cheapest - nor would I ever go with the first few/most expensive. AND... do ask about the condition of the car/van/taxi you're going with. Make sure it's air conditioned and not too beat up looking. Consider if your driver speaks decent english - ask if they know much about the island to tell you about things ... or simply ask them questions to see if they answer with any knowledgable remarks. AND ... ASK other passengers who are possibly more experinced for tips and advice - especially if they have been to the port you're going to visit in the days ahead!
g) Remember - the servers and cabin stewards all come from the 3rd world for the most part. They do need your gratuities ... so expect to compensate them properly (good or if bad). I usually give more then recommended because I usually get more than I expect. Believe me... your wait staff and cabin steward can tell when you're the type who might stiff them or short them with the gratuities. And do you really want an unhappy server bringing your family all thier meals for week?
h) Expect to try the cheapest sailings as well as (eventually) the nicer more pricey ones. How else can you compare if not through personal experince? I think there is merit in all - provided you avoid dipping below any minimum expectations for vacation. My spouse and I love a bargain as sailing 2 or 3x compared to sailing ONCE on something nicer always has us evaluating comparative merits!
i) have fun - remain open minded and adventurous - as your vacations are concentrated rewards for YOU - and if you've got a decent flexible attitude then you're very likely to have a great time (for the money).
Hope this helped a little. Here is a link to some photos from an 8 nite 2006 Carnival SPIRIT voyage from San Diego to Mexico (as far south as Alcapuco) http://www.dotphoto.com/Go.asp?l=nma4cnc&P=%2Cmmj&AID=3381804&Show=Y
and here are just a handful of photos from an 11 nite Disney Wonder sailing we took in 2006 to the Southern Carribean. http://www.dotphoto.com/Go.asp?l=nma4cnc&P=DCL2006e&AID=3919270&Show=Y
You'll notice the Disney pictures are more of the people we met on the voyage - as the loyal repeat cruisers are like us and we spent far more time mixing with them. Still - there are a few shots of the voyage and ship itself too. Enjoy!