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Are Disney’s Cruise Lines Actually Safer Than Their Theme Parks? We Asked an Expert

PHOTO: Disney Cruise Line

Kinda-sorta-maybe-actually-no-not-really-at-all.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, cruising has been deemed too risky. While Disney theme parks, water parks, and resorts across the country reopened, Disney ships sat empty. But now the CDC has given cruise lines clearance and the maritime mouse house is setting sail from the U.S. in what seems like the first time in forever. On paper, it looks good. And my family jumped to book a Christmas-themed Very Merrytime Cruise for this November. We’re all vaccinated. We’re all adults. And compared to the current policies and crowding at Disney theme parks, cruising sounds a lot safer. But is it really? Experts say kinda-sorta-maybe-actually-no-not-really-at-all. Here’s everything you need to know for sailing with Disney Cruise Line this fall, from how things differ from the theme parks to what disease experts say is the safest type of Disney trip you can take right now.

Rules, Bubbles, and More Rules

In general, rules keep us safe. And right now, you’ve got to follow a lot of rules to sail with Mickey compared to visiting him at Disney World or Disneyland. In line with the CDC-issued conditional sailing order and guidelines from international ports of call, Disney Cruise Line will require:

  • All guests 12 and older must be fully vaccinated and must provide a negative COVID-19 test before embarkation.
  • Kids 11 and younger must provide a negative test result within the window of five days to 24 hours before a sailing. Antigen testing will not suffice and results must be from a PCR test.
  • Documents for all passengers must be uploaded to Disney Cruise Line’s Safe Passage website prior to boarding.
  • In addition to pre-cruise testing, all guests must take another PCR test at the cruise terminal on the day of boarding.

Any guest, regardless of vaccination status, who tests positive for COVID-19 will not be allowed to board. Once screened and onboard, all guests ages two and older are required to wear a face mask indoors at all times—unless actively eating, drinking, or taking a photo—regardless of vaccination status. However, masks are optional in areas outside such as the pool deck, putt-putt golf course, or inside your own stateroom or balcony.

There are also new cleaning protocols such as a “purification system” that cleans both air and surface areas “using a process called ionization.” And all HVAC air filters on board have been upgraded to “MERV-13 high efficiency.” All of this creates a bubble-like atmosphere. And there’s something very comforting about a bubble. For families with children who are too young to get vaccinated, it feels like a safer option, since everyone onboard has either been vaccinated or tested negative. Where in comparison, U.S. Disney theme parks feel more willy-nilly with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds for fireworks, no vaccine requirements, and optional masks outdoors even in packed ride queues. It’s a stark contrast to the current policies at Disneyland Paris, where proof of vaccination or a negative test result is required to visit theme parks and even resort hotels.

Ultimately, the underlying concern is that I don’t know if guests around me and my family are being truthful in this collective honor system at theme parks. The current policies for Disney Cruise Line require passengers to tell the truth. And there is some peace of mind to that. But after reading a very lengthy email response in bold from the CDC press team followed by an incredibly sobering conversation with a doctor at the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), it’s clear that cruise bubbles have holes.

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The Illusion of Safety

“Think twice before a cruise ship,” said Dr. Ravina Kullar, infectious disease expert and IDSA Fellow. “And be mindful in a theme park.”

Kullar didn’t sugarcoat the reality of the Delta variant surge and the risks of travel, regardless of vaccination. When asked if we as a society should even be going on cruises or visiting theme parks right now, her answer was a swift no. “There’s been mixed messaging here in the United States,” she said. “We’re in a pandemic. Things are getting worse. The Delta variant is so much more transmissible yet theme parks are open. Cruise ships are opening up. So, no. It should not be happening.”

But Kullar also added that the economy does need to move forward. And for families determined to vacation this fall, it’s important to consider your family’s risk level, any comorbidities or people who are immunosuppressed. And that’s when we dug into the policies of Disney cruising vs. theme parks and I posited a whole bunch of hypotheticals.

Is a Disney Cruise Safer Than a Disney Theme Park?

“Yes, having vaccine verification is great,” Kullar said. “I say yes. On paper it looks good. It can be strengthened, but compared to the theme parks that don’t have those vaccine mandates and it seems like more lenient policies in place, I think the cruise ships seem a little bit better in their policies. But one thing to keep in mind: cruise ships are a confined space. And from the start of this pandemic, the cruise ships are the culprit for many outbreaks. It’s a sitting petri dish for any infectious diseases that are there and for several days that’s problematic. I think it’s great to see that there are vaccine mandates but my concern is that it could still be a super spreader event if it’s not done right.”

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What Could Make the Disney Cruise Policies Safer?

“I would take it a step further and have everyone do a COVID test every day that they’re on that ship,” she said. “I don’t think getting a test before sailing off is adequate enough. The way this virus works is that you may be asymptomatic and harboring that virus and transmitting it unknowingly. So, there are rapid tests. And I think those rapid tests have not been utilized enough. If that can be implemented, I think that could be great.”

Kullar also suggested a tweak to the mask policy: “I think it’s good that they’re mandating face masks be worn indoors. My concern is that outdoors as well we’ve seen some outbreaks. Outdoor situations can happen, especially with this Delta variant. I would take a step further and say why not wear a mask outside as well when you’re in a public situation. If there’s an event outside on the deck, I would also recommend wearing a face mask. And physical distancing is key as well. Physical distancing and masks go hand in hand.”

What About the Enhanced Air Purification? Does It Make a Difference?

“That alone is not going to do it,” she said. “I would say no.”

And What About Shortening a Cruise to 4 Days Instead of 7? Some Say That’s Safer?

“No,” Kullar said. “Anything greater than 15 minutes being around somebody––the risk will be there.”

But if We’re All Vaccinated We’re Protected, Right?

“We know that getting vaccinated is not enough,” she said. “There’s a waning efficacy. It may even be a good measure to find the date of the last vaccination in order to determine how adequate everyone’s immune system and protection still is [before sailing].”

So, What’s Really Safer: Cruise or Theme Park?

“I would almost say a theme park,” she said. “As long as you wear a mask and you physically distance yourself more from people. I would say a theme park because it’s more of an outside, uncontained area. Versus a cruise ship that’s contained. And I think that’s my concern with that. Even with showing your vaccine, there have been studies that have shown that in areas where people had to show their vaccine status, there have still been outbreaks. Yeah, I would say a theme park is probably a little bit safer.”

What Are Safer Alternatives?

“Outside is much safer than inside,” she said. We chatted about Blizzard Beach, one of Disney World’s water parks, and Disney resort hotels and Kullar liked the idea of prioritizing pool time and outdoor dining. “It’s very low risk to catch Covid-19 in the pool.”

But for the safest Disney trip you can book right now, Kullar said it’s probably the Private Adventures from Adventures by Disney, the Mickey-owned and operated tour guide company. “That sounds like the safest with just you and your family,” she said. “And you know each other’s COVID practices. That sounds like the safest bet, keeping it private. I think that’s the safest among those three options.”

Hypotheticals aside, Kullar said the safest trip is one next year. “Let’s put that [trip] deposit for next year,” she said. “Let’s just all hang on a little bit longer and save that money for next year where it’s going to be much safer.” And there’s a lot of Disney magic to look forward to and start planning for 2022, from the brand new Disney Wish cruise ship that sets sail in June to the 50th-anniversary celebration at Disney World that will run throughout the entire year at all four parks.

1 Comments
I
ilenerand September 27, 2021

I totally disagree. As someone who has both visited Disneyworld and cruised in the last few weeks- cruising is definitely safer from covid.  On line many times during my visits to Disney world I was in close proximity to many others for way longer than 15 minutes- people who may not have been vaccinated, probably hadn't tested negatively for covid recently and may have not felt well but didn't want to cancel their vacation.  Then after potentially getting infected myself- I went back to the parks a few days later and possibly spread the virus to many others. Yikes! Multiply this by the hundreds visiting the parks each day.
in the cruise I was was certain everyone was vaccinated and had a negative covid test before coming onboard.  Sure- cases can slip through, but with the tracking bracelets we all wore and the strict protocols they had in place on the ship- I felt infinitely safer from covid on the ship!
the article also talks about the pandemic spreading covid onboard ships at the onset.  Covid was not spread any more rapidly on a cruise ship than in the multiple other places like arenas, churches, parties, workplaces, etc. - it was just more easily to identify the people who got it on the ships and for the media to hype that.  Very misleading article!