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When Will Disney Cruise Line Resume Sailings?

“When will Disney Cruise Line set sail again?” and “what’s the likelihood my DCL vacation will be cancelled?” have become common questions. This covers what the CDC’s latest orders mean, when passenger sailings could resume in U.S. waters, and when DCL will resume scheduled itineraries. (Updated November 23, 2020.)

We’ll break the post down into two parts. The first is a timeline of events, with an emphasis on those that have occurred in November 2020, that collectively establish what’s necessary for Disney Cruise Line to resume sailings and the earliest possible date that can occur. Nothing speculative about this–it’s all public info released by the CDC, CLIA, and Disney Cruise Line.

The second part will digest all of that and offer predictions as to what it means for the future of Disney Cruise Line sailings in 2021. Obviously, we don’t have a crystal ball, and this is a constantly changing and evolving situation. New information and data emerges and case numbers change on a daily basis. All of that–and more–impacts when Disney Cruise Line will restart sailings. However, our hope here is to offer an informed analysis of when cruising might actually be possible again…

As noted above, we’ll begin with a timeline of events and the latest updates from the United States federal government and the cruise industry. The most significant recent development is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its No Sail Order for all cruise ships that operate in U.S. waters as of November 2020.

In so doing, the CDC also issued a Framework for Conditional Sailing Order. This will allow a phased approach to resuming cruise ship passenger operations in U.S. waters, charting a course for Disney Cruise Line and other companies to begin sailing again. However, it’s not as simple as that–DCL won’t immediately be coming back (as is obvious from Disney’s subsequent cancellations).

To the contrary, the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing establishes a phased, deliberate, and intentional avenue toward resuming passenger services when it is safe. To get there, the cruise industry needs to assure the CDC that they are responsible with respect to the needs of crew, passengers, and port communities.

You can read the full CDC Order for yourself here. For those whose idea of fun does not include combing 40 pages of arcane legal jargon and footnotes, we’ll break down what it means and offer a summation here…

The initial phase will be crew-centric, consisting of testing and additional safeguards for cruise employees. During that, the CDC will ensure that cruise ship operators have adequate health and safety protections for crew members while the operators build laboratory capacity needed to test future passengers.

Subsequent phases also won’t carry normal ticketed passengers. Cruise ship operators will run simulated voyages to test the ability to mitigate risk. This phase will have simulated mock voyages of increasing duration, complexity, and numbers in order to test and implement scaling up and the feasibility of how each company implements the CDC plan.

In order to resume passenger sailings, Disney Cruise Line and other companies must earn a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” from the CDC based upon its ability to meet the established health safety protocol and requirements. Once the cruise operator earns its Conditional Sailing Certificate, there will be a phased return to cruise ship passenger sailings in a manner that mitigates risks among passengers, crew members, and communities.

Basically, there is an initial ramp-up of establishing proper protocol and health safety measures, followed by phases of mock or simulated sailings with crew and voluntary participants, followed by another phased process with normal guests. To complicate matters further, the CDC indicates that these phases are subject to change based upon public health considerations and cruise ship operators’ demonstrated ability to reduce risk.

It’s also worth noting that even upon issuing this framework, the CDC is advising against cruising. In fact, they have actually raised their warning from a “Level 3 Travel Health Notice” to “Level 4” as of late November 2020. Accordingly, CDC recommends that all people avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, because the danger and rate of transmission on cruise ships is very high.

Cruise passengers are at increased risk of person-to-person spread of infectious diseases and outbreaks have been reported on cruise ships. Passengers who decide to go on a cruise should get tested 3-5 days after your trip AND stay home for 7 days after travel. Even if you test negative, stay home for the full 7 days. Those who opt not to test need to quarantine for 14 days.

At this point, it would thus seem that the CDC discourages Americans from cruising, but wants to create a rigorous and workable framework to mitigate risk due to the economic ramifications of the industry being shut down for close to a year.

After the CDC Order, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the leading voice of the global cruise community that represents 95% of global ocean-going cruise capacity, issued its response. CLIA swiftly announced that its members would maintain the ongoing voluntary suspension of cruise operations in the U.S. through at least December 31, 2020.

CLIA members will use the remainder of the year to prepare for the implementation of extensive protocol and modifications to ensure health safety, in accordance with guidance of public health experts and the CDC. Throughout the No Sail Order, CLIA has emphasized that member cruise lines will sail again when the time is right. CLIA has reiterated that the timing will be based on a number of factors, including, most importantly, input from scientists and medical experts.

Disney Cruise Line followed up the “Level 4” CDC announcement and other news with another slew of cancellations, which impact sailings aboard the Disney Fantasy, Disney Wonder, Disney Magic, and Disney Dream. First, Disney Cruise Line quietly removed all January and February 2021 sailings from their online booking portal, and also cancelled all previously-booked itineraries through February 6, 2021.

Second, DCL removed sailings with US embarkation and debarkation ports that are over 7-nights. This move follows the CDC’s rule that all sailings through October 2021 can only be up to 7 nights.

It’s likely that this will not be the last slew of cancellations for DCL. Disney has been removing itineraries closer to sail dates, as Disney Cruise Line crew members works to refine protocols for an eventual return to service, while working together with industry partners on a path to resuming operations.

As with past cancellations, guests booked on 2021 sailings who have paid in full will be offered the choice of a future cruise credit or a full refund. Guests who have not paid their reservations in full will automatically receive a refund of what they have paid so far.

The latest update comes via the Walt Disney Company’s Fourth Quarter 2020 Financial Results, which we’ve discussed at length previously. During that, Disney CEO Bob Chapek addressed where things stand with Disney Cruise Line, and fielded a couple of questions about DCL’s return.

Chapek stated that the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order presents some really high hurdles, but also clarity about what the future holds and a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

It’s a bit of an aside, but Chapek expressed general bullishness about Disney Cruise Line on the call. For one, he indicated that the Disney Wish remains on track for a Summer 2022 maiden voyage. The other two ships are pushed back to 2024 and 2025–but the big news here is that neither have been cancelled outright, as have many projects at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

Chapek indicated that demand was already strong for sailings in Summer 2021 and into 2022 (undoubtedly driven in part by the enticement of future cruise credits for previously-cancelled sailings). Disney feels the company can successful create a safe, self-contained environment aboard their ships, replicating the success of Walt Disney World’s NBA bubble.

Here’s where the objective portion of the article ends and our speculation begins. From all of the above, we know with certainty that Disney Cruise Line won’t set sail before January 2021 at the absolute earliest. We also know that operators have already begun making modifications to their ships and have been inundated with volunteers for mock sailings, both of which have made headlines and been confirmed by industry representatives.

To Chapek’s point about the NBA bubble, it would seem Disney Cruise Line is uniquely situated to navigate these modified waters more adeptly than other cruise operators. This isn’t to knock the efforts or safety of Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, and others–it’s just that Disney is already experienced in this. Not only via the NBA bubble, but in reopening Walt Disney World and several other parks around the world. That should give Disney Cruise Line a leg up in implementing modifications and smoothly conducting test sailings.

Nevertheless, in parsing the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, it appears that this is likely a methodical process that will take longer than two months from start to finish. While no timeline is provided in that order, it’s reasonable to envision the process taking until at least February 2020–especially considering that the CDC’s focus for the next couple of months probably won’t be on certifying cruise ships given that cases are spiking around the United States.

In the Conditional Sailing Order, the CDC itself emphasized that its framework could change; there’s also the reality that circumstances and prioritization of cruising’s return could change on January 20, 2021. The current administration has expressed a desire to reopen the maritime economy, with the vice president collaborating with the cruise industry and holding several calls or meetings.

Unlike Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the reopening fates of which have been decided at the state level (hence one being open since this July and the other possibly not reopening until July 2021), the cruise industry is beholden to the federal government. Accordingly, the timeline could change with the incoming administration.

There are other practical realities at play. Cases continue to rise throughout the United States, and if this trend has not abated by the beginning of 2021, cruise operators might be reticent about resuming sailings. Even with testing and health safety measures, higher baseline case numbers and positivity presents greater chances of problems.

It’s also unlikely that a family brand like Disney would want to tarnish its reputation by resuming general public sailings amidst a surge, especially after the negative PR of reopening Walt Disney World during the summer spike in Florida. (You might notice Disney has gotten quiet about Disneyland in the last couple of weeks after near-daily activity prior to that.)

It doesn’t help that the very first cruise ship, the SeaDream 1, to resume sailings in the Caribbean just this week had an outbreak on-board despite precautions. This resulted in calls for the CDC to reinstate its No Sail Order for cruise ships and reverse efforts to restart the industry’s US operations.

It seems that Disney Cruise Line and other operators view the the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order as more onerous than anticipated. (However, the CDC’s “increasingly assertive advice” might prove beneficial in the long-run, as it’s less likely to be “undone” in late January or beyond.)

There’s the possibility that these companies will recognize all of the above downside, plus the impediments raised by the CDC, and voluntarily hit pause or slow down reopening plans until more public health breakthroughs reduce their burdens. It’s worth noting that for Disney Cruise Line, the beginning of the year is the off-season, anyway.

Ultimately, that’s a lot of pessimism about Disney Cruise Line resuming sailing. Unfortunately, we simply do not believe January or even February 2021 are likely timeframes for when DCL starts back up. Even with as much as Disney has learned and the relative ease Disney Cruise Line will have in implementing modifications, there are obstacles and pitfalls to returning that quickly.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re optimistic about next year for a number of reasons. First, even though the CDC framework is resulting in further delay now, it sets the industry up for better, continuous success in 2021. Second, we remain hopeful that the current rising case numbers will follow the trajectories of past surges, steadily decreasing after the holiday season. Finally, we’re optimistic that the “cavalry is coming” with vaccines starting to reach the general public by Spring 2021. Given all of that, our view is that it’s entirely plausible for Disney Cruise Line to resume sailings by April 2021.

Planning to set sail aboard one of the DCL ships? Read our comprehensive Disney Cruise Line Guide to prepare for your voyage, plus plan entertainment, activities & excursions, and learn what to expect from your Disney cruise! For personalized planning & recommendations, click here to get a cruise quote from a no-fee Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. They can find you all of the current discounts, and help you plan the details of your cruise!

Your Thoughts

Do you think Disney Cruise Line will resume sailing by Spring 2021, or is summer or beyond more reasonable? What’s your predicted timeframe? Are you expecting significantly modified operations once DCL returns? Would you sail with Disney Cruise Line next year, or will you wait longer? Do you agree or disagree with our advice and assessment? Any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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