When making your cruise reservation you will be asked which dinner seating you prefer. This may seem like an odd question, but basically there are two “tracks” for the evening meal and entertainment. The earlier “track” on the Disney cruise line has dinner at 5:45 and then the evening show at 8 p.m., if you choose to go see it. The later track does the reverse -- they see the show at 6 p.m. and eat at 8 p.m. You don’t miss anything, it is just a matter of preference. Keep in mind, there is no requirement to eat in the ship’s main dining room for dinner.
On our very first cruise with the kids, when they were 3 and 6 years old, we chose the early dinner seating. At that time, their bedtime was usually around 8 or 9 p.m., so there was no way the later seating would have worked. If the kids took a nap at some point during the day, they were usually able to stay awake through the 8 p.m. show or play in the kids’ clubs after dinner, but not for long.
However, since that first cruise, we have always selected the late dinner seating. Initially, it was an oversight on my part (I didn’t realize it had been selected), but we came to enjoy the late dinner seating for a variety of reasons. Of course, by the time of our second cruise, our kids were older (9 and 11, I believe) so that made a difference. Why do we like the late dinner seating? First, if we have been in port that day we don’t have to rush back onto the ship to make our dinner seating. The time of departure from ports varies, but 5 p.m. is a common time for the ship to depart. If you’ve been ashore all day, it can be challenging to be ready for dinner by 5:45. Plus, sometimes you’re just exhausted from the day’s activities ashore and need a nap before dinner. Second, we enjoyed seeing the show at 6 p.m., before dinner. It was a nice way to spend some family time together, then we would see a game show at 7’ish and be ready for dinner at 8 p.m. After, the kids would head to their respective clubs and hubby and I could go relax. On nights where we weren’t interested in the show, the later dinner seating gave us more time to rest and get cleaned up for dinner.
A few quick items of note. First, you can usually switch dinner seating once you are on the ship if needed -- just go to customer relations. It is typically easier to switch from the earlier seating to the later than vice versa. Second, you are not limited to eating in the main dining rooms at the appointed times! There are always several dining choices open during dinner time, typically including a buffet, that you can enjoy at any time. So if you missed the 5:45 time slot, no worries, you will still be fed somewhere on the ship. Finally, don’t be surprised if you end up seated with other families at your dinner table. Disney tries to match families with kids around the same ages at the same tables. While this may seem strange at first, I have to say that on every cruise we have been seated with another wonderful family or two and it has been delightful! It is also an easy way for the kids to make a first friend on-board and they can head to the kids’ clubs together after dinner -- it’s always easier to enter a new space when you have a friend with you.