Epcot’s IllumiNations Cruise: Fireworks, Seats, and a View

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Epcot’s IllumiNations Fireworks Finale, Image by Melissa Hayes

Walt Disney World is a giant playground with so many things to do beyond getting on rides that it’s hard to even notice some of them, let alone fit them all in to the family vacation. Some of these Easter Eggs are simple and free (like, hanging around Magic Kingdom long enough to see the ‘kiss goodnight’ or hunting down hidden Mickeys around the parks and resorts), while others require months of advance planning and an extra dose of money (the Keys to the Kingdom tour is still waiting). I don’t actually have anything formal that spells out the ones that appeal to me, but there’s definitely a list hanging around in the back of my head.

This fall, on a trip geared around the Food and Wine Festival held every year, I got to check a new one off the list: Epcot’s IllumiNations fireworks cruise. Aside from making me happy, it had the added advantage of appealing to my older-than-your-typical-Disney-park kids.

For more about the park in general, see EPCOT: The Past, Present, and Future of a Unique Theme Park

The Basics

This particular cruise is more of a boat ride: it’s a 10-person pontoon boat with a captain to take care of the piloting, a cooler full soft drinks/water, and a big basket full of snacks. It departs from the marina at the Yacht Club about an hour before IllumiNations (Epcot’s fireworks/water/light/laser show) is scheduled for the night. You get a little tour of the waterways between the Epcot resort area and Hollywood Studios before tying up in the central Epcot lagoon, just a little past the bridge between England/France for a front seat view of the show.

Our Experience

Despite staying at the Beach Club (so we could walk to the marina, no Disney transportation required), we were (of course) running a little late. We’re always running late. Our captain was waiting for us as we straggled up to the marina and we were the last boat to leave, but ultimately, that didn’t matter in the slightest. We’d ordered a little bit of food from Private Dining/Room Service at the hotel, so we had some cheese and veggies to munch on as we got our slightly abbreviated cruise down to Hollywood Studios. It was a perfect October night, warm but not humid and our captain had an easy touch that made the trip a delight.

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Disney’s Boardwalk from the water, Image by Melissa Hayes

The Boardwalk was all lit up and looking very nice, as were the Yacht and Beach Club and the Swan and Dolphin. (Sadly, none of my pictures came out there because I love the more colorful lighting they use in contrast to the white on the other hotels.) Our captain chatted with us about upcoming attractions and identified the construction areas that we were floating past (mostly the new Skyliner transportation system and the back of the new ride based on Ratatouille in Epcot). About five minutes before the start of the show, we tied up just on the lagoon side of the bridge and settled in to watch.

If you’ve been to Epcot for the show, you know people start staking out benches and viewing spots an hour ahead of time (earlier if it’s a crazy-busy time of year), so this was very Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous. (Not that I’m dating myself there or anything…) Plus, the seats in the boats are very comfortable and there is a canopy in case of a little rain. (I once had a Disney event manager assure me that IllumiNations goes off every night unless there’s a hurricane passing by. Having shelter for a rainier night would be a nice insurance policy.)

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Epcot’s IllumiNations fireworks begin, Image by Melissa Hayes

We really did have an amazing and close view—no trees or islands blocked our view and we could feel the heat from the big fireball. The view was centered on the globe and fountain area, so we missed a little of the lights that outline the buildings, but the water-level view was more than worth that bit of a loss. Plus, I did mention the seats, right? (And they’re cushioned, too. No standing around or sitting on concrete for an hour and then getting squashed by the crowd pressing in from the back.)

We were on the boat that tied up closest to the shore so we had people from a reserved terrace within speaking distance on one side, and then a second boat on our other side, but it was still very private. The most unexpected part of the evening were the ducks who came paddling over to investigate us. They completely ignored the fireworks and flames, so it was pretty clear we were visiting their home waters.

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Cruising back to the Yacht Club Marina, Image by Melissa Hayes

A second Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous moment came when our captain delivered us back to the Yacht and Beach Club, with no walking in the giant mob of exiting park-goers required. (WDW veterans know that every step saved at Walt Disney World is pixie dust for the next day, and that goes double for introverts not having to deal with an extra couple thousand people at the end of a long day.)

The Necessary Details

Here’s what you need to know to book your own fireworks cruise (as with all things WDW, these specific prices and dates can change).:

  • Reservations open 180 days in advance (plus the 10 days that a reservation at a Disney-owned hotel will get you.) This is definitely one of those things you want to call for as far in advance as possible.
  • You can’t book this online; you have to call (407) WDW-PLAY or (407) 939-7529.
  • The boat we had costs ~$350 + tax. You pay a flat fee – so you can’t just buy two seats—but you do get the boat to yourself.
  • Our boat’s capacity was 10, and no, we couldn’t squeeze extras on. (I did not ask about kids younger than 3, which is the magic age for not needing park admissions or for adding on to hotel reservations, so that might be worth an inquiry.)
  • It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the IllumiNations schedule. They did call to let us know that the time had been pushed back an hour, but only a few days in advance, which would have caused a scramble with people arriving if we hadn’t been actively monitoring the time and proactively called the week before to confirm the time change.
  • If you’re celebrating something, banners and paper decorations are included in the base price of the reservation. Let them know when you make the reservation.
  • Cancellation refunds are given up to 48 hours in advance, so go ahead and book and decide later if it fits with your plans.
  • As noted, each boat has a big cooler of soft drinks and bottled water and a basket of snacks, like chips, popcorn and cookies, enough for everyone to have multiple options.
  • You can order additional food from Private Dining at the Yacht Club (aka, room service) at their $$$$ prices, but it gets dropped off at the boat, as they say at WDW, automagically. Call (407) 939-3160 to discuss options. Based on my timing (which was only a few days in advance), I’d say to call no later than the week before your date. We only wanted some light options, so the limited menu available when I called wasn’t a problem, but if you want more than snack-type food, call earlier. Strictly speaking, I don’t think we needed the cheese and fruit and veggie platters we ordered, but they were really nice to have (and were big enough that we were eating off of them for the rest of the weekend.)
  • We tipped our driver at the end, strictly our call. At no time did anyone from WDW ever mention this, but it seemed like the thing to do. So, be sure you have cash (we were ‘borrowing’ from the grad student kids, whoops.)

So, was it worth it?

Ohhh, my goodness, yes.

I know, you’re looking at me like I’m crazy, because yes, ~$400 is not inexpensive. I totally agree (and we paid for this cruise in full; it was not a comp.)

But.

Here’s the thing: the cruise leaves from the Yacht Club and you do not need park admission at any time. If you’re only visiting WDW for a few days (currently, fewer than 4 days), adding an extra day to see the show from inside the park is going to run you about $100 per person. That would have been an extra $500+ just for my family. Even if you’re planning to visit Epcot on another day, taking the cruise opens up an extra hour or so for other in-park options (and the crowds are all at the show, so lines are reasonable elsewhere.)

For us, it was a cost-effective (well, okay, cost-effective for WDW–I know that’s not normal life, but what in WDW is?) and relaxing way to see a great fireworks show (and one that is apparently going away soon!) For comparison, the Frozen Ever After Sparkling Dessert Party, which offers a reserved viewing area for the fireworks, costs an additional $79 adult/$47 child (plus tax) over the cost of park admission. In addition to the reserved group viewing area that gets you a dessert buffet (including signature beverages, both alcoholic and non-), plus an after-hours ride on Frozen Ever After, which might work better for your family, but it was hard to beat the private seats and the special cruise for my older boys and friends.

It was a fantastic way to kick off the weekend (we had people arriving just in time to walk on the boat, so it really did kick things off.) I think it would also work as a omg-we-need-a-break-from-our-vacation option. There are some excellent restaurants (at varying price points) within walking distance, so you could do dinner and end the evening with the fireworks for a low-key, yet still Disney-esque way to spend the day. Or, they say that one of the best ways to make the most of an experience is to end with a bang–and this would be a literal bang to end the trip.

I’m already setting a calendar reminder to book for next year.

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