Disney Dream: A Magical Kingdom at Sea

Disney Dream at sea. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/David Roark Photo by David Roark
By Matt Hannfin

When a cruise line waits a dozen years between launching ships, you gotta expect -- or at least hope -- that they do the new one right. Well, no worries here: Disney Dream, the great mouse empire's first new ship since 1999's Disney Wonder, is as elegantly designed, whimsical, and functionally practical as its two older fleetmates, but with much more.

In fact, the Dream has more space (at 128,000 gross tons, she's more than 50 percent bigger), more and larger kids' facilities, more dining options, more adults-only retreats, more high-tech wizardry, and more of what made the older ships work in the first place -- that patented Disney mix of old-time nostalgia and wide-eyed wonder, all wrapped up in an operation that ticks along like a Swiss watch.

Photo Caption: Disney Dream at sea. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/David Roark
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"Captain" Mickey Mouse and "First Mate" Minnie Mouse stroll the promenade deck. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky
First rule for sailing Disney Dream: You pretty much have to love Disney, or be sailing with someone (preferably a young someone) who does. You'll spot the company's characters, history, and iconography in the lavish production shows based on Disney films, in the animation artwork that adorns the public areas, in the abstracted Mickey Mouse ears that find their way into carpet designs and wall panels, and in the industrial-strength Mickey Mouse clocks mounted on the outside decks.

To non-initiates, it can all feel a bit "Drink the Kool-Aid" (the Disney trivia sessions and the cross-marketing of other Disney products pushed the line for me), but there's no denying that a lot of it packs an emotional or at least nostalgic wallop. That's the kind of connection you get from consciously working your charms on generations of children around the world. (I still have my Mickey Mouse clock, which still works.)

Photo Caption: "Captain" Mickey Mouse and "First Mate" Minnie Mouse stroll the promenade deck. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky
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For show only: Faux ventilation intakes up on the deck, by the funnel. Photo by Matt Hannafin Photo by Matt Hannafin
Disney, in all its manifestations, has always been about using images and emotions to create a feeling of timelessness: When Disneyland opened in the mid-1950s, its "Main Street USA" attraction worked because many of the parents and grandparents bringing their kids there had grown up in the turn-of-the-century environment it evoked, and it brought back their youth.

In designing its ships, Disney Cruise Line worked with a similar idea, though its models -- the great ocean liners of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s -- are mostly familiar to today's travelers from movies.

It's remarkable, though, how the look of those ships has been re-created on Disney Dream. How else to explain the two funnels, a leftover from the days when the public associated more funnels with more power? (On Dream, only one is real; the other houses a loft-style lounge for "tweens" aged 11 to 13.) How else to explain the yellow-and-white props in this photo, meant to evoke the ventilation intakes that (with luck) brought cool breezes below decks in un-air-conditioned ocean liner days? How else to explain that Disney has painted its ships' hulls to look as if they have a sheer (an elegant, bowed shape from bow to stern, characteristic of old liners), when in fact they do not? It's all part of the show.

For show only: Faux ventilation intakes up on the deck, by the funnel.
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Disney Dream's dazzling three-deck atrium. Photo by Matt Hannafin Photo by Matt Hannafin
Disney's evocation of the old liners doesn't stop on the outside. Inside, many of Dream's public areas reflect Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles.

The first thing that guests see when they step aboard is Disney Dream's three-deck atrium, which sets the mood for much that follows. Enormous and refreshingly free of furniture, fountains, and fake plants, this area is used not only for embarkation and as a meeting point, but as a venue for events like the Princess Gathering, a meet-and-greet photo op for kids with Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and other Disney princesses.

Photo Caption: Disney Dream's dazzling three-deck atrium.
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Disney Dream's pool deck, different from any other at sea. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Jimmy DeFlippo Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Jimmy DeFlippo
As the father of a 2-year-old, I know that a pool -- preferably one with a waterslide -- is a very, very good thing. On Disney Dream, the classic pool deck has been re-imagined to support Disney's mission of serving kids and parents. At its center are the shallow, kid-oriented Mickey's Pool and the deeper, family-oriented Donald's Pool. The former sits next to a two-story waterslide and the Nemo's Reef water-play area; the latter is beneath a giant LED screen where Disney favorites are projected. Both pools can be covered by a huge, sliding deck, providing more space for events like the "Adventures Away!" sail-away celebration and "Pirates IN the Caribbean" deck party.

Hidden from view in this photo is the Quiet Cove Pool and Cove Bar, an adults-only area that sits beyond the forward funnel, separated from the main pool deck by switchback walls and a large "This Area Is Reserved for Guests 18 and Older" sign. Its pool has three interconnected sections: a five-foot-deep plunge pool, a pool with submerged seating, and a shallow sunbathing pool with six barstools rising right from the water, beside the curved Cove Bar. Deck chairs are arranged around the space, in both shade and sun, and the lovely Cove Café sits just aft behind sliding glass doors, offering a quiet coffee-bar experience.

Photo Caption: Disney Dream's pool deck, different from any other at sea. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Jimmy DeFlippo
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Kids enjoying the AquaDuck. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson
The main attraction on the pool deck is the AquaDuck, a 765-foot water flume that takes off from the aft funnel on Deck 16 and propels riders (in two-person inflatable rafts) through a clear tube out over the side of the ship before looping them up, down, and around the entire pool deck, with a final, gentle splashdown on Deck 12. Expect both kids and adults to line up for the ride.

Photo Caption: Kids enjoying the AquaDuck. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson
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Disney Dream docked at Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/David Roark Photo by David Roark
A highlight of every Disney Dream cruise -- as it has been for each of Disney's Caribbean and Bahamas cruises -- is a visit to Castaway Cay, the line's 1,000-acre Bahamian paradise. Here, guests can swim and snorkel, rent bikes and boats, get their hair braided, shop, get a massage, eat a barbecue lunch, or just lounge in a hammock.

The island's best quality is its accessibility. Unlike other private islands that require ships to anchor offshore and shuttle passengers in on tenders, Castaway Cay's dock allows Disney guests to just step right off the ship and walk or take a shuttle tram to the island's attractions. Families get their own beach, lined with lounge chairs and pastel-colored umbrellas. You'll also find a 12-acre snorkeling course, offshore water-play structures, and a pirate ship, plus kayaks, paddle boats, banana boats, and sailboats for rent.

Parents who want quiet time can drop preteens at Scuttle's Cove, a supervised children's center for ages 3 to 12, with activities including arts and crafts, music and theater, scavenger hunts, a faux archaeological excavation site, and a 1,200-square-foot water play area. Teens can skulk off to the Hide Out, a teen-only retreat near the beach volleyball and soccer areas.

Without kids, adults can then high-tail it to Serenity Bay, a mile-long beach in the northwest part of the island that offers a bar, a buffet, and massages in private sea-view cabanas.

Photo Caption: Disney Dream docked at Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/David Roark
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Kids' activities in Pixie Hollow, part of the ship's enormous children's center. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky
Taking up about half a deck and divided into multiple spaces for different age groups, Dream's children's facilities are the best and most extensive in the cruise world.

For the youngest set, the It's a Small World Nursery caters to infants and toddlers from 3 months to 3 years. With décor inspired by the classic (and trippy) Disney theme park attraction, the nursery has lots of interactive features, kid-size tables and chairs for crafts and games, and a calming naptime room.

Next door, the Oceaneer Club for kids 3 to 10 offers multiple rooms opening off a central rotunda. Some themed rooms focus on characters and sets from Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. Inside Tinker Bell's Pixie Hollow, kids can dress in fairy costumes and create crafts under a twinkling pixie tree.

In the club's rotunda itself, there's a stage for kids' productions and storytelling sessions, plus a big screen for movies and interactive chats with Crush, the animated, surfer-dude turtle from Finding Nemo.

Farther aft, the Oceaneer Lab, also for the 3-to-10 set, offers an Animator's Studio where kids can work on art and animation; a Sound Studio where kids can create their own tunes via song-making software; a main stage for performances and movies; labs for conducting science experiments; and an interactive "Magic Play Floor" where kids' movements control the action.

Tweens (ages 11-13) get a lounge called the Edge, located within the ship's faux forward funnel. Teens have their own 9,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor club called Vibe, where they can create and edit videos, play computer games, access an onboard social media application, or spin and mix their own dance tracks. Teens can also play old-school games like Ping-Pong and foosball or lounge on a private deck with two wading pools, misters, and jets for cooling off.

Photo Caption: Kids' activities in Pixie Hollow, part of the ship's enormous children's center. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky
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"Enchanted Art" aboard Disney Dream and its effect. Photo: Disney Cruise Line/Matt Stroshane Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Matt Strokshane
I have to hand it to Disney: While some of the features on Dream knock you over the head (the AquaDuck, the huge kids' center), others just sneak up on you. In the latter category, count the "Enchanted Art" sprinkled around the ship's public areas. They look just like the other pieces of Disney animation art and memorabilia that makes up the bulk of Dream's art collection, until you get close enough to set off their little sensors. Then, just watch the kids' (and adults') faces light up.

For example, a scene of Bambi and his friends comes to life as butterflies flutter through the forest; Mickey and Minnie Mouse begin dancing as fireworks go off behind them; Mickey, Donald, and Goofy build their own cruise ship (and watch it fall apart). A scene from Peter Pan goes interactive when kids can take hold of the ship's wheel and steer Captain Hook's ship around Neverland Cove.

As if that's not all cool enough, the Enchanted Art pieces make up an interactive detective game. When guests hold game cards up in front of the sensors, the art gives them clues to help them solve the mystery and save the day. You can even play more than once, with randomized outcomes.

Photo Caption: "Enchanted Art" aboard Disney Dream and its effect. Photo: Disney Cruise Line/Matt Stroshane
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A suspiciously good-looking family dines at the Animator's Palate. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Preston Mack Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Preston Mack
Like Disney Magic and Disney Wonder before her, Disney Dream employs a dining strategy that's unique in the cruise industry: Rather than dining at a single restaurant throughout the cruise, or making reservations at a specialty restaurant, families sailing on Dream shuttle automatically through three different themed restaurants, with their servers accompanying them to provide continuity.

Animator's Palate, a carry-over from the earlier Disney ships, is done up as an animator's studio, full of faux pencils, brushes, models, and sketches. Once the meal is underway, though, more than 100 large video monitors throughout the room come to life, transporting diners to the undersea world of Finding Nemo. The highlight is Crush, the aforementioned surfer-dude turtle, who through a complex interactive system actually talks with guests, calling kids out by name and commenting on action in the room.

Enchanted Garden, serving a seasonal menu, takes a completely different tack, inspired by French conservatory gardens and adorned with white trellises, faux greenery, fountains, and light fixtures in the shape of flowers. Though located on a lower deck, the room mimics the day's hours, full of vibrant light at breakfast and lunch, then dialed down to nighttime shades at dinner, with electronic stars twinkling overhead.

The ship's main dining room, the Royal Palace, is just what it sounds like, inspired by Disney royalty films like Cinderella, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast. The decor is storybook lavish, with storybook artwork to match.Photo Caption: A suspiciously good-looking family dines at the Animator's Palate. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Preston Mack
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Adults-only dining at Remy, Disney Dream's premier restaurant. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson
When parents are able to park their kids in the kids' center for the evening and grab some alone time, Disney Dream offers two adults-only dining options, both sufficiently hidden away on the top decks, where the kids would have trouble tracking you down.

Remy, the ship's premiere restaurant, takes its inspiration from the great cooking film Ratatouille, which my son has renamed "Mouse Who Cooks." Devoid of actual rat imagery, the restaurant goes instead for a sublime, Parisian feel, with an art nouveau decor, French-inspired cuisine, nicely framed ocean views, and intimate seating. A private "Chef's Table" room modeled directly on a setting from the film offers a multi-course tasting menu. Remy is the only restaurant aboard at which men are required to wear a jacket (ties are optional).

Next door, Palo serves Northern Italian cuisine either at in its classic, Venice-themed dining room or al fresco on the restaurant's private outdoor teak deck. Between the two restaurants is Meridian, a travel-themed bar/lounge with an outdoor cigar bar.

Photo Caption: Adults-only dining at Remy, Disney Dream's premier restaurant. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson
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Onboard fireworks during the weekly pirates party. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Matt Strokshane Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Matt Strokshane
During the weekly "Pirates IN the Caribbean" party, Dream presents the biggest (and one of the only) fireworks displays presented aboard a cruise ship, choreographed to music from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Peter Pan, and the old Pirates attraction at Disney World.

Down below, at the 1,340-seat Walt Disney Theatre, Disney keeps up its reputation of offering some of the best entertainment at sea today, with productions inspired by Disney's back catalogue of films and characters. Disney's Believe is a full-on, scripted musical, following the story of a workaholic botanist dad who has to learn to pay more attention to his daughter -- with the help of Aladdin's Genie, the wizard Merlin, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and others.

The Golden Mickeys is basically a song-and-dance revue in the form of an awards show, with each award leading to a musical number from the film being honored. A third show, Villains Tonight points the spotlight at Disney bad guys old and new, with Hades (from Hercules), Captain Hook, the Evil Queen from Snow White, and others trying to bring real evil back to the Underworld.

Anyone who prefers their celluloid on celluloid can skip the live-action shows and take in a feature at the smaller Buena Vista Theatre, which when I was aboard was screening the new Tron Legacy and Toy Story 3.

Photo Caption: Onboard fireworks during the weekly pirates party. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Matt Strokshane
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Skyline, the most elegant room in "The District," an adults-only nightlife complex. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson
Disney has done some interesting things with the layout of Dream, skipping the kind of open, flowing floorplan currently fashionable in ship design and breaking things up into often hard-to-find chunks. Why's that? My guess is, it's so your kids won't be able to find you. Case in point: The District, a complex of adults-only bars and lounges located at the end of a loooooooong passageway down the port side of Deck 4 (or via the elevators from above, if you like).

Unique among cruise ship entertainment areas, The District combines five different bars/clubs jumbled one right next to the others, with doors connecting them but often offering little hint of what's on the other side. Walk toward one and it swings open by itself, giving entree to a completely different nightclub experience -- the District Lounge, for instance, with its mod, stylish decor and small-combo piano music; or the 687 sports bar, serving its own signature red lager on tap and named for the "block number" by which Dream was known at the shipyard, before her naming; or the high-style Pink champagne and cocktail bar, where tiny pink elephants from Dumbo seem to dance in backlit glass bubbles on walls; or the chic, cozy Skyline Bar (pictured here), where the wall panels behind the bar show panoramic images of the Paris, Rio, New York, Chicago, and Hong Kong skylines (one per night, with featured drinks to match).

The District's largest room, Evolution, is a multi-use space for dancing, comedy shows, live musical performances, and cabaret. In a corridor on one side of The District, a large food table offers small sandwiches, cookies, and other finger food in the evenings: a nice touch.Photo Caption: Skyline, the most elegant room in "The District," an adults-only nightlife complex. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson
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A deluxe oceanview stateroom with veranda -- comfortable, stylish, and smartly designed. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Matt Strokshane Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Matt Strokshane
When Disney Cruise Line started up in the late 1990s, it revolutionized stateroom design by designing its cabins specifically for families, with additional space, additional beds (either fold-out couches and/or bunks that pull down from the ceiling), and two separate bathrooms, one with toilet and sink and the other with a shower/bath and sink. Those features carry over to Dream, which also offers some nice little tweaks to make things even better -- from simple things like raising the beds higher to allow storage of suitcases underneath, to big things like the fact that 70 percent of staterooms on the vessel have balconies.

Cabin decor is cheerily nautical; bathrooms are classically tiled, mimicking both early 20th-century style and Disney's own white, black, and red signature colors; sinks are exceptionally deep, to minimize splashing; cabins come with iPod docks, 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton bed linens and duvets, and "Wave Phones" that serve as onboard walkie-talkies. Pull-down beds open up to a scene of Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, and Wendy soaring through the night sky.

Photo Caption: A deluxe oceanview stateroom with veranda -- comfortable, stylish, and smartly designed. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Matt Strokshane
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An interior stateroom, featuring industry-first "Magical Portholes." Photo by Disney Cruise Line Photo by Disney Cruise Line
Inside cabins are the foot soldiers of the cruise biz: necessary but unglamorous. They get the job done, but you don't want to have to hang out with them too long. But lo and behold: Disney has found a way of making them kinda cool. (As has NCL aboard its new Norwegian Epic, whose interior Studio Cabins are some of the coolest digs aboard. But that's another story.)

Take a look: That porthole you see there is actually a video monitor hooked up to a high-definition camera mounted outside the ship, broadcasting real-time images of what's going on out there, with each view corresponding to the stateroom's location (port or starboard, toward the bow or stern, etc.). To create its signature blend of real and imaginary, the Disney folks have also created computer simulations that allow Disney characters to pop up in the "Magic Porthole" -- hippos in tutus dancing across the waves, Peach the starfish from Finding Nemo attaching itself to the "window," etc.

Photo Caption: An interior stateroom, featuring industry-first "Magical Portholes." Photo by Disney Cruise Line
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Tinker Bell and a faerie in training, at the kids' center. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky
So is Disney Dream for everyone? Nah, she's not. Standard-issue adults who don't happen to be Disney fanatics could probably have a fine time aboard, but there are lots of other ships out there, just as nice or nicer, where they could do as well or better. I'm just guessing here, but I'd imagine that reality is just fine with Disney, whose target market is a self-perpetuating renewable resource: the family.

My own little boy is only two, an age where pretty much everything is still amazing and fascinating, but give him another year or so, and a little more focus, and I'd be happy to take him aboard Dream for a few days to dance around with pirates, talk to an animated turtle, and hug an 83-year-old talking mouse. Me? I'll be at the Cove Café, sipping an espresso and catching up on a couple years of back reading.

Photo Caption: Tinker Bell and a fairy in training, at the kids' center. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Diana Zalucky
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Disney Dream arriving in Port Canaveral, Florida on January 4, 2011. Photo by Disney Cruise Line / David Roark Photo by David Roark
Disney Dream sails year-round 3-, 4-, and 5-night Bahamas cruises from Port Canaveral, Florida, all stopping at Nassau and Castaway Cay (the latter getting two separate visits on the 5-night cruises).

Photo Caption: Disney Dream arrives in Port Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 4, 2011. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/David Roark
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