Disney Cruise Line
The Line in a Nutshell
Hands down, Disney is at the top of the heap when it comes to family fun, and its cruises overall are among the very best in the mainstream category in terms of service, cabins, entertainment, and food. Though Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Celebrity, NCL, and Princess all devote significant attention to kids, it took Disney to create vessels in which both kids and adults are really catered to equally, and with style and elegance. If you love Disney, you'll love these two floating theme parks. Sails to: Caribbean, The Bahamas, Mexican Riviera, Alaska, and Europe.
Both classic and ultramodern, the line's ships are like no others in the industry, designed to evoke the grand transatlantic liners but also boasting a handful of truly innovative, always-improving features. These include extralarge cabins for families, several restaurants through which passengers rotate on every cruise, fantastic Disney-inspired entertainment, separate adult pools and lounges, and the biggest kids' facilities at sea. In many ways, the experience is more Disney than it is cruise (for instance, there's no casino); but on the other hand, the ships are surprisingly elegant and well laid out, with the Disney-isms sprinkled around subtly, like fairy dust, amid the Art Deco and Art Nouveau design motifs. Head to toe, inside and out, they're a class act.
Disney is nothing if not organized, so its 3- and 4-night cruises are designed to be combined with a Disney theme park and hotel package to create a weeklong land/sea vacation. You can also book these shorter cruises (as well as longer cruises) separately.
Disney's ships attract a wide mix of passengers, from honeymooners to seniors, but naturally a large percentage is made up of young American families with children (with a smallish number of foreign passengers as well). Because of this, the overall age demographic tends to be younger than that aboard many of the other mainstream ships, with many passengers in their 30s and early to mid-40s. The bulk of the line's passengers are first-time cruisers and many (duh) are families, sometimes extended ones spread across several cabins.
For at least half a century now, Disney has been in the business of merging modern-day expectations and cutting-edge technology with a nostalgic sense of American culture: for childhood innocence, for the frontier, for an idealized turn-of-the-20th-century past, for our mythic heroes. And whether you're a fan or a critic, it's indisputable that at this point the company itself has become a part of our culture. There are probably few people alive -- and certainly few Americans -- who could fail to recognize Disney's more high-profile creations: Mickey, Donald Duck, Sleeping Beauty, "When You Wish Upon a Star." They've become part of our national identity. And that's why Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, and new Dream and Fantasy work so well. In nearly every aspect of the onboard experience, they have what most other ships lack: a cultural frame of reference that's recognized by almost everyone.
Though 7- to 14-night cruise itineraries are available in the Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska, and Europe, many Disney passengers purchase their cruises as part of 7-night seamless land/sea packages that combine 3- or 4-night cruises out of Florida with 4- or 3-night pre-cruise park stays. Disney buses shuttle passengers between Orlando and the ship -- about an hour's drive, during which an orientation video imparts some info about the cruise experience. At Disney's swank cruise terminal at Port Canaveral, check-in is usually made easier and faster because guests who have come from the resorts already have their all-purpose, computerized Key to the World cards, which identify them at boarding, get them into their cabins, and serve as their onboard charge cards. (If you're doing just the cruise, you get your Key to the World card when you arrive at the terminal.) You don't have to worry about your luggage, either: It's picked up at the resort and delivered to your cabin soon after you board.
Preview: Disney Dream -- The first of Disney's greatly anticipated pair of newbuilds, the 128,000-ton, 2,500-passenger (double occupancy) Disney Dream was slated at press time to debut in January 2011 and sister Disney Fantasy by mid-2012. Both are being built at Germany's Meyer Werft shipyard, the newbuilds are 50% larger than the Magic and Wonder, have 1,250 cabins, and will likely be deployed closer to home while the older ships are sent abroad.
Highlights include a 765-foot-long, four-deck-high flume ride called the AquaDuck (guests board a two-person inflatable raft and get swept away on a high-speed ride around the perimeter of the ship's top deck, including a thrilling turn that takes you 13 feet out over the ocean inside a transparent acrylic flume, 150 feet above the sea). Goofy's Sports Deck will offer miniature golf, a full-size basketball court that doubles for volleyball and soccer, a pair of miniature sports courts for kids, a walking track, and two digital sports simulators that will let you play soccer, tennis, basketball, golf, and other sports. The focal point of the Donald Pool area is an enormous 30X18-foot LED movie screen that will show Disney films and other stuff. A separate Mickey Pool for kids only will resemble those on sisters Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, with an oversize yellow Mickey hand supporting a water slide. There will be a sprawling Nemo's Reef water play area with water jets and bubblers mounted on full-size re-creations of characters from the Disney film Finding Nemo, and for adults over age 18, there's the Quiet Cover Pool and Cove Bar. Taking up nearly a full deck, the impressive kids and teens areas include the multiple rooms of the Disney Oceaneer Club, featuring characters from Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., as well as Tinker Bell's fairy forest. The Disney Oceaneer Lab is filled with maps, maritime instruments, and piratical gimcracks, and lets kids try their hand at animation, navigate ships through digital seas, and so on. Both playrooms will have an interactive play floor that kids can control with their movements and the playrooms will also boast an interactive 103-inch screen that allows kids to chat, play, and joke with Crush, the animated sea turtle from the Disney/Pixar motion picture Finding Nemo, and the mischievous animated alien Stitch. For tweens (ages 11-13), the Edge lounge is located within a false funnel atop the ship, and has a video karaoke system that uses green-screen technology. Teens have their own 9,000-square-foot club, called Vibe, an indoor/outdoor space where they can create and edit videos, play computer games, access an onboard social media application, or spin and mix their own dance tracks. Outdoors, there's a private deck with lounge chairs, two wading pools, misters and pop jets for cooling off, and deck games like Ping-Pong and foosball.
Other notable features aboard the Dream will include virtual porthole "windows" for inside cabins that feature real live footage of the sea; a spa with 17 treatment rooms including "spa villas" that come with their own private verandas; an adults-only entertainment area; three main restaurants, including the popular, digitally inspired, surface-changing Animator's Palate; and an adults-only French-inspired restaurant with a lavish tasting menu, a collaboration between Michelin two-star chef Arnaud Lallement of Reims's L'Assiette Champenoise and chef Scott Hunnel from the AAA Five-Diamond Victoria & Albert's restaurant at Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
While Disney's food is average cruise fare, its dining concept sets it apart from the big-ship crowd.
Traditional -- The neat catch with Disney's version of set dining is that there are three restaurants among which passengers (and their servers) rotate for dinner over the course of the cruise. On one night, passengers dine on dishes such as roasted duck, garlic-roasted beef tenderloin in a green-peppercorn sauce, or herb-crusted Atlantic cod in Magic's elegant 1930s-era Lumiere's restaurant or Wonder's equally elegant nautical-themed Triton's. On another night, they enjoy the likes of potato-crusted grouper, baby back pork ribs, or mixed grill in the tropical Parrot Cay restaurant. And on the third, they nosh on maple-glazed salmon, pan-fried veal chop, or roasted chicken breast with mashed potatoes at Animator's Palate, a bustling eatery with a gimmick: It's a sort of living animation cel, its walls decorated with black-and-white sketches of Disney characters that over the course of the meal gradually become filled in with color. Video screens add to the illusion, and the waiters even disappear at some point to change from black-and-white to full-color vests. It's kinda corny, but fun.
Each restaurant has an early and a late seating, and similar groups are scheduled to rotate together as much as possible (for example, families with young children, adults alone, and families with teens). Vegetarian options are offered at all meals, and kosher, halal, low-salt, low-fat, and other special diets can be accommodated if you request them when you book your cruise, or soon thereafter; once you're aboard, a chef and head server will meet with you to determine your exact needs. Kids' menus start with appetizers such as fruit cocktail and chicken soup before heading on to such familiar entree items as spaghetti with meat sauce, pizza, hot dogs, hamburger, Jell-O, and mac-and-cheese. The wine list is fair, and includes bottles by Silverado Vineyards, owned by members of the Disney family (namely Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller).
The 7-night itineraries have 1 formal night and 1 semiformal night (there are 2 formal nights on cruises of more than a week). The rest of the evenings are casual (no jackets or ties necessary for men). The shorter 3- and 4-night itineraries are casual throughout the cruise, though on all itineraries sports jackets are recommended for men dining in Palo, but not in Lumiere's/Triton's. Overall, on Heidi's last cruise, many went ultracasual: You could always count on a number of people in shorts and flip-flops at dinner (except at Palo).
Specialty -- Both ships also have a romantic adults-only restaurant called Palo, serving Italian specialties such as tortellini stuffed with crabmeat, grilled salmon with risotto, and excellent gourmet pizzas, such as one topped with barbecued chicken, black olives, and spinach. A decent selection of Italian wines is available, and the dessert menu includes a fine chocolate soufflé and a weird-but-tasty dessert pizza. The restaurant itself is horseshoe-shaped and perched way up on a top deck to allow a 270-degree view. Service is attentive but not overly formal, and you don't have to dress up, though a jacket for men may be nice. Reservations are essential, and should be made immediately after you board, as the docket fills up fast ($15 per-person cover charge). Palos also serves a great champagne brunch for adults; for $15 enjoy bubbly with an extensive buffet that includes seafood, high-end cheese, fancy pastries, gourmet pizzas (the Gorgonzola with grapes pie is excellent), and more.
Casual -- Breakfast and lunch are served in several restaurants, both sit-down and buffet. Casual dinners are served on most nights at the indoor/outdoor buffet. The chunky wood tables add a nice nautical touch and the food is impressive (from Mickey-shaped waffles at breakfast to shrimp cocktail at lunch), but overall, during rush hour, the restaurants on Magic and Wonder get too packed; considering the size of the ships, the space should be larger.
Snacks & Extras -- A boon for families with fussy kids, Pluto's Dog House, on the main Pool Deck, is always bustling because of its complimentary chicken tenders, fries, burgers, nachos, bratwurst, and other quick snacks served from lunch through the dinner hour. Nearby, Goofy's Galley serves up wraps, panini, fresh fruit, and ice cream with lots of toppings, and there's brick oven pizza at Pinocchio's Pizzeria. More highbrow options include champagne brunch (for $15 per person) on all sailings with sea days and an afternoon tea on itineraries a week and longer ($5 per person). On longer cruises, themed dining opportunities include breakfast with the Disney characters (for picture taking and posing) and afternoon iced tea and cookies with Peter Pan's pal Wendy. The 7-night and longer itineraries have the Pirates in the Caribbean dinner and deck party (the shorter cruises do only the deck party). It starts as a themed dinner in the restaurants, with waiters and passengers in pirate garb, and entree choices such as Black Beard's jumbo crab cakes, then moves up on deck for a party with music and lots of special effects, from black lighting to pirates rappelling from the funnel.
If you, or your kids, are soda junkies, Disney is the only mainstream line that dispenses the stuff for free, and it provides free milk, coffee, and tea 24 hours a day as well! You can pour yourself a fountain soda (and then another and another) from a poolside station 24-7 on both ships, which can add up to a substantial savings for you by the end of the cruise (though your teeth might not be better for it). There's also the Cove Café, serving gourmet coffees (at an extra cost) and light fare for adults (for free!).
The 24-hour room service menu includes kid favorites such as pizza and cookies.
Just like at the parks, Disney staffmembers hail from some 60 countries, including the United States. Service in the dining rooms is efficient and precise, but leans toward friendly rather than formal. The crew keeps the ship exceptionally clean and well maintained. Overall, things run very smoothly.
Though the ships typically sail full and are bustling, the crewmembers seem to remain perpetually good natured and smiley. The "happy to serve" mentality trickles right on up to the officer level, too: The captain personally autographs guests' scrapbooks, photographs, and mementos in a public area at least once per cruise, while top officers participate in the beloved Disney "pin-trading" sessions. So, what makes everyone work so dang hard? Hotel Director Mike Mahendran told our coauthor Heidi that performance expectations are high, but that it certainly doesn't hurt that crewmembers earn 10% to 30% more than the industry standard, and enjoy other perks that foster productivity.
It's no great surprise that travel agents tell us many guests rate service as one of the top features of a Disney Cruise.
Services include laundry and dry cleaning (the ships also have self-service laundry rooms) and 1-hour photo processing. Tips can be charged to your onboard account, which most passengers opt for ($12 per day is suggested), or you can give them out in the traditional method: cash.
Unlike most other cruise ships, there's no casino of any kind on board, not even a card room. These are family ships. Activities on both vessels include basketball, Ping-Pong, and shuffleboard tournaments; sports trivia contests; weight-loss, health, and beauty seminars; bingo, Pictionary, and other games; wine tastings; and singles mixers (though these family-focused ships aren't great choices for singles). Each ship also has a spa and a gym. There are enrichment activities on all itineraries -- though more of them are offered on the longer 7-night-plus routes -- including galley tours, backstage theater tours, informal lectures on nautical themes and Disney history as well as current Disney productions, animation and drawing classes, Q & A sessions with the captain, and home entertaining and cooking demos. All these activities are complimentary except wine tasting, which costs a hefty $12 per person. There are also dance classes, movies, and that cruise stalwart, the Not-So-Newlywed Game, which Disney calls Match Your Mate. All itineraries have a captain's cocktail party with complimentary drinks once per cruise, where the master of the ship (and a bunch of Disney characters) makes an appearance. Sports fanatics can watch "the game" in the Diversions sports pub.
Disney's fresh, family-oriented entertainment is some of the very best at sea. On both ships, performances by Broadway-caliber entertainers in the nostalgic Walt Disney Theatre include the Cirque du Soleil-style Disney Dreams, a musical medley of Disney classics, taking the audience from Peter Pan to The Lion King; the new Villains Tonight full-scale musical production featuring the likes of Hades, Captain Hook, Scar (of The Lion King), and the Evil Queen (of Snow White fame); and the Golden Mickeys, a tribute to Disney films through the years that combines song and dance, animated film, and special effects. Depending on the ship and length of the cruise, there's also Toy Story -- The Musical, based on the original Toy Story animated film; Twice Charmed -- An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story; All Aboard: Let the Magic Begin Variety Show; and the Remember the Magic show. On both ships, the stage design allows for lots of magic, with actors flying above the boards and disappearing in and out of trap doors, but the most refreshing thing about these shows is that they have story lines -- rare almost to the point of extinction in the cruise world, which mostly presents musical revues. Besides the stage shows, there's also a wild deck party called Pirates in the Caribbean, with Captain Hook and Captain Mickey playing chase and rappelling from funnels and generally wowing the audience with stunts; the party ends with fireworks fired from the ship.
Family game shows (including a game show called On the Nose, a trivia contest called Mickey Mania, and Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer, another trivia contest in the spirit of the millionaire quiz show) and karaoke take place in the Studio Sea family nightclub. Adults (18 and older) can take advantage of the adults-only entertainment area in the forward part of Deck 3, with its three themed nightclubs: one quiet, with piano music or soft jazz; the second a dance club; and the third, Diversions, a combination pub and sports bar, that won't win any design awards (it looks a lot like a T.G.I. Friday's or Houlihan's -- yawn). Another nightspot is the Promenade Lounge, where live music is featured daily. The Buena Vista Theatre shows movies day and evening, and since early 2009, 3-D movies are shown here and in the Walt Disney Theatre throughout the cruise. There is one pull-out-the-stops 3-D film with special effects like lasers, fog, streamers, and lighting effects shown once a cruise in the Walt Disney Theatre.
Not surprisingly, with potentially hundreds of kids on any given sailing (1,000 is typical), Disney's kids' facilities are the most extensive at sea, with at least 50 counselors supervising the fun for ages 3 to 17 between 9am and midnight daily. Nearly half a deck (comprising two huge play spaces and a nursery) is dedicated to kids. The Oceaneer Club is a kid-proportioned playroom with a Neverland theme and activities revolving around Disney/Pixar's Toy Story. Kids can climb and crawl on the bridge, ropes, and rails of a giant pirate ship, as well as on jumbo-size animals, barrels, and a sliding board; get dressed up from a trunk full of costumes; dance with Snow White and listen to stories by other Disney characters; or play in the kiddie computer room on PlayStations. The interactive Oceaneer Lab allows kids a chance to work on computers, learn fun science with microscopes, build from an enormous vat of K'nex (they're like fancy Legos), do arts and crafts, hear how animation works, and direct their own TV commercial. A new scavenger hunt is based on the superpopular High School Musical movies.
Disney recently started customizing its children's activities, meaning activities in the Oceaneer Club and Lab are open to all kids between ages 3 and 12 (to age 10 on Disney Magic), so children and parents can choose programs based on interest, not just age. Now, your youngsters can join siblings or friends in activities from Cinderella's Royal Ball (for princess wannabes) and So You Want to be a Pirate (billed as pirate training for young buccaneers), to Ratatouille Cooking School (where children bake chocolate chip cookies together), Animal Tracking Series (conservation education), and Flubber (where kids create magical green goo and other interesting concoctions). The newest kids' space aboard the Magic is called Ocean Quest (it's called Edge on the Dream) and the hangout space is geared to tweens ages 11 to 13 and features a replica of the ship's bridge, with real live footage of the real thing upstairs. Kids can sit in a traditional captain's chair and play a simulation game in which they can pretend to steer the ship in and out of port. A computer simulator like this was added to the Oceaneer Lab on the Wonder. Both ships also have computer and video games, arts and crafts, and movies. Overall, new activities are being introduced all the time to keep the program fresh for the ages 8-to-17 set. There's also a video arcade, though it's really cramped compared to most on Royal Caribbean, Princess, and the newest Carnival ships. Kids can eat lunch and dinner with counselors in the Topsider and Beach Blanket buffet restaurants, or one of the other dining outlets, on all evenings but the first one of the cruise.
For teens (ages 13-17), there's a teen hangout called the Stack on the Magic and Aloft on the Wonder. Isolated from mom and dad, the teen centers have two separate rooms, one large living-room-like space with video screens for movies and the other a teen disco with a handful of computers with Internet access as well as the popular Guitar Hero music video game. Dance parties, karaoke, trivia games, improv comedy lessons, and workshops on photography are offered for teens on all cruises. There are even more options on 7-night sailings, including learning how to DJ!
Neither ship has private babysitting services. Instead, the Flounder's Reef Nursery for kids ages 3 months to 3 years operates from 6pm to midnight daily, and also for a few hours during the morning and afternoon (hours vary according to the day's port schedule). No other line provides such extensive care for babies. Stocked with toys and decorated with Little Mermaid-themed bubble murals and lighting that gives an "under the sea" look, the area also has one-way portholes that allow parents to check on their kids without the little ones seeing them. The space has cribs, and counselors do change diapers (though you should bring your own). The price is $6 per child per hour, and $5 for each additional child in a family (with a 2-hr. minimum). Parents get a tuned beeper when they first check into the nursery, or the kids' program, so that counselors can contact them anywhere on the ship if their child needs them. To avoid suitcases bulging with diapers, a new service allows you to preorder diapers, wipes, and other baby supplies and have them delivered to your cabin on the first day of the cruise.
When the ship calls on Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in The Bahamas, kids can head for the new Pelican Plunge floating platform of fun just offshore, with its two slides and other water features, or to the Spring-a-Leak water park onshore. Scuttle's Cove is also a veritable paradise for the ages 12-and-under set, with barrels to crawl through, a giant whale-dig site to explore, and a new water play area with jets and geysers. Kids' counselors are on hand to supervise the fun if Mom and Dad want to head to Serenity Bay, the adults-only beach. For families who want to play together, there are bike rentals and lots more. There's also a secluded teen hangout spot called Hide Out.
Upon request, at the guest services desk, Disney provides the complimentary use of Diaper Genie units (for soiled diapers), cribs and playpens, bottle sterilizers, and strollers.