Disney Does Alaska: A Toddler's Take on Cruising

Mickey and Minnie on deck during Disney Wonder's first-ever Alaska cruise. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
By Matt Hannafin

Disney Cruise Line recently ventured north for the first time in its 13-year history, sending Disney Wonder off on the first cruise of its first Alaska season -- and the first cruise ever for my 2½-year-old son, Malcolm. For me, it took seeing the Disney cruise experience through Malcolm's eyes to really understand what Disney does, which is to give kids an experience that's even more fantastical than the everyday magic of childhood. Do dreams really come true? Is the world made of faith, trust, and pixie dust? If parents are lucky and willing, they too can follow their kids down the rabbit hole.

In that spirit, I'll let Malcolm have the first word, then follow up with my own observations.

Photo Caption: Mickey and Minnie on deck during Disney Wonder's first-ever Alaska cruise. Courtesy Disney Cruise Line
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Disney Wonder tied up at dock in Skagway. Photo: Matt Hannafin Matt Hannafin
Malcolm: "It's a BIG boat."

Matt: It is a big boat, though when I originally heard that Disney would be going to the 49th state, size was less the issue for me than philosophy. Is Disney -- a company whose whole raison d'être is presenting a candy-coated version of reality -- an appropriate fit for Alaska, the storied "last frontier"? But then we reached Skagway, and I remembered that, oh yeah, we're talking about an Alaska cruise here, not a two-week survival hike in Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Skagway, the old 1890s Gold Rush town, might as well have been purpose-built for Disney's kind of cruise. Its boomtown days only lasted for two years (1897-99). By 1908, the town had begun to look to tourism for its future, preserving the relics of its lawless era. By 1927, it even had a burlesque show themed on the bawdy "Days of '98" -- a show that's still running today.

Photo Caption: Disney Wonder tied up at dock in Skagway.
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The author's son is introduced to Chip...or Dale. Photo: Matt Hannafin Matt Hannafin
Malcolm: "It's a chipmunk … high-five."

Matt: Just outside Skagway, the Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp continues the theatrical/historical theme by recreating Skagway's earliest days as a Gold Rush tent camp. It's one of about three dozen "all ages" excursions available at the three ports Disney Wonder visits (many of the others being ages 8 and up). As such, this excursion is popular among families with toddlers, like mine -- and because of that, Disney has customized it by sending along several of their costumed characters to interact with kids as they pan for gold, go on a scavenger hunt among the historic tent displays, cross a short rope bridge, and take in a puppet-show melodrama about a prospector and his dog. Afterward, there's a salmon bake across the way, next to a walk-up bar that has several Alaskan beers on tap -- drawn by a gent dressed in Days of '98 style, sleeve garters and all.

Photo Caption: The author's son is introduced to Chip -- or Dale.
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Disney Wonder at the head of Tracy Arm, facing South Sawyer Glacier. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "It's a BIG SNOW! There's a boat, there's a boat!"

Matt: Though Disney Wonder's Alaska itineraries are pretty standard (visiting the "Big Three" ports of Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan), they're structured differently from most. You'll spend the first two days at sea, followed by three straight port days and a final day sailing back to Vancouver through the Canadian Inside Passage.

On Day 3, Disney Wonder visits a natural wonder: Tracy Arm. Located about 50 miles south of Juneau, this long, narrow, steep-sided fjord reaches back from the Stephens Passage stretch of the Inside Passage into the Coastal Mountain Range, ending at the twin North Sawyer and South Sawyer Glaciers. The passage is incredibly dramatic, with sheer mountain walls rising a mile straight up from the water, cut by cascading waterfalls, tree-studded valleys, and topped by snow-covered peaks. Bergs and brash ice calved off from the glaciers fills the passage's entire length, and if you have good eyes or binoculars, you might spot harbor seals sunning themselves on a floe.
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Disney is poised to introduce more kids to the wonders of Alaska than any other cruise line. Photo: Matt Hannafin Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "There's Mommy and Malcolm, and a snow."

Matt: Disney's take on Alaska's magnificence is little different from any other big-ship cruise line's approach -- aside from the fact that a parka-wearing Mickey Mouse or Goofy may be on deck with you and most children's activities are switched from the indoor play areas to the outside "Wide World of Sports Deck," where energetic kids can simultaneously work off their adrenaline and see the sights.

Adults and more contemplative kids can view the glacier from the rail of Wonder's long outside decks or from the glass-fronted bow-view area on the top deck, where coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are available to ward off the chill. Adults who want more warmth can take in everything through the big windows of the Outlook Café, a comfortable coffee bar located just between forward and midship on the top deck. It's one of the best seats in the house.
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Fantasy confronts fantasy: Disney Wonder meets Skagway. Photo: Matt Hannafin Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "Skwagway . . ."

Matt: Disney Cruise Line has always structured its trips for families, but also provided opportunities for both kids and adults to get off on their own and have fun. My guess is that that logic figured into the decision to schedule late stays in Skagway and Ketchikan, from which the ship doesn't sail until 7:30pm. For us, that meant we could take an early excursion and then put our son in his stroller for a nap while we continued to explore the towns.

In Skagway, a full two-hour nap allowed my wife and I to do a little shopping, pop into the historic White Pass & Yukon Route railroad station, trundle down some of the back streets, and even spend a little time at the Skagway Brewing Company, the third incarnation of a local business that had its first run between 1897 and 1904.
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Ketchikan's Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "Guys are working HARD … That's a girl."

Matt: Located just north of the Canadian border, Ketchikan is the last stop on Disney's Alaska itinerary, giving you one last opportunity to touch Alaska's outdoors, culture, and/or gift shops before wrapping it all up and flying home. We opted for an excursion to nearby Saxman Native Village, home to about 450 Alaska Natives, primarily of the Tlingit people. A center for the revival of Native arts and culture, the village derives a large part of its income from tourism, treating guests to a guided walk through the grounds, an explanation of their many totem poles, a demonstration of pole carving at the carving shed, and a performance by the Cape Fox Dancers at their beautiful Clan House -- where our little man was the first on his feet when they asked if anyone would like to join in for a dance.

Had he not subsequently collapsed into a ball of exhausted mush and fallen asleep in his stroller, we might have continued on to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, which is offered both as a separate excursion and in a pairing with the Saxman tour. Touristy but great fun, it includes log-rolling competitions, speed climbing, tree topping, chainsaw carving, and all the other skills every lumberjack needs. All of this is performed at an amphitheater just a few hundred yards from the cruise ship docks. One of Malcolm's friends' mommies called it "the best excursion we took all week, and the cheapest too."
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In some ways, kids are better prepared than adults for some Alaska excursions. Photo: Matt Hannafin Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "Malcolm's running to Daddy, on 'penshun bridge."

Matt: Juneau, Alaska's capital city, gave us another philosophical question to ponder: Do we head out to Mendenhall Glacier for a hike with glacier views or take the Mount Roberts Tramway and hike along the 1,760-foot tree line? Or do we
bow to traveling-with-toddler reality and take the "Sled Dog Discovery & Musher's Camp" excursion, where kids can get pulled in a wheeled sled by a 16-dog team, cuddle huskie puppies, and run across a long suspension bridge to a platform set high up in a rain forest tree?

Guess which won out? C'mon, look at that smile. We can see a glacier some other day.
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A family at Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "I want splash like that."

Matt: Had we decided to make the trek to Mendenhall Glacier, the most visited glacier in Alaska, we could have chosen between more than 30 excursion options, each of which gives a different level of exposure to the ice. There are low-impact tours that take you to the visitor center; tours that include hikes on a trail system that lets on to magnificent views of the glacier's face; glacier-view sea kayaking tours; flightseeing tours that take you up over the glacier; and a variety of helicopter tours that touch down on the glacier itself.

For my money (literally, since they're not cheap), the helicopter tours are the way to go and are among the best cruise excursions I've taken -- pre-toddler. Different packages give you more or less time on the glacier. The Helicopter Glacier Trek and Extended Helicopter Glacier Trek include two or three hours of rugged hiking on the glacier surface, outfitted with boots and ice axes provided by the helicopter company. Disney even offers a teenagers-only glacier trek. Some tours add additional activities, such as the Dog Sled Adventure by Helicopter, which combines a flight over the Juneau Icefield with a landing on one of the area's glaciers, where you board dog sleds with expert mushers.
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Snow White charms kids at the Oceaneer Club. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "Snow White not scary."

Matt: The three sea days aboard Disney Wonder's Alaska cruises give kids plenty of time to get into the groove of Disney's unparalleled kids' program, which offers a steady stream of games, playtimes, storytimes, movie viewings, dress-up parties, and character interaction. For my own little man, the venue of choice was the Oceaneer Club, a Peter Pan-themed playroom with a mock pirate ship, a fast slide, a dance floor, music, and lots of other kids -- basically, the recipe for a perfect Malcolm day.

Because of Malcolm's age, and the fact that he's still in diapers, we weren't able to just check him in for the day and have some adult time. Instead, we had to accompany him, or, occasionally, check him into the Flounder's Reef Nursery, which provides play and care for kids 3 months to 3 years.

Photo Caption: Snow White charms kids at the Oceaneer Club. Courtesy Disney Cruise Line
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Disney Dreams, one of several family-friendly shows presented on board. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "Show's nice. See show again?"

Matt: Disney Cruise Line puts on the best theatrical shows at sea for families and kids, and some of the best seagoing shows period -- along with the great Blue Man Group show aboard NCL's Norwegian Epic and the full-on performances of Chicago: The Musical and Hairspray aboard Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, respectively.

In Alaska, guests can take in three great production shows, all packed with song and dance, animated film, and special effects. The Golden Mickeys is a faux awards show in which Disney classics get all the gold. Disney Dreams follows the story of a little girl who learns, with Peter Pan's help, that dreams can come true. And then there's my personal favorite, Toy Story -- The Musical, based on the original Toy Story animated film. Bring earplugs, though: Toy Story in particular was so loud that half the adults and kids around us were covering their ears. Yo, Disney: Turn it down.

Photo Caption: Disney Dreams, one of several family-friendly shows presented on board. Courtesy Disney Cruise Line
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The author's son turned out to be eerily good at shuffleboard. Photo: Matt Hannafin Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "Shovelboard …."

Matt: Aside from the kids' center activities, Disney Wonder offers plenty for both kids and adults. The latter (assuming they can get away) can head by day to the heated Quiet Cove Pool and adjoining café, or by night to a trio of nightclubs and lounges clustered together on Deck 3. Kids get their own heated pool with a two-deck-high waterslide, and families can dunk together at the midship Goofy's Pool. Up on Deck 10, the Wide World of Sports Deck has basketball courts and a small soccer pitch.

Inside, there's a family-oriented entertainment lounge called Studio Sea for game shows, karaoke, and dancing; the Promenade Lounge for family music and dancing in the evenings (a favorite with most of the toddlers on our trip, including Malcolm); and a 270-seat cinema showing mostly recent-release Disney films.
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A typical balcony stateroom aboard Disney Wonder. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "That's MY cabin."

Matt: Fleetwide, the Disney ships offer the most family-friendly cabins at sea, with standard accommodations equivalent in size and amenities to the mini-suites on most other ships. All include a sitting area with a sofa bed to sleep families of three, and some include one or two pull-down bunks to sleep families of four or five. The majority of cabins have two small bathrooms, one with a sink and toilet, the other with a sink and shower/tub combo. It's an arrangement unique to Disney Cruise Line, and is a great boon to families trying to get out the door.

Décor is virtually identical from cabin to cabin, combining modern design with nostalgic ocean-liner elements, such as a steamer-trunk armoire for kids' clothes. About half have private balconies; those that don't include jumbo-size porthole windows. All cabins also include a mini-fridge for keeping juice and snacks fresh; a TV showing Disney classics along with contemporary programming; a hair dryer; and lots of storage space -- though the low-slung beds don't leave enough room underneath to stow large suitcases.

Photo Caption: A typical balcony stateroom aboard Disney Wonder. Courtesy Disney Cruise Line
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Disney Wonder in Tracy Arm. Photo: Disney Cruise Line Disney Cruise Line
Malcolm: "Boat's swimming."

Matt: Disney Wonder will offer this itinerary throughout this summer season, departing each Tuesday from Vancouver's Canada Place cruise terminal and visiting Tracy Arm, Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Fares begin around $1,400 per person for the first two guests in a cabin, with kid fares starting around $1,000.

For Summer 2012, Disney Wonder will change things up, sailing instead from Seattle and adding a call in Victoria, British Columbia, along with Tracy Arm, Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Fares are currently starting around $920 per person based on double occupancy.

Photo Caption: Disney Wonder in Tracy Arm. Courtesy Disney Cruise Line
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