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October 13, 2004 -- So many folks love Disney, that great all-American symbol of wholesome family fun. Year after year millions and millions of people fork over big bucks to spend time with that famous mouse and his friends at Disney World or Disney Land.

It's the same story with Disney's pair of cruise ships (tel. 800/951-3532; www.disneycruise.com). Built in the late 90s as elegant, understated tributes to Walt's legacy, the Disney Wonder and Magic consistently command higher rates than other family-friendly big ship peers and sail full week after week.

"Disney can and does command the price differentials that we see, and on a consistent basis," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruisin' Plus in Nashville (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com).

Talking real numbers, here's what Funk pulls up for comparable balcony cabins on a 7-night Caribbean cruise departing January 8, 2005 (all rates are for a family of four, including port charges and taxes):

  • Disney Magic (category 5), $5,709
  • Carnival Glory (category 8C), $3,190
  • Royal Caribbean Mariner of the Seas (category D1), $3,823
  • Princess Caribbean Princess (category AD), $3,890

"Disney is such a class act we find clients are more than willing to pay a little extra for such a solid product," says Mark F. Fletcher, vice president of Operations for Charlotte, North Carolina-based Mann Travel & Cruises (tel. 800/835-9828; www.123travel.com), "they see real value in Disney."

So, just what exactly is so great and valuable about a Disney cruise?

"Our clients who have cruised both Disney and other lines suggest that the onboard service particularly sets Disney apart from the mass-market lines," Funk adds.

On a recent 3-night Disney Wonder cruise to the Bahamas with my toddler twin boys, I found it was more than good service that set the Wonder apart from the pack. Sure, crew was eager, professional and ready to please, especially in the dining venues -- no small feat considering the ships typically carry about 2,500 passengers. But there were a slew of other unique family-friendly features that also appealed to this peace-seeking mother of two.

Cabins

  • Done in a pleasant Art Deco style, special touches include a framed 1930s black and white photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Walt Disney on the ocean liner Rex. But it's the amenities that really count.
  • Standard outside cabins are large and measure 214 square feet and all but the standard inside cabins boast a bath and a half; a toilet and sink in one room and a bath/shower combo and a sink in second room. In comparison, standard outside cabins are 185 to 220 square feet on Carnival's Destiny, Spirit and Conquest class ships; and 170 to 180 square feet on Royal Caribbean's Radiance and Voyager class ships -- none of these ships offer as convenient a bathroom set up.
  • All Disney cabins have a mini-fridge, bathtub and sitting area and sofa bed; many have balconies.

Child Care, Activities & Special Amenities

  • All big-ship lines (Royal Caribbean, Carnival, NCL, Princess, Celebrity and Holland America) have supervised activities for kids and private and/or group babysitting, but the services are generally offered only for children ages two or three on up. None have wading pools for children still in diapers, pull-ups or swim diapers.
  • The Flounder's Reef Nursery on the Wonder and Magic offer the most extensive baby care at sea, accommodating young children between ages three months and three years for three to six hours during the day plus 6pm to midnight daily @ $6 an hour, reservations are required (surprisingly, it's the QM2 that comes closest with supervised care for ages one and up, while Carnival offers group sitting for children as young as 4 months 10pm to 3am nightly, plus for few hours during port days).
  • If accompanied by parents, toddlers under age 3 can play on the jumbo-sized pirate ship and other climb-on animals and toys in the Oceaneer Club (many lines do not permit the under 3 set to use the playrooms, even with parents).
  • In Mickey's Kids' Pool area, both ships have a special shallow splash pool with circulating water for diaper-wearing babies and toddlers.
  • The ships' offer the largest and best-stocked kids spaces at sea that operate till 12 or 1am daily, including the cavernous Oceaneer Club for the 3 to 7 set; sprawling Oceaneer Lab for 8 to 12s with computers, microscopes and tons of other stuff; and a two-room teen complex (called "Aloft" on the Wonder and "Stack" on the Magic) with video screens, private Internet center and a disco.
  • While other lines attract plenty of characters, only Disney can claim life-sized versions of its famous cartoon crew, who make appearances throughout the day for photo ops, hugs and handshakes with guests of all ages.

Dining and Snacking

  • Free unlimited fountain sodas from a poolside station 24-7 since June 2004.
  • Poolside snack bars offer complimentary chicken tenders, fries, burgers, pizza and ice cream nearly all day long.
  • Cookies and pizza are included on the 24-hour room service menu.
  • Guests can rotate among three family-friendly restaurants for dinner, each with a theme, from a parrot jungle to an animator's palette.

Entertainment

  • Adult entertainment area, including a piano bar, dance club and a comedy/sing along club, is sequestered in a child- and family-free part of the ship; typically adult lounges are mixed in with the rest of the public areas.
  • Production shows are based on Disney films and characters and follow a story line, unlike other lines' production shows that are generally musical reviews.
  • There is no casino; for some a big plus.

Private Island

  • Other cruise lines have them too, but Disney's Castaway Cay in the Bahamas offers extras the others don't.
  • Ships pull along side Disney's private Bahamian island, Castaway Cay, all other lines with private islands anchor off shore and tender passengers to the island, which is a time-consuming process.
  • It's the only private-island with an adults-only beach, bar and lunch area, and only island offering bicycle rentals and a 2.5-mile trail to ride them on.

Service Perks

  • The captain personally autographs guests' scrapbooks, photographs and mementos in a public area at least once per cruise.
  • Officers often mingle with passengers in the atrium before dinner and participate in Disney traditions like the "pin-trading" sessions beloved by hardcore Disneyphiles.
  • Employees have incentive to work hard; Hotel Director Mike Mahendran reports that while performance expectations are high, crew members earn 10% to 30% more than the industry standard.