Disney's the big cheese when it comes to family fun. Mickey's two cruise ships, the Wonder and Magic, are especially proficient at offering lots for families to enjoy together -- and a part. Case in point, the highlight of a recent 3-night Disney Wonder cruise with my family was two hours spent alone.
With my nearly-two twin boys back aboard the ship sampling the toy selection in the Flounder's Reef nursery, and my husband meditating with some barbells in the gym, I was strolling down a quiet beach sipping a frosty Pina Colada until it was time for my massage.
Serenity Bay, the adults-only area of Castaway Cay, Disney's private Bahamian island, is paradise found if you've got kids and are hankering for a little time to yourself. Though other cruise lines have private Bahamian islands or beaches, none has an adults-only area like Castaway. There's a bar, mile-long stretch of sand, and a cluster of open-air spa cabanas -- straight out of Central Casting -- nestled into the foliage just behind the beach.
In fact, Castaway offers lots of features the other big-ship lines don't, from these secluded massage huts to children's programming that includes tots as young as three months -- most lines' programming starts at age two or three. Other Castaway exclusives include bicycle rentals and a dock to accommodate the ships, eliminating the need to anchor offshore and spend time tendering guests to the island like the other lines with private islands must do.
It's no surprise Disney trumps the competition in so many ways -- the company has always been a trend-setter -- and a very successful one at that. For more specifics on what the Disney ships have over their peers, see my Ahoy Mickey, What we Love about Disney Cruises story published previously on this site.
"Castaway Cay ranks significantly higher than any port of call we have ever visited," says Larry Stauffer, Disney Cruise Lines' manager of Shore Excursions and Castaway Cay.
In the spirit of giving the people what they ask for, Disney (tel. 800/951-3532; www.disneycruise.com) is offering a new 7-night western Caribbean itinerary on the Magic that visits Castaway twice on eight sailings between May 27 and Dec 9, 2006, along with calls to Costa Maya and Cozumel.
Castaway aside, the entire Disney cruise experience gets good grades from passengers.
"Our customers rave about the product and we receive about a 99.9% approval from everyone when they return, higher than any other cruise line we sell," says Mark F. Fletcher, vice president of Operations for Charlotte, North Carolina-based Mann Travel and Cruises.
As they say, you get what you pay for. You get more on a Disney cruise -- and it'll cost you. From the unrivaled kids facilities and programming for infants through teens, to extra-roomy cabins with a bath and a half, free unlimited fountain sodas from a poolside dispenser and quality family-oriented entertainment inspired by Disney film greats, the line offers an experience (and prices) that stands apart from the big-ship crowd.
"Compared to Carnival, a 3-, 4-, or 7-night Disney cruise typically costs 30% to 80% more for comparable accommodations on the same sailing date. For Royal Caribbean, the differential is less, but still ranges from 20% to 75%, even when comparing Disney to Voyager class ships," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruisin' Plus in Nashville (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com). "If we look at Princess, Celebrity, and Holland America for Caribbean sailings, Disney is still a price leader, and sometimes by nearly the same margins as Carnival and Royal Caribbean," Funk adds.
Though rates are higher, it sure doesn't seem to hurt business any. The Magic and Wonder typically sail full and you can always count on a large contingent of repeat guests who are coming back for more.
Disney's got the magic touch, and I was put under the spell myself on a 3-night Wonder cruise last August. What seems to impress many guests is the service, and I concur; no small feat considering the ships can each carry upwards of 2,500 guests per sailing.
Dining service deserves the biggest kudos. We took our young sons to Triton's one day for lunch, and despite the spilling and squealing two years are so good at, the staff was ultra gracious and attentive. Not only did a pair of high chairs appear within seconds, our boys were plied with paper, crayons, and cute little hats made from napkins. Though the family-friendly quotient was sky high, you never felt like you were in a Chucky Cheese -- the overall atmosphere in Triton's, the ship's most elegant dining venue, remained professional and polished.
Even in the ship's much more casual and bustling eating outlets, service was tops. The server at the Pluto's Dog House snack bar by the pool was always smiling, courteous and efficient when we and a steady stream of other guests kept him trotting back and forth filling orders for chicken fingers and fries all afternoon long. The young women staffing the nursery were endlessly cheerful, no matter how challenging their diaper-wearing charges were. The masseuse at Serenity Bay was excellent and seemed to have an endless amount of energy and pleasantness despite her tiring profession -- of course the heavenly seaside setting, all warm breezes and soothing sounds of the surf, didn't hurt. (The only thing you'll find painful is the prices; the $139, 50-minute deep-tissue massage was $30 bucks more than the same massage on the ship.)
Even the top-level brass made great efforts to please passengers. The Master of the ship himself was stationed in a public room one evening on our 3-night cruise to autograph guests' mementos. Meanwhile, the hotel manager and other officers mingled among guests in the atrium before dinner and happily joined in the "pin trading" session so beloved by hard-core Disneyphiles.
It seems the reason for all of this good cheer is that employees, for the most part, seem to truly like their jobs. Hotel Director Mike Mahendran told me that performance expectations are high, but that it certainly doesn't hurt that crew members earn 10% to 30% more than the industry standard, and enjoy other perks that foster productivity.
The trio of elegant maitre ds, who stood oozing charm at the entrance to Animator's Palate one evening ready to escort guests to their tables, were among the most professional I've ever seen on a big ship. They managed to somehow be supremely efficient as well as chatty, smooth and unhurried.
The ship's dining venues themselves were standouts in terms of design and whimsy.
Though the cuisine is tasty enough, it's not award-winning and is on par with that served on the other big-ships lines. What stands out in the Wonder's five restaurants is Disney's concept of rotating waiters (as you dine at the different restaurants, your waiters come along too) and each outlet's distinct themes. From the tropical yellow, flamingo pink and jungle green of the Parrot Cay restaurant to the white-linen elegance of Triton's and the magic of Animator's Palette, where video screens and lighting change colors over the course of the meal, these venues break the mold of the typical ship restaurant. Palo's, the ship's cozy adults-only reservations-required Italian restaurant is similar in atmosphere to other ship's alternative restaurants, and is worth a visit ($10 per person). Only the Beach Blanket buffet restaurant was disappointing because of its ultra-cramped quarters -- trying to squeeze through the throngs with kids and trays in tow during busy breakfast and lunch times practically qualified as a circus trick.
Where you won't have to squeeze at all is in the spacious cabins. At 223 to 226 square feet (not including the balcony), standard outside cabins are bigger than just about any other standard cabins out there. Plus, no other mega ship can claim tubs in all staterooms -- a big plus for families with kids -- or a split bath set-up in most. All cabins also have a mini-fridge (empty, so you can fill it with milk and snacks for your kids), sitting area with sofa bed, lots of storage, and a pleasing, low-key Art Deco-inspired décor with special touches like a framed 1930s black and white photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Walt Disney on the ocean liner Rex.
Disney's evolving repertoire of entertainment and activities also set the line apart. Over the years, Disney has been making a real effort to spice up its offerings on board, since the line repeats its same four Bahamas and Caribbean itineraries over and over all yearlong, with the exception of a new 7-night Mexico itinerary being offered next summer out of Los Angeles. For instance, after recent dry docks, both the Wonder and the Magic now have a new teen area -- called Aloft on the Wonder and the Stack on the Magic. Built in the former ESPN sky bar space, the teen digs are three times the size of the old Common Grounds hangout. Aloft and the Stack have two rooms, one with video screens for movies and the other a teen disco with a private Internet center. Plus, for the 3 to 12 set, some 24 new activities were introduced in 2004. The former Common Grounds space is now an adults-only venue called Café Cove, serving gourmet coffees, specialty drinks and light fare.
Other new entertainment fare includes the recent debut of an interactive Name-That-Tune-style music game show called Sound Waves. There's also now an expanded kids show that's featured on the last night of the cruise. Some 200 to 300 children dance and do sign language on the stage of the Walt Disney Theater while a slide show highlights the activities they enjoyed all week. On 7-night itineraries, there's also a fun new theme dinner and deck party called Pirates IN the Caribbean, complete with themed meals (like Black Beard's jumbo crab cakes), music and special effects (from black lighting to pirates repelling from the funnels).
These options add to Disney's current line-up, which includes an elaborate production of Hercules, A Muse-ical Comedy featuring a brilliant Robin-Williams-meets-Harvey-Fierstein Hades character, to the popular Regis-inspired Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer game show. Plus for adults, a jazzy piano bar, nightclub and sports bar/karaoke venue keep options wide open. With our kids safely tucked away in Flounders Reef one evening, my husband and I enjoyed dinner for two followed by a great evening listening to Daryl Lockhart tickle the ivories in the romantic Cadillac Lounge.
Undeniably a bit hit for Disney fans and families, a Disney cruise is worth every cent if you're looking for a casual big-ship experience and a truly high level of service and amenities. That said, a Disney cruise, though, isn't for everyone. With no casino aboard either ship, gigh rollers are out of luck. And though the Disney touch is subtler than you might imagine on these elegant ships -- décor is understated and characters make scheduled appearances only -- the experience is still all about Mickey. You have to appreciate the mouse and his legacy to enjoy this cruise. And while you get a lot of unique perks on a Disney cruise, you'll won't be able to escape certain big ship issues, from long waits for room service to lines at check in and at food outlets.
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