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Making Magic in the Med with the Mouse

'Is this ship more fun for kids or adults?' my son asked me one day. The answer was an obtuse and emphatic, 'yes.' We could all have our cake and eat it too.

My husband Arun and I tucked into the champagne-colored MG convertible and felt instantly cool and very local. Barely suppressing our superiority as the throngs lined up for bus tours nearby, the car purred out of the port of Villefranche and we reveled in the four glorious hours of carefree roaming before us. First we zipped along the Bas Corniche towards the excesses of Monte Carlo, with breathtaking views of France's Cote d'Azur's undulating coast and fairytale villages framing the drive. We stopped whenever the mood struck to snap photos and swoon. Then it was on to Eze, a magical warren of stone homes and shops built into a hilltop near the ruins of a 14th-century castle. I popped into a small boutique incredulously burrowed into the rocks and picked up two cute French tops. Back in our hot wheels, it was on to Nice, with a drive-by the U-shape yacht-choked harbor and through streets lined with weathered old buildings, perfect with their wrought iron balconies and geranium-filled flower boxes. All good things come to an end and after returning the car to its rightful owner, we consoled ourselves with a stroll around the cobblestoned streets of medieval Villefranche before hopping on the tender back to the Disney Magic anchored out in the harbor.

This was my kind of family vacation. While mommy and daddy cruised the Cote d'Azur in a sexy convertible, our 4.5-year-old twin sons Kavi and Tejas were happily climbing on a faux pirate ship and watching Disney movies in the ship's sprawling Oceaneer's Club playroom. Though Disney offers plenty of the typical shore excursions by bus and a handful of neat family-focused tours, they also offer a couple of adults-only gems like this, which cost $295 per couple (must be pre-booked on No question, the iconic symbol of family fun definitely delivers for all ages in the Mediterranean, where the Disney Magic is spending its first season doing 10- and 11-night itineraries round-trip out of Barcelona through early August.

On a cruise in early June, my son seemed to grasp the duality.

"Is this ship more fun for kids or adults?" Tejas asked me one day. The answer was an obtuse and emphatic, "yes." We could all have our cake and eat it too.

The ship's impressive children's facilities are well documented. Huge tracts of space are dedicated to five age groups between three months and 18 years old, from babies and toddlers in the Flounder's Reef Nursery to teens in the Stack, where the coveted "toy" is the Guitar Hero music video game. All this, plus kiddy pools, a water slide and a food outlet called Pluto's Dog House that serves chicken tenders and burgers all day. No surprise that a typical cruise sees 800 to 1,100 children on board; they nearly outnumber the adults. On sea days, the playroom doors open at 9am, on port days, earlier to accommodate parents who want to tour solo and leave their kids in the capable hands of the 54 youth counselors. Unlike some lines, there's no charge using the children's programming at any time, which runs until midnight daily. (The only exception is the hourly fee charged in the Flounder's Reef nursery.) No other ships at sea offer as much.

This kiddy paradise was a guilt-free haven our sons routinely begged for. They loved the character visits and especially when Cinderella and Belle, of Beauty and the Beast fame, read stories to them. Watching the Little Mermaid on a giant video screen was another treat for my normally television-deprived offspring. Whether we were somewhere else on the ship -- for my husband, that place was the newly enlarged gym -- or snuck away to do an adult tour in port -- we signed up for a meandering catamaran ride along the coast from the port of Le Spezia which included lunch and wine (relaxing yes, but over priced at $330 per person). For us, the Oceaneer Club was nanny, summer camp, and pressure release valve all rolled into one.

Still, there a few things our boys seemed to appreciate even more than the playroom. They loved the restaurants, especially Animator's Palate, one of the three venues guests and their waiters rotate among throughout the cruise. Video screens and lighting tricks transform a black and white restaurant into a color one. A children's menu with activities, and lots of crayons certainly helped. An even bigger draw for them was the production shows, which played to a packed and enthusiastic audience night after night. Even at their young age, my boys begged to stay up past their bedtime to go to the hour-long high-tech musicals that incorporated beloved Disney film classics and characters into four different shows, including two new ones introduced for the Mediterranean season -- the acrobatics-filled When Mickey Dreams and The Art of the Story.

While we thoroughly enjoyed our adults-only moments, it was the family time that created the most lasting memories on board and ashore. Highlights included the 4-hour Palermo for Kids bus tour ($95 adults/$85 kids), one of the itinerary's most kid-friendly excursions, which started with a drive-by of the city's best known historical sights, including the 250-year-old Garibaldi Theater and the Palermo Opera House (a Godfather III scene was shot on its steps), before reaching our destination. At the 17th century Royal Palace, our group's 20 or so kids painted clay butterflies in the prince's former dining room, then we all enjoyed a gelato break before getting to the main event, a traditional Sicilian puppet show. Our boys eagerly sat through the hour-long performance staged by one of Palermo's legendary family-run marionette theaters. Held in a cozy corner of the palace with the kids seated on long benches up front, heavy wooden puppets in elaborate medieval costumes dueled with swords and engaged in comically dramatic dialogue. No one seemed to mind it was all in Italian.

In Rome, one of seven ports on an itinerary sandwiched between two sea days, we passed on the 10- to 12-hour bus tours into the city from the port of Civitavecchia -- even if Disney movies were played to pass the time on the long ride, I wasn't going there with young children. We opted for the local train. Not only a roomier mode of transport than a bus, but way cheaper -- about $50 for four round-trip tickets compared to the $99 to $599 per person cost of the ship's tours. The ship's free shuttle service took us the mile or so between the ship and Civitavecchia and then it was a 10- to 15-minute walk to the train station. With several departures hourly, we were on a train within 20 minutes. The ride to the Stazione Termini station, near the Colosseum, took just over an hour, and was a picturesque journey through the Italian countryside and past small towns.

We stretched the 20- to 30-minute walk from the station to the Coliseum, the single attraction we decided to focus on, into an eating tour. First it was chapattis and orange Fanta at an Indian fast-food joint where my Indian-born husband could ask directions in Hindi. Then a few blocks later, since our son Kavi was still pining for pizza, we stopped at an Italian café for pasta (pizza, it turned out, was only served at dinnertime) and some delicious grilled calamari. From our table on the tree-shaded sidewalk, we could see a gelato sign down the block. Our next stop of course.

Eventually we made it to the Coliseum and through the ticket line, often with our boys in our arms or piggy back. We spent a lovely two hours circling the interior, feeding our sons' hungry imaginations with stories of how gladiators once fought lions in this ancient arena. We took our time stopping for pictures and rests within the hallowed ruins before getting the obligatory picture of the boys with a for-hire gladiator outside the exit. We hopped in a taxi (the metro subway would have been cheaper for the short ride) back to the train station and on to a 5:20pm local to Civitavecchia. We boarded the ship just after 7pm, after a lovely family day in a magical city.

In the other ports, skipping the ship's bus tour might not have been the most fiscally savvy idea. In Olbia, Sardinia, we decided to take a taxi to La Cinta beach instead of signing up for the ship's bus transfer (at $216 for the four of us). We spent a lovely afternoon building sand castles and playing in the calm, shallow (and cold) surf. We snacked on pizza, proscuitto sandwiches and mozzarella salad at a beach café and thoroughly enjoyed our day -- except for one thing. We were fleeced on the taxi fare, unknowingly paying three times too much (it should have been about $30 each way). As well traveled as we think we are, we neglected to do any research online first and didn't think to check with the shore excursion desk on board to inquire about approximate taxi fares. Live and learn.

In Naples, on the other hand, winging it worked without a hitch. Again rejecting the ship's all-day bus tours to Capri and Sorrento, or a hot day in Pompeii (my husband and I had been there before and didn't think it would have much historical impact on a couple of four year olds), we decided to stroll around Naples instead. The ship docked right in town, and at about noon we went ashore and walked a few blocks before stopping for some pizza. Afterwards we started strolling around town, vaguely headed to the seaside Castel dell'Ovo nearby, when we came upon a horse-drawn carriage for hire.

This time we were savvier negotiators and for $50, the four of us enjoyed an hour's tour clip-clopping around the historical city's cobbledstoned streets. The boys loved their perch, and though the driver didn't speak English, he was good at pointing and I cross-referenced with my guidebook. Mostly, though, we sat back enjoying the sights and sounds of Napoli, including the playboys posing and lunching along the lovely streets near Santa Lucia, a wedding party posing for pictures at the castle, and the tunes of a local street musician who our driver seemed to know. The man sang and played some Italian classics on his violin -- theme from the Godfather (of course) and "Funiculì, Funiculà" -- and then asked if my husband was Spanish or Italian. He said 'no' he was Indian. The man shot him a knowing glance and started playing. Turns out the one Indian song he knew was a vintage Hindi film song that we play for our kids almost daily. It was a lovely moment of travel serendipity. Just as the hour was ending, we spotted one of those small traveling Carnivals that had taken up residence in a quiet, somewhat neglected little park not far from the ship. Along with just a handful of locals, our boys enjoyed rides on the shiny carousel and a mini train; a sweet ending to an improvised day.

Seeing Europe with young children has its rewards and challenges, but with the Disney Magic as our base, we had the resources at our fingertips to forge unforgettable family memories as well as indulge in much-appreciated, age-appropriate down time for each one of us -- even if sleep sometimes got in the way. Evening entertainment for adults included jazzy favorites by a singer/pianist in the dark and romantic Sessions lounge and dancing in the disco-like Rock Bar D, but we were generally too pooped to stay up much past 10pm. Still, one evening I left my husband and sons snoring in the cabin and went up to enjoy the fireworks display that highlighted a special Pirates of the Caribbean-themed deck party. To my surprise (or not), it appeared the whole ship had stayed up late with me, enjoying the music, the beautiful breezy evening and some impressive pyrotechnics. Disney fans are a devoted and energetic lot; that I could see with my own eyes.

The Disney Magic is doing 10- and 11-night cruises to Italy and Spain round-trip out of Barcelona through August 8, 2007, visiting Palermo, Sicily; Naples (for Pompeii); Olbia, Sardinia; Civitavecchia (for Rome); and Le Spezia (for Florence and Pisa), all in Italy. Along the French Riviera, the ship calls on Marseille and Villefranche (for Monaco). Per person rates start at $2,399 per person. For more information, call tel. 888/DCL-2500 or

Kavi & Tejas' Favorite Disney Magic Moments in the Med

  • The movies. Disney movies were shown in the playroom, from Beauty and the Beast to Little Mermaid, and classic Disney cartoons were included in the mix from time to time on the giant video screen on the pool deck. During one lunch, the boys munched on their chicken tenders and pizza while glued to sweet old-time favorites featuring Donald Duck and Mickey circa 1930s and '40s.
  • The shows. No matter my guys aren't yet five, they begged us to take them to Disney's production shows in the Walt Disney theater. Always family friendly, Disney characters and songs were weaved into hour-long performances that included special effects, great stage sets and acrobatics in some cases. Not one to miss a beat, even during the time passengers lined up at the theater's doors (eager to secure good seats), roving entertainers like pantomimes, clowns and jugglers kept everyone happy.
  • Running up and down the pirate ship. In the Oceaneer Club, a big pretend pirate ship with stairs, nets and little hideouts kept my guys happy and on the go. I was glad they were getting some good exercise, they were just happy to be there.
  • Dinnertime entertainment. Of course the videos and changing lights in Animator's Palate restaurant were a big hit, but so were the themes and song and dance routines in all the restaurants at dinnertime. Pirate night in Lumiere's, for example, had everyone at least in pirate bandannas (given out free), or more elaborate costumes purchased from the gift shops.
  • Breakfast on the balcony. The boys loved our morning ritual of ordering room service and eating out on the balcony while getting acquainted with a new port of call.
  • Character sightings. Though not Disney fanatics at home (so I thought), once on board, Kavi and Tejas were just as thrilled as the other little kids when they'd see the characters stroll around the ship. They seemed to know them all.
  • The Mickey pool and water slide. Like most kids, my guys loved the Mickey slide.
  • The bunk bed. Our Deluxe Stateroom with Balcony (#7018) slept four people with a pull-out sofa (sleeping one) and a bunk bed. Their first bunk bed experience, our boys took turns sleeping up top and it was a real treat (especially that climb up and down the ladder).
  • The towel animals. Returning to our cabin each night, Kavi and Tejas eagerly ran to the bed to see what the room steward had created for them.
  • Port fun. The boys were good sports and enjoyed everything we did on shore (believe it or not). They also didn't seem to mind the two port days we kept them on board in the Oceaneer Club while mom and dad pursued to adults-only shore excursions.

For more Disney Magic Mediterranean cruise tips, read Heidi's article from the June 13 cruise newsletter.

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