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Disney Magic grows up

A family of five gives this cruise another opportunity and discovers that the former snags had, almost magically, been sorted out

By Tara AronsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2002

In the summer of 1998 – with a seven-note blast of "When You Wish Upon a Star" from the ship's horn – our family set sail aboard the just-christened, 2,400-passenger Disney Magic. The much-heralded flagship of the newly minted Disney Cruise Line was bound for four nights in the Bahamas.

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We had a great time. Our 5-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter were enchanted by the restaurant known as Animator's Palate, where black and white walls slowly changed to color during dinner (a tribute to Disney's fabled animators).

They marveled at "Disney Dreams," the Broadway-caliber show culminating in Tinkerbell's pixie dust sprinkling over the Magic. And we were pleasantly surprised by the spacious, family-friendly staterooms that were 25 percent larger than the cruise-industry average.

But there were definite snags. Disorganization and a snail-paced line at Disney's Port Canaveral cruise-ship terminal made boarding a lengthy affair. Then we spent much of our time onboard standing in long lines to purchase shore excursion tickets. And the cuisine was unimpressive even by my usual "I'm not cooking it, so how bad can it be?" standards.

The biggest disappointment, however, was that Mickey was missing in action. The mouse-eared one was so mobbed by throngs of autograph-seeking "Mouseketeers" that our kids didn't see the famous icon the entire trip.

All the Disney magic onboard (and there was quite a bit, to be fair) couldn't make up for that omission.

Don't get me wrong – we had a nice time. It just wasn't as seamless – or as magical – as we had hoped it would be.

Wave the magic wand, and it's four years later.

Disney Magic – the sequel

A cruise on the Disney line today barely resembles our fledgling voyage of 1998.

Disney Cruise Line has grown up. You notice it in little things – the half-dozen squeeze bottle sundae toppings (to resemble paint) in Animator's Palette have been replaced by easier-to-carry chocolate-dipped Mickeys on a stick. It's also evident in the big things – cruising the entire Caribbean instead of going to just a couple of Bahamian ports.

It's not only bigger but better – by both family and cruising-industry standards. Disney's Wonder, a 2,400-passenger sister ship to the Magic, arrived in August 1999. (Our little wonder – now 2-1/2-year-old Payne – arrived the same year.)

It was smooth sailing this time around for our family aboard the revamped Disney Magic bound for Key West, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, Mexico. This trio of tropical islands, along with the requisite visit to Cast

away Cay, Disney's private Bahamian island, makes up the new seven-night western Caribbean itinerary that debuted in May.

We booked our shore excursions online before leaving home. We checked in and waited in line just once – at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where we stayed and played for five days prior to sailing.

The same "Key to the World" card that opened our Grand Floridian hotel room opened our Magic stateroom door as well. Now that was a real Disney dream.

Best of all for the older kids, now 10 and 9, the reservation cards for a "character breakfast" with Mickey arrived with dinner. No more disappointed mouse fans.

The classic Art Deco-style ship, patterned after such golden-age floating palaces as the Rex, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth (all ships that Walt Disney sailed on) still looks much the same as it did in 1998. But everything else is deliciously different – from the beefed-up cuisine to more personalized service.

"You've obviously been here before," said Maureen, our Jamaican stateroom steward, when asked why the beverage cooler was devoid of drinks. "We used to stock them with drinks and snacks. Now you order the beverage package you want."

Easy enough. But the interesting new ports presented many more choices. And that's where the real fun began.

First stop – the Keys