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 , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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it in little things – the half-dozen squeeze bottle sundae toppings (to resemble paint) in Animator's Palette have been replaced by easier-to-carry chocolate-dipped Mickeys on a stick.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

Key West, a vibrant island haven for artists and other free spirits, seems much larger than its two-mile-by-four-mile area. This final Florida Key, located 150 miles south of Miami and 90 miles from Cuba, could just as easily – in some ways – be a million miles from the US.

Daytripping along notorious Front and Duval streets with my daughter and our San Francisco friend, Rada Brooks, and her daughter, Elisabeth, was an eye-opening delight. Chickens and pigeons mingled surprisingly peacefully with feral cats. Dogs gnawed on coconuts as if they were prime rib.

Wandering into the Clinton Square Market, the girls were delighted to discover an albino parrot hawking the bird show upstairs for her genial owner. The bird nibbled a metal ring out of Lyndsay's bucket hat, then hopped onto Elisabeth's waiting arm. Only the promise of tasting a local legend – Key lime pie on a stick – could tear the girls away.

Both quickly agreed that the famous Key lime – a small, thin-skinned version of the common lime – made this zingy, $3 frozen and skewered piece of real pie dipped in chocolate simply unforgettable.

A word of caution here: Daytripping is the only recommended way for families to wander about Key West. Sunset may bring out seedier Key Westers, especially along notorious Duval Street, dubbed Bourbon Street by locals for good reason.

British and beautiful, Grand Cayman is refreshingly different from Key West. Once a refuge of plundering pirates and shipwrecked sailors, the island today is home to some 39,000 friendly Caymanians who speak English with a lovely lilt – a West Indian accent tempered with a Scottish burr.

Abundant marine life

Here, much of the fun is found beneath and around the surface (unless you're die-hard shoppers as my daughter and I are). This island is a hit with the whole family because of its aquamarine waters teeming with stingrays and other aquatic life, pristine, palm-fringed beaches, and what's billed as the world's only turtle farm.

We took the divide-and-conquer approach to daytripping on Grand Cayman: Lyndsay and I hunted (successfully) for Tommy Hilfiger deals (it's a British isle, after all), while the rest of the group fed handfuls of squid to the friendly inhabitants of Stingray City, a sandy, shallow reef just offshore. It's home to a flotilla of southern stingrays.

Haggling in Spanish

At our final port – the feisty Mexican island of Cozumel – we began the day with the customary beach party for the kids and a morning scuba dive to Palancar Reef for the adults. (We had an excellent time spotting lime-green eels and a big sea turtle.)

Then we had fun bargaining for hair braids and baubles along Avenida Rafael E. Melgar, the waterfront thoroughfare along the pier where the Magic berthed.

In contrast to Castaway Cay, Disney's private Bahamian island, where everything that happens on the beach is safely scripted, the kids got a real-life eye-opener walking the streets of Cozumel.

On this island enclave, best known for its white-sand beaches and awesome scuba diving and snorkeling, prices are negotiable. The kids reveled in haggling in rapid-fire Spanish. And the girls delighted in getting a "half-head" – from crown to ear – of tightly woven braids cinched closed with flower-shaped beads.

Although the residents are respectful of visitors big and small, the youngsters stuck close to their moms and dads. There's an aura of uncertainty in Cozumel that is palpable. This made our final stop – a return to the predictable beauty of Disney's Castaway Cay – sheer joy for families.

Disney had also made welcome changes here: Sports and water activities now qualified as "shore excursions" for which one could purchase advance tickets.

It seemed silly on the face of it – shore excursions on a beach? But not having to wait in line for our "Key to the World" cards to be swiped in order to get fins and snorkels gave us more beach time and less time standing in line. What a wonderful innovation.

Mom's time alone

As the kids took off on a banana-boat ride – another new offering – I revisited an old favorite: a beach that's set aside for adults. No kids allowed

After a relaxing and quiet time on my own, I realized I was ready for a meal. And so I headed to the new Serenity Bay buffet (also just for grown-ups) that included my favorite seafood: grilled lobster tails.

I'll admit to consuming three before hooking up with the gang at Castaway Family Beach.

As the sun set on our cruise, a seven-note "When You Wish Upon a Star" blast of the ship's horn signaled our departure from Castaway Cay and our return to reality. Or at least to Port Canaveral.

Four years had made a world of difference. This time, thanks to some unscripted island adventure and a lot of Disney magic behind the scenes, our family's vacation dreams did come true.

Disney Cruises - then and now

As Disney Cruise Line enters its fifth year, its cruises barely resemble the ones offered in 1998. It's still not quite grown up ñ#150; but it has gained a world of cruise experience during the past half-decade - and put it to good use for its family audience. Here's a look at the changes:

THE FLEET

1998 One ship: Disney Magic

2002 Two ships: Disney Magic and Disney Wonder

PORTS

1998 3- and 4-night cruises to Nassau, Castaway Cay, and Grand Bahama Island

2002 3- and 4-night cruises to Nassau, Castaway Cay, and Grand Bahama Island, plus 7-night eastern and western Caribbean cruises to St. Maarten, St. Thomas/St. John, Key West, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, Mexico

ENTERTAINMENT

1998 Disney favorite films shown

2002 First-run films premiering onboard the same day as in theaters nationwide

1998 Two live stage shows: Voyage of the Ghost Ship, Disney Dreams

2002 Disney Dreams; Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer; welcome aboard/farewell variety shows; Morty the Magnificent; and Hercules – The Muse-ical

DINING

1998 Rotation dining among Lumiere's, Animator's Palate, and Parrot Cay restaurants with tablemates, servers

2002 Tropicalifragilisticexpedialidocious- and Mexicalifragilisticexpialidocious-theme dinner and deck party on each 7-night cruise; rotation dining continues among three restaurants

1998 24-hour room service from room menu only

2002

• 24-hour dining from any of the ship's restaurant menus

• Family tea with Wendy Darling

• Midnight buffet returns by request. Lumiere's gala dessert buffet debuts (on 3- and 4-day Bahamian cruises only)

• Character breakfast with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and the gang

• Topsider's buffet casual-dinner option available

ADULTS ONLY

1998 Dinner at Palo

2002 Brunch, high tea, and dinner at Palo

Enrichment series: Disney's Behind-the-Scenes, Disney's Navigator Series, and Disney's Art of Entertaining programs include galley tours, cooking demonstrations, and table decorating and invitation-making programs that are offered on sea days.

1998 Live improv comedy club

2002 Dueling pianos club

KID STUFF

1998 Flounder's Reef Nursery (ages 3 months to 3 years), limited hours

2002 Renovated Flounder's Reef has Little Mermaid-themed space that has doubled in size for more little ones to enjoy and has added expanded hours while in port.

1998 Age groupings: 3 to 5; 6 to 8; 9 & 10; 11 & 12; 13 to 17

2002 Age groupings: 3 to 4; 5 to 7; 8 & 9; 10 to 12; 13 to 17 (Reasons for the changes: better alignment of age groups with school ages; better fit for kids and their interests.)

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