The key thing to remember on a Disney cruise? Smile.
Smile when Minnie Mouse rushes up to welcome you on board. (She won't say a word, of course.) Smile at the chipper hordes who guide you and your Disney Magic "Key to the World" through the Mouse-ear portal and onto the ship. Smile at breakfast, lunch, dinner - when swimming in the Goofy-embossed pool or spending time in the hangout designed especially for teens.
This is a happy experience.
Actually, it is. Disney's launch into the growing family-cruise market looks like a winning combination of adult/teen fun and kiddie entertainment, of ubiquitous Disney insignia and cruise-ship elegance. It even offers something I've never experienced at the Magic Kingdom: time to relax.
Relaxation, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. A few uninterrupted hours in a lounge chair by one of the three pools looks pretty good to me. To my fifth-grader, Harlan, nonstop trips down the corkscrew Mickey Mouse slide fit the bill. Seventh-grader Matthew would answer the siren call of the video arcade at 3 a.m. if I let him.
Therein lies the magic - which, by the way, is the name of the ship. Its 10 decks, numerous nightclubs, pools for all age groups, and children's entertainment centers were assembled in Italy with everyone in mind. Not only is there a wide variety of entertainment, but the staff will make sure you're happy and you know it while you partake.
We were indeed quite happy during our time on board. It is exciting, for starters, to glance up collectively at a 964-foot ship and anticipate the pampered experience lying ahead (especially after the one-hour drive from the Disney resort). The ship, which debuted in July and is the first of two Disney vessels, evokes days gone by with its art deco flourishes, sleek hull, and two red smokestacks (even if a 15-foot Goofy is hanging off the back).
Walking into the ship's three-story lobby is sure to impress the junior set, and they'll immediately feel at ease when they spot the bronze nautical Mickey watching over everything. The cabins are large enough to allow for some elbow room, although the ones to target are the rooms with a view (73 percent of the rooms on board, many with verandas).
Then all you have to figure out is what to do first.
As with all things Disney, the attention to detail is a main selling point. My children clued into this within the first hour, after two or three helpful staff members breezed up to ask us if we'd like something to drink. Requests for soda were met with gentle suggestions that fruit slushes would be far more appealing. As it turned out, they were, and the kids snapped up quite a few over the duration of the cruise - and in the process, became alarmingly at ease with "just ask, and it's yours" - french fries, some ice cream, help at the video arcade, help with shuffleboard, and more, more, more.
There's no question kids are king on this cruise, though rest assured, adults hardly get neglected (more on that later). Nearly an entire deck, in addition to the children's pools and meeting areas, is given over to keeping younger vacationers happy.
The Oceaneer Club, for children ages 3 to 8, offers a fun play space with all sorts of climbing structures. The Oceaneer Lab appeals to nine- to 12-year-olds with its computers, giant video walls, and a variety of games.
A small army of counselors who hail from a wide variety of countries are on hand to help and are relentlessly friendly and helpful. They'll take your child any time from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. the following morning. They'll sign him or her in and hand you a beeper, lest you be tempted to lie a little too low.
Many of the kids on the cruise lapped up the organized entertainment. On our particular cruise, the facilities weren't that crowded, giving all kids a chance to tap away at the computers and get plenty of attention. That might not be the case with an almost full house, something parents planning to head off for any length of time might want to keep in mind.
Not just a kid's world
When the younger crowd does disappear, adults have plenty of ways to remind them that it's not just a kids' world, after all. There is a spa and salon, an adults-only pool, and an ESPN sky box at the top of the ship, where you can watch the game and get a great view. Entertainment spots include the Rockin'Bar D, the Off Beat comedy club, and Studio Sea, with game shows and cabaret acts.
Families can reunite over dinner at one of the three restaurants, all of which you can sample during the course of the cruise. Our favorite was Animator's Palate, where the room starts out black and white but gradually comes alive with color. By the end of the meal, you're surrounded by Disney characters lighting up the walls in warm blues, oranges, and yellows, and even the waiters have traded their black and white vests for a livelier look. The entertainment value of the meal was important, as it turned out, because none of us much cared for the food. Breakfast and lunch were fine, but the more gourmet evening meals yielded such things as dry fish and bland desserts. It was a sentiment shared by many of our dining companions, and something that unfortunately drove my kids more regularly in the direction of the fast-food options near the pool.
The best food reviews came from Palo, the adults-only restaurant that takes reservations.
A high point for us was Castaway Cay, Disney's beach. This is where it sinks in that the company is really trying to do something different. The beach was distinctly Disneyesque, with seashells that looked as if they were carefully placed each night (we were exhorted not to take any), neat lines of chairs and colorful umbrellas, bicycle and stroller rentals, and a few tasteful concessions. But it was remarkably simple. We did go snorkeling through Disney's "lagoon" (something that will set you back $27 per adult and $19.50 per child, per day), but most of the time we paddled around in the crystal-clear water on our floats. The island has an adults-only beach, but on the day we were there, most people were voting in favor of the all-ages facility.
Watch out for the added costs
So was the experience the Magic Kingdom on water? Not really. For one thing, Disney still had a few kinks to iron out, particularly with the "keys," plastic cards that malfunctioned regularly as we tried to use them to open the room, open the room safe, get onto the ship, and charge purchases. The seamless operation evident at the resorts was not quite on board yet, something that dismayed a few passengers who hold Disney to extremely high standards.
For another, the prices on ship bordered on the outrageous. Much of your cost is indeed covered in a single fee (see story, left), but there are plenty of ways to run up a tab. Those shirts that everyone may want are pricey (a Disney polo shirt costs $53), and you may want to be careful about how much freedom you give the kids in the video arcade.
My children and I wondered if hopping on a Disney ship after spending three or four days at the resort (something we did not do) would be overkill. We concluded that the cruise is a separate experience. Adults who came without children could find plenty of quiet and plenty to entertain them, although the much-touted "Broadway-style" shows could be described as tame bordering on the saccharin. But everything was fun. There's plenty of room for enjoying yourself on this ship, although it's probably best to be a big Disney fan. Then you'll really be happy.
IF YOU GO
* Prices: Seven-day vacation (three- to four-days at Disney Resort, airfare from 150 cities, three- to four-day cruise): $1,295-4,225 per person, double occupancy. Three-day cruise prices start at $799 per person/double occupancy.
* Whom to contact: Call (407) 566-7000. On the Web, see www.disneycruise.com