The new Disney Dream has a water ride, the AquaDuck, that propels guests through a clear tube that loops out over the edge of the ship. It has two interactive game floors that parents want to play on. too; a 3-D theater that screens Disney films; "virtual portholes" in windowless cabins that stream real-time views of the ocean; "enchanted art" that comes to life when someone walks by; a spa for teens; video screens where Crush from "Finding Nemo" has two-way conversations with kids over dinner, and a dance club where teens can be the deejay.
The creativity and high-tech gadgetry on Disney Cruise Line's new ship make it clear that bringing a few characters on board - whether they're Mickey and Donald (Disney), Shrek and Princess Fiona (Royal Caribbean), or SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer (Norwegian) - is only the beginning of creating a cruise for families with young children.
"This space is all about magic and pixie dust," Lysa Migliorati, an Imagineer - a member of Disney's creative team - said as she showed off the Oceaneer Club, one of the kid zones. But she could have been talking about the whole ship, which made its inaugural cruise a few weeks ago.
It's not that other cruise lines aren't providing increasingly creative entertainment for kids - they are. But they're following Disney's lead, and nowhere is the child-oriented creativity as deeply ingrained as it is on this new ship. If executives of other lines thought they were catching up, Disney has just sprinted way out in front again with its first new ship since 1998.
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But with a Disney cruise ship, the question is never whether there's enough fun for kids. It's whether there's enough for adults.
Dates for adults; fun for kids
With that in mind, the Disney Dream - which is 40 percent larger than its sister ships - devotes a substantial chunk of real estate to grown-up fun. While Disney's two older ships have spaces that are off-limits to children, adults-only areas on the Dream are more expansive. They include a bar/nightclub complex, two extra-fee restaurants, spa, pool, sundecks and an Italian coffee bar.
The idea, said cruise line spokesman Jason Lasecki, is to give adults the opportunity for a date night (or several) while Disney entertains the youngsters.
Are the adults-only facilities so extensive that a grown-up could sail on this ship without coming in contact with children? Probably not. In fact, an adult Mickey fan traveling without children might find some of the ship's features downright annoying (example: When Crush the animated sea turtle comes to life during dinner in Animator's Palate, conversation is impossible).
And it may not be the right ship for a family with older teens, said Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners. Disney ships "are the perfect choice if you have small children - seeing the princesses, being able to take your picture with Mickey and Minnie. And if the grandparents want to tag along, it's a good fit. But if you have 16-, 17-year-olds, that's where other cruise lines might be a better choice."
Parents will pay a hefty price for the innovations on Disney Dream, some of which will be added to the line's two older ships. The Dream sails cruises of three to five nights from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas. A check of cruises on CruiseOne.com found three-night cruises on the Dream in March starting at $679 per person double occupancy for an inside stateroom, while comparable cruises on Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian all start at less than $250. One reason is that the other lines put their older ships on the short cruises, but Disney prices traditionally are higher.
When the Dream's twin, the Disney Fantasy, now under construction in Germany, joins the fleet next year, Disney will have four ships and twice the capacity it had just a few weeks ago. Cruise line executives won't comment on the price, but the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel reported the Dream and Fantasy will cost a combined $1.8 billion.
The two new ships will be based at Port Canaveral, Fla., doing short Bahamas cruises and weeklong Caribbean cruises; the Disney Wonder will be based on the West Coast and do weeklong Mexico and Alaska cruises; and the Disney Magic will do Caribbean cruises in winter and Mediterranean cruises in summer.
It's a big jump for a niche cruise line, which now is looking at expanding its reach into Asia.
Karl Holz, Disney Cruise Line president, twice quoted a guest he overheard saying that Disney had "recreated the Golden Age of cruising with magic and elegance." Standing in the ship's three-story atrium, where Disney princesses sweep down a grand staircase under an Art Deco chandelier, it's easy to think he might be right.
These impressions of the ship are based on a two-night media preview cruise, which was not enough time to check out each restaurant, club and show. The ship carried about 2,300 guests, far less than its capacity of 4,000, so it was hard to judge how well the Dream's staff and facilities operate under crowded conditions.
The ship has 14 public decks. Guests enter on Deck 3 into the three-story atrium, where they are announced much like a guest at a state dinner. There's a statue of Admiral Donald Duck in the atrium, while Sorcerer Mickey dangles off the stern of the ship.
Decor is a combination of nautical and Disney character motifs, mostly in red, white and blue. Although there are plenty of "hidden Mickeys" for ardent fans to seek out, most of the character decor is subtle rather than in your face.
"The ship was done in such great taste," Fee said. "It isn't overboard Disney. When you walked in, you felt like you were in an upscale hotel with all that wood and brass."
Traffic flow is not always good; on some decks it's difficult to get from one end to the other without detours and doubling back.
I was standing outside the Walt Disney Theatre, where live shows are staged, when I heard a whirring sound. It came from an old framed black-and-white photo of Walt Disney himself with a film projector. As I watched, a strip of film along the edge of the photo began to move and a crudely drawn cartoon titled "Alice's Mysterious Mystery," by Walt Disney, played. This was my first encounter with the "enchanted art" that is all over the ship - photos, cartoon cells and other art that come to life when a passerby sets off a motion detector.
The Dream uses the same dining system as the older ships. Guests are assigned to a seating group that rotates through three main dining rooms, along with their wait-service team. The restaurants are:
Animator's Palate, an updated version of the restaurant on the Wonder and Magic. Here the decor - design sketches and scenes from films that look like papers pinned to bulletin boards but are really video screens - starts out mostly in black and white, and gradually turns to color during the evening. This is also where Crush, the surfer-dude sea turtle from "Finding Nemo," appears on huge video screens and talks with diners.
Enchanted Garden, inspired by the gardens at Versailles, has trees, trellises, light fixtures that "bloom" into flowers, and a Mickey Mouse fountain. At night, the ceiling becomes a sky full of stars.
Royal Palace, the most elegant of the three, has a design inspired by four of Disney's classic princess movies: "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Beauty and the Beast." The decor is regal - hand-blown glass chandelier, wall sconces from "Beauty and the Beast," fluted columns from "Cinderella," portraits of the princesses, and window valances topped with tiaras.
In addition, Cabanas on Deck 11 is the casual venue, a buffet at breakfast and lunch, with table service at dinner. Nearby is Flo's Cafe, which serves quick food such as burgers, wraps, salad and pizza, most of it pre-made.
There are also two alternative restaurants, both only for adults. Palo, which specializes in upscale Northern Italian cuisine, is also on Wonder and Magic. Dinner and brunch cost $20 per person, high tea is $20. Remy, new on the Dream, is an 80-seat restaurant with Art Nouveau decor that offers a gourmet experience inspired by the movie "Ratatouille." Dinner consists of eight or nine small French-influenced courses (the smoked bison with fennel salad and the pigeon pie - similar to beef Wellington with foie gras and spinach - are fabulous). Cost is $75; optional wine pairings are $99.
At night, this Deck 4 complex, entered via red carpet, turns into an adults-only zone, with Evolution, a nightclub; the Skyline Lounge, with video skylines of five cities (New York, Chicago, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong) and drinks inspired by those cities; Pink, a champagne bar with Murano pink glass bubbles, Riedel pink champagne flutes and pink champagne by Tattinger; 687, a pub; and the District Lounge, with live piano music.
"The idea is to give the adults their own playground," said Mike Davie, an Imagineer, who gave tours of the District during the preview cruise. "People with kids don't always have that opportunity. Here, you're on the red carpet, you're a VIP guest. We try to create that sense of arrival."
One of the ship's most notable innovations is in its cheapest staterooms. Inside cabins, which don't have a window, have a "virtual porthole" over the bed that displays real-time video of the ocean from an outside camera and is intended to make the stateroom - 169 to 204 square feet - less confining. Periodically a Disney character will flit across the screen. While I was watching, Russell from the movie "Up" floated by, carried straight up by a fistful of balloons.
Perhaps because Disney carries a greater percentage of families than other lines, it also has one of the best bathroom setups, carried over from the older ships. The bathroom is split by a full wall with a toilet and sink on one side, and a small tub, shower and sink on the other. In addition, all 1,250 staterooms have some kind of bed - a convertible sofa, a pull-down berth or a second standard bed - to accommodate at least a third person and usually a fourth. Because of that, while the official capacity is 2,500 (figured at two people per stateroom), the ship can carry 4,000 guests.
Staterooms range from 169 square feet for a standard inside cabin to the 1,781-square-foot concierge royal suite with veranda, which sleeps five and has a living room, dining salon, pantry and wet bar. Two-thirds of the staterooms are oceanview cabins with verandas, have 246 or 299 square feet, and sleep three to five. Nearly three-quarters of all cabins have outside verandas.
The star attraction is AquaDuck, a sort of elevated flume ride where guests on rubber rafts are propelled by bursts of water over small rises and through 765 feet of clear acrylic tube that loops out over the ocean, then laps the central pool deck.
"Water slides are pretty much standard now on ships," said Joe Lanzisero, senior vice president for Creative. "Being Disney, we wanted to reinvent how people think about these things. We first wanted to have a lazy river on the ship, but deck space is pretty limited. Then someone said, 'Why not elevate it?' "
The main pool deck also has two small family pools, the Mickey pool for younger children and the Donald pool for everyone, plus a large Jacuzzi. There's also a small water slide and Nemo's Splash Zone for toddlers. Around the corner in the adults-only Cove area is another small pool and Jacuzzi. And Vibe, the teen club, has a water play area.
The plus: At night, rollaway decking covers the pools and turns the space into a dance floor. This is where Mickey holds his pirate parties and where guests can watch the fireworks show.
The minus: Space for lounge chairs is awfully cramped.
The Oceaneer Club and the Oceaneer Lab - both for ages 3 to 10 - each has a Magic PlayFloor. It is an interactive floor and video screen that provides the playing field for all sorts of games. In one game, children got points for stamping on colorful balloons as they appeared on the floor. In another, they flew over London with Peter Pan. And in yet another, virtual jump ropes appeared on the floor in a game of Double Dutch.
As kids tried to keep up with the moving ropes, a mom - perhaps remembering her own jump-rope skills - joined in. A counselor immediately put a hand on the woman's back and walked her off the floor. "I'm sorry, ma'am, this is just for kids."
The clubs give children an opportunity "to be transported to different lands to play with their favorite characters," said Migliorati, the Imagineer. Crush the sea turtle appears here, too, for conversations with kids, as does Stitch from "Lilo and Stitch." In Andy's Room, children play with oversized characters from "Toy Story." In Monster's Academy, youngsters climb on a play structure fashioned after the scare floor in "Monsters, Inc." In Pixie Hollow, children will find Tinker Bell, play dress-up and do crafts. In Explorer Pod, inspired by "Finding Nemo," children can play games at computers in a submarine. There is equipment for creating and recording music, conducting science experiments and learning to draw.
That's just a sample of what's available for kids. There's more for other age groups. In addition to the two Oceaneer zones, the ship has the It's a Small World Nursery for infants and toddlers; the Edge lounge for tweens with a dance floor, video wall and computers; the Vibe teen club with media room, video-editing technology, a dance club and a private deck with wading pools and fountains; and Chill, a spa for teens.
Like the other Disney ships, the Dream does not have a casino. It does have a 16,000-foot spa with exercise equipment and classes, salon, barber shop and spa treatments. Three live shows rotate through the Walt Disney Theatre. The Buena Vista Theatre screens movies all day, some in 3-D.