Let me start by explaining that I was a cruise skeptic. I always assumed that “taking” a cruise was like spending a week in a floating shopping mall, and I hate malls. I expected that there was little to do but lounge around, when not overeating ghastly food.
The only reason I agreed to take a week-long Disney cruise to the Caribbean is that I was trying to think of something my son could look forward to after his father died in July. Dick hadn’t felt well enough to travel for years, and I asked Max where he would like to go during his winter break from college. This is what he came up with, so I booked it. And though I was still dragging my feet when we flew to Florida on January 1, off we went, hoping to start a new year with fresh, happy memories.
Now that Max and I have returned home to freezing New Jersey, I’m here to admit that I was wrong, very very wrong. Let me start by explaining the image above, Donald Duck’s butt stuck in a porthole on the side of the Disney Fantasy, our ship home for a week. I decided it was the perfect metaphor to explain the special wow factor of a Disney cruise: you expect great service and a well-greased brand-delivery machine, but what gets you grinning is all the extras you didn’t expect. Hidden visual treats like Donald’s butt are what I mean, unadvertised treasures. And technology marvels, like when you are given a paper and marker to draw a person at the Animator’s Palate restaurant and by desert, it has been magically and musically animated along with those made by all the other diners.
And the sweet ritual of greeting as you begin the cruise: you enter the ship by walking between two rows of ship’s officers in crisp white uniforms, while your family is “announced.” When the smiling female crew member said, “Everyone, welcome the Leone family!” I got goosebumps (and then I started crying, because it made me think about the big hole in our family.)
And so, I give you a Letterman-style Top 10 list as a way of sharing some of our favorite Disney cruise experiences from the past week:
No. 10: Star Wars
We are Star Wars fans and since Disney owns that franchise now, the ship’s shops were overflowing with awesome movie merchandise. They showed the new film, The Force Awakens, multiple times on-board, and you could get your movie drink in a cup shaped like new droid BB8, and your popcorn in a bucket shaped like Darth Vader’s helmut. It was Max’s third time seeing the movie, and my second (he already owned the Boba Fett shirt, by the way.)
No. 9: Port Adventures
The add-on tours weren’t all great, especially on Tortola, a port Disney only added recently which is a pretty beaten-down looking port city in the midst of waterfront renovation. We got soaking wet in the rain, then pushed onto a bus that wouldn’t start, on the way to a too-hectic dolphin encounter. But I just loved walking around and looking at buildings and plants and whatever was for sale. I loved walking around St.Thomas’ port of Charlotte Amalie, and would definitely do more exploring/hiking in a future trip. Here is a beautiful church on that island on a perfect sunny Caribbean day.
N0. 8: Pirate Night
Every person on the ship was given a cute Pirates of the Caribbean kerchief, featuring Pirate Mickey, and the pirate theme included fun music, dancing, special drinks and food. At 10:30 pm, fireworks were shot from the ship’s deck and it was thrilling. Part of the fun was the creative and elaborate costumes: returning cruisers make their own, but the ship was stocked with outfits for every age. (Can you see the parrot puppet on this dude’s shoulder?)
No. 7: The Aqua Duck Waterslide
One of the special attractions on the two newest Disney ships (out of 4) is a “water coaster” that shoots the rider through 765 feet of sharp turns and drops inside a 4-foot diameter tubing. At one point, the ride juts out over the ocean. This ride is part of the cool design of the main pool deck, deck 11, and part of the fun is watching people whoosh by and wave as they squeal. The lines are often quite long and another passenger on the cruise told me “That waterslide isn’t for grandmothers! Too bumpy,” so I was wary. But my son kept making chicken noises at me, and we finally tried out the Aqua Duck on the last cruise day, coming back early from the beach so the lines would be short. I loved it!!! Didn’t even lose my glasses, and if I go on a Disney cruise again, I will do this early and often.
No. 6: Castaway Cay
The last port we visited, the last day of the cruise, was Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. The weather was perfect and like everything else about the cruise, it was just so beautifully designed, organized so that every kind and category of person would find what she needed. The gung-ho exercisers could do the 5K run (or walk, or bike), while non-runners like me could opt for yoga on the beach. There is a lovely beach for families, but a short tram ride away is a beach where children aren’t allowed, aptly named Serenity Bay. It wasn’t crowded at the grownup beach, and people were constantly asking what drink you’d like brought over to your reclining chair. Those inclined could rent floats or snorkeling equipment, or sign up for parasailing. A full barbecue buffet was just steps away at lunch, part of the cruise prepaid menu. (Helping finish my beer is Gus, a sort of family mascot who always travels with us.)
No. 5: Live Shows & Everyday Spectacles
I didn’t realize how much live entertainment there would be on a Disney cruise on top of the constant character appearances. Mickey and Donald and Goofy and Pluto were frequently available for photo ops, but so was Jessie from Toy Story and Captain Hook and Smee, and a wide assortment of Disney princesses. But there was also at least one, and often two daily live shows in the Walt Disney Theater. The early evening shows included a one-hour theatrical version of Aladdin that was extremely impressive ( though maybe a tad short of the promised “Broadway-level quality”) as well as shows with plots about contemporary people of various ages running into a staggering number of famous Disney characters running the gamut from Mary Poppins and Peter Pan to King Louie. There was a terrifically clever and funny juggler, a ventriloquist, a hypnotist and more. The theater itself was capable of all manner of cool effects, including shooting confetti or bubbles down from the ceiling. Because photography is forbidden, I’m sharing a photo of two adorable sisters in mermaid costumes standing outside the theater, since a great part of the daily spectacle was seeing all the children who had been transformed by Disney staff into princesses and mermaids (at considerable parental expense.)
No. 4: Meeting People
It’s fair to say that I’m a much more social animal than my son, and I wondered how difficult it would be to strike up conversations with my nearly 5,000 fellow passengers. It was surprisingly easy, and some people I ran into over and over, so I frequently walked into an on-board venue and heard my name called. I especially got to know the other hearty souls who signed up for the 8:30 am Boot Camp sessions on the basketball court. And, it was a special pleasure getting to know the two women that Disney paired us with for dinner all week: Sharon and her daughter Sara from Connecticut. My guess is they put us together because Sharon’s daughter is the same age as Max, and he was very shy and quiet at the start, meeting this beautiful and confident young woman. We wound up having a blast, and here we are on the second to last night, “toasting” with Mickey-shaped ice cream bars (my eyes are closed, but my heart is open, what can I say? Photography was not our waiter’s forte.)
No. 3: Most Amazing Customer Service Ever
I checked customer satisfaction ratings, and knew that Disney’s are the highest in the business, but experiencing the lengths to which the crew will go was pretty incredible. It isn’t just the creative and amusing towel sculptures that you find on your bed each night, but the way problems are solved as they occur. For one dinner, I had made a reservation at Palo, one of two adults-only restaurants on the ship, which has a strict dress code. Although I told Max to pack dress slacks, he ignored me and packed only shorts and t-shirts (and books). I called the restaurant in a panic, and this is what they did: after getting Max’s size requirements, they brought multiple pairs of black pants to our stateroom for Max to try on, and a pair of size 11 men’s dress shoes. We bought a collared shirt on-board (a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt that Max will wear again), and were good to go. (Yep, that towel sculpture is a brontosaurus.)
No. 2: The Food
OK, I was most wrong about the food. It was endless, but the overall quality was quite good, and the dinner at Palo (which costs us an extra $25) was quite exceptional. One of the things that pleased me is that while each dinner menu included heavier fare like Beef Wellington or duck, there was always one or more seafood options, plus a couple of extra “lighter fare” options. This was helpful because we picked the later dinner seating, 8:15, and I often sampled desert too. The portions at dinner reflected their understanding that food had been plentiful all day, including the Ice Cream station with 6 flavors of self-serve soft ice cream available from morning until 11 pm. At breakfast, there must have been 12 varieties of cereal alone (including hot oatmeal) and almost that many varieties of eggs. Every lunch included, on top of dozens of other choices, a huge heaping buffet of large cocktail shrimp and crab claws. Best of all, for me, there was loads of fruit everywhere, and it was possible and easy to eat healthy fare whenever I wanted it. Between Boot Camp and refusing to take the elevator on-board, I think I barely gained weight.
No. 1: Real Relaxation
Although Max and I tried to take as much advantage as possible of the many daily activities — I confess I could watch cute little girls being hugged by Disney princesses all day long and I even watched the baby crawling race (not joking) — there were also ample opportunities and venues for just reading one of the novels I brought, writing in my journal, lounging in the whirlpool, or studying the clouds. I skipped Bingo and didn’t feel obliged to try the alcoholic drink of the day every day, but I loved having many options. One of my favorite quiet places was this row of classic deck chairs on Deck 4, a place where passengers can also elect to walk or jog. This was the vacation that Max and I needed to rest and recharge. We came home refreshed, full of new memories, and eager to do it again!