With Mickey, on the high seas

If your child’s favorite activity at Disney World is meeting all the characters, a Disney Cruise should be on your radar screen. The industry leader in such innovations as line control (and line jumping with FASTPASS), airline check-in at your hotel, and customer service, pulls out all the stops on its cruise ships, the Wonder and the Magic. But anyone who has spent time at their theme parks knows that getting up-close and personal with Mickey Mouse is not for the fainthearted. On the cruise, that’s a different matter entirely.

The tone is set at Port Canaveral, conveniently located just 40 minutes from Orlando, where Mickey himself greets passengers. I was taking a four-day cruise with my 8- and 15-year-old, and my 6-year-old niece, and none of them had ever gotten within spitting distance of the great mouse. While I checked in (a very civilized 10-minute process; you can also take care of this online), they posed with Mickey. On our cruise, they also ‘met’ Goofy, Donald, Minnie, every princess, and Chip ‘n Dale. Autograph books are in great demand at the gift shop.

Of course, there are many other reasons to sail with Disney. One is the private island, Castaway Cay, with its family, teen and adult beaches. You can spend the day in the water, rent a bike, snorkel or kayak. We chose a stingray adventure, with the very safe de-barbed stingrays; we learned about the rays, fed them, then snorkeled among them. With this we got an hour-long bike rental, floats, and all-day use of snorkel equipment. The Flying Dutchman ghost ship from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is anchored at the island.

The other port of call is Nassau, where excursions include visiting the beach at Atlantis on Paradise Island, taking a glass-bottom boat tour, paragliding (for those 8 and over), or shopping for bargains at the straw market.

Though many cruise lines have family programs, they also have casinos and vacationers who are traveling without children, and do not necessarily make the ship’s environment family-friendly. On my first cruise, with another company, we rode an elevator with Gen X-ers who had over-imbibed — and it was not a pleasant experience. The focus here is on family, and while you can get a drink, people who have to get up early in the morning with their kids are not out late, carousing. There are also little touches. At the buffet, for example, waiters are stationed at the end to carry your little one’s tray and to get her drinks, which is much better than having your child drop her food tray. And the rooms, while not spacious, have a tub and sink in one room, and toilet and sink in another, so bathroom time isn’t difficult.

Disney is trying to build its programming for teens, who are too old for the character greetings, but not old enough for the adults-only pool. The results are mixed. On our cruise, there weren’t that many teens, and Hallie, who can make friends with anyone, went to the club a couple of times to find it completely empty. Luckily, her summer reading and iPod were nearby. There are also foosball and ping pong tables, and a movie theater showing the latest Disney movies (including the dance movie she had missed while at camp). And on the top deck, anyone can play basketball.

But for families with kids up to about 10, this is paradise. The kids’ programs, for example, have a great space for little kids — Oceaneer Club — with climbing apparatus, a stage, and non-stop activities for kids 3-7. For ages 8-12, the Oceaneer Lab has games, science experiments, and light tables where kids could trace cartoons and learn about the animation process. Flounder’s Reef Nursery, for 3 months to 3 years, keeps babies happy. And parents of kids at any of the clubs get pagers so they can be reached quickly if there are any problems. The clubs also operate on Castaway Cay so parents can have a little alone time.

The ships specialize in shows, offering entertainment for kids, families and adults. Kids with stars in their eyes will enjoy the opportunity to get onstage at the end of the kids’ club programs, performing for their adults. The whole cruise staff loves to entertain; our waiters dressed up for pirate night, performed magic tricks for the kids, and even sang a song. We had the same wait staff at every dinner, though we ate at different restaurants; even my world-weary teen was impressed with Animator’s Palate. The walls are covered with black-and-white sketches; as you eat, colors are added (even the waiters’ black-and-white vests became colorful), and music and videos set an animated tone. After our pirate meal, the ship had a huge party on its upper deck, followed by fireworks.

On our last day, a full day at sea, some of the magic wore off. The pools were extremely crowded, and a large group of football-playing teens dominated the family pool. Although people kept complaining, and cruise workers kept trying to stop them, as soon as the adults left, the game started up again. At the water slide pool, it was almost too crowded to stand in the water. I discovered a way to relax; the kids went to their respective clubs, and I had a massage. You can also get a beach massage at the adult beach on Castaway Cay. There is also a fitness center, which is doubling in size.

Disney even makes getting off the ship easy. Like other cruise companies, they take your luggage off the ship, and you claim it to go through customs. But Disney adds the extra step — if you are continuing on to one of the theme parks, or the airport, you check your luggage in at a bus, and next see it in your room, or after you’ve landed. Truly great service.

This summer, for the first time, Disney will offer Mediterranean cruises. For information about the cruise line, call
(888) DCL-2500 or go to www.disneycruise.com.