By Kit Bernardi, Taking the Kids Correspondent
Arriving at Port Canaveral, when our son Will saw the Disney Dream from the Disney Magical Express bus’ porthole circular windows he said, “Cool! It’s a giant hotel that floats.”
I took his reaction as a good sign for our first-time cruising family. My 14-year old, well-traveled son knew what to expect at top resort hotels. Especially since his dad Bob is a meeting planner, I’m a travel writer and marketer, and we both worked for many years in
premier resort and convention properties. But cruising was new for us all. We liked the Disney Dream for our first family cruise because of Disney’s reputation for customer service, the ship’s dedicated teen entertainment area called Vibe and a short three-day Bahamian sail. The Port Canaveral to Nassau, day in Castaway Cay itinerary was just enough to get a feel for cruising together, but not too long should the immersive Disney experience disagree with one of us.
When the ship left port, its whistle blew bars of Disney’s Pinocchio “When You Wish Upon A Star.” No doubt we were aboard the happiest place on the high seas. Throughout the cruise, approximately 4,000 guests get Disney’s magical, memory-making treatment: iconic character photo ops, princess pageants; Broadway-style musical entertainment; tasteful mouse-themed décor; movie scene hallway artwork; public bathroom piped-in, classic Disney music; logoed everything in the designer brand-name shopping arcade; and 1,500 perpetually smiling cast members representing 60 countries worldwide.
Disney imagineers skillfully outfitted the 1,115-foot ship Disney style. From 1,250 staterooms with embroidered Mickey Mouse ear-patterned bed linens to the two faux smokestacks emblazoned with the iconic mouse logo and Donald Duck’s feathery backside poking from a porthole. Subtle ear designs and Disney characters appear in the adult-only restaurants. Wispy, ear-shaped clouds dot the Venetian canal oil paintings at elegant Palo Italian restaurant. In accordance with nautical fire safety law and Disney marketing savvy, the cherry faux wood chairs in French gourmet restaurant Remy (named after Ratatouille rodent star) portrays silhouettes of the rat chef. In The District adult entertainment area’s champagne bar Pink, a tiny Dumbo pops up in the bubble-like lit wall.
Mouse messaging is balanced with nautical education. For centuries ship builders have considered it bad luck to name a ship before it sails. Hence, the adult lounge 687 is named after the slip at Meyer Werf in Papenburg, Germany where the Disney Dream was built. When launched in 2011 it was christened by “fairy godmother” Jennifer Hudson, one of the Oscar-award winning Dream Girls. The Pirates of the Caribbean-themed deck dance party fireworks lighting up the sky become fish food upon landing on the waves. The spotless ship’s paint job throughout is Mickey Mouse red, yellow and black. Even the lifeboats we got a good view of during the mandatory emergency safety drill were approved by the U.S. Coast Guard to be painted the mouse’s signature yellow instead of the standard neon orange.
This forward to aft branding alone is certainly impressive. But for hotel folk like Bob and I, the real magic happens behind the scenes. There’s no Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo spell at work when delivering seamless hotel customer service. So we naturally kept a sharp eye, wondering if this stellar theme park operation floats a five-star hotel in legendary pirate waters.
The Disney Dream has full-service, family restaurants, adults-only restaurants, 24-hour room service and multiple walk-up food stations. That’s a big food and beverage operation equivalent to any in a convention hotel. Two rotational dinner seatings accommodate families assigned the same wait staff that follows them to each restaurant the duration of the cruise, an effective service strategy to ensure any special food requirements are met. Gourmet level food quality surpassed our expectations with each meal fresh, satisfying and artfully plated: Palo’s succulent lamb chops and velvety chocolate soufflé; the Animator’s Palate flaky fish; tender chateau Briand at the Royal Palace; and Cabanas’ made-to-order omelets and creamy muesli.
A 25-year Disney veteran, Hotel Director Lisa Picket is like a big convention property’s general manager overseeing behind the scenes operations. The housekeeping and stateroom staffs, food and beverage division, provisions department and others are under her watch all while she seemingly doesn’t wrinkle her appellate, starched white uniform. Lisa says, “The dining options and balance of kids and adult entertainment options help keep things running smoothly, ensures accessibility to whatever guests want to do and that seats are always available.”
Informative guest communications makes this possible, such as the ship’s nightly newsletter delivered by stateroom hosts and hostesses listing the next day’s onboard and port of call activities. These include bingo, trivia games, karaoke, art workshops, fitness center exercise classes, first-run movies, stage shows and more. The diversity of activities disperses cruisers throughout the ship so you rarely feel hemmed into a crowd. But the reality of how many people you share the ship with sets in during evening photo opportunities when iconic Disney characters gather in the grand salon under the 8,860-Swarski crystal, 24 karat chandelier. Lines loop around the balconies and down the curved staircases. Also, expect lines at the AquaDuck water slide (30 minute wait) during prime afternoon, family pool hours (private adult sun deck and pool available, but no swim lap lane).
If you haven’t signed up for one of the full-day port excursions, the best day for less crowded family pool time is when docked in Nassau. We wandered about Nassau’s crowded shopping district’s ice cream colored building streets, poked our heads into a few of the duty-free shops and strolled through the straw market selling beach cover-ups, totes and purses (many decorated with Disney characters). We returned to the ship early to take advantage of a shorter line at the AquaDuck, the popular raft-ride in a clear tube winding above a top deck and flying 150-feet over the ship’s hull above the sea.
The final day we docked at Disney’s private island Castaway Cay. I’d estimate it’s a 50/50 split of cruisers who stay on the ship and disembark. There are 100 Disney employees living on the remote 1,000-acre island. Sitting on the family or adults-only white sand beaches, frolicking in the crystalline lagoons (lifeguards present) and a barbeque buffet lunch cost nothing beyond the inclusive, three-day, $450 per person cruise price. But boat rental, fishing, parasailing, kayaking, bike rental, snorkeling, feeding sting rays, hair braiding and other island activities are additional purchases. With so much onboard and in port to do in 72 hours, families need to be selective about where they spend their time and extra dollars.
You get a lot of personalized attention for your money in three days. Here are just some special touches we loved:
· Luggage delivered from flights or Disney resorts to your stateroom.
· Cabanas buffet restaurant plates indented so little cruisers carry food with minimum spillage.
· Doors to outdoor dining areas automatically open for diners balancing food trays.
· Your assigned wait staff and unfinished wine bottles follow you restaurant to restaurant.
· Free coffee, soda and ice cream dispensers never ran out.
· Seafood buffet crab claws pre-cut open for easy eating.
· Animator’s Palate restaurant’s sea turtle Crush chatted with kids by name during dinner.
· Vibe teen entertainment district (ages 14-16) where our son hung out willingly with new friends while we relaxed at the quiet Rainforest Spa.
· Your “key to the world” was your port ID, stateroom key, swipe-to-pay card for purchases and record keeper of photos shot by the ship’s roaming, professional photographers.
· Cruise photos stored in personalized albums and at online kiosks at the Shutters library.
· 24-hour Guest Services and designated “Connect” desk help cruisers with their online needs.
· Lifeguards on duty during family pool hours, in the Finding Nemo-themed, tot splash park and at the AquaDuck. Free, kid-sized, water floatation vests available.
· “Wave” onboard phones in every stateroom so kids and parents can keep in touch via phone calls and texts without having to spend Connect packages’ data dollars or incur long distance roaming charges.
All these conveniences made the three days just fly by faster. Disney runs a tight ship, earning high marks from these former hoteliers.
The ship’s whistle blasting Cinderella song’s refrain “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” signaled our return to Port Canaveral. As the porters took our bags to the Magical Express bus, once again we experienced the touted “Disney difference” of seamless customer service. Over three days, the only seam we saw was the horizon of blue sea meeting the sky stitching together a serene view from our stateroom balcony.
Read more of travel journalist and photographer Kit Bernardi’s adventures on her website www.KitTravels.com.