THE CARIBBEAN - As a company established between two world wars and matured during the height of the Soviet scare, it made sense for The Walt Disney Company to create places well removed from the unknown threats of the world for both parents and children: Disneyland and Disney World.
However, on this side of the 21st century, Disney has grown beyond simply theme parks into a vacation partner that promises safe travels for those ready to expose their kids to more than their own backyard.
Innovations like Disney’s Vacation Club combine opportunities like walking the Great Wall of China or scaling Mayan ruins with kid-friendly accommodations and tour guides who can turn the unknown into a secure and memorable family experience.
In 1995, Disney launched its own cruise line with the objective of letting families experience enchanted lands without the fear that can follow when travelling with young children. With options like an 11 night Mediterranean voyage or a 14 night transatlantic crossing, Disney recommends starting with the “bread and butter” experience: the four night Caribbean cruise.
The magic began before we even boarded the Disney Wonder, a 10 deck vessel designed specifically for families. As cruisers with tenure, we expected incredible lines of frustrated patrons managed by stressed out employees. To our surprise, the only substantial line was for pre-boarding pictures with Mickey and Minnie, as well as a much smaller assembly for those wanting to register for children’s programs. The genius of the Disney embarkation process is in the large boarding window. Cruisers can arrive as early as 11:45 a.m., enjoy a welcome aboard buffet, then wander the ship to get oriented before the programs begin and the ship is ready to sail.
Once out at sea, Disney knows how to take it to the next level. Their award winning Broadway-bound shows like “Toy Story - The Musical” and “Disney Dreams - An Enchanted Classic,” are technically beyond anything seen on other cruises. Disney ships are also the only ones to show films still in theatres, like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Their fleet similarly has the distinction of being the first to dazzle with fireworks at sea — a truly inspiring display when gliding through a warm Caribbean evening.
Another experience that seems like a vacation all on its own is the stop at Disney’s exclusive island paradise Castaway Cay. Featuring amusing landmarks like The Flying Dutchman (the ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) and prehistoric whale bones for the junior paleontologist in the family to discover, the island offers comfortable amenities you’d expect to find only on the ship. Free child care at Scuttle’s Cove or programs at the private Teen Beach area allow parents to wander up the island for drinks and some leisure time of their own. For those really wanting to get away from younger crowds, Serenity Bay offers adult-exclusive indulgences like open air massages, yoga classes and a private beach.
As one may imagine, Disney’s kids clubs leave the competition behind. Aligned with Disney’s core values, there are no casinos on board their vessels, so the extra space is devoted to a second children’s area. Disney’s Oceaneer Club is set for fun, with slides, movies and visits from characters like Snow White who teach young dancers to do-si-do. Disney’s Oceaneer Lab is for those wanting to explore, combining science experiments like making “flubber” with educational games and crafts.
But after experiencing the innovations one would expect from a company that changed the way entertainment is made, the Disney difference really is in the staff. The waiters made children want to come to dinner, and, dressed in pirate uniforms or “animated” clothing, would often perform magic tricks and hold limbo contests. Waiters would also help parents with mealtime chores by cutting toddlers’ food into smaller bites or feeding reluctant young eaters by negotiating vegetables into open mouths with the promise that Mickey was watching. These waiters were found in an array of restaurants like Parrot Cay or the multi-million dollar Animator’s Palate, which grows more “colourful” as the night progresses, but they didn’t just stay in the dining rooms. To our children’s delight, waiters would pop up pool side during the day with ice cream and slushies, or seek out families during the morning buffet to ask if they would like anything to make their breakfast more comfortable.
The famous Disney characters were also more readily available on the ship than they are at the parks. Albeit, air conditioning and a much smaller kid-to-character ratio allow those in plush costumes to spend that much more time signing autographs and taking pictures. Those who expect assembly-line exposure to Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty will be pleasantly surprised by how interested these enchanting characters can be, taking the time to answer the questions of little ones and even asking a few of their own.
Not to be outdone by servers and magical beings, the ship’s officers regularly made rounds to learn who they had on their ship, not an easy feat considering 2,400 new passengers arrive every four or five days. In fact, to our astonishment, while standing in line with my son and daughter to visit with Princess Tiana, an anonymous officer, addressing us by our last name, asked how we enjoyed Palo, the adults only, five star restaurant we dined at as the ship launched from Nassau, Bahamas.
Even on Castaway Cay, amidst the snorkelling and Ski-Dooing, when a child wandered away from mom or dad, the staff, through megaphones and crackling walkie-talkies, were soon able to reunite them to the relief of all concerned. From the therapist who brought sore legs back to life at Vista, the on board spa which features botanical wraps and skin therapies, to our room hostess, who delighted our family with an array of towel animals and personally presented a certificate to our kids for being her “most magical family,” the people who work for Disney are genuinely thrilled to be there.
A Disney cruise ship may just be the happiest place at sea.