It’s 6:30 am on the last day of the cruise and Leslie, our aggressively enthusiastic cruise director, is on the ship-wide public address system telling everyone to get the hell off.
Her once charming and intriguing English accent is now grating and incredibly annoying. Half asIeep I picture that 3000-watt smile of hers and frankly I’d like to wipe it off her shiny happy face. This is the point of the trip when the rubber meets the road, when you see the truth behind the veneer, when the ugly underbelly is exposed. It’s like seeing Khloe Kardashian without makeup; a little scary, a little disconcerting and you will never look at her the same way again. Disney wants us up, packed and off the damn ship so that they can stack another 4,000 guests on, they don’t need us anymore.
Out in the hallway it is like The Night of the Living Dead as sleep deprived guests emerge from their rooms and stumble aimlessly down the narrow passageways towards the light, or at least the last free breakfast of the trip. I am sure this is normal for all cruises, in fact perhaps Disney somehow does it better than most, I really don’t know. What I do know is that all the warm embraces and magical Disney pixie dust of the past 5 days has been replaced with military like efficiency as the crew rounds up the passengers and herds them to the exits. You might get a stray cast member sporting an oversized stuffed Mickey Mouse glove waving goodbye but for the most part you get frantic pleas to keep moving and sideways glares from the crew. Not long ago we were their best friends, now we are pieces of meat taking up space and getting in their way as they scurry to do this all over again with a new group of eager folks with fat wallets. Such is the way of the cruise industry I guess, but that does not lessen the jarring realization that your time is up and you are totally expendable.
A few days prior it wasn’t like this, we were royalty and Disney was rolling out the red carpets everywhere we went, nowhere more literally than at the big shipboard shows held each evening. The Walt Disney Theater is a pretty space, an art deco confection designed to hearken back to some idyllic time suggesting the 20’s or 30’s. However it really never existed the way Disney wants you to think it did and anyone old enough to know better is probably dead so they get away with it. Regardless the theater is what you want a grand public space to be onboard a faux old-fashioned ship, it works. Twice a night for each of the nights we were on board Disney presented a different show or event here and each night (to varying degrees) guests crammed in filling virtually every seat. There were three original Disney theatrical shows (Villains Tonight, The Golden Mickey’s and Disney’s Believe) a magic show by a guy named Mike Super (who works not just for Disney but tours around working similar venues all over) and a presentation of the then brand new Pixar movie Brave.
Leslie (who always materialized at these group events) would have you believe that the “free” screening of Brave was an incredible happening worthy of several loud (and forced) rounds of applause. In fact it was kind of cool to have Brave on board when it was premiering concurrently on the mainland. It’s a nice advantage Disney has over other cruise lines and the theater is equipped with full on, state of the art digital 3-D capabilities. The magic show was somewhat of a let down in that Mike was not all that super as it turns out. Well to be fair he is actually a fine performer but for whatever reason it felt like the scale of the show was held back a bit. He performed more of a cabaret style show in a room that was really too big for him. But all in all he was entertaining and it was a nice break from the plethora of Disney specific entertainment on board. As for the other three official Disney shows they are exactly and precisely what you would expect. That is if you have seen any of the larger scale Disney park theatrical shows you have in essence seen these as well. In fact “The Golden Mickeys” was lifted directly out of Hong Kong Disneyland and actually plays better on the ship than it does in the park, surprisingly it was the standout of the three.
Are they good? Well “good” is very subjective, lets say they are serviceable and do exactly what Disney needs them to do. They are a solid family entertainment to fill a couple hours for a large portion of the ships population each night. There is nothing that will have you thrilled but nothing that will have you bored either and not unlike the Bon Voyage party kids (my daughter included) love them.
Once again Disney knows its audience and targets them. They do just enough to make parents feel like they are getting a unique “Disney” experience while never venturing out of very traveled waters. If you like the Aladdin show at Disney’s California Adventure or the Beauty and the Beast show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios then you will like these as well. I think my father opted to get some good face time with Ivana during most of the shows and that works as well. I found myself caught up in it, eagerly scooping up Mickey shaped golden confetti that was shot around the theater at the end of the Golden Mickey’s so that our daughter would have a keepsake of the experience. It’s amazing how kids can warp your world-view and common sense.
Our seven year old seemed almost angry when we came to pick her up after dining at Remy the last night on board. It was getting late, past 10:00 pm and she had been in the kids only Oceaneer Club for over 4 hours. We were concerned that she was bored, tired or even scared. As an only child she spends a lot of time with adults and tends to relate to them well. She will quietly read in her room or hang out at a restaurant but we had never left her alone with a bunch of kids in a crazy oversized play center before. We thought we were rescuing her from a candy colored jail. She in fact wanted more time, she demanded that we leave and shooed us away so that she could stay up late and make more crafts. When we returned an hour or so later she was camped out watching The Little Mermaid in a beanbag chair. I wish we had known this earlier in the cruise; leaving kids at the Oceaneer Club and the other kids only spaces is not a punishment to them, it is not a sign of an uncaring parent and it is not a compromise. It is in fact, as it turns out, a highlight. It gives kids a unique and perhaps self-empowering experience unlike what you will find elsewhere. This aspect is very Disney-like indeed.
This brings us to the fact that Disney has very carefully crafted the exact experience your entire party will have onboard, and that does not always mean giving you the best they have, it means leaving you with the impression that they have given you the best, the reality may be different. For example they do have the $1,200 cognac, they do have high-end food at Remy, they do have spas and private ocean front cabanas and each of these without exception is a hefty up-charge. The basic included items sound like they have all the bases covered but the crab claws at the buffet are so small and so much work that you won’t bother with them after your initial excitement. Sure, they offer sushi, but it is several levels below even most super market offerings and yes they have lounge chairs on the beach as long as you are ok being crammed in with thousands of others (queue the Jimmy Buffet music and the screaming baby here).
Disney gives the appearance of having the best of everything for guests while not incurring the expense involved with actually doing so. The food is serviceable, even good in some cases, it will not thrill you but neither will you feel cheated. The facilities can always handle the crowds they have, you will not feel exploited but you also won’t feel pampered or special… unless you pay for it. To be fair the public spaces and the rooms are quite nice and the kids facilities are, as one would expect, unrivaled. This is in line with any Disney resort experience. If you pay for the All Stars you are not going to get the Grand Floridian and even if you pay for the Grand Floridian you are not going to get the Four Seasons. It all feels good and well run and well thought out but you just can’t shake the feeling that it has been cost optimized a bit, a feeling all too familiar to those who visit Disney often these days.
So the big question might be this: Does a Disney Cruise feel like a Disney experience or does it feel like something else, something less? Again, it was my first and only cruise so it is hard for me to compare but my instinct is that it is a much greater experience than a typical large family oriented ship. From what I have seen both first hand and in photos the physical ship is simply much nicer, much better designed and much more functional than those of Carnival or other direct competition. The Disney Cruise line is not going to fare so well against small, super premium specialty operators such as Seabourn but they were never intended to do so. In fact there are a lot of parallels between staying on the Dream and staying at a Disney resort, specifically the deluxe level resorts… they somehow feel the same. The way the shops are designed, the way the food tastes, the way the characters are used, the way the crew is dressed just all around it will remind Disney fans very much of being on property at say Walt Disney World so the answer is really an unqualified yes, yes it does feel like a Disney experience.
But is that in and of itself a good thing? Should a cruise feel kind of, sort of like visiting a theme park and if so then why not just go to the parks to begin with? Therefore the question becomes does this particular Disney experience warrant foregoing a trip to the more familiar parks? Assuming that you have a somewhat limited amount of time and money to spend on vacation each year, and you are a parks fan, should you skip Disneyland to go on the Disney Cruise? This is a very tough question.
After departing I felt a certain desire to return. There is something so easy about not thinking about anything, having it all taken care of for you. You show up to eat when and where they tell you, you go to the show each night at the same time, you go to the beach when the ship docks at Castaway Kay and you mindlessly eat the BBQ ribs and chicken they have prepared for you once there. It runs automatically and it runs smoothly and it is all good enough that you generally won’t complain. But then again you are just a cog in a machine at that point… a large, well-oiled machine with many choices but a machine nonetheless. You are not going to break out, you are not going rogue, you are not going to zig when everyone else zags…you are a slave following the robot overlords and that bothered me.
I suspect that this is part and parcel for every cruise; it is really the only way something like this can operate at all. So I am not pinning this on Disney but rather the concept of a cruise to begin with. I have a feeling that we will try this again someday, but I am not lining up to do it again now. Still, I am really happy to have experienced it. Disney had me captured on a ship for a week, fed me a constant diet of the very things I like least about Disney and yet I still got off feeling satisfied, happy and willing to return. That speaks volumes for how well they did. That also shows how much a kids happiness means to a parent. For those out there who actually enjoy the saccharin sweet aspects of Disney, who cry when they see the Tree of Life and want to do no thinking at all, well the Dream really may be your dream come true.