Living The Dream Part Three: GET OUT!

Read part one here and part two here.

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.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

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.

Have a magical day!

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.

Ah the good old days of the great depression that never was… or something like that.

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.

Does this look good to you? The answer may determine whether the Dream would be a week in heaven or hell for you.

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.

Treasured family heirlooms… nah, just garbage.

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.

In retrospect we were fools… what kid wouldn’t want to spend time here?

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).

Which comes standard? This…

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.

…or this?

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.

The Four Seasons Orlando Deluxe Resort and Spa

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.

Get out.

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.

Pass the Kleenex.

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.

Living The Dream Part 2: Curse of the Black Pearl

Read part one here

Sitting at the Meridian bar aboard the Disney Dream my father and I are contemplating ordering an extremely expensive glass of Louis XIII “Black Pearl” cognac.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. First of it costs $1,200 a shot, and that’s considered a bargain. Yes, TWELVE HUNDRED American dollars for one tiny shot (though served in a huge glass no doubt). Secondly when it comes to drinking I’m a total lightweight so it would be completely and totally lost on me. Finally because it is shocking that a Disney owned family oriented, mainstream ship would even have such a thing available.

A bargain at twice the price.

Ivana works the bar, she (like most of the crew) is not from the U.S. Ivana was born and raised in Serbia. The cruise industry has given her a chance to see parts of the world otherwise inaccessible to her and has allowed her to better herself along the way. Her partner at the bar is Ivan and oddly enough Ivan too is from Serbia. Perhaps the strangest part of this is that it is not a bit, not a set up, not a Disney created back-story. This is not “Victoria and Albert’s” (the fanciest restaurant at the Grand Floridian Hotel) where the servers nametags used to all read either “Victoria” or “Albert” regardless of their given birth names (fortunatley this stupidness silliness was put to rest a few years back). No, these are real people who just happen to share the same name and hail from the same country. When I mention Victoria and Albert’s and joke that the bar shoudl be called “Ivana and Ivan’s” they look at me with blank stares, it is obvious that they have never been to the Grand Floridian or to any Disney venture outside of the ship for that matter. Fate brought them together working at the highest end bar aboard the highest end Disney ship and together they tag team my dad and I in hopes of pushing a couple shots of the highest end liquor on board.

Victoria and Albert’s – Nothing goes with fine dining, subdued elegance and very high bills like goofy name tag schtick… good move dropping that.

Nearby the AquaDuck snakes itself around deck 11, it’s elevated perch brings it closer to the height of deck 12, the same deck Meridian is on. While not exactly thrilling the much-ballyhooed water coaster had my daughter enthralled and wanting to ride it over and over again. Two people per rafter slosh through the plexi-glass tubes on a meandering tour of the ships perimeter. For now it’s unique to the Disney ships and is about as far removed in tone and intent from the Meridian lounge as one could possibly be. Swimsuits, splashdowns and cartoon ducks, my daughter liked it here.

It looks faster than it is

The Meridian bar is situated between Palo, the decent adults only Italian restaurant and Remy the extremely good (legit good, not just cruise ship good) fine dining establishment. They sell things like $26 cigars, very well made dirty martinis with blue cheese stuffed olives (the cheese being poached from Remy next door) and apparently shots of cognac that go for the price of a used car. The décor is understated and clubby. Thickly padded leather chairs, inlaid wood floors, granite bars and not one cartoon character in sight. Located at the extreme aft of the ship the passenger accessible outdoor patio space offers spectacular views. There are no kids to be heard, no forced fun parties to attend and no lines to queue up in. If you didn’t know that this was a Disney product you never would know. My father liked it here.

No Shoes, no Shirts, no Wallet… No Service.

Every night after dinner he would venture upstairs to the far end of the bar. He’d chat with Ivana and Ivan and he would long for that $1,200 shot trying in vain to find a way to justify its purchase. Instead he would “settle” for a $45 glass of Hennessy Paridis, an extreme luxury in it’s own right. I would join him most nights but I would also venture out on the aft deck where groups of Disney Cruise regulars would gather each evening. I got to know them a bit, which was a pleasant surprise. Just as my dad made friends with Ivana I made friends with several of the regular cruisers. It was an unexpected phenomenon. Being trapped on a boat for a week, even though the boat is huge and holds thousands of people, it is surprising how often you see the same folks. Having shipboard buddies was not anything I had anticipated or even had heard of yet it was one of my favorite aspects of the trip.

This is not Ivana, but Ivana does have dark hair and did wear this costume, so lets pretend it is her. You may also pretend that the to models are my father and I… but thats REALLY stretching it.

In talking with my newfound friends I learned that some had been on many Disney cruises. Not just one or two or three but maybe eight or nine or a dozen. Some had no children at all and chose to repeatedly cruise with Disney simply because they enjoy it (of course some of these folks may also have the Minnie Mouse shower curtains that I love so much). It’s hard for the cynic in me not so scoff at these folks. I mean of all the things you could do you choose to take in essence identical cruises time and time again? Are they mental? Are they scared to do other things? Are they just crazy lazy? Then I thought about how many times I have visited the parks. I thought about how many trips I have taken to see the latest and greatest Disney attraction. I thought that to a non-Disney park fan I must appear mental.  So OK, I can cut the multi-cruisers some slack. I’m not sure that I would want to join them on a quest to become super platinum level Cataway-Club Disney uber cruisers but I get it… sort of.

Disney being Disney knows how to leverage their assets… for every “adults only” venue decorated in muted shades of brown and taupe there are two plastered withcandy colored depictions of Nemo or Mickey or, in the case of the AuqaDuck, Donald and his clan. Prominently featured sticking out of one of the decorative smoke stakes near the AquaDuck are the larger than life legs and hindquarters of Donald. The story goes that Donald got blasted so fast through the still under construction tubes that he imbedded himself headfirst into the side of the ship. All my daughter saw was that he had no pants, and no private parts either.

Leveraging Donald’s “assets”

 

Back at the Meridian each nights solicitation of the Black Pearl cognac grew stronger and stronger. It went from a simple acknowledgement of its existence (dramatically displayed in a back-lit case at the bar) to an offer for us to keep the custom made crystal glasses they serve it in (a $300 value each we were told). Eventually we were offered the remaining contents of the bottle (regardless of how much was left), the glasses and the empty bottle itself. They are supposed to take the names of anyone who has ordered a glass and when the bottle is empty have a drawing to see who gets to keep the bottle (a hand made Baccarat black crystal extravagance). There are just 750 or so of these that have ever been produced so the empty bottle is worth a lot. Think about this… the boat was just over a year old, assuming the bottle was full at launch, and there are only a couple of shots left, means that about 14 people had already ordered these drinks prior to our trip. Disney’s quest to get people spending seems to be working. Maybe you prefer an endless supply of Diet Coke… you are covered as well.

Does not dispense fine cognacs.

Disney has managed to create a ship in which not more than a couple hundred feet from one another is a self serve, all you can drink, 24 hour soda dispenser, a family water slide and a bar offering some of the rarest and most expensive cognac in the world (Did I mention that a bottle of “Black Pearl” costs about $15,000… but it is so rare you can’t find a bottle to buy anyway so don’t worry about it). Each seems a world away from the other and yet they coexist on the Dream.

This dichotomy of “experiences” is a recurring theme on the ship. Disney has tried very hard to offer everything to everyone, even at extreme ends of the spectrum. I was happy to see this, not necessarily because I like one side of the scale more then the other but rather because I had the option to choose. My dad got to hang at a fancy bar and dream of crazy drinks, my daughter got to hang at the AquaDuck and get anatomy lessons on anthropomorphic water fowl and I got to spend time with both of them. I’m not sure that either option woudl be their first choice if given unlimted alternatives (my daughter likes Big Thunder an aweful lot and my dad is more into wine than cognac) but both were pretty good. The Dream does most things pretty well, well enough that a 7 and a half year old and a seventy something year old both can find things they enjoy.

Seriously dude, put on some pants.

At the Meridian Ivana was sad on our last day, not only because alas we never did order the cognac but also because my father never had a chance to say goodbye. I think she honestly was a bit hurt that after 5 days of seeing him for several hours a night she never got to say goodbye to her temporary friend. I said goodbye to her, I also said goodbye to my new buddies and exchanged some e-mail addresses. I’m not sure if I will have life long friends from this but I did have vacation long friends and that was more than I expected.

After she loudly inquired about the lack of goods between Donald’s legs I explained to my daughter that while real ducks actually have huge, oddly shaped and generally hidden genitalia cartoon ducks get by just fine without them.  Around that time $1,200 for a shot never sounded so good.

 

We’ll wrap it up with a few final thoughts in part three.

 

 

 

 

Living the Dream

Everything was going great on our Cruise aboard the Disney Dream until my 7 year old daughter asked about Donald Duck’s penis… but more on that later.

Lifes Sweetest Reward

We have very defined roles around the Parkeology offices.

For example Shane writes frequent updates, he maintains the day in and day out technical aspects of the site, he visits the Florida parks often scouring for small details and interesting stories and he keeps the fridge full of various high calorie / low quality energy drinks.

On the other hand I disappear for months on end, rarely do any actual work and forget my passwords often. Yes, I’m in charge of a very important annual tradition and I am an expert in certain areas but Shane is clearly the brains of the operation. HOWEVER I do take trips. That’s my thing… I’m the guy who has been to all the parks everywhere and I know it really pisses Shane off… I like it that way.

Recently we decided to mix it up and instead of visiting a park or resort we hit up the Disney Cruise lines. People seem to love them in that creepy, brain-washed-zombie sort of way you sometimes see happen with Disney fans.  It’s not that people like the Disney Cruise Line; they LOVE it.  They want to marry it and have children with it.  They want to hide away and never leave the luxurious and impeccably clean confines of the ships.  It’s the greatest experience of their lives. Calling fans of the cruises devoted is like calling the Taliban “loyal”, frankly some of these folks seemed a bit insane to me.

I like this…

I’ve always been a fan of the Disney parks and their history, really my whole life at this point, but I have never cared all that much about other aspects of Disney.  The movies are fine, I enjoy some of them quite a bit, but that’s never been my thing.  Minnie Mouse shower curtains make me gag, snooping around for hidden Mickeys is a waste of time.  In other words I have a narrow but fairly deep interest in the history of the theme parks, what makes them work, how they came to be, but the Disney Cruise Line does not offer any of that. They offer all the aspects of Disney that I don’t care about: cloyingly cute shows, choreographed fun and lots of Mickey branded swag.

…NOT this.

I have never had a desire to take a Disney Cruise in fact I have had a strong aversion to it. Cruises in general have always kind of creeped me out.  It’s something for old people, unadventurous people or people who enjoy eating tremendous amounts of crappy (but “free”) food while jammed around a very shallow pool with 1,500 other people all rocking out to some Jimmy Buffet tunes.

Party Time Baby!

They are full of what I call “forced fun”. It’s the same thing we used to see at the old Pleasure Island, people acting like they were on vacation rather than actually being on one. I know in my heart that no one REALLY enjoyed pretending that it was New Years Eve every night. I know that no one truly thought having some lame confetti cannon blow some sparkly glitter in the air was cool or fun or clever or anything other than tedious. However there is a certain group-think feeling of “forced fun” that happens in these situations. People feel that they are paying a lot of money, that they are supposed to be having fun and that they are in a situation that is meant to be fun, therefore they force themselves to pretend to have fun. It’s like how those hypnotists shows work… we all just go along with the flow, do what we are told and hope things turn out OK in the end. This is what I expected from cruises.

Not fun. Not even PRETEND fun.

Throw in the mix some Disney foam head characters, scores of sticky kids running un-tethered and lots of lines for everything (and perhaps some sea sickness) and I was not expecting a lot of this.  But this was never about me; this was about my parents and their desire to spend time with their grand daughter (the aforementioned 7 year old).  The die was cast and I was along for the ride.

Looks like fun…

Early in the planning stages my mother suggested going on some God awful Shrek cruise or something but we managed to stay focused and convince her that if we were going to do this, if we were going to endure what was surely a week of high seas misery then we were at least going to do it on a Disney ship. Furthermore we were going to do it on the Dream, at the time the newest, biggest and hopefully best Disney had to offer.

It was a 5 night Caribbean Cruise.  Nothing fancy, we were leaving from Port Canaveral in Florida… cruising around the Caribbean a bit, stopping off at Disney’s Private Island (Castaway Kay like I need to tell any of you that) a couple of times and a brief stop in Nassau.  This is pretty standard cruise stuff.

Things went smoothly at the terminal and as expected it was nicely done. Likewise boarding the ship went off without a hitch.  I was not super fond of being forced to have our group picture taken (so that they could try to sell it back to us later) but this is par for the course I understand.

Yea, they got this part…

The ship is nice… let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat.  I’m not going to give you all sorts of details about the layout and the offerings because it’s all out there and done much better and more in depth than I could ever do.  I just want to share my little personal experiences and opinions with you, order the free DVD if you want to plan a trip. Anyway, yes, the ship is nice.  It looks just like all the pictures you have seen.  Both the inside and out were clearly superior to other large ships that we saw.  Disney knows how to do this kind of thing and it is all executed exceedingly well.

Upon getting all the passengers on board I was happy to see that the ship did not seem THAT crowded.  It was full for sure but not crushingly so.  Even at big group events things felt orderly and under control, much more so than much of what happens in the parks actually. The first big event was a kick off “Bon Voyage” party.  In most cases this is held on the upper deck but it was raining a bit when we left so it was held in the main lobby.

make it stop

Hundreds of people jammed into the lobby and out pranced Mickey and Minnie and some poor college kids who had to serve as background dancers (and later we would see doing many other duties such as ushers in the theater or hosts at restaurants).  Cue the music and here comes the cheese.  Typical Disney “party” music blasted and of course confetti flew.  Foam heads bobbed around, college kids gamely rocked it out and the forced fun was starting to set in. We also got to meet Leslie for the first time. Leslie is our impossibly chipper, incredibly peppy cruise director.  Leslie would not ask us if we were having fun, she would command us to have fun. Her smile beamed as though chiseled from ivory. Leslie is like every Disneyland Ambassador ever all rolled into one and over caffeinated to the extreme. I was starting to think that this was the start of what was going to be a very long week in captivity.

Then I noticed something. My daughter had pushed to the front of the crowd with her mom and was dancing with the music. Not fake dancing, not sarcastic dancing, not forced fun dancing. The smile on her face was genuine the joy was real. She waved her hands in the air when the MC told her to; she waved her dolls hands in the air as well.  As “Dynamite” blared from the sound system she bopped up and down as I had never seen her do before. Disney knows it’s audience… she is the audience, she is what this was about and seeing her that happy of course made me happy… those bastards!  Disney got me… they are some sort of master manipulators but they got me.  This wasn’t going to be exactly as I expected after all.

Continued next time in part 2.