'Disney Dream' lives up to name, and not just for kids

ABOARD THE DISNEY DREAM

Little Lucy Silverthorne of Toronto, just 3 and bedecked in a floppy pink sun hat, looks into the eyes of Cinderella and people melt. Cinderella and Lucy pose for pictures and then, with her mother's prodding, Lucy moves on to her next photo op. • She stops for a heart-to-heart with Snow White, then Ariel, then Belle and finally Princess Tiana, who sits on the ground, arranging her pale green gown into a blanket of sorts. Lucy is invited to plop down on the fabric and cozy right up to the princess. They blow kisses. They hug. People watching the character encounter in the grand atrium of the new Disney Dream actually get weepy. Those who aren't welling up are smiling wide. Honestly, it's that cute. • One little boy, so enamored of Princess Tiana, can hardly be coaxed to face the camera. How can he look forward when there is an actual princess behind him? • Lucy reminds us of another pastel rendezvous on our agenda, one deck up and at the back of the ship. It's all about pink drinks, and no kids, no matter how adorable, are allowed. • Pink is the name of a small, sophisticated cocktail bar dedicated to all things bubbly. Once inside, we feel as if we're swimming in a cotton candy sea of Champagne. Behind the bar is a bank of glass dewdrops, meant to mimic bottles bursting with effervescence. The leather-tufted bar is accented with corseting, evoking a Moulin Rouge cancan dancer. Backlit glass "bubbles" are imbedded in the walls. • A pomegranate Champagne cocktail at $10.50 makes the room rosier. There is not a cartoon character or image of a mouse in sight. • This is the genius that Disney has wrought. A 4,000-passenger cruise ship that has the corporate touches you would expect — Mickey Mouse woven into carpets and upholstery — combined with sophisticated subtlety that is welcome and a little surprising. • And that's not just the Champagne cocktail talking.

Launching the 'Dream'

If Oprah made the "aha" moment famous, then Disney can certainly claim the "ahh" moment. There are oh-so-sweet encounters all over the Dream, which combines state-of-the-art interactivity with 1930s classic ship design via art deco and art nouveau touches. The show Disney's Believe in the Walt Disney Theatre prompted some audience members to their feet at the end, clapping in wild appreciation. After all, Mary Poppins did make a flying entrance with her bumbershoot. But the star of that lively show is a genie with a slight resemblance to Dom DeLuise, only way cheekier.

I checked out the Dream on the two-night christening cruise, Jan. 19-21, which started with a character-laden, music-and-fireworks extravaganza on the dock. The 1,115-foot ship was the backdrop. Singer Jennifer Hudson, a Disney cruise ship entertainer before her big break on American Idol, is the ship's godmother and she triggered the release of the requisite celebratory Champagne. A helicopter hoisted a 16-foot-high bottle to the ship's bow.

The Disney Dream brings to three the ships in the cruise line's fleet, including Disney Magic (1998) and Disney Wonder (1999). The Dream's sister ship, Disney Fantasy, will debut in 2012 and will also call Port Canaveral its home. The Wonder is based in Los Angeles, and the Magic heads to Europe this summer. The Dream holds considerably more passengers than the older ships, which each carry 2,400.

It's difficult to fully assess a new ship from short preview cruises, typically populated by journalists, travel agents, contest winners, corporate brass and other company employees and their families. This one especially had a lot of distractions. Good Morning America was broadcasting live from the pool deck. Radio personalities were hosting their morning shows off to the side, pulling over anyone they could to talk about their impressions of the Dream.

There were cameras — still, video and TV — everywhere, more so it seemed when actor John Stamos appeared near the pool, looking cool in a gray suit and porkpie hat. Whoopi Goldberg was onboard, too. I had a brief sighting in the upscale French restaurant Remy (yes, named after the rat in Ratatouille).

So the christening cruise wasn't businesses as usual, also because it was about half full and with far fewer children onboard than should be expected on a regular cruise. There weren't many lines, except at the self-serve soft ice cream bar. Not even the Aqua Duck, a cruise ship E Ticket attraction if there ever was one, required a wait. That is likely to change on a full ship. I imagine the elevated "water coaster" that sends riders above the pool deck and around the ship in a translucent tube will be stop No. 1 for many passengers.

Even with the exceptions on the christening cruise, I got a telling glimpse of what the ship will offer passengers on its three-, four- and five-night Bahamas itineraries.

As you would expect, the Disney Dream is boffo for anyone traveling with children, especially those younger than 13. Depending on how willing your teens are to jump into activities, they'll have a good time, too. It's an excellent ship for multigenerational groups.

For adults who aren't traveling with children, the Dream loses a little appeal unless they are dedicated Disneyphiles. There are plenty of those out there so Disney shouldn't have any problems booking the Dream, whose first regular cruise began Wednesday.

For the kids

The supervised children's areas on the Dream are so enticing that it's likely some parents won't see their kids except at dinner and bedtime. This is especially true of teens 14 to 17 who might just make the Vibe their home for the cruise's duration. It took me three attempts to find the teen hangout at the front of the ship on Deck 5 because the entrance is actually from an out-of-the-way stairway on Deck 4.

The stealth location is designed so that teenagers, perhaps the most difficult cruise passengers to satisfy, don't have to worry about Mom or Dad poking their heads in to check on them. Once inside the Vibe they can plug in their own electronics or use Disney's, watch movies on a giant screen or take part in a video danceoff, among other interactive competitions. There is also a private outdoor deck with lounge chairs, wading pools and game tables. A bar serves smoothies and other snacks. In addition to Vibe, two treatment rooms in the spa are dedicated to teens.

Tweens (11 to 13) have a place to call their own, too, on Deck 11 in a faux funnel. There is lots of electronic wizardry at the Edge and a good view of one of the three pools. The Edge isn't an easy find either. (In general, the ship is a little more difficult to negotiate than other ships of its size. More useful maps and signs around the ship would help, starting with more indicators for bow and stern. It's easy to get turned around.)

It's a Small World Nursery, filled with cribs and rocking chairs, is a calm oasis. A one-way mirror lets parents check on baby and then head back out to the pool or the pumping music of the nightclubs. Not to worry, the brain-cramping song from the Magic Kingdom attraction is not played on a regular basis.

The Oceaneer Club and the Oceaneer Lab (ages 3 to 10) offer a range of activities, from electronic games, science experiments and crafts to old-school dressup. A rack of princess gowns awaits someone's imagination.

A replica of Andy's room from Toy Story in the Oceaneer Club includes a huge Mr. Potato Head with removable parts and a slinky dog whose coils provide a fun crawl space. Monster's Academy is fashioned after the scare floor in Monsters, Inc.

All around the ship, the "enchanted art" on the walls comes to life when passengers pass or if they stop and wave their hands in front of it. Pirate ships battle each other, bluebirds of happiness flit through the frames and Walt Disney himself comes to life as he draws Steamboat Willie, an early rendition of Mickey Mouse.

For the adults

There are plenty of places to dance and drink for those of age. Just like the Wonder and Magic, there is no casino on the Dream, but the District, an entertainment compound, includes several places to have a cocktail and conversation, and you can try the pulsating dance floor of the Evolution. The Skyline lounge was packed into the wee hours on the christening cruise, the ever-changing views of city skylines lighting the fairly dark space.

I was disappointed by the adults-only pool area, which didn't seem nearly big enough. It's attractive and serene, but I think people looking for a respite from the cartoon cacophony will find themselves waiting for a chaise on a full cruise.

I am not a fan of the openness of the coed saunas, steam rooms and aromatherapy showers in the spa. Yes, there are separate dressing rooms, but I like a bit more privacy. It sort of feels like you're on display.

Though Disney has gone to great lengths to appeal to all ages, these two areas are reminders of what the cruise line is all about: family entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but you should know it when you book.

Room and board

The innovative "magic portholes" in the inside cabins give the appearance of a view from the least desirable but most affordable staterooms on the ship. Cameras on the exterior of the ship provide a live feed to each porthole. Much of the time the view would be the vast flat seas (you hope), so occasionally an animated feature such as the starfish from Finding Nemo or the flying balloon house from Up passes by. This clever feature connects the inside cabins with the outside world and alleviates the claustrophobic, tin-can feeling some passengers complain about.

Two welcome features in my oceanview verandah room were the split bathroom (a toilet and sink in one room and a shower-sink combination in another) and the elevated bed that provides storage underneath. One warning: Make sure you get on your hands and knees to check for anything left behind when you pack up.

I did think it strange that there were no electrical outlets in the bathrooms. I moved around a lot to get ready in the morning because I had to plug in the hair dryer at the vanity at the other end of the stateroom from the bathrooms. If you have someone sleeping on the pull-out couch this will be a hassle.

The food in the main dining venues is as to be expected. I didn't find it exceptional, though Animator's Palate is the most contemporary in look and menu with its Pacific Rim flair. The animated portholes of the inside cabins are bigger here and a 50-minute show hosted by Crush, the sea turtle from Finding Nemo, is a lot of fun, albeit loud.

Guests rotate among the three dinner venues — Enchanted Garden, Royal Palace and Animator's Palate — each night and their wait staff follows them. This is a nice touch that lets guests get to know the staff and vice versa.

There are also two upscale, adult-only restaurants, Remy and Palo, which require reservations and have a bit of a dress code, including no jeans. We had a lavish five-course meal at Remy, which transported us off the boat to Paris. Most of the staff is French and the food is magnifique, especially the molecular gastronomic elements. The flavored foams that have been the rage in haute culinary circles are featured here. It's not cheap, though, and the meal will take about 2 1/2 hours. Dinner is $75 per person with an additional $99 for wine pairings. No one under 18 is allowed, and fewer than 100 people will be accommodated in Remy each night. If you go, make sure you save room for the salted caramels. (At Palo, a Northern Italian restaurant, dinner is an additional $20 per person.)

For that brief time, we forgot we were on a Disney ship, so far away from Tinker Bell and the gang. By the time dinner was over, we had missed the fireworks and it appeared every character had been tucked in for the night.

We found our way to Pink for a nightcap, and then to the adjacent disco where Get Low by Flo Rida packed the dance floor. Nothing about the last few hours had the theme-park stamp of Disney until I thought about it a little more.

Service and entertainment are Disney specialties, and the Dream overflows with both. Plus lots and lots of princesses.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

.IF YOU GO

Sailing the Disney Dream

Disney Cruise Line's newest ship sails 3-, 4- and 5-night itineraries from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas. The 3-night cruise stops at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. The other two cruises stop in Nassau, plus Castaway Cay.

The Disney Dream has 150 inside staterooms and 1,100 outside rooms (199 with ocean views and another 901 with verandahs).

Prices depend on when you want to go and if you book through a travel agent, Disney or an aggregate travel website. On Expedia, prices for an inside stateroom for the 3-night cruise start at about $400 per person for departure dates in March. A balcony room is about $480 per person. The 4-night cruise in February and through the spring is about $520 for an inside room and $670 for a balcony. The longest cruise is $720 and $925 per person starting in March. These prices are a starting point, and you may be able to get better deals with the help of a travel agent. Generally, the first two people in a room are the same price, and the fees are lower for subsequent passengers in the same room.

Meals are included, but you'll pay extra for alcohol and specialty dining in the adults-only Remy and Palo. The ubiquitous soda program doesn't exist on the Dream, though there are free soda fountains in several spots on the ship.

Get more information about the Disney Dream at disneycruise.disney.go.com.

On the Web

For a photo gallery of the ship, go to links.tampabay.com.

'Disney Dream' lives up to name, and not just for kids 01/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 5:22pm]

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