ABOARD THE DISNEY FANTASY
"I'm sorry, Sir, but jeans are not allowed."
I was checking in at Palo, the tony restaurant on the Disney Fantasy. The recently christened ship is new to the Disney Cruise Line. I was new to cruising.
"Do you have another pair of pants you could change into?" the receptionist asked. I did not.
Along with the offending denim, I was wearing a sport jacket and dress shirt. In the hectic week leading up to the cruise, we had overlooked the no-jeans detail in the dress code for Palo. I envisioned our reservations for a special dinner with friends sailing away, and I would be to blame.
But then, this was Disney.
"What size waist are you, Sir?" the receptionist asked. "Uh, 34?" I replied. Her colleague disappeared and returned a few minutes later with a pair of slacks. "You can change in the men's room," she said.
When I returned, she tucked my nice new jeans out of sight.
There were giggles all around as we were shown to our table. "I have a feeling," our friend Cheryl said, "that this story is going to be retold for years to come."
Well, Disney is all about memories.
We are a "Disneyphile" family. My wife and I have lost count of how many birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions we've spent at Walt Disney World. We buy annual passes, and our two daughters have practically grown up in the parks. Last year, on our first trip to California, we visited Disneyland.
But cruising never appealed to us. Even so, when we were invited for one of the Fantasy's debut trips from Port Canaveral last month for media, travel agents and Disney employees and families, we decided to take the plunge and bring along our 13-year-old daughter. The Fantasy is the sister ship to the Disney Dream, which debuted in 2011.
Here are our impressions of our first cruise.
Staterooms: We were surprised at the roominess. Ours, one of 1,250 aboard the 4,000-passenger Fantasy, was a "Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah." (Staterooms range in price depending on size, ocean view, veranda and level of luxury.) Our room had a queen-size bed with convenient storage underneath. Our daughter slept in an upper-berth pull-down bed that is sure to appeal to kids — the ceiling above it is painted like the night sky. We really liked the split bath layout, which separates the toilet and shower and gives each room its own sink and mirror. It's really convenient for families.
Child's play: Here's real Disney magic: Our daughter disappeared for hours on end, only to reappear for meals. Her favorite destination was the Edge, a supervised club for kids ages 11 to 14, with laptops, a large video wall and a mini green-screen TV studio among its high-tech amenities. Two of our three nights, our daughter stayed out later than we did.
Pampering: I opted out of the spa experience, though I heard rave reviews of the special shave for men. Our daughter and her friends loved their "ice cream" manicures in the teen section of the spa. (They could choose vanilla-, chocolate- or strawberry-scented lotion.) My wife and her friends opted for a spa sampler that included a facial, neck, shoulder and foot massage. They enjoyed it so much that they each stayed for another service.
Date nights: Even though it's Disney, the ship didn't feel overrun with kids-only activities. There are plentiful adult-only areas on deck, including shaded chaise longues, hot tubs and a bar inside a wading/mist pool. For evening entertainment, the ship features Europa, a collection of European-themed nightspots. We sampled Ooh La La, a French champagne bar with boudoir decor; Skyline, a hip spot whose video windows offer changing views of European skylines; and the Irish pub O'Gill's. (There's also the Tube, a London dance club, and La Piazza, an Italian lounge.)
Castaway Cay: We aren't outdoors folks, but you don't have to be for this island getaway in the Bahamas. That's because it's essentially a Disney waterpark. It has an adults-only beach and beachside service for drinks, and lunch is served at an outdoor buffet. Our plan to take a bike ride on the island quickly fell by the wayside.
Dining: Cruisers rotate among three restaurants for dinner — Enchanted Garden, Royal Court and Animator's Palate — and your wait staff rotates with you. In rotation dining, all the dishes are well-presented, with some somewhat adventurous entrees — venison and wild boar, for example — but nothing wowed us. The two upscale restaurants, Remy (French) and Palo (Northern Italian), are a different story. We dined at the opulent Palo (No jeans!), which requires advance reservations and is an additional $20 per person. The service is almost overly solicitous, the entrees refined (our favorites, the beef tenderloin "Palo" and the wild mushroom risotto). Cabana's, the daily breakfast and lunch buffet, allayed my concerns through the variety and quality of its offerings.
Entertainment: We saw two of the three stage shows, Aladdin — A Musical Spectacular and Believe. Our Broadway-loving daughter declared them: "Spectacularly cheesy and really well done." We would agree — the shows are designed to appeal to all ages, after all. (Believe, a mashup of more than 20 Disney characters, should please younger viewers.) Perhaps even more spectacular is the on-deck party for the Pirates in the Caribbean stage show, which features a Capt. Jack Sparrow look-alike and evil dancing buccaneers and culminates with fireworks. Then there's the AquaDuck water coaster, a 765-foot-long water ride that shoots a two-person raft through clear tubes that wind around the Fantasy's top deck, including a segment that goes "overboard." We had to wait in line for several extra minutes because of some technical difficulties, but found the unique ride just as fun as those in any waterpark.
The ship, and its attention to detail, exceeded our expectations. Perhaps the best example of this is the video show at Animator's Palate that turns diners' drawings (you are given a marker and character outline sheets at each place setting) into live animation that interacts with classic Disney scenes. It's an inspired and clever idea that Disney should incorporate into its park dining.
Our criticisms: We're still not fans of scheduled dinner times but understand their necessity. Despite maps on each deck, the ship could be better marked. Even though it's standard procedure on cruise ships, we newbies didn't realize that luggage had to be packed and placed outside our stateroom by 10:30 p.m. on the last night of the cruise to enable early-morning disembarking. (Breakfast was at 7 a.m., and we were in the car by 8:15). We felt rushed to pack and sort our morning necessities between dinner and a show. And there's so much to do and see that a three-day cruise can be overwhelming.
In all, though, Disney has seamlessly transferred the best of that guest experience from shore to ship. So would we do it again?
When do we sail?
Peter Couture can be reached at [email protected]