My family recently took a four-night cruise on Disney Cruise Line's new Disney Dream ocean liner, and we felt a little star-struck, like the Beverly Hillbillies thrust aboard the QE2.
The shine of the new, 14-deck Dream coupled with legendary Disney service culture, left us bedazzled. Disney venues sell hats these days embroidered with the words "Authentic Quality." From any other company it would seem pretentious, but from the Mickey Mouse people it's not bragging because they back it up.
The Dream made its first voyage in January. Its sister ship, the Fantasy, is under construction in Port Canaveral, Fla., and will join the Dream sailing from Florida's eastern coast in the spring of 2012. (The 1990s-era Magic and Wonder, the other liners in the Disney fleet, are about a third smaller than the Dream and Fantasy and sail to various destinations including Alaska, Hawaii and the Mexican Riviera.)
There were about 1,500 staff (Disney calls them crew and cast members) on the Dream during our cruise to serve about 3,700 passengers. At capacity, the Dream can accommodate 4,000 guests. Interestingly, we counted at least 40 people from the Chattanooga area on our cruise, which coincided with fall break in the Hamilton County public schools.
Everywhere we turned, there was a cast member: a host making blanket sculptures in our stateroom, a server folding origami for the kids on one of the Dream's elegant restaurants, or a cast member joining squeegee squad on the pool deck to track down an errant drop of water. I didn't see a speck of dirt for the duration of our cruise.
Disney says the Dream was designed to reflect the golden age of cruising in the 1930s, and indeed the ship's sparkling chandeliers and golden banister do cast a spell of past opulence. Still, the Dream also is filled with 21st-century technology. For example, our two boys, ages 4 and 9, wore transmitter bracelets for the duration of the cruise that could pinpoint their location inside the Dream's vast kids clubs.
PORTS OF CALL
Our ports of call on the cruise were Nassau, the crown jewel of the Bahamas, and Disney Cay, the Cruise Line's own private island. Interestingly, the day in Nassau was probably the low-light of our trip. When you venture out of Disney's quality-controlled cocoon, almost any environment suffers by comparison.
While in Nassau, we took a cruise on a glass-bottom water craft. While interesting, the shore excursion left our boys hot and cranky. A highlight, for me, was seeing the magnificent Atlantis resort, where the late Michael Jackson's condo rents for $25,000 a night and is reportedly booked solid for years. Oprah Winfrey's two Nassau houses, side-by-side mansions on the bay, are also noteworthy landmarks.
Others on our cruise used the time in Nassau to go on a dolphin encounter at Atlantis. Later, we shopped for souvenirs in Nassau's open-air marketplace, and the boys got a taste of negotiating for trinkets.
The next day we visited Disney Cay, a beach experience on Disney's private island that offers access to snorkeling, bicycling or just absorbing the tropical rays. My older son enjoyed the sand volleyball and soccer area, where he and a friend challenged two youngsters from Israel to a soccer game. Disney caters a barbecue lunch on cay day.
On Disney's four-day Bahamas cruises (there are also three- and five-day sailings available), the third day is at sea and is meant to let guests luxuriate on the Dream. My sons said they often forgot they were onboard an ocean liner. This is easy to do when the pool deck has a water slide called the AquaDuck, which rivals a water-park feature. Wait time for the AquaDuck can be up to 40 minutes.
Our day at sea was marred by 40 mph winds that pretty much made the pool deck unusable. Still, the Dream is rock solid in stormy seas, and we never had a moment of motion sickness.
Nightly, Broadway-quality stage productions featuring Disney characters and music are a main attraction of Dream nightlife, although there is also a theater onboard that shows first-run Disney films. My son and I enjoyed the film "Real Steel" on the same week it opened in theaters back home.
The kids clubs are smartly tiered by age. There's a nursery, It's a Small World, for infants and toddlers. Our boys hung out at the Oceaneer's Club and Lab. There are two other clubs: Edge for tweens and Vibe for teens.
STATEROOMS AND DINING
Our family-style stateroom with verandah was just under 250 square feet and included a queen-size bed and bunk beds for the boys. We never felt cramped, but we really only used the room to sleep at night and for an occasional afternoon nap.
Disney Cruise Lines uses an interesting rotational dining system. We had the 5:45 seating each night. Dining rotates among three restaurants: Animator's Palate (a high-tech showplace with interactive video), the Enchanted Garden (with a European-inspired design) and the Royal Palace (with design cues from classic Disney films).
Your assigned server and assistant server travel with you each night to a new restaurant, a Disney innovation that creates a bond that, with children at least, blossoms into friendship. The restaurant staff was especially attentive to a peanut allergy in our family.
Casual buffet dining is available at Cabanas for every meal if you want to take a break from the more formal, order-from-a-menu restaurants. Adults-only dining is featured in two Dream restaurants, Palo (Northern Italian cuisine) and Remy (French cuisine).
ON TO THE MAGIC KINGDOM
Our family coupled our Dream cruise with a three-night visit to Disney World. Piggybacking the land experience is a good way to save on air travel. We opted for Disney land transfers, which offer an easy bus ride from Cape Canaveral to Orlando, where we stayed at the Wilderness Lodge on the Disney World property.
One caution: On the first night at Disney World, our boys slept for 14 hours to wind down from all the excitement onboard the Dream. Thankfully, they got their second wind and truly enjoyed full days at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and the Animal Kingdom.
Be forewarned, the Disney land-sea package is a premium vacation, and priced accordingly. Rates are cheaper in the fall, which makes an October vacation appealing. You can get a quick quote on fares and stateroom availability from the Disney Cruise Lines website. Using a travel agent, while not mandatory, cuts down on headaches. Discovery Travel, at 711 Georgia Ave. downtown, handled our Disney vacation planning.