Elise never saw her coming.
She was still in awe, staggering in a dream-like state along deck five of the Disney Wonder — an entire deck designed with lower ceilings to make it feel cozier to children on Disney’s first cruise ship to sail out of Miami. Then, someone snatched the black-and-white fedora off my hipster-cool 9-year-old’s head.
A Disney Wonder crew member, in her late 20s and wearing the identifiable yellow polo shirt, cackled as she ran off with Elise’s hat. Elise’s cool was busted as she gave chase. Soon, my two other daughters, Amelia, 7, and Catalina, 5, joined in hot pursuit, all of them quickly embroiled in an impromptu game of keep-away.
They were having such a good time — even the crew member — and the ship hadn’t yet left the port.
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For the Disney aficionados who have not yet sailed with the Mouse, this should come as refreshing and enticing news: To take a Disney cruise is to get the full Disney experience on the high seas.
The Wonder, the Mouse’s second of four cruise ships, built in 1999, has been repositioned from Los Angeles to Miami, where it began sailing in late December and now does regular four- and five-day tours to the Caribbean. Disney has committed to two more seasons of Caribbean cruises out of Miami.
A Florida-born kid, I consider myself a Disney connoisseur since it was my family’s annual vacation throughout my childhood. My own children grew up with a possibly unhealthy devotion to the Disney princesses in specific, and to the parks in general.
There is something to that “Disney magic.” In my experience at the parks and on the ship, it’s called service. If anything sets Disney apart, it’s the ability to provide a service a guest doesn’t yet know he wants.
You don’t have to be a parent to identify the gene that produces Disney magic. But you’ll know it when you see it.
For me, it was on my first dinner on the ship.
The girls were still buzzing from the experience of their first day on their first cruise. (“Is this a ship or a hotel?” Elise had said. “It’s a ship — with elevators!” Amelia added.)
The day had been full: lugging our bags around as I waited for our state room (I should have taken Disney’s repeated recommendations to check them); shepherding three girls under the age of 10 around a tour of the ship; practicing the requisite race to the life boats; watching the girls dance to Call Me, Maybe and Gangnam Style on a main-deck party as we cast off; finishing with an afternoon that faded to darkness on the sea, splashing in the pool.
We were all a little surprised by a kids menu that was highlighted by surf-and-turf (steak and shrimp), one that rotated every night with a choice of thoughtful, signature dishes for the children (as well as the customary chicken fingers, pizza, burgers and hotdogs for the pickier palates).
When the meal came to the table, I made a move to begin that requisite chore for any parent going to dinner with his kids: to cut everyone’s steak before you take your first bite. But before I even took my napkin off my lap, our servers Beata Nagyova, from Slovakia, and Balwan Singh, from New Delhi, had already grabbed the girls’ cutlery and began cutting the two young girls’ steaks into bite-size squares.
I was stunned into paralysis.
“You’re on vacation, man,” Singh said, looking up from the steak with a smile. “We’ve got this.”
I didn’t have to ask. Scratch that: It had never occurred to me to ask.
If you’re a parent, you know what this moment means: We all sat down to a nice, stress-free dinner — and ate at the same time. That’s how to start a vacation.
Since a limitless bacchanalia is such a part of cruising, I can say that Disney’s offerings were elegant and diverse. Although Disney does provide bottomless plates of burgers, hot dogs, fries and pizza that are available 24 hours a day, you can find dishes such as the lightly fried crisp crab cakes, conch chowder and braised short ribs in reduction over mashed potatoes, which I chose for my meal one night.
It’s that attention to detail that calls to a variety of passengers, which were not limited to young families. There were parents with teenage children — there is an entire teen club with tailored activities — and empty-nesters.
One couple in their late 40s, who sat near us for our dinner seating, came for a getaway without their college-aged kids. They live in Orlando and have taken the cruise out of Port Canaveral, which now features Disney’s new, 4,000-seat cruise ships, the Fantasy and the Dream. Yet, they had always been interested in taking a Caribbean vacation with the kind of service you get at Disney.
“The level of service you get with Disney, you don’t get anywhere else,” he told me.
For those used to touring on Royal Caribbean or Carnival, this must be said before going any further: There is no gambling on the ship. The Wonder did make a stop in Nassau, Bahamas, where folks could gamble from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Atlantis before the ship called all-aboard.
And this is no Hedonism on the High Seas. There are plenty of adult-only activities — including a pool area for guests 18 and older and a romantic restaurant for adults only at the top of the ship, as well as mixers at the music lounge every night.
But if you enjoy gambling or singles cruises, this is probably not the cruise for you.
What Disney does — and arguably does best — is PG-rated family entertainment.
Trading on the fame of their Magic Kingdom ride Pirates of the Caribbean and the subsequent movies’ unbridled box-office and marketing success, the crew of the Wonder encouraged all aboard to dress like a pirate for a Caribbean-themed dinner one night, followed by dancing on the top deck of the ship, culminated by fireworks.
On another night, it was time for the Captain’s dinner and show. But when Mickey Mouse is the official captain, and the show designed by Disney, you know it’s going to be an over-the-top event with attention to all the details.
For this event, it was a Golden-Globes-inspired theme to put everyone in the mood.
Men in jackets and ties and women in glimmering evening gowns strutted down the red carpet leading to the 977-seat auditorium inside the Disney Wonder. Paparazzi leaped onto the edges of the runway, flashes snapping.
At the end of the hall, a woman who calls herself Rona Rivers, resplendent in a golden evening gown, awaited guests headed to the Golden Mickeys with a microphone and camera. The interviews flashed on the pair of screens next to the stage in the theater on the other side of the doors. Who are you wearing, she wants to know. Are you feeling just fabulous tonight?
Inside, the auditorium buzzed with energy as a Broadway-style show started in the tradition of Disney theatrics. One musical number led into another, Snow White crooning about her prince who will one day come, Tarzan swinging a la Cirque de Soleil, followed by a Toy Story tap dance, and more. The air dripped with Disney.
One after another, they continued, the music swelling, children applauding, parents stealing glances at the delight on their kids’ faces.
And when Mickey and Minnie appeared from behind the rich, red curtain, sparkling in golden formal attire, spinning and twirling amid a whirling dervish of golden dancers, I felt a little hand tighten in mine.
I looked over at Catalina, my 5-year-old. Tears were running down her cheeks. Before I could ask what’s the matter, she turned to me with an impossibly wide smile.
“Daddy, these are tears of joy!” she said and wiped her eyes.
The show ended in a crescendo. Golden confetti blasted from above. Everywhere, applause.
Catalina was out of her chair, clapping and spinning, reaching up toward the glinting rain, laughter — uncontrolled laughter — bursting from her little lungs.
Despite my joy at all these family fun activities, the Wonder does offer an opportunity for some alone time.
The Wonder has play areas where children are secure and supervised while parents check out the spa, jazz club, coffee house, adults-only restaurant or night club. The children get a GPS tracking device and a pair of walkie-talkies that work all over the ship so the staff — or the children themselves — can reach parents wherever they are on the ship.
There is a nursery for infants and toddlers. And for children up to age 13, two play areas, where they can play video games, draw, paint, dance with Snow White, have books read to them by Belle, and choose from activities that are varied and ever-changing. My daughters came home with several glittery projects and computer-painted portraits.
On our last night, we squeezed every last bit of joy from the cruise. After dinner and another original show, the girls went off to play in the video-game lab while I sipped a Rusty Nail at the Cadillac jazz lounge. Finally, we met back up to watch ParaNorman on the ship’s 3D stadium-style theater (where they also played Lincoln, Monsters, Inc., and Brave) as Sunday night became Monday morning, and Catalina fell asleep in my arms.
Emboldened by the knowledge that the crew lives on the ship, my oldest daughter wanted to know over our last breakfast if it’s possible to buy real estate aboard the Wonder.
Thanks to the legions who love Disney, it’s a thought worth pondering: Some may never want to leave this ship.