Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Cast away on a magical Disney Cruise

Fun ahoy! I test my sea legs and casts away with Captain Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse and the whole Disney crew on board a magical cruise from Miami to the Bahamas

Ship-shape - the Disney Wonder harks back to the golden age of shipping

The glint of his gold tooth matched the one in his kohl-rimmed eye. “My ship – that makes me captain. Savvy?” he grinned. I blinked, taking in Captain Jack Sparrow’s chiselled features, leather hat, beaded accessories and long brown hair.

I don’t know why I was so surprised there was a pirate on board – our ship was heading for the Bahamas in the Caribbean, after all. So who better to sail the seas with than a Johnny Depp lookalike? My 10-year-old son had the answer. “Look,” Deme said, pointing to the top of the red funnel. There, ready to fly down a zip wire in full pirate regalia, was Mickey Mouse, complete with an eye patch and bandana.

There was a collective gasp as the most famous mouse in the world launched himself into the air and flew over our heads while a firework display that can only be described as magical exploded all around him. “Not bad me hearties,” my son said, brandishing his plastic sword as Captain Jack and Mickey were joined by Captain Hook, Mr Smee, Minnie and Goofy.

Fireworks at sea! Disney knows how to throw a pool party (even at night)

We were at the Pirates In the Caribbean party on the top deck of the Disney Wonder as we headed from Miami on a four-day cruise to Nassau, Bahamas. But this was no ordinary voyage. As you can imagine, Disney brings its own brand of magic to family cruising.

Its four award-winning ships boast state-of-the-art luxury and entertainment including Broadway-style shows, a deck of children’s activities, 3-D film premiers at a private cinema, fine dining and a coterie of your favourite cartoon characters. Plus, it’s the only cruise line to have firework displays at sea.

So far, so splendid. Which is why when someone mentioned spotting a competitor’s huge ship alongside us in port, entertainment director Ray laughed, “They might have a bigger house, but we’re cruising with Mickey Mouse.”

Believe me, it doesn’t come much better than that. From the moment we stepped aboard in Miami – to claps and cheers along with a name check from the liveried staff no less – we knew we were in for an amazing adventure.

“Look, Aerial,” Deme said, pulling a face as we passed a golden statue of the flame-haired mermaid in the lobby, and, “oh cool, the latest Disney movies” flicking on the TV in our family-sized sea-view stateroom.

The cruise line shows the newest Disney films the moment they’re released, so we had the latest Bourne movie in our cabin and in the Walt Disney cinema below deck. “Well we own the movies so why not?” Ray said.

Even at first glance it was obvious there was something for everyone to enjoy on board. From a dedicated nursery, catering to babies as young as three months, up to 17-year-old teenagers with their own Vibe club, there were loads of activities for kids.

My son could even choose which club he wanted to belong to – the Oceaneer Club (ages three - ten) with arts, crafts, storytelling, music and dancing, or the science-themed Oceaneer Lab (ages three – ten) where he could make flubber (green rubbery goo), take part in karaoke, make a racing car out of soap or go to a pyjama party.

And because he was ten, he could also join in with the tweens in Edge (ages 11- 14) in their chill-out lounge if I gave him written permission. There were  even complimentary wave phones so we could stay in touch, but first  we wanted to explore.

The golden age of shipping I’d imagined the ship would look very Disney Channel – all primary colours and aimed at toddlers and small children. But in fact it was uber glamorous, with more than a nod to the golden age of shipping.

Sailing in style on board the Disney Wonder in the Bahamas

It was, explained crew leader Steve, who gave us a guided tour, inspired by the Titanic. That wasn’t exactly the most reassuring name to hear on board a 40-million-kilogram ship miles out at sea, but Steve quickly explained that Disney had adopted the art-nouveau style from the doomed liner to give the Wonder its classic elegant finish.

There are sweeping staircases, Venetian glass, marble finishes and beautiful carpets. In one of the corridors there are even original sketches and stills from the Disney film archives to buy as the ultimate holiday souvenir.

In our stateroom – which was as big as the average hotel’s and had a childproof-locked balcony – there was a black and white picture of Walt Disney with his wife on deck.
I stared at it closely, looking for a peek into the mind behind Mickey Mouse and all the other characters that have spawned a billion-dollar business.

Our cabin was as luxurious as any hotel room 

The company’s cruise line is so popular it is responsible for a quarter of the overall profit growth in Disney’s multi-billion-a-year parks and resorts division. It’s easy to see how – apart from the prow to stern cartoon characters to pose with and pet – Disney always does things better and that’s because it literally thinks of everything.

There’s a split bathroom in the cabin with a dinky bath, shower and sink in one half and a toilet and sink in the other so two people can get ready at the same time. You also get to visit your very own private island, Castaway Cay, with its powdery white beaches, and even a yours-for-the-cruise waiter who moves with you from restaurant to restaurant for the entire voyage (“so they know your likes and build up a rapport,” says Steve). With nothing to worry about, that left us to meander the Wonder’s 11 decks. And we hadn’t even thought about stepping ashore!

As I watched The Lion King on Funnel Vision – a giant cinema-style screen on the side of the funnel – while floating in one of the three heated pools, I realised that most of the 2,400 guests on board would be happy just to be sailing around for four days without leaving the ship.

It was as if our first stop the next day at Key West, with its pretty pastel clapboard houses and Key West Museum of Art & History’s Giant Ballroom Dancers statue – based on Renoir’s Dance in the City painting – was an inconvenience; precious time away from our new nautical home.

But we forced ourselves to head down the pretty boulevard, peer into the souvenir shops and ponder whether we should go on an eco-friendly shark-viewing trip. But one look at the teeth on the pictures outside the booth made up my mind, even though the tour guide insisted it was perfectly safe.

Instead of being shark bait, I opted for the quirky stores lining the quay. Shopaholics can pick up diamonds, tanzanite, pearls and anything you’d care to grab made of bamboo. We could have spent eight hours ashore, but why go shopping when there’s the ultimate liner waiting for us?

So we scurried back, grabbed some delicious pasta salads and sweets at Blanket Bay, the top-deck buffet diner, then lay our towels next to the main family pool to soak up the Florida sun. Dads splashed their children, mums read their Kindles and kids helped themselves to all-inclusive soft drinks and ice creams while catching their favourite movies on Funnel Vision or watching the poolside sing and dance shows.

As the sun began to set, there was time for a quick wave to Chip and Dale and the Disney princesses before heading back to our stateroom to shower and change for the pre-dinner evening theatre show.
The first night was a magic show by Scott Pepper, who made cutting his pretty assistant in half hilarious. Luckily there was no blood, but I, along with all the other adults in the 977-seater theatre, craned forward to see exactly how he did it and came away mystified.

Next up was a formal dinner at Parrot Cay, one of the three post-show restaurants. A fourth, Palo’s, is available at a small extra cost and worth every dollar if you love Italian food like we do. But there’s really no need if you don’t want to dip into your on-shore spending money – Parrot Cay has a Caribbean feel and flavour, Tritons serves American and French cuisine (try the Chef Louis French onion soup, it’s delicious!), and Animator’s Palate is enchanting.

The food is amazing, but you’ll be too busy, like us, staring at the Disney characters magically appearing and lighting up on the walls (more brand magic) as the night goes on.

The food on board the Disney Wonder was fantastic for all the family

After dinner it was time for a moonlight stroll and an early night, as we would be able to disembark early at Nassau. If we’d wanted we could have taken part in family karaoke, watched a film at the cinema or my son could have been entertained or made lava flow (whatever that is!) in one of the three kids’ clubs. Instead we headed to our stateroom to watch the moon outside our window and be lulled to sleep by the gentle waves.

That set the tone for the rest of the cruise – tearing ourselves away from the ship when we docked in the Bahamas (who would ever think that would seem like a chore!) and grinning as we stepped back on deck at the end of the afternoon. Then it was down to the theatre for The Golden Mickeys, a toe-tapping tribute to the Disney’s classic films that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the West End. All the stars have genuine talent and experience in theatre and it shows.

As well as The Golden Mickeys, we also saw Disney Dreams and Toy Story The Musical, which was humorous, original (though we all know the story) and totally captivating.

Buzz, with his plastic hair and swingy arms, was so amazing that Deme kept asking if he was a robot. There are two shows a day – one pre- and one post-dinner – and we loved it so much we wanted to go to both! “That was the best show ever,” Deme said, as we headed off to our cabin.

It was hard to imagine that anything could top the show until I woke up the next morning and looked out my window. White sandy beaches fringed with swaying palms and lapped by azure waves filled the view. Disney’s Castaway Cay is a private piece of paradise, where you can swim with stingrays, snorkel among brightly coloured fish, splash in the lagoon, slide down the Pelican Plunge or simply relax on one of the three family (or one adults-only) beaches.

Cast away on Disney's private island Castaway Cay

That’s the beauty of a Disney cruise; they take the best from the ship ashore. All the clubs hold activities all day, and the catering crew set up a beachside barbecue so you can tuck into burgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob while being serenaded by an island band. Bliss. So blissful in fact that while Deme took part in a Whale Tooth Dig I nodded off on my sun lounger.

There was just one more night before we set sail back to Miami, but it was the perfect ending to a magical four days. It was rather fitting that the favourite characters, including Captain Jack Sparrow, were waiting to say goodbye as we left the ship. But we can’t wait to set foot on deck again, this time as the Disney Magic cruises the Med.

“Will there be another pirate party?” Deme asked, his eyes gleaming. I nodded, making a note to pack our bandanas and some kohl. After all, you can’t on a Disney cruise and not be ship-shape. Savvy?

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