It's been eight years since Disney made waves by entering the cruise business. In typical Disney fashion, they set out to build a seafaring experience worthy of their name, as opposed to a traditional cruise ship. They accomplished just that, omitting characteristic cruise ship amenities like a casino and ship's library -- and including instead things like oversized (and cleverly designed) staterooms that would appeal to families, entertainment venues adults can partake in with their children, and an animation-themed restaurant that transforms from black and white to full color over the course of a meal.
But I've been here before, with children, and experienced all of that. I've haunted the hallways in search of the princess characters my 2-year-old son was longing to see, sunbathed by the Mickey pool, and watched families have fun together -- game show style -- in Studio Sea. This time around I'm here with a pal: a former roommate from Boston who, like me, is usually too saddled with adult responsibilities to hang out and "play" like we used to. So, in an attempt to catch up with one another, we left our kids (and husbands) at home.
The obvious question is why would anyone sail Disney without children? Well, we knew the ship was one of the more elegant and meticulously kept out of those offering three-night sailings, and had several amenities exclusive to adults, including an excellent Northern Italian restaurant. We assumed many of those places that can get quite crowded on other lines (like pool decks and spas) would be a lot less so here.
What we didn't know, and set out to discover, is if two adults -- sans children -- can have a grown-up vacation on a ship chock full of kids.
The answer depends on what you're looking for. Our goals seemed simple. We were looking to eat good healthy food that didn't require us to cook or clean up afterward, relax on a beach and actually sit in the chair (for hours), read a decent chunk of a book, and stay up past the time we each currently fall in to bed exhausted, because now we could take a nap during the day if needed.
We indulged, to be sure, in these primary goals, but learned something new about ourselves and about Disney Wonder along the way.
As you pass over a causeway that leads to Port Canaveral you'll see several ships in port, and your eye is immediately drawn to the one with the elongated dark blue hull, a belt of gold and red funnels. Disney Wonder is a sight to behold, more elegant old-style ocean liner than modern-day cruise ship. The Greta Garbo among a port full of plain Janes.
Embarkation is convivial and efficient, where being scanned, checked in and ushered to the next stop -- by people wearing giant Mickey gloves -- is a much more pleasant experience than its airport counterpart. Our names were announced, and applauded, as we walked into the ship's three-story atrium that is home to a grand double staircase and a combination glass and acrylic chandelier sculpture designed by Dale Chihuly, the designer of the Atlantis' Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun chandeliers, and a large installation at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Tip: Since this is a short cruise, and you cannot access your cabin before 1:30 p.m., head directly to the spa to book services (if you haven't already done so in advance of your cruise), then be sure to have lunch in Parrot Cay for their elaborate and delicious lunch buffet.
Our cabin was one of the well-designed Deluxe Staterooms with Verandah, which include a sofa that converts to a twin bed in the sitting area (across from a desk/vanity area), and Disney's notable split bath and a half design, which made it easy for two to get ready for dinner simultaneously.
Since we had booked our spa and restaurant reservations in advance we decided to try out the fitness center, which had received a makeover and expansion during the ship's recent dry-dock.
The last time I sailed it was well stocked with equipment, but the space was cramped with little room to lie down on a mat or use an exercise ball. Not anymore. The half-moon-shaped fitness center is a pleasure to use, with new Life Fitness equipment, 14 treadmills (with TV's perched atop them), plus numerous elliptical machines and bikes, all lined up overlooking the ocean from the forward part of the ship. In addition, there are free weights, plenty of mats and balls, and room to use them.
Disney Wonder has four dinner restaurants onboard, three of which you rotate through over the course of the cruise, keeping the same dinner companions and servers throughout. The one exception is Palo, which we had the pleasure of dining in on our first night. This adults-only, open-kitchen dining room serves excellent Northern Italian fare -- with a classy ambience -- as good as I'd find back home in the Washington D.C. area, only here we also had sweeping ocean views.
Tip: Palo is open nightly for dinner (and for Champagne Brunch during the "at sea" day on a 4-night cruise); all require a $10 per person charge and reservation, which should be made as soon as you board the ship if not a few weeks in advance of sailing.
Since my friend and I spend little time traveling without our respective husbands and two sons each, we were looking forward to an activity we used to love: dancing.
We were eager to check out Disney's Route 66, the adults-only entertainment area that is home to a handsome looking sports bar (Diversions) and a dark piano bar (Cadillac Lounge) that, alas, was almost empty, despite a pianist who could expertly perform a song from Moulin Rouge. Wave Bands was supposedly the liveliest of the three -- and the place for dancing.
And while we knew Disney was not a cruise line noted for its nightclubs with DJ's spinning the latest music, we didn't expect most of the post-10 p.m. entertainment to be so dead. My friend asked how I could have missed this discovery the last time I sailed. I had to admit that I, like many of the other parents on this ship, was back in my stateroom by 10 each night ... at the latest.
Since it was 80's night, it came as no surprise to see Whitney Houston on the video screen belting out "I wanna dance with somebody...." Sure, we wanted to dance with somebody -- just not professional somebodies dressed in green and black striped zebra pants with big blond Bon Jovi wigs. We had a crowded floor of anonymous somebodies more in mind. Unfortunately, we didn't find that here.
Disney's dancers are frequently on the floor, either encouraging the smattering of people who are there to leave their seats and dance, or taking over the floor to perform scripted numbers like a montage performance to Michael Jackson music, complete with ripped costumes and haunted looking faces for the final song, "Thriller." While Disney's entertainers are terrific leading deck parties and brilliant in the theatres, personally, we would have preferred to have this area exempt from scripted entertainment.
First Stop: Nassau, The Bahamas
This first morning we went in search of a good cup of brew to start the day and found a coffee lover's haven in Cove Cafe. Not only does the cafe serve excellent coffee (a better quality than the standard ship coffee, and for a small charge), the friendly staff and cozy living room layout would appeal to any laptop toting, magazine-reading, coffee bar aficionado. The best part: the cafe's proximity to the adults-only pool, where we could take our mugs outside and enjoy the view of the ocean from cushioned lounge chairs.
As we discussed the upcoming day, we realized the one thing missing on the three-night cruise (vs. the four-nighter) is a sea day to take advantage of all the ship's offerings. Hence we had to choose: head in to Nassau, or partake of the adult-oriented offerings on the ship: martini or wine tastings, a Jenga PubQuest challenge, college football on the super-sized TV above one of the pools, or time at the Vista Spa. We opted for the spa.
While my friend indulged in a massage and pedicure, I took the opportunity to experience one of the ship's three new spa villas (another addition from Wonder's recent dry-dock). It's not hyperbole; they really are paradise at sea -- oversized treatment rooms (two large enough to accommodate couples) that open to an equally oversized verandah that is home to a hydrotherapy pool, an outdoor shower, a cushioned lounge chair as big as a full-size bed with plenty of pillows to relax on, and privacy doors if needed. The "dress code" here, according to Disney, is an ambiguous "undress to your own comfort level."
Tip: Since the ship is in port both days, keep in mind that when you are out on the villa balcony's Hydrotherapy pool, you could be looking right across the dock in to the windows of another ship, as I was, with a nice view of Norwegian Dawn's bridge. Hence you might want to either bring a bathing suit or book your villa time for late in the day when you'll have an open ocean view after the ship departs. Or, if you're on the four-night cruise, book in advance for an appointment on the sea day. Bathrobes, I'll tell you, are provided (but you still have to climb in and out of the tub!).
There are a variety of Vista Spa Villa packages to choose from. All include a tea ceremony, a soak in the hydrotherapy pool and a foot cleansing, plus your choice of facial, aroma stone therapy and/or massage. I went with a massage and facial, which are almost always guaranteed to be relaxing. What set this spa experience apart from all others I've had though was the music. No birds or waterfall sounds. Not even a new-agey soundtrack. The therapist was allowed to select her own music channel, and what a great one it was -- a mix piped in from Cove Cafe, which included Dido, Sarah McLachlan, and Enya mixed in with ballads from Sting and even U2. It made an already excellent treatment -- and time spent sipping tea on the lounge chair -- soothing to all the senses.
After the spa and an afternoon meandering around the ship, we were well rested for a busy night of entertainment including what is billed to be the premiere deck party: the Pirates IN the Caribbean Deck party. Dress for the evening was casual or pirate-themed if you were so inspired -- and many folks were (not just the kids). Tip: If you didn't pack pirate attire, stop by Mickey's Mates (the shop near Walt Disney Theatre) to pick up an eye patch, a pirate hat or a full costume.
Kids of all ages were up and out on deck, dancing, watching the performers on stage and admiring their favorite characters dressed in pirate garb, including my own kids' favorites, those perky chipmunks -- Chip and Dale. It left my friend and I both a bit melancholy not to share this new Disney experience with our own children, especially when Mickey whizzed by on a zip line high above us to battle Captain Hook, and then again during the fireworks display (Disney is the only line allowed to set off fireworks at sea). We took our sorrow and did what any self-respecting woman would do -- headed to the elaborate pirate buffet in search of sweets.
After the crowds had died down, we watched the movie that inspired the party on the new outdoor TV and discovered the only thing better than watching Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp on the big screen is watching them on a super-sized screen while sitting out on a pool deck beneath the stars.
Second Stop: Castaway Cay
It was a chilly overcast morning. We overheard several people at breakfast talk about changing or canceling their shore tours and decided to forgo our own snorkeling excursion and explore Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas, by bike instead.
As we made our way to the bikes, we passed lines of families waiting to have their pictures taken with Captain Hook (or Minnie in her beachwear), folks playing volleyball and out on floats, and children frolicking with beach toys all along the Castaway Family beach. We felt like interlopers in family land, but that was about to change. Once we had our bikes, we explored the new bike path that leads to the soon-to-open 30-ft. observation tower that will offer a lookout over this gorgeous 1,000-acre island, then headed to Serenity Bay, the island's adults-only beach.
Even bundled up in a sweatshirt, Serenity Bay Beach is the perfect spot in which to relax and enjoy a beach. The setting was peaceful, uncluttered and -- something I'm not used to on a beach -- quiet. We read (would have swam if it were warmer) and took a nap before biking back to Cookie's BBQ, the main pavilion, for lunch.
Despite the overcast weather, everyone at Cookie's -- including the staff -- looked happy; whether it was the man behind the buffet serving food as he swayed to the music or the man passing out hand wipes who offered a quick spin to an elderly woman while singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy." The island party atmosphere was infectious.
Since it was our last night we decided to give Wave Bands another try, and we were glad we did. Even though it was 70's night, and still maybe only a quarter full, two men (who we later heard were brothers) turned up and took over the dance floor with their obvious talent for hip hop. This alone was enough to get everyone in the place up and dancing, and eventually even a few more current songs being spun by the DJ.
We finally had our chance to dance.
Arriving back in Port Canaveral
After three nights and a couple of days aboard this ship, we had our answer to what kind of adults take a cruise, without kids, on Disney. If you're looking for bustling nightlife and a child-free cruise, you won't find it here.
However, if you want a short restful getaway where you can enjoy good food, roomy and tastefully decorated staterooms, high-caliber stage shows (albeit Disney-themed), and uncrowded adults-only spaces from a coffee bar and gorgeous spa, to a pool and private beach; then this is a ship well worth sailing.
--by Christine Koubek, Cruise Critic contributor