General: My family's second Disney cruise following an Alaska run last year. This time we went with an extended family group (7 adults, 7 children aged 9, 7, 4, 4, 2, 2 and 16 months) on the post Thanksgiving Western Caribbean itinerary.
Embarkation-Getting on is really a breeze unless you are trying to board right as boarding opens (which is really only important if you are trying to reserve something, e.g., Remy or Palo, that you couldn't get online). We got to the port around 12:45 and were on the ship within 30 minutes of port arrival.
Public spaces-The interiors are impeccably clean and the holiday decorations were essentially complete; very nice to see the ship decked out in holiday finery.
Character interactions-The highlight of our first Disney cruise was the personal interactions between characters and our children, and once again they did not disappoint. By the second meeting, more than one of the costumed characters remembered our kids by name. They obviously work very hard at making each child feel like they are having a real, personal encounter with their favorite character(s).
Entertainment-The three Disney productions (Aladdin, Wishes, and Believe) were all entertaining enough for my kids that they wanted to go back for another showing. The set designs are close to Broadway quality, and while the music is not up to that standard, it's better than what one would expect for a cruise ship. I particularly appreciated the last show, which had a real message that cut through to the truth at the heart of the Disney schmaltz...childhood is fleeting, and the happiness of children is the magic that really exists.
Dining-The best thing about getting off of the boat is not having to eat Disney's food any longer. The main dining room dinners are tedious slogs through course after course of insufferably bland food, frequently cool and usually overdone. The quick service food was worse...I'm not expecting miracles from a free hamburger stand on a cruise ship, but I do expect you to keep hot dogs, well, hot and serve fries that haven't been wilting under a heat lamp for an hour. If fast food joints and warehouse clubs can do it, so can you. The "BBQ" on Castaway Cay was simply dreadful. As on our last cruise, found the breakfast and lunch buffets the least bothersome. There were a lot of lousy dishes on these too, but one or two things were usually decent. And not having to wait a long time with small children to eat mediocre food is always appreciated.
We also ate at the upcharge adult restaurant, Remy. Service was very good, and the wine pairing, while no bargain, did complement the meal very well. I could quibble over a few of the dishes, but overall the quality was pretty good. I can't say that I found myself with passionate memories of many of the offerings. I don't think the meal is either a rip-off or a tremendous value for the price.
Service-The biggest disappointment on this cruise compared to the last was the quality of the main dining room service. Our servers were friendly but inept. Several times dishes we ordered never made it to the table. The assistant in particular seemed to have a lot of trouble remembering what was requested. Not at all the standard that we had come to expect from our first cruise.
Crowds-The ship was (I think) about 1000 passengers under its true 'full capacity'...but what we had was quite enough. Even more so than on the Magic class ships, the design of the Dream class really encourages people to flood onto the midship elevators; frequently we gave up and took the stairs. The number of people on board was most apparent at debarkation, which took a solid hour and a half from getting in line to actually getting through customs. I would highly recommend skipping the last breakfast to try to beat the crowds off the ship.
Ambience on the upper decks-On the Magic class vessels, one can stroll the length of the ship from bow to stern on the top deck. It's quiet and peaceful at night, and if you turn your back on the pools you really do get some of that 'classic liner' feel. On the Dream class, the flashing lights of the Aqua Duck are always apparent, and there's not really a convenient place to watch the wake of the ship (mini golf course on the top deck is probably the best option).
Overall: The dining experience as a whole was bad enough that I can't justify giving this the top rating, but the ship is beautiful and apart from the dining rooms the 'Disney touch' is still in full force. Two of the four families on board with us, including us, will definitely go back, one is on the fence, and the other is probably a no.