First, sorry for the length and verboseness of this review. This is not a rant or a rave, but I want it to be the type of review I would have appreciated reading prior to booking a Disney Cruise so that hopefully you can make an informed decision and leverage your hard earned vacation dollars on something you can enjoy. Let me tee-up the review by giving a little bit of our background so that you can relate to our perspective (this is important) on what we encountered on our Disney Dream cruise. We are empty-nester, middle-aged (45 and 48), professional couple who have been Walt Disney World passholders for the better part of 17 years, we frequent the parks quite often, and enjoy the mix of traditional Disney characters, as well as the hidden gems of non-traditional Disney entertainment in the Parks.
Our Cruise-Line pedigree is a fairly diverse background of approximately 85+ days at sea (HAL, RCL, Celebrity, Princess and NCL), most recently 10 days on the HAL's Noordam during December 2012. At this point in our lives we tend to gravitate toward understated elegance, higher-end (foodie) dining opportunities, polished service, comfort, entertainment inclusive of multiple live music, vocal performances, and adult enrichment topics and well-traveled fellow passengers who make interesting new acquaintances. I am a value conscious travel-consumer and always look for a good value perspective in booking my vacations. The value perspective is what directly impacts my "Value for Money" and "Rates" categories in this review.
Gimmicky (others may find them absolute musts -- and that's OK) ship features like flow-riders, rock climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, overly large atriums, and other large venues (think conference centers) with limited accessibility that dilute the passenger space ratios (Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT) divided by the number of revenue passengers at double occupancy = PSR) are not appealing to us. For example, the Disney Dream is approximately 130,000 GRT with a double occupancy revenue passenger count of 2,500, (3,700 with children on our cruise) passengers calculates to a PSR of 35.1, our most recent cruise on HAL's Noordam calculates to a PSR of 42.8 (82,318 GRT / 1,924 Pax), from there, you have to start reconciling out space occupied by amenities that add nothing to your personal value proposition (not always quantifiable) -- in our case the vast children's centers on the Dream or any Disney ship, so if your following the math, the PSR available for use by Adults traveling with no children becomes quite lop-sided. What this means in real terms on the Dream is a large beautiful ship with a large amount of public spaces devoted to children traveling with their families (yes -- I said it that way for a reason) and children exclusive areas (Vibe, Edge, Oceaneerclub, and Oceanneerlab on the Dream) including an absolutely gorgeous atrium/lobby/grand foyer that serves primarily as a backdrop for character meet n' greets and kids' activities. Whereas the Noordam, with the exception of a few conference rooms, has the majority of its public spaces oriented towards adults (yes even including a casino) with a small portion devoted to children. The entertainment on both vessels follows a similar path as well.
Just a bit more perspective on value from the dollar and cents perspective. Our Disney Dream Cruise was a four Day Bahamas cruise with an out-island visit in mid-January (it did extend over the MLK Holiday). Realizing that not everyone has access to all rates available on a cruise, and keeping in mind that November-January Caribbean non-Holiday cruise rates are highly competitive, we paid for a four day cruise to the Bahamas on the Dream for what we could have cruised for 7 days on Holland, Princess, or Celebrity in a similar sized cabin on an Eastern or Western Caribbean cruise. Anyone who has priced Disney cruises knows the per-diem rates are generally at the higher end of the scale. I tried to do some due-diligence on the CC forums to understand how Disney warrants the higher per-diem costs for an empty-nester couple traveling without family or children, with a similar cruise pedigree and I got some feedback, but none that really hit the nail squarely on the head in a helpful way for myself. But I'll wrap up with that value proposition later.
Now for some of the more subjective comparisons of the Dream and this will be presented from a standpoint of a cruiser with 34+ days with recent HAL experience on Signature and Vista Class vessels (Noordam, Westerdam, Zuiderdam, and Eurodam). First of all, HAL and Disney are more alike than they are different, and that speaks well of both lines, so the following chief areas of commentaries are nuances for the most part of differences and not vast divides. But I do need to digress and provide an observation of the reviews between the lines presented by CC members. Having now experienced Disney (obviously not a large sample), and reading many a review on CC, and chatting with several fellow passengers on the Dream, many Disney cruisers are either first time cruisers or if they are repeat cruisers they often have little or no experience with other lines (read into this they may have drank too much Disney kool-aid i.e. their reviews are perky and cheerful and blissfully ignorant). Most HAL passengers are 70+% repeat passengers and usually have a good amount of experience with other lines as well. Lastly, many Disney passengers are fiercely loyal to Disney - and it's generally well deserved. Anyone who has enjoyed their parks and resorts knows they are about quality and striving to provide that in their Food, beverage, lodging, and entertainment experience for ALL guests. This does not fortunately translate fully for Disney Cruise Line passengers similarly situated to myself. Their ships are gorgeous, whimsically designed like an art-deco liner from times gone by and technologically modern with lots of Disney kitch and hidden Mickeys -- not unlike the Resort Hotels at Walt Disney World. If you are a ship buff you won't be disappointed.
Dining is too big a category of your cruise experience not to comment on and I'm happy to report Disney cruise food is good in all venues, if you like Disney food, you will likely enjoy HAL food and vice versa. There are a few holes. Cabanas (Lido) buffet seems to have more limited hours than HAL's lido; little is generally available after 8:30 PM, whereas on HAL cookies, deserts, hand-dipped and soft-serve ice cream (with all the toppings including waffle/sugar cones) are available through the late snack time of midnight or so. On HAL at 11:00pm a late snack (really a meal, but not a robust midnight buffet), with a selection of cold vegetable and pasta salads with meats, hot entrees (2-3-often ethnic), and side items. Disney offers soft-serve ice cream, no toppings, pizza (good variety) through 12:30. HAL has Pizza and pasta stations on most ships until 12:30 am. Both have 24 hour complimentary room service with a reasonable amount of hot and cold items and deserts.
Disney MDR food is very comparable to HAL, presentation on similar dishes if often very similar! Disney has the edge on number of MDRs (3) and offers some show and Disney magic (we found Animator's Pallet to be too noisy and intrusive and left for the refuge of Palo) to punctuate the presentation, but their service staff lacks the polish and refinement of the Indonesian and Philippine service staff on HAL, often becoming evident in lapses of communication (more international on Disney with less command of English), in style of serving, replacement of eating instruments, and removal of dirty items between courses (often leaving sanitary wipes and sweetener packets on the table throughout the meal). Table settings are more pedestrian on Disney, nice china, but not Rosenthal, stainless dinner ware, no chilled butter, no fresh flowers on the table (or anywhere on the ship!) -- and often having to ask for sweeteners and drink refills. If you are accustomed to fine dining in the resorts at Walt Disney World the service level in the MDRs will be a bit of a disappointment -- but not bad.
Up-charge restaurants -- I can't comment on Remy as the value proposition seemed way off to us, Palo I found quite comparable to the Pinnacle Grill in food quality, presentation and service, Palo is a higher-end version of Canaletto of HAL vs. Pacific Northwest cuisine of Pinnacle. Palo does get a slight edge over HAL in that you are welcome to order as many entrees within reason -- HAL limits you to one and has an additional charge ($10 if I recall) for another. HAL generally has the edge on the serving size on entrees, in the Pinnacle only the truly glutinous would need more than one entree. Long and short you will have a stellar experience in either.
I personally got a lot of misinformation from CC members on the cabin sizes and amenities. I think this is due to two things, Disney I believe decreased their average cabin size on the Dream and Fantasy class vs the Magic and Wonder causing some to say Disney cabins are larger (that may be so in comparison to some Princess, RCL, and Celebrity ships). I had a category 05D Deck 6 Verandah on the Dream, these are slightly smaller than the VH-VA deluxe verandahs on HAL signature and vista ships in terms of actual interior space (I invite you to check me on this using the stated SFs on the respective websites!) Verandah sizes are similar. Depending upon your perspective, the bathroom configuration on Disney may be a bonus -- you get two compartments, one with a sink and toilet, one with sink and tub/shower, but the net space between HAL and Disney is virtually the same. HAL you get a slightly larger tub/shower combo, more counter space and a medicine cabinet instead of shelves, and bulk dispensers of Elemis shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. One annoying aspect of Disney is only one electrical outlet is present in the ceiling (yes you heard it right, as my partner said who looks for an outlet in the ceiling when plugging in their toothbrush or razor?) of the Dream shower compartment only. Disney does not automatically provide you with robes for your use, ice, a luggage mat for your bed, or deliver luggage within your stateroom, nor are wine glasses or cocktail glasses provided. A chiller/refrigerator is present, but there are no mini-bar items available. Disney mattresses are comfortable but NOT a HAL Mariners Dream Bed! Disney does have two useable electrical outlets in the cabin, one by the desk and one by the nightstand (us CPAP users can appreciate this)! Disney does provide you with an on-ship cellular type phone -- sort of cool, but somewhat difficult to use, especially for texting. In my opinion net-net a draw between HAL and Disney on cabins and amenities.
I viewed Castaway Cay and Half Moon Key a draw from the childless Adult perspective. I felt a little marginalized by the fact that as a childless adult I was relegated to the back 1/3 of the island on Castaway Cay -- having to walk through the kids and character shoot stations to get there after walking the length of the pier -- but it was pretty (trams are readily available). Docking vs tendering was no biggie for me -- you have to do more walking on Castaway vs. Full moon to get to the first available beach. There was no live music on Castaway that I found. From a child's perspective it's Castaway all the way with the activities available to them and a water slide.
Here is where I diverge from what many had to say on Entertainment on Disney vs HAL. Keep in mind I am not speaking to strictly youth facilities -- Disney has that hands down. I'm speaking about actual entertainment options for adults. The Walt Disney Theater was my single biggest disappointment from an adult who enjoys Disney and has seen their Broadway shows and virtually all the park shows from Walt Disney World. It is a great space, but the seating is tight from a width and pitch (front to back) I was horribly uncomfortable sitting on the "orchestra/floor" level seats, they had what looked like almost a church kneel rail (but solid and no place for toes) immediately behind the seat in front of you -- between the narrow pitch and space taken up by the kneel rail there is inadequate space for adult male feet and legs without feeling cramped and no-one could walk in front of you without you getting up to allow them to pass. Seating pitch in the HAL show lounges generally allowed a bar server or person to pass in front and plenty of unobstructed room for your feet.
The subjects of the production shows is pretty limited to Disney characters and video scenes, no intricate dance moves here, but some choreography, some theatrical oration and only snippets of quality vocal performance, no live music was part of the production shows! (many, but not all, HAL shows are accompanied by live music). The shows are geared toward Families (that definition includes a lot of kids!) the cadence of the shows is paced to keep a 6 year old embraced that has ADD -- so that means no costumed scene of Ursula from Little Mermaid belting our Poor Unfortunate Souls in its entirety -- just a short snippet of Ursula pirouetting through a refrain of it punctuated by juvenile jokes between snippets into the next Segway. On our four-day cruise there was a Family oriented magic show, due to the lack of seating comfort and a conflict with a Palo reservation we skipped it -- it was the only non-Disney show presented in the Walt Disney show theater during our cruise. If you are looking for live Dance music, jazz, string quartet, comedian or a sing-along all night piano bar it's not going to happen on the Dream (cast members did tell us that the piano bar does exist on the Magic and Wonder). The Dream has a venue that acts as a disco and cabaret (not consistently available for dancing though), and an adult magic show was performed there along with karaoke, there is a District Lounge that has an occasional vocalist or pianist, where performances are only about 30 minutes on, 30 minute break, and repeat till midnight nothing consistent or long enough to build a crowd. There is a sports bar (687), Skyline martini bar (very elegant I might add), and a champagne bar called PINK (actually beautiful but highly under-utilized and likely will fall victim to a future dry-dock remodel). The areas with the adult venues are known as the "District" and are adults only from 9 pm till close (essentially at midnight - but pretty dead earlier), and are relegated to a small area of the ship. Disney does have a phenomenal state-of-the art movie theater -- likely the largest at sea -- that was showing Brave and Wreck-It Ralph in Dolby 3D and Lincoln, additionally the Funnel Vision Theater showed older Disney movies as well. The large inside theater would allow adults to fill some of their time for the lack of evening entertainment options but would not be what an average adult cruiser would do to fill their evening out on a Cruise vacation.
The Pirates in the Caribbean fireworks show was a fun little pirate skit performed on deck with Disney magic culminating in a compact fireworks show at sea, dance party and a pirate feast on the buffet -- nothing like what you see in the theme parks in terms of size, but currently exclusive to Disney and it was palatable to an adult without being too Disney kool-aid-ish.
Rolling back around to my original question that was never fully answered in the Disney Cruise Line information or by my fellow CC members -- is Disney a good value proposition for a childless adult couple not cruising with family with children who enjoy, but are not enamored (keep in mind we do like Disney as a whole) with all the Disney Kitch -- my answer will have to be NO! I paid a premium cruise faire to subsidize vast portions of the ship devoted to youth activities and entertainment and ended up feeling segregated to small little islands of child-free zones, as the areas with Children where overwhelming, under foot, noisy and crowded. The Disney immersion is much more intense frankly than the parks at Walt Disney World and confining on a ship with limited reasonable opportunities to escape it. There was no premium I could attribute to Cabins or Dining, and I was personally disadvantaged from the lack of adult entertainment options. Even the pre-PA announcement chime of "When You Wish Upon a Star" gets old after the first day! There was one thing that we did enjoy on the Dream, but it was a gimmick, and that was the Aqua Duck -- that was a lot of fun to ride -- but not enough to overcome the many other short-comings from our perspective. If you have kids, and their ultimate enjoyment is paramount to a high quality cruise vacation -- Disney is likely not going to disappoint you, otherwise there are better options for your cruise!