We first sailed on the Dream about two years ago, on our first cruise ever-me, my wife, and our little 2 year old son. We had a great time, but really didn't appreciate just how awesome Disney is at this, or just about anything that Disney does. We went in Jan 2013 on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, and while it was a nice experience, it just didn't compare with the Dream on so many levels. So, we went back on the Dream after a week of Disneyworld craziness, and were awestruck with just how amazing everything truly is. I will offer a few comparisons as an example, with a summary at the end.
First, the Dream has cabin phones-two of them that can be used around both Castaway Cay and the ship on sea days. I cannot stress how useful we found these devices. When on the Freedom, we were constantly having to choose a point and time to meet, and when the inevitable diaper change (our daughter was 1 at the time) or other interruption arose, we would find ourselves waiting and wondering where the other person was. Also, the knowledge that my son could simply call us whenever he felt lonely or scared in the Oceaneer's Club meant that he never felt lonely or scared-he just never felt secure on the Freedom (not to mention that the Freedom's kids club consisted of a fairly large room, while the Oceaneer's Club and Lab constitute and entire DECK on the Dream). This feature is worth a LOT to me and my wife.
And, as mentioned briefly above, the Dream has a staggering amount of space devoted to the smallest of passengers. The Lab and Club are so awesome as to defy words, at least to a young person-my son has some separation anxiety issues, but the staff was so welcoming and the accoutrements so fun, my son never looked back. The ONE time he was a little bit nervous on the last night, I took him over to see "if he wanted to go," and the wonderful British person looked at him and said "Hey Jack! I am so happy you are here. Do you want to decorate your own amazing sugar cookie and then eat it right after? Cause that's what we are doing back in the kitchen!" He smiled, waved goodbye, and my wife and I were able to pack our bags in relative peace (although with a bittersweet knowledge that we had to say goodbye!). Seriously, for families, this ship CANNOT be beat, and the alone time it afforded us was priceless, because we didn't have to worry about our kids while we were alone (which unfortunately wasn't the case on the Freedom-they yelled at my son for not keeping his shoes on for Pete's sake).
The private islands of both illustrate as clearly as I can think of the differences between Disney and pretty much everyone else as well. Disney, after choosing their island, spent an ungodly amount of money to build a pier that all of their boats could simply sail directly into, allowing passengers to walk on or off with ease. Royal Caribbean has to ferry passengers to and from their island, which burns a good 1 or 2 hours off the time you get to spend there. Also, Disney imported sand and little seashells and grooms the beaches to make them look absolutely pristine. It's warm, and incredible, and a stark contrast to Royal's crappy, rock and tree branch infested areas that we saw. And this is a minor point, but when I asked for some extra BBQ sauce for my dry, overcooked ribs on Royal's island, they looked around and said "sorry, we can't do that" and left me to my own devices. On Castaway, not only did they have BBQ sauce pouches readily available (although the food itself was good enough not to need it), they responded immediately to my request and were happy to fulfill it. Complete contrast, perfect example of why Disney's attention to detail and focus on the customer experience are so incredible. And another minor, but seriously annoying, detail-on Castaway, there was only one time, towards the end of the day, that a worker was walking around, offering pina coladas to people on the beach. He wasn't loud, just asking politely and then walking away with a thank you if he was turned down. On Royal's private island, there were 5-6 men walking around, shouting "BAHAMA MAMA!" as loud as they could, ruining any chance of a relaxing snooze on the beach, and they were rather pushy if you showed even the slightest interest-obviously, they were commissioned, and I don't really blame them, but I do blame Royal for such an annoying business practice against a captive audience.
The food on both ships were actually good, I can't particularly fault Royal for anything there (though requiring passengers to pay for Coke for a week is absurb). But the space that Royal devoted to a casino was where Disney went all in with first-run movie theaters (Frozen in 3D? YES PLEASE!), more space for the kids, and top-flight broadway shows make it an easy choice.
In the end, Disney will be getting pretty much all of our foreseeable vacation dollars, at least for a considerable time. We are sold on their commitment to providing not just a vacation, but an experience, a truly perfect memory for all involved. They aren't cheap by any means-we will easily spend $1000 more for a Disney cruise of similar length and itinerary over Royal. But, in the end, the old axiom holds true in this as in all things-you pay for what you get. And with Disney, you get memories that last a lifetime.