The Disney Cruise Experience
I always wanted to experience the Disney Cruise product (I have done over 50 cruises). Having grown up in the Los Angeles area, our family went to Disneyland at least once a year and I enjoyed the magic. As an adult, I still enjoy going to Disney Parks. I still feel the magic. Nobody has done it better.
In the cruise industry, Disney has no competition really. Their branding, characters, attention to detail, and service are unparallel. Also, because they have had only had two ships for the past 12 years, they have basically been less affected by the economy than other lines. There has always been a demand for the Disney Cruise product. When shopping, I found their prices always seemed higher than the others - always starting at well over $100 per day for any of their sailings. Add to that the cost of an airline ticket and a hotel room in Florida, the night before the cruise, and the budget increased considerably.
With the introduction of a new Disney ship in Florida in January 2011 (the Disney Dream), they decided to base one of their older ships on the West Coast. The Wonder would spend the winter in LA doing the Mexican Riviera and then head to Alaska for the summer.
Unbeknownst to me, the Disney Magic had been to California twice previously (2005 & 2008). When I learned that the Wonder was coming to LA, I thought this would be the perfect time to try them! I opted for the Wonder's inaugural sailing out of LA, with an Inside Guarantee Cabin. I booked it in December 2009, over a year from sail date. We got our cabin assignment in December 2010 and it was a great location on deck 6, close to the forward elevators.
Every review I had read said that there were lots of kids, but the ships were also built for adults. Even though I felt comfortable booking the cruise,
I still had a nightmare the night before sailing!
There were MANY families with kids in the terminal but it did not seem to bother me. When I arrived at 1:00 boarding had already commenced. The terminal and boarding process was different than any sailing I had been on. Disney freshly painted the LA terminal and had banners everywhere. There was Disney Music and announcements (in that familiar theme park voice) as to what numbered groups were boarding. There seemed to be less confusion.
As you step on board the ship, they announce your name in the three-story Atrium/Lobby and have staff there welcoming and cheering you on. They offer to escort you to your cabin if you desire. There was music from different Disney Animation Films playing in the public corridors thru out the sailing.
Our Inside Cabin was comfortable and large enough for two, with plenty of closet space. Though the bathroom seemed small, and had just a shelf, rather than storage space, it had a large shower/bath tub combination which was impressive. Most inside cabins on other ships have just a small shower, so this was a pleasant change.
There was a flat screen TV and a complimentary pair of "cell phones" so you could text or call a member of your party while on the ship.
Restaurants and Food
The innovative dining experience on Disney is their Dining Room Rotation. You have the same table mates and wait staff all week who rotate with you to the various (3) dining venues.
Parrot Cay - The most casual of the three main dining rooms with a Caribbean atmosphere and menu. Open for buffet breakfast and lunch on most days.
Triton's - The most "formal" of the dining rooms. We enjoyed lunch there one day as well as breakfast on another. We did not make it to brunch.
Animator's Palate - The dining room with entertainment as part of your dinner! You enter a room of mostly white with black accents. You finish your meal in a riot of color and animation!
In addition to these three main dining rooms, there is also the Beach Blanket Buffet. Because this is an older ship, it has on older buffet design, which means longer lines. They have helped this by having the same food in Parrot Cay for breakfast and some lunches. Most newer ships have food stations which help alleviate lines. I am curious what the new Disney Dream will be like as far as changes. One feature we both enjoyed on this ship was a back patio to enjoy breakfast or lunch alfresco! Other than the first and last nights, the buffet area was open for dinner with waiter service (offering many of the items from Triton's menu), in addition to a self serve salad bar. The evenings offerings were available for visual appeal as you are escorted to your table. We found this venue for dinner to be pleasantly quiet and enjoyable!
Other eating areas are Goofy's Galley - This place had the most healthy of the fast food places.
Pluto's Dog House - Typical burgers and fries, hot dogs, and the best (real) chicken tenders we have had anywhere. They came highly recommended by one of the Officers - and she was correct! My only complaint about this place was that there always seemed to be a line there anytime I wanted to try it. Even when there were just one or two people in line, the service seems excruciatingly slow to me. When I finally decided I was going to wait in line to try the highly recommended chicken tenders (real chicken breast meat and not compressed product) I had to laugh at myself. I came to realize that this was the only place and time on the ship that I did not feel in control of getting away from the masses. The line was right next to the kiddies pool with all the noise and energy that ensues. I felt like I was dropped in the middle of suburbia and it was a bit frightening. I walked away laughing with that realization, and enjoyed my meal!
Pinocchio's Pizzaria - I was not impressed with Disney's pizza though I saw the kids loving it with their large plates of fries.
Palo - Adults only up-charge ($15) Italian Restaurant. Service and food were superior to the other venues.
We were surprised how bright the lighting was for all the restaurants, including Palo. Some of them felt like a Denny's, which I have not been to in decades. I assume that most chain restaurants have this type of lighting but I do not eat in those establishments.
There were also late night snacks in two lounges most evenings from 11:00 - midnight. In addition, there was a "Pirate Buffet" on the pool deck the night of the big "Pirates in the Caribbean" celebration.
Our first luncheon upon boarding was in the buffet. The selection seemed much smaller to me than I am use to on other cruise lines. I found this to be true thru out the week for both breakfast and lunch - adequate, but with a smaller variety. I was impressed that our first lunch included a huge display of large prawns on ice, with a cocktail sauce that had the proper amount of horseradish! The rest of the buffet was fine, but unmemorable.
I found the food everywhere to be average. Some items stood out as far as exceptional - the Wild Mushroom Risotto appetizer on the second night was amazing, as well as the Butternut Squash Soup! Also the desserts that night were far superior than the others.
I got the feeling that Disney caters to their clientele - "Middle America" - typical suburban families who frequent fast food drive-ins and chain restaurants. They like their deep fried food and comfort food: Macaroni & cheese, spaghetti & meatballs, chicken fingers, pizza, burgers & fries, sodas, and plenty of soft-serve ice cream for the kids. The adult fare was better with more variety. I found the meats to be tender and tasty and the fish dishes to be adequate, some even better. The presentations were visually appealing.
There was a 24 hour free beverage station offering coffee, tea, ice tea, and sodas. I am sure the free sodas are an attraction for families! There was also room service available but we did not try it.
Service, Staff, Officers and Crew
There was much more staff/crew than I have experienced on any of the other mass market lines (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, and Norwegian), especially in these economically depressed times of the past 3 years. I have never seen so many servers in the dining rooms or the buffet areas. I never saw a dirty table for more than two minutes. I never saw so much staff repairing, painting or cleaning the ship as much as I did on this one. Where normally I would see two or three crew members doing a job on other lines, I witnessed 6 or more working together on Disney!
Our dining room staff was efficient and friendly, though the service was sometimes inconsistent. We could never understand why the assistant waiter would pull our bread plates and basket at the end of the salad course when it was clearly not standard procedure by the looks of the tables around us. We both got the feeling that there was a good number of new employees in the dining room as Disney had to pull about 20-25% of it's staff to go to the new Disney Dream.
Our cabin steward (female) was brand new to the cruise industry. She was very good, though when I thought I had made it clear that all we really needed was fresh ice twice a day, I always had to ask for it. That was very confusing to me. We don't require much service and are very neat compared to some guests. Many days I just told her (as I do most cabin attendants) that all we would need, if anything, are a fresh towel or two and ice.
Every night many of the Officers availed themselves for questions or conversation in the Atrium, including the Cruise Director. All the Officers we chatted with were sincerely interested in how we were enjoying ourselves and wanted to know if there was anything they could do to make it more enjoyable. We truly felt that they appreciated their adult guests just as much as their family guests.
I always thought it would be fun to be on a ship that was designed and felt like an Grand Old Ocean Liner. The closest I have felt to that experience was the Celebrity Mercury. Certain public rooms on that ship (especially the dining room) have a very Deco Style them that lend themselves to that feeling. The other spaces have a more eclectic and modern feel to them and the overall style and feel of that ship is like all the other ships I have been on. They all have different themes for each lounge or public space but no real consistency to them all as a whole - except the Disney Wonder.
The Grand Old Ocean Liner theme is more consistently found thru out the Wonder - for the most part. Disney is superb at details and a certain feeling. There are a few inconsistencies that do not fit into the Grand theme for me. The major one is the chandelier in the main Lobby. It is a modern design by Dale Chihuly, the famous glass artist. Not only does this piece of art not fit into the Grand Ocean Liner, Art Deco Style, but it is not even glass (it's plastic)! The cabins are a mix of ocean liner meets Disney seaside resort.
The other areas that deviate from the Ocean Liner theme are the adult lounge areas, which have their own theme going on (1950's Route 66), the kids areas which have a very modern/futuristic feel to them, the restaurants and dining rooms (each with their own themes), and the spa and pool areas - all modern designs.
Lounges / Adult Areas /Kids Areas
The adult area was called "Route 66" and consisted of three lounges. One of them, Wavelegths (as in radio waves), was mostly used for family events and also served as a disco, though I never saw any dancing going on there other than for families. Another was tucked into the back corner of the ship and could have been overlooked if you were not looking for it. 'Diversions' was sort of a sports bar, or pub, and allowed smoking at times - therefore it had an unpleasant odor. We spent very little time in there as a result. The one we liked the best was called the 'Cadillac Lounge' and it was more of a piano/cocktail lounge with a pianist most every evening. The decor was cleverly done using Cadillac designs of the late 50's and it had an intimate feel to it. Even the seats were made of real leather from the Cadillac factory.
On the other end of the ship was the 'Promenade Lounge', used for multipurpose functions for kids and adults,(games, trivia, music, crafts, dancing, etc). I never saw dancing in there, though I doubt it was ballroom. Another venue, Studio Sea was mainly used for more family activities, family karaoke, and lectures or cooking demonstrations. So really, there were only two lounges for just adults.
There was also "Outlook Cafe" - a coffee cafe for adults with a bar and "help yourself" small sandwich snacks and cookies/desserts. It proved to be the best place to view the ocean, out of the wind and cold, on the top deck.
There were 1,200 kids on this sailing. They basically had their own areas, mostly on deck 5, in age appropriate areas. They all seemed content and busy all thru the week. We never felt bothered by them and we were impressed with their manners. There were three pools: Adults only - quiet and serene, family pool - with the large movie screen, and the kiddie pool with a water slide and two wadding pools.
Theaters, Entertainment and Shows
The biggest surprise to me was the Buena Vista Movie Theater. It was designed like an old movie palace of the thirties. It was the largest movie theater I have seen at sea with a huge screen and great sound system. First run, newly released Disney movies, as well as classic animation feature films, were shown there constantly. On our sailing we saw Tron as well as Tangled, both in 3-D. It was impressive.
The main show theater was the Walt Disney Theater. It was even more impressive than the movie theater. Again, it was done in the style of an old stage or movie palace of the thirties. We saw three great Disney production shows that incorporated most of the Disney animation characters from famous films. It was pure Disney at it's best, complete with snow, confetti, and fireworks!
In addition, there was a large movie screen out by the family pool. All week there were Disney Movies at different times all day and night. It was fun to see some of the old classics on the big screen again. One night they had the "Pirates in the Caribbean Party" out on deck and used the giant screen for part of the festivities. They covered the pool with a decking so as to hold all the guests who wanted to be part of the party. The usual Disney characters were there in pirate costumes. Although it was fun and fairly exciting, with cannons and fireworks, we were both expecting a bit more of a show using the characters and pirate action (think of the old Pirate Show at the Treasure Island Resort in Vegas, or the Pirate Show portion of Fantasmic at Disneyland, and you'll get the idea of what we were expecting). We did not stay for the buffet, but chose to get away from the crowds.
I found most of the evening entertainment to be geared towards families or family interaction. Dancing was usually a family affair that only lasted an hour and then the venue was used for something else. I was surprised there was no ballroom dancing, nor an orchestra. Fortunately I was too busy to miss it much. I was also in bed much earlier than on other cruise lines for lack of much night life that interested me.
Spa and Gym
The spa was one of the nicest I have been in. It had a very Zen like, calming quality to it. A few years ago it was expanded by taking over part of the gym (the stretching area, unfortunately, I presume). The new area consists of two or three private massage rooms with outdoor Jacuzzi tubs. The men's and women's locker areas consist of lockers, showers and a good size sauna in addition to four comfortable loungers for relaxing (I fell asleep in one as it was very comfortable with soft ambient music in the background). There was also a coed area that included a couple of aromatic steam rooms, heated benches, heated tile lounge chairs, and a couple of "rain forest" showers. The fee for the coed area was $99 for the week. I felt the heated loungers and benches were luke warm and there was no aroma in any of the steam rooms - cutbacks I have seen in all Steiner Spas on the ships I have been on. It's been my experience the only time you smell aroma in the spas is boarding day.
The gym was adequate. It offered machines and free weights, as well as the usual assortment of cardio machines. One nice touch was fresh slices of oranges, lemons, or limes to add to your glass of water.
No other mass market line that I know of allows you to bring your own wine, beer, or alcohol on board. You can even purchase it in port and bring it back on board to your cabin. I am not sure why that policy is in place, but I understand it has been there from the beginning. I am sure it cuts down on some passenger's bar tabs.
Surprises and Observations
All the Disney Characters were out at numerous times each day and evening for photo opportunities. You could use either the ship's photographers or your own camera. Mickey & Minnie, Chip & Dale, Donald & Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Captain Hook, Jack Sparrow, and all the Princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, etc.) were all there. I was surprised how entertaining it was to see young kids interacting with their favorite life-size characters. Lots of kids were in costumes thru out the week. It became a big part of the entertainment for us.
I knew that there would be no Casino, but it also meant fewer smokers, so I was content. Like Princess, there is self serve laundry and ironing available. That came in handy to iron my shirts that I usually send out to be pressed on the first night.
Knowing this would be a mostly family cruise experience, we each brought only one pair of long pants - jeans. This was going to be a casual cruise for us. The second night was Formal Night and I was surprised how many people dressed up. I saw many more long, formal gowns than on other cruise lines. Not too many tuxedos on the men but definitely it was a dressy occasion with an air of 'Disney Princesses at the Ball'. Most of the young girls were in their favorite Princess Costumes and the young boys were in their "seldom worn" jackets and ties. There were many family "portraits" taken with everyone dressed up. I had visions of all the Christmas cards to be sent out in December.
On a couple of days there was a guided tour called "Art of the Theme Ship Tour". We found it unique and fascinating to learn of the creative thought behind the cohesiveness of the overall ship design. We were made aware of many of the details that go unnoticed by the casual observer. One of the best features I found on this ship is that each elevator bank not only has signs for what deck you are on, but also if you were in the Forward, Mid, or Aft elevator bank.
In regards to elevators, we thought these were the smallest elevators we have seen on a ship. You might be able to fit 6 in if they are small and it would still be a tight fit! Needless to say we rarely use elevators on a ship and the times that we did we had them to ourselves - that was a surprise!
Another pleasant surprise we found was two-ply toilet paper! Compared to other cruise lines in recent years, it felt like a luxury!
The ship has two large "smoke stacks" resembling those of the old ocean liners. One is functional while the other serves as a lounge for the teens - I was envious as it looked very cool!
Another feature I have never seen on any other ship were signs in the Rest Rooms requesting us (for sanitary reasons) to use a paper towel to open the door as we leave and to deposit it in the trash can provided for such. Also, the paper towel dispenser was at a height to thwart youngsters from taking a handful and thus wasting them. This ecology/budget measure was also evident in the fast food areas regarding paper napkins. They were available upon request only, rather than having them to grab and waste. Smart of Disney in my estimation.
The ship has a complete promenade around the whole ship for lounging, strolling, or jogging. Although it is enclosed at the bow and the stern, it is complete and allows you to see the forward anchor and many the thick ropes for docking - very interesting.
On our last night we had dinner in Palo, Disney's Specialty Restaurant. We had heard after we boarded that jeans were not allowed, so we informed them, the day before our dinner, that was all we brought. They took our waist & inseam sizes and pants were waiting for us when we arrived. The food and service were both exceptional and our waiter, Alex, from Russia was most professional.
We loved the ship and talked about how great it would be to do an all adult charter. If you are not a Disney fan, this cruise could be a nightmare. It is very DISNEY focused. We enjoyed our voyage, and will probably do another, but it is not for everyone. I would consider doing a longer voyage (fewer kids), or on one of their new ships (Disney Dream, or Disney Fantasy - out in 2012).