The Disney Magic Western Caribbean Cruise was our fourth, the previous three being aboard RCCL's Explorer of the Seas out of Port Liberty, Bayonne, NJ (2) and, in July 2010, Oasis of the Seas out of Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. All three were wonderful experiences.
Why a Disney Cruise after Royal Caribbean? We are a family of four (adults), the youngest being my 22 year old son who is multiply handicapped (both physical and intellectual disabilities). He LOVES Disney World, but frankly at my age, that is a "working vacation". Anyone who has ever cruised knows that cruising can be the ultimate in relaxation. David also loves cruising, so we thought that a Disney Cruise would be the best of both worlds for him.
We booked Disney before we had even sailed on Oasis and then proceeded to build up the anticipationn for it with David, calling it "Mickey's Big Boat". A few months after booking we found out an essential piece of information about the ship: There is no handicapped lift for the pool. This blew my mind; how could such an important piece of equipment be missing? After multiple phone calls and letters (even one to Robert Iger), the attitude I got from Disney was, "too bad for you".
Of course I wanted to cancel, but this was impossible because my son was so looking forward to Mickey's Big Boat. The itinerary had only 2 full sea days, so come hell or high water, my son would get in and out of the pool at least one of those days.
When departure day arrived, we were as excited as with our previous cruises. This is where the "comparison" part of the review begins. The check-in process went very smoothly, but I couldn't help but remember how the minute we walked through the door at Oasis check-in, we were practically taken by the hand and led through it. Because of David's wheelchair? Most definitely, but he used the wheelchair on Disney as well. "Going smoothly" was more due to the fact that we had an early check-in time (because we booked it early) rather than a sensitivity to the needs of a disabled passenger. Boarding Oasis was practically VIP; we boarded immediately after their highest level passengers with those who had booked suites. Disney - well, along with others who had checked in at the same time. This sounds like I expect special treatment because of a wheelchair. Not so - just making the comparison.
Once aboard the ship, something odd struck me: this is NOT a "pretty" cruise ship. It may be because it was designed for families with young children (even though today it is marketed for all age groups.) Explorer and (especially) Oasis are opulent. The Magic is small, about the length of Explorer but much narrower. While I'm sure it has been in dry dock several times, it shows signs of wear and tear. It didn't strike me as being as clean as Explorer, not "sparkling" As I understand it, Explorer is close to the Magic's age.
Passengers were not yet allowed to staterooms and were encouraged to have lunch at the buffet. There was an exceptional selection of food, much of it meant to appeal to children, but well-prepared and nicely presented. Soft drinks are included on Disney, which is a definite plus over RCI. Throughout our cruise, I found the food to be very good, but not exceptional.
Our two staterooms (balcony) were spacious. The handicapped stateroom was very well designed: large with lots of storage (disabled people need to bring lots of "stuff") and had a huge bathroom with a roll-in shower. We have been in hotel rooms (Disney's newly renovated Contemporary, for example) where the showers were very poorly designed, not allowing for proper water drainage thereby flooding the entire room! A suggestion though for the next dry dock: how about re-tiling the floors with something less slippery? Linens were nice, beds comfortable. One design problem: placement of the handicapped room. It was at the very stern of the ship - quite rocky - and on the starboard side where smoking is allowed on the balconies - not good for a physically challenged person to inhale second hand smoke.
Service was very good, but not quite as good as RCCL's. An exception: our server in the diningroom. At the end of our cruise, we found out that he had been an employee of RCCL for 15 years prior to joining Disney, working on several ships including Oasis. He listed many advantages to being employed by Disney over Royal Caribbean, and yet he was considering going back to RCI. I wonder......
The itinerary was another reason we chose this cruise. Unfortunately, the ocean had other plans for us. We were unable to go to Grand Cayman because it was too rough to tender (no docking). Instead, we went from Cozumel to Costa Maya. On that day, we decided to stay aboard ship and attempt the pool. Getting my 22 year old, 150 lb. son who can't bear much weight on his own legs into the pool was tricky to say the least. Once in the water her is easy to support. The pools are small, but since most people debarked that day, we were not crowded. Getting David out of the pool is another story completely. The pools have "tiers" for the disabled. They are "unusable", a term given by previous disabled passengers from this cruise. I concur. It is little more than a wooden bench that is unmarked as handicapped equipment and totally unrecognizable as such. It took my husband, daughter, myself and a good samaritan to get him out of the pool.
Key West ended up being the third port instead of the first. That was a lovely day, and very accessible (hey, it's the USA!). Our last port was Castaway Cay. Again the seas were against us because the normally pristine beaches were littered with seaweed. The staff was able to clean-up two of the three beaches except (we found out too late) the adult beach that we had chosen. Beach wheelchairs are available. They are helpful but still hard to maneuver since they were not PVC and the sand is quite deep. A better option: a wooden walkway as on one of the state beaches where we live, or packed down sand (just a path wide enough for the chair) so the chair won't sink. On Castaway, Disney provided a delicious barbecue, a definite plus.
Entertainment? Well, for the most part, you have to LOVE Disney. When they do Disney, they do it well. There were other forms of entertainment, namely a magician and a juggler/comedian, both very good. There were children's activities galore, but there didn't seem to be many places for these activities to occur. For example, there is a bar area on one of the lower decks where some activities (toddler songs, crafts, origami...) would take place prior to the bar opening at 11:00 AM. It just didn't seem right to me.
Debarkation was... interesting. All staterooms had to be vacated by 8:00 AM. Okay, not a big deal. The dining rooms are open for breakfast as is the buffet. I prefer the dining room, however, in order to eat there, we had to be seated at 6:45 AM! THAT is a rude ending to a vacation! Once breakfast was over, we didn't hear any announcement about who/how/when to disembark. Our dining room staff didn't seem to know, either. Finally, we walked out and saw that everyone was just leaving the ship. Weird. Finding the luggage was easy, thankfully.
It wasn't the best vacation on many levels, but it wasn't the worst. Certainly, it was (so far) the worst cruise, but that's not to say it was horrible. It just wasn't exceptional. If you LOVE Disney, if you have young children, it is THE place. If you have physical disabilities, I suggest Royal Caribbean. Our next cruise, August 2012 aboard Explorer of the Seas, is already booked.