First Impressions: Some Kinks, Some Kudos
(Wednesday, 5:20 p.m. EST) -- If you've been on Disney before, Dream won't be a total culture shock. You'll still be welcomed aboard the vessel into Disney's traditional airy and spacious grand foyer with a hearty family greeting (along with the accompanying claps and cheers from crew – it's just like being on the red carpet!). It's the nicest welcome aboard in cruising – bar none. The crew members (or, uh, shall I say cast members, the term the line uses for its onboard staff) do seem warm and accommodating. I had a particularly thoughtful waitress for my quick buffet lunch in the Enchanted Garden today, who acknowledged the hubbub and chaos after what was already a long morning by bringing water, drinks and coffee even though I wasn't sitting in her station.
And if you haven't tried Disney? Dream is definitely channeling aspects of lines like Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Celebrity, in particular. Size- and features-wise, it fits in with ship classes like RCI's Radiance of the Seas, Princess' Crown Princess and Celebrity's Millennium, but there are of course major differences. One distinction: It's the only ship in the Caribbean at this level of quality to offer shorter-than-a-week voyages (the ship will alternate between three- and four-day itineraries).
Here are some general impressions during my initial foray around the sun deck and other top-deck locales:
On this ship, the marquee area of the sun deck has two swimming pools – Mickey's and Donald's (one, with mouse ears, is for younger swimmers and the other is for families). They're adjacent, as is a double-wide Jacuzzi whose location is kind of fun – it's tucked up against a glass wall so there are terrific views. But the area's ambiance is bland; it certainly has none of the joie de vivre of Royal Caribbean's pool decks or the elegance of those designed for Celebrity.
There is plenty of open space, so the whole area can be converted into a vast dance floor for evening parties, which is a fun use of space after sunset. However, the pool area seems a bit chintzy on space for chaise lounges.
If Disney Magic and Wonder have among the most antiquated top-deck Lido restaurants in contemporary cruising, designers of Disney Dream have created a much more contemporary, spacious and delightful venue in its Cabanas buffet. While the cafeteria line, that notorious time-waster, is still a bigger part of the venue than it should be (Norwegian and Royal Caribbean have really pioneered the concept of themed stations on their newer vessels), there's cute picnic-style furnishings, a soft-blue color scheme and a deck for outdoor seating (major kudos for that). Plus, Dream offers soda fountains for complementary beverages. For families, that one's a nice touch.
New to Disney – but right along with a contemporary trend in which high-paying passengers in suites are entitled to private deck space – is its Concierge Sundeck. It doesn't make the same mistake as MSC (which for its Yacht Suites appropriated all the aft deck open space for high-stakes travelers). It doesn't create as many bells and whistles as NCL's Courtyard Villas. But it's a nice effort. The private space in the center of the forward-most sun deck is enclosed by green frosted glass with the occasional peekaboo ribbon of clear glass, so the curious can press their noses against the panes. It's a bit like being in a fishbowl, what with the regular passenger deck wrapping around it on both sides, but at least the peons have their spaces, too.
From the “Did they try this one out?” category of obvious missteps, the sole ping-pong table is on an entirely open deck (with no ceiling to cover it, not even the shelter of a cozy and relatively draft-free corner). Let's hope its balls are biodegradable because they'll be flying all over...
Okay, so I haven't managed to see all the ship's bars – much less have a drink at even one of ‘em yet – but I'll go on the record with this prediction: Meridian, an all-new concept bar that's tucked onto Deck 12 between boutique restaurants Palo and Remy, is one of the best at sea. It's a cozy spot with clubby seats, a bar that wraps around a floor-to-ceiling glass wall aft (oh, the views!) and the best part: Flanking it on each side are outdoor seating areas. It reminds me of the Crown Princess-class Adagio, next to Sabatini, but it's even better.
You'd think that Disney, which pioneered the concept of an adult-only pool area with its “coves” on Magic and Wonder more than a decade ago, would take it to the next level on this new ship. But nope. It doesn't hold a candle to the gorgeous Sanctuary you can find on Princess' sundecks, and frankly it's not even as nice as those on the older ships in the Disney fleet. It's cramped, and I can't imagine on a sea day it having even remotely enough chaises for people who want them. And even at high noon most of the area's in shade. There's a bar with stools set in the shallower end of a pool, sort of like a swim-up bar but not. Fizzle.
The New and, er, Improved Animator's Palate
(Wednesday, 11:45 p.m. EST) -- Animator's Palate is Disney's unique black-and-white-to-color restaurant that, traditionally on Wonder and Magic, is more about the spectacle of the ever-changing décor than the culinary experience.
On Dream, innovators have ramped up the excitement, so to speak, in a way that's both more and less than the original. The theme here is inspired by "Finding Nemo". The color show is much less stark; you start off in a restaurant with some color to the palate and move on to simply…more color. In this new version, there's video, fine. But there's this bizarre new interactive aspect in which the fish (I think it's a fish, might be a shark or a turtle) not only talks to the dining room at large in huge, booming tones that make it impossible to order food or carry on a conversation. It also, via hidden microphones and video cameras, hones in on particular tables and engages adults in banal chat.
The charm of this, at least on this early sailing on Dream, was lost on me (not to mention most of the kids at nearby tables during our 6 p.m. seating). I write this as someone who, despite being only moderately interested in Disney characters, has generally enjoyed the dinner experience on other ships in the fleet (even cracking a smile during the character brunch with Mickey and Minnie Mouse). But this was excruciating.
"If you eat here with kids," said a fellow diner, "you'll enjoy. If not, it's the night you eat somewhere else."
It didn't help that service, particularly our bar waiter, was inescapably humble. First, of the trio of "cocktails" offered at the top of the menu (with no prices, leading logical humans to assume, alas erroneously, that they're included as part of the meal), the "blueberrillicious," featuring blueberries and an un-detectable portion of tequila, was disgusting. It cost $5.95, plus tax. Then there was the confusion (about what, I cannot tell you) when we ordered a glass of indifferent chardonnay from the plebian wine list, and a bottle of Mondavi merlot. Our first course, then second course, then entrée, arrived before the vino. Alas, when the merlot showed up, it was a malbec. I didn't have the heart to send it back. Unfortunately, the first pour went into the dregs of a glass of white wine; when presented with a clean glass that we nipped off a neighboring table, our wine steward managed to mis-aim and there was quite a red wine mess.
Perhaps I've buried the lede when I say that in the end, the meal itself was superb. But the innovations, which I've described as more and less than the original concept, served to detract rather than enhance.
Cruise Ships and
(Thursday, 5:30 a.m. EST) -- When it comes to designing bathrooms for the rather cozy confines of standard-class staterooms, these days cruise lines mostly go for conservative, if banal, beige, shower-only, ambience-free prefabricated plastic cubes. Give Disney credit for figuring out, more than a dozen years ago, a way to please most, if not all. Its dual bath scenario features one unit that comprises a toilet (and sink) and another that has a compact but adequate bathtub/shower and, yes, another sink.
Wisely, when updating its design scheme for Disney Dream, in this case its innovators recognized that what worked in the past -- needed no tweaking.
Other cruise lines would do well to take notice. In particular, bath disasters in recent years, at least on recall, include Celebrity's ultra-mod shallow sinks (that splashed water everywhere) on Century, and the never-to-be forgotten see-through toilets and in-cabin sinks (which come to think of it, also are of the splashing-everything-in-sight variety) of NCL's Norwegian Epic.
The Story So Far
(Thursday, 11:30 a.m. EST) -- Having spent 11 nights on Disney Magic in the Mediterranean last spring, and enjoyed the cruise so much it was my 2010 highlight (which is saying something – I cruise a lot!), Disney Dream is both more and less than I expected. And sometimes, it's right in line with anticipations.
The ship is indeed, as we've claimed for the past year, the most innovative new design to launch in 2011 but a lot of these new, state-of-the-art touches are not immediately visible to the blind eye. (Our Dan Askin will report later from a press conference on just those new-to-cruise features onboard.) What is quite obvious is the sense of homey warmth and neighborliness that's a trademark of Disney cruises is definitely present here, despite the fact that the ship is so much larger than the original duo.
The quality of cuisine has never been a Disney hallmark so it's with surprise that every meal I've had onboard so far has been superb, from a home-style buffet of roast beef and mashed potatoes to a rich-yet-light cheesy soufflé with rock shrimp appetizer. My traditional "eggs benedict" test this morning in the Royal Dining Room went off without a hitch: the eggs were just the right side of runny. (Alas, the service was wonky; the waiter forgot the bananas and the hash browns.)
Speaking of service, one major quibble: The folks who run the restaurants can do a much better job seating diners. How about we start with this suggestion: Why don't you listen to what we ask for before you blindly assign us a seat? At lunch in the Enchanted Garden, we asked for a table for two, were peremptorily given a table for eight (at which four of the seats were filled) and told we could ignore our fellow diners if we didn't feel like talking to them. There were plenty of empty tables around us. At dinner at the Royal last night, when Cruise Critic's Dan Askin showed up to an empty table of eight, he asked to move to a table with, gasp, actual people.
"Just wait another 20 minutes," he was told. Have you ever waited 20 minutes at a table, alone, in a cruise ship dining room? It's impossibly awkward. And this morning, when I asked for a table for one at breakfast I was seated at an empty six-top. There were smaller -- and also empty -- places to sit all over the dining room.
Maybe I'm not such a big Disney fan that I need to have a photo snapped with Goofy and Alice in Wonderland but I'll admit to this: It sure makes me smile to see how excited kids get when they're around the characters. This morning there was a big get-together in the atrium (for television stations) and Alice was there with Snow White and others. The kids weren't the only ones really chuffed; several crew members, charged with cleaning the public spaces, would stop, suddenly, and just watch, smiles on their faces.
The ship is as beautiful as you'd expect, but strangely I found it much easier to get around on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which is roughly double the size but has a very intuitively designed "neighborhood" layout.
But although this is obviously still a shake-down cruise and, with only two nights onboard, there's not the rhythm you experience when you're on a regular itinerary -- I like it here.
Authentic Travel? Well, no, but still...
(Thursday, 10:45 p.m. EST) -- Disney Dream today pulled up at Castaway Cay, its private Bahamian island and travel purists may scoff at the idea of a cruise ship visiting a faux destination. We'll leave that debate for another day (it's a worthy discussion).
Still, Castaway Cay was a surprising lure on our brief, two night (one day) cruise and the ship pretty much emptied out. The island's gorgeous, beautifully maintained, and, frankly, offers a restful cruise ship-like experience on land. Some highlights:
Lunch on Castaway Cay is anything but a gourmet feast. Think of the hotdogs, pre-broiled cheeseburgers, chicken, and cole slaw, not to mention chips and cookies, as good beach food.
Like food and other necessities, Disney Dream also brings its crew members to Castaway Cay (it's actually a fun assignment for them); Matthew, on the right, was the personable and obliging bartender last night at District D, one of the adult-oriented bars onboard. The island's signature drink? Order the Konk Kooler (made, natch, with rum).
The oddest and yet somehow most heartfelt moment of the cruise occurred today on Castaway Cay, where amidst the bicyles, water slides, Ski-dos and other assorted beach play, the most popular event of all was... an old fashioned hermit race. The hermits, which live on the island, perform this gig a maximum twice a day when ships are in port.
Buzzworthy Adults-Only Spaces
(Friday, 12:50 a.m. EST) -- While Disney very much does want to make sure its adults are entertained, it's not throwing its hat into the family-friendly yet mainstream cruise arena occupied by lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Princess. So, yes, it's still all about families. But in designing venues and activities for Disney Dream, it expanded the definition of family. No longer is it limited to the nuclear variety (two kids, two parents).
Now, "family" could be the maiden aunt on the hunt for a husband, grandparents seeking quiet time along with the chaos engendered by reunions, and just about everybody in between.
How does Disney do?
The District is its hub of nightclubs (similar concepts are found on Disney's classic Wonder and Magic), and this one, Evolution, is meant to offer a graceful entrance. It's fantastic for people-watching (belly on up to the bar), as everyone must pass through here to go on to the disco or to the sleek Pink, a Champagne bar.
Speaking of Pink, this windowless pink-and-white bar is all over the female vibe, and Disney plans to host special women-only events here. I found it to be a bit cotton candy bright, but I was told that the lighting here is not quite right. The opposite is true in the ship's sports bar, just down the hall, which feels clubby and pubby -- plus it has windows.
Palo, the ship's northern Italian boutique restaurant (open only to passengers 18 and above) was a much-loved spot on Disney's classic ships for dinner and brunch. It's bigger here, which makes sense since the ship's capacity is larger, but what I noticed immediately was that there were no noisy waiter stations scattered throughout. As such it looks like a land-based restaurant. But the best new feature in Palo is the terrace for outdoor dining. Being that the restaurant is on Dek 12, these will be the hardest tables to score onboard.
A very cool touch for night owls is this District alcove -- between Evolution and the disco – that's already set up with buffet stations so that partiers wanting to nosh at night don't have to go looking for it. Expect the kind of cuisine that most appropriately suits a night of debauchery (hotdogs and chicken nuggets were quite popular).
The Chill Zone at first glance is a most unlikely spot to generate excitement. It's merely a seating area, just outside of Pink, and was designed as a cozy spot for revelers who want to take a light night break dancing and drinking. But its fantastic look -- something between a Finnish sauna and an Asian meditation room -- really attracted buzz, and it became a destination in its own right. It's a lovely spot for repose (there's no bar service, so it's peaceful) if you want to be out on the open deck.
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