Disney Magic Family Mediterranean Cruise
About the Virtual Cruise
Editor's Note: Disney Magic will return to the Western Mediterranean in summer 2010. The line will also introduce its first-ever Baltic cruises at that time. Click here for more.
Like all families about to embark on a trip, each member of ours has formed some sort of vision of what our upcoming Mediterranean cruise on Disney Magic will be like. Based on our pre-cruise chatter I'd say those visions go something like this:
My husband's ideal trip: Relax, read, catch up on sleep, have a beer in a pub and see whatever is possible in the time left over.
My vision (at least for a cruise like this one) goes something like: Leave no great seaside cafe left unsavored; no notable artwork or architecture left unseen; discover interesting ports, new foods, and new people. And sure, a beer in a pub is great ... although we are with the kids. Enjoy the ship's shows and a beach with the boys. Sleep during whatever time is left over. Yes, I should know better than to discount sleep and relaxation, but we're going to the Mediterranean! We can relax in the cafes.
Our oldest son, age 10: See some really cool things that I'd never see in the U.S., hear people talk in another language and try it myself, learn how kids live in Italy and France, swim as much as possible, explore the ship, and sleep, ah, do I really need eight hours of it?
Our 5-year-old's fantasy: Sail on a big boat and pretend to be a pirate. Slide on the Mickey water slide. Sleep in a bunk bed. Eat lots of ice cream! "They call it gelato, Colin," Cameron, my oldest, informs his younger brother. "Is it chocolate?" Colin asks. "I think you can get chocolate," Cameron replies. "You know Mom, she always finds chocolate."
Colin is definitely going to be the easiest one to please. As for the rest of us -- I've already made some adjustments.
From what I've heard, a Mediterranean cruise with kids should be viewed as a European sampler of sorts. "You can't do it all, especially with children," former family Med cruisers advised. "Pick your two or three most important ports and go all out on those; keep the rest flexible," another had said.
Therefore, we've heeded their advice and created a schedule with a decent amount of down time. Since our sea days are the first and the last -- with eight straight days in port in between -- we've alternated long days in port (i.e. shore tours that are eight to nine hours long) with short ones (tours, or days on our own, that are five hours or less off the ship), even though it means we'll be missing Michelangelo's David. The port calls for Rome and Florence (La Spezia) are scheduled for back-to-back days, so Florence and all of its artistic riches will have to wait, hopefully, for a future trip. We're keeping things flexible in La Spezia.
This plan seems to offer something for each of us, and at a good pace.
Christine's virtual runs from Friday, June 8 - Thursday, June 21 with fresh dispatches daily (save for weekends). Among the ports of call on tap are Barcelona, Palermo, Naples, Sardinia, Rome, Tuscany, Marseilles and Villefranche along with two much-appreciated days at sea.
Day 1: Friday, Pre-Cruise Stay in Barcelona and Embarkation Day
Time has a meandering quality to it for young children. There is no sense of urgency, and nothing ever seems to happen fast enough, while us (slightly) older folks often feel like it passes faster than the drivers on a Barcelona highway. There is one exception to this: when traveling with young children. In this situation our relationships with time seem to reverse.
Our trip from Washington D.C. Dulles to Barcelona, with its three-hour layover in Atlanta, reminded us of this notion. Despite going over the day's (and night's) events with our younger son, when we landed in Atlanta he shouted, "Wow, we're in Barcelona! Can we go to the cruise ship now?"
Not a good sign for the 12 hours still left ahead to travel. My husband and I looked at one another and wished we were already there more than he did. This is the part of the trip that worried us most. In fact, I noticed several other parents perusing travel message boards for tips on how to make the trip over easier. Some of those tips evolved into a mini-suitcase, filled with our new airplane sleepover gear (we were willing to buy just about anything to guarantee a few hours sleep … just not business class), which included:
Eye shades (for sleeping and also handy we learned to block out tempting R-rated movies on neighboring screens)
Soft blankets with built-in pocket to hold an iPod or stuffed animal (sold at LL Bean)
Ear plugs to drown out frequent announcements
Comfortable neck pillows
Dove facial wipes; a pull-up in case of emergencies for our youngest; teeth brushing gear; and warm sweatshirts -- all used to get ready for bed in the airport before we departed
No Jet Lag homeopathic pills
A new book each to read before bed
It worked. We boarded, settled in with our stuff and fell asleep for a large portion of the flight; albeit is was still just a five- to six-hour night of sleep before we landed, midday. Originally, we planned to power through the afternoon, as advised, and go to bed early, Barcelona time. Instead, we arrived at the hotel -- okay I'll admit it -- cranky (and I'm not just talking about the kids) and barely able to string together a coherent sentence. Hence, we checked in to the modern, minimalistic Barcelo Atenea Mar hotel (one of the six hotels Disney is utilizing for pre- and post-cruise stays), found our room and passed out for a two-hour nap.
Our advice: If at all possible arrive a day early and plan nothing. Not only does this greatly decrease any concerns about arriving on time for the ship's departure, it's also about not having to wait in the slew of lines set up to check in for a cruise (let alone the subsequent wait for a stateroom and inability to nap during noisy luggage deliveries) when you're kids are cranky and you're deliriously tired.
Better still, Disney had a cruise registration desk in the hotel lobby allowing us to check in for our cruise at our leisure, receive stateroom keys, and, the best part, have our luggage picked up directly from the hotel the next morning so we were free to explore the next day.
After our nap we completed the cruise paperwork and headed out for a quick bite to eat along La Rambla, the city's popular pedestrian-friendly boulevard that's chock full of outdoor cafes, shops, street entertainers, tapas restaurants and some of the architecture Barcelona is famous for, including the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona's opulent opera house.
During the evening we noticed the similarities between our two countries; even here one can find Burger King, McDonald's, and surprisingly, two Starbucks within blocks of one another, just like home. And, since our hotel had several other Disney-bound guests, we heard plenty of English being spoken throughout.
Our next day in Barcelona, Spain's second largest city, was all about the differences.
According to Barcelona Plus, a magazine for tourists, Barcelona recorded the largest increase in visitors of any city in the world in 2006. One reason for the increase: cruise passengers, which saw a 14 percent increase in 2006 over the previous year.
This increase was evident to us in the sheer number of bus tours we saw making their way through the city, and we were no exception. Friends at home recommended Barcelona Bus Turistic as a great way to get an overview of the city, and indeed it was.
A one-day tour includes three color-coded sightseeing routes with six transfer points, 44 stops at Barcelona's main sights and landmarks, buses with an open-air upper deck, and headphones to listen to the audio tour (available in six languages) as you make your way around the city (Adults, 19 euros; children between the ages of 4 and 12, 11 euros; includes coupon booklet filled with admission discounts for many sites).
We opted for the blue route, which offers stops for museums on everything from sports to maritime history, contemporary art, Joan Miro, Picasso, an aquarium, and even -- I couldn't believe my luck -- the history of chocolate.
Also along this route you'll be able to see (especially from the upper deck of the bus) the architecture Barcelona is famous for, including the unusual Antonio Gaudi art nouveau buildings with their undulating lines, rippling roofs, and balconies that resemble the jaw of a dinosaur skeleton.
Our first stop was the Picasso museum, located in the Gothic quarter. The museum was fascinating even for our older son, Cameron, who is not a big art aficionado. We read a short biography about Picasso's life before walking through the exhibit, which is displayed in a series of rooms that flow chronologically over the span of his life.
This way we came to appreciate how his artistic style (and the mediums he worked in) changed and developed over time -- from his earliest small paintings as a boy through the blue period, cubism, ceramics, and, what I like to think of now, the period late in his life where he learned to "paint like a child."
According to Cameron there is a Picasso quote in his art room at school that says, "It took me ten years to learn to paint like an artist and a lifetime to learn to paint like a child."
Next we moved on to a museum that I, along with the boys, were delighted to discover was the Museu de la Xocolata (i.e. Chocolate Museum), housed in a former centuries old convent where the nuns made the chocolate hot and sweet. Here we learned century's worth of history about chocolate, including how it (cacao) originated in the Amazon, and that Barcelona was chocolate's entry point into Europe.
The best parts of the museum (aside from the glorious scent of chocolate wafting through the air and the after-tour snacking) were the numerous and elaborate sculptures made from chocolate, featuring everything from a bullfighting scene, gladiators, palm trees, notable Spanish buildings, and, surprisingly, Disney characters including a complete Winnie the Pooh vignette, as well as a toddler-sized Chicken Little, Finding Nemo, and -- I think the Disney company must have paid them for this publicity -- Mickey Mouse.
After two museums and lunch at an outdoor cafe, we boarded the bus and continued along the blue route, gazing at museums and architecture from the top deck as we realized we had no time left to get off at another stop.
We had a 4 p.m. bus to catch if we were to explore the ship and make our early seating dinner at 6 (although others stayed in Barcelona longer, since the ship's departure was at 10 p.m.). Fortunately we'd sent our luggage along, and so having checked out of the hotel, did not need to head back there.
Our day in Barcelona, along with Antonio Gaudi's buildings, proved that anything can be created to look like a work of art from a beautiful curvy white telecommunications tower to the Miro sculptures that served as focal points in small parks. Cities full of glass rectangular office buildings pale in comparison.
Since we had already checked in for the cruise at the hotel, and people had arrived over the course of the day, there were no lines. It was by far the easiest cruise check-in I've ever had.
Even though Disney's staterooms are definitely larger than those of most other mid-sized lines, I wondered how we would fit 10-days worth of stuff for four people in the stateroom ... but I was surprised to find that the many shelves, cubbies and dresser drawers accommodated it all.
Packing tip: We packed one large suitcase and then a few smaller ones that fit inside that one, like the Russian hollow dolls that fit one inside another. It's hard to fit anything other than a collapsible duffel under the beds, and we only had room to store one large one along the back wall of the closet.
Dinner in Parrot Cay was our first hint at how Disney has incorporated the Mediterranean into these voyages. A special section of the menu was dedicated to regional specialties, and tonight's menu featured Sangria Bisque soup and oven-roasted duckling with braised figs and sangria sauce.
We've left the other touches to explore during tomorrow's day at sea.
From Cameron's Journal
A 10-year-old's perspective (excerpted from Cameron's journal, with permission):
Image of Barcelona courtesy of Christine Koubek