In some ways, this day begins much like any other day, on any other ship, at sea. You wake up, open the balcony door, and breathe in the scent of salted air as the water ripples away from the ship and the sea stretches into infinity.
Unusually, I'm awake before my youngest son. He is sleeping later than he has in his entire life (past 9 a.m.), while I awoke based on some other time zone. My body clock is adjusting slowly. I made good use of the early start and went for a run. Surprisingly, I wasn't the only one with this plan.
Fellow running enthusiasts will be happy to know that despite being in the middle of the Mediterranean, there are two good running choices. The first: the expanded Vista Spa and Fitness Center, home to 14 treadmills plus numerous other types of workout equipment, including stepper machines, bikes, weight machines and cycling classes.
A plus is the free-to-use iPods, or headphones, that one can plug in to the TV while on the equipment. I found myself torn between the iPod, a Cameron Diaz and Jude Law movie, and the view out the forward part of the ship. (Jude Law won.)
For those wishing to cover some actual ground -- or I guess that would be deck here -- a running track is available on Deck 4 (three laps around equals a mile). Port and starboard sides are outdoors, and at either end of the ship, you are indoors passing by very large mooring machinery. While many other ships have their running decks on an upper deck, this deck is secluded and peaceful, just the way many runners like it.
Once the family was awake and showered, we began exploring, and discovering how Disney (the masters of creating succinct themes) has taken all they know from developing Epcot, added a bit more, and then incorporated the Mediterranean into almost every facet of the voyage. You see it in the menus, which feature changing regional specialties each night, photo backgrounds that reflect the countries we're visiting, entertainment with a European bent, bar drinks, port lectures, beach towels ... and I'm sure in ways I have yet to discover.
Even the ship's store windows include displays for the three countries we're visiting, instead of the usual Caribbean-themed fare. Inside you can purchase things like Italian balsamic vinegars, European soccer (or as Europeans call it, football) team shirts, guidebooks for all the areas, Spain's Valor premium chocolates, French Fauchon biscuits, plus Disney items like Christmas ornaments with the Mediterranean map on them.
The best part (for families), however, is how Disney has incorporated the Mediterranean into the children's programs. In addition to the usual Oceaneer Club fare (for kids ages 3 to 7) that includes animation antics where little ones learn to draw characters, today's activities also included "Europe's Euro -- learn all about this colorful money and even create some unique euro-friendly cases," er, wallets.
Over at the lab (ages 8 - 12), the "Gaudi Designs" program offers children a chance to design their own whimsical buildings using inspiration from Barcelona's Antonio Gaudi (I was happy we'd made time to see some of his creations while we were there). Even if a child is registered during a time when there are no Mediterranean-themed activities taking place, the poster quizzes on the wall still let you know (and better yet, entice a child's curiosity) about the places the ship is sailing to.
For example, the poster on Barcelona challenges children to discover how many forms of transportation they can see (or saw) in Barcelona, from taxis to funiculars, cable cars, trolleys, ferries, trams, buses, the underground and golondrinas (small passenger boats). Similar such posters are up for all of the other ports as well.
I was impressed that even while accompanying our children for a visit in the children's rooms last night, we were checked in and issued a visitor's badge, then asked to fill our registration paperwork, issued a beeper, and asked what our password would be for use when picking up our children from the center. After dropping them off for a bit today, I can confirm that Disney strictly adhered to their procedures of matching parents to children during pickups, even during chaotic times.
During our grownup, free time, my husband and I had more options to choose from than we could handle in a day. Among them? Historian Kenneth Bartlett's lecture, "Sicily -- A Mosaic of Cultures"; a cooking demonstration on appetizers led by a Disney chef; game shows by the pool (or just lying by the pool and reading); plus many, many other options. Since it was too early in the day for a beer in the pub (we'll fit that in somewhere), we both opted for a massage in the spa and tea for two out on the uber-comfortable spa balcony chaise lounges before picking the boys up for lunch and a swim in Mickey's pool.
Mickey's pool (one of three on the pool deck) is ideal for children 10-ish and under, and, I'll be honest with you here, the only thing this age group really cares about. As I think I will find out over the next two days, the Amalfi Coast is not nearly as enticing to a small child as this pool.
The pool itself is shaped like Mickey. His face serves as the main pool (1.5-ft. deep) -- and each of the round raised inner-tube-like ears serves a different purpose (one is a "warm" tub, the other a sprinkler area). There's also a waterslide held up by a giant gloved Mickey hand that runs alongside the pool. Trust me when I say children can play here for hours.
Unexpectedly, this day at sea has also proved to be just the place for our older son to test out his roaming abilities, sans parents hovering about. We let him explore on his own when he too woke early this morning, and he's been checking out things here and there ever since.
Unlike my own childhood where I wandered throughout my neighborhood, the woods, and almost all the way to the mall, it's not the same for kids today -- or at least our kids. Here however, it seems the perfect place to let him have his first taste of wandering -- and he is clearly savoring it.
Tonight is the one formal night of the cruise. For those unsure about what to pack, I'll tell you what we saw: men in tuxes or suits, girls and women in assorted types of dresses, and little boys in everything from nice slacks and dress shirts to tuxes that were mini-versions of their fathers'.
Since we have many long days planned where the boys will probably be too tired to stay up late for the shows, we were delighted to discover that one of our favorites was scheduled for this evening: The Golden Mickey's Award Show.
Disney's show crew must be capable of a performing trifecta -- they need to be talented singers, dancers and actors. And that they were, performing snippets from "Snow White," "Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Mulan," "Toy Story," and, my favorite, "Tarzan" -- who, while dressed in a mere loin cloth, suspended his entire body weight from one hand while twirling in circles from a rope.
The lady I met in the Mickey Mates shop after the show (while Colin was kissing the stuffed Mickeys goodnight) concurred that that was indeed a highlight of the show for her too.
Last but not least, the chocolate report for the day: Tonight's dessert was The Golden Golden Mickey (should actually be called the Chocolate, Chocolate Mickey), which came on the heals of last night's dessert: the Leaning Tower of Pisa sitting in a little puddle of chocolate, of course. I wonder what kind of tasty treats await in Palermo.
Tomorrow, we dock in Palermo, on Italy's island of Sicily. We've planned a half-day tour to ease into the port-intensive itinerary. It's one thing for Disney to bring Italy to us at Epcot, quite another to bring children to Italy.
From Cameron's Journal
A 10-year-old's perspective (excerpted from Cameron's journal, with permission):
Second image of Palermo courtesy of Christine Koubek