In Disney lore, pixie dust is the real-life sprinkling of magic that the company seems to effortlessly work into its theme parks and hotel experiences on-land. But Disney Cruise Line also offers its own unique brand of pixie dust for all those who set foot on the line's family-friendly ships -- and it's a formula the line has been perfecting since its debut in 1998.
Cruise Critic recently concluded four magical nights aboard the 1999-built Disney Wonder cruise ship sailing a Western Caribbean itinerary roundtrip from New Orleans. Disney Wonder is in New Orleans right now, its homeport into March of this year, sailing short cruises down to Cozumel and Costa Maya.
But the duration of our cruise wasn't the important point: in just four days, we discovered Disney's pixie dust is still spreading its magic across all those who step onboard -- even with enhanced health and safety protocols in place.
When Disney Cruise Line executives talk about their brand, the term "story" comes up a lot. It's not just a corporate buzzword: Disney Wonder, like the rest of the fleet, has a theme, and a story that goes along with it.
The story reveals itself by simply walking through the ship: a bronze statue of Ariel in the ship's atrium gives way to Triton's, an undersea-themed French restaurant located amidships. That, in turn, leads effortlessly into the French Quarter Lounge and Princess Tiana's -- New Orleans-themed spaces that are designed to reflect the local heritage of Louisiana and the Bayou both in terms of décor and food and beverage.
But some of Disney Cruise Line's signature story experiences were threatened by COVID-19 rules and restrictions. And instead of taking the easy route and doing away with them, Disney has improved them -- and in some cases, made them even better.
Character Meet and Greets are now Meet and Waves, where passengers stand physically distanced from their favorite Disney characters to have their photos taken. No one seemed to mind, and the entire process is more controlled and less chaotic than in its previous incarnation.
Mindful of integrating the experience even further for kids of all ages, Character Parades are now offered each evening in the ship's Rotational Dining Rooms that include Triton's, Princess Tiana's, and the Animator's Palate. The only place you won't find character appearances are in the Adults Only spaces on Deck 3 forward, and in the Palo specialty restaurant on Deck 10 aft.
These new dinner parades, though, are wonderfully fun and give passengers who might have missed a Meet and Wave (all of which are advertised in the Navigator App) another chance to snap a pic with their favorite Disney characters.
It's also worth mentioning Disney's Navigator App: it works. So many cruise lines have apps that are buggy or semi-functional that seeing one that works as intended, is notable.
COVID-19 has not dampened the line's commitment to entertainment or service one bit, either. Our two production shows -- Frozen and Disney Dreams: An Enchanted Classic -- were every bit as fabulous as before. These Broadway-calibre shows are all at least an hour long -- and both kids and adults stay spellbound for the entire duration.
Seating in the Walt Disney Theatre is controlled now, with crewmembers escorting passengers to their seats to ensure physical distancing. Preludes -- the drink and snack bar just outside the theatre -- remains closed, as passengers are required to always wear their masks while the show goes on.
One thing that I'd forgotten about is the high quality of Disney's service, which is more akin to what you'd find on a luxury line. Bartenders remember your favorite drink and make it exactly as you'd like it. They address you by name whenever possible. Dietary restrictions are catered to with ease. That personalized service is only heightened here onboard Disney Wonder, which is operating with reduced capacity and COVID-19 protocols. Because there are fewer guests onboard, providing exceptional service is even more of a feature of Disney's new normal.
In addition to the signature experiences with Disney's characters still being available for all to enjoy, kids can look forward to other fun events that still exist even in these pandemic times. Pirate Night was held onboard Disney Wonder after our departure from Cozumel, and there was eager participation from families of all ages. This was followed by a fireworks spectacular from the ship, well-attended on-deck despite the blustery conditions and late 10:45 p.m. start time.
The kids' clubs are open, too. Activities are still available in Disney's Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab, and appointments can be made via the Navigator App. Parents aren't allowed inside, though -- these are strictly kid spaces. Disney has thought of everything to make these spaces unique for the little cruisers the line has, right down to the lowered ceiling height on Deck 5, where most of the kid clubs are located.
Kids have to wear masks while inside, just as they would in any other public area.
The ship's dedicated Teen club, Vibe -- located inside the ship's forward funnel on Deck 11 -- is open, but Disney's youngest cruisers, will have to wait a little while longer for their own facilities to open up: the line's "It's a Small World" nursery aboard Disney Wonder is temporarily closed.
The ship's pools and hot tubs are all open, and so is Mickey's Pool Slide. Disney also has lifeguards poolside to keep passengers safe, and to ensure the maximum number of people per pool is adhered to in keeping with COVID-19 guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's now-expired Conditional Sail Order.
In walking around Disney Wonder for the past four days, I see an experience that is safe and welcoming for kids and families alike. Compared to conditions on land -- where vaccinations, masking and distancing may or may not be required at restaurants, hotels or resorts -- a sailing aboard Disney Wonder offers both safety and reassurance during this period of pandemic uncertainty.
Let me say this bluntly: you will likely cry onboard a Disney cruise, and you won't be able to help it.
I have shed tears every single day of this voyage. I love cruises, but that's not something that typically happens to me on a normal sailing.
But you can't help but be swept away by Disney's special blend of fairytale magic. What touches passengers, I find, is different for each person. Some get bleary-eyed hearing the ship's horns play the iconic notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star" at departure. Others, like me, get wistful at seeing the joy the line's characters bring to the young and young-at-heart.
Some passengers will find themselves powerfully moved by seeing Princess Tiana and Moana -- female role models that that, finally, look like them.
This, too, is a tenet of Disney Cruise Line: inclusivity. The color of your skin does not matter here onboard. Nor does whom you choose to love. Diversity is well-represented, both among passengers and crew, in a way that is open and welcoming, and never judgemental. The line is continually trying to do more to ensure it stays that way.
The world has changed since Disney Wonder was launched in 1999, and Disney Wonder has changed with it. No one could have anticipated a pandemic like COVID-19; no one could have known that one day, Disney Wonder would sail under reduced capacity with mask restrictions, vaccine mandates, and other precautions.
On-shore in Cozumel, our guides spoke of the hardships their tourism-based economy has placed on the island's residents when the ship stopped coming. Onboard, our international crew has expressed their thanks; without us, they say, their jobs simply wouldn't exist.
This wasn't a long cruise. And yet, in four days, Disney Wonder transported its guests to new lands. Passengers explored Mexico, some for the first time ever. Fireworks illuminated the ship's decks Wednesday night, observed by a small but appreciative crowd. Karaoke went on. The ship's fabulous production shows went on. Dinner -- served in the line's unique Rotational Dining, whereby passengers follow their wait staff to a new dining room almost every evening -- went on.
Four days. That's all it took for Disney Cruise Line to make passengers forget -- at least, temporarily -- about COVID-19.
Updated February 21, 2022