Live From Disney Dream: The Disney Skeptic

January 20, 2011

First Impressions: No Mickey Mouse Operation
(Wednesday, 4:05 p.m. EST) -- Fresh from its christening, the ship looks immaculate. It smells of German precision -- it was, after all, built at Meyer Werft's Pappenburg yard, a vessel-building factory that's gained a reputation for craftsmanship (Celebrity's Solstice-class ships are built there; NCL's next ships will be built there). I've only been onboard for a couple hours, but here are a few initial observations: While you'll never forget that you're on a Disney product -- Goofy was seen bumbling about, Donald has his own water slide -- the Mouse's brushstroke is lighter than expected. The adults-only spaces feature only trace Disney elements. For instance, the kid-free Cove Café, a half-moon-shaped Italian coffee bar on the stern, has a few framed pictures of Walt Disney and Mickey, but little else. The atrium likewise seems to have been designed by a Mouse intent on creating a fantastical setting rather than plastering the iconic rodent's mug everywhere (but maybe I'm just missing the "hidden Mickeys"). I've sailed with Carnival, Princess, NCL and Royal Caribbean, so Disney Dream's unique cabin setup was immediately apparent. As I walked into my standard verandah cabin (9644), there were two doors to my left. The first contained a toilet and sink, the second a small bathtub and sink. Compartmentalization is key for families, and while some lines have created special bath-and-a-half configurations, Disney makes it a standard feature. A passenger who describes herself as a salad bar connoisseur (it's literally the first spot she checks on any ship after embarking) told me she wasn't impressed with the limited offerings at Cabanas, Dream's buffet. (The venue, by the way, was mobbed by ravenous cruisers, many of them tiny and running.) More impressive were a colossal animal hock and popular self-serve soda machines. There are no souvenir refillable mugs, special stickers or Coke cards on Dream -- although for Disney's premium price tag, "free" soft drinks should be expected. The mommy bloggers have descended like ants. And with kids and husbands in tow, the family units lend a sense of realism to the cruise. Oftentimes, pre-inaugural sailings are gala events featuring open bars and roving merrymakers. With so many families onboard, the focus is more on kids' clubs, to which children are being signed in en masse, and chicken nuggets, which I've been told are the best in cruising.

Dinner at the Royal Palace: Cinderella, Filets and Disney Secrets
(Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. EST) -- The Royal Palace is one of three themed restaurants that make up Disney Dream's "rotational" dining scheme, in which guests switch venues nightly but retain their servers. Portraits of princesses in 18 karat gold frames line the walls. Dinner "thrones" feature ornately carved arm rests. Cinderella stops in to inquire on how magical your evening's been (not so magical given the glacial Internet speed).

Even the plates suggest royalty, though I had to get out the glasses to see the little raised reliefs of pumpkin carriages bordering the rim. The menu had things you might eat at a French king's chateau, like wild boar tenderloin and escargot. But if the kids don't like pig and snail, the king can offer them mac 'n' cheese, pizza or spaghetti.

I ate (filet, avocado & citrus salad, peanut butter mousse) with some guys on the marketing team from Disney Imagineering, which is the creative force behind Disney resorts and rides. During dinner, I was initiated into the ways of the "Disney Dip," a dance move that's easy to learn but takes years to master. There are three steps: Notice a piece of trash on the floor. Use peripheral vision to make sure no one is eyeballing you. In one suave move, swoop down, pick up said piece of trash, swoop back up and deposit trash in can. One of my tablemates said the "Disney Dip" had been so ingrained in his psyche that, to his horror, he found himself bending down to pick up garbage at the mall.

Child Puts Donald Through a Series of Humiliating Exercises
(Wednesday, 8:45 p.m. EST) -- Leaving the Royal Palace, where pomegranate glazed duck was on the menu, I wasn't surprised to see Donald being put through the paces in the atrium by a three-year-old."Touch your toes!" she squeaked. "Now raise your hands in the air," she shouted (gleefully).

"Spin around!"

"Cover your eyes!"

The slowly building crowd of masochists were laughing at Donald's misfortune during the character meet-and-greet, a Disney Cruise Line staple. He seemed to take it in stride though, and after the little drill sergeant was finished barking orders, she and the duck embraced.

The AquaDuck: Not All It's Quacked Up to Be
(Thursday, 9:55 a.m. EST) -- With temperatures dipping below 60, I battled whipping winds, following Donald's footprints up the steps to the top of Dream's blazing red funnel. At the summit, a diagram showed how the AquaDuck was born out of necessity -- i.e. Donald became stuck in a tube and had to be freed (they used water pressure to uncork his rear). As for the ride itself . . . well, in all frankness, the ride was fun but a bit plodding for someone who doesn't judge cruise ship water slides any differently from their land-based cousins.

Video: The AquaDuck Watercoaster in Action

I could have gone for a touch more speed, and I missed my opportunity to look down 150 feet during the portion that cantilevers over the ocean. Perhaps that's the problem. With so much build-up, and phrases like "most innovative at sea" and "longest" bandied about, the Duck didn't have much quack, thrill-wise. "Pleasant" isn't a term I want to hear associated with a water slide.

But it's not my opinion that matters. A fellow rider, albeit one lacking my years of experience at water parks, had become an AquaDuck fiend. How many times does that make?" asked one of the crew. "A bunch," said the boy -- who was just a hair taller than the 48-inch height requirement.

The Story So Far
(Thursday, 1:15 p.m. EST) -- I have to marvel at how children's infatuation with Disney characters seems almost ingrained in their genetic makeup. If a five-year-old doesn't scream "Get the camera, Mom!" when Goofy appears from behind a bush, as he did on Castaway Cay, that kid must certainly have ended up with some sort of recessive gene. Those character appearances are at the heart of the "classic" Disney. Mickey Mouse flails his huge gloved hands and offers up his plastic cheek for a kiss. Disney's multi-ethnic harem of princesses poses with little girls dressed in boutique-bought costume gowns.

Disney-Dream-Cruise-ShipBut the goal onboard Disney Dream -- as it seems to be in any Disney resort or theme park -- is to blend classic with the modern. The 21st-century Disney relies on technology: 3D versions of the new Tron movie; the enchanted artwork that doesn't just interact with passersby, it recognizes faces so you don't see the same animation twice in a row; the virtual portholes in inside cabins that offer a digitized view of the ocean with the occasional dancing hippos. Yet the ship's design is retro, evocative of 1930's ocean liners. Old school and new school, the outcome is still the same: create Disney immersion through many intimate experiences.

From a cruise ship perspective, I'm not nearly as impressed with Disney Dream as I was with Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class twins -- those ships can't be matched in terms of moving cruise travel in a new direction -- but I am impressed with Disney's microscopic attention to detail. It's why the line can charge vastly more than any other mainstream operator.

"Believe" It: An Onstage Spectacular Melts a Heart or Two
(Thursday, 6:30 p.m. EST) -- "Disney Believe," an impressive original show created for Dream, is the classic story of the scientific skeptic (father, pHD in botany, workaholic) versus the dreamer (daughter, believer in magic, fond of wands and wizard hats). Sadly, pops has no time for his daughter -- even on her birthday. Can you guess whose priorities change by the end?

Disney-Dream-Believe The show is an hourlong montage of the best-known songs from Disney movies, those melodies glued to your soul whether you've seen the film or not. Rafiki, the creepy witch doctor from "The Lion King," belts out "Circle of Life." Belle and Lumiere (the candlestick) from "Beauty and the Beast" perform "Be Our Guest." Mary Poppins floats in for a rendition of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," complete with dancing chimney sweeps. The set changes for each song, and the show utilizes video screens to showcase animated characters, LED lighting (Tinkerbell zips across the ceiling), holograms and old-fashioned costuming. Wizards disappear behind clouds of smoke. Confetti rains down on the audience.

Full disclosure: I rarely sit through cruise-ship shows. I did for this one.

The bridge between the soundtrack is the genie from "Aladdin," a portly gent who references Cecil B DeMille and gets a brain freeze when he drinks a frozen cocktail too quickly. Robin Williams would be proud. The father, you see, wishes that he could believe in magic for his daughter's sake. Genie on the spot.

At the start, believing in magic would get dad "laughed out of the Fraternal Order of the Knights of Botany." But, after his magical journey, he realizes his daughter -- and not some sick devotion to scientific study -- is his happy place. He believes. A fellow writer needed a tissue. She had only paper from her reporter's pad.

Wave of Communication: Cell Phones for Every Cabin
(Friday, 3:30 p.m. EST) --
Oasis of the Seas introduced the idea with its Royal Connect phones, a $17.95 iPhone rental for passengers looking to keep in touch on the ship. (The specially set-up phone only worked on the ship.) Disney Dream (and fleetmates Disney Wonder and Magic) features two Wave Phones in every cabin, along with one charger. Use of the phones is included in the (hefty) cost of the Disney cruise.

It's a really nice touch, whether you're trying to coordinate a meeting with colleagues on a preview cruise or getting a big group to the same seats in the theater.

Disney-Dream-Wave-Phone Bring the portable phone with you, and you can make onboard calls from anywhere on the ship. Wave Phones are also supposed to work on Castaway Cay, Disney's private island, but I couldn't get service during our visit. Parents with kids in the youth clubs are required to carry the phones in case they need to be contacted. ("Little Billy won't stop crying and calling for his blue blanket. Please come and collect him.") You can also send text messages. (Stop crying little Billy, mommy's coming.) You can even set alarms on the phone. ("It's time to pick up little Billy.")

One small gripe: The phone feels very chintzy. And, don't lose or damage it. Mobster Mickey will extract 250 clams from you.

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