At dinner aboard the newly launched Disney Dream, the newest addition to the 13-year-old Disney Cruise Line, Crush, the laid back, Aussie surfer-speaking sea turtle from the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo, swooped in for a visit. He called on fellow diners by the colour of their shells (shirts), answered questions from admiring fans and posed for every camera he could see.
While character visits are nothing new to Disney - costumed characters regularly parade around the parks and resorts- this Australian turtle was neither stuffed, nor silent.
By using hidden microphones, video cameras and lighting-fast animation, cartoon Crush swoops from screen to screen throughout the restaurant, interacting with the crowd in a way that made him seem... alive.
"Can I get a... Rightous?" Crush asked an adult cruiser in a plaid shell.
"Ah dude! Check you with the lingo dude! Let's see if you remember this one, 'You so totally rock!'"
"I do so totally rock!" the plaid-shelled cruiser replied. And in a moment of pure improv, with a face of both surprise and awe, Crush replied, "Wait, wait dude. I like your style on that one. I'll have to remember that one on the future dude!"
For a moment, you could almost hear the actor laughing through the surfer facade - but not quite.
Since Walt Disney released Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse, in 1928, audiences around the world have been enamoured with Disney's magic. And with the opening of Disneyland in California in 1955 (plus four more theme parks worldwide since then), viewers have been flocking to the parks to experience the magic first hand. Now, more than 10 years after Disney first dipped its toe into the cruise industry, Disney is cannon-balling back into the sea with a ship nearly 40% larger than its first two. The Dream, a mid-sized, 4,000 passenger boat, will sail three-, four- and five-night Bahamian itineraries departing from Port Canaveral, Fla.
But how does Disney's magic fare on the high seas? Does the Disney Dream, the cruise line's most ambitious ship to date, compare with the offerings of Florida's Walt Disney World, its largest resort?
In late 2012, the Magic Kingdom theme park, one of four in Walt Disney World, will begin its largest expansion since it opened in 1971 - nearly doubling the size of kid-friendly Fantasyland, and further solidifying the resort's commitment to entertaining the smallest Mickey fans. The park will be adding Belle's Village, a setting from Beauty and the Beast, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a family coaster themed from the movie Snow White, and a second circling carousel of soaring pachyderms for Dumbo the Flying Elephant, hopefully reducing the wait time for one of the most popular children's rides in the Magic Kingdom.
And while every park within the resort has one or two standout attractions that cater to the older set - Disney's Hollywood Studios delights with the Tower of Terror and even the previously tame Animal Kingdom has added a mega-coaster, Expedition Everest -Disney Cruise Line seems to pick up where the parks leave a void, with entire areas dedicated to pre-teens, teenagers and adults.
On the Disney Dream, pre-teens (ages 11 to 13) have access to Edge, a loft-style space on deck 13, distinctly separated from the other kids' areas eight floors below. Dominating the room is a massive 18 ft-by-5 ft video screen, perfect for mass Nintendo Wii competitions. In addition to individual computer stations, there is a green screen, editing room and music mixing station for them to create their own videos. Parents need not worry: every kids-only area on the boat is supervised by a camp counsellor-type adult, but to keep the loft feeling more VIP than a chaperoned school dance. Edge can only be accessed by a swipe of the young passenger's keycard, via an elevator in the ship's forward funnel.
The 9,000-square-foot teen club Vibe (ages 14 to 17) steps it up even further. Without a hint of Mickey dressing in site, the swipe of a teenager's room key (allowing for the same VIP feel) reveals a den fit for MTV Cribs. Built-in, individual nooks with personal video screens surround a media lounge with a 103-inch LCD screen at the centre. In the next room, the musically-inclined can mix tracks in a DJ booth. A cafe bar offers immediate access to smoothies and coffee. And unlike the concierge sundeck - which is reserved for the ship's highest paying customers and lacks access to a private pool - Vibe offers teens a private sundeck, a plunge pool and two hot tubs. Plus, the club is open until 2 am.
On the first night of every cruise, teens are invited to an event called the Download, led by Vibe's counselors, where they can tailor the club's organized programming to meet their interests. The event also serves as a fun ice breaker for teens that may not know anyone else their age on the ship.
Unfortunately, if your kids are only looking for the next rollercoaster thrill, the Dream's Aquaduck, a 765-foot clear water slide that cantilevers 12 feet out over the ocean, will not match up. The "water coaster" is an industry first, but the Aerosmith Rock 'n' Roller Coaster in Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studio theme park, , which goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds, is probably more their speed.
"We don't want an either/or experience when we say family entertainment," said Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering. "If you're coming with your kids or your grandparents, we want everybody to have their own vacation, in the way that they want it."
According to a survey of kids 6 to 17 years of age, conducted by Ypartnership, a marketing group focused on travel, leisure and entertainment, , 64% of respondents took at least one vacation with both parents and siblings last year and 19% went with one parent and siblings. A theme park vacation fits right into that nuclear mold. At Walt Disney World, families travel in packs - with younger kids waiting in the wings while older siblings attack rides with death-defying drops, and older siblings dragging their feet as younger kids wait in line for a photo op with Mickey. If parents are lucky, they might get away for a dinner or drink on their own, but even Disney's Pleasure Island - a Vegas-like strip of nightclubs and over-21 entertainment - was shut down in 2008 and has been reinvented to have a more family-friendly focus, with shops and restaurants instead of nightclubs.
A Disney cruise changes that idea of what constitutes a family vacation. Grandparents can spend time in the rainforest-themed spa while their grandkids are safely supervised in the Oceaneer Lab (ages 3 to 10 years old), battling pirates (both real and animated) in a game of Pirates of the Caribbean. Teens can break away from their parents and hang out with friends (while still being safely supervised by Disney counsellors). And the ship's nursery will watch infants as young as three months old until midnight or later - an industry rarity - allowing young couples a night, or even a full day, on their own.
The Pleasure Island experience that is now missing in Walt Disney World finds new life on the Dream in the District, an 18-and-over hideaway of five interlocking bars, lounges and nightclubs. Sip on the ship's signature champagne in the cocktail bar Pink; belly up to the bar at 687 - named after the number assigned to the boat as it was being built in Germany - for the pub's signature red lager; or catch some very un-Disney-like entertainment, dancers in full black Lycra, knee-high boots and whips, at the nightclub Evolution.
Aside from the District, there are few other areas for an adult, non-Disney fan. The swim-up bar in the adult pool for example, is really just stools in a few inches of water. However, for Disney fans willing to pay a hefty price tag ($75 a person), Remy, a multi-course, French fine-dining experience that is subtly inspired by the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille, is the perfect substitute to a night of mediocre dining at the plastic-looking Enchanted Garden, one of three family dinner areas on the ship. The three-hour experience at Remy starts by meeting a sommelier in Remy's glass-walled 900-bottle wine room to pre-select wines for the evening and finishes with enough food to skip the next morning's breakfast buffet.
For a similar high-end experience on land (kids allowed), call early and often to score a reservation at Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot' s Canada Pavilion ($15 to $59 a person). Starting March 1, the restaurant, designed to look like a château wine cellar, will change its menu seasonally.
Compared to other recently launched ships, the Dream is not the biggest, it does not run the longest cruises, nor does it go to the most ports of call. In fact, the cruise line's 1,000-acre island private island, Castaway Cay, located between Grand Bahama Island and Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, is a complete letdown, with little more than a few play areas, a sunken boat to snorkel around and three beaches to wade in.
The ship has everything you would expect from a regular cruise line: a Karaoke club, a buffet, a kids' pool and open-air bars on the top decks. But what makes the Dream more than a cruise ship in Disney dressing, is the family focus, innovation and microscopic attention to detail that Walt originally brought to the parks and resorts.
The family-friendly staterooms, which are highly regarded industry-wide, feature a dual bath scenario to prevent sibling battles over the bathroom: one room has a toilet and sink and the other has a compact bathtub/shower and sink. Nearly 60 percent of the staterooms can be connected, perfect for families that want the kids close, but not in the same room. The 150 inside rooms - normally the least attractive accommodations on board - feature virtual portholes that offer a video view of the ocean that corresponds to each stateroom's location: forward, aft, port or starboard. Approximately three dozen animated characters, like Dumbo, pass by the portholes throughout the day. Even the little things, like raising the queen-sized bed a few inches to more easily store luggage underneath, make sharing a 169 square-foot room more comfortable. It would be a slight improvement to add a curtain over the virtual porthole (rather than a switch to shut it on and off), so that guests can leave the video running and wake up with the sense that the sun is "virtually" peeking though their curtains.
Throughout the ship, seemingly still images come to life when a guest walks buy. Two framed pictures of pirate ships interact as cannons shoot between the two and pirates jump from one ship to the other. Nearly two dozen pieces of enchanted art throughout the boat use face-recognition software to prevent delivering the same animation twice in a row. Even the adult-only spaces feature a little bit of Disney magic: the backdrop of the Skyline bar changes daily to reveal a different city view, transporting guests to Hong Kong, Paris, Chicago and New York. The ship's design, a mix of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, brings guests right back to the time of 1930s ocean liners.
And unlike at the park, where character greetings seem hidden, sporadic, and have incredibly long lines, on the Dream, kids have almost instant access to any number of their favourite characters who stroll the ship as though they are on vacation too.
So while Walt Disney World continues to cultivate its parks for the younger set, the Dream offers an option for travellers who may have outgrown the Magic Kingdom. Once the Dream graduates from Caribbean sailings, it could likely become a more attractive option for cruise-fans as well. And who knows, you just might find your inner child while sipping a piña colada on the lido deck.
How to sail
The Disney Dream (disneycruise.disney.go.com) sails three- and five-night itineraries to the Caribbean and Castaway Cay. Cruise fares vary greatly depending on the date of the cruise and the level of stateroom.
The least expensive accommodation on the Dream, the inside staterooms, fill up fast and are sold out through August. In September, an inside stateroom for a three-night cruise starts at $898 per double occupancy. Starting in April, staterooms with a veranda are available for $1,650 per double occupancy, for a three-night cruise.
Disney's fourth ship, the Disney Fantasy will launch in 2012.