Disney cruise: Cast away with Mickey and friends
Last week, Disney launched its latest cruise ship with fireworks, flumes and a fairy godmother. Simon Usborne was dazzled by the spectacle
Saturday 29 January 2011
I have now seen sunburned couples in their sixties ride inflatable dinghies through a plastic tube. I have watched a bottle of champagne bigger than a house and dangled by helicopter break on the bow of a ship designed to sleep 5,000. I have eaten an average of 1.5 steaks a day. I have listened, while drunk, to a buttock-wobblingly loud ship's horn play "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio. And I have watched a man dressed as a dog pose for photographs on a beach in the Bahamas.
I'd never fancied cruising – which traditionally, they say, caters to the "well fed, the newly wed and the nearly dead". But times have changed on the high seas, as ever more sophisticated ships draw a new breed of passenger. Keen to open a porthole on this peculiar way to travel, I found myself on the christening cruise of a ship that sails in a fantasy world of its own.
The Disney Dream is a billion-dollar liner and the third to bear mouse ears on its bright red funnels. The entertainment giant dipped a toe into the increasingly competitive "megaship" cruise market with the launch of the Magic in 1998 and its sister, the Wonder, a year later. They made waves, helping to legitimise the cruise holiday – with Mickey as bait – in the eyes of parents and Disney fans who wouldn't have considered one before. But, to the relief of established names, Disney Cruise Line stuck with two ships. And in turn, others have been influenced by the Disney template. The world largest cruise ship – Royal Caribbean's 6,318-passenger Allure of the Seas – has a licensing deal with DreamWorks Animation, the maker of Madagascar, Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, characters from which roam the decks.
The friendly mouse is now back in a big way – the Dream towers over its forerunners and all but blocks the sun at Port Canaveral, 90 minutes' drive from the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. More than 2,000 guests wait to board, but not before we're treated to a dazzling christening ceremony that ends when the ship's fairy godmother, Jennifer Hudson, rises on to the stage. The American singer's voice had been confined to the Disney Wonder before she got her break on American Idol, and she went on to win an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls. Joining hands with Mickey, she waves her wand and the giant, airborne bottle – mercifully empty of champagne – breaks over the ship's gleaming hull.
Processed and sloshed on the real stuff after a drinks reception, I'm greeted on board by members of the 1,500-strong crew, who, following Disney tradition, breathlessly announce each passenger over loud speakers. "SIIIMON-welcome-aboard-the-Disney-Dreeeam!" This could be a long three days. The test for Mickey and his manically cheery crew will be to convince this twentysomething childless traveller (about as far from his target market as it's possible to aim) of the joys of a theme-park-on-sea. Our destination: Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas.
The vast atrium at the heart of the ship spans three decks and drips with brass and coloured glass, channelling a mock Art Deco style but with a sugary dash of Disney. Exposed elevators silently whisk passengers between 14 decks. My cabin, one of 1,250 that can sleep a total of 4,000 passengers (the thousand-plus crew are housed on the lower decks) is a "deluxe family oceanview stateroom with verandah". Were it full, it would be a squeeze: the sofa and a pull-down bunk take its capacity to five. But it's well designed and boasts a supremely comfortable queen-size bed, a bathroom with an actual bath, and a secluded balcony (the few windowless cabins bring the outside in through virtual portholes that carry a live video feed of the ocean).
The real action takes place high on decks 11 to 13, from which the sea looks flat even when it's choppy. This is a big boat, sharing roughly the dimensions of the Empire State Building if it were on its side. Its crowning feature is AquaDuck, billed – and you can believe it – as the "world's first watercoaster at sea". A flume of rushing water propels riders in dinghies through a Perspex tube that winds around the deck. It's a thrilling ride of the sort that makes you giggle throughout – mainly because you're sitting in a dinghy in a tube on a ship, but also because you – or I – experience it on three banana daiquiris.
Other attractions include a theatre for nightly shows of Broadway standard; half a dozen restaurants, including Animator's Palate, in which diners interact with a computer-generated turtle called Crush; a 3D cinema (Disney films only, of course); three swimming pools; a shopping mall; a spa and gym; Goofy (crazy) golf; a basketball court; nine bars; a nightclub called Evolution; and an "Arr-cade".
The ship is, of course, a dream for families. Children dart around like balls in a pinball machine. Their screams would be deafening if they weren't largely silenced in slack-jawed wonder. I was excited enough to visit Disney World with my family as a 12-year-old. Imagine going to Disney World aged six – on a boat.
The smallest passengers get a nursery and there are areas for kids and tweens. Teenagers aged 14-17 are perhaps best served, having exclusive access to Vibe. A supervised club-cum-coffee shop that the set designers of Big Brother would be proud of, it's full of nooks and gadgets and has its own deck with a pool at the ship's bow.
That isn't to say grown-ups are treated as steerage. A vast adults' deck overlooks its own pool and bar with stools from which you can dangle your feet in the water. Two posh restaurants, Remy and Palo, offer menus designed by a Michelin-starred chef (for a small surcharge) and a bottle of 1947 Château Cheval Blanc (for £15,000). The District, which boasts interconnected bars, provides grown-up escape either side of dinner.
After a night at the bar and a sleep of the quality that could only be achieved at sea, I pad out on to my balcony to find a view of a desert island. Castaway Cay, the story goes, was once used by drug smugglers. Their asphalt landing strip was then developed by Disney for its cruise passengers to include beaches of combed and sifted sand. The tiny island, which lies 50 miles north of Nassau, the Bahamian capital, is best enjoyed by adults from Serenity Bay, a beach with hammocks and turquoise shallows reached by hire bike or tram. Away from squawking children and Goofy, who wears a Hawaiian shirt and must be sweating slightly, I climb off my sun lounger only twice: to stuff my face with barbecued chicken and for a bit of snorkelling.
Back on board, pink and totally relaxed, I eat some more. And I am served. I'm served four courses at dinner on table 95, where I am seated with a retired couple from Boston. I'm served drinks; served by my stateroom attendant, who uses origami to turn my towel into a dog; and by dozens of crew, or "cast members", as Disney employees are known, whose smiles are as brilliant as the surfaces they polish.
If no nation does service better than the US, no company does it showing more teeth than Disney. And no place is suited to that level of attention – and attention to detail – than a cruise liner. It could be stifling. I felt it at Walt Disney World in Orlando, where I spent two days before the cruise. During breakfast in a Disney hotel, a procession of Disney characters greeted me at my table. Except a tall man in a Winnie the Pooh suit can't talk, so what do you do when he's standing there and you're trying to eat your streaky bacon and eggs?
A ship ought to be more claustrophobic. Often surrounded by cartoon imagery, you begin to hum Disney tunes – you will for days afterwards – and wonder what's real and what isn't. Thankfully, the Dream's designers have realised that not everybody wants to be immersed in the mythology all the time. Barely noticeable mouse ears on my shower curtain and the dog towel are the only clues as to my host in the cabin – and the adult areas are mercifully free of rodents.
With the option to avoid Mickey and Co – and the children who worship him – the all-inclusive, service-with-a-smile cruising experience becomes rather seductive. Perhaps it's the drink, or the barely perceptible pitching and rolling of the ship, but I'm beginning to be lulled into a goofy stupor, or a Disney dream. And I think I kind of like it. If holidays should offer an escape from reality, they don't come further removed – or more surreal on occasion – than a Mickey Mouse cruise. Above all, it's fun. Get me some kids one day and I might just come back.
* Virgin Holidays Cruises (0871 781 9893; virginholidayscruises. co.uk) offers an 11-night Disney Dream Stay & Cruise from £1,249 per person, including seven nights' at Disney's Pop Century Resort at Walt Disney World, Orlando, and a four-night full-board Caribbean cruise from Port Canaveral, including stops at Castaway Cay and Nassau, with return flights from Gatwick.
* Seven-night Mediterranean cruises starting and ending at Barcelona aboard Disney Magic are available this summer. Prices start at £999 per person including flights from London.
* Disney Cruise Line: disneycruise.disney.go.com
* Walt Disney World Resort: disneyworld.disney.go.com
* Visit Florida: visitflorida.com
* Visitors to the United States are required to fill out an online Esta form prior to departure, costing £10 (esta.cbp.dhs.gov).
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