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Disney cruises: Hijinks on the high seas

Disney cruises try hard to appeal to all ages, but at heart they still rely on theme park magic

It is not long after my daughter and I have boarded the Disney Wonder at Port Canaveral in Florida – a moment made memorable, or possibly excruciating, by the white-jacket stewards announcing us to the entire vessel – that I realise I have made my first tactical error.

No, it is not that I had chosen Disney over any of the other cruise lines that ply the Caribbean. If you really are one of those people who develop hives at the mere mention of Mickey Mouse then abandoning yourself to the perky rodent and his friends on the high seas would be a poor idea indeed.

It is my good mood that gets me into trouble. In truth, I have done a Disney cruise not once but twice before, both when the line was in its infancy 10 years ago with the Wonder and its sister ship, the Disney Magic. That is still the entirety of their fleet today, but Disney will soon welcome another pair of considerably bigger ships, the first of which, the Disney Dream, is due to enter service a year from now.

I was a cruising newbie 10 years ago (and a sceptical one) but have since gone afloat with the competition a few times, notably with Royal Caribbean. The Wonder still seems in excellent fettle. Our cabin, high on Deck 7, surprised me with its little flat-screen TV, generous veranda and two bathrooms, one of which actually had a tub. Easily pleased, I know.

That is when I agree that Polly should have the large double bed. This would be her payback for the time we shared a hotel room in New York and I forced her to sleep on the horrid hard couch. Our cabin on the Wonder had a similarly narrow but better-upholstered convertible sofa. A curtain offered to separate her area from mine and at night I would leave the sliding door open a crack to hear the dolphins dive in my dreams.

Then it got better. Winston, our corridor steward, appeared at the right moment to point to the cabin's ceiling, where yet another bed (each cabin – or stateroom – can accommodate a family of four) pops out with the aid of his special key. How cosy. I had visions of Cary Grant in his sleeper train in North By Northwest and instantly agreed that that would be my berth for the duration of our voyage. Fool.

Once you offer something to your child, even if they think themselves adult at 16, it is not easy to take it back. Polly travelled in some luxury on the Wonder. I, however, discovered the discomfort of being wedged against the faintly vibrating ceiling panels of a cruise ship, with only a very narrow and steep ladder connecting me to the carpet. Nor had I grasped that opening the balcony door was out of the question, too, as the air outside was too hot.

You pay rather a lot of money for a private balcony on a cruise ship. They are nice, of course. The stateroom that I and my partner once took on Royal Caribbean was down by the keel somewhere and didn't even have a window; it was quickly dubbed the "Coffin Bar" by our travelling mates (we had smuggled booze on board to alleviate the shame of our steerage status). Yet Polly and I barely used the balcony.

It may be different if your itinerary is for a week or longer, but ours was a three-day excursion and we had things to do. Dawdling on the veranda wasn't a priority. There was my adult pool to escape to, complete with fancy teak furniture and nearby adults-only coffee shop and bar. And, to my slight surprise, Polly was very quick to abandon me for the teens-only club room lodged inside the ship's second (faux) funnel.

A battle of ages defines a Disney cruise. The company knew before it entered the business that while the ships would have a special appeal for families and children, they would have to offer adults some shelter from their and other people's offspring, and from the Disney products that inevitably populate the ships, including the occasional wandering character (Stitch was the most ubiquitous on our voyage).

Thus, there are three pools, including a boisterous Mickey-shaped kiddy one, which I gamely suffered with Polly 10 years back. At mid-ships, you find the family pool, which is covered at night for deck parties and over which looms a jumbo-screen used to advertise shore excursions or other distractions or to show a movie (Disney-made, of course). Then towards the bow is the adult pool, which is much the nicest and leads into the indoor gym and spa areas. Again, the spa is intended for those who are 18 or over.

The segregation continues even ashore at Castaway Cay, an entire island complete with an abandoned airstrip once used by drugs smugglers and now leased by Disney from the Bahamian government. Any Caribbean itinerary with Disney will include Castaway. The ship used in the filming of Pirates Of The Caribbean sits in its main bay. You can take bicycle rides, paddle with and feed stingrays, parasail and jet-ski – and the snorkelling is about as good as you will find anywhere in this part of the world even if you are not fooled by a surprising preponderance of wrecks off Castaway, such as old aircraft and sunken fishing boats teeming with fish.

There is the occasional submarine statue of Mickey down there too – Disney is good at fake (though the fish are real). Around the point from the main beach with all its hubbub is another long stretch of bright white sand for grown-ups, complete with spa-treatment tents. There's a teen beach also.

A system like this will always disgruntle a few. There are onboard clubs for young children and pre-teens: parents carry buzzers that go off if they are suddenly needed. Aloft is the club for teens, who are the most irritated by the adults-only facilities. These include Palo, a restaurant that – for an additional $15 a person – offers a much fancier menu than those of the ship's three main dining options. Especially good is the champagne brunch in Palo on days when the ship is not visiting a port. But teenagers take note: the Disney Dream will not just have a teen club but also a teens-only pool and deck area close to the prow of the boat. Moreover, it will be accessible by swipe-card only, which will keep pesky parents out.

Even more crucial is the balance Disney tries to strike between its ships being a throw-back to old-style liners (indeed they do have a feel of 1930s elegance that most other cruise lines could only envy) and an over-sugared theme-park that just happens to be floating. Generally, it is successful. I was not forced into a single conversation with Pluto before or after my morning coffee. And the Mickey ears insignia may be everywhere but are surprisingly discreet.

It did gall that all the night-time theatre entertainment, though of a standard far above anything I have seen on other cruise ships, was drawn exclusively from Disney musicals and films. That's hardly surprising – Norwegian Cruise Line does not make films and MSC does not produce musicals – but four nights of Disney fables is enough for me, however well produced.

Americans grew up with Disney in a way that Europeans don't altogether grasp. It is ingrained in their culture. Yet getting British families to visit Mickey at Walt Disney World in Florida has never been especially difficult, and with two new ships on their way and itineraries for 2010 that include sailings from Dover to the Baltic, there aren't too many reasons why they should not sail with him too.

Still, I probably wouldn't recommend a Disney cruise to anyone without children, however many adults-only areas there may be – unless, of course, they were one of those Disney nuts who can name every shrimp in Finding Nemo and every puppy in 101 Dalmatians.

Fit for a princess: Disney Wonder

By Polly Usborne

I was anticipating my holiday as much as anyone at a boarding school would do. But when my dad suggested going on the Disney Wonder, my excitement started to vanish. My initial thought was, "how lame". He reminded me that I had been on the Mickey-infested cruise ship before, but quickly remembered I had been aged six. I couldn't bring myself to brush off a cruise to the Bahamas however, so 10 years later I ventured onboard once again. The moment I stepped on to the ship and "When You Wish Upon A Star" played I knew I had made the right choice: it was the best holiday I've had in years.

True, there were quite a few things which disappointed me: children's activities onboard are really impressive, but they are not for a 16-year-old girl. I would have preferred to have gone to the spa or the quieter pool, but these were for 18 and over. Saying that, they do sneak in a teen-only club for ages 13 to 18 in the unused funnel, which I admit I spent most of my time onboard at, away from my dad. I ended up meeting some really nice characters (not including Goofy and Donald Duck).

The atmosphere on board sweeps you off your feet, and anyone – no matter what age – will find themselves lining up to take pictures with the princesses, and watching some of the incredible theatre productions shown each night. The ship was pristine and the food was outstanding, along with the restaurants they were served in.

My dad and I had a wicked time off the boat as well. The list of activities available to us were endless, but we opted for the not-so-courageous options. I was impressed to see myself plummet down some of the slides in Atlantis Aquaventure in Nassau, but swimming with sting rays was my limit. The gorgeous weather encouraged me to have fun, and a quality bike ride around Castaway Key was fab. Disney Wonder really is a wonder, even if you are a 16-year-old girl.

Travel essentials: Disney Cruise Line

Getting there

* Virgin Holidays Cruises (0871 781 9893; virginholidayscruises.co.uk ) offers a 14-night "Disney Stay and Cruise", with seven nights at Disney's All Star Resort in Orlando and a seven-night cruise on Disney Magic to Key West (Florida), Cozumel (Mexico), Grand Cayman, Castaway Cay (Bahamas) and Port Canaveral (Florida) costing from £1,499 per person. The price includes flights from Gatwick, transfers and full board on the cruise and is based on a 4 December departure. A 10-night Disney Mediterranean Cruise starts at £1,499 per person (under-17s sail free). The price includes full board in an inside cabin and transfers, based on a 5 May departure. The cruise departs from Barcelona and calls at Malta, Tunisia, Italy, Corsica and France. Travel to and from Barcelona is not included.

More information

* Disney Cruise Line: disneycruise.disney.go.com

Walt Disney World Resort: disneyworld.disney.go.com