On the good ship 'Disney Magic'

David Usborne admits that it wasn't only his children who enjoyed a cruise in cartoon world

AS PARENTS of young children living in the United States, my wife and I had always regarded Walt Disney World in Florida in much the same way as we had our local paediatric orthodontist. We had neither the desire nor the money to go there, but knew that we would have to one day. We bit the bullet last February, and, I can report without an iota of shame, we enjoyed our visit enormously. And by we, I mean all of us - children and grown-ups.

Last month, we decided to test our tolerance of Mickeymania to the very limit. In the summer, Disney inaugurated its first cruise ship. The company's goal was to syphon off at least some of the millions of holidaymakers who flock to the Orlando theme parks, and take them for half-week voyages around the Bahamas. How would it be to spend three days as captives of Mickey on a boat with nowhere to run? Could Disney win us over a second time?

While we flew to Orlando and jumped on a Disney bus for the hour-long ride to the port of Canaveral, a package tourist from Britain would have first spent a few days in Disneyworld itself. For a week-long holiday, you have the choice: three days at the parks and four on the boat or vice versa. The Orlando bit comes first because it is so exhausting - four different Disney parks to visit, and a zillion queues. The boat is a more calming experience. Or that is the idea.

One thing to know about Disney is that it is impeccably organised. And so it was that the cruiseline coach was waiting as promised at the airport, easily identifiable by its deco design - within minutes we were on our way. Television monitors helpfully previewed the many activities that awaited us on the boat, the Disney Magic. You quickly realise that "relaxing" is a relative term with Disney.

At Canaveral, just across the water from the Space Shuttle launch pad, Disney has built a brand new terminal, also with a deco theme. At the wharf is the Magic itself, the second largest cruise ship on the seas. Suspended from the ship's stern is a large model of Pluto armed with brushes and paint pots, as though he is giving the final touches to the ship's blue and gold livery. It is a typical example of Disney whimsy, but also a warning: the Disney characters are coming on this cruise with you.

It is at this point that some people may begin to balk. Make no mistake - Disney invented the term synergy. Every product is designed to reinforce the appeal of the others. Just as many of the park attractions are derived from Disney films (the new Buzz Lightyear ride in the Magic Kingdom comes highly recommended by our five-year-old), so does much that is on offer on the ship. The shows in the ship's enormous theatre are dazzling but dedicated to promoting the company's films and Broadway productions. Even the ship's horn doesn't just go toot-toot; it plays the first notes of When you wish upon a star. The toddler's pool is shaped like Mickey Mouse. And it isn't the ship's captain who welcomes us on board, but a 7ft Captain Hook. Surrender yourself to this brainwashing, however, and you will not be bothered by it. For children, it is just an extension of Disney bliss.

All that said, Disney has demonstrated a degree of restraint on the Magic. The Disney-movie music that is piped around the children's and family pools is silenced around the adults-only pool and deck area. Of the four restaurants on board, one, the Palo, is for grown-ups only and is surprisingly sophisticated. Only in one restaurant - Animators Palate - is the Disney theme allowed to run riot, but in a way that is brilliantly inventive.

And then there are the cabins. They call them "staterooms" to convey a sense of luxury and, indeed, they are splendidly comfortable and entirely tasteful. We couldn't find a single Disney logo in our room, with the exception of the toiletries. Best of all, a sliding door leads out on to a veranda, entirely blocked off from the neighbours.

The challenge is to tear yourself away from the Magic when it docks, first in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, and then, on day two, at Castaway Cay, a small Bahamas island that Disney purchased outright for its cruise passengers. Aside from eating, sleeping and reading on board, adults can be pampered at the Vista Spa, while for children there are clubs, best described as kiddy camps afloat.

This is where the Magic scores highest. Four clubs offer almost round- the-clock activities for different age groups, from toddlers to teenagers. Teens even have their own bar (non-alcoholic) where adults are banned. Our children hate anything that smacks of organised fun, but these clubs were more than just a hit - we could have signed them in from dawn until midnight daily.

Frankly, we could have skipped Nassau and spent two days at the island. True, its desert-island pretensions are appallingly hokey. But, again, you'll be fine if you go with the phoney flow. Take the snorkelling trail, for example. There was no real coral reef, so Disney dropped a series of "treasures" on the seabed for visitors to explore. My eight-year- old loved it.

Those who had done other cruises said that the food and general pampering were not quite up to the standards of other ships. But the Magic is above all a ship for families, not the retired. If you think the only reason to go on a Disney ship would be to chuck Mickey, Minnie and Pluto overboard, perhaps you should choose another cruise.


Getting there

Three days at Walt Disney World and a four-day cruise starts from pounds 1,189 per adult or pounds 3,567 for a family of four with Virgin Holidays (tel: 01293 617181), including return scheduled flights, transfers, room-only accommodation at Walt Disney World, en-suite accommodation on the cruise and all meals on board.

Further information

A 1999 Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Video is available free featuring the Disney Cruise Line (tel: 0990 00 00 03).

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