It's been 10 years since Disney started its cruises with the Disney Magic ship, followed in 1999 by Disney Wonder. Two more Disney ships will launch in 2011 and 2012. And while you won't find casinos on any Disney ships, you will find plenty of other facilities and diversions on board for every age group — including grown-ups. That, along with the appeal of the Disney brand, has ensured the cruise line's success.
"I don't think it's fair to say that Disney invented family cruising, because a lot of cruise lines made efforts to attract families to their ships starting in the '90s, but I do think it's fair to say that Disney reinvigorated the idea of family cruising," said Douglas Stallings, who edits Fodor's cruise guides. "Disney proved there is a large market for family cruises. They inspired other large cruise lines."
Christine Koubek, who reviewed the Wonder for the Web site CruiseCritic.com, said that "what Disney Cruise Line does best is prove that 'elegant' and 'family friendly' don't have to be mutually exclusive. Disney is a great choice for families that want excellent supervised children's programs as well as activities they can enjoy together."
My children, my wife Mary Lou and I cruised last year on the Wonder. It was memorable and fun for all of us. I couldn't tear Isabelle, 9, away from her science experiments in the Oceaneer Lab. Her masterpiece was a green glob that resembled something from the Disney movie "Flubber." Vinny, 16, spent all of his time in the Aloft nightclub, which is just for teenagers. After the club closed at 1 a.m., the fun didn't stop. Vinny and other teenagers hung around shooting hoops under the lights.
For adults, Disney ships offer nightclubs, classes, fitness centers, an adult-only restaurant called Palo, and wine, beer and martini tastings. While the kids played, my wife and I relaxed on our stateroom terrace with some wine and cheese. We also attended a Disney Vacation Club cocktail party (we are DVC timeshare members) and Mary Lou browsed the shops for souvenirs.
The Wonder stops at Disney's private island, called Castaway Cay, on its Bahamian cruises. Here too there is something for everyone — including a teen-only beach, an adults-only beach and a family beach. Vinny and his friends signed up for a couple of teen-only excursions with Disney counselors and headed out for snorkeling, kayaking, banana boat rides, a barbecue lunch and bicycling around the island, while the rest of us snorkeled, lunched and swam with stingrays elsewhere on the island. Castaway Cay also has Scuttles Cove, where kids, supervised by counselors, dig for whalebones, make beach musical instruments and play water relay games.
We returned to the ship for a pirate-themed dinner and deck party, which culminated with a spectacular fireworks show, launched from the stern of the ship. We then saw "Pirates of the Caribbean" on a giant movie screen that was attached to one of the ship's smokestacks on the top deck. The screen displayed a pirate flag for the remainder of the evening.
For families with young children, Disney's nurseries, Flounder's Reef, take infants as young as 12 weeks old and toddlers up to 3. Some cruise lines keep parents on call to change diapers, but the Flounder's Reef staff takes care of that for you. Disney's Magic and Wonder also have pools with separation filtration systems that allow diapered toddlers to swim. And each stateroom has a bathroom with a bathtub — also relatively uncommon on non-luxury cruise ships. No wonder a survey conducted by BudgetTravelOnline.com rated Disney Cruise Line No. 1 for infants and toddlers, and children 3-7. (It was ranked No. 3 among cruises for kids 8-11, and No. 5 for 12-to-17-year-olds.)
There are also scheduled opportunities onboard to meet characters like Mickey and Cinderella, and to attend character breakfasts like the ones that are so popular in Disney parks.
Other programs for different age groups include the Oceaneer Club for kids 3 to 7, a playroom designed like Captain Hook's ship, filled with soft, climbable sculptures. Also featured are puppet shows, storytelling and singalongs. Children must be signed in and out by their parents, and they do need to be toilet-trained for this program.
The Oceaneer Lab (ages 8 to 12) is an interactive playroom with a giant video wall, music-listening rooms, and flat-screen computers with software. Activities include making TV shows and radio commercials, brainteasers and scientific creations. On Disney Magic, kids also can "take command" of the ship in Ocean Quest, a scaled replica of the bridge. Kids can sign in and out at their parents' discretion. Parents are provided with a pager when dropping off children 12 and under at any of the centers.
On Disney Magic, teenagers hang out at the Stack, a teen-only lounge area with a dance floor, Internet cafe, big-screen plasma TV and video games.
The ships also offer full-fledged musicals in onboard theaters. This year, a new musical of "Toy Story" will premiere on the Wonder. Disney Cruise spokesman Jason Lasecki says the company plans to keep the show exclusively for its cruise passengers.
If you're considering cruising with Disney, here are some tips for getting the most from your trip.
- Book early. This allows you to secure the best staterooms and bargains for the peak travel seasons (spring break, summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas). Disney cruises often sell out well in advance.
- The best bargain months to cruise are January, the early part of February and end of August, September, October and non-holiday weeks of November and December.
- If you have a particular itinerary in mind, book at least 90 days in advance for the best cabin availability and rates. If itinerary isn't important, check cruises that are departing within 30 days to land the best last-minute discounts.
- Itineraries vary. Disney Wonder sails from Port Canaveral, Florida, on three- and four-night Bahamian cruises with stops in Nassau and Castaway Cay. The Magic will alternate, departing from Canaveral to St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Castaway Cay on Eastern Caribbean itineraries, and from Canaveral to Key West, Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Castaway Cay on Western Caribbean itineraries. Beginning in May, the Magic will have 12 seven-night sailings departing from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera with port calls in Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, and two repositioning 15-night cruises through the Panama Canal as the boat travels between Florida and California.
- Rates for the Wonder start at $349 a person for three-night cruises, $399 for four nights, while the Magic starts at $649 for seven nights, and can run nearly $2,500 a person for seven-day itineraries in the best rooms on peak holiday weeks. But there are various ways to save money.
Disney Vacation Club members can use points toward cruise travel and discounts—visit online.
Disney Visa cardholders can use points toward cruises and get a $50 (euro34) shipboard credit. Some cruise dates have additional discounts for cardholders. Go to DisneyRewards.com.
Automobile Club members can save money on cruises at AAA.com/Disney.
To compare rates and dates, check out CruisesOnly.com or Cruise.com. To check air and sea fares, go to bookingbuddy.com and click on several different logos like Expedia.com, Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com and Priceline.com.