We took a cruise with 912 children, 911 of whom were not ours. For people who don't like other people's kids in quantities usually encountered at theme parks, or who believe that cruise ships are floating tubs of gluttony and indolence, this must all sound like a nightmare.
There was a moment when the poolside noise level was enough to make Davy Jones swim up to the surface and tell us to hold it down, but Davy Jones was actually at the party. At least everyone went quiet when the ship launched the fireworks. Yes, fireworks.
One cruise line has the right to blow stuff up at night: Disney.
It was a Disney cruise, and it was magical! The ship was called the Magic, too! Everything was Magical()!, since every Disney's utterance apparently must use the word "magic," as in "have a magical day," "have a magical vacation," "have a magical hamburger," and so on.
The relentless cheerfulness, the stable of licensed characters and the two-handed milking of every frame of every Disney movie might make you think the ships are gaudy monstrosities in primary colors -- fun for kids, but a cartoon hell for an Adult of Discernment.
I'll say this: Pity the people who feel they have to have kids to take a Disney cruise. Sure, you'd feel left out if you didn't. But the Magic is one of the finest, most elegant ships I've ever been on, and from the moment you step aboard and your family's name is announced to cheers from the crew, to the moment you shuffle off to find your luggage in the Purple Minnie section, it's ... well. You know. That word.
The appeal is for families who don't want to get lost, it seems. Disney vacations are hermetically sealed experiences. That can be a plus. When we arrived in Barcelona, fuzzy-headed and mute with jet lag, I found myself sitting in the baggage area, wondering what the devil we were supposed to do next. Strange country, don't know the customs, where's the port; then I spied three people wearing enormous Mickey Mouse hands. They gently guided us to plush buses, and the minute we pulled out, the Disney welcome video played, just as it does in the United States. Same narrator. Same movie. It could have been Fort Lauderdale, really.
But it wasn't. Obviously. If that town is gaudy, Barcelona is, well, Gaudi, and the tour guide points out all the interesting architecture and historical notes. We took a tour of the town while the crew frantically vacuumed and polished and restocked tons of provisions (the ships dock in the morn, disgorge their sun-kissed multitudes, reload in the afternoon and steam back out).
Eventually we were dropped at the cavernous boarding hall with its echoing shrieks of giddy kids and faint perfume of salt and mildew, waiting for our number to be called. This was the worst part, but we knew it would all change the moment we started up the gangplank, entered the ship and -- well, you know. That word.
A few hours later the ship's whistles blew the first few notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star," and we were off. Here are some back-of-the-envelope notes on the ship and its pleasures, if you're considering a Disney cruise. (Shorter version: Go.)
The ship itself
The Magic is 964 feet long, and it holds 2,400 passengers, and apparently 94,297 crew, 14 of which materialize instantly if your child drops her ice cream. It has a sister ship, the Wonder, and a new ship, the Dream, was launched this year that is 40 percent bigger and, presumably, 40 percent more magical. Its twin, the Fantasy, is under construction, recession be damned.
The Disney experience means different things at different ages: The tots want Mickey and Goofy, the older kids like the characters but know there's someone in the costume; the tweens and teens want their own faves from the Disney TV shows. The adults just want a drink. So the top deck has three portions: a pool for the water-wings set with a big slide cradled in an enormous Hand of Mickey. In the middle, a pool for all with a stage and a Jumbotron-scale video screen. Near the bow -- that's the pointy part of the ship for you lubbers -- there's a pool for grown-ups only, as well as a civilized bar from which non-adults are banned. There are children's clubs for each demographic, and you can leave your kid while you go ashore if you don't want to push a stroller around Naples.
Your first impression is enormity, but Disney's skill at making everything a theater set makes almost every space feel intimate.
You're surprised how sparing they are with the characters. Aside from the statue of Mickey in the grand lobby, you can walk around most of the main deck without seeing a single character, except for the occasional piece of framed art, and more often than not it's a drawing from a 1934 Silly Symphony.
No characters in the rooms, either. Speaking of which: Comfortable beds, flat-screen TVs (with Disney movies! knock me over with a feather) and split baths, shower in one room and commode in the other. Any family that's tried to get ready in half an hour using one bathroom will realize that this is the greatest innovation in maritime history
I've had better on cruises; I've had worse. The obligatory morning buffet turns out exactly what you expect: mounds of industrial eggs, waffles in the shape of Mickey Mouse, and that cruise-ship specialty, a huge tray of overcooked bacon.
The poolside food is the usual unspeakable fare, but it's nice to know there's a place that has pizza at midnight. The evening meals are fine, but anyone who's taken a cruise longer than three days knows that you begin to tire of so much good food, course after course.
The main dining rooms are the Lumiere, which the kids would call "fancy," the Caribbean-themed Parrot Cay, and the black-and-white Animator's Palate. Here's the innovation: You rotate among the three, and the same wait staff follows you around. You get to know your server, and they know you.
There's more: You have the same family at your table all week long. This is brilliant. If it works. If you're stuck with people you don't like, I suppose it makes the meal a challenge. We got along famously with our table mates, and after a few conversations I wondered if some sort of Disney remote mind-reading technology had paired everyone up. So, you're interested in computers, retro gaming, '80s rock, animation and 17th-century Italian pistols? Well, how about that. We became good friends with the family, in that shipboard sense where you bond tight, bid sad farewells, vow to get together soon and never see them again.
The shows are elaborate, highly professional, filled with music and special effects, hosted in a vast theater -- and I didn't see one of them. (After dinner I like to take long walks around the deck. Wife and child pronounced them Awesome.) Smaller venues have acts best seen close-up; wander into one cabaret, and there's a fellow doing an elaborate routine with bubbles and smoke. Most ships have a movie theater, but the Magic's Buena Vista is the size of a mall theater, and it's all 3-D.
The aforementioned loud party with Davy Jones was the conclusion of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" day. It took over the entire top deck, and included an enormous Wii-style motion-controlled game in which kids on the stage manipulated "Pirates" characters on the immense display above. Then, as noted, fireworks. That was as loud as it got. Walk by the pool at midnight the next night, and you'd see six or seven people floating in the water, watching "Wall-E." If you know the movie, the sight of people on a cruise ship floating in chairs with enormous soft drinks, watching a movie about people on a cruise ship floating in chairs with enormous soft drinks, is a reminder that nearly everything about the company repels irony like a Scotchgard fabric sheds water.
You don't have to leave the ship; some people just like to sit in the sun, look over the railing, think, "Now I've been to Italy," and leave it at that. If you want to get off, there are a variety of options, from a simple ride to the beach to budget-punishing all-day trips to see the sights. Disney contracts with the tour companies, so you're always following around a guide who has a sign shaped like the head of Mickey Mouse. Hoisted over the ruins of Pompeii, such a sight is something that would have confounded the original inhabitants: What conquering people march beneath the standard of a rodent?
You can, of course, walk off the ship and go where you want. No one wearing enormous white Mickey Gloves will run after you shouting, "You're stepping outside the parameters of the manicured experience! We cannot be responsible if things are incrementally less magical!"
The trip to Pompeii didn't need a guide, really, and the tour operators had conspired with a local merchant to force everyone to tour a cameo factory. You go for ancient tragic ruins, and you're standing in a store watching a DVD about an old man carving a shell. OK. Fine. Everyone has to make a living. In general, the excursions were first-rate. You want to walk until your shins shriek, there's that. Better than sitting in your room.
Spas, a gym, shuffleboard and basketball courts, yes -- but you can get these on any ship. This is a chance to marinate in Disney, if you wish.
The highlight was the nightly trivia and karaoke in Studio Sea, a movie-themed club that hosted events like "Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer?" or other game-show knockoffs. Every night we tried to get chosen. Every night we were passed over -- until the last, when we donned Goofy hats and took our place behind the podium to compete with three other teams. Most of the questions dealt with later Disney, and my area of expertise, such as it is, would be the earlier stuff. But they're not going to ask a 4-year-old, "Who took away the rights for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, forcing Walt Disney to come up with a new character?" More like "Complete the word: Poc - a - han ..."
We won. Prize: a plastic trophy, now sitting on my daughter's shelf with a few gewgaws from Europe.
When they get to be 11, they don't want to have their pictures taken with Cinderella; that's baby stuff. She rolled her eyes at the last-night mob when all the little girls came out in princess costumes, and the halls were thronged with crew members in costumes from Chip 'n' Dale to Captain Hook. You can call it corporate branding at its finest, a carefully managed event designed to push the product, sure. Then you see a young girl with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair, wearing her own little tiara, getting a hug from Snow White, and any cynicism left after a magic-saturated week falls away.
Like I said, my kid didn't want any of that. But a picture in front of the statue of Mickey? Sure! Grin. Click.
Christmas card: done.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858