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Day 1: Setting sail on the Disney Dream cruise ship

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Now aboard the Disney Dream, I’ve been busy the last few days, visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday and all four theme parks at Walt Disney World’s resort on Wednesday before embarking on a cruise Thursday afternoon aboard the new high-tech ship. (Yes, my feet are tired.)

I’ll be blogging over the next few days from the Dream, reviewing the ship in real time on a daily basis and offering my initial thoughts and reactions as my family -- my wife, Nancy, and 10-year-old daughter, Hannah -- travels on our first cruise,  Disney or otherwise. (And I’ll have more on Wizarding World and Disney World in the coming weeks.)

Full coverage: Read the Day 2 and Day 3 dispatches and view photos from the Disney Dream

The newest ship in Disney’s growing fleet has been taking passengers on three- and four-night cruises to the Bahamas for a few weeks now.

We glimpsed the Dream for the first time from the Magical Express bus, which whisked us in just under 75 minutes from our Disney World hotel to the Port Canaveral, Fla., terminal.

The 4,000-passenger Dream -- dressed in classic Mickey Mouse colors with a royal blue hull, red funnels and yellow life boats -- dwarfed a Carnival ship docked at a nearby berth. A 14-foot-long Sorcerer Mickey cast a spell on the ship's stern.

Our check-in at the terminal took less than half an hour, as we passed through Disney’s crowded but efficient terminal with relative ease.

As we stepped onboard, our family was introduced by name over a public address system while crew members applauded our arrival into a glittering gold -and wood-toned Art Deco-style lobby topped with a glistening crystal chandelier. “I feel like someone special,” Hannah said.

The entertainment started immediately with a 30-minute "Sailing Away" embarkation show on deck with singers, dancers and a dozen Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse, dressed in sailor blues. Set to energetic songs that you’d hear at a wedding reception or a pro hockey game, the live performance, backed by video clips on the “funnel vision” jumbo screen, played more like an infomercial for the ship than a send-off show.

Under slate-gray skies, gusty winds stiffened the red, blue and gold metallic streamers that crew members handed out to kids watching the show. The bands of rain that streaked across the Florida peninsula in the morning were threatening to return as we sailed out of port. Staffers turned the collars up on their heavy jackets while stubborn tourists stood poolside watching the performance in shorts and sandals, sipping pina coladas and insisting on vacation attire despite the weather.

Growing weary of the salesmanship about two-thirds of the way through the show, we headed down to Deck 8 to inspect our stateroom.

We'd managed to snare one of the most coveted rooms on the ship. It was not one of the royal suites (1,800 square feet) or the smaller concierge suites (600 square feet) or any of the 1,000-plus ocean-view staterooms (240 to 300 square feet).

After hours of searching online, we’d booked one of the veranda-less,  200-square-foot inside staterooms. The draw: a virtual porthole that combines a real-time live video feed of the ocean with a rotating cast of three dozen animated characters that splash up on the cleverly camouflaged LCD screen.

Disney says passengers have been refusing complimentary upgrades because they prefer the rooms with the 24-inch-wide, high-tech portholes, a first for the cruise industry. Of the 1,250 staterooms on the Dream, only 150 come with the popular portholes.

Our soundless yet soothing porthole looked aft, with seagulls trailing in our wake as the last glimpse of Florida coastline slipped out of view. Russell, the cherub scout from the “Up” movie, floated past our porthole clutching dozens of colorful balloons. A switch next to the bed allowed us to turn the virtual porthole on and off  but I wished for a similar switch that would pump in some sea air.

Being new to cruising, I knew the staterooms would be small, but the reality of three people trying to unpack in such a tiny space made me uncommonly claustrophobic. Thanks to the aforementioned Magical Express bus service, our bags were waiting for us in our room – a perk well worth the $35-per-person fee.

The Art Deco-style room, with a maritime-inspired motif, included a queen-size bed with 300-thread-count sheets (to Nancy's delight); a convertible sofa bed but no pull-down bunk as promised (to Hannah’s dismay); a desk big enough for a laptop; a diminutive 22-inch flat screen TV; an iPod dock; a mini-fridge; and enough closet space for the three of us to snugly stow our stuff. The raised bed made it easy to tuck luggage underneath.

The diminutive bathroom, which felt a bit bigger than an airplane lavatory, was equipped with a basketball-sized sink, a toilet, a shower with a tub barely big enough for 5-foot-tall Hannah and a hair dryer (the most essential room accessory, in Nancy's opinion). The 100% Egyptian cotton towels added a touch of luxury to the otherwise cramped quarters.

When we booked our three-night cruise, we selected the early dinner with a late show option, versus the flip-flop scenario. Disney employs a rotational dinner and theater system, with passengers cycling through three restaurants (with the same dinner companions and wait staff) and three shows during the cruise.

On the first night, we drew the Animator's Palate, a 700-seat restaurant designed like an artist's workshop, with paint-brush-shaped pillars and pencil sketches lining the walls.

After everyone sat down, the lights dimmed, the music swelled and bubbles filled the picture frames, transforming the restaurant in the round into a show floor starring the "Finding Nemo" characters.

Crush the sea turtle "swam" around the restaurant across 100 cleverly camouflaged LCD screens – the common denominator behind many of the technological innovations aboard the Dream. With the help of microphones concealed in table centerpieces and a team of technicians hidden backstage, Crush interacted with passengers by name during the real-time exchange before teaching everybody how to surf.

Families with kids populated nearly every table, with shrieks and cries emanating from the little ones throughout the nearly two-hour dinner service, resulting in an atmosphere closer to preschool daycare than high-end elegance.

Our dinner companions, from a small town in Tennessee, had been on a couple of cruises before, sans kids. They had decided to book this one on Super Bowl Sunday when they realized that an incoming snowstorm would knock their three kids out of school for the long weekend.

Before the cruise, I’d expected the Animator’s Palate to be the highlight of our trip, with the show outshining the dinner in the ship’s marquee dinner show. But to my surprise, few folks even watched the underwater scenes unfolding on the screens surrounding them and many were too embarrassed or disinterested to engage in conversation with Crush when he stopped by their table for a chat.

Even more surprising was the complete lack of “show” from Disney’s renowned  storytellers. For most of the dinner service, the screens served as little more than atmospheric, animated aquariums with the occasional sight gag floating past. The entire production was largely unintrusive until the finale, when the waiters forced everyone to participate in a Crush-led, dude-a-thon sing-a-long that quickly became annoying. The whole experience was a letdown for me.

As for the food, I found my beef tenderloin to be tasty though unmemorable compared to the surroundings. Nancy, who is a much more discerning diner, found the portion sizes, the taste of the risotto appetizer with the salmon main course and bustling though forgetful service to be underwhelming. Hannah thought our waiter, a lovable lunatic named Suleyman from Turkey, was hilarious and laughed at all of his jokes.

After dinner, we filtered into the 1,300-seat theater for the "Golden Mickeys," an award show-style revue celebrating the musical heritage of Disney animation.

The production quality settled somewhere between theme park and Broadway, leaning slightly toward the former, with some fun and colorful costumes, solid though rote performances and little in the way of sets and props.

Set pieces included scenes from “Snow White,” “Toy Story” and “Lion King,” with the highlights including rope acrobatics during “Tarzan,” martial arts during “Mulan” and some stunning ball gowns during “Beauty and the Beast.”

My favorite moment was the Cruella De Vil segment with Dalmatian dancers decked out in spotted sport coats and black bowler hats. The weakest scene included the unfamiliar music and characters from “Rapunzel.” The oddest moment occurred when bubbles began dropping from the ceiling during the “Little Mermaid” scene, leading many to momentarily fear that the roof was leaking – a very bad feeling on a ship.

Overall, the "Golden Mickeys" exactly met my somewhat lowered expectations, which is to say I had hoped for more but was suitably satisfied by the hour-long experience.

Well, that’s all for now.

Continue reading the Day 2 dispatch from aboard the Disney Dream.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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