Reporting from aboard the Disney Dream
With all things Disney, you come to expect family fun, fairy-tale fantasy and plenty of pixie dust.
But it's the technology behind Disney's trademark "magic" that seems to set its new Dream apart from other cruise ships. High-speed computers, LCD screens, motion sensors, fiber-optic lights and miles of snaking cables — much of it hidden, some in plain sight — are slavishly employed in support of Disney's core mission: storytelling.
Throughout the ship, technology helps tell the story — from the dinner show where an animated turtle chats with passengers to the interactive playroom where kids fly over a virtual London with Peter Pan to the virtual portholes that provide interior staterooms with ocean views.
As the theme park blogger for The Times, I approach Disney from, not surprisingly, a theme park perspective. I've been a Disneyland pass holder for more than a decade and have visited the Florida parks several times with my family — wife, Nancy, and 10-year-old daughter, Hannah. But we'd never been on a cruise, Disney or otherwise.
We found the ship's décor luxurious and the entertainment mostly top notch. The food and service were hit or miss, and at times, the pampering didn't live up to the top-dollar price tag. And the incessant sound of screaming kids made the Dream sometimes seem more like a Chuck E. Cheese than a glamorous cruise liner.
But the technology behind all of it? Nothing to fault there.
We glimpsed the 1,115-foot-long ship for the first time from the Magical Express bus, which whisked us in a little less than 75 minutes from our Walt Disney World hotel in Orlando to the Port Canaveral, Fla., terminal. From there, the Dream departs on three-, four- and five-night journeys to the Bahamas with stops in Nassau and at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.
The newest cruise ship in Disney's fleet was dressed in classic Mickey Mouse colors: royal blue hull and red funnels with yellow lifeboats. A 14-foot-long Sorcerer Mickey cast a spell on the ship's stern.
After a 30-minute "Sailing Away" embarkation show featuring singers, dancers and a dozen Disney characters on the upper deck that was equal parts entertainment and salesmanship, we descended to our stateroom — one of the most coveted on the ship. It wasn't one of the royal suites (1,800 square feet) or one of the concierge suites (600 square feet) or any of the 1,000-plus ocean-view staterooms (240 to 300 square feet), but one of the veranda-less 170-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 Disney characters that splash up on the cleverly camouflaged LCD screen.
They're so sought after, Disney says, that passengers have refused complimentary upgrades because they prefer the rooms with the 24-inch-wide high-tech portholes, a cruise industry first. Of the 1,250 staterooms on the Dream, 150 feature the popular portholes.
As a first-time cruiser, I knew the staterooms would be small, but the reality of three people trying to unpack in such a tiny space made me claustrophobic.
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 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.
As if on cue, Russell the cherub scout from the "Up" movie floated past our porthole clutching dozens of colorful balloons as we sailed out of port under skies that threatened rain.
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 the Dream's 4,000 passengers cycling through three restaurants (with the same dinner companions and wait staff) and three shows.
On the first night, we drew the Animator's Palate, a 700-seat restaurant designed to look 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 floor show 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 the centerpiece on every table and a team of technicians hidden backstage, Crush interacted with passengers by name during the real-time exchange.
At our table, Crush singled out Austin Gilmer, our 8-year-old dinner companion from Tennessee.
"Hey, little dude in the green striped shirt, what's your name?"
"So, did you go swimming today, Austin?" Crush asked, spinning with delight at Austin's answer. "Totally awesome, dude. I love to swim."
Months before the cruise, I'd gotten a sneak-peek at a mock-up of the ground-breaking Animator's Palate restaurant during a behind-the-scenes tour of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's creative arm in Glendale.
I'd expected the Animator's Palate to be the highlight of our trip, with the show outshining the dinner. But to my surprise, few folks 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 famed 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 production was largely unobtrusive until the finale when the waiters forced everyone to participate in a Crush-led singalong that quickly became annoying.
Every night after dinner we filtered into the ship's 1,300-seat theater for a stage show with Las Vegas production values.
Disney's strong cast of characters, deep catalog of songs and storytelling strengths were evident in several choreographed dance numbers. But what was most impressive was the technology used in the shows, including the motion-tracking infrared camera that blended the actors' actions with the digital background animation effects and the sprinkling of pixie dust around the stage's proscenium, courtesy of Tinker Bell and fiber-optic lighting.
The most hyped detail of the Disney Dream was the AquaDuck, the first water coaster aboard a cruise ship, which snaked above the top deck, through the forward funnel and even briefly over the side of the ship — turning the ship into a theme park at sea.
Powered by water jets, two-person rafts raced through clear acrylic tubes that descended four stories along the 765-foot-long route. We rode the high-tech water slide after a very brief tour of Nassau, preferring the panoramic views from the water slide of the island capital and neighboring cruise ships in the harbor to the typical port-of-call tourist traps and politely pushy vendors on shore. Hannah loved the AquaDuck so much she rode it seven times, and she was neither the only nor most frequent repeat customer.
Hannah spent much of her free time in the Oceaneer Lab. In fact, it was difficult to peel her away from the computer game-laden clubhouse for the X-Box and iPod crowd.
"Most kids today can figure out the games in five seconds," said Brittany Vanscoy, a 22-year-old Oceaneer Lab counselor from Hawaii. "The kids just take to the technology. The adults can't figure it out at all."
The supervised play area lets kids hang out together while parents enjoy the ship on their own. Kids can contact parents throughout the day by way of shipboard cellphones, while camp counselors constantly monitor the whereabouts of the kids by way of electronic bracelets worn throughout the cruise.
In the hands-on exploration-themed club, kids learned to cook, conducted sloppy science experiments, created hand-drawn animation, staged comedy shows and solved whodunit mysteries. If they felt like jelling, an endless loop of movies played on a 100-inch plasma TV.
The centerpiece of the Lab was the 15-foot-square interactive play floor, a giant video game that kids played with their feet. Up to 16 kids stomped on motion sensors around the perimeter to shoot targets or leap over a virtual jump rope projected on 28 interconnected LCD screens.
While Hannah hung out in the Oceaneer Lab, Nancy and I hit the District — an adults-only zone of dance clubs, piano lounges, champagne bars and British pubs.
We chose the more laid-back Skyline bar, where the "windows" were filled with ever-changing views of cityscapes around the world. Once again, the convincing illusion was achieved courtesy of cleverly disguised LCD screens.
The panoramas cycled through Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Chicago and Rio de Janeiro, stopping at each city for about 20 minutes. Traffic flowed along Paris streets. The Empire State Building poked above New York's skyline. In the evening, the daytime scenes transformed into glittering nightscapes.
On our second night at sea, we watched real fireworks paired with "Peter Pan" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" music on the upper deck. Rockets streaked across the night sky in a spectacular pyrotechnic duel that simulated battling pirate ships.
On the final day of our cruise, scattered showers and blustery winds forced the cancellation of most of the outdoor activities on Castaway Cay, Disney's private 1,000-acre island.
While Nancy luxuriated in the Dream's spa and Hannah watched "Gnomeo & Juliet" (which debuted simultaneously in theaters and the Dream's 400-seat movie theater), I roamed the halls searching for the enchanted art scattered throughout the ship.
Again employing disguised LCD screens (this time with ornate frames), Disney Imagineers created about two dozen artist sketches, travel posters and animation cels that came to life as passengers paused to examine the artwork. My favorite: a pair of side-by-side pirate portraits that engage in an animated frame-to-frame battle complete with cannon blasts and flaming sails.
The art also served as an interactive platform for a ship-wide treasure hunt during which passengers searched for clues to capture a villain in one of multiple story lines. To unlock hints, players used a virtual key with a bar code to activate a motion sensor hidden in the picture frame.
"It's fantastic, isn't it?" said Sharon Felsinger of Australia, watching her 10-year-old son, Caleb, use the key card to search for a clue in a painting. "The things they can do with computers."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times