It's a Kids' Ship, After All

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like many parents, my wife, Betsy, and I have found that family vacations fall roughly into two categories: a stimulating trip for us accompanied by grumbling children, or a fun time for the kids that leaves us exhausted and dreaming of home.

Disney's new cruise ship, the Disney Magic, seemed the perfect compromise. Here, I thought, we could find a stress-free vacation for the kids, for the adults--for the family.

Unfortunately, that view wasn't shared by my wife, who is ordinarily among the most adventurous of travelers. Neither of us had ever taken a cruise, and the very idea struck Betsy as vacation torture. Stuck on a boat? With "Under the Sea" playing around the clock?

The ship certainly seemed to offer plenty of stuff to do: three pools, four restaurants, a cafeteria, an ESPN Skybox, four nightclubs, musicals and movies. In addition, both the three-night and four-night cruises out of Florida featured daylong stops in Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney's own private island. (The longer sailing adds a day at sea.)

But the prospect of being cooped up with 2,000 people on a ship--even an 85,000-ton one powered by five 16-cylinder diesel engines and Disney's finest pixie dust--sounded like jail.

My curiosity eventually prevailed, though, and we booked a three-night cruise. (Betsy's influence on our children is such that they continued to refer to our upcoming vacation as the "SDC," or Stupid Disney Cruise.)

So on a recent muggy Friday morning, we headed out of Orlando airport on a bus. In just under an hour, we arrived at Port Canaveral and got our first glimpse of the Disney Magic--waiting for us and its ninth Caribbean voyage.

The ship is a truly magnificent sight. It bears an unsettling resemblance to the Titanic, and that's no accident. The design recalls the era of grand old ocean liners, with two large red smokestacks (only one is used for exhaust), a long and narrow black hull and large round portholes.

Then there are the Disney touches: the giant Mickey Mouse symbol on the smokestacks; a 20-foot-tall statue of Goofy hanging off the aft deck, seeming to paint the finishing touches on the gold trim; and a grand horn that announces departures and arrivals with blasts of the first seven notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star." There's no mistaking this for the Queen Elizabeth 2.

Some have suggested that it was Disney's famous attention to detail that contributed to delays in building the $350-million ship in Trieste, Italy. Among other things, Disney insisted that the lifeboats, which international maritime law dictates be orange, instead be painted gold--to match the ship's color scheme. Disney won an exemption; the boats are gold.

The maiden voyage was twice postponed, in what the Wall Street Journal called "one of the most-delayed cruise-ship projects in modern times." It finally set sail on July 30.

We arrived at Disney's cavernous port terminal at midday. Hearing the hall filled with Disney tunes, I worried about what we were getting ourselves into. It's been several years since I last visited a Disney theme park, but I still catch myself humming the dreaded "It's a Small World."

I checked in while Betsy, Kate, 9, and Kevin, 7, posed for photographs with Disney characters who roamed the terminal. Then the kids parked themselves in front of large television sets playing (what else?) Disney cartoons.

We boarded shortly after noon, stepping into the ship's three-story atrium lobby, with its sweeping staircase anchored by a made-for-photographing statue of Mickey at a ship's wheel. The ship's interior, from stem to stern, is tasteful and luxurious, with fine carpeting and teak trim, and the walls are covered with framed artists' sketches of scenes and characters from Disney features, dating back to Walt Disney's first cartoons.

Our midship stateroom had a queen bed and a sitting area with a sofa/twin bed and a second twin that dropped from the ceiling to create bunk beds. Disney says 73% of its staterooms have outside views, and well over half of those have private verandas, as did ours.

We booked the fifth priciest out of 12 cabin categories, paying $2,178 (including air fare). But that was half the going rate because Disney slashed prices for the many passengers who, like us, had been bumped twice by ship construction delays. (No one at Disney knew we were aboard to write about the cruise for this newspaper, which paid our expenses.)

Although Disney says its staterooms are 30% larger than the industry average, at 268 square feet ours still seemed small for four people. But it did have two separate bathroom spaces, one with a toilet and sink and the other with a bath/shower and sink--a smart idea for families. And it was handsomely decorated with a framed bar of music from the film "Pete's Dragon" ("I'll be your can-dle on the wa-ter . . .") and a 1934 photograph of Walt Disney and his wife (and Mickey) aboard a cruise ship.

In the stateroom we found an 18-page "Personal Navigator." It listed shopping, entertainment and restaurant options, along with an hour-by-hour breakdown of children's activities. Mastering this document ate up a couple of precious hours over the first two days. I sure wished I had had it during the flight to Orlando, or even during the bus ride over.

But the navigator was the key to answering our most important questions: Would the kids have fun? Would we have fun with the kids? Would we have fun without the kids?

A clue to the answer came from the public address system, which began its announcements with the words: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls!" Including children in the ship-wide greeting had to be a good omen. Heartened, we headed for the storied centerpiece of the Disney Magic kids' programs--the Oceaneer Club, for ages 3 to 8, and the Oceaneer Lab, for ages 9 to 12.

Kate and Kevin fell instantly in love with their respective clubs. Each received a bar-coded wristband, and we were issued a pager so that the counselors could contact us.

"This," Kate declared, "is a cool ship."

Looking at the hours of operation, from 8:30 a.m. until midnight (and 1 a.m. one night), I was inclined to agree.

Of the 2,100 passengers on board (capacity is 2,400), about 600 were children. Despite those numbers, the counselors kept track of everyone with rosters alphabetized by first names, which I thought was a nice touch. And, in fact, the clubs were rarely overcrowded, and the counselors always seemed to be in control.

Over the next few days, Kate frequently visited the Lab (filled with computers, crafts materials and a real laboratory for science experiments) and participated in activities that took her all over the ship. She helped produce sound effects for an onboard radio studio and played a part in a TV commercial produced by kids. At his Club (which had a computer room, dress-up area, stage and big-screen TV), Kevin learned how to draw cartoon characters, played computer games and had a visit from a pirate who told adventure stories.

At our first port of call, when we tried to interest the kids in a tour of Nassau, Kate moaned: "I don't want to see a bunch of old buildings."

"Ah, come on," we pleaded. "It'll just take 10 minutes."

"No," Kevin replied firmly. "I want to go to my club."

So we walked and the kids played.

Later, at sea, Betsy and I discovered another bright side to being confined to a cruise ship--it gave us the peace of mind to let our kids roam beyond our sight. While we sipped strawberry daiquiris on deck, Kate and Kevin luxuriated in kid heaven, munching on free pizza at Pinocchio's, hot dogs and hamburgers at Pluto's and ice cream at Scoops.

The Magic's youthful crew of 945, including dozens of children's counselors, came from around the globe: Mexico, Canada, France, South Africa, Poland and Holland, among other nations. That gave the ship an international feel that we welcomed.

The ship's passengers were mostly Americans and included families with grandparents, adults with nieces and nephews, single moms and dads, friends, honeymooners and singles. More than a few, like us, were first-time cruisers.

Disney Magic (and, coming next year, the Disney Wonder) is banking on travelers' willingness to pay handsomely for this experience. Appealing to a broad range of ages may hold the key. Kids ages 13 to 17 packed the teens-only club, Common Grounds. The youngest children, those under 3, seemed delighted with the musical shows and Mickey-shaped wading pool.

Although one wing of the ship was devoted to entertainment for adults, only the club Offbeat, and its very talented quartet of comedians, consistently played to packed houses. The ship has no casino, but adults could gamble in Nassau, and the ship didn't leave port until 3 a.m.

We had heard all about cruise ship dining--even gluttony. Our eating began at Parrot Cay, a gorgeous and festive Caribbean-style restaurant. The pina coladas, recommended by our servers Rob, from Australia, and Maria, from Sweden, were terrific. The food was so-so, but the service was energetic and unfailingly friendly. When Kate pronounced the macaroni and cheese "horrible," Rob eagerly brought her a pepperoni pizza that passed muster. (It's hard to teach your kids manners under these circumstances but, hey, we were on vacation.)

Passengers are rotated among three main restaurants for dinner but keep the same servers at each new dining room. The kids loved their menu--a folder marked "Top Secret" that was kept by the waiters and returned each evening with a new array of puzzles and games.

The next night, we passed on taking our table at Lumiere's, a French restaurant where jackets are required for men (and collared shirts are a good idea for children). Instead, Kate and Kevin ate with their fellow Oceaneers in the cafeteria, and Betsy and I dined at Palo, a restaurant on board only for grown-ups.

Getting a reservation at Palo had tested our patience. Bookings had to be made in person; when we arrived before the ship set sail, we joined a queue of 70 passengers that snaked through the restaurant to a table where the maitre d' sat, godfather-like, granting favors.

Fortunately, the Italian food, prepared by a Sicilian chef and served by chatty young Italian waiters, was exquisite: pasta shells with shaved Parmesan, marinated eggplant with goat cheese, succulent sea bass on risotto and a good wine list. The experience was more than worth the $5 per person cover charge--and we didn't even have to pay a baby-sitter.

Our last dinner, at Animator's Palate, was a remarkable show in itself. As the meal begins, everything in the dining room is black and white, from the drawings of Disney scenes on the walls to tablecloths and waiter vests that look as if black paint has been spattered on them. As the meal progresses, the room slowly comes to life with color. It was, indeed, magical.

After dinner, we had our choice of more entertainment. Each evening offered a new performance of a family musical with Disney themes and Broadway-quality actors in the 1,040-seat theater.

Disney's effort to appeal to kids of all ages was evident in a walk down the top two decks. Music from "Pocahontas," "Cinderella" and "Mary Poppins" blared above the children's pool. In the middle of the ship, reggae music played at the family pool, and farther forward, the sea air carried more sedate music at the adult pool.

Strolling the deck one evening after a show, we came across a Hercules-themed contest in which kids performed such feats as rolling giant eyeballs into plastic bowling pins.

Another evening, we joined families at Studio Sea for karaoke night and later hung out at the ESPN Skybox, located high in the unused smokestack, watching baseball games and a golf tournament on the two big-screen and six small-screen TVs.

The Magic's last port of call, Castaway Cay, is a 3-by-2-mile island that Disney acquired and turned into a resort exclusively for its cruise ship passengers. It has separate family, teen and adult beaches with hundreds of umbrellas and lounge chairs, a wide lagoon, several bars, a tram, and bike and walking paths.

We rented snorkeling equipment, at the steep cost of $93 for the four of us. The snorkeling was not the best in the Bahamas, but it was good enough for beginners like us. After two hours, we lined up for a buffet lunch of barbecued ribs, fish and hamburgers. Later we rented kayaks ($6 for half an hour) and cruised the lagoon, enjoying the gentle breeze.

We were disappointed when the advertised "day" at Castaway Cay ended at 3 p.m. and we were hustled back. After spending 18 hours the previous day in Nassau, only 6 1/2 hours at the beautiful little island left us wanting more.

Early the next morning--and too soon for us--we were back at Port Canaveral, clearing customs and boarding buses bound for the Orlando airport.

By then we were converts to this new kind of cruise. Even Betsy conceded it had been fun. And when Kate asked, "Can we do this again sometime?" it didn't seem like a bad idea at all.

Kraft is National editor for The Times.

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GUIDEBOOK: Disney Magic Tour

Disney at sea: The Disney Magic sails year-round on three- and four-day itineraries. Three-day cruises leave Friday evenings and return Monday mornings; four-day cruises leave Mondays and return Fridays.

What it costs: Prices for a three-day cruise, including meals and entertainment, air fare to Orlando and transportation to the ship at Port Canaveral, begin at $799 per person, double occupancy, for a standard inside stateroom; a four-day cruise begins at $909. The least expensive cabin with a full-view veranda, shared by a family of four, runs about $4,200 for a three-day cruise in low season, August through early December. The four-day cruise adds about $400.

There are also seven-day packages available that combine a cruise and a stay at Walt Disney World Resort; for the same veranda cabin category, the cost would be about $6,400. Prices rise for holiday and spring break bookings, which are difficult if not impossible to get, though there is space available for fall cruises. Not included in the cost: alcoholic beverages and nonalcoholic beverages outside mealtimes, baby-sitting ($11 per hour), excursions, recreational equipment rentals and tips (expect to pay $100 to $200).

For more information: The Disney Cruise Line, telephone (800) WDW-CRUISE or (407) 566-7000, or book through a travel agent.

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