While my partner and I love to travel with our two kids, we also enjoy some adult time on vacation too. While “Disney Cruise” might not come to mind when you think of a best-of-both-worlds kind of trip, we were pleasantly surprised by how much we could all get into our happy places on the ship. Here are seven highlights from our recent cruise on the Disney Wonder, which just returned to the seas after a 6-week dry dock makeover.
1. Rotational dining beats the typical cruise setup. On the Wonder, your set dining time of 5:45 or 8:15 p.m. rotates between the three main dining rooms: Triton’s Place, Animator’s Palate and Tiana’s Place. So you’ll always be at, say, table 63, and seated with the same people, but you’ll move each night to a different venue. The brilliant part of the experience is that your waitstaff moves right along with you, so you still have the ability to get to know them—and they learn your preferences, too. Triton’s Place, with its Little Mermaid-inspired décor, is what I’d call the traditional cruise ship dining experience. Animator’s Palate ups the game with the help of some technological wizardry. Each guest draws a stick figure-like character at the beginning of the meal. Toward the end of the seating, every single figure is shown animated on large screens that surround the dining room. They all become a part of some dazzling cartoon special effects, alongside famous Disney characters. It’s a real treat for parents and kids alike. Lastly, Tiana’s Place, brand new on the Wonder and exclusive to the ship, is a New Orleans-style restaurant that is perhaps the first to include live entertainment at dinner. The jazz music provides some lively atmosphere, and a street party of sorts started winding its way through the crowd at one point, with guests joining in the merriment and following behind. In general, the food was excellent in all three restaurants, though if I had one complaint, it was that the entrees at Tiana’s were a little bit subdued in flavor—sort of creole for the mass market. I hope Disney can correct that and maybe introduce a few more “authentic creole” items by putting them alongside the “southern inspired” selections.
2. The kids’ spaces are darned cool. This being Disney, I expected them to do the kids' areas right, but I was still pretty blown away. A tour of the Oceaneer Club left me pining to stay a while longer. The play space was made up of different themed areas, including Andy’s Room from Toy Story, the Marvel Super Hero Academy, Frozen Adventures and Club Disney Junior. There’s a lot of cool technology behind the scenes here, but the true magic comes when the actual characters come in to have fun with the junior guests. An activity may start with coloring or puzzles or a video game, but somewhere in the middle, Princess Elsa or Black Widow appears from out of nowhere to help the kids complete the activity or teach them a real world lesson that comes from working together as a team.
3. After Hours is for winding down … or amping up. One of the most creative things I found on the Wonder was the After Hours area of the ship, which comes alive each evening. This adults-only area is set aside from everything else, and contains three nightclubs that are all different in style. So you can bar-hop on any given evening, or spend all night in one particular area that fits your mood. Cadillac Lounge was our favorite, probably because of the slightly gay vibe there. The cocktails were masterfully done and served tableside with great flair. The décor is reminiscent of an exploded 1950s Cadillac, with fins and leather and chrome adorning the entire space. And a piano singer just tops it all off (including that aforementioned gay vibe). Crown Fin & Pub has a woody English pub vibe, also with live music (a solo guitar player/singer the night we were there) and a sometimes rowdy crowd singing along. And Azure feels straight out of Miami Beach, with a coral and blue color scheme and all sorts of underwater design cues that you’ll uncover the longer you sit there—well, depending on how many drinks you’re downing. Azure also hosts some other events during the day, such as comedians, a smart way to repurpose the space.
4. Even the pools are thoughtfully conceived. There are three pool areas on the upper decks, and they’re separated by the ship’s cooling towers and superstructure. Instead of feeling like the space is chopped up, the designers smartly embraced the infrastructure and made each one a unique place. The forward-most pool area is called the Quiet Cove Adult Pool, and it’s embraced by twin hot tubs and the Signals Bar. In the middle of the ship, you’ll find the Goofy’s Family Pool, the biggest open area on top of the ship, with a large stage to one side and the huge “Funnel Vision” screen, where movies are shown. And in the aft area is the Aqua Lab/Spash Zone, complete with a waterslide and a glassed-off section for little ones still in swim diapers, called Dory’s Reef. What I found fascinating was how the baffles and offset screens between each area not only kept the breeze from overwhelming the pools, but it kept the sometimes loud music in each area from intruding on the other pool decks. You can literally walk from the front to the back of the ship and hear three totally different songs playing at the three pool areas, but there is absolutely no overlap. Brilliant!
5. The shows are truly Broadway quality. The big news with the Wonder is the debut of the brand-new Frozen–A Musical Spectacular show. I’ve seen some “Broadway style productions” on cruise ships before, but nothing like this. Frozen (a 1-hour condensed version of the immensely popular animated movie from 2013 … in case you’ve been on the moon the past few years) has the expected top-rate singing, costuming and choreography. But it also incorporates puppetry, movie projection, a hydraulic stage, and some other technical surprises (did someone say snow?) to make this a real treat for the whole family. (Confession: We went to see it a second time, it was that good!) We also enjoyed The Golden Mickeys (photo above), sort of a red carpet awards show spoof that included live music and dance from some of Disney’s most iconic movies. Key here is that it’s not just purely the top songs, but it includes a lot of lesser played favorites that you may had forgotten about.
6. You can escape to Venice for a night. Palo, the ship’s upcharge restaurant, fills up fast. So don’t fret about the $30 charge per person and make a reservation at this Italian delight before you even sail. It helps to ask which nights you’ll be seated at what dining rooms on your sailing … I’d suggest doing Palo on one of the nights you’d otherwise be seated in Triton’s Place. This is an adults-only, dress up place—although they may let very dressy jeans pass—and it’s truly an extraordinary evening out. The waitstaff and the food are all what you’d expect in a top notch restaurant, and the ambience is quite romantic. (Heck, you might end up leaving the kids at the Oceaneer Club for a little longer, Romeo.) Order the chocolate soufflé dessert ahead of time, and you’ll thank me. In fact, I am still thinking about that…just wow.
7. Disney is really welcoming. It probably goes without say if you’ve ever been to a Disney park or resort, but the company is very inclusive and progressive in nature. (Heck, many of the employees I’ve met over the years are members of the LGBT community, if that’s any indication.) We saw other gay families on board and were even seated with another gay couple in the main dining room—whether that was by coincidence or on purpose, we thought that was a splendid and fun surprise. Most of all, our family was always made to feel totally welcome and just like any other, both from the staff members and the other guests—and isn’t that all we really want on a vacation?
For more information on booking your own Disney Cruise, go to disneycruise.disney.go.com.