Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Review: Disney Cruise Lines

It occurs to me that, amongst all of the impressions that I posted, I never got around to actually talking about the most basic question: did we have a good time, and was the cruise a good idea? Overall, the answer is "yes"; a detailed review follows.

We'd never done a cruise before, so keep in mind that I'm not comparing against cruise-line norms here. I'll be comparing all the various elements mainly against their land-side equivalents, and against our expectations. Even against that, the experience holds up well. Indeed, after the fact, I think I finally understand why they schedule all of their land/sea packages with the trip to Disneyworld first and the cruise second: in most respects, the cruise handily beats the on-land experience.

Room: Our stateroom was surprisingly comfortable. It wasn't huge, but it was very carefully designed to make the most of the space, and the two of us never had any problem with it. We had the standard Stateroom with Veranda, which from the ship map seems to be the most common room type -- it's a little mini-suite, with a bedroom, two micro-bathrooms (one with the toilet, one with the shower), a little living room with a desk and sofa (with a curtain partition from the bedroom), and a door opening up onto a small private deck with a couple of chairs outside. Not a lot of floor space, but it really had everything I want in a hotel room, packed elegantly in. It was entirely comfortable for two, and I suspect wouldn't be bad with one added child. A family with two kids could probably cope, but would be likely to trip over each other a bit.

Food: One of msmemory's explicit requirements for the vacation was good food, and we weren't disappointed: the average quality was quite high. The worst I can say about it was that the Pirate-themed dinner night at Triton's was well-prepared but dull, and in retrospect we probably could have gotten them to kick it up to a more realistically Caribbean level if we'd known to ask. But the American dinner at Animator's Palate (where the walls gradually turns from line drawings to full paintings over the course of dinner) was solid, and the French dinner at Triton's (the more elegant restaurant) was excellent. And then there was Palo.

Whereas most of the restaurants are downstairs around Deck 4, Palo is up top, isolated at the back of the ship. It's a true four-star restaurant, on par with the best places I know (I'd rank it number four among the restaurants in Boston), and was a highlight of the ship. The style is loosely Tuscan, but it's really pretty eclectic, managing to be fancy without being pretentious. It's a real delight to find a high-end restaurant that brags just as much about its pizza as its tenderloin. (It's also a bit disconcerting to find a restaurant at that level that aggressively shoves as much food as you can stand at you.) It's quieter and more elegant than the rest of the ship: it requires reservations, has a little bit of dress code (decent shirt and pants, at least), and is one of the few truly adults-only places on board. We had two meals there, and frankly could have happily eaten there every night: it costs $10/person extra, but it's more than worth it. Note that they only sell about half their reservations online, so if you can't get in, try again as soon as you get on the ship.

It's worth noting that the good food is consistent throughout. Even the brunch at the Beach Blanket Buffet upstairs is quite good: a big buffet ranging from the usual continental breakfast favorites to custom omelettes and a variety of lunch foods. And the champagne brunch at Palo is (as I mentioned in an earlier posting) utterly spectacular, probably the best I've ever had, with so many great dishes on the buffet that it's not even possible to *taste* all of them in one meal.

Service was exemplary throughout, to a degree that's almost startling by modern standards. As far as I can tell, each steward is given a relatively small number of rooms to manage; it's the first place I've ever stayed that had automatic turn-down service in the evening. In general, they try very hard to make the service personal: you get not only the same room steward, but the same team of waiters at the restaurants throughout the trip. (As your assigned restaurant shifts from night to night, your waiters come with you.) At Palo, they remembered us from dinner and gave us the same waitress for brunch; she proceeded to mother-hen us pretty thoroughly, but was delightful and friendly in doing so. The same generally applies throughout the ship -- even when the Passenger Services desk was utterly mobbed, they managed to stay friendly and helpful (if necessarily a bit more efficient).

Shows: This being Disney, entertainment is an important part of the trip, and so the ship has a smallish but otherwise Broadway-level theater on board. We saw three shows there: "Hercules, the Muse-ical", "The Golden Mickey Awards" and "Disney Dreams". To my taste, they formed a curious double-spectrum. Disney Dreams was the most technically impressive of the bunch -- indeed, I was completely blown away by the set changes and the things coming up and down through the floors -- but the script was a bit treacly for my tastes. Hercules was merely good technically, but had a really fun script and a lot of pizzazz; the Golden Mickeys were somewhere in between. That's probably by design: they're doing a selection of shows for different tastes. Regardless, the performers were excellent throughout, with the same cast doing a fine job in all of the shows.

Excursions: The ship makes a couple of stops, and at each one you have the opportunity to Do Stuff. They don't force you to do so: the default is to shop in Nassau and lounge on the beach at Castaway Cay. But at each stop they offer one or two dozen more active things to do. We tried the "Dolphin Experience" in Nassau, taking a boat out to a small institute on its own island, and getting to play with a dolphin (in a highly structured environment) for a little while. On Castaway Cay, we did the "Extreme" package, basically a grab-bag of snorkeling with the stingrays, biking around, and other such easy outings. Both were pleasant changes of pace, well worth doing, although in retrospect we might have been well-served by leaving one of those days (probably Castaway Cay) as a purely lazy lounge day.

Kids: Disney understands its audience, and a large fraction of that audience is children. This was originally a concern for us -- we're not exactly kid-centric people, and weren't interested in a cruise that was slanted mainly towards them. But as ladysprite assured us, this is precisely where Disney excels: they know that they're going to have to deal with a lot of children, and structure things accordingly.

The result is that the kids aren't too badly underfoot. There were a lot of them on board (800+ out of 2800 passengers), but they were mainly off doing their thing and we were doing ours. The ship is surprisingly age-segregated: for instance, it has three swimming pools and surrounding lounge areas, one for small kids, one for families, and one for adults only. (We often found ourselves in the whirlpool with parents who were taking a much-needed break while their kids were doing ship activities.) Similarly, it has play areas specifically for the smaller kids and for teens, with the result that the adult areas are pretty kid-free. The late dinner seatings (8-8:30) aren't defined as adults-only, but in practice most of the families take the earlier seatings, so they're also pleasantly mellow.

Disneyfication: An important things to keep in mind -- while this is a lovely high-end floating hotel, it *is* still a Disney property. I mention this only because I know that some of our friends are not huge fans of Disney, and so it's important to note that this is full-contact, deep-immersion Disney. The characters are everywhere, especially the animated characters. (With the exception of Pirates of the Caribbean, the live-action movies are almost entirely absent.) We didn't mind -- indeed, we largely tuned it out -- but those who dislike Disney movies are likely to find it a bit overwhelming.

Value: The question has to be asked: was it worth the money?

Overall, I'd say yes, but with some warnings. In particular, the trip isn't quite as all-inclusive as it looks at first glance. You can basically do the whole trip for your upfront money, but they're constantly surrounding you with temptations to spend more. The off-ship excursions cost between $20 and $100/person each. They are constantly trying to sell you photos of your time there, at $20/photo or more. (I don't even want to think about how many photos they print and throw away in their efforts to sell them to you.) The Internet access is obscenely expensive, around 40 cents/minute (which I took as incentive to be good and mostly stay away from the Net for the duration).

It does include food, and they're serious about that: they will happily stuff you until you burst with really excellent food, as described above. But even there, it's not quite that simple. Nothing alcoholic is included, and while the booze is reasonably priced, it's restaurant prices, so that can stack up *very* fast. (Especially when the stewards are wandering around the deck, passing out pink drinks with umbrellas.) Snacks costs extra, so if you want popcorn for the show, you'll need to pay theater prices for that. And as I mentioned before, Palo costs $10/person extra, but that's probably the best money you'll spend on the trip: it was basically $20 for us to go up to a $150 dinner.

Of course, they make it terribly, terribly easy to spend money while you're on shipboard. At the start of the trip, they issue you a card, which serves as your ID, room key, and credit card; parents can put a spending limit on this if they choose. We quickly found that that's pretty much all you need on the ship and on Castaway Cay, although you'll want real money in Nassau. They offer (for a fee, of course) extremely nice lanyards with sealed card holders, so you can just put the thing around your neck and use it freely: that proved enormously convenient, and we recommend it.

So putting all that together, along with the tips (you should allow $100 or so for the various tips -- the service is worth it), it's very easy to spend a lot more than the amount cited on the website. We were quite casual about the money, and went more than $1000 over, and I think it was generally worth it: I never thought that the costs were excessive or unreasonable. But be prepared for that in the budgeting process.

Summary: It was a good time, and we do recommend it: we might well go on another, one of these years. It's not the cheapest vacation, but they pamper you quite effectively, with excellent service and fine food. It's a relaxing way to spend a few days, with opportunities to jazz it up with the excursions. A fun change of pace...
Tags: review
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