A week on board taught me why even adult travelers without kids go on Disney cruises and why Disney cruises are so much more expensive: it’s a real luxury travel experience. Who’d have thought? It’s not a natural assumption to think that a boat packed with amped-up kids would demand a Four Seasons-like focus on quality. But the service was incredible, and every inch of the ship impeccably maintained 24 hours a day. Even the bathrooms were sparkly and pristine.
Disney is known as a demanding employer, and there’s no slacking off by the 1500 crew members, who work seven days a week on contracts of up to seven months at a time. Cruise companies register ships in countries with lax employment regulations, and very few Disney crew members (who wear their country of origin on their nametags) hail from the United States. We had huge admiration for the hardworking crew members assigned to our dinner table and cabins – our dining room server, Edward, has three kids under 7 at home in the Dominican Republic, our assistant server, Joy, has a 5-year-old son at home in the Philippines, and our cabin server, Elmer, has an 8-year-old and a pregnant wife at home (when his child is born, he’ll get two weeks to go back).
For crew without kids, life working on a cruise can be a lifestyle choice. Dining room and housekeeping staff work the longest contracts, but higher-ranking employees may work for only four month contracts, with six to eight weeks off in between. Pay is moderate, but with room and board provided and few opportunities to spend any money, it’s not hard to save what they earn. During their long breaks, they can travel home or elsewhere for longer stays than normal jobs would allow for.
The design of the ship – thoughtfully developed over years by a team of Disney’s famed “imagineers” – is impressive too, both an homage to classic luxury liners (curved wood cabinetry, enormous chandeliers, handmade rugs) and a delight of modern technology (there are 22 pieces of artwork on board that can break into Hogwarts-like animation, and cabins without real portholes have video portholes that project a lifelike ocean image).
Cabin design is masterfully efficient: even in the compact space, there is plenty of storage in the well-designed closet and dresser as well as great clearance under the bed for luggage. A sofa in family cabins converts into a twin bed, and another pulls down from ceiling. Family cabins also have two bathrooms – one with toilet and sink, and the other with sink and a clever tub/shower with a round tub base and both a handheld showerhead and a rain showerhead that minimizes splashing. High in the shower are two pull-across laundry lines, and with the excellent bathroom ventilation, wet swimsuits are easily dry by morning.
Though the cost of the cruise is very high, there is little nickel and diming. Aside from the unlimited supply of quality food, the soda fountain is free (though diet soda is sold separately in cans), and there is no additional charge for room service. Like other cruise lines, Disney automatically charges passengers a “suggested” gratuity for servers ($12 per person, per day), but knowing how hard the staff works, and how little their pay is outside of gratuities, I was happy to pay it.
Of course the entertainment is extensive. Mickey-shaped pools, an innertube water-slide rollercoaster, various kids clubs by age group, a beautiful 3D movie theater, and all kinds of on-demand Disney movies and shows on cabin TVs. A different live show is featured every day, three times a day, with other variety performances for kids during the day and adults at night. Some of it was too much pep-rally/sales-conference cheese for me, but the kids enjoyed the music and characters.
And with all the young passengers, Disney monitors the ship with staff and cameras for any signs of trouble the way a casino monitors its gambling rooms. My four-year-old lost her tooth during a bite of lunch, and as we jumped to take the food out of her mouth, a crew member was immediately at our side to make sure everything was ok. Creepy and reassuring both.
And here’s my quick photo tour, including my galley tour of the largest of the onboard kitchens:
The newest ship in Disney’s fleet, the Fantasy, is only a year old. It’s gorgeous and impeccably maintained.
This is the lobby. As you board, an announcer calls out “The [your-last-name] family!” as lined-up crew members applaud. It’s nuts.
The characters have different costumes. Here’s Mickey dressed for pirate night. On formal night, Chip and Dale wear tuxedos. Thankfully theme nights are mere suggestions – we’re light packers and went casual all the way.
This is a bathroom, with fantastically colorful mosaic walls constructed in Spain. This one has a matador, but others have flamenco dancers.
I appreciated thoughtful touches like these deep porthole seats, perfect for kids.
Passengers rotate through three dining rooms, and the serving staff rotates with them. One room is like an animators studio, and another is modeled off the gardens at Versailles. This one is the classic Disney castle type theme, with princess mosaics on the walls. At every food venue there are Disney crew members making sure everyone gets an antibacterial wipe as they enter.
The galley tour was brief but fun. This kitchen serves two dining rooms and is mirrored – exactly the same on two sides. Except for the nonslip floors, the kitchen is all stainless steel, even the ceiling. Every night a crew of 30-some people scrub everything, ceiling to floor. And kitchen staff are required to wash hands every 10 minutes.
The serving line is long, with pictures of plated entrees so servers make sure it all looks right before delivering it to the table. On the wall opposite the serving line is an enormous white board where number of orders get tallied by dish. Any special requests are assembled at a separate station. If any dish sits under the heat lamp for more than three minutes without being taken to the table, it is discarded and remade.
This is the special station for passengers with food allergies. Each pink slip represents a person, with each of that individual’s allergies listed and checked.
It’s fun to imagine what this looks like in action.
The most popular place for breakfast and lunch is this pool-level buffet eatery. The selection is well-prepared and expansive. The ship goes through 8000 eggs a day, and at breakfast there are scrambled eggs, omelets, eggs Benedict, as well as sausage, bacon, a couple of kinds of breakfast potatoes, sauteed spinach, grilled tomatoes, pancakes and waffles shaped like Mickey heads.
An assortment of cold meats, cheeses and vegetables. A separate station has smoked salmon, gravlax, smoked mackerel and smoked trout.
Cold cereals and hot (oatmeal and cream of wheat), yogurt and muesli with a wide spread of toppings. I loved the shredded coconut and nuts.
It doesn’t take long for the kids to find the doughnut station. The ship must load up an enormous freezer full of Krispy Kremes – every day they go through a staggering number of boxes.
The eating areas are wisely broken down into more manageable rooms, each with its own beverage station.
Most of my week was eating and making sure my kids didn’t drown. I brought a stack of reading material, but my low-grade motion headache made reading seem like an unnecessary risk. We ran around the ship morning to night, with a couple of days off the boat. On board, the kids and I learned how to draw Mickey and how to make the amusing animals out of towels that the housekeeping staff leaves for the kids every night. Do you like my swan?
The Disney cruise is definitely best in class, and it’s a great vacation for cruise lovers, Disney lovers and families with kids. For a family reunion, it offers a broad range of activities for all ages to have fun together and apart.
But for me, going on a cruise is like a beach lover going to Antarctica, or a mountain man vacationing in Manhattan. It was a fascinating once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’d be very pleased to keep it that way.