On a Disney Cruise, It’s a Stressful World (After All)

Even before we left dock in Miami, I started to get the feeling that our “4-Night Bahamian Cruise” on the Disney Magic was not going to go as smoothly as I had expected.

The self-serve soft-serve machines near Goofy’s Pool had run out of ice cream.

I asked a uniformed crew member when we could expect the machines to be refilled. Slightly alarmed, she told me she would look into it. While sipping a horribly cloying margarita, I broke the bad news to Anna, my 5 ½ year old daughter. We soon headed to our gathering spot for the prelaunch shipwide safety drill — ours was inside the Animator’s Palate, one of five restaurants on the boat. After that, it was back to our stateroom, on deck six of 11, to order room service and watch one of the half-dozen or so channels entirely devoted to Disney-owned content.

A confession: I’ve been a travel editor for nearly a decade, and yet this was my first cruise. I also haven’t been to a Disney property since my age was in the single digits. Neither thing, frankly, had ever seemed like my bag, but with my wife, Nancy, and I beaten down by a brutal New York cold snap, and Anna increasingly Disney-obsessed, the time felt … if not right, then inevitable.

A lot of people go on these cruises every year — a Disney spokeswoman wouldn’t tell me how many, but given the fleet has four large ships (and three more on the nautical horizon) with more than 250 total launches per year, a number in the hundreds of thousands is a fair estimate — including plenty of repeat customers (members of the Castaway Club, in Disney parlance). What was I missing? To try to find out, I paid $2,862.79 (for two adults and a child, as well as a “vacation protection plan,” taxes, fees and port expenses; we would end up spending another $1,500 for booze, onboard incidentals and activities) and booked the trip.

Things had not started well even before we boarded, actually. We had to delay our flight to Miami because Anna had a fever and a cough. After a night in Miami, we headed to board the ship — though before we could, we had to sign a paper indicating that no one in our party had a fever and a cough (or a handful of other symptoms). Her cough had held on, but her fever had abated, so I nervously signed the paper, waited on the serpentine line to register and get our cruise cards (they serve as both ID and credit card while on board) and, for Anna, a wristband that she had to wear at all times. Then we took a family photo in front of a sailing-themed Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and boarded the boat, along with more than 2,500 other cruisers.

Over the course of the next four days, many of my fears were confirmed. In other moments, my cynical soul was warmed — a bit like Anna’s heart (the “Frozen” character, not my daughter), thanks to her act of true love. Our Anna learned to love pirates and magicians. I spent a lot of money on drinks, a princess makeover and Disney merch. Anna proclaimed the trip one of the best experiences of her life.

As we sat in our stateroom bed one night, trying to figure out how much to spend on the measly Wi-Fi offerings, Nancy captured it well: “Everything,” she said, “is enchanting and horrifying.”

The Disney Magic docked in Key West, Fla. CreditDan Saltzstein/The New York Times

DAYS ONE AND TWO

“My wife will never consider any other cruise line other than Disney. And I don’t blame her.” — comment on a 2017 Disney website post announcing two new ships.

My relationship with Disney has always been a little fraught. I adore the movies. With Pixar, Marvel and the Muppets now under the Disney umbrella, I could probably list two dozen of them that we as a family love and watch regularly. But the company’s ubiquity can also be unnerving. And that’s just in general culture; once you board the boat, it is — fairly, I suppose — all Disney all the time.

The Disney Magic was the first of the Disney cruise ships, launched in 1998, and renovated in 2013; this month will see another “reimagining,” including a Rapunzel-themed restaurant. It may not be the biggest cruise boat on the seas (that became clear when we docked next to the real behemoths in the Bahamas) or even in the Disney fleet, but its dimensions are still impressive: 11 decks, 984 feet long, 171.5 feet tall.

Activities were legion. I had signed up for some in advance. (Not-at-all-pro tips: Sign up early and preregister your children at the Disney Cruise website — many events book up quickly. And download the Disney Cruise app before you leave — it’s how you will communicate with family members). Other activities were noted on a daily schedule dropped off at our Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom With Verandah. At 3 p.m. on our first day, for example, we could have: caught the second half of “Thor: Ragnarok” in a state-of-the-art movie theater that seats 278; lined up to meet Minnie Mouse on deck four, or Princess Sofia (of the Disney Channel’s “Sofia the First”) on deck five; joined “Game Show: The Feud” on the promenade lounge; taken part in an (adults-only) origami session; or dropped Anna off at the Oceaneer Club — one of two activity centers open to kids for the bulk of the day and evening. It was all dizzying.

Or we could have gone ashore to Key West, our first stop. I couldn’t convince Anna to join me, so I went solo. It turned out Anna had made the right call: It was sunny but cool and very windy; fellow passengers shivered down touristy Duval Street buying their T-shirted kids oversized sweatshirts. I headed to CVS to get some DayQuil for Nancy, who had picked up Anna’s chest cold, then stopped for a mediocre Cuban lunch.

I had signed Nancy and myself up for a couples massage later that afternoon — hey, we deserved a break even on day one, O.K.? — so we dropped Anna off at the Oceaneer Club and headed up to Senses Spa & Salon. The massage, given by two Serbian women (their nationalities, as with all crew members, were noted on their name tags), was a good one, if pricey ($170 per person). We passed on the products they had used during the massage, which were for sale. Almost every activity, it would turn out, ended with a gentle upsell.

It was time for dinner. There are two seatings nightly, and you are directed to one of four restaurants around the ship, the idea being that you get to try each one. Tonight was Carioca’s, supposedly Brazilian-themed, though I couldn’t quite figure out in what way. We were seated with a couple from Miami, whose daughter was about Anna’s age. The food was fine, but the service was stellar, as it was everywhere on the ship. I can’t say that I was thrilled that my daughter was constantly being called “Princess,” but each crew member seemed genuinely enthusiastic and pleased to be on the boat, down to the person passing out sanitizing wipes to every passenger entering a restaurant. (Hygiene is, understandably, a huge deal on the ship. In addition to the wipes, the kid centers have devices that might best be described as washing machines for hands.)

Our servers at Carioca’s at dinner were from Thailand and Scotland and introduced themselves as such, as all crew members did (there are 950 in total, of 80 nationalities, for an astounding customer-to-crew ratio of less than 3-to-1). I found all of this charming and touching.

My adult activity that night, which I had signed up for in advance, was a whiskey tasting in the loungey Cove Café on Deck 9. It was not my first bar visit of the trip. The night before, I had grabbed a $20 glass of quality scotch at Keys, one of the cluster of venues in the After Hours section of the boat (the others are Fathoms, where a D.J. was setting up, and O’Gill’s Pub, which offered beers on tap and free crudités and wings). Keys is a piano bar, complete with a high-end booze selection and a fedora’d player behind the piano. (It also plays host to Friday night Shabbat services.) My bartender, Alejandro, from Peru, was friendly and knowledgeable. Noting my interest in scotch, he offered me a flight of four Macallan single-malts for $60. Another upsell, but also a pretty good deal. Still, four more ounces of booze seemed like a bad idea, so I declined, and instead caught 20 minutes of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in the excellent Buena Vista Theatre.

At the tasting, the pleasant Jamaican bartender who led our small group asked if we were whiskey fans. “Is Fireball a whiskey?” one woman asked. After a brief primer on the four glasses in front of us, we were asked to sample and guess the varieties. At this point, the boat was swaying noticeably (“it’s the whiskey!” the bartender said with a laugh); a nearby screen noted we were sailing at 22.6 knots into 37-knot winds — the low end of tropical storm territory. Back in our room, I had a tough time falling asleep (it wasn’t just the whiskey; our tablemates at dinner the next evening reported that they had trouble as well).

Speaking of that stateroom: it was tiny — 268 square feet to be exact. There weren’t enough drawers to upload our clothes, and no place to lay out a large piece of luggage. I’m not a tall man, but I still only had about 2 inches of clearance in the shower. Our daughter slept (comfortably, according to her) on a small couch that converted to a bed; a curtain divided her area from ours. We wondered about the cabin next to ours, which, judging solely by their verandah space, was much, much larger.

Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse greet fans on consecutive decks inside the Disney Magic.CreditDan Saltzstein/The New York Times

DAY THREE

“Although it is possible to avoid the fanfare, why would you want to? It’s free, it’s fun, and whether you’re the oldest or the youngest onboard, we guarantee you’ll be impressed.” — Pirate Night review on cruisecritic.com

What to wear to the Pirate Night party? Ah, complimentary “Pirates of the Caribbean”-branded bandannas that had been dropped off in our room. Anna, however, was insisting on the $60 girl pirate outfit on sale at the White Caps retail shop. What about the $30 accompanying hat? Nope, sorry kiddo. (By end of day, she had gotten both the outfit and the hat.)

But first, up early for the 8:45 “Frozen Gathering” at the Animator’s Palate restaurant. I’m not sure what I expected, but here’s what we got: a shortish line for a photo opp with Elsa, Anna and Olaf. Our daughter was feeling especially shy — despite having talked for weeks about meeting the princesses — so Nancy and I took the photo and I gave Olaf a hug.

We soon went ashore to Nassau, our Bahamian port of call for the day. The weather had improved, but we failed to stray from the dock-adjacent blocks filled with restaurants (we chose one more or less at random and chose badly), knickknack shops and hair-braiders. Immersive travel it was not. We did, though, go on a glass-bottom boat ride, past homes owned, according to our chatty and charming guide, by Tom Cruise, Michael Jordan and plenty of other multimillionaires. We saw brightly colored fish and got a free keychain.

Sunset over Nassau from the Disney Magic.CreditDan Saltzstein/The New York Times

We headed to our pre-Pirate night dinner. But wait, everyone was already in costume. Had we missed a memo? And where did all these adults get their costumes? (They probably brought them, and many had packed special costumes for their kids.) We headed to dinner, but Anna — perhaps freaked out by all of the costumed passengers — had a fit of nerves. It took us a while, but we convinced her to go to dinner, then head back to the room to get dressed.

Because we had been late for dinner, we ended up late to the party, on deck 10; a stage was set up in front of the pool, which was covered by a wooden dance floor. That means we didn’t get a great view of the show, but Anna was delighted nonetheless. Various Disney characters took the stage, alongside pirate performers constantly hyping up the crowd. There was a lot of dancing to pop tunes (“Uptown Funk,” “I Gotta Feeling”) and a nominal plot about Captain Hook taking over the stage with, for some reason, a bunch of passengers playing air guitar. Mickey saved the day by flying in on a zip line and got the party back on track. There were fireworks.

Mickey, it should be said, was everywhere, which I found sort of sweet — in an age of princesses, the nonagenarian mouse has still got it: He was branded on the giant smokestacks that top the ship and on the toiletries in our tiny bathroom. The three blobs of ketchup poured on Anna’s plate at dinner took the form of his head. I half-expected to come across coral in that same shape when I went snorkeling the next day at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private Bahamian island.

Anna was understandably amped up and not ready for bed. Luckily, there was a magic show to enjoy: Kalin & Jinger, Broadway vets who wowed the crowd, Anna (still in her pirate costume) included. “I love magic!” she exclaimed as we headed out. “Not as much as pirates though.”

A view of Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, from the Disney Magic.CreditDan Saltzstein/The New York Times

DAY FOUR

“My hubby loves to do the snorkeling path and visit all the cool artifacts. I spend that time, reading, sunning and cooling off in the water. We stay on the island until about 4PM when we reluctantly head back to the ship to get ready for that evening’s show and dinner.” — comment on travelmamas.com’s “Dos and Don’ts of Disney’s Castaway Cay”

Our last full day on the Magic was our most promising. It was Castaway Cay day — a full day to spend on Disney’s private island. We had bought a package that included snorkeling gear, bike rentals and a big floatie ring for our daughter.

But I had also booked something in advance: an appointment for Anna at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for a $200 princess makeover — at 11:15, right in the middle of our day meant to be spent off the ship. And afterward, she’d be covered in princess … stuff. Perfect for sun and swimming!

I met Anna and Nancy at the boutique. Anna had chosen Ariel as her makeover of choice. Though Anna’s “fairy godmother” (the British woman who would do her hair and makeup) urged her to allow the “king” to stay, I was banished. After a while, we all met up; Anna was in her dress, her hair done up in a (fake) bun, tiara and sparkles, makeup on her face, wielding a light-up wand. She was utterly delighted, and I was delighted with her delight.

After some time walking around the ship with Anna, Nancy gently suggested we head down to the beach. “The problem with being a princess,” Nancy began to say, but Anna finished her sentence: “Is that you can’t do anything!” Like, say, swimming in crystal-clear Bahamian waters.

So, Anna’s dress and makeup removed, we headed to Castaway Cay, where we had lunch and camped out on the immaculate beach. I picked up our snorkel gear and floatie — as well as a frozen margarita at Conched Out Bar, steps from the beach. I spotted Alejandro, the Peruvian bartender from the piano bar, now in more casual dress, doling out cheap beers in plastic bottles.

While splashing around in the shallow bay water, vivid blue fish swam right up to us, as if they, too, had gone through Disney staff training. (Anna got freaked out and wouldn’t set foot in the water for a while.) I went snorkeling, where I saw more fish — so plentiful and friendly that a thought flashed through my mind: Did Disney stock the area with sea life? I shook off the idea and headed back to pick up Anna. Nancy went on a relaxing bike ride and we all met up back at the tram station and reboarded.

It was time for our dinner at Palo, the adults-only restaurant on deck 10. We dropped Anna off at the Oceaneer Club and headed up. Like Keys, it was a simulacrum, though this time of a fancy Italian restaurant. Our waiter had a heavy Italian accent, yet was from Serbia. He seemed very pleased to present us with an antipasti cart — slices of prosciutto, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, marinated peppers — which he then, without asking, doused with aged balsamic vinegar. Everything was overly fussy, but the food wasn’t bad — a Tuscan bean soup was particularly tasty — and service was extremely friendly. And Italian-ish.

We took a brief but romantic walk around the promenade deck, and stared off into the blackness of a vast ocean, interrupted only by another cruise ship that glowed miles off in the distance. I thought about the people on that boat, and the ones on the decks below us. I wondered if they were starting to have a good time too.

Dan Saltzstein is an editor of the Travel section of The Times.

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