Disney Cruise Line: An Ocean of Activities

by Shoshana Lewin Fischer
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Is a Disney cruise just for kids? No. Just for adults? No. Just for families? No. It's for everyone. No. Really. Walt Disney built Disneyland on the idea that he wanted a place where adults and children could have fun together. It couldn't happen more than on a Disney Cruise Line ship. It's like spending the night inside Disneyland or Walt Disney World… except you don't have to wait in line for two hours to have fun and someone makes your bed every night.

The >Disney Wonder and >Disney Magic have been sailing the Caribbean for more than 10 years (with some additional routes to Europe and the West Coast as Disney "tested the waters"). Demand for the ships has grown over the years, so the company decided to build two more: The >Disney Dream (which launched in January 2011) and its sister ship, the >Fantasy (which launched in March 2012). Like the famous Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World discussion, each pair of sister ships would carry its own form of pixie dust. The original (smaller, first) ships would have charming nooks and special touches as only an original can exhibit; the new ships would be larger and create even more adventures and memories.

These memories don't just happen by themselves. It takes approximately 950 crew members (on the Wonder and Magic) and 1,458 crew members (on the Dream and Fantasy), to make magic happen everyday.

Christiaan Abbott, who has been with Disney Cruise Line for 10 years and is currently the cruise director for the Disney Wonder, talked to Disney Family Travel about what makes Disney Cruise Line different from its competitors. He cited the family-friendly cabins, rotational dining, youth activities, AquaDuck watercoaster on the Disney Dream, 3-D first-run movies, the Disney characters and the fact that it's the only line where you'll find fireworks at sea, which happens during the Pirates IN the Caribbean Deck Party. Christiaan is also the man responsible for planning the activities and overseeing all the entertainment onboard.

"It's very different for DCL," he said. "On other cruises, the cruise director is the main emcee at parties and shows … I don't necessarily do that. I run the entertainment business [which includes family and adult activities and youth activities]. We have actors and performers to host game shows and parties." Those parties include the "Welcome Aboard" Sail Away party, which ends with the blowing of the ship's horn: "When You Wish Upon a Star."

As soon as you check in for the cruise, you are handed a Personal Navigator, which breaks down everything you need to know for the day: the drink of the day, what pins are coming out that day in the shops, the dress code for dinner, what time Cinderella is in the atrium lobby, what's showing in the theatre, who is giving a lecture and more. There is literally something for everyone, so that, by the end of the vacation, every member of the family will have enjoyed something special: Dad will have watched his team win the game on the Funnel Vision big screen, mom will have gotten an Aroma Stone massage at the spa, 12-year-old Michael will have piloted the ship at the bridge simulator at the tween club and 7-year old Samantha will have danced with Snow White.

But how do Christiaan and the other cruise directors know what to plan and when? Keeping the activities balanced among kids, families and adults isn't easy.

A few months out, each ship is given information on the passengers, as well as an age breakdown so they know what to expect. For example, when the Disney Magic went through the Panama Canal a few years ago, it went east to west in May, and west to East in August… meaning there were A LOT of kids onboard (almost 1,400 of the 1,800 passengers were 17 or younger). The ship arranged for a performance by the Disney Channel's Aly and AJ, as well as a BMX biker from the X-Games to perform some ramp tricks on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.

Fast forward to January 2011. The Disney Wonder crossed through the Panama Canal headed for its new home in Los Angeles, California at the San Pedro Cruise Terminal (before heading to Alaska in the summer). It was used to three- and four-night vacations (and a few longer ones here and there), but this one was for 15 nights and the passenger make-up was slightly different than last time. In January, most kids are in school, and, for the first time in the ship's history, there were less than 300 kids onboard. That means Christiaan, as well as Assistant Cruise Director Clayton Lyndsey had to come up with new activities to keep the "big-kids-at-heart" entertained. On top of that, 1,400 of the 1,800 passengers were repeat cruisers.

So some special activities were added, including an evening performance by Susan Egan (the original Belle from Broadway's Beauty and the Beast); a Jimmy Buffet tribute band; multiple showings of Tron Legacy and at Disney's Oceaneer's Lab, which is geared toward cruisers 3-10, adults were able to come in at night and make Flubber, race cars made out of soap and create a volcano. Christiaan mentioned that they had as many adults making Flubber as they usually have kids — and they even added a second night (writers note: it was super fun to play in there). Christaan also had to move several of the adult events from Wavebands (the dance club in the adult-only entertainment district, Route 66), to the larger Walt Disney Theatre or Buena Vista Theatre.

While there is no casino onboard (you won't miss it, and the ship does have BINGO), adults can enjoy the Art of Entertaining series, where chefs from the ship, as well as from the restaurants at the Walt Disney World Resort, demonstrate how to make the appetizers and yummy desserts, plate them and set up for parties. For the Disney fans, there are lectures and demonstrations from authors, entertainers, animators and Disney Imagineers.

The family activities, many of which take place in Studio Sea (on the Magic and Wonder) or D-Lounge (on the Dream), are fun to watch (at any age).

"We've got 'Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer,' and we're amazed at the Disney trivia the kids know," Christaan said. "We also have 'So You Think You Know Your Family,' which is different every cruise. The audience enjoys seeing how well the parents' answers match the kids'."

With so much going on, we asked Christaan if there's one thing guests shouldn't miss. His answer: The shows. The Disney Cruise Line puts on amazing Broadway-style shows, featuring sets, costumes and characters that most passengers have only seen in the parks. His favorite is The Golden Mickeys — a salute to classic Disney animation, but many of the guests pick their favorite show as Disney Dreams (Magic and Wonder) — where Peter Pan helps a little girl believe in herself and the power of her dreams. Other shows include Villians Tonight! (Magic and Dream), Toy Story the Musical (Wonder) Twice Charmed: An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story (Magic) and Disney's Believe (Dream), where a father and daughter need a little Disney magic to reconnect. Don't forget to bring some tissues from your stateroom, you will likely need them.

Even when things go wrong, Christiaan and his team have a plan B (or even plan C). When the Personal Navigator listed the incorrect version of Disney's The Parent Trap (1961 instead of 1998), Christaan, who oversees all verbal and non-verbal communication on the ship, takes responsibility (since he is a big movie fan, he did arrange showings of Casablanca and North by Northwest during the cruise, as well as an "under the stars" viewing of Mary Poppins). Or when a stop on Castaway Cay was cancelled, the team put together a brand-new Personal Navigator in less than an hour, which was distributed to every stateroom and dining venue. "It's not as simple as substituting one for the other, or going into the archives and asking 'what did we do the last time we had to cancel, let's do that again,'" he said.

But, Christiaan said sometimes it's important to have a surprise or two, like an unplanned overnight in Aruba, or when the ship is able to premiere a movie at sea the same day it comes out on land: "The best part is seeing the faces of the guests when we announce it."

And if you aren't able to see and do everything, don't worry: There is a desk onboard where you can book your next cruise.

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