The ship horn bellowed the opening notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star," signaling a confetti launch and the blaring of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" on large speakers near the stage. Amid descending streamers of tissue paper, children and their camera-carrying parents flooded the dance area, where Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy and of course Mickey Mouse, decked out like sailors, greeted and grooved with passengers. Thus began the sail-away celebration party aboard Disney's Wonder the first major event of a three-night Bahamian cruise.
There was no turning back now. The ship was moving.
It had been 10 years since my only other cruise, a seven-day East Coast voyage aboard a dated ship full of senior citizens.
That experience gave me low expectations for the one my wife and I were to take with our three girls last November. But my demands were high, since we were paying a ton of jack to the Mouse and I'm not talking about cheese.
I also felt apprehensive. Would I get seasick? Would I contract the Norwalk virus? (It was, after all, named after an outbreak at an elementary school right here in Huron County.) Would I suffer from Disney overdose? Would the food be good?
In addition, I wondered whether I would be claustrophobic in a small cabin with five people. On our honeymoon cruise, Jodie and I slept in a nook of a cabin with no TV, a closed-circuit radio that cycled a handful of 70s R&B hits and a bathroom so tiny that the toilet was practically in the shower.
As it turned out, our cabin aboard the Wonder proved perfect for us, reminiscent of a small RV with plenty of storage space. The TV offered several stations, including ABC, ESPN and the Disney Channel (obviously), as well as continuos movies for all preferences. The cozy confines had a queen-size bed and dressers in the back, with a privacy curtain that created a bedroom for Jodie and me, plus a twin bed and wall pull-down unit that combined into a bunk bed for our two oldest girls, and a split bath with a tub and shower and separate sinks. The cabin also contained a mini-fridge. Subtle Disney touches dotted the amenities and nautical-themed natural wood furnishings. And this was a deluxe inside stateroom with no exterior view, one of the cheapest cabins on the ship.
One deck above us, Jodie's parents, younger sister and older sister and her family stayed in two adjoining cabins, each with a large porthole window. Although the price was higher, we were a bit jealous at the view they enjoyed.
CREW MEMBERS GO out of their way to make guests feel relaxed and special.
The pampering began as soon as we boarded the Wonder in Port Canaveral, Fla. As passengers enter on a red carpet, the greeter with a microphone announces the families' names and crew members applaud. Somehow our middle daughter lagged behind a bit, so she received her own greeting: "Welcome aboard, Princess Valerie!" a title 7 1/2-year-old Madeline now uses to tease her. (Don't get me wrong. Val, 4, is a hard-core Mickey fan but loathes the Disney princesses, so the greeting was ironic.)
We were led to the lunch buffet at Parrot Cay, and any worries I had about the food vanished as we began devouring the deli sandwiches, wraps, soups, salads and fresh fruit in abundance. The buffet also offered the fried food and other fare kids love, as well as plenty of dessert options. And soft drinks don't cost extra, something that's different from most cruise lines.
By the way, eating can be a 24-hour activity on the ship. In addition to the assigned meal times in specific restaurants, various eateries provide snacks around the clock from hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza and french fries to rolls, wraps, paninis, fresh fruit and ice cream. There's a drink station that never closes. Room service is available any time. Passengers can eat as much as they want, as often as they want, whenever they want. And it's all free! Well, it's not free, but the right to non-stop grazing (even made-to-order food brought to the stateroom) is included in the cruise price, no matter how gluttonous the behavior.
Formal dinners take place through rotational dining, also unique to Disney. Passengers get to try a different restaurant each night, but with the same wait staff.
For our first night, we ate at Animator's Palate, where images from classic cartoons line the walls. As music is played, TV screens and special lighting help the monochromatic room progressively come alive with color during the meal.
Our waitress and her assistant got to know our names, tastes and drink preferences. At subsequent dinners, our favorite drinks were brought to the table as our party of 12 was being seated. We oohed and aahed while feasting on the gourmet food that night, as well as at Parrot Cay the next night and at Triton's during our final evening. Although elegant, dinners remained kid-friendly, from the menu choices right down to Mickey-shaped pasta noodles and Mickey ice cream bars.
Breakfast and lunch can be eaten in any of the restaurants. We favored the Parrot Cay breakfast buffet it was even better than the lunch, if that's possible.
AFTER OUR INITIAL LUNCH, we saw our cabin and headed straight for the pools. Yes, that's plural. The Mickey Pool our girls' favorite is shaped like the famous mouse, with wading pools for ears, a separate area for young children wearing swim diapers (like our then-17-month-old Elaina) and a water slide for children ages 4 to 14. Goofy's Pool is located in the family area and features a 4-foot deep rectangular pool, two hot tubs and a large aerial-view TV screen showing classic Disney movies. (It was there, with the ship docked in the Bahamas, where I watched Ohio State beat Michigan in their Big Ten showdown.)
Pool-side eateries such as Pinocchio's Pizzeria, Pluto's Dog House Snack Bar and Goofy's Gallery kept us well-fed in between meals.
The Wonder also has an adults-only pool with two hot tubs, but we didn't visit that area. Full-service spas and Palo, a restaurant with Northern Italian cuisine, are also available for adults. Those cost extra, however.
BROADWAY-STYLE PRODUCTIONS with singing, dancing, costumes and special effects take place nightly in the Walt Disney Theatre. On the three-night cruise, passengers are treated to "Hercules A Muse-ical Comedy," "The Golden Mickeys" and "Disney Dreams" all extremely enjoyable, whether young or old. It's Disney, so that's what one would expect.
There is no shortage of entertainment opportunities aboard the Wonder. There's a movie theater, which often plays first-run Disney movies, and several nightclubs and lounges some for families, some for teens and others for adults. The five of us sang "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" during a karaoke event, and we quickly concluded we're not ready for "American Idol." Organized deck parties furnish further chances to watch performances, get involved and you guessed it eat.
Disney also offers non-stop activities for children of all age groups.
Trained counselors at the Oceaneer Club supervise and help children ages 3 to 12 participate in various crafts, games and activities, such as a luau with Lilo and Stitch, a tea party with Alice and a puppet show with Nemo. The play area is designed like Captain Hook's ship. An adjoining room is full of coloring stations and video games. Parents can leave the kids and do their own thing but still stay in touch with provided pagers. Other security measures include passwords and numbered wristbands.
We tried the pager method twice, and both times we got called back because a teary-eyed Val really, really missed us, despite the presence of her sister and cousins.
As part of the Oceaneer Club, Madeline graduated from Disney University during a cap-and-gown ceremony with Mickey and Minnie in the main theater, and she got to keep the mouse-eared cap and a T-shirt as souvenirs.
Teens 13 to 17 can hang out in an area created just for them.
Baby-sitting for children under 3 is offered but costs $6 per hour and must be reserved prior to sailing a real drawback for first-time cruisers, since they likely won't know when they would need the service.
PERHAPS THE BEST PART of the cruise, from a child's standpoint any way, is the character interaction. Mickey and all of his Disney friends, including the entourage of princesses, can be spotted at all hours throughout the ship, with lots of time for autographs and photos. From hugs to high-fives to posing for pictures, Madeline, Val and Elaina and their cousins Zachary, 6, and Ashley, 3, couldn't get enough of the characters. Well, Val wanted no part of Cinderella and her gang, but she loved everyone else. And while Elaina was a bit leery at first, she was soon waving at and later touching the characters especially their eyes.
Our ship made two stops: Nassau, Bahamas, the capital of the commonwealth where we haggled with artisans while purchasing their goods for souvenirs, and Castaway Cay, Disney's private island where we made sandcastles on the beach and relaxed in hammocks. The buffet lunch on Castaway Cay was included in the cruise price, and Jodie, Elaina and I were able to explore that beautiful island while Madeline, Val and Zachary played under the supervision of counselors at Scuttle's Cove, an extension of the Oceaneer Club.
On the final night, we gathered in the ship atrium, where all of the characters mingled with passengers before putting on a farewell performance by the dual staircases.
MY FEARS OF SEASICKNESS never materialized. The only motion I noticed came at night, and it actually felt soothing, like being rocked to sleep.
The cruise is expensive; there's no denying that. But when you think of the Wonder as a floating city providing all of your entertainment, shopping, dining and accommodations, with no transportation hassles, then the price seems more reasonable. At least that helped me justify the cost.
And the memories the trip created for our family left me with no regrets about going.
If I were to do it again, I would take a longer cruise one of the four- or seven-night voyages. Those trips offer additional live stage shows, stop at more ports-of-call and feature increased dinner options. Because there is so much to see and do, the fast-pace schedule of the three-night trip left us almost needing a vacation after the vacation. But that was our choice. Passengers do only as much as they want to do.
As I finish writing this, it occurs to me that I'm ready to hear the ship horn bellow "When You Wish Upon a Star" again. I'm also ready to eat. Where's that Pluto's Dog House Snack Bar when you need it?