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It's a Kids' Ship, After All

But, for a family of first-time cruisers, there's plenty to keep even dubious adults happy on Disney's much-ballyhooed new ship


ABOARD THE DISNEY MAGIC — Like many parents, my wife, Betsy, and I have found that family vacations fall roughly into two categories: a stimulating trip for us accompanied by grumbling children, or a fun time for the kids that leaves us exhausted and dreaming of home.

Disney's new cruise ship, the Disney Magic, seemed the perfect compromise. Here, I thought, we could find a stress-free vacation for the kids, for the adults--for the family.

Unfortunately, that view wasn't shared by my wife, who is ordinarily among the most adventurous of travelers. Neither of us had ever taken a cruise, and the very idea struck Betsy as vacation torture. Stuck on a boat? With "Under the Sea" playing around the clock?

The ship certainly seemed to offer plenty of stuff to do: three pools, four restaurants, a cafeteria, an ESPN Skybox, four nightclubs, musicals and movies. In addition, both the three-night and four-night cruises out of Florida featured daylong stops in Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney's own private island. (The longer sailing adds a day at sea.)

But the prospect of being cooped up with 2,000 people on a ship--even an 85,000-ton one powered by five 16-cylinder diesel engines and Disney's finest pixie dust--sounded like jail.

My curiosity eventually prevailed, though, and we booked a three-night cruise. (Betsy's influence on our children is such that they continued to refer to our upcoming vacation as the "SDC," or Stupid Disney Cruise.)

So on a recent muggy Friday morning, we headed out of Orlando airport on a bus. In just under an hour, we arrived at Port Canaveral and got our first glimpse of the Disney Magic--waiting for us and its ninth Caribbean voyage.

The ship is a truly magnificent sight. It bears an unsettling resemblance to the Titanic, and that's no accident. The design recalls the era of grand old ocean liners, with two large red smokestacks (only one is used for exhaust), a long and narrow black hull and large round portholes.

Then there are the Disney touches: the giant Mickey Mouse symbol on the smokestacks; a 20-foot-tall statue of Goofy hanging off the aft deck, seeming to paint the finishing touches on the gold trim; and a grand horn that announces departures and arrivals with blasts of the first seven notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star." There's no mistaking this for the Queen Elizabeth 2.

Some have suggested that it was Disney's famous attention to detail that contributed to delays in building the $350-million ship in Trieste, Italy. Among other things, Disney insisted that the lifeboats, which international maritime law dictates be orange, instead be painted gold--to match the ship's color scheme. Disney won an exemption; the boats are gold.

The maiden voyage was twice postponed, in what the Wall Street Journal called "one of the most-delayed cruise-ship projects in modern times." It finally set sail on July 30.

We arrived at Disney's cavernous port terminal at midday. Hearing the hall filled with Disney tunes, I worried about what we were getting ourselves into. It's been several years since I last visited a Disney theme park, but I still catch myself humming the dreaded "It's a Small World."

I checked in while Betsy, Kate, 9, and Kevin, 7, posed for photographs with Disney characters who roamed the terminal. Then the kids parked themselves in front of large television sets playing (what else?) Disney cartoons.

We boarded shortly after noon, stepping into the ship's three-story atrium lobby, with its sweeping staircase anchored by a made-for-photographing statue of Mickey at a ship's wheel. The ship's interior, from stem to stern, is tasteful and luxurious, with fine carpeting and teak trim, and the walls are covered with framed artists' sketches of scenes and characters from Disney features, dating back to Walt Disney's first cartoons.

Our midship stateroom had a queen bed and a sitting area with a sofa/twin bed and a second twin that dropped from the ceiling to create bunk beds. Disney says 73% of its staterooms have outside views, and well over half of those have private verandas, as did ours.

We booked the fifth priciest out of 12 cabin categories, paying $2,178 (including air fare). But that was half the going rate because Disney slashed prices for the many passengers who, like us, had been bumped twice by ship construction delays. (No one at Disney knew we were aboard to write about the cruise for this newspaper, which paid our expenses.)

Although Disney says its staterooms are 30% larger than the industry average, at 268 square feet ours still seemed small for four people. But it did have two separate bathroom spaces, one with a toilet and sink and the other with a bath/shower and sink--a smart idea for families. And it was handsomely decorated with a framed bar of music from the film "Pete's Dragon" ("I'll be your can-dle on the wa-ter . . .") and a 1934 photograph of Walt Disney and his wife (and Mickey) aboard a cruise ship.

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