Getting a reservation at Palo had tested our patience. Bookings had to be made in person; when we arrived before the ship set sail, we joined a queue of 70 passengers that snaked through the restaurant to a table where the maitre d' sat, godfather-like, granting favors.
Fortunately, the Italian food, prepared by a Sicilian chef and served by chatty young Italian waiters, was exquisite: pasta shells with shaved Parmesan, marinated eggplant with goat cheese, succulent sea bass on risotto and a good wine list. The experience was more than worth the $5 per person cover charge--and we didn't even have to pay a baby-sitter.
Our last dinner, at Animator's Palate, was a remarkable show in itself. As the meal begins, everything in the dining room is black and white, from the drawings of Disney scenes on the walls to tablecloths and waiter vests that look as if black paint has been spattered on them. As the meal progresses, the room slowly comes to life with color. It was, indeed, magical.
After dinner, we had our choice of more entertainment. Each evening offered a new performance of a family musical with Disney themes and Broadway-quality actors in the 1,040-seat theater.
Disney's effort to appeal to kids of all ages was evident in a walk down the top two decks. Music from "Pocahontas," "Cinderella" and "Mary Poppins" blared above the children's pool. In the middle of the ship, reggae music played at the family pool, and farther forward, the sea air carried more sedate music at the adult pool.
Strolling the deck one evening after a show, we came across a Hercules-themed contest in which kids performed such feats as rolling giant eyeballs into plastic bowling pins.
Another evening, we joined families at Studio Sea for karaoke night and later hung out at the ESPN Skybox, located high in the unused smokestack, watching baseball games and a golf tournament on the two big-screen and six small-screen TVs.
The Magic's last port of call, Castaway Cay, is a 3-by-2-mile island that Disney acquired and turned into a resort exclusively for its cruise ship passengers. It has separate family, teen and adult beaches with hundreds of umbrellas and lounge chairs, a wide lagoon, several bars, a tram, and bike and walking paths.
We rented snorkeling equipment, at the steep cost of $93 for the four of us. The snorkeling was not the best in the Bahamas, but it was good enough for beginners like us. After two hours, we lined up for a buffet lunch of barbecued ribs, fish and hamburgers. Later we rented kayaks ($6 for half an hour) and cruised the lagoon, enjoying the gentle breeze.
We were disappointed when the advertised "day" at Castaway Cay ended at 3 p.m. and we were hustled back. After spending 18 hours the previous day in Nassau, only 6 1/2 hours at the beautiful little island left us wanting more.
Early the next morning--and too soon for us--we were back at Port Canaveral, clearing customs and boarding buses bound for the Orlando airport.
By then we were converts to this new kind of cruise. Even Betsy conceded it had been fun. And when Kate asked, "Can we do this again sometime?" it didn't seem like a bad idea at all.
\o7 Kraft is National editor for The Times.\f7
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
GUIDEBOOK: Disney Magic Tour
Disney at sea: The Disney Magic sails year-round on three- and four-day itineraries. Three-day cruises leave Friday evenings and return Monday mornings; four-day cruises leave Mondays and return Fridays.
What it costs: Prices for a three-day cruise, including meals and entertainment, air fare to Orlando and transportation to the ship at Port Canaveral, begin at $799 per person, double occupancy, for a standard inside stateroom; a four-day cruise begins at $909. The least expensive cabin with a full-view veranda, shared by a family of four, runs about $4,200 for a three-day cruise in low season, August through early December. The four-day cruise adds about $400.
There are also seven-day packages available that combine a cruise and a stay at Walt Disney World Resort; for the same veranda cabin category, the cost would be about $6,400. Prices rise for holiday and spring break bookings, which are difficult if not impossible to get, though there is space available for fall cruises. Not included in the cost: alcoholic beverages and nonalcoholic beverages outside mealtimes, baby-sitting ($11 per hour), excursions, recreational equipment rentals and tips (expect to pay $100 to $200).
For more information: The Disney Cruise Line, telephone (800) WDW-CRUISE or (407) 566-7000, or book through a travel agent.