Disney’s Fantastic Voyage

The kids are the go-to demographic on the Fantasy, the newest vessel in Disney's fleet of floating theme parks

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Matt Stroshane / Disney Parks / Getty Images

Disney Fantasy, the newest Disney Cruise Line ship, arrives in her home port of Port Canaveral, Florida, on March 6, 2012.

Disney owns childhood. For three quarters of a century, since the 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Walt Disney Company has created animated features, TV shows, theme parks and Broadway shows — and all that Disney merchandise — designed to corral the imaginations of the young and drain the pockets of their doting parents. Extending its domain from land to sea, the entertainment monolith in 1998 launched the first of its cruise ships, the Disney Magic: a floating theme park that applied the suave contours of classic vessels like The Normandie to the business and pleasure of surrounding passengers with all things Disney, 24 hours a day on a week-long cruise.

The fourth ship in the line, the Disney Fantasy, set sail this spring, after a christening ceremony at a mid-Manhattan pier that featured performances by Jerry Seinfeld, Neil Patrick Harris, Nick Cannon and Heather Hedley, a cameo appearance by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the ritual cracking of a six-foot bottle of champagne, by the ship’s official “godmother,” Mariah Carey, that opened to cover the onlookers with streamers and confetti. Disney knows how to throw a G-rated revel.

(READ: Corliss on the Disney Magic cruise ship)

Very rarely, reality intrudes on Fantasy — as this past Sunday, when the ship stopped off the coast of Key West, Florida, to rescue four men, reportedly Cubans, who were stranded on a raft. Otherwise, on the vessel’s alternating seven-day itineraries of the Eastern and Western Caribbean, undiluted illusion rules. The Disney ambiance envelops passengers from the moment the ship sails, and its fog horn blows the first seven notes from “When You Wish Upon a Star,” until guests return to their staterooms late at night to find on their beds a letterbox-shaped pink pillow with the inscription, “A dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep” (also sold for $199.95 at the one of ship’s stores).

If you feel suffocated by the very notion of nonstop corporate synergy — and don’t care to pay about 20% more for it than on other lines — then by all means book a cruise on the Costa Concordia. But if you have kids, or secretly still are one, you may find that this new Disney ship provides all the elements for a fantastic voyage.

A while back, Mary Corliss and I took a three-night preview cruise of the Fantasy. Here’s a record of our thoughts: on the ship’s design and décor, its cabins, restaurants, night clubs, live-action shows and other features.

Disney Fantasy Atrium Lobby

Kent Phillips / Courtesy Disney

Design and Décor

A virtual twin to the line’s third ship the Disney Dream, the Fantasy is 1,115 feet long, 121 feet wide and accommodates as many as 4,000 passengers in 1,250 staterooms. The central atrium, three decks high, features a 13-foot chandelier of stained glass and crystal beads in a peacock-feather motif. At the foot of the atrium staircase is a large bronze statue of the ship’s mascot, Mademoiselle Minnie Mouse, outfitted in vintage cruise couture.

You could spend the whole voyage like an archeologist on a dig, searching for Disney designs — they’re everywhere! In a few of the elevators, a glass window permits an ascending view of the atrium and, on the outside wall, images of floating or flying characters: Peter Pan and Wendy, Mickey the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the old man and the boy in their Up balloon. Each element on the ship, executed with the company’s usual lavish attention to the finickiest detail, creates a subtle symphony of visual and aural sensations meant to ensure that passengers never, ever forget they are living inside the world of Walt.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Disney-Pixar Up)

It’s said of Disney parks that guests should be able to have a great time just walking around, even if they don’t go on a lot of attractions, because the grand and minute design of the place has its own entertainment value. In other words, the park is the ride. A similar scheme applies to the Disney cruise line: the ship is the ports. The Fantasy makes fewer stops than most Caribbean ships — four on its Western swing (Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Cozumel and the Disney island of Castaway Cay) and just three on the Eastern (St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Castaway Cay) — but customers come for the trip, not the destinations. Who needs to go ashore, when the Fantasy décor crams your mind with piquant images and sounds? Who needs to buy trinkets on Sint Maarten, when the cheerful salesfolk at the Disney stores will sell you and your kids merchandise related to the films and characters that constantly surround you?

As with many cruise ships, the Disney Fantasy is a no-cash vessel. Your stateroom key is also your credit card, which you use to pay for all transactions. Most food and shows are included in the basic fare, but there are extra charges for the Remy Restaurant — also for a latte at the coffee bar or a drink on the pool deck.

The Staterooms

The size of some cruise lines’ cabins range from prison-cell to ballroom, but most of the staterooms on the Fantasy are roughly of the same upper-middle class dimensions: larger than average, with attaching terraces. For adults traveling with kids, the couch can be converted into a bed, and a bunk swings down from the ceiling. Two small bathrooms (one with sink and shower, the other with sink and toilet) allow mom and dad to freshen up at the same time. WiFi is available for the Internet-addicted, at a hefty surcharge typical on cruise ships, and the TV plays CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News — ideal for grumpy grampas determined to boycott the fun. Your friendly steward stays out of the way, but as you return at night you find his handiwork at towel origami: kissing swans, or an elephant with sunglasses.

One-percenters can treat their families to upper-deck staterooms about twice the standard size. But some folks ask for the inside cabins, not only because they’re less expensive but also because they boast a Disney innovation: the “magic porthole.” A round screen in a nautical frame set into the wall, it shows an animated loop of the sea coursing by, with occasional glimpses of Nemo the Pixar clownfish and the Up parachute. It’s like a free movie in your room, and at night it could serve as a visual lullaby for the wee ones.

Activities

Good news for grownups: a Disney ship has literally hundreds of baby-sitters. In a dozen play areas, all rigorously themed to Disney or Pixar hits, the company employees — they call them “cast members” — supervise fun for underagers of all ages: toddlers (the “It’s a Small World” Nursery), the five-to-10 set (Andy’s Room from Toy Story, Monster’s Academy from Monsters, Inc.), tweens (the Edge Club) and teens (Chill Spa). Interactive games galore keep the young occupied. If your daughter has a spare moment, send her to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the makeover salon “where little girls are magically transformed into little princesses” (from $54.95). At the end of the cruise, parents can reintroduce themselves to their kids.

Adults have their own international playground: Europa, a connected complex of five intimate night clubs sharing a continental ambiance. Wander from London (The Tube) to Dublin (O’Gills Pub) to Paris (Ooh La La) and Rome (La Piazza), each serving up music and cocktails.

(LIST: The all-TIME Top 25 Animated Features)

On the pool deck, the family-friendly party includes danceathon workout sessions — see Mickey and Goofy get jiggy to “Shake a Tail Feather” — and the once-a-cruise Pirate show, in Caribbean mode, that climaxes with fireworks. For the Fantasy’s one thrill ride, take the AquaDuck, a 765-foot waterslide that caroms around the ship’s higher regions and occasionally off the side. After all this exertion, check out the photos that the cast members keep taking of your group; they can be seen on the screen of Shutters, an interactive family album that allows you to score high points by quickly touching them.

The Fantasy also shows movies, Disney of course, and some in 3-D. The big attraction on our cruise was the studio’s recent flop John Carter. When Christian Abbott, the affable Cruise Director, announced the movie’s name, the audience actually applauded. On Disney ships, the geniality of the staff is matched by the courteousness of the guests.

Animator’s Palate Restaurant

Kent Phillips / Courtesy Disney

Restaurants

Three main dining rooms — the Royal Court, the Enchanted Garden and Animator’s Palate — have early and late sittings, each with a 696 capacity. Disney, deciding which restaurant you attend and when, has your wait staff accompany you through the voyage. The cuisine is OK to good, and the accouterments are even tastier, like the Royal Court’s bread basket, shaped like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, holding a pumpkin-shaped loaf of white bread.

On a Disney ship, dinner is always dinner theater, with the emphasis on the latter. At Animator’s Palate, the Fantasy’s consensus sensation, diners sit down to find paper place mats and felt-tipped pens, on which they are encouraged to draw whatever figure they choose inside a human-silhouette shape. Before the end of the meal, wall screens display their handiwork: an animated film in which the figures come to life and cavort with Aladdin, Pinocchio and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s a three-minute cartoon astonishment created in under a half-hour, and it ends with a credits scroll featuring the signatures of the dining “artists.” (The big mystery of the cruise is why Disney doesn’t sell copies of these mini-masterpieces to the patrons.)

(READ: Where Cruise Ship Island-Hopping Can Be Dangerous

Epicures should spring for an evening at Remy, the 68-seat continental restaurant named for the French rodent chef in Pixar’s Ratatouille. For $75 per-person, and another $24 to keep the wine flowing, you get one of the most sumptuous meals served at sea. Similar to the high-end Victoria and Albert’s restaurant at Walt Disney World, but charging half the price, Remy pampers you with a rich, artful menu (get the degustation) served by a fluttering flotilla of waiters, maîtres and sommeliers from nearly every NATO country.

If you’re a culinary chauvinist, spend an afternoon on the Disney island Castaway Cay and sample the all-American buffet barbecue. Then repair to the long stretch of beach and take a swim. But wait 45 minutes after your lunch before going in the water, like Mom told you.

Until the late hours, free pizza is available on the pool deck, but it’s pallid compared with the late-night pizza served on a rival liner, the Celebrity Summit. Now those are savory slices worth a whole voyage, if you were ever to book a cruise based on the snack food.

Disney Wishes

Kent Phillips / Courtesy Disney

The Shows

Having extended its brand to Broadway, with the long-running hits Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mary Poppins, Disney would never restrict its onboard theatrical entertainment to those cruise-ship standards, magic shows and oldies tribute acts. In the main auditorium, under an eight-point star chandelier, the Fantasy presents several live, 50-minute musicals, two of them new to the new vessel. (A third show, Believe, plays on all the Disney ships.) Both Aladdin and Wishes are multi-million-dollar productions with occasional exhilarations and some wince-worthy dialogue.

Aladdin reprises Disney’s 1992 animated hit, using scrim screens, hydraulics, back projection and a flying horse on sticks to cleverly approximate the movie’s effects on stage. The show also updates the banter of the blue Genie voiced in the film by Robin Williams. Claiming that he’s “a backup for the Blue Man Group,” he warns Aladdin that even a magical three wishes come with small print: “No raising anybody from the dead. I used up all that magic on Betty White.” People laughed at that.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Broadway Mary Poppins)

Wishes, by off-Broadway playwright-composer Kirsten Childs, brings the scrapbook of a teenager named Kayla to life, integrating her real and Disney-dream worlds. The perky original number “The Ride of Our Lives” leads the girl and her friends into a travelogue of songs from more than a half-dozen Disney animated features, all smartly rendered. The dialogue skews a little young for the characters speaking it — would “Space Mountain vs. Splash Mountain” really be the subject of an intense teen debate? — and a spectator could conceivably tire of the relentless self-marketing (“I wish we could go back to Disneyland”; “We’ll never outgrow Disney”; “It’s like my hero Walt Disney said…”). But the theme of perpetually arrested preadolescence has always been Disney’s first commandment. With extra helpings of sugary stagecraft, the medicine goes down smoothly enough.

The Kids Are the Show

On most cruise ships, people-watching is a minor recreational activity. (Who’s the fattest? Who’s wearing the gaudiest shorts?) On the Fantasy, children are the go-to demographic, and the best show on board. These infant scholars of the Disney canon will button-hole their parents — and, because the ship gives them a familiar feeling of safety, total strangers — to explain the names of each cartoon character they see, the story connected to each architectural item. They are the ship’s renewable source of humor and wonder — and, in one instance we observed, high melodrama.

It happened during Meet the Princesses time in the grand lobby, when six cast members outfitted as heroines of Disney animated features — Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Tiana from The Princess and the Frog— offer a hug, a brief chat and a photo-op to the little girls lined up to see them. One five-year-old, dressed as Snow White and probably fresh from the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, conferred with the princesses. Then she posed with a cast-member Minnie Mouse, also in Snow White couture. Turning a corner, the girl nearly bumped into another child, perhaps a year younger, and she too was dressed as Snow White. For a second they stared daggers at each other, like two debs who wore the same Paris original to the cotillion. Our Snow White’s mother averted tragedy with consoling words, and the pre-school princess skipped off to another Fantastic adventure.

Somewhere, the cryogenically preserved spirit of Walt Disney was thinking, “Another childhood restored.” Walt should know: he owns it.

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