You have to hand it to Mickey Mouse.
With its new ship Dream, Disney Cruise Line promised a ship where family vacation dreams would come true and it has delivered -- big time -- for parents, grandparents and kids of all ages -- whether they are first-time cruisers or veterans of many sailings (disneycruise.disney.go.com/ships-activities/ships/dream/).
Other cruise lines are also catering to the growing family cruise market (more than a million kids now cruise each year) with their megaships, water slides and kid-friendly entertainment. That's a smart move at a time when children increasingly drive vacation decisions, according to a new Ypartnership survey, which found that cruises top kids' lists of dream vacation destinations, right behind a trip to Walt Disney World.
From what I saw on a two-day preview cruise, the Disney Dream has upped the ante for what families can expect onboard, though they shouldn't expect a bargain.
There are the big new things, like the AquaDuck Water Coaster that sends you careening in rafts inside clear acrylic tubes around the ship (even 12 feet over the side 150 feet above the ocean). For the littlest cruisers, there's an expansive (some 1,500 square feet), shaded water play area called Nemo's Reef where diapers are welcome. The expanded on-board nursery, modeled on "It's a Small World," has room for 80 children starting at age 3 months (parents pay $6 an hour for the service) and it's a standout. The pastel colors and fanciful furniture make you smile just walking through the door.
Teens will think they've discovered vacation heaven at VIBE, their own club to which only teens are admitted, complete with private sundeck, pool and hot tub, as well as the technology to create and edit videos with the latest software. Did I mention the 103-inch LCD screen or the built-in pods where they can "chill" watching videos on their own, listening to music or playing video games? They can also go to their own Chill Spa with special spa treatments (Hot Chocolate Wrap or Surfer's Scrub perhaps?) The best part: the equally terrific Tween Club Edge is in another part of the ship so pesky younger sibs won't be anywhere near.
The Enchanted Art displayed around the ship comes to life with several seconds of animation as you stand in front of it -- and it won't be the same each time. At Animator's Palate, Crush, the sea turtle from "Finding Nemo," speaks to them by name via giant video monitors on the walls.
At the Oceaneer Club and adjacent Oceaneer Lab for children 3 to 10, they can choose from such activities as rearranging the face of a giant Mr. Potato Head in Andy's Room from "Toy Story," dress like fairies and princesses in Pixie Hollo. Characters, of course, come by to share the fun. Ready for a pirate lesson from Captain Hook? You won't believe the interactive Magic Floor, either, where kids' movements control the action below their feet. (Think flying over London with Peter Pan.)
"The idea is to use all of the spaces to enhance creativity -- spaces where they can let their imaginations go wild," says Disney veteran Erika Solano, who oversees the youth activities onboard.
For parents and grandparents, this is one family vacation where they might get a break themselves. There is an adult-only pool area, a spa and fitness center, adult-only excursions (rum tasting in Nassau), an adult-only beach on Disney's private island Castaway Cay and Disney's hip Adult-only District entertainment area.
The little things Disney has done could make all the difference to a traveling family. For example, counselors will pick up the kids from dinner so you can relax over that second glass of wine or coffee. There's no charge for soft drinks, nor does Disney charge for late-night programming for the kids, as do other cruise lines.
Like Disney World, on your first Dream cruise, you and your gang simply won't have time to experience even half of what's here, including dozens of activities each day (a tutorial on paper airplanes or towel animals?), first-run films and Broadway-quality shows. So don't even try to do it all. Just relax and enjoy.