Dinsey Cruise Ships: What's New at Disney Cruise Lines?

June 2, 2006

Disney Cruise Line (DCL) has a high repeat passenger rate of about 25%. Why do families keep coming back? The main reason is the excellent shipboard product offered by Disney Cruise Ships for all ages.

Oceanquest Club

However, there's another reason that isn't as obvious: Disney Cruise Line keeps close tabs on the desires of past passengers -- including kids and teens as well as adults -- through its focus groups. In fact, children's and teens' input are integral to DCL focus groups, and have been the catalyst for a number of recent changes to the product.

So what have kids and teenagers asked for on a Disney cruise? According to Marilyn Bolomey, manager of youth programming on the Disney Magic, youths requested more flexibility and options in youth and teen activities as well as additional technology. Disney has responded by building Ocean Quest, a high-tech room for 10- to 14-year-olds on the Disney Magic; renovating The Stack into a very cool teen area, reminiscent of the set of Friends; and adding more computers to the Oceaneer Lab for kids.

"The bottom line is that we want kids to have fun on a Disney Cruise," Bolomey said. Having recently sailed Disney Magic with my teenage daughter Alex and four-year-old son Ethan, I can say that Disney easily attains this goal and then some. Even though this was my daughter's fourth Disney cruise, she still enjoyed all the family-friendly facilities, activities, and evening shows, while my young son reveled in all the characters aboard ship as well as playing in the kids' room.

What's New?... On the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, the teen program is now located in The Stack,
The Stack
which is one of the ship's funnels. This spot used to be the underutilized ESPN Zone and is the perfect location for the teen room - it's slightly out of the way (of adults) and is a cozy place to hang out. I think other cruise lines should use the decor of The Stack as a prototype for future teen clubs, which tend to be shiny discos in style. Instead, The Stack is full of earth tones, ranging from a hardwood floor to brown leather couches, brick fireplaces, area rugs, bean bag chairs, magazine racks, and sports trophies, making it look like a hangout in someone's house. There is a table for crafts or games, overhead screens for videos and X-Box, and a non-alcoholic bar at the entrance where teen counselors prepare smoothies (non-alcoholic drinks).

Another great new facility, targeted at 10- to 14-year-olds,
is Ocean Quest. According to Bolomey, Ocean Quest was "born out of comments that �tweens wanted more space of their own." Located in the bottom of the ship (also away from parental units), Ocean Quest is frequented mostly by the 10- to 12-year-olds in the youth program. There are some sporadic hours for families who want to visit Ocean Quest independently. Half the room has a cluster of comfortable couches, a large plasma screen TV, and tables for crafts. The other half is devoted to a bridge simulator: Youngsters can sit in two replica captain's chairs and manipulate buttons to navigate a fictional ship. The ship is projected onto an eight-paneled screen so that kids can view their maneuverings. Around the perimeter of the room are 21 computer stations with the latest games as well as new X-Box 360s.

In addition to these new facilities, Bolomey said comment cards and focus groups had revealed
that youngsters and teens wanted DCL counselors to be more flexible. "We now listen more to what kids want to do as far as programming is concerned." I noticed a positive difference myself in this aspect. I recall that on one of our earlier cruises, the youth counselors were a bit inflexible, which put some emotional distance between them and the kids. On this voyage, though, my son really bonded with one of the youth counselors, Arnel, which I was really pleased to see.

Lastly, Bolomey said the line is now doing some corporate partnering to enhance the youth programming. For example, DCL now partners with Nestle, resulting in a "Junior Chef" activity for the eight- to 12-year-olds. Similarly, DCL has worked with the Disney Channel's Kim Possible show and now has a scavenger hunt type activity themed around Kim Possible on Castaway Cay, DCL's private Bahamian island.

Mickey Goes to the Med: Perhaps the biggest news at DCL, though, is that the Disney Magic is leaving the Caribbean/Bahamas for seasonal Mediterranean cruises in the summer of 2007. According to Tom McAlpin, DCL president, "People want to take their families to Europe but there are obstacles. We will make it easy for them."

Mediterranean cruises usually don't attract huge numbers of kids the way that Caribbean cruises do. Thus, DCL is "adapting excursions to families," according to McAlpin. He noted this may be done by adding gelato stops for kids; building in a few sea days to unwind aboard ship during the 10 and 11-day itineraries; and including two ports with nearby beaches - Sardinia and Villefranche - for kids to blow off some steam from sightseeing. McAlpin also said the line will bring the Mediterranean experience on board with some of its adult and youth programming. The Disney Magic will home-port in Barcelona and will visit ports in Italy, France, and Sardinia.

Youth Program Details: Children who are at least three years old and potty trained are accepted into the complimentary youth program. Both Disney ships have two huge youth rooms - Oceaneer Club for the three- to seven-year-olds, and Oceaneer Lab for the eight- to 12-year-olds. A whopping 13,000 square feet of space is devoted to youth and teen activities on each ship. Within the aforementioned age groups, the kids are usually further split into age appropriate groups: three to four years, five to seven, eight to nine, and 10 to 12 years. The facilities are well equipped with a very high level of check-in/out security. While the system is much more formal than on most other ships we've seen, it is necessary since Disney carries huge numbers of kids. Our cruise had almost 1,000 kids, from infants to 17 years old; numbers are even higher on holiday and summer cruises.

Ethan in Oceanquest

The focal point of the Oceaneer Club is a pirate ship that doubles as a slide. There are also large aquatic animals and a small slide for the youngest ones to climb on. Additionally, a back room has computer games and Disney princess dress-up clothes.

The Oceaneer Lab is more high-tech and has many tables for fun, lab-type experiments. In the corners are various stations such as one with Lego-style building materials. According to Bolomey, Disney recently doubled the number of computers in the Lab, from 12 to 24, which is by far the most technology for kids I've ever witnessed at sea. Activities for older kids in the lab often are of a high-tech nature, such as using magnifying glasses and microscopes to figure out a "whodunit" crime scene. However, Disney characters do appear periodically, such as for the Goofy pajama party.

Since the kids there are younger, the Oceaneer Club utilizes Disney characters and themes much more in its programming. My son loved the Snow White do-si-do dance lesson along with "who wants to be a pirate" night. Since there are so many kids, most of the organized activities in both the Club and Lab seemed almost like theatrical productions, because the youth counselors had to wear microphones to be heard. However, all the activities I witnessed and that my son participated in were very well-executed and fun. When asked what he liked best about his Disney cruise, Ethan always enthusiastically responds "the kids' room!"

Disney is the only cruise line offering a nursery for children from six weeks old through three years. See our previopus article: Disney Cruise Lines offers a nursery for infants for more details.

Special Touches: Overall, we found the staff on Disney Magic to be very friendly and caring. From the moment we embarked, we felt very welcomed. The staff asked us our names and announced them on a microphone as we entered the main lobby - admittedly, it's a bit hokey but it did make us feel like the staff was really glad we were there.

On the first night, our waiters knew our names before we even told them! After dozens of cruises, I have never been given this kind of red-carpet treatment. A few days later, our waiter presented me with the first of many dairy-free desserts; he had overheard me saying that I'm sensitive to dairy products, and made a special request to the kitchen.

Pool Movie Screen
Mickey Pool

Unlike most other ships, DCL vessels have a designated area for tots in diapers to swim. One of the ears of the "Mickey" kids' pool has sprinklers for the little ones and a separate filtration system so that diapered children can splash about there.

Disney youth counselors also try their best to accommodate "special needs" children. While they can't be one-on-one with special needs youngsters due to the high volume of kids aboard ship, Bolomey said that they "try to accommodate when possible."

"We have staff with special needs backgrounds and often on port days, when the youth program is less crowded, we can give them some special time." She noted that DCL receives a lot of Make-A-Wish kids and her staff works closely with parents to learn what the children's needs and limits are. Similarly, Bolomey said the cruise line is very cautious about food allergies; counselors check their manifest for allergic kids before every meal they oversee. She advised parents to let the reservations staff know about allergies so it can be put right on the child's official ship documents.

Family Fun and Family Value While Disney has a great kids' program, what I think the line does best is provide entertainment and activities for families to enjoy together. Their shows are all perfect for kids of all ages, ranging from classic Disney shows with its most popular characters to a comedian who had everyone laughing, including my four-year-old and the seniors sitting next to us. The character breakfasts, Tea with Wendy (from Peter Pan), and Pirates of the Caribbean deck parties are all great things to do as a family. Additionally, the game shows that the staff put on nightly were right up my teenage daughter's alley.

Many of the aforementioned activities - including the free character breakfasts - add great value to your Disney cruise. While Disney cruises tend to be more expensive than those of other mass-market lines, you really should factor in all the free perks. These include the fireworks show after the Pirates of the Caribbean deck party; free child care at Castaway Cay's Scuttle's Cove; no fee for youth programming after 10 p.m. (most other lines charge an hourly fee after 10 p.m.); and free, limitless soda. Usually lines charge $30 to $40 for unlimited soda per person per week, which really adds up for a family of four or five. Lastly, DCL is the only family cruise line that has split bathrooms (one bathroom has a sink and toilet; the other has a sink and bathtub/shower). This is a huge help for getting your family ready and out the door quickly.

Castaway Cay

Getting There: Disney Cruise Line makes it really simple to get to/from the ship and Walt Disney World. Passengers can pay a fee to streamline their baggage delivery between the airport and the ship. I was thrilled that I was able to check my bags at my home airport and didn't have to see nor deal with them until I got to my stateroom aboard ship. where they "magically" appeared shortly thereafter. The motorcoach ride between the airport and port is an hour long.

On a previous DCL cruise, we stayed a few days prior to sailing at a Disney resort and our bags were transferred from outside our hotel room to our stateroom. This service is offered at the following Disney resort hotels: Animal Kingdom Lodge, Beach Club Resort, Caribbean Beach Resort, Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Polynesian Resort and Port Orleans Resort. The bus ride from Disney World resorts is about 1 hour and 15 minutes to Port Canaveral. For those choosing a post-cruise stay at Disney World, buses leave from Port Canaveral to all Disney resorts.

Following this cruise, we stayed two nights at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge -- a huge hit with my son, who loves animals. He was thrilled to go out on our balcony and see giraffes, zebras and other animals roaming the savannah. Both Ethan and Alex participated in one of the many free African-themed activities for kids in the atmospheric hotel lobby. The kids sat on the vast lobby floor with staff dressed up in African garb and colored rubbings of animals from the large, raised medallions set into the floor. Some of the many other youth activities the hotel offers include bongo drumming and African storytelling.

The Disney Magic's sister ship, Disney Wonder, offers three- and four-day cruise packages that can be combined with a three- and four-day stay in Walt Disney World. While this gets you the best of land and sea, I personally think a whole week is needed aboard the Disney Magic since there are countless family activities for all ages to enjoy. And enjoy them we did.

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