GALVESTON, Texas — My wife and I, along with our two youngest kids, recently took a six-day cruise aboard the Disney Magic that included stops at Grand Cayman and Cozumel. It was delightful — and not just because the toilets worked.
Foremost among the delights was that Disney paid for our cruise in exchange for this article. We paid for the kids to fly from Oklahoma City to Houston and for whatever we bought during the cruise and shore excursions. But Disney picked up the rest; it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of bargain.
So I can wholeheartedly endorse a free cruise with Disney. You'd be a fool not to take advantage of that.
Having said that, I must admit that I had never seriously considered loading up the family for a six-day cruise. I wasn't sure if I would really enjoy being on board a ship along with 2,640 other tourists, including about 600 kids. And it's not the cheapest of vacations.
Trust in Disney
If any organization knows how to entertain a captive group of tourists, it's Disney. The ship's staff numbers about 1,000 people, and for nearly all of them, your enjoyment is their main objective.
The kids' activities are key to the success of the Disney experience. Frankly, I was a bit worried when I spotted young girls — many in costume and some near hysterics — waiting in long lines in the ship's main entryway to meet one of four Disney princesses. Most of the girls carried Disney-branded autograph books to obtain signatures from these fictional characters.
But such activities were easily avoidable for adults and older kids beyond the lure of such childlike attractions. It turned out that few of us can escape Disney's marketing might. By week's end, I had donned a headscarf for dinner to participate in pirate's night.
Our children — Lucy, 11, and Joey, 9 — spent much of their time at clubs with other kids of the same age. Lucy's group met at the Edge, tucked into a lower deck. The room was filled with cool activities, including a wall-sized video display where one could steer the ship into port. Tweens were allowed to come and go, with young Disney employees providing supervision.
Joey had two age-appropriate clubs to choose from, Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab, with dress-up and storytelling the main draw of the former and more active play the focus of the latter. With our permission, which we granted after getting comfortable with the setup, Joey could check himself in and out of those clubs.
The kids loved the freedom of being able to come and go, and enjoyed the activities. One caveat: sometimes it's hard to track down the kids, even though Disney provided free cellphones that work onboard. On one of our first nights at sea, I found the kids after midnight in the electronic arcade, where the Edge staffers had set all the games to play for free. Hey, if I were 9, it's where I would have been.
The left side
of the menu
Like any cruise, food is a major draw on the Disney Magic. Food ceases to be measured by quality (average to very good) or quantity (infinite), but by time — as in, “we ate dinner for 90 minutes.”
Dinners are a distinctly Disney production. Unlike any other cruise line, Disney rotates dinners among three 462-seat dining halls: Lumiere's, a white-tablecloth restaurant with details drawn from “Beauty and the Beast;” Animator's Palate, where the artwork, walls and staff transform from black-and-white to full color during the course of the meal; and Parrot Cay, a Caribbean-themed eatery.
Your staff — waiter, drink server and captain — rotate along with you from night to night. By the fourth day, our waiter, Louis, knew better than to embarrass me by asking if I could eat three lobsters — he just brought them to the table. The quality of the food was constantly good, if not great. Steaks, for instance, always seemed to be cooked medium no matter how you ordered them, and a fair amount of items showed up a bit less warm than I would have preferred.
The servers called our kids by name, even playfully scolding them for ordering pizza rather than at least trying the sea bass. Our restaurant captain visited our table each evening near the end of the meal to remind us of special shows or events. Such levels of personal service delivered in a restaurant serving hundreds of diners simultaneously is remarkable.
My wife, Mishelleen, and I also dined at Palo, an upscale, smaller (only 130 seats) Northern Italian-themed restaurant atop the ship, with a $20-per-person additional charge.
It was tony and very tasty.
We ate for two hours at Palo, where the cooking improved as the demands placed upon the kitchen were lessened considerably.
I ordered my beef medium-rare, and it was wonderfully pink and juicy.
Also designated as adults-only are several lounges and bars, a coffee shop, a swimming pool, a day spa and a workout center.
There are places to get away from the kids and, with the kids' clubs, ample opportunity for parents of all but the youngest children. A nursery that charges hourly rates allows even those with infants and toddlers to enjoy a dinner or movie.
Our stateroom was cozy and clever. My wife and I shared a queen-size bed, and a couch converted to one twin bed with another twin bunk lowered from the ceiling by the staff each evening. There was plenty of storage, and a slickly designed bathroom separated the shower and toilet into two distinct spaces while providing a sink on each side.
We also had a balcony that provided expansive ocean views (although not always unobstructed views — there are a lot of drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico), sea breezes and the sounds of spray as the Magic steamed through the Gulf. A small television offered first-run movies, and an endless reel of Disney cartoon classics. It was a great place to sit and snack or laze, but ultimately, the bulk of our time during the day was spent elsewhere.
We made port in the Grand Caymans and Cozumel. A variety of excursions is available for an additional charge, and we chose to swim with the stingrays in the Grand Caymans. I selected that excursion after visiting with a Disney adviser at the ship's excursion center. She was full of good tips and recommended about a dozen different options.
After disembarking, we caught a bus to a dock where we and about 30 others boarded a boat to take us to a sand bar where the stingrays gather. We spent about 45 minutes in the crystal blue water snorkeling and handling the amazing creatures. Our crew was competent and accommodating.
It was a wonderful side trip.
In Cozumel, we decided to just wander around the harbor.
Unfortunately, the area is thick with tourist traps and vendors hawking wares of dubious quality.
We quickly adapted and had some fun haggling with the local traders.
My son, Joey, managed to score a Minnesota Vikings bracelet for $3 — original offering price $7 — by standing his ground and placing his cash in the seller's hand.
We thought about eating lunch ashore, but the draw of the Magic's endless free buffet was too strong to resist.
Lesson learned: Have a plan when you go ashore.
As you might expect from Disney, the onboard entertainment was top-drawer.
The ship contains a couple of large theaters, and offers first-run movies and nightly stage shows. We watched “Wreck-It Ralph” in 3-D, but couldn't seem to find time in our schedule to attend one of many showings of “Lincoln.”
The stage shows aren't quite Broadway quality — the music is taped — but the singing, dancing and staging were top quality. Every show stars some of Disney's regular cast of characters, from Mickey and Donald to newer stars like Ariel and Pumba. The nightly shows definitely are worth your time.
Costumed Disney characters are seen frequently around the ship, with the biggest draws making scheduled appointments in the ship's main entry hall. Those appearances often drew large crowds of young, excited children and endlessly patient parents. But a walk around the deck often turned into a chance meeting with Captain Hook or Goofy.
There also were a couple of large-scale musical shows elsewhere on the ship, including an nighttime performance that ended with another Disney exclusive — a fireworks display. That event struck me as overcrowded, loud and not worth the trouble. But many of the dancing attendees appeared not to share my opinion.
The Mecoys had a great time on the Disney Magic. It was a memorable vacation, particularly for our kids. Disney knows what kids like, and the ship's kids' clubs were well-organized, fun places for our children to spend time. And they spent every free moment they had there.
I never would have guessed that I would have to seek out the small ones every time we gathered for dinner.
And, I'll admit, my wife and I chose not to look for them a time or two so we could eat by ourselves.
Disney also does a fine job of leveraging its brand in traditional and unexpected ways. It's impossible not to smile when you round a corner and Daisy Duck is blowing you a kiss.
The staging of Disney's shows also is a bonus for sailing on the Magic.
There is little to complain about on the traditional cruise side. Our meals, room accommodations and overall service were typically very good to ridiculously good.
The only problem is we may have obtained a costly addiction. I'm already pricing another excursion.