The tone for a cruise on the Disney Fantasy is set when guests step into the atrium, a three-deck art nouveau space designed for grand entrances. A member of the crew announces each family's name over a loudspeaker as if it were a state dinner and the receiving line applauds.
The atrium has a gorgeous cascading chandelier in peacock blues and greens, fluted columns, a sweeping staircase and a bronze statue at its foot that is as elegant as the rest of the room. If it weren't for the fact that it is a statue of Minnie Mouse, and that the abstract twists of decorative metalwork around the room sometimes curl into mouse ears, you might not recognize it as a Disney creation.
But then Goofy dances down the stairs, the ship's horn blasts out the opening notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star," a little girl shows off her Sleeping Beauty dress and there's no question: This mix of kid-oriented magic, cutting-edge technology and fanciful detail could only be Disney. This space is fit for a princess - a good thing, because I count six Disney princesses over the course of the cruise.
The Fantasy - 130,000 gross tons, 1,115 feet long, 121 feet wide, 1,250 staterooms with a capacity of 4,000 guests - is the fourth ship for Disney Cruise Line. It made its inaugural cruise a few weeks ago from Port Canaveral, Fla.,where it will be based year-round, making weeklong Caribbean cruises.
It has a few visible differences with its sister ship, the Disney Dream, launched just more than a year ago: AquaLab, a water playground with pop jets, geysers and bubblers "created" by Donald Duck's mischief-making nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, replaces the Waves bar on the pool deck. Europa, a five-club adults-only complex, is designed to make guests feel like they're clubbing in Europe. Satellite Falls is an upper deck adults-only splash pool with a curtain of rain. The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique offers princess and pirate makeovers. And in Animator's Palate restaurant, the Animation
And of course the Fantasy has different signature characters: Dumbo hangs off the stern, and Mademoiselle Minnie, with parasol, presides over the atrium - places held by Sorcerer Mickey and Admiral Donald Duck, respectively, on the Dream.
"If you take a look at the Disney dictionary, the word 'same' is not in it," said Karl Holz, president of Disney Cruise Line. "Every one of our ships has a unique personality."
Other differences are not so readily apparent. The Fantasy is set up for seven-night cruises, the Dream for three- and four-night cruises, so they have different programming. The Fantasy needs more entertainment - more shows, more
So you'll find a new Muppet adventure game, a sort of scavenger hunt for clues using the ship's "enchanted art" that also serves as an introduction to the ship. There are more animated characters for the video "portholes" in inside staterooms. In Animator's Palate, guests are entertained one night by the animation of their sketches, one night by Crush, the surfer-dude sea turtle from "Finding Nemo."
There are more live shows in the Walt Disney Theater, including "Disney Wishes," a musical created just for this ship, and more opportunities for meet-and-greets with at least 20 Disney characters who also happen to be sailing on your cruise.
MORE TO COME?
Talk to travel agents, and they have no doubt that the demand for Disney ships - even with fares higher than most premium cruises - warrants more new ships.
"We're having the best year we've ever had with Disney," said Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager of the CruiseOne travel agency. "They definitely know how to create a great buzz. ... Disney has always been a premium product, and they really do not have to do anything in the way of discounting to get people on board those ships."
A search on Cruises.com for weeklong Caribbean cruises in June, when many ships have moved to Europe or Alaska, found that cruises on the Fantasy were the most expensive of what is available -
Next January, when there are far more ships in the Caribbean, the Fantasy, at $1,113 for an inside cabin, is costlier than all the premium ships - Celebrity, Princess, Holland America - and cheaper only than the luxury lines, Seabourn and Silversea, on Cruise.com's listings.
Disney doesn't charge for some things that other cruise lines do. There's no charge for using the kids' clubs (except the nursery), for example, or for soda (except at bars). And that can add up to quite a bit on other ships.
But when it does charge for something extra, the price can be high. A glass of the ship's private label Jessica Rabbit champagne, made by Taittinger, is $26. At the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, prices start at $34.95 for makeup and can go to $184.95 for full costume and makeover. A CD of photos from a weeklong cruise runs $349. Rental of a cabana on Castaway Cay for a day ranges from $499 to $699 for six to 10 people.
Disney executives are unapologetic about prices. "We believe in delivering value," Holz said. "We believe in the concept of all-inclusive. We're not going to charge you $20 more to have a filet in the dining room. We're about experiences that fans value. We want to make sure that when our guests come off the ship, they say, 'That was worth every penny.' "
And they do, said Bob Levinstein, CEO of Cruise Competes.com. Parents and grandparents say they want what is best for their kids.
"There are things you can get on Disney ships that you can't get anywhere else. If those are things that are important to you, you're willing to pay extra for it," Levinstein said.
Disney introduced its ship to travel agents, the media and special guests with a pair of three-night preview cruises to Castaway Cay just before its official inaugural cruise last month. The ship had only about 2,300 passengers on the first of those cruises, so service and events may not have been representative, but what the experience underscored is these ships were built for kids. While other cruise lines have children's clubs and special programming for youngsters, on the Fantasy, it is the adults who have their own clubs and special activities.
The rest belongs to the kids.