ABOARD THE DISNEY WONDER -- Grandpa wears a pirate hat and the little princess in his arms wields a light saber in time to the music. A dude in full Jack Sparrow attire -- dreadlocks and all -- sings along with a comely lass in a peasant blouse and hoop earrings. Perched on dad's shoulder's, a boy's eyes open wide as Mickey Mouse swoops down from the ship's funnel to do battle with Captain Hook onstage. When the mouse emerges victorious, fireworks explode overhead, sending jagged fingers of light over the inky ocean.
Disney sure knows how to put on a show. The Pirates IN the Caribbean party on deck is but one event in a packed schedule of entertainment on my four-night cruise. And like most of what Disney does on its four ships, it's designed for all age groups.
Disney cruisesPorts and prices: The Disney Wonder's four-night cruises depart Miami for Key West, Nassau and Castaway Cay in the Bahamas. Fares for April departures range from about $620 to $1,020 per person, double, plus taxes and fees, depending on date and stateroom. Three- and five-night cruises also are available in the Bahamas and western Caribbean. Additional fees include shore excursions (Disney calls them Port Adventures), specialty restaurants, alcohol, bottled water, spa, Wi-Fi and gratuities. Standard gratuity on a four-night cruise for dining and stateroom staff is $48 per person, including children.
Other Disney ships and itineraries: Disney has four ships: The Wonder and the Magic each hold 2,700 passengers; and the Dream and the Fantasy carry 4,000 passengers. Itineraries in 2013 also include Europe and Alaska.
Information: (888) 325-2500, Disneycruise.com or a travel agent.
Ranked by Travel & Leisure magazine as the No. 1 family cruise line, a Disney cruise makes an especially good vacation for a big, multigenerational group. When grandma and grandpa's energy reserves max out on the high spirits of their little darlin's, they can retreat to one of the quiet areas on the ship. Mom and dad can goof off with the kids in the Goofy Pool all afternoon, then dance the night away in one of the night spots on board. And the kids? They join their peers in play areas and supervised activities. Disney ships have separate areas for teens, tweens and ages 3-11. There's even a nursery for infants as young as 12 weeks.
While the ships play up the Disney characters theme -- almost ad nauseam if you're not a fan -- they aren't just garish theme parks at sea. The Disney Wonder captures the elegance of classic ocean liners of the 1920s and '30s with a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging over the atrium in the art nouveau lobby.
Service is both attentive and personalized, recalling another era, too. You're seated in a different restaurant each night, but the servers assigned to your table rotate with you so they get to know you and build rapport. While dining with my family one evening, I look over at a group seated next to us. The grandparents coo at the kids in highchairs and booster seats next to Mom and Dad. Eddie, their server, makes happy talk as he scoots around their table refilling glasses and cutting the meat on a little girl's plate.
Staterooms are roomy as cruise ships go, and designed with families in mind. Two separate bath areas -- toilet and sink in one, sink and bathtub/shower in the other -- allow Dad to shave in one room while the kids take baths in the other.
Need some time away from the little ones? Don't worry; there's a big section of the ship that's off limits to anyone younger than 18.
One afternoon I ease into the hot tub of the Quiet Cove Pool with a couple of single guys, oblivious to the youngsters in the family pool at the other end of the ship. When I ask them why they chose a Disney cruise that attracts so many children, they tell me they came aboard for the adult entertainment, the food and the service. Next door in the Cove Café, I see parents taking a break from kid duty to linger over coffee, have a snack, surf the Web.
On Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas, I pass a bride and groom en route to their wedding at Serenity Bay, the secluded section of the island set aside for ages 18 and older. Perhaps later they'll take advantage of the two-person hammocks and cabanas for massages.
On the Disney Wonder, Route 66 on deck three transforms into an adults-only area in the evenings. It has the Diversions sports bar, WaveBands nightclub and Cadillac Lounge with back bar resembling the front grill of a white Caddy. On deck 10, adults in the Outlook Café sip coffee or relax with a glass of wine or cocktail as they enjoy the ocean view through floor-to-ceiling windows.
In the Vista Spa, grown-ups can book body treatments and reserve a spa villa, a treatment suite for one or two guests with private veranda, personal hot tub and double chaise lounge. My future daughter-in-law and I hang out in the Rain Forest room, reclining on heated tile lounge chairs between sessions in the aromatherapy steam room, sauna and showers.
Every stateroom receives a nightly printed cruise program, which Disney calls a "Personal Navigator," that lists adult-exclusive entertainment. There are single mingles and seminars for wine, martini, cognac or tequila tastings.
Each of the Disney ships has Palo, a reservations-only restaurant where children are not permitted. Dinner is a two-hour, fine-dining experience featuring Northern Italian cuisine, an impressive wine list and antipasti served tableside. Disney's two larger ships have a second specialty restaurant with a French theme.
Choices for kids
Parents know there's a big difference between an 8-year-old and a 16-year-old. Disney does too, and doesn't lump them together.
The Wonder's Oceaneer Club has a pirate-ship theme with a costume closet, play area and seating for arts and crafts, storytelling and games. The Oceaneer Lab takes a space and science theme with computers, video games and an interactive science lab.
One morning kids bake cookies during the Ratatouille Cooking School. On another day they join a scavenger hunt. Both spaces are open to kids 3 to 11 years old, though the Club is tailored more to ages 3 to 9 and the Lab to ages 7 to 11. Kids wear a wristband and must be checked in and out by a parent-approved adult. The ratio of children to counselor is a maximum of 15 to 1.
Edge is the place for ages 11 to 13 and Vibe for ages 14 to 17. Tweens and teens chill out on couches to watch a flat-screen TV, listen to music and play video games. They're allowed to come and go as they please. Separate activities for each age group include sports contests, dance parties, karaoke and trivia games.
The Wonder's Flounder's Reef Nursery takes a "Little Mermaid" theme and has picture books and toys appropriate for infants and toddlers. While the older children's programs are complimentary, parents pay $6 for child care here.
All the children's areas are open late in the evening so parents can enjoy the adult areas of the ship. Family members keep track of one another with Wave Phones, an onboard mobile phone service.
The tween in our family preferred to do her own thing on board and we felt comfortable letting her have the run of the ship during our adult time. Each passenger's "Key to the World" ID card gives them access to their stateroom and is swiped when they disembark and reboard the ship. Children are not allowed off the ship in any port without a parent-authorized adult.
Entertainment for all
Disney's business is entertainment, so it's not surprising the ship's live stage shows are first-rate and pull in top talent. Before her appearance on "American Idol," Jennifer Hudson performed in the ship's 977-seat Walt Disney Theatre. Of course, Disney hopes an introduction to live theater on board will prompt parents to take their kids to Disney productions back home. As I watched a performance of "Toy Story, the Musical," I imagined it playing in one of the big theaters in Chicago or the suburbs.
For film fans, the Wonder's Buena Vista Theatre recalls a 1920s movie palace and shows first-run movies from Disney and DreamWorks, some in 3-D. Films also are shown on a jumbo LED screen on the ship's funnel.
Even dining has an element of theater in the Animator's Palate restaurant. During the course of the meal, the animation scenes on the walls turn from black-and-white to color. After Mickey does his song-and-dance routine down the center of the room, even the waiters' vests change color. Magic? No, but it sure makes for a good show.
• Information for this article was gathered on a cruise sponsored by Disney Cruise Line.