BY: Andrew Colton/Editor and Publisher
ABOARD THE DISNEY WONDER (BocaNewsNow.com) — If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to cruise Disney style, consider this two word review: Simply Awesome. And those are words I rarely use to describe anything or anyone.
My wife, two children — ages 3 and 5 — and I spent five days aboard the Disney Wonder as it cruised from the Port of Miami along its Western Caribbean route, stopping in Cozumel, Mexico and Disney’s Castaway Cay. There are plenty of reviews online for those looking for a bargain basement cruise experience. This is not that. Due to the off peak timing and availability when we booked, we were able to book a “Concierge Suite” at a price point that, at other times of the year, would get you a life raft trailing the ship. The only problem with sailing in a concierge suite is that once you do it, you can never, ever book a normal stateroom again.
The suite itself — on deck 8, the top residential deck — was something you’d expect to see if you booked a top room in a Ritz Carlton. More than 600 square feet with two full bathrooms, a bathtub, a dressing area, a sizable walk-in closet, a master bedroom, a huge “family room” with a sofa bed, kitchen table, flat screen television and tremendous amounts of storage space. The private verandah ran the entire length of the suite. I believe there are ten of these suites on the Wonder and Disney’s Magic — the two oldest ships in the fleet.
The concierge suite is named not just for its design as a suite, but for the 24 hour a day concierge service that comes with it. Our concierge was Rod (Rodrigo) — an 11 year veteran of Disney Cruises who has spent most of his Disney career on the Wonder. Rod was exactly what you would hope a concierge to be — helpful when needed, but otherwise out of sight when out of mind. The benefit of a concierge was made immediately clear upon boarding the Wonder in Miami. Rod handled virtually every aspect of what can be the parental challenges of a Disney Cruise — not just avoiding the masses for check-in, luggage retrieval and learning your way around, but pre-securing tickets for private character encounters. Doc McStuffins, Elsa, Anna, Sophia The First and Jake are far more
tolerable memorable when you don’t have to wait to see them.
Your on-board concierge is a lot like having a VIP doctor. Everything you do goes through him. Have a complaint or concern? Don’t bother calling guest services. Just tell Rod. He’ll fix it. He — and his co-concierge Lynda — know the ship, the people, the systems and the procedures. It’s like Siri, but really works.
With the Concierge Suite comes not just room to eat, but a constant flow of gratis snacks, continental breakfast in your suite, completely free coffee drinks (lattes, cappuccinos and the like that cost others $4.50 or more) and the occasional stuffed animals or other toys for the kids. All included. Concierge guests are also invited to a nightly gathering in one of the ship’s nicest lounges, where free drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are provided.
Disney Wonder: The Ship
The Disney Wonder is the second oldest ship in Disney’s four ship fleet, with the Disney Magic serving as its older sister. The Magic, however, has been “reimagined” (to use Disney terminology) so the Disney Wonder is the only vessel that remains in the “classic” (also Disney terminology) style. The Wonder is expected to be dry-docked in late 2016 for its own “re-imagineering”. That’s a long winded way of saying the ship is old but, in true Disney style, you wouldn’t know it. It is clean. Really clean. And just the right size. Roughly 2000 passengers — nothing like the Royal Carribbean or Carnival ships that could be used to evacuate half the United States at once.
The Disney Wonder is a great ship.
Disney Wonder: Kids Clubs
One of the many standouts of the Disney Wonder is the kids club. Actually, there are two. But our five year old loved the Oceaneer’s Club. It’s a huge — probably 1/3rd of the deck — indoor play area complete with a pirate ship, slide, activity area, computer lab, movie center and more. Parents are not allowed inside. To repeat: parents are not allowed inside. This is truly kids only. With the exception of a few open houses, parents drop off their children who are given wristbands that monitor their exact location in the center. When the kids have enough — or parents think their kids should have had enough — the parents pick them up, providing both a room key and secret password selected prior to sailing. Every keycard and wristband generates a family photo on the
staff member’s cast member’s computer screen, so there is virtually no possibility of a child being released to someone other than his or her parent.
Although the ship is registered in Nassau, Disney follows Florida law when it comes to staff-to-student ratio. Simply put: there are more than enough counselors monitoring — and playing with — the kids in the two play rooms. It’s also cleaned three times a day and sanitized overnight. Trust me: your kid’s pre-school isn’t this clean.
I spent time speaking with several youth services staffers, and two stood out: Alex was a young woman from Mexico whose enthusiasm for playing with kids and making their cruise memorable is the stuff commercials are made of. She was truly excited travel the world for several months as part of the Disney family, and she’s the sort of instructor who you feel completely comfortable leaving your children with for several hours. Disney background checks and trains — Disney loves training — everyone who works there. Our five year old had so much fun with Alex — and the others — that he constantly asked to go back. That’s a great endorsement.
Conversely, I also spent time speaking with Amy, the youth services manager on the Disney Wonder. I found Amy to be the polar opposite of Alex and most of Alex’s co-workers. Amy was the sort of person who,
contrary to Disney style — would quickly tell you what couldn’t be done as opposed to finding a solution. Unable to solve a minor problem herself on embarkation day, I asked Amy to let me speak with her boss. After Amy pushed back, she summoned Taylor — the head of all youth services on the ship. Taylor was a phenomenal representative of Disney, solving a problem in a matter of minutes. The point of this story is simple: Disney does a great job training its staff in the Disney way. If you find a staff member who seems to be unresponsive to a completely logical and legitimate request, take it a step higher. The staffers who find success in the company are clearly those who put the guest first — especially when requests are not unreasonable.
How much fun is the youth program on a Disney Cruise? So much fun that on the last day of our cruise, our five year old joined others in preparing and performing a dance number with Mickey and Minnie Mouse on the ship’s main stage. Prep-to-showtime was all of an hour, but to perform in a true theater — on a real stage — to complete strangers is a memory that lasts a lifetime. It’s another example of how Disney gets it right.
Another highlight: “Wake up with Disney Junior.” You’re probably already waking up to Disney Jr. in your home. Now your kids can dance it out at 8am to their favorite theme songs in the Wonder’s “Studio Sea.”
Disney Wonder: Food
If you’ve been researching Disney Cruises, you likely know that Disney utilizes what it calls “rotational” dining. There are three restaurants on board the Wonder. You rotate through each of them for dinner and your serving team comes with you. The upside is that they know what you want. The downside is that it gives you ample time to stare at the head waiter and ask yourself, “what exactly does this guy do?” That’s quickly followed by, “I know why there was no head waiter on the Love Boat. It’s a meaningless character.”
That said, there are two ways to look at dining on the Disney Wonder. First: it’s incredible that they can serve half the ship in the span of 90 minutes. That’s 1000 multi-course meals, at least half of which have to be kid friendly. They do it at 5:45p and then again at 8:30p. It is tough, tough work.
The second way is to question if there’s a better way. Much like ordering an Apple Watch, the span of five minutes makes all the difference in the world. If you’re seated between 5:45p and 5:50p, your meal comes fast and there’s no problem entertaining the kids. If you’re seated at 5:51p or later, good luck. Your meal could take two hours to complete — with the first food not appearing on your table until 6:30p or later. Remember, this is a ship designed for children — a 45 minute wait for food is just too long. Our waiter realized that there were delays and started bringing french fries every night as an appetizer for our children. Helpful, but not optimal.
Families eating at 8:30p have the option of off-loading their kids to youth counselors at 9:30p who take them to the kids clubs… it’s a great idea that should be utilized for both seatings.
The food itself — as is the case on most cruises — was overall excellent. From buffets to room service, from Pinocchio’s Pizza (open all day and night) to always available self serve soft serve ice cream, there was no lack of food and it is all very, very good. The only notable deficiency came towards the end of our cruise, as the fish wasn’t as good on day four and five as it was earlier. It seemed that all of the food for a five day cruise was loaded in Miami on day one. Red Snapper was offered as the fish of the day on Days 4 and 5, suggesting an attempt to use it or lose it. It went from mediocre to bad.
I believe the key on longer cruises — 7 days and beyond — is to eat in the dining room on occasion but also enjoy the relaxed feel of eating in the non-structured venues on the pool deck. From wraps to pizza, salads to burgers, there are many options that don’t involve sitting and eating dinner at a specific time. It’s easy to feel like you need to eat in a main dining room. The smart move: don’t.
Disney Wonder: Castaway Cay and Cozumel
Our cruise visited two ports of call. Cozumel, Mexico and Disney’s Castaway Cay. To be blunt: the best way to visit Cozumel is to look at it from the ship. The best way to visit Castaway Cay is to get off the ship and enjoy a completely Disney-fied, safe and fun experience.
We are all for adventure and visiting new places. I visited Cozumel — on a cruise — when I was in my teens. Incredibly, it looks in 2015 the same way it did in the mid 80s. And I mean no offense to anyone, but you still feel like you’re one wrong turn away from being the subject of a missing person’s report. As we watched other families do the same, we disembarked, walked around, avoided the hawkers, bought a few souvenirs that the kids had to have, and got back on the ship to enjoy swimming, relaxing and fun with the few hundred others also opted for a calmer day on board. Other bloggers will confirm what we experienced: some of the best days on the ship are the days when many others get off.
Castaway Cay is a completely different story. It’s easy to read about Disney’s private island and mock it. I did, thinking it would be over the top Disney and just hours and hours of annoyance. Instead, it was one of the most relaxing — and fun filled — days of the trip.
We opted for a private Cabana which tend to be so popular that you need to rent them months in advance of your trip. I believe there are 30 of them — with half being on the “family” part of Castaway Cay and others being on the grownup side.
Renting a Cabana is a wonderful, wonderful way to enjoy Castaway Cay. It is quiet, your kids have their own area to play (with others who also rented cabanas), access to snorkeling, tubes and other water toys, and two very secluded — and shallow — swimming areas. Water and soda are delivered to you throughout the day — for free — and you are welcome to bring lunch from either of the two outdoor restaurants on Castaway Cay back to your private oasis. Non-renters are not allowed in the Cabana area.
If you venture out into the plebeian section, you’ll find a gigantic waterslide, beach chairs, a splash zone with fountains to run through for kids, bike trails, running paths, you name it. And whether intentionally or not — and with Disney, very little is by accident — you can see your ship from pretty much anywhere on the island. It’s calming to know that you’re never far from “home.” (And keep in mind, Castaway Cay is probably an hour from Miami on a high speed boat).
Bottom line: without trying to sound like a stereotypical American tourist, Castaway Cay is exactly the sort of island you want to take your kids to. It’s a safe, controlled environment that doesn’t require you to constantly be looking around while holding your children’s hands so tightly that you cut off circulation.
Yet again, Disney got it right.
Disney Wonder: Internet
My only issue with the Disney cruise isn’t actually Disney related, but the highly questionable internet program in place with Disney’s provider, MTN of Hollywood, FL.
First, the positive: Disney provides a fantastic internet experience while at sea. Gone are the days of $15 a minute ship-to-shore calls. Now, you can use Skype, FaceTime or other VOIP services over the WiFi that blankets the ship. There are three plans, ranging from $20 for a low use plan to $89 for a gigabyte of data.
Now, the problem: It seems that Disney’s provider, MTN, is playing fast and loose with data usage calculations. I would not be surprised if it leads to litigation at some point. This is only a Disney problem because Disney bills for the service. I have a funny feeling there will be changes in the not too distant future.
We brought two iPhones and two iPads, all of which were completely off unless we were checking email via a web interface (Gmail, etc). It is vital that you turn off all background applications and updates while using Internet that is being metered. Dropbox, iCloud and other constantly updating services will deplete your plan in seconds.
I know this. I turned everything off. Even turned off the phones and iPads. Despite this, however, I managed to go through a gigabyte of data in a day. I scratched my head and bought a second package, only to go through a second gigabyte in a few hours.
Here’s the thing: it just didn’t happen. Data monitoring apps confirm that this much data just didn’t go back and forth. When I questioned MTN to prove my usage by showing me where the data was going to and coming from, they couldn’t. Spokesperson Liz DeCastro — when contacted at the company’s South Florida headquarters — could only provide a list of alleged data sessions itemized by MAC address of the device, not a true accounting of how the data was being used.
It seems MTN — which is being purchased by a company called EMC — is charging for data but can’t prove that it’s actually being used. This is very un-Disney. I raised this point and was offered a refund for one $89 session — but it’s clearly a problem. Disney needs to offer an unlimited package — perhaps banning access to Netflix and other streaming services (Gogo does this on airplanes) — or it needs to prove how the data is being used. It’s very easy to use the “we can’t tell you due to personal security issues” excuse, but if a customer wants proof that a service was used, it needs to be offered. So far, MTN has been unable to verify that the data I was charged for was actually used.
We’ll update this section if we learn more. If you believe your data was overcharged on a Disney Cruise, please email news(at)bocanewsnow.com.
Disney Wonder: The Spa
While I did not partake in spa treatments — I think Mickey or Minnie rubbing your back is a bit weird (kidding) — my wife did and reports it was great. Pricing is on-par for what you’d expect to pay at nicer South Florida day spas, and you have the added bonus of gorgeous ocean views.
I did, however, use the gym. There is something about running on a treadmill while staring out a full-length window as the ship cuts through waves that is invigorating. Even if you can’t go every day, I strongly encourage a little gym time while at sea. The venue is top notch. So is the equipment.
Disney Wonder: Final Thoughts
Our Disney Wonder experience was great. A five night cruise for kids 5 and 3 is just the right length. I would have personally stayed for the next cruise — Miami to California by way of the Panama Canal — but it seems someone else booked our room.
Disney, quite simply, got it right. The cruise is a perfect mix of kid and adult, with an attentive staff comprised of people who really like to work there.
At the risk of sounding like a completely elite snob, it’s also the perfect mix of travelers. I’m a white collar professional. There were a lot of people just like me. There were also a lot — and by a lot, I mean a lot — of folks with gigantic tattoos and tank tops who were never seen without a tin bottle of Bud. These are the folks who wore tee-shirts and shorts to dinner, even though Disney says no tee-shirts and shorts in the dining rooms. They also were never seen without their room keycard dangling from their necks like an FBI agent on a raid.
But you know what? Everyone there has something in common. Kids. And that means that different lifestyles, habits and personalities are left on shore, because everyone is there to have a good time with their kids.
And they did — largely without infringing on anyone else’s ability to have fun with their kids.
It just works. And that says something.
Three more thoughts:
First: Disney owns an entertainment empire. Knowing this, it is just bizarre that Toby Keith’s version of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville played at least 347 times on the ship’s music system. I like Toby Keith, but a little variety seems to be well within Disney’s reach.
Second: Disney needs to ban smoking on its cruise ships. Smoking is very limited and very confined, but even that isn’t enough. There is nothing family friendly about the smell of ashes or second hand smoke. There is just no way this would hurt Disney’s bottom line.
Third: Many cruise lines — such as Crystal — now incorporate tipping into their cruise fare. Disney needs to do the same. Disney currently adds it to your bill using a formula of $12 per person per day. On a five day cruise with four people (two adults, two kids) the tipping add-on was $240 plus the $100 cash we tipped the Concierge. (Disney conspicuously provides no guidance for Concierge tipping but that vast majority of bloggers seem to suggest the appropriate range is $50 to $200, depending on the length of your trip). I would suggest just raising the fare and eliminating the idea of tipping altogether. I have no issue paying a few hundred dollars — which is what’s expected — to the waiter, host, head waiter, and others — for a job well done, but why play the game? If you take the passenger element out of the equation — and eliminate the ability to say “no” to paying tips (you have that option) — staff members will get the money they likely deserve and travelers won’t have to think about who gets what.
All that said, if you’re thinking about booking a Disney Cruise, stop thinking and just do it. You will have a phenomenal time on a great ship with a fantastic, professional staff.
Questions? Comments? Email us at news(at)bocanewsnow.com[Andrew Colton is a former Disney employee as an ABC News Correspondent, but is not currently affiliated with the company and received absolutely no compensation or consideration for this article. Colton, a litigation communication professional, runs BocaNewsNow.com as a hobby. It is viewed by an average of 50,000 to 100,000 visitors a month].