I Dream of Disney

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; F01

Ah, new-boat smell.

On the Disney Dream, a ship with less than a month of sailing time under her keel, I sniffed my way around 14 decks and 1,250 staterooms. I stuck my nose into six restaurants, two theaters, one spa and one mouse face. I stood in the airy atrium, beneath a gemstone-colored chandelier that would look divine in my imaginary ballroom, and breathed in deeply.

And that's where I smelled it: a subtle note of sweetness.

Oh wait, that was my mind talking, not my nose. The true scent of the Disney Dream was chlorine and suntan lotion, popcorn and fruity cocktails and, depending on the hour and the accident, cologne and kids. But on this 130,000-ton vessel, more than 40 percent larger than its two sister ships and more technologically advanced, imagination trumps reality.

"I like the comfort and the escape of Disney," said Sharon Clauss, a Disney cruise veteran on her first Dream voyage. "It's like being in a totally magical place."

I could use a little magic - mine was running low - so earlier this month, I banished my sensible, unsentimental self and entered a squeaky-clean fantasyland of giant mice with no predators and princesses who never lose their fortunes. For three nights and two ports of call, I did my utmost to stifle my sardonic self - the rascal who wonders whether the character actors ever get wasted and trot around naked beneath their costumes - and let myself fall blissfully into the Dream.

I have to admit, she's a looker.

Unlike the floating milk cartons that ply the Caribbean, the Dream stands out with a blue hull as dark as the ocean deep and the sleek, clean lines of a crisp button-down shirt. Mickey silhouettes on the red funnels and the figure of "Fantasia" Mickey dangling from the stern are the only winks to the Big Daddy creator.

The interior decor is equally tasteful, a flashback to the golden age of seafaring. In the public areas, striped couches with high backs and tasseled pillows encourage loafing, and chandeliers twinkle like the Milky Way. Two thrones arranged near murals of Princes Charming finding their love matches invite loyalists to rest their tired dogs.

"You get an evolution of concept," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, an online cruising resource. "It captures the best of the retro liners and also the new stuff."

A heap of anticipation bubbled around the arrival of the Dream, spurred by a 12-year drought since Disney last commissioned a ship. The company now boasts three - the other two are the Magic, launched in 1998, and the Wonder, released a year later - with one more on the way: In March 2012, the cruise line will unveil the Fantasy, the Dream's twin in size and scope.

The latest ship follows Walt Disney's precept that "you can't top pigs with pigs." Meaning: Don't try to duplicate past successes. (The reference is to the successful Three Little Pigs cartoon, "Silly Symphonies," and its failed sequels.)

"To me, it looks like a five-star hotel," said Susan Reid, a Florida resident who celebrated her 50th (Disney cruise, not birthday) on a recent three-nighter to Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney's very own 1,000-acre Bahamian island. "I'm used to the small, intimate boats, but I'll get used to this."

With Pixar as a benchmark, the pressure's on to impress starry-eyed kids and jaded adults. All inside staterooms feature a Magical Porthole that displays real-time images of the world outside, such as the teeming dock. Disney characters also pop up on the screen, bringing you back to non-reality. In the Animator's Palette, the restaurant walls speak directly to diners. Crush, the wisecracking turtle from "Finding Nemo," ribs guests mid-meal.

"What's that crazy thing you're pointing at me?" he asked a woman who had abandoned her appetizer to train a video camera on the character. "Wait, let me get ready for my close-up." He put flipper to face, elongated all body parts not encased in a shell and grinned cheekily.

In the same vein, several artworks leave their two-dimensional borders and spring to life. On Deck 5, a pirate ship picture trades fire with a fortress. In the art gallery, an image of Minnie Mouse as the Mona Lisa blinks her eyes while a miniature ship sails by in the background.

Hardly resistant to the spell, I rearranged my evening plans to steer a captain's wheel set before a nautical scene featuring video-game-style challenges. Small advancements only fed the fever: By bumping the ship into the so-called prizes (like Angry Birds hitting their targets), I scored a treasure chest and tangled with a crocodile. I never cracked open the giant clamshell and am resigned to never knowing what secret lived inside.

My performance vastly improved on the Midship Detective Agency Game, a shipwide scavenger hunt that employs the animated art. On a rainy day at Castaway Cay, the decks were swimming with players of all ages.

"My wife asked me, 'Why does a 40-year-old man want to play this game?' " said the balding participant behind me as we waited our turn. The obvious answer: Why wouldn't he?

In the game, guests receive a badge and a list of suspects, then race around the ship looking for clues to certain cases. (I chose the stolen art caper, though the missing Dalmatian puppy appeared to be more popular.) The badge works like a joystick or a Wii controller: Move it to and fro in front of each image and you can virtually unrivet steel bolts, push away fish and sweep away dust to reveal props that lead to the culprit. In my case, red lipstick and seeds helped me suss out the Evil Queen. Trust me, she got hers.

Despite the new features - add to that list the upscale Remy restaurant, the Enchanted Garden restaurant and the AquaDuck, an elevated water coaster - Disney retains many of its old stalwarts. Throughout the day, Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Chip and Dale, Cinderella, Goofy, Pluto and some others I've never seen before (Pain? Max?) hold court around the ship. Kids line up as if they were greeting God at heaven's gate, holding out their autograph books or going in for a hug or a tug of the nose.

My first front-row sighting was of Cinderella, who embraced a mob of mini-shes, most of them darling in their sparkly dresses but some more bridesmaidish in high heels and five-step hairdos. Too self-conscious to approach the princess, who looked as real as a Southern debutante, I checked the information board for a meet-and-greet more suitable for an uncertain beginner:

7:45-8:05 p.m., Donald Duck

8:30-8:50 p.m., Daisy Duck

9:45-10 p.m., Chip and Dale

And working the late shift . . .

10:15-10:30 p.m., Goofy and Pluto

Despite the fur- or feather-coated options, I decided that I wasn't quite ready. I wandered off to catch a Disney movie ("Tangled"), hoping that the magic would find its way through my pores and into my heart.

Most of the ship's diversions are, of course, Disney-centric. The Broadway-style shows incorporate characters, songs and clips from the company's iconic movies, and the theaters roll only Disney films, including such first-runs as "Gnomeo and Juliet." Even the TVs in the staterooms are heavily edited: You can watch ABC (Disney-owned), CNN, ESPN (another Disney holding) and a full roster of D-approved flicks, from classics (the "Toy Story" franchise) to flops ("Life as We Know It").

On other cruises, I've learned how to fold towels in the shape of jungle creatures and to fox-trot. On the Dream, I learned how to draw Disney figures.

Before slipping out for an afternoon in Nassau, I sat down with pencil, paper and instructor Aussie Dave. The crew member had low aspirations for us, but he was just being realistic.

"The purpose is not to draw the best Mickey and become part of Disney's animation team," he said. "It's about the process, not accuracy."

Three-quarters of the room had no idea what he was talking about. They were still of the age that believes Mickey is a real mouse who shacks up in their living room TV. Plus, they were too distracted by the tiny pencils Dave handed out to even care.

We started with a circle, then slowly filled in Minnie's features - an oval nose and squished-penny eyes that never meet in the middle. Dave explained how her mouth, which is smaller than Mickey's, moves like a roller coaster, up and down and up again. Her tongue is "shaped like two hills intersecting in the distance," he said poetically. My Minnie was transforming from geometry lesson to one good-looking rodent, until we reached the cheeks.

"This is the hardest part," warned Dave. "Too big and they look like chipmunk cheeks. Too skinny and you have Minnie on a diet."

My Minnie was a piggy chipmunk; her cheeks bulged with nuts, berries and half of Mickey. For the final touches, we sketched in her butterfly bow and ears, then shaded in the edges of her face. As we were finishing up, Dave announced, "We have a live model." In pranced Minnie, dolled up in a 1950s housewife coatdress and a flower in her hair.

We lined up to show Her Royal Mouseness the portraits we'd drawn. Surrounded by my classmates, I couldn't back down. I didn't want to be that kid.

I walked up the few steps to the stage and held out my picture like a proud kindergartner. "Hi, er, Minnie. I drew a picture of you."

She nodded excitedly, clapping her hands, her smile never drooping.

"Sorry I gave you fat cheeks."

She tilted her head sympathetically, her smile still going strong.

She took the sheet in her big gloved paw and signed it, using her handler's back as a writing table. Her assistant complimented me on my owl-shaped ring, and as we chatted about it, Minnie stood there, still smiling, incapable of participating in the conversation. I felt bad leaving her out and very awkwardly asked whether she wanted to try it on. She bobbed her head so hard I thought it was going to pop off.

I couldn't squeeze the ring onto her puffy finger. I joked that maybe if she cut out dessert that night, the ring would fit. Her smile never waned, even though I'd just insulted Minnie Mouse's physique.

I left the room vowing to avoid all Disney characters for the rest of the cruise.

Whoever thinks Disney cruises are just for kids and the parents who run after them, raise your hand. Now lower them, because you're all wrong.

To keep the generations from commingling, Disney carves out spaces for different dates-of-birth, creating a kingdom of age-based fiefdoms. Children up to age 3 do their baby thing in It's a Small World Nursery; ages 3 to 10 rule the Oceaneer Club and Lab; tweens populate Edge; and teens lord over Vibe, a high-tech, modern-design space with attitude as well as a DJ booth, computers and a no-adults-allowed rule. Parents deposit their kids in these clubs and often don't see them again till lights out.

"I almost forgot there were kids onboard," said Clauss, who travels solo or with other childless friends. "I was at the spa, Remy, the Quiet Cove. I never saw them."

Often, the only way to escape the minors on other cruise lines is to duck into the casino or pass out beneath the bar. But the Dream dedicates multiple areas to adults only, such as the pool, the hot tub and the bar in the Quiet Cove, and the District, a party row with themed watering holes and a dance venue. At Remy, the $75 prix-fixe French eatery, diners must be at least old enough to vote, and the menu is delightfully devoid of nuggets a la chicken and grilled fromage. (The restaurant joins Palo, the other adults-only dining room.)

And yet, I didn't want to shake all the kids. I wanted to keep one very special individual around - yes, my inner child.

During our port call at Castaway Cay, the temperatures chilled and the clouds wept tears. I did my best to plaster on a smile and walked around, hoofing it past the expanded family beach en route to the adults-only beach, Serenity Bay. I watched Captain Hook and his cohort, Mr. Smee, from a safe distance and climbed the Observation Tower, where the colossal Dream dominated the horizon. I waited an hour for the hermit crab race, only to learn that the crustaceans are fair-weather competitors. Then I gave up, returning to the ship soggy and dispirited.

It was perfect weather for a movie, but walking along the pool deck, I watched kids zooming through the clear plastic tube of the AquaDuck, laughing and throwing up their hands, impervious to the cold.

Inspired, I shed my adult armor and climbed to the top of the ride. Settling into an inflatable raft, I coasted down and up and over small rapids. At one point, I hovered 150 feet over the ocean before curving back over solid ground.

The ride ended before my goose bumps could fully rise. I considered getting back in line but instead raced over to the hot tub and joined the other grown-ups, who were talking about the cold and half-wondering where their kids had wandered off to.

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