By day three of my most recent vacation, I had met and greeted no fewer than seven Disney characters, enjoyed at least six rum punches (including four aboard a schooner), averaged 2.75 entrées per meal, and confused “port” with “starboard” twice. I was midway through a seven-day cruise on the Disney Fantasy, a 130,000-ton, 2500-passenger cruise ship bringing the wonderful world of Disney to the high seas, exploring the Caribbean and Bahamas with my sister and two nephews, ages 5 (and a half, he’d insist) and 16. If there was a litmus test for whether a Disney cruise could be enjoyed by all ages, our party of four covered the entire spectrum.
Disney Cruise Line was founded in 1996 when I was 8 years old. While I grew up owning every Disney Animated Classic on VHS and the full collection of Barbie princesses, I was never victorious in convincing my parents to take me on a Disney cruise. Two decades later—unmarried, childless, and decidedly not the intended target demographic—I finally found myself on one. There I was, somewhere on the Caribbean Sea, standing on the deck of Disney’s largest ocean liner, in a throng of small children (and adults) suited up in their best pirate gear, watching Captain Jack Sparrow rappel down from the ship’s funnel before the sky lit up with fireworks.
This brand of theatrical magic is abundant aboard the Disney Fantasy. Every detail is carefully curated by Disney Imagineers to evoke a certain fantastical splendor. The grand staircase, cascading crystal chandelier, and waving white-gloved staff members that welcome you upon boarding set the tone for the rest of the journey. The Broadway-style evening performances, with elaborate productions of Aladdin and splashy numbers from The Lion King and Mulan, charm audience members of all ages. Hidden details all over the ship surprise guests at every turn—scenes from Up passing by the windows as you ascend in one of the elevators, the imitation sky changing from sunset to starry night inside Enchanted Garden, one of the ship’s five restaurants, or the discreet Mickey Mouse silhouettes in the embroidery of the stateroom shower curtains.
Even the passing of time on a Disney cruise is orchestrated in such a way that boredom isn’t an option. Each day, we received an itinerary called our “Personal Navigator” that read like a packed Excel spreadsheet organized in 15-minute intervals. It denoted that at any given moment, there were up to 13 scheduled activities carefully crafted for our enjoyment. Each activity was assigned an age group (“Fun for All Ages,” “Adults,” or designated to one of the ship’s handful of youth clubs) and included breakfast meet-and-greets with Frozen’s Anna, Elsa, and Olaf; adults-only music trivia in O’Gills Pub; the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War in the ship’s glitzy Walt Disney Theater; and flash-mob rehearsals.
Cruise cards aptly named “Key to the World Cards” unlocked our stateroom door and allowed us to make extracurricular purchases (e.g., alcoholic beverages) while onboard. The stateroom was larger than I expected and smartly designed to maximize space. The best part—besides the veranda from which we took in panoramic sea (or port) views and on which we drank our morning coffee, evening wine, and laid out our swimwear to dry—was that there were not one but two bathrooms to expedite getting ready as a family and efficiently get to our numerous activities.
Even unstructured time aboard the cruise felt meticulously designed with the right dose of Disney. On the decks, one could enjoy a round of mini golf or shoot some hoops, sip a cocktail sans kids in the over-18 area, take a ride on the AquaDuck water coaster (an inner-tube waterslide that encircles the perimeter of the ship), or simply choose to lounge in the sun, watching a variety of Disney movies on Funnel Vision, the ship’s outdoor big screen. While the number of children milling around the deck seemed to easily outnumber the adults, the attentive crew (each bedecked with a smile and a name tag noting their nationality) appeared to almost always balance the ratio—greeting guest at every turn, swiftly swooping in to clean up abandoned poolside lunches, and assisting small children with self-serve soft-serve.
What surprised me most about the Disney Fantasy was how every element had a touch of Disney magic yet didn’t feel overwhelmed by the brand or Mickey Mouse (though he was hidden everywhere if you looked closely). Sure, the ship horn played the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and Cinderella (or one of her contemporaries) was a common sighting, but the overall approach to the visual experience was elevated and nostalgic. With the exception of a bronze statue of Minnie Mouse, the striking three-deck atrium that makes the ship’s first impression doesn’t include any Disney signifiers at all. The stately design sets the tone for the rest of the ship with its Art Nouveau flourishes that recall the golden age of the ocean liner. Disney artwork and vintage Disney hallmarks decorate every wall, yet instead of character portraits or movie stills, it’s in the form of eye-catching sketches or distinctive painted murals. Polished wood, marble floors, and refined finishes instill a level of luxury that makes one feel more like Disney royalty than a Disney fan.
The cruise, while kid-friendly by design, ultimately felt geared toward everyone, even adults. My sister’s and my vacation predilections were met by the ability to break away to child-free zones to catch up under the sun with a rum-and-Coke in hand or go out after-hours to one of the ship’s five bars. The aforementioned O’Gills quickly became a favorite with its laid-back Irish pub appeal, as did Skyline, a slick modern lounge that perpetually gave the aura of nighttime while Imagineer-designed sparkling skyline views of European cities switched destinations every 12 minutes. Among the ship’s five restaurants (through which we rotated nightly), two are elevated options exclusively for those 18 and over.
Remy, the ship’s culinary crème de la crème, offers a French-inspired menu in a luxe setting that plays to the theme of Ratatouille—subtle rat designs even making their way into the striking décor. The restaurant even houses a wine room with over 900 bottles of wines for discerning oenophiles. Across the way is Palo, its Italian name a nod to the origins of the first Disney cruise ship built in Venice. My sister and I dined here twice, first for brunch and then for dinner, eating more than our share of the restaurant’s delectably modern take on classic Northern Italian cuisine. Artful antipasti, crab legs, caviar, salmon mousse, and oysters on the half shell were just a handful of the specialties that pampered our palates.
While my sister and I enjoyed Disney’s grown-up offerings, my nephews didn’t feel like they were being abandoned or babysat. By the end of day two, they were each making coy excuses to return as often as possible to their respective clubs. The Oceaneers Club and Oceaneers Lab (two adjacent and connected play spaces for kids ages 3 through 12) were enticing destinations for the 5-year-old, who all but begged to return at every opportunity to pass time in Andy’s Room (outfitted to feel like you’re among the toys in Toy Story) or Marvel’s Super Hero Academy (where children were paid visits by Doctor Strange and trained to unlock their powers to use for good). The teenager, who seemed the least likely candidate to admit to having fun on a Disney cruise, ended up becoming a regular at Vibe, the parent-free destination for 14- to 17-year olds. Hidden away at the bow of the ship and reproducing the aesthetic of a slick Scandinavian nightclub, Vibe was the choice hangout where teenagers could escape from their families to play foosball and network over smoothies.
By the end of our whirlwind week, every member of our party of four had fulfilled their vacation goals and had their share of Disney—to the perfect degree. The 5-year-old had met Mickey, steered a schooner, and been made over into Captain Blackbeard, complete with eye-patch and sword. The 16-year-old had flexed his independence by going snorkeling and watching movies with newfound friends. My sister and I appreciated the opportunity to catch up over special meals or a day of steam rooms and Swedish massages at the spa. We were also grateful for all family time that could be enjoyed—sailing the crystal-clear waters in St. Maarten, playing beach volleyball on the hot sands of St. Thomas, riding bikes through Disney’s private Bahamian island, and lounging in the stateroom after another adventure-packed day, bellies full from the decadent cuisine and camera rolls full from capturing photos of all the new memories made together.